Sunday, March 30, 2008

The Italian Sisters

In the early 1980’s I became friends with a young Italian woman who was dating a close friend of mine. Her name was Lucille and she had 2 sisters and a brother whose first names all began with the letter L. Besides Lucille there was Lorraine the oldest girl and Loretta, the middle child. Lucille was the youngest of the girls and they also had a brother who I never met named Lucio but was called Lucky by his family. The sisters were not beautiful, but Lucille was kinda attractive and the other two sisters had nice faces. I once asked Lucille why her brother had the nickname Lucky and she told me that her father, when Lucky was born said that he was lucky that he finally had a son. Lucille was a photographer who loved to take pictures of children and she lived in a walk-up studio apartment in a tenement on the border of little Italy and Soho. Her rent was dirt-cheap but she had to put up with having the toilet in the hallway. Every time I would visit her and had to go pee I would make noises and shake. “Oh creepy” I would say as I opened the door to her apartment and made my way down the dark hallway to the toilet. Lucille would laugh her little girl laugh every time. It was like a routine we had. I would go “Oh creepy” and Lucille would laugh. Lucille and her two sisters were short and as I said Lucille was the best looking of the bunch. She had short very dark dyed black hair and she had an eye problem, maybe it was a stigmatism, I didn’t really know, but Lucille would always wear big round dark glasses even indoors. She reminded me of the great Hollywood costume designer Edith Head. Later on she would have an operation to fix her eye problem and she then stopped wearing the dark glasses. It took me awhile to get used to seeing her eyes without the big round sunglasses. She had sweet little cupid lips and would always kiss me on the mouth when we would meet. I didn’t mind. I used to like to hug her because she had sucha soft delicate body, and I wasn’t used to this. I was used to hard muscular men who would feel like granite when I would hug them, so hugging Lucille was a nice change. I used to call her Lulu which she accepted but told me that I was the only person she would ever allow to call her that. I didn’t really know her oldest sister Lorraine because she was married and lived in a small city in the northwest. I met her when she came back east one time to see her family and she was nice, but not as warm as Lulu or Loretta. Loretta was married also to an Asian who was a master printmaker, and he liked my work a lot and asked me if I would like to do a series of prints with him. I jumped at this offer, and managed to get a few done before Loretta and her handsome Asian printmaker husband packed up and moved to Thailand where her husband was from. Lulu was also making trips to Thailand, which she loved and said that one day she would also move there. Lulu and Loretta didn’t always get along and sometimes wouldn’t speak for weeks on end. I would try to get them back together but Lulu would not budge. One night Lulu and me went out for dinner to a favorite Pizza joint of mine. I was hoping to share a pizza with her, but Lulu wanted anchovies on the pie and there was no way that I would eat one of those horrible things. “Must you have anchovies on the whole pie Lulu? “Yes Ira Joel, order your own the way you like it.” That was Lulu for you. Stubborn as a mule. I wound up having a meatball hero and watched in disgust as Lulu devoured the pizza with anchovies. Somehow the topic of babies and children came up and Lulu confided in me that she had had several abortions over the years. “How many is several Lulu? “Five” she replied. “Jesus Christ Lulu that’s too many, I mean what about your vulva or ovies or whatever they are. Aren’t you worried what that could do to your pussy”? Lulu laughed so hard that an anchovy came sailing out of her cupid lips landing on the white tablecloth. “Oh Ira Joel please. You are so funny.” Funny indeed I thought as I pushed the ugly fish thing over to her side of the table. This was amazing to me especially since she loved children so much and spent all her time wandering the streets photographing them. For a gift one time I gave her a copy of “American Children. Photographs From The Museum of Modern Art” which she loved. Lulu’s brother Lucky was married to a black woman and had several children, who Lulu had photographed many times. All the sisters were liberal and of course accepted the marriage but Lulu’s father would have nothing to do with his son his wife and their 2 beautiful children. Lulu would rant and rave against her father almost coming to tears. As I mentioned Lulu was dating my friend who was living with her in her tiny apartment with the toilet in the hall. Lulu was going to Thailand more & more often and my friend would have the apartment to himself when she was gone. One beautiful spring when Lulu was in Thailand my friend met another woman and started to have an affair with her. He would bring her back to the apartment that he shared with Lulu and I was very angry when he told me this. “How can you do that to her?” “If she finds out what you are doing she will stab you in the heart, and you know what I’ll hand her the knife.” He said he would break up with Lulu when she came back because he was in love with his new woman friend. One night he asked me if I would like to have dinner with him and his new girlfriend and I said yes. I liked her very much. Good-looking and smart she was a furniture designer who was working for a top designer in her field. I was torn between my friend and his two girlfriends. Finally the day came when Lulu came home and my friend broke the news to her. It was terrible. For two weeks Lulu would cry to me over the phone or in person. I did my best to sooth her sadness and tears, and of course I never told her that my friend had brought the other woman to her apartment. She was Italian after all and had a fiery temper. Then in the fall Lulu gave up the tiny apartment with the toilet in the hallway and moved for good to Thailand where she remains to this day.

In the early 90’s a year or so after my mother died I started to volunteer at an AIDs organization. The first day there I met a beautiful Italian woman who I guess was in her early 30’s and I adored her from the minute I met her. Her name was Diane and she had two sisters who also had names beginning with the letter D. they were Dorothy and Deborah. All three of the sisters were beautiful. They also had a brother named Danny was was movie star handsome and lived in California. I met him once at a party that Diane had, and I couldn’t take my eyes off him. “Forget it Ira Joel, Diane said he’s straight.” “Well I can still look can’t I? “Stare is more like it,” she said. The middle sister Dorothy had big black eyes and I used to call her Dot. “Ira Joel you’re the only person who I let call me that” The youngest girl Deborah was the only one who was married at the time and she was not happy in this marriage. She was always sad, and this would worry their mother. They had no father as he had died years before. Diane was married once very young and very briefly and was happy in her single life. She had a beautiful large studio apartment on the upper eastside in one of those town houses that line the side streets off Madison ave. I would visit her there and we would walk along the avenue or go to Central Park on crisp fall days walking arm in arm. Diane would go on blind dates all the time with guys she would meet through an on line dating service. None of them of course worked out and I just could not understand why Diane would have trouble finding a man, I mean she was so lovely. I couldn’t be much help to her in that department as I had pretty much stopped dating or having sex. Diane was an adventuresome woman going off to India or Africa for conferences on AIDS and staying on for weeks and sometimes months on end. One of the things that she loved doing with me was going to the movies. She was a clean slate when it came to films and so I would take her to revivals of some of my favorite movies. We saw The Umbrella’s Of Cherbourg one rainy night at the Film Forum, both of use crying our eyes out at the end. I bought her a poster for the film which she framed and hung over her bed, and sometimes I would call her up when I knew she wasn’t home and play the music to the movie into my phone without any message. She knew of course it was me. When they brought back Vertigo, I met her one early evening at the Ziegfeld Theatre where it was playing, and after the film she asked me all sort of questions that I didn’t have the answers for. “Diane it’s only a movie” I said. I took her to movies that she normally wouldn’t go see “Fargo” “Welcome To The Dollhouse” “Boy’s Don’t Cry, The Young Girls of Rochefort & Gods and Monsters. She was open and willing to see any movie I might suggest which was nice but sometimes it was very difficult for me to not act like a film snob or at least seem like one to Diane. She knew absolutely nothing about the history of film or the people who made that history. After the movies we would usually go to some diner for grilled cheese or tuna salad sandwiches and coffee. One night we started to talk about children and she told me that she had an abortion a few years back. “Just one?” “Of course just one, what do you think I am Ira Joel?” Sometime after that Diane told me that she just would not live her life anymore with the hope of meeting a man and falling in love. We sort of drifted apart later that year, a Sunday outing to Atlantic ave just wasn’t that much fun for either of us and we just stopped talking. A month or so ago I ran into a mutual friend who told me that Diane had gone off to Thailand on a holiday and while there decided that she would adopt a baby, and that’s what she did.

Wednesday, March 19, 2008

The Autograph Album

The other week on a rainy afternoon I spent some time looking through a carton of my mother’s belongings that I had taken from her apartment after her death in 1994. There wasn’t anything much of monetary value in the carton, but my hands fell on her autograph album from when she graduated public school in 1931. She was I guess about 12 years old. Let me describe the album for you. It’s actually quite nice with the words School-day memories embossed on the tarnished gold finished front cloth covering. There are also embossed drawings of books and a torch. The back cover has a nice art deco like pattern of intertwining circles. Inside there is a photograph of the school that was located in Williamsburg Brooklyn where my mother and father grew up and where my Father’s mother, my grandmother owed a brownstone till the day she died in the late 1950’s. It’s funny to think that this once rundown neighborhood is now the center of the young, the hip and the cool. I have no idea if the school or indeed my grandmother’s brownstone is still there. Inside the album there is some scribbles and wear with some pages torn out, but laid in the back of the album. This vandalism was the work of my sister when she was a child and got her creative juices out by scribbling on anything she could get her hands on including our family photographs. I had of course looked at the album over the years, sometimes with my mother, but haven’t done so in a long time and had no strong memory of the contents. This time I learned some things about my mother that I didn’t either know or recall. To begin with I see that she was class treasurer and had wanted to be a milliner. This is funny because I don’t ever recall seeing my mother wearing a hat, although there are several small photo booth portraits of her with some very nice hats sitting on her head. I also didn’t realize that she was a popular girl with many friends and several boyfriends including one of which would become my father. In the back of the album in pencil my mother wrote a list of her classmates, most of which is faded. I wonder if this is where I get my love of lists and list making. Listed on a page of her favorite things is the book “Bad Girl’ that was written by Vina Delmar, who was also listed as my mother’s favorite author. The book was made into a film in 1931 and was nominated for a best picture Oscar, and won Oscars for the director Frank Borzage and the screenplay. Many years later I would buy as a gift for my mother the photoplay edition of this now forgotten movie. The dustjacket was really nice with a marvelous art deco painting of a well, bad girl. Did my mother think of herself as a bad girl? Later after her death I sold the book. I just didn’t like having it around as it made me sad. The autograph album’s pastel colored pages were full of the usual greetings that classmates, friends and relatives have been writing for generations. Do they still even make autograph albums? Somehow its hard for me to imagine the foul mouthed vulgar teenage latinas squeezed into their too tight jeans, and the homies in their hoodies asking teachers and friends to sign their autograph albums. My own autograph albums from elementary and junior high school are with my papers in special collections at Kent State. Three pages from my mother’s album stand out. One was from a boy named Jack Haber who was no relation to my father’s family. In 1961 30 years after he wrote “ To Rosalind success your friend Jack Haber” I went on a double date with his daughter Barbara who it turned out was a cousin of my close friend Marty. We went to the Kingsway theatre in Brooklyn to see James Cagney in One, Two Three and over the course of the evening I realized that her father was indeed the Jack Haber in my mother’s album. She was a nice girl, but this was my first and only date with her. I had no strong feelings for her, or indeed for any other girl and that was that. The second page that caught my eye and almost brought tears to my eyes was written by me in august 1, 1954. I had just turned 7 that past February and in pencil I printed to my mother “I wish you luck I wish you joy I wish you get a baby boy Love Ira.” I have to assume that my sister who was 13 at the time prompted me in the writing of this little “poem” for what did I at seven years know from someone getting a baby boy. The final page in the album written in pencil and dated Spt 13, 1931, (I wonder if it was a Friday) is from my father and it reads, bad spelling and all. “To Rosalind. It is no honor to gratuade 166 any dope cane gratuade that school Your boy friend Oscar Haber. How telling this is about him. Even at this early age he was a nasty mean spirited ungiving young man with a sadistic sense of humor about him that I would later discover for myself in the years to come.

The picture of the two girls is of my mother on the left and an unknown friend

Monday, March 10, 2008


I'm doing another piece for Broadsided Press. I've done 3 things for them in the past. How it works is that they throw out a poem and various artists do a work illustrating the poem. This time I agreed to do something for the poem that follows and here are some of the "drawings" that I've come up with. It isn't due until May so I have plenty of time. They are all old drawings of mine mostly done in my teen years that I've photoshoped. You can view all the pieces I've done for them at this link. Just go to my bio and click on the titles. Its PDF's.


On the way back from Alamosa I tell you
that I want four children. The radio is playing,
and our hands touch in the dark.

Already this feels like a memory,
too weighted for a simple Sunday night.
Snow falls onto the beams

of the headlights, but inside the car
the air even smells warm, and I have to
unbutton my coat. "Remember the time

I lent you my sweater?" you say,
making our history up to this point
sound rich and expansive

though there is little more than
the sweater and a plastic bowl
melted on the front burner of your stove

while I stirred brownie batter.
"I remember," I say.

-------by Leah Browning
Site Meter