Growing up, my family lived in an old red brick apartment building in Queens, NY. The apartment building was its own little village on six floors. There was a feeling of comfort and safety having neighbors and friends around us.
I had good friends in the building and I ate many meals in my friends’ homes. In Lotti’s kitchen I always ate home-made matzoh ball soup, the matzoh balls light and airy. She introduced me to my first milkshake, made with chocolate and vanilla ice cream and served in tall, cold glasses.
In Omi’s house, (my friend Linda’s grandmother) we settled into over sized chairs and we ate many home-baked cookies: granulated sugar-coated vanilla crescent cookies and chocolate kiss surprise cookies. To this day I can feel the taste of the melting sugar on my tongue, I have seen several duplicates in stores but they missed a very important ingredient: Omi’s special kind of love. I didn’t have grandparents and Omi made me feel like part of the family.
My older sister and I, individually, had to do the laundry as our chore. In an apartment building, a couple of old washing machines and one dryer lived questionably in the basement. The basement was dank, dark, dimly lit and uninviting. Thinking back, there never seemed to be anyone else down there doing laundry, it was an experience you just wanted to hurry up and finish, it felt scary being there alone.
I would lug the metal shopping cart, that we also used for groceries, and hold on to it with both hands grasped behind me. It always left a lingering metallic smell on my fingers.The elevator always shook and made loud scraping mechanical noises as it bumped and lurched to a stop in the basement.
The only person who lived in the basement was George, the handyman. We assumed from his accent he came from Romania or Russia but that was never confirmed. George was a happy and unconventional man. When you talked to him, most likely he was upside down, standing on his head. There was nothing scary about him, in fact, when the door to his room in the basement was ajar we always felt safer.
George spoke little English but every so often he would determinedly either call himself Mr. Rockefeller or call my father Mr. Rockefeller; why we don’t know.
We accepted George the way he was as if he was a character jumping out of the pages of a John Updike novel, smelling slightly of old, cheap wine. All the mothers said “he was harmless.” Back then, he was. In the sixties, that was normal, we trusted people. We didn’t even question his unusual style, we just laughed with him.
If you were lucky the two washing machines would be free when you had to do the laundry, the sense of achievement and happiness would be intense. I would dig my sweaty fingers into my jeans pockets, front and back, to find three quarters for each machine. The smooth shiny coins were placed in the slotted circles, I waited to hear the metal clinking sound as they dropped down. Once I put in too much soap and bubbles, huge iridescent sudsy bubbles, started cascading down from the machine, everywhere. I was both thrilled and terrified at the same time. I ran for George.
There was one large dryer but more fascinating were these huge hanging racks that we would have to pull out of the wall and drape clothing on the clothing rods; how this was allowed and sanctioned by the fire department I will never know. Once we pulled back the steel rods and draped our clothing we could see the individual fires blazing. After we pulled our clothes from the hanging rods the clothes were stiff and scratchy. There were no fabric softeners, anything that was on those rods to were as crisp as burned toast.
George lived in our building for many years, we would try to get in touch with him by phone but he generally didn’t pick up. More often one of us went to his room and knocked loudly on his door.
One day, he disappeared, no one had seen him for a while. Everyone was talking about it but he literally vanished from one day to the next.
In my young imagination, I decided he must have rejoined the circus, as of course, a clown. He already had the sweet smile, the jolly personality and the impeccable skills for standing on his head.
When I remember George I remember him upside down, firmly saying “Mr. Rockefeller.” Why he did this nobody knew, but we all accepted him for who he was. No one ever heard from him again but after all these years, I never forgot him.