when pictures fail me…
Prologue to Hell’s Kitchen and Couture Dreams, a memoir about my NYC art student days in the early 1970s
A gurgling pod of self-consciousness that could only incubate in the mind of a ten year-old girl was growing–week, by week, by week. Each Sunday afternoon it was larger than the one before. Yet no one seemed to notice; neighbors went about their business as if nothing were out of the ordinary.
The year was 1963, and the reason for my mortification was parked directly in front of our modest ranch house: a shiny, new, cherry-red Porsche. It announced to the entire street–no, to the entire world–that my mom had a visitor. A boyfriend.
I refused to call him by his first name. I wanted to keep things between us formal, to maintain more distance than that from the curb to the door. Most of all, I wanted to keep him from marrying my mother and moving in. We were doing just fine on our own.
My father had been dead six years and our family was now a trinity: my mother, my younger sister, and me. We had downsized from our dream home that my dad had built, high up on Beacon Hill Road with its view of the small local airport, to this little Monopoly house in a post-World War II suburban tract neighborhood. It was manageable with the Social Security payments supporting a widow and stay-at-home mom who now had to mow her own lawn. My world was no longer one of deep gullies filled with wild raspberries and rabbits, nor sloping snowy banks to race down on my Flexible Flier, nor tree swings to play “flying princess” with my best friend, Kathy. I sat on the prickly grass of our corner lot and watched the cars go by, made one new friend down the street (Cathy with a “C”), then entered the third grade in a different school district, feeling alien, wishing for an invisibility cloak.
Now I was in Grade Four, and whatever balance had been struck as I negotiated the outside forces of the past year was being contested by this man who was wooing my mother, and in a trickle-down effect, my sister and me.
The red sports car was the only splashy thing about him. He and my mother had been high school classmates, and had bumped into each other all these years later in Rabena’s Cleaners. He lived in a university town two or so hours away, where he worked in the fledgling area of computer technology for a company off-campus. Quiet and unassuming, he wore skinny ties, plaid shirts and straight-leg khakis. An early childhood tragedy had added a layer of sensitivity to the man who rang our front doorbell every week, I would eventually learn. Until then, I was too buried in self-consciousness to sense any emotional terrain we shared.
My sister Dianne warmed up to him almost immediately, opening the door and flinging her arms around him. I lurked in the hallway, like a hungry, half-feral dog. “Hi, Mr. Vogelsong,” I finally mumbled.
One day he offered me a bulky package. A newspaper. I took it warily; what could this mass of newsprint possibly contain, that it needed to be thicker than our telephone book? “All the news that’s fit to print,” it claimed. It was the Sunday edition of The New York Times.
There weren’t many career women role models I was aware of, unless you counted the TV character Ann Marie in the 1966 sit-com “That Girl.” I wanted an alternative to what my mother had: seemingly no social life outside going to church and family get-togethers, and plenty of artistic talent but no career. My aunts and my friends’ moms all seemed to be cookies cut from the same dough, repeating the basic values and trappings of small town America. Only, I didn’t want to be trapped.
As months went by, I became partially won over by my mother’s suitor. Practically snatching the reward before he was two feet inside the door, I would toss an almost cheery “Hi, Mr. V.” over my shoulder as I plunged to the living room carpet. Which section would I devour first?
Deep in the paper, the seductive “Arts and Leisure” always beckoned with a caricature by Al Hirschfeld. The stars of Broadway openings were captured with his ink-dipped pen, tickling me with elegant and amusing swirls and flourishes and teasing me with his little game: always hidden in the drawing was the name of his daughter, Nina, plus a numeral. That would be the number of times her name was hidden in plain sight. I would take the challenge and then read about the newest sensations, especially the hot, young actors appearing off-Broadway with unmatinee-idol looks and names. Dustin Hoffman. Al Pacino (which I pronounced incorrectly for years). My appetite was whetted for whatever was happening in the New York theater world, yet I was far too shy to consider acting in even a school production.
After “Arts and Leisure,” I followed the siren call of The Gray Lady’s first section. The headlines of the day held little interest (mostly the Vietnam War, which was never talked about in my home; important yet painful things never were), but as soon as that first page was turned I was in another world: full page fashion ads for Bonwit Teller, Bergdorf Goodman, Saks Fifth Avenue, and all the lesser satellites of Manhattan’s retail solar system. The art drew me in–luscious, expressive lines that reflected the hip glamour of the Swinging Sixties. I pored over it, page after page. I thought, I can do that. And I began to plan my future.
Mr. V. had given me a bigger gift than either of us had realized, when I was a pre-teen bit of a brat who really just didn’t want to lose her mother to a stranger at the door.