I was hit squarely with the strong distinctive odor of cabbage and fried schnitzel while descending the stairs from my friend’s fourth floor apartment. Then, it happened. You see, my nose, having been accosted, sparked the memory which stopped me in my tracks somewhere between the second and third floor…
And there we were. My family and I were in my great aunt’s apartment on Vermilyea Avenue in the Inwood neighborhood of upper Manhattan. At that time, the building was occupied by a varied assortment of renters coming from all over (The Dominican, Italy, Cuba, Ireland) and the stairwell was a battlefield of cooking odors pouring out from the kitchens of the apartments. Fried onion and plantain, garlic, boiled meats and ragù were thick in the air, so much so, that if you stopped to chat with someone, in the stairwell, you absorbed all the scents in your hair and clothing and carried them with you around town for the rest of the day.
Back then, I was just a little kid. I didn’t know about lower Manhattan or the Bowery buzzing with artists of all sorts, or about the bands at CBGB’s, nor about dance clubs like Paradise Garage. I hadn’t yet read about Julius and Ethel Rosenberg, hadn’t visited Argosy or Strand book stores, nor been scared to death by true accounts of the infamous summer (1977) of the Son of Sam.
In short, I was not yet of the age or disposition to be curious about New York the way most are when arriving in the City that never sleeps.
What I do remember, of that time, was my bottomless need of attention and amusement after being dethroned by the arrival of a new baby in our family.
Fulfillment came in the guise of my great aunt and her large (by New York standard’s) living room that doubled as an art studio. This was what my seven year old self was curious and entirely captivated by.
The living room was wallpapered with her creations; mostly still lifes of fruits or flowers and statuary. In the far corner of the room under the window leaned blank canvases and sketch pads of all sizes. There was an old beat up bureau littered with an array of colorful tubes and cans of paints and jars stuffed full with paintbrushes. Paint spattered rags (that looked like little works of art themselves) peeked out of a woven basket and an equally paint splattered and splintered easle held a huge wad of large blank sheets that called out to me.
Too shy to dare ask, that great lady (my aunt) offered me an oversized apron, pulled out a smaller easle and let me have at it.
I cannot express the bliss, thrill, freedom of standing side by side, with this formidable dame, in the bright morning sun or soft afternoon light, creating. Aunt Theresa wrapped me in her attention, making me feel important, grown up and interesting after years of abandonment, to my young jealous heart and mind, after the arrival of my kid sister.
I loved the funky colors produced when rinsing the paintbrush into a jar of water. It thrilled me in the pit of my stomach feeling my aunt’s hand brushing mine as she showed me how to flick and swish and swoop brushstrokes across the page! How I wished those days would never end.
Years later, a relative who had gone to visit Theresa shortly before she passed away, came back home with a small cardboard cylinder containing all my masterpieces from that long ago summer. It was like opening a time capsule…
A blast of freezing cold air from someone entering the building, woke me from my reverie on the stairwell. I made my way to the ground floor and walked out into a blazing white winter landscape.
In my mind, I lingered further with my seven year old self, standing in a colorful living room in New York City becoming whoever it was I was supposed to be; the memory keeping me warm and happy all the way to the train station.