Since I’ve been in Japan more than half my life now–thirty years it will be this September–the New York City that I know comes with the baggage of being a jet-lagged mother of two randy children whose idea of a grand time in the Big Apple is playing on the monkey bars in Central Park. Now that they are teenagers, they remind me my own coming of age in New York City. A slim stack of manila file folders containing letters I’d written back in the 1980s take me back to the time when what I wanted most in life was to be a writer.
I’d almost forgotten that dream–because it came true in Tokyo, a city the other side of the world from New York City. So far from home, the uphill climb getting there got left behind too.
In 1982, I began this quest to become a writer in earnest. I had graduated from college the year before with a degree in art history, broken up with a gentle soul, a craftsman, whom I thought I would spend the rest of my life with. I spent half a year back in Great Neck at my parents house hoping for some healing but arrived instead to find their 26 year marriage in tatters.
I was determined to move out as soon as I could and by spectacular good fortune, I found a studio apartment Brooklyn Heights, a beautiful historic Brownstone community just across from Wall Street and the East River connected by the Brooklyn Bridge. The only problem was that the rent was too high on my entry level salary as a secretary for Fritz Jacobi. Fritz will be forever remembered as the PR director at the Museum of Broadcasting who taught me everything I know about becoming a writer. In three words: Just Do It!
“You’ll live in penury!” my mother shrieked into the phone, when she heard that I was forking over $495 to the landlord on a take-home salary of $1100 each month.
“So what? I said, thinking I’d cut corners and live simply. But under my breath I was planning to spend every spare second outside of my day job home in my studio tapping out articles for publication that over time would add to my income.
God, however, had other plans. One of my first articles for the Brooklyn Heights Newspaper was about a community of artists who were living in the refurbished Peak Mint Factory, a fantastic relic from late 19th century Industrial Brooklyn turned into affordable spacious and high-ceilinged lofts at affordable prices. I got $20 for that article which vindicated m mother. But I got something a lot more valuable — a friendship for life.
The artists at the Peak Mint Factory were having their first open house event, throwing open their studios to the neighborhood. I happened to wander in with my notebook and pen, and shy as I was, saying I was a writer–a journalist- emboldened me. I made friends with Anita Karl and Jim Kemp who were a good ten years older than me and ran their own freelance calligraphy and map-making business surrounded by my two passions — Anita’s elegant paintings and their wall to wall bookshelves filled with the great publishing houses of New York–all the books they had designed maps for over the years.
Together we spent hours at their sunny dining table in front of the giant antique windows of their loft talking about books, about writing, and the world of words that Jim especially was drawn to. It wasn’t long before we were talking about writer’s group where we could read out loud and support each other’s fledgling articles. We would start small from down the block in my studio apartment.
To be a writer in Brooklyn Heights is no joke. The legacy of its most famous residents Norman Mailer and Arthur Miller, to name just a few, hang in the air between the leaves and specks of sunlight that reflect in pane-glass windows, cheerful grids of light flanking the top of each steep flight of brownstone stairs. Those charming Brooklyn Heights homes, even in the 1980s, exuded such welcome, but they were only for the spectacularly rich and successful.
I knew that Norman Mailer still lived in the neighborhood on the poshest street of all, Columbia Heights, which faces the Promenade, an oasis for strollers, dog-walkers and film crews who come to admire the breath-taking view of lower Manhattan from its bench-lined boardwalk.
The White Pages gave the name and phone number of a poet –Norman Rosten–whom I heard also lived in the neighborhood, and I assumed was more approachable when it came to working with young writers. Norman Rosten answered my phone call on the first try and immediately accepted my invitation to speak at my studio a few weeks later.
I was so excited about this visit that I invited my mother to come. She brought her friend Norma Schlager and her famous apricot cake. Twelve people squeezed into my studio apartment, furnished with French Provincial hotel room suite rejects from the Helmsley Middletowne Hotel, which my mother’s brother, Uncle Graham, had kindly sent over seeing my fiscal plight and overing to rescue me from furniture penury–at the very least.
I put an announcement in the Brooklyn Heights Newspaper and the launderette and, thank God, twelve people came to hear Norman Rosten speak. I was so worried nobody would show up. Instead the group was so fired up by Normans encouraging words that he left us all with the challenge of writing a collection of short profiles about Broklyn Heights people we had come to know. I was very excited about the idea. And so was Norman, who offered to collaborate even after letting us all know that his wife had passed away the wek before. My mouth dropped in disbelief. This man’s wife had just died and yet he was so committed to writing and encouraging young writers and he refused to back out of his appearance.
Until meeting Norman, I knew that writing was a commitment to myself, but I was so impressed by the discovery that evening that writing would require a profound commitment to other writers as well.
Not long after Norman’s visit, I received a letter from District Attorney Robert Abram’s office. What did they want from me? I was informed that since I was living in a rent-controlled apartment … drum roll… the rent would forever be $295. And I would be refunded for excess charges on the $495 paid over the past several months.
“Lordie,” as my mother said when she heard the news. “Someone upstairs is definitely looking out for you.”
It was true. But who?