First time I met her was about 1978, in a walk up apartment over a bar on Avenue C. I was dating her brother. The family had no phone so if I wanted to call him I had to call the bar, and the barmaid would go outside and holler up to the open window that he was wanted on the phone. In the beginning she used to sound pissed off, but as I became a regular caller, she softened, and would sometimes even ask me how I was doin, what was the weather like in Queens, as if it were a different country, which it almost was, compared the the Lower East Side. Back then it was where you lived if you didn’t have much money. Where I lived, it was a combination of enormous houses and small apartments, the latter mainly for airline staff, because it wasn’t too far from the airport. We lived in one of the small apartments, my father, when he lived, which was not for that long, rented a two bedroom apartment near the end of the E and F train lines. Better than Jamaica, which was the end of the line, but not as nice as Forest Hills. After he was killed we just stayed there. It seemed the least disruptive thing, to not move, after our lives had changed awfully, quickly, enormously, after he was killed. Because the neighborhood was designed for transients, people catching a plane from one place to another, the only cinema we had was a triple X porno one. So if I wanted to see a movie that let kids in, I had to go to Forest Hills, or beyond.
So first time I met Amy she was on an overpopulated bed, full of other little girls ( she would have been about nine or ten) one who was her true sister, the others, her nabe sisters, kids from the block, the other blocks nearby. She had five true siblings and about five or six kids who just seemed to live there anyway. The bed was full of little girls, cats and kittens. In an apartment that was overcrowded, not in the best shape, the basslines from the disco jukebox in the bar downstairs throbbing up through the floorboards, there was this little paradise girl’s room, which smelled of talcum powder and some very strong scented shampoo from the 70s, maybe Gee Your Hair Smells Terrific, or Herbal Essence, and cats. I said hi, and they chorused back a friendly hello, and I just wanted to dive into the bed with all the little girls, and we would brush each other’s hair and play with the cats. I was 17, new to dating, and I found this familiar girl and cat world far more comfortable than the uncharted waters of dating, of blossoming sexuality, of figuring out the exact point you stopped being just good friends and started being boyfriend and girlfriend. It was desperately exciting, and yet still I craved the familiarity of the girly sleepover. That shit , I knew.
Amy reminded me of my younger self. All flesh and bone, never really finding clothes that didn’t fall off a little. Except she was prettier, as was her sister and all her siblings. They were blessed with photograph friendly bone structure, little grown up faces on wiry bodies.
The Lower East Side was not gentrified in those days. As you walked down the number avenues and got to the letters, it got seedier and seedier. Every doorway had some guy or a group of guys drinking beer or spirits covered in brown paper bags. The garbage men were on strike a lot. There was always more garbage than there should be, rats as big as cats darting over the rubble of the buildings that had burned down or had just been bust up. So it was nice to go from these mean , scary streets and enter this little girl heaven, kittens and shampoo and lots of laughter. To a girl of certain age, almost everything is funny, all humour is infectious. One starts to laugh and everyone joins in.
There was so much love in this family. There was a boy’s room. They would nod politely but they were always busy doing their boy stuff. There was a dog, with chronically infected ears. There were boys from the block as well, hard to tell who was blood and who was of the hood, but it really didn’t matter. The mom had enough love to go around them all. She worked her socks off, crazy hours, and everything she had , she gave to those kids, her own ones and her sort of own ones.
Within a few months dating, I was falling in love not only with Amy’s brother but his whole family. They were exotic, and there were just so many of them. There was always a child or animal to cuddle.
But despite this happiness, this new love, I was plagued by some unknown terror. It would grip me in the stomach, and it would come on swiftly, and suddenly, and where ever I was, I would have to leave. Cabs were affordable then, so I always had cab fare, and Valium, should these unknown vapours attack me. At times, necking my pills, watching the meter of the taxi go up by ten or twenty cents every few minutes, I kind of knew I was in no real danger. But it didn’t matter. The terror was real, and felt much more scary than walking through bad neighbourhoods at midnight or beyond, depending on how liberal my mother was feeling.
These attacks never happened in Amy’s girl world. Everything there was safe and familiar.
Eventually her brother and I split up. I was bereft, but I could see it coming. The anxiety was getting in the way of everything. I guess Amy grew up and had to do whatever it was to survive out of the girlworld of sleepovers and kittens. She moved far away, they all did, at some point. And they all grew up into fine, talented, super smart and kind human beings. Amy and some of her siblings moved somewhere that looked like paradise when she sent me photos. Long beaches. Blue water. Two little girls of her own, looking quite like her, but also, not her.
Now I keep in touch, mainly with the backbone of this wonderful family, on facebook and the like. And Amy, I read about, sometimes in magazines, sometimes on newsfeeds. She makes movies. Just today, I found out she’s made a horror film. The kitten girl, making a movie about, who knows, an ax murderer with a old grudge and a sharp ax. Something that will scare seven shades of shit out of this fraidy cat, I am sure. It’s weird to think this girl , who had many real dangers in her real life, has found solace in making a proper scary movie. Me, I still get the horrors, but I struggle on without the pills, which were bringing their own horrors, eventually. One day soon, Amy will be walking down a red carpet, waving, smiling, and go into a star studded cinema, and they will roll the horror film, and everyone will be scared in all the right places. Me, I still get scared in all the wrong places. But my love for her, for her family, remains constant. The Lower East Side has been unrecognizable for years. I don’t miss it. I miss the girls, who have grown up to be women, and the kittens, who grew up to be cats, and now must be dead.