Tuesday, December 4, 2012

Two Weeks at The Monterey

Whose idea it was to switch the keys is not important. We both knew it was wrong, yet my sister and I deliberately abandoned our customary roles as good little girls.   We were in Lakewood once again for two weeks at the invitation of Aunt Virginia who owned The Monterey.

 It was August 1948. I was ten and Nancy was eight. This year, instead of sitting on a Greyhound bus or a train that took hours, we arrived at the hotel in the green Hudson Dad had bought shortly after the end of the war. During the ride from our quiet Brooklyn neighborhood Nancy and I remembered some of the fun of previous years when we discovered the back staircase which we used to explore the hotel’s nooks and crannies and to spy on the maids and handymen.   

As soon as Dad parked at the curb, we were out of the car careening up the steps and across the lobby until we found the poster for the Strand theatre.  We knew from previous years that the movie playing there would be the same as the one now playing at Radio City Music Hall. That meant we wouldn’t have to wait a whole year to see it at a theatre in our Flatbush neighborhood.

 By today’s standards The Monterey was not a big hotel. The main floor comprised a large lobby filled with over-stuffed high back chairs, and a writing room adjacent to the reception desk.  Rising from the reception desk was a circular staircase that led to two floors of guest rooms. From the third floor, Nancy and I could look down over the banister and see who was checking in or leaving. One time, with our cousin Greg as a resistant accomplice, we dropped a long piece of string to see if it would reach the person at the desk.

 Back then, hotel keys had leather tags embossed with the room number. Guests were asked to leave their keys at the reception desk whenever they left the hotel to spend a day at the beach or to enjoy dinner at a local restaurant. Guests complied by putting their keys in the pigeonholes marked with their corresponding room number.

 Late one afternoon with nothing to do, Nancy and I came up with an idea.  As I said, I don’t remember who thought of it so we always considered ourselves equally to blame.  Suppose we mix up the keys? We could then sit unnoticed in one of the big high back chairs in the lobby and peek out to see the reactions of the guests when they couldn’t open their doors.

The Tally Ho cocktail lounge was situated just off the lobby. Decorated with wallpaper that featured fox hunt scenes, a fireplace, some small tables, and a grand piano, it was the place not only for hotel guests but also a regular gathering place for Lakewood residents.
While all the adults seemed preoccupied – either sitting on the large wrap-around front porch or enjoying a cocktail in the Tally Ho, Nancy and I quietly headed for the reception desk and started moving the keys around. No one caught us.  Not yet, anyway. 

It took only a few minutes for guests to hurry down the stairs to complain that their keys weren’t working. Some realized that the leather label with a number emblazoned on it didn’t match their room number. Mom and Dad who were sitting in the Tally Ho heard the commotion at the desk and soon realized what must have happened.  Our little plot was uncovered and we were scolded. Even Aunt Virginia who never raised her voice let her anger show. And Uncle Tom, who we feared anyway, made us cry and apologize.

We shared the guilt and both deserved the scolding.  Years later, Nancy and I continued to laugh about that time because we both recognized that it was the first time we deliberately set out to cause trouble.

Besides Aunt Virginia, Uncle Tom and Greg who lived in an apartment off the lobby, there was just one other permanent resident: Polly, a former “Ziegfield Girl” who was now nearly blind.  Everyone in Lakewood, it seemed, met regularly at the Tally Ho. In this large circle of friends was a man named Les who reminded my sister and me of the actor Joel McCrea. Whenever he came to The Monterey, he’d give Nancy and me great big hugs – and he became the first person my sister ever developed a crush on.

Though children did not venture into the Tally Ho in the evenings, we often sat at the bar in the afternoon and had a glass of Sarsaparilla. One year we were told we had to keep a secret. Behind a doorway in the Tally Ho a slot machine had been installed. I didn’t understand then why it was a secret, but I kept quiet about it.   The best thing about the Tally Ho, however, was Max, the piano player. On weekend evenings, the sounds of his wonderful music could be heard all the way up to our room on the third floor.  To this day, whenever I hear “Lazy River,” I think of Max and the Tally Ho.

All the guest rooms were covered in flowery wall paper that even extended across the ceilings. None of the rooms had a private bath. I liked staying in Room 66, not only because Max’s playing was loud and clear here but because of the bathroom which was midway down the hall. It had been constructed into two compartments. Once you entered, you had to go through a second door to find the claw foot bathtub sitting all alone in a large area beneath a skylight.

Behind the hotel was a small cottage where Sam lived. He was one of the handymen, tall and lanky, often moody and not very likeable. Early one evening when we thought he was working, Nancy, Greg and I crept quietly to Sam’s cottage and peeked in the window. Oh, my gosh!  There he is!  He was sitting in his chair reading a magazine. But it wasn’t Life or Collier’s.  It was a “girlie” magazine.  We were shocked and must have said something, because he spied us, got up from his chair, opened his door and yelled, “Get away from here.”

Another evening when my mother was sitting in the lobby reading “Nightmare Alley,” a tall, handsome man entered the hotel and requested six rooms – one  for himself and five doubles for the ten young women with him.  My mother must have suspected something was wrong, because a little while later while the group was settling in, she knocked on one of their doors.  I was with her but did not quite understand the conversation at the time.

I do remember her trying to dissuade two of the young women from continuing the trip. “Why?” I asked.  My mother told me they were headed for Atlantic City to “sell magazines.”  But, I wondered, why did she advise them not to go? The next morning the two young women were in the group as it left The Monterey and headed south on Route 9.

When I wasn’t playing with Nancy, I’d sometimes be in the writing room. A couple of large leather chairs sat before desks covered with green blotters. Pens and ink bottles, writing paper and envelopes beckoned me to write to my aunt in Queens and my young friends in Brooklyn and tell them all about my wonderful adventures. 

Though most of our fun we found right in the hotel, there were times when the town itself offered new experiences. On some mornings, my sister and I walked with Dad down to Lake Carasaljo where we fed the ducks. Sometimes we’d walk along the shore until we came to the grounds of Georgian Court College. We learned then that the town of Lakewood had once been a resort for affluent New Yorkers and that the beautiful grounds and buildings of Georgian Court College had been built in 1898 by millionaire George Jay Gould.

Everything we enjoyed was within walking distance– the Strand Theatre, Taylor’s Pharmacy where we sipped our chocolate sodas, and even the grocery stores.  And on Sunday afternoons a popcorn vendor set up his cart on a corner a few blocks away.

Sometimes Nancy and I would be sent around to the grocery store to pick up a few items for Aunt Virginia. Never given cash, we were instructed to say to the store owner, “Just charge it to The Monterey.”  I’ve often wished I still had that option.

 My sister and I would recall those days as the innocent and simple times before our lives became more serious and more complicated than switching around a bunch of keys.

Thursday, September 27, 2012

The Pros and Cons of Being Invisible

I began to notice my invisibility a few years after receiving my AARP card. As I saw each new wrinkle as it appeared on my face, I realized that I was fading further and further away on the world’s radar screen.  

As the years pass and we grow older, women start to see themselves becoming invisible. We’re not in the desired demographic of advertisers, unless it is for hearing aids, geriatric medications or Depends. And employers are trained to view both men and women over the age of fifty-five as not suitable.

On any street eyes will naturally turn to the young and stylish or the young and outrageous. So we pass by unnoticed. Sometimes that’s a good thing. No longer do I have to cringe when I pass by a group of construction workers taking a lunch break. The ogles and whistles are years in the past.

Over the past couple of months my friend Robin and I have been meeting in Manhattan to attend talk shows. The tickets are free, of course, so it’s an inexpensive way for us to get together and catch up while we wait to enter the television studios. Most of the audience – as you’d expect – are women. The sprinklings of young and attractive women in stylish outfits get the front and center seats. Robin, who has beautiful white hair, and I are usually delegated to the back row. That’s fine – I don’t need to be up front. These seating arrangements, however, are to me an obvious indication that our older faces are not what the show’s producers or advertisers wish to see when the camera swings to the audience.
While we older women may not be quite as visible as we once were, however, our voices remain strong and vibrant.
I love Robin’s take on this:  “I think being invisible is good.  That’s why I'm coming back as a hummingbird so anyone who crapped on me will have the favor returned but never see me coming.”




Monday, August 6, 2012

Not just for a haircut


How do I explain it:  driving from my New Jersey home to Albany every six weeks just for a haircut?  

The beauty parlor – or the salon as these places are now called – caters mainly to a local clientele, just as shops did when I was growing up in Flatbush. The grocery store, the butcher, drug store, stationery store, barber shop, library, bakery, doctors and dentists were all within walking distance. There was even a public pool just two blocks from my house. Not only did I walk to my elementary school and high school, I even walked to Brooklyn College. When I was in my teens and wanted to have my hair cut, three blocks away was my friend’s house where her mother had set up a beauty parlor in her basement. 

But that was a long time ago, before the growth of the suburbs and major highways made everything more accessible.

When I moved to Albany in 1995, my sister recommended The Cuttery on New Scotland Avenue and I have been going there ever since – driving, not walking, every six weeks for my appointment with Su.  

When I moved back to New Jersey in 2008, I vowed that I would continue to have my hair done at The Cuttery.  This raised a few eyebrows. I am sure some wondered just how long this would last. Wouldn’t I tire of driving one hundred and forty miles, two-and-a-half hours, up the Thruway “just for a haircut”?  Ah, but see, it’s not “just for a haircut.”

Number One:  Su is the ultimate professional who enjoys her work and who has become a friend. Over the years we’ve followed the paths taken by our children, discussed books and movies, our vacations, and talked about other mutual interests. In a wonderful stroke of luck, Su was an invited guest to a wedding in New Jersey on the same day of my daughter’s marriage ten years ago. Su made the trip from upstate New York earlier than needed so she could style Trish’s hair and mine.

Number Two: I use these trips to connect with old friends. If I want to meet someone for dinner or stay overnight and have breakfast with an old friend, I’d be welcome to a number of spare bedrooms.  In the past few years, however, my choice of bed has been my niece Carol’s home just a few blocks away from The Cuttery.  My stays with Carol are more than just a “hello and good-night.”  We have a chance to catch up.  She and her sister, Kathie, are my only nieces and they hold special places in my heart.

Number Three: I like to drive the Thruway.  In every season the landscape has its own style of beauty. I use the hours to listen to my favorite music or local NPR station or just to give free rein to my thoughts. I no longer do much local driving as the highways in northern New Jersey are training grounds for the Indy 500.

Recently I discovered I was not alone in my long-distance travel to a salon. My cousin Kathy, who lives in Sligo in the west of Ireland, regularly boards the train to Dublin for her haircuts.  Three hours each way! Although it gives her time to read, Kathy says she may have to reconsider taking the train if the free travel pass for seniors is discontinued in the next budget. “Right now, it costs me nothing but there are rumblings..... And with the winter ahead, taking a 7a.m train and not getting home until 7p.m is not ideal.”

 I also learned I was far from the champ when Kathy’s friend Marie, who lives in the Bronx, told me that she frequently returns to Baltimore for her haircuts. I know there must be a long list of people who will travel the distance and do what it takes to find what they want, even if it’s just a haircut.


Thursday, July 26, 2012

Macabre? Yes, but it got a laugh

It’s been three years since my sister Nan passed away. At her daughter’s wedding this past weekend, she was in all of our thoughts. I especially remember her great sense of humor. Here’s an example.

Nan was very ill. Yet she always managed to retain her sense of humor, despite her kidney and heart problems and the bottles of medication on the table and what seemed like almost daily visits to the internist, cardiologist, nephrologist, pulmonary doctors, and CVS to pick up prescriptions. And of course, what seemed like regular visits to the emergency room of Albany Medical Center. She had a walker and a wheelchair that folded up in the trunk, and many oxygen tanks stored in her apartment. Whenever we went to the movies at the Spectrum, she also insisted on having an extra tank with her. Just in case.

Nan had a good friend who was on the board of the Oakwood Cemetery in Troy. At the friend’s invitation, Nan and I attended a concert held in Oakwood’s beautiful and historic chapel. Listed on the National Register of Historic Places, the cemetery is situated on a long bluff with a panoramic view of the Hudson Valley. Knowing how ill she was, Nan decided that she would like her final resting place to be here.

One day she decided she’d like another look and wanted to show me a site she liked. So we drove over the bridge to Troy but then couldn’t remember the exact directions to Oakwood. We stopped at a garage but the young mechanic didn’t know. We drove around for a while and noticed a police station. As we parked, a detective came over to the car and asked, “Can I help you, ladies?” He laughed when Nan said, “Yes. Can you direct us to Oakwood? We’re shopping for a cemetery.”

Thursday, July 19, 2012

The Cousins McGowan

Peter McGowan’s daughter, Kathy, and Tom McGowan’s daughter, Betty, arrived in New York in June, flying from Sligo and Michigan, respectively, while I, Anne McGowan’s daughter, took the bus from New Jersey to Port Authority.  

We met at the Hotel Belvedere on West 48th Street.  This was to be the first time the three of us were all to be together, unless of course we had been at a family party when the three of us were little girls back in the 1940s. Actually, the last time Betty saw Kathy was thirty-five years ago during her family’s vacation in Ireland. 

For Kathy, this trip was one she’d done many times before. Every couple of years, she travels to New York to meet with some of the friends she knew when she lived in Brooklyn, in the years before her father retired and decided to return to County Mayo.

So this reunion of three cousins was a once-in-a-lifetime event that the three of us embraced.
Before Betty arrived Kathy invited me to join her and some of her friends for brunch at Flanagan’s Pub on 1st Avenue. The next day, a friend of hers had to cancel lunch so Kathy and I headed over to the Museum of Modern Art.  Crowded, of course, but that’s to be expected, especially during the summer tourist season.

When Betty arrived later that afternoon, the hugs were heart-felt.  When the question of dinner came up, Kathy noted that there was restaurant in the Broadway area called Rosie O’Grady’s Saloon.  Since her future daughter-in-law actually will be Rosie O’Grady, if she decides to Anglicize the beautiful Irish name Roisin, we agreed to have dinner there.  I was very surprised, pleasantly so, that it wasn’t a TGIF Friday’s place but on the elegant side. We had a wonderful dinner during which we planned the next few days.

On the second day we headed to the Lower East Side for a tour of the Tenement Museum on Orchard Street. It is a “must-see” for everyone to understand the daily lives of our immigrant ancestors. Guides explain how various immigrant groups – Jews, Italians, Irish, Germans, and others - lived and worked in tiny, dark apartments without electricity or indoor bathrooms.

The three of us walked through Chinatown and Little Italy where we had a late lunch. In trying to find a certain area of Canal Street where the bargains might be found, I inadvertently directed us to the “J” train heading east instead of west. The subway was elevated as it came out into the Williamsburg section of Brooklyn and I was delighted to see, for the first time, a section of the borough with which I had not been familiar. Williamsburg is undergoing gentrification because of its closeness to Manhattan.

We had tickets for the Tony-award winning musical “Once”  that evening and although the three of us enjoyed it, we felt it did not live up to all the raves.  Perhaps it’s a generational thing, we said.

On Wednesday we headed down to the High Line, the elevated park created from an old freight line. It’s the latest attraction for those who haven’t visited New York in a while. At the southern end is the Chelsea area, famous once as a meat-packing district. One of the original brick warehouses has been converted to little shops and restaurants.

For dinner that night, we walked over to Restaurant Row, 46th Street between 8th and 9th avenues, where we chose Joe Allen’s for a leisurely dinner. I used to read about this place as a hang-out for theatre types.  I didn’t recognize any famous faces there but we did see several celebrities when we attended the theatre. 

We visited the World Trade Center Memorial  on Thursday. Reservations are needed to see this national tribute of remembrance and honor to the men, women, and children killed in the terror attacks of September 11, 2001 and February 26, 1993.     The North Pool and the South Pool mark the two “footprints” of the towers and provide a time for contemplation.

After taking the subway to Columbus Circle, we walked along Central Park South where we saw paparazzi waiting outside the Ritz Carlton.  Their target turned out to be Denise Richards, the ex-wife of Martin Sheen’s son. (I cannot bring myself to even mention his name.) 

We had tickets that night for “Clybourne Park,”  winner of both the Pulitzer Prize for drama and the Tony award.  We enjoyed it. During the intermission we spotted some famous faces – Tony Roberts, local NBC newswoman Sue Simmons and Eric Stonestreet who plays Cameron on “Modern Family.”  Kathy was on line for a bottle of water and was disappointed to find out it was all gone when “Cam” turned and offered her his bottle.

We said good-bye to Betty that night as her plane was heading back to Michigan very early the next morning.  I left, too, on Friday.  Kathy had plans that weekend to meet another group of friends.

On Sunday night I returned to the Hotel Belvedere.  A basic hotel, its strong point is its convenience to midtown. However, it is just off 8th Avenue which can be quite crowded and dirty during the hot and sticky days of June.

The next morning Kathy and I took the subway to West 4th Street where we met her Bronx friend Marie at Washington Square.  We had printed a recommended tour of the area so we learned some history while we strolled and Kathy and Marie caught up on their lives.  Our tour ended at the Brown Building, sight of the horrendous Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire.   We had lunch at M&G (Murphy and Gonzalez) which was both delicious and very inexpensive. 

Because the 4th of July fell on a Wednesday this year, many Broadway shows cancelled Wednesday performances.  So we had gotten tickets for “One Man, Two Guvnors for Monday night.  Hilarious and definitely worth its standing ovation!  In the audience – Kathleen Turner, Jim Parsons (“The Big Bang Theory” and “Harvey”), Jessica Hecht (“Harvey”) and Rich Sommer (“Mad Men”).

I had a wonderful time re-connecting with Betty and Kathy.  We laughed a lot; spoke about our ancestry and brought each other up to date on our lives and our children’s lives. We continue to keep up with each other via Facebook but it is not equivalent to relaxing over dinner.  Kathy hopes she’ll be back again in a year or two.  Betty and I will clear our calendars for a repeat of the wonderful days we shared.