It is my dear Andrea’s birthday and I was musing about her last night, to myself, and wrote this:
Sissie and Schrafft’s and the Taft Hotel and Andrea
It’s Andrea’s birthday. My dear, dear friend, Andrea. I want to say something about what she means to me, and to do so, I need to go back in time.
1973. I was twelve. Just. The turning of which for all those much-blessed to have Frances Elizabeth as self-proclaimed “ole-made-ant” occasioned a trip to New York, or, what I would later realize was only one part of New York: Manhattan, our version of which fell within the borders of those magical blocks called The Theatre District; Sissie – as we called her – took us to Broadway.
Sissie and I bonded early. My father died when I was seventeen months old, at which time my mother was seven months pregnant with child number six, so she moved into the house of my paternal grandparents and their caretaker, Ole-Made-Ant Sissie, who took over as my temporary-mother. She fed me, bathed me, I slept in her room, I became, for that period we all lived in Libertytown, her child.
Sissie was the first of the special relationships in my life, those connections of pure Love and Light, through which two people know one another at a soul level, see always the purest intention and truth of one another, understand the core and source of each other, outside of time, outside of day-to-day real life, vibrating at a level beyond the boundaries of words or linear time, a place of such beauty and comfort and acceptance, all other relationships are measured against it.
One of our places of joining was our love – nay, worship – of all things New York City and Broadway (especially musicals) and literary as embodied by the Algonquin Round Table and the legendary New York Publishing industry. Sissie’s hotel of choice had long been the Taft, since first she started visiting New York in the 1940s. By the time of my “welcome to puberty” trip, the Taft had gone tatty. I remember (or, think I do) filthy, green shag carpeting, a darkish, institutional green-moldy sort of wall covering and a dampish, darkness in the room. But, the lobby was still gold-gilded, though one of the balusters on the balcony was beginning to crumble, had chunks missing. Still, the glamour of that lobby was, for me, then, a first and the sort of aging, deteriorating present of a past I’d just missed but could hear echoing that would always be New York City for me.
Too, the connection Sissie and I shared was the same sort of thing: where others might see something a bit worn, a bit not quite shiny, Sissie and I lived in the glory of the structure of who we were, always, no matter how she aged and lost parts of herself, no matter how I became sadder and caught up in the whirlwind of a life of many bad choices, we were always the Taft at its shiniest, newest, best, most brilliant. We lived always in the glory of the best of who we were, together.
That first trip, she took me to see Debbie Reynolds in Irene at the Minskoff Theatre, where, decades later, I would take myself to see Betty Buckley in Sunset Boulevard. But, in 1973, my first Broadway show, my first New York trip, my only stay at the Taft, and our meals almost exclusively at Schrafft’s.
Sissie loved Schrafft’s. So, I loved Schrafft’s. Again, my memory may be tricking me but I recall acres of blonde wood and chrome, that smell of deliciously just-cooked food made on huge griddles somewhere in the back, flipped and tossed and chopped and perfected onto plates by people in spotless chef whites and cloques never seen in poor, backwoods Frederick, and, too, a wall of windows, taller and more expansive than any I’d ever seen – save for those in the lobby near the mountainous, mystical escalator at the Minskoff – suffusing the dining area with so much light, so much light.
That first day at Schrafft’s we sat. I always ordered club sandwiches. Somehow, this backwoods twelve year old had gotten the notion that club sandwiches were what sophisticated New Yorkers ate. As I was bubbling and bursting and brimming with all the energy New York gave me, a kind of excitement and feeling I only ever have there, about to explode with it all, I noticed in a nearby booth a woman eating lunch alone. Reading a book.
At twelve, I had already been being called all sorts of names, harassed, abused for my mien which was stereotypically far more feminine than masculine, and I had a terror of going anywhere by myself, a fear that would continue well into my twenties. Going into a public place – a store, a school, anywhere – alone was something I almost could not do, and seeing someone eating alone in a restaurant started in me a feeling of panic, tight-chested breathlessness, and tear-inducing sorrow.
I pointed the woman out to Sissie. In addition to my fear of being alone and unprotected, in Frederick, we rarely went out to restaurants, and Frederick was not the kind of place in 1973 where people sat alone in restaurants reading books. This solo Schrafft’s patron might well have been a Yeti, so unheard of was such a sighting in my previous experience. I suggested we should help the woman. I suggested Sissie had to go ask her to come eat with us. I started crying.
Sissie, who knew my heart and soul, who, I now believe, knew somehow the trajectory my life would take, told me something like this, the gist of which – if not the actual words – I have never forgotten:
“Sweetheart, [she called me Sweetheart most of the time, though sometimes she called me her “perfect Charlie”] some people – some very special people – are chosen to be what looks like they are alone in the world; we don’t get married, we don’t have children, we don’t do all those things everyone thinks everyone should do; we hear special music, a beautiful music that just some people can hear, it’s almost magic; and through our lives other people – all the ones busy doing all those things everyone thinks they should do – will come to us because they need someone to give them that music, that magic for a bit, to help them along. It’s a gift, really, to be alone and have that music, but, sometimes, we need the quiet to refresh and renew it, we need to be able to sit alone in a restaurant with a book and renew ourselves. Being alone is not alone when you have that magic music of yourself in your head, your heart, and you have it. You have that music and that magic. Always remember that. You are never alone.”
It was a beautiful thing she said –however she said it – and like the color of the carpet at the Taft or the street-long window at Schrafft’s – no doubt my memory of it is incorrect in the detail, but it is the complete truth in the impact the words had and impression they made on me.
We shared that music, that magic, that connection, did Sissie and I. When I lost her in physical reality (which happened, in truth, a few years before she died as she faded into other worlds, leaving a shell of physical body here) I felt a sorrow unlike anything I had ever experienced. A part of my heart went with her, the part of me only she heard was left unattended. A part of me had nowhere to go, like Schrafft’s and the Taft, Sissie was gone, a memory of something magical and musical and beautiful.
Then, through the kindness of another dear friend, my Alison, I was introduced and brought together with Andrea. Though I have never told her this, the first time she hugged me, I felt an electric jolt of knowing, a connection of such force and warmth, I knew Sissie had sent her.
I was right. Andrea shares my music, my magic. Though we have had – and have – very different lives, there is a likeness of soul between us that vibrates in that space beyond words. We see. We know. We don’t need to speak it, we don’t need to define it, we don’t need to name it because we know we share a connection, a love and a light, that doesn’t fit inside “in-real-life” boundaries.
Others, looking at us from the outside, might wonder at it – might see the crumbling-plaster baluster, the gold-gilt flaking off of me, this fifty-something man searching for purchase in a world where he doesn’t quite belong anymore, nearly off the grid, often hopeless, depending for most of his touch and affection upon the feral-ferocious-anonymous-kindness of strangers. Yes, after Sissie died, I started a long march toward life-ending sorrows, until, metaphorically I was always, every day, weeping in a soon-to-be-demolished Schrafft’s, alone in a booth, terrified and defeated: and then she sent Andrea to say, “Hey, remember the music, Sweetheart. Remember the Magic you have, because I need to hear it.”
My dear, dear Andrea is buoyed by my music. My dear, dear Andrea gave me soul-breath and kiss-of-life by allowing me to share my magic with her. And she, so freely, gave her music and magic to me.
My dear, dear Andrea, like Sissie before her, is giving me New York City. There is no Taft, there is no Schrafft’s, there is no Sissie; but there is the Algonquin and its lobby, where I hang, and the diner next door, where I often eat, and in those places, now I love to sit, alone, with a book or my own notebook, in which I scribble and marvel and magic and music at the beautiful moments in my life.
And the beautiful gifts of love I have had. And have.
Happy birthday, my dear, dear Sweetheart. My perfect Andrea.