“Not funny ha ha, funny peculiar,” was what my mother always said about people she didn’t understand. These were usually people who didn’t have good manners. Like people who didn’t follow all the little social rules that my mother followed, like being pleasant, even when you didn’t feel like it or never being honest when someone asked you how they looked. Actually, people who were different than she was in any way could be classified as funny peculiar. Anyone who wasn’t a WASP was somehow uneducated, unwashed, in her view.
For most of my childhood, and on through college, I lived with people much like my mother. Then, I moved to Manhattan where most people are funny peculiar under my mother’s definition. Take my roommate, for example. Carolyn, who I met through a roommate referral service, was like no one I had ever met before. Carolyn would never have passed muster. Even though she was white, and probably born Protestant, my mother would have considered her cheap, lacking in social etiquette, white trash.
Over my mother’s strenuous objections, I had signed up with a service that matched you with a “compatible” roommate. What I saw as an adventure, she saw as a sure-fire way to be raped or mugged or at least get a nasty head of lice. I filled out a lengthy questionnaire about my living habits, but after 20 or so visits to meet so-called “compatible” roommates, I realized that the service sent you out to any apartment in your price range. Compatibility with the roommate was not essential in the Manhattan housing market. I found myself excited by this process. Meeting all these random people, people who had not gone to an elite private school or spent summers at the shore, but were just desperately seeking someone to write the other half of the rent check.
I had almost given up when I met Carolyn. Seeing myself as an upper-east-side-kind-of-girl, I took the subway down to Soho on a whim. To her loft—even the name of it sounded bohemian, sexy. A non-doorman building had not been my intention, but walking down West Broadway with its galleries and tiny shops, I was intrigued. When I got to the building there was no doorbell. I called her number on my cell phone and she stuck her head out the window, saying she would be right down.
When she opened the door she was wearing cut-off jean shorts and a green army vest—no shirt underneath—that was complete with little pockets for bullets and grenades. She must have bought it at the surplus store that I had noticed across the street. Feeling over-dressed in my emerald green shift and Papagallo’s, I endured her once-over and followed her up the two flights of commercial stairs. The loft, a term loosely applied to any large space south of 14th Street, had been completely renovated. A soft blue, wall-to-wall carpet ran the entire length of the enormous room. I was pleasantly surprised to see how neat and clean the space was. The gigantic room contained a galley kitchen, dining area, and living room with two small bedrooms in the back. Carolyn volunteered with a sense of pride that she had built the walls and all the furniture. A long low console for the TV and some books, the couch which she had stuffed with foam and covered with muslin, our beds, closets in the bedrooms, and a cabinet for herself.
“I hope you don’t come with furniture or knick-knacks,” she said sullenly as I walked the length of the room. “I’m looking for someone with no belongings.”
“Well, I could leave my stuff at my mother’s,” I said.
“How sweet,” she replied, puffing out her already large mane of hair. “You look like you have a lot of clothes. The closet’s quite small.”
“Can I bring a small dresser?”
“Only if it fits in your closet. The rent’s $500. Due on the tenth, but I always pay on the first,” she said cocking her mane and looking at me with her crystal-blue eyes.
I sat down on the couch and, pushing my mother’s opinions out of my head, tried to picture myself living here. Carolyn retreated to her bedroom for a moment and I closed my eyes. I could hear the traffic on Canal Street. The sounds of the city floated into the space, an ambulance siren, cars honking, music coming from the apartment overhead, voices. When did it get quiet here I wondered? I opened my eyes and looked around at the large canvases on the walls. Carolyn reappeared holding a pack of cigarettes.
“Are these your paintings?” I asked.
“I’m an artist,” was all she said. “I’m going out to smoke.” She left the loft leaving the door jacked open.
I studied her large canvases which reminded me a little of Matisse’s late work. The backgrounds looked like fabric on which were painted interior scenes of people doing mundane tasks. The paintings were very detailed except for the faces of the people. All the faces were blank—just grayish beige in color with no features and no hair. I thought then of the generic paintings of flowers and a scene of Venice that decorated the walls at home. I heard my mother’s voice say, “Why doesn’t she paint the faces?” After I moved in Carolyn painted me ironing. You wouldn’t know it was me, but I knew it was me, because I was ironing my work clothes all the time. She hung it over the spot where I used to set up the ironing board.
As I sat there in Soho with the noisy night sounds of the city streaming in through the open window I decided to take this place. I knew my mother would cry. I knew my friends would raise their eyebrows and suggest that we go back to their place, but I didn’t care. I wanted to see what this life was all about. Carolyn seemed to say what she was thinking and I wanted to try that. To hear what someone honestly thought sometimes. What would that be like? I didn’t even know. Suddenly I wanted to live an unsanitized life. Unfiltered. Raw.
When Carolyn reappeared a few minutes later I told her I would take it. That I would be her roommate. The verbalization of our new relationship didn’t sit well with her I could tell. “You can move in on Friday,” she said.
Although I thought we should hug, or at least shake hands, when I took a step toward her she took a step back. “Be sure to close the door downstairs on your way out. Let me know what time you’ll be here and I’ll meet you with the key,” she said managing a hint of a smile.
Carolyn was a constant source of interest to me. While my friends made appointments at expensive hair salons, Carolyn cut her thick brown hair into uneven layers, throwing the discarded tassels into the waste basket. She highlighted parts herself, and then teased it into a wild mane of blondish swirls around her face. I watched her one night teasing her hair. Sitting at the small table that we had in the kitchen part of our loft, I could watch her over the book I was supposedly reading. Pulling chunks of hair up from her head and then snarling them with a comb. I thought that teasing ended with bra-burning in the ‘60s. There was a violence to her movements as she knotted her hair into a snare around her pretty face. I was mesmerized. Completely unaware that my book had fallen to the table.
Just then she looked over at me with her incredible blue eyes, glassy marbles with very large pupils even in the bright sunlight. “What are you looking at?” she asked, taking a step away from the mirror in the small bathroom. Her robe, which she never tied close, came apart exposing her milky white torso. She had no inhibitions. Actually, she enjoyed showing off her body.
Always polite, I looked down, and scrambled to find the page in my book.
“I asked, what are you looking at?” she asked again.
“I’ve never seen anyone tease their hair before,” I stammered.
She stood in the bathroom doorway, one pert breast still exposed, and started to laugh. The bright light from the lamp over the sink backlit her voluminous hair into a shiny halo.
“Oh, Long Island, what am I gonna do with you?” She had started to call me “Long Island” a few weeks after I moved in. Turning around she went back to her hair.
Of course, I assumed that she was going out on the town, but it turned out she was going to work. She worked at night bagging rags for a man who sold them for cost. I had never heard of such a job, but I didn’t really care what she did as long as she paid her share of the rent. Sometimes she worked as a carpenter. She would strap on a tool belt with hammers and such hanging off her waist. I got used to the fact that she always worked topless.
The summer I lived with Carolyn was the hottest summer on record. We lived in the third floor of the old factory and none of the units had air conditioning. We had a fan, but you had to sit directly in front of it to get cooled off. On one of the hottest days, her friend Sam came over. She talked about Sam all the time but I hadn’t met her yet.
When Carolyn opened the door and introduced me to Sam she said, “I’m prettier than her but she dresses better than me.” Sam looked me over to see if this was an accurate assessment.
“I don’t know,” said Sam. “She’s very pretty.”
Carolyn didn’t like this answer and stomped across the large loft into the living room section of the apartment. Carolyn always stomped. Sometimes her tread caused the paintings to shift. Sam looked over her green tortoise shell glasses at me and smiled a slow, cheesy smile. She scared me a little.
Carolyn sat on the floor in front of the couch. She was wearing a wife beater that had stains under the arms and pink and white striped panties. Sam put down her little purse on the kitchen table, flipped off her sandals and went to sit on the couch. As she walked I noticed that her feet were dirty.
“It’s hotter than hell in here, babe,” she said and took off her shirt. She wore a lime green bra which was a size too small for her ample breasts and tufts of hair showed in her armpits.
“Let’s watch a movie,” said Carolyn.
“Come on over,” Sam said to me.
I walked over and sat on the floor pulling my long legs up to my chest. Sitting all scrunched up made me sweat from the heat. I longed to go swimming and thought of going home for the weekend.
Carolyn got up and went into her room. I could feel Sam staring at me. I examined my toenail polish.
“I’m gonna lose these shorts,” said Sam as she stripped down to her matching green panties. Carolyn came back into the room and sat down next to Sam. Sam started to run her fingers through Carolyn’s hair.
“Turn on the TV,” Carolyn said to me. I stood up and very self-consciously walked over to the TV and turned it on. “Bring me the remote,” she said. I grabbed the remote and turned around. When I did, they were kissing. I stood there not knowing what to do. What was the polite thing to do in this situation? What little social rule would my mother follow here? I stood there staring at them.
Finally, they stopped. I was paralyzed. They looked at me. I felt weirdly vulnerable.
“Don’t worry,” said Sam. “You look like you just scrubbed your face with Ivory soap. We won’t touch you.”
I handed Carolyn the remote. She took it with a smile. I went into my bedroom, got dressed, and packed a small bag. When I opened the door to my room they were lying on the couch. Sam on top of Carolyn. Sam’s bra on the floor.
“It’s too hot here. I’m going home to go swimming,” I said as I walked past them.
There was no response as I left.
I went home and spent the day at the beach. Mostly in the water and enjoyed the air conditioning and the quiet of the suburbs. My mother informed me that she would be driving me back to the city and would like to see my new apartment. Visions of lesbian sex on the couch as I arrived with my mother in pearls and linen made me squirm. “Maybe next time, Mother. I’m not going directly back. I thought I might go uptown and see Mindy,” Mindy was a mother-approved friend from college.
“Well dear, you can see Mindy after I leave.” From her tone I knew that the decision had been made.
During the drive into the city the next morning I had to fight an urge to call Carolyn and see if she was in the apartment. I didn’t know her well enough to ask her for a favor, but at least I would know if she was there or not. Maybe give her the high-sign that I was bringing my mother back with me. I went back and forth—would letting Carolyn know my mother was coming spur her on to do something shocking or would she put on a shirt and act civilized? Probably somewhere in-between. No, I decided to let fate happen.
Mother blabbed on talking non-stop about this one and that one. College acceptances. Bad botox experiences. Trips abroad. Weddings. Deaths. Updates on various people I knew and many that I didn’t. As we drove through the Holland Tunnel, I felt the need to somehow get my mother ready to see my new apartment. Climbing commercial staircases, unlocking multiple locks, meeting Carolyn. Hopefully the homeless guy who lived in a box sometimes at the corner of the building would have moved onto Canal Street as he did sometimes on the weekend.
“So, mother,” I started. “Living in Soho is a little edgy, you know…”
“Doesn’t Alec Baldwin live there?”
My mother loves Alec Baldwin. I had no idea where he lived but this could help me. “Yes, I think he lives around the corner. Lots of actors, writers and musicians live in Soho and the Village. It’s bohemian. It’s a different kind of life. I like it.”
“Is there parking? A valet?”
I hung my head. “Really? No! There is no valet. We’ll find a parking garage.”
My mother tsked and then was silent. I saw her forcing her face to be pleasant, but the tautness of her right eyebrow gave her away. I wondered why she just didn’t say what she was thinking. We both knew the thoughts colliding under her perfect ash blond hair. I could hear her inner voice railing, “Why do you need to live on the edge? We’re not bohemian people!”
We exited the tunnel and swung around off the ramp following the signs to West Broadway. I spied my building in the distance and noticed from this angle that the building listed to the east side. I decided not to point out the building to my mother. My plan was to get her to a parking lot north of the building and walk down West Broadway which was much trendier than Canal Street. Successful in guiding her to a parking lot on Spring Street, we headed toward my building. I watched her look over at the people walking by on the street. As if in a horrible dream a band of young men rounded the next corner and walked toward us. Dressed in black leather, with chains hanging from their ears to their nose and tattoos from shoulder to wrist, they laughed and jostled each other as they came toward us. As we went by them the leader of the gang winked at me. This was the last straw for my mother. She grabbed my upper arm and hurried me away.
Seething, she uttered between clenched teeth, “You will get herpes living here.”
“Mother, I will not. Do you really think you get herpes just by walking down the street?” I wailed. “We’re here,” I said stopping in front of the gray unmarked door.
“We’re where?” demanded my mother, mouth agape, her Ray-Bans slightly askew.
“At my apartment,” I said reaching into my purse for the key.
My mother tore off her sunglasses and her eyes got wider than I had ever seen them as she let out a guttural sound. I noted to myself that for once she could not contain her emotions. A breakthrough.
I opened the door and she put her hand out for balance as she took in the gray walls and the exposed light bulb that hung on the wall. Walking past her, I started up the stairs and she followed me as if in a trance. As if an alien had abducted her daughter and brought her to a strange land. I rounded the staircase leading up to my apartment and dread filled my chest as I saw that the door was jacked open. A sure sign that Carolyn was home, but since the door was open, I assumed she and Sam were not going at it on the couch.
I could hear my mother making tongue-clucking sounds behind me. By the time I got to the landing on the third floor I had sweated through my T-shirt. The hair on the back of my neck was damp. I couldn’t risk a look back at my mother, but soldiered on into the apartment.
Carolyn was sitting at our little two-person table, fully-dressed, reading a newspaper. Vest and shirt! The tight feeling in my back eased a little. Sam was nowhere in sight. My mother stumbled into the apartment, sweating and disheveled, the heat wave had not abated.
“Hi!” said Carolyn with a smile.
I wondered why she was acting so normal. With a shirt and all. “Hi, Carolyn this is my mother.” I turned to look back at my mother who was having a hard time finding her words. Always so correct in social settings, my mother stammered, “May I sit down?” Sitting before Carolyn answered.
“Get your mom some water,” said Carolyn.
“How do you do?” my mother finally said as I walked over to the sink.
“I do just fine,” said Carolyn with a laugh, fluffing her mane.
My mother eyed her suspiciously. I came over with the water. “Here drink this,” I said. There were only two chairs so I sat behind my mother on the windowsill. “Carolyn made all the furniture.”
“How remarkable,” my mother said running her index finger over a rough edge on the table.
The air was heavy and the sickly sweet smell coming up from the Dunkin’ Donuts shop on the first floor of the building filled the apartment. A large truck barreled down Canal Street and the building vibrated. My mother’s perfectly outlined lips pulled down in a frown.
“Wanta see my bedroom?” I asked to break the tension. As I stood up the tightness in my back returned. I walked toward the bedrooms and hoped my mother would follow. Not feeling her behind me I pivoted and saw my mother get up, leaving her purse on the table, then thinking better of it, she took the heavy Louis Vuitton bag with her. Carolyn snorted.
My bedroom was small, more bed than room. We stared out the filthy window.
“Mother. It’s temporary. It’s an adventure,” I said.
“An adventure, indeed. Please, pack your things and come home with me. How do you walk around in this neighborhood in a business suit. You must stand out like a beacon to muggers. Have you been mugged?”
“No, mother, I have not been mugged. The people are very nice,” I sat down on the bed.
“I’m leaving. I can’t stand to be here. On Canal Street,” she grabbed her pearls as if they were a rosary and would give her strength.
“The address is West Broadway. You should go mother.”
“Yes, I should go,” she smoothed her skirt, pivoted, and walked out into the outer room. Carolyn looked over at my mother and looked her up and down. Starting with her expensive hair and ending with her $250 sandals. Her expression didn’t change but I had the feeling she was adding up the money my mother was wearing.
“Well, it was wonderful to meet you Carolyn,” my mother said trying to smile.
When I returned to the apartment, Carolyn said, “Boy, your mother is funny.”
I wondered how my mother would react if she knew that Carolyn thought that she—my mother—was funny peculiar.