My subway stop.
In 1994, Thomas decided to quit his job as photo editor at the Village Voice amidst frequent and sometimes unfriendly shifts of editorial personnel and the need to devote more time to his personal work. It didn’t seem like a rash move at the time as my income could carry us if needed and he was doing well as a freelancing at the New York Times, and other New York papers and magazines. He also taught a course at ICP (International Center for Photography) and subbed several times at the School for Visual Arts. Still, had we known about my upcoming unemployment he might not have quit when he did.
It didn’t take me very long to find a job with another physician whom I knew by reputation and who specialized in treating people with HIV. Family members had previously run his office and I was the first non-family person he had ever hired. He seemed nice enough and had a good reputation as far as I knew so in spite of the fact the office was on the upper West Side, a time consuming and awkward commute from my Brooklyn home, I was glad to accept his offer.
When I got to work on the first day I beheld something that I never thought I would see in a medical office. It was filthy dirty. Apparently the family members who had worked there also had been in charge of cleaning and their standard was appalling. There was a private one-room apartment in the rear that was kept locked and that was where I was meant to eat lunch and use the bathroom. The stench of rotten garbage from the one overflowing trash can competed with the reek of unwashed linen coming from the bathroom where some grubby towels evidently had been in use for a very long time. The main space resembled pictures I have seen of hoarders homes where “stuff” was everywhere. There was a huge bookcase that had collapsed spilling books all over the floor surrounding a ratty old couch that could only be gotten to by climbing over the books. The little kitchen area was unusable as there was no clear access to it and the half open cabinets spewed what must have been every take-out container and plastic bag they had ever gotten. When I was interviewed I had not seen this room (now I knew why) nor had I seen the doctor dressed for work. On that first appalling day as we were getting ready to begin, he put on the grungiest lab coat I have ever seen. I could only stare at the grime on the pockets. When he caught my look, he asked what the matter was and I could not help but point out the dirt on his coat. He looked down, shrugged and said, “Yeah, I guess I need a clean one” and did indeed get one. I couldn’t believe I had to say that to him on the first day of my job and that he didn’t even seem to mind all that much.
If that was not bad enough, I soon discovered that besides being oblivious to dirt, he was incredibly cheap about everything. Even though in those years drug company reps could not give us enough pens and note pads, in this office I was never to discard a piece of paper on which there was even a speck of space to write anything. Consequently I found I had a desk full of scraps covered with unrelated notes and messages all over both sides of them. I was not allowed to give our fax number to anyone without permission since someone might actually send an unwanted fax and we would have to pay for the paper and ink that it used. All our equipment including the computer I used for appointments and word processing was ancient and painfully slow. In between keeping the desk and office running it was also my job to do EKG’s and blood pressures and, as I had never done this before, the family member who was my predecessor taught me how to use the most antique EKG machine I had ever seen. It had little pads that required glue to stick on the poor patient and a stuttering, creaking machine to hold the paper that would jam almost every time not to mention that the ink would run out just when I was trying to get some poor soul finished and off the table. All the while the phones were ringing and people were coming in needing attention. It was total madness for one person to try to do all of that simultaneously. It took some convincing to be allowed to change the trash liners at least once a day even when they were not full to overflowing as that was seen as an extravagant excess. This was not looking good. I could not get myself to go into the little apartment in the back and preferred to use the patient rest room and try to eat at my desk instead. I fondly remembered how our cleaning person, the lovely drag queen Dora Flame in her work-a-day male persona would come to clean Dr. Js office every morning, fastidiously scrubbing everything from top to bottom. The family member who had had my job previously came in two times a week to clean and did a very perfunctory job and nothing at all about the private space. At least patients were always treated with gloved hands, the gloves being provided for free by the lab we worked with. Every morning I would wake up dreading the trip that required a subway ride on two different trains and a walk of several long cross town blocks to get to my awful filthy office.
Six weeks was what it took to for me to give notice and the doctor seemed shocked when I told him how uncomfortable his standard of hygiene made me not to mention the terrible equipment I had to work with. He seemed genuinely befuddled and that surprised me more than the fact that he wasn’t thinking about letting me go. I thought I was doing a terrible job of running his practice and he didn’t notice ? Weird but true.
Now I was back to where I had started. I was fifty-eight years old, unemployed and suffering from a chronic gastrointestinal condition that was starting to make life really stressful. I decided to try to find some temporary work to tide me over till I could figure out where to go from there. I got a few jobs as a receptionist in various offices and most of it was just awful and boring. I was getting tired and I think Thomas was too. He was working really hard on his book and wasn’t making much progress in terms of getting it published. There were interested parties but they all required a big financial contribution to the publishing costs that we just did not have. I decided the time had come to apply for disability.
Our beloved dog, Olga.
As so often in my lucky life when events turned against me, I found great solace not only from my relationship with Thomas and my friends and children, but also from my animals. At one point my dear sweet hound dog Olga developed a tumor on her paw and the vet gave us the sad news that it was malignant. The next step would be to either amputate the leg or to put her down since she was suffering. The vet felt that amputation was not a happy choice for a leggy hound like our sweet Olga. While little dogs did well enough on three legs he advised, large long limbed hounds like ours did not fare well. We sadly agreed and had to let her go. It was very painful to say goodbye to my loving protector and friend.
Saying goodbye to our dear Olga
We also had a little comic of a cat named Harry that we lost to a common enough male cat urinary tract disease that struck so fast that he died in my arms at the vet’s office. Poor old Harry the cat who clowned for us and gave us so much warmth and pleasure was the first of our pets that Thomas and I selected for our family together and now he broke our hearts with his passing.
Our sweet new rescue: Shoe
I found I couldn’t do without a dog and Thomas and I started to look for a dog in need of a home. It was at the wonderful no kill Bide-a-Wee shelter that we found “Shoe”. I suspect she was actually in her earlier life called “Shoo” for obvious pesky puppy reasons but I preferred the nonsense of naming her for one of my favorite articles of clothing. As with Olga, Shoe was not a puppy when we adopted her and blessedly came to us as had Olga, fully housebroken. I liked the idea that I wouldn’t have to deal with all of that puppy stuff in addition to the fact that older dogs are so much less likely to be adopted and needed us more. Shoe was a very handsome Shepard mix, a little smaller than a full breed Shepard making her perfect for us.
Shoe in Fire Island
We had moved from our loft apartment after the kids had gone and now lived in Carroll Gardens in Brooklyn in a brownstone garden space so Shoe and Harry both had great outdoor space in which to live their lives. It was in this garden apartment that after Harry’s death we started to notice mice. Every night we could hear the little paw taps of mice seemingly running relay races across our kitchen floor after lights out. Actually I find mice sweet little creatures and thought it would be better to get another cat to keep them away rather than to trap and kill them. This was when son John convinced me to take in a cat that he had rescued from the street and was desperately trying to find a home for. He already had two cats and it was becomming urgent.
Mikey the mouser.
I still missed my sweet funny Harry and I felt nothing much for this cat but in the end, logic dictated that I needed a mouser and this young cat needed a home. I decided that I didn’t need to love him, just to give him a good home and care in exchange for his dealing with the rodent situation, I thought of it as giving him a job. Obviously, it didn’t take long for young Mickey to steal our hearts and rid our home of mice as well. Mickey grew into a nice big old tough guy who never forgot his early beginnings and Brooklyn street smarts, and so he joined our good dog Shoe to make us happy, safe and rodent free.
Shoe in our backyard in Carroll Gardens
Shoe and Mickey
During his time as photo editor at the Village Voice Thomas had accumulated a Rolodex of names of photographers from all over the country to whom he could assign shoots. It was one of these photographers from the Albany, New York area who invited Thomas to do a presentation of slides of his photographs for his AIDS book at Union College in Schenectady, New York where he taught photography. Later that year he invited Thomas to interview for a position as his one-year sabbatical replacement. After teaching a sample class he was offered the position that came with many perks and benefits including moving expenses and most importantly, medical benefits that we now no longer had not to mention a very decent salary. The kids were on their own, my father was in his assisted living apartment in New Jersey so accepting was an easy but bittersweet decision to make as we had very little keeping us in Brooklyn.
St. Anthony in Carroll Gardens front yard.
Madonna with flamingo.
Madonna with wagon wheels
With my building neighbors on the stoop, Carroll Gardens.
With the realization that we were going to leave Brooklyn I started to think about Brooklyn in a new light. Brooklyn had become my new hometown and was the place where I lived as I turned my life around after my divorce as well as where Thomas and I began our lives together. It had become a haven where we had friends and neighbors who had become important to us. Our little neighborhood of Carroll Gardens was the antithesis of every harsh tale of uncaring New Yorkers ever falsely perpetrated. We were a little village of a neighborhood where shopkeepers ran tabs, knew your name, and aimed to please. We had been extremely happy in this little world that was home to a mixed demographic in which all sorts were comfortable with one another. In the days following our decision to accept the Union College offer, I ran around with my camera and tried to capture the essence of our home and the people with whom we had lived so happily in Brooklyn.
Vito who cut my hair was actually in Manhattan on Astor Place
Our favorite neighborhood restaurant.
Esposito Pork Store, where they sold amazing home made sauages.
The Esposito brothers.
A very good place to shop. The supermarket was part of the neighborhood.
The pet supply store.
The bodega across the street from our building.
The place for the best pastries.
On holidays people would line up all the way down the block for the canollies.
Cosmo whose deli was on the corner and a frequent stop on the way home from the subway.
Dedicated to all my friends and neighbors in Carroll Gardens who made our time in Brooklyn so special.