I met Lynn Mallet in Perugia, Italy, in 1955. We met again in New York City in the late 1950s. Her apartment became our crowd’s salon; Lynn presided.
Lynn, Margie Ridge and Joe Greene went to the Amato Opera House to hear Lynn’s friend, Gene Buie, sing the lead in Giuseppe Verdi’s Rigoletto. As he was singing, Gene backed into a lighted candle – the stage was cramped – setting his flowing sleeve ablaze. He swatted the burning sleeve with the palm of his hand until he smothered the flames. He didn’t miss a note. Lynn, Margie and Joe had risen from their seats, intending to join the faint of heart who were edging toward the theater’s lone exit. The danger past, they returned to their seats.
Lynn wrote this memoir in 2005. For the young, poor and free spirited, New York City in the 1950s was still a friendly place.
by Lynn Mallet
I stood on deck as the towers of Manhattan rose ahead of me, that wonderful skyline of the 1950s; solid but fantastical and not yet overwhelmed by architects inspired by a box of children’s bricks. Not exactly a huddled mass, I was returning to live on the island of my upbringing, having attained my majority. But I was an immigrant all right, if not toting a bundle, at least bearing suitcases containing the basics of a new life: clothes, books and letters of introduction from my ex-employer in London. Barely any money, I was to spend a few nights with a friend of my parents on East 57th , my grandparents’ Brooklyn flat being too small to accommodate me, but I was warned that this was a very short-term offer.
I disembarked from the bowels of the Liberte on this sparkling September Friday almost drunk with excitement. By nightfall I had a job. “Start Monday,” they said. I had to confess I had nowhere to live. “Start Monday week,” they said. Life seemed more unreal than ever. How was I ever to find an apartment I could afford on $60 a week? A Saturday night party produced a suggested encounter with a young man of someone’s acquaintance. He was said to be just the one to pilot me around the realtors of lower Manhattan.
Phone calls were made and Monday morning found me in the drugstore at the corner of Sixth and Eighth, sporting an unlikely flower for identification. My Virgil appeared, and undaunted by my unpromising circumstances, steered me through the busy streets. Our first two forays were greeted with scornful snorts, the lady at the third agency at least allowed me to sit down. She also curled her lip. “Not much we can do with that money,” she said sternly, riffling through an uncoordinated mass of papers on her desk. Suddenly she stiffened. “Stand up’” she barked. Startled, I complied. “Well, honey, you might just fit!’ she declared. “$42.38 a month! If you want it sign here. Don’t bother to read it – it gives all the rights to the landlord and none to you. Standard New York lease. And thus I entered 5-7 Minetta Street.
The reason for her interest in my size became immediately apparent. Forunately, although tall, I was thin. The apartment was not one of those more bounteously endowed in the ‘front building’ (No. 5) but in the tiny ‘back building’ (No. 7) Two floors up, at the top of the stairs was my front door, opening directly in a room approximately 12 square feet. Once inside, immediatlely next to the front door was another, faced by a further one about five feet away. This space contained cooking equipment: a stove and small icebox together with a battered tin cupboard left behind by the previous tenant and containing a glass dish, a bent kitchen fork and a handle-less saucepan. Through the further doorway was the bathroom. A small claw-footed tub was partnered by a lavatory and a miniscule handbasin and there was a window overlooking the courtyard behind Monte’s restaurant on MacDougall Street, where the staff sat in the summer preparing vegetables and seafood for the evening customers. All washing up was obviously to be done in the bathtub. (There was no sink in the kitchen) One year found me in it stuffing the turkey for a Thanksgiving feast, attired only in my underpants and butter. I was quickly driven to becoming expert at producing one-pot meals on top of the stove.
The living room, in the sense of room for living – abandon visions of anything grand – looked even smaller once a trip to the Salvation Army had added a bed, table and chair and I had unpacked my books and installed them on brick and board shelves. It had two windows looking west over the courtyard which separated Nos. 5 and 7. The courtyard itself contained the cliché ailanthus and a curious structure of stone and cement some three feet high. Nobody seemed to know anything about this, and being long before post-modernism struck, it never crossed our minds to view it as a (possibly failed) work of art. To the south the local funeral home boasted audible airconditioning (for obvious reasons). Every Fall a skirmish took place between us and the owner, she complaining of the leaves from our treasured tree falling on her roof, we, in riposte, erecting a large notice complaining that we had more formaldehyde in our beer than anywhere in town. (My) Grandad was not pleased. His career had been with the NY Education Department, and he knew his city backwards. No sooner had the news reached him than he burrowed into research, proclaiming, triumphantly, “ Dat building’s condemned, goily.” (He tended to call me ‘girly’.) It is both sad and funny to think that he is long gone, but the sturdy building still stands.
I was puzzled by the great festoons of wires which graced the ceilings of both buildings and it was not until I got to know some of my neighbors that this interior decoration was explained. It appeared that the apartments only had DC. The hallways, on the other hand, had AC. Canny residents soon cottoned onto how to abstract this exciting form of electricity from the halls, trailing it into their apartments and enabling them to enjoy the glories of record players and modern appliances. It was not long before one of these good neighbors set me up too, and a dense cobweb appeared on my landing. Eventually the landlords got round to updating and the rent rose to $48.63.
New York was far less homogeneous than it is now, the city being pock-marked with neighborhoods inhabited by immigrants from around the world: Germans lived in the upper East 80’s. Russians around the Bowery, the Lower East Side was heavily Jewish, and Chinatown was not far from Minetta, which was still part of little Italy. On MacDougall, the baker was from Naples, the butcher displayed the minatory notice “Carne di maiale si deve cuocere bene” and Italian was heard on the streets. Hawkers on Bleecker offered pizza and Little Necks, pried open on the spot. The greengrocer, across the Avenue, was a life saver, providing bruised vegetables at bargain prices. The only exotic note was struck by Mr Lee, our laundryman, two doors down, a refugee from Chinatown. I never found out exactly what any individual item cost: he worked everything out on an abacus and would produce sums completely irreconcilable with the garments under review. A sheet, two shirts, nightie, and cotton dress would be priced at $1.76; for a not dissimilar load the following week he might come up with $1.29. He was a lovely man, his English limited, his skin pale and blotchy from toiling over his vats and irons, his courtesy unfailing and his price unbelievable. I yearned to pay him more: it was difficult to resist the impulse to press extra money upon him, offending his dignity.
The neighborhood was enlivened by the presence of the Amato Opera House on Bleecker, the street along which I sprinted to the Eastside subway each morning in a gallant (and often doomed) attempt to get to work on time. I had friends who sang there, and we all enjoyed the somewhat idiosyncratic performances, accompanied by piano, while records were substituted for the instrumental interludes in Cav and Trav. (sic, read Cav and Pag.) We would debouch into the warm evening and head for San Remo’s, the local bar. A nearby restaurant boasted singing waiters, Texaco Opera was on the radio Saturday afternoons, and an aspiring prima donna neighbor carolled Forza: music seemed to be everywhere.
During my five-year residence we had drama too. Gas leaking from her refrigerator did for one neighbor, resulting in replacements all round – and the rent soared to over $52, The phone woke me up one morning even earlier than the alarm clock and a brisk voice asked if I had heard anything the night before. Sleepily, I groaned that to my indignation my sleep had been disrupted by the usual firecrackers going off (it was close to Chinese New Year and who was waking me up so early after a troubled night? The voice laughed. It was a detective from our local precinct “You’re not much use to me,” he grumbled “I need witnesses. That was the police shooting a burglar on your roof.” Then a floating numbers game (sic, read craps game), rented an apartment in the front building. For weeks the milk arrived on time and was never abstracted. The day the Salvation Army bed died, I went upmarket and bought a Castro Convertible. I warned our super, Dick, of the arrival of this treasure and asked him to make sure it was left safely in the lobby until I got home, but when the day came, no delivery awaited me. Disheartened, I climbed the stairs and opened the door to find the sofa-bed in place, unpacked, assembled! Packaging nowhere to be seen. Our guardian angels had somehow gained access; when thanked, their response was on the lines of “Oh, shucks, it was nothing. Lady.” We missed them and their protection sorely when they moved on, having to stay ahead of the cops. Dick and his wife Marilyn gave birth to a cute but colicky little girl whose wails of distress rose through both buildings and volunteers took turns rocking her pram so we could all get some sleep.
One day we received a visit from an ancient lady who had lived there as a child and wanted to see the place once more before she died. And she solved the mystery of the strange lump in the courtyard. In her day it had been the well which supplied the water to 5 and 7, and was later capped and covered over to stop people falling into it. She was amazed at our stupidity in not having realized this: we in turn regarded her longevity and this glimpse into history with awe.
We celebrated the feast of San Gennaro, and we walked down into Chinatown, where a round-eye neighbor was studying Mandarin – he later taught me Chinese Chess. The Staten Island ferry for a nickel was the answer to those hot sticky days before air-conditioning – the office closed down when the mercury hit 90. We stood on the roof and watched Sputnik blink and bleep overhead. Summer weekends were occupied in pursuit of the perfect beach accessible by subway. Far Rockaway at 32nd was found to be ideal, and sandy, surfy days were rounded off with potato knishes and icy beer before the long ride home. Roamings around the heart of Little Italy meant pasta and lemon granitas.
In Winter, snow cast bright lights onto the ceilings, and during the storms the building streamed with rain, the wind howled and the tree thrashed around but never fell. In summer there was the invaluable draught, and tempting smells from Monte’s, where waiters tossed 99c plates of spaghetti bolognese in the direction of the tables with insouciant skill. It was cheering to think of Minetta Brook bubbling along below, to spring to life, so it was said, as a fountain in one of the grand apartment buildings on Washington Square.
Marriage finally moved me on. There was no way two people were going to survive in 7 Minetta. Further, the coherence of the neighborhood was fraying. I left just as the hippies began to move in: they had already set fire to two apartments in No. 5. Mr Lee had vanished, a joint called the Big Black Pussycat having forced him out. The shops on MacDougall were being replaced by nightclubs featuring Beat poets. I was sorry to go: there is nothing like the first “room of one’s own’”
And although I jettisoned the kitchen fork and the mutilated saucepan, I still have the glass dish.