Wednesday, November 5, 2014

Dried Mushrooms

When we lived on South Campbell Avenue in Chicago, our pantry smelled like musty leather. One day, I discovered the source:  a large white box bound with strips of rough muslin, addressed to my grandfather.  "What's in there?" I asked him.  "Mushrooms," he replied.  Let's look."

My grandfather carefully unwrapped the package, layer by layer.  Inside were hundreds of dried dark brown mushrooms, shrivelled up like small pieces of old candy wrappers.  Grandpa sifted carefully through the layers and found a letter on the bottom.  "Ah, here is."  He slit the envelope with his pen knife and unfolded the thin brown paper.  "From my sister in old country.  Look."

The ink was smeared and shaky and the letter was long.  I couldn't read the Russian writing so my grandfather did.  After the flowery opening, my aunt wrote, "Joe, can you help us?  All we eat is mushrooms.  Everything is gone."

"What does she mean?" I asked.  "They have nothing, no money, maybe potatoes, maybe one egg," my grandfather answered.  "They are poor over there."


"Government takes with fist."

In 1969, we visited Prague on the first anniversary of the Soviet invasion.  They came with tanks and guns to end the Prague Spring and stayed. We were prohibited from visiting my aunt in the eastern part of the county.  We could not bring her money, shoes, or clothing.  And it would have taken two days to get there.  Instead, we walked the streets of the old town and looked at the beautiful decaying buildings and the yellow flowers strewn over the statues.

We passed a small shop and a woman came out and motioned us inside.  "Garnets, you like?" They knew who the tourists were.  We went inside and the owner spoke to my mother in Czech, which we did not speak well.  But we understood:  "Mrs., go home and tell them that we have nothing.  Tell them, tell them the Russians took it."  We were Russian, but Americans, so I guess that didn't count.

My aunt had nothing in the 1950s; the shopkeeper had nothing in 1969.  I was jolted by the bell over the door as a man walked in.  "Sshhh," the shopkeeper said.  She turned to my mother and said in Czech, "You like these?"  Blood red garnets appeared on the dusty top of the glass case.  "I have these ..." She displayed black crystals -- sparkling like coal on fire.  "Good price."  She started to write up a yellow ticket -- the equivalent of about $30.00 for gems and crystal set in silver.

The man looked around and left.  The shopkeeper locked the door.  "Mrs., no time left.  Here, take these and tell them in America what is happening here.  We have nothing.  First the Germans and then the Russians."

We took our package and left, looking for a place to have lunch.  The man from the shop watched us from the corner.  My mother said, "Don't look at him.  We are Americans.  We are safe."  I was glad my mother refused to surrender our passports when we arrived -- the bribes helped and the Intourist guide left us alone for a week.  He had nothing, either, except a coat and a black hat.  When we left for Switzerland, my mother tipped him $20 in American bills.  He shoved them into his pocket.  "Not here, not here, Mrs."  He turned to leave and waved at us.  "Thank you, and have a good trip."

I was happy to leave the ParkHotel, replete with audio bugs placed by its East German owners.  At least it was clean and had orange juice from the Netherlands, eggs, and some meat if you paid extra.  We hooked up with a Hungarian tourist who severely warned my mother about dealing on the black market.  "Stop it," she said.  "You will be arrested.  You have two children with you."  But my mother continued, not caring about the danger, only about the exchange rate:  60 crowns to the dollar on the black market, 20 on the official exchange.

On our last night, I was walking back to the hotel from a brilliant performance of Ladislav Fialka's Theater on the Balcony.  Steps away from the theater, a taxi driver stopped me and said in English, "Girl, where is your hotel?"  "What?"  "Get in, get in!"  I was stunned and did as he said.  "I have uncle in Detroit," the driver said.  "I know you are not Czech.  Where is hotel?"  I told him and he said, "If you walk alone at night, they think you are prostitutka and arrest you!"  I was 16, I said.  "It is dangerous here," the driver told me.  "Don't do that again."

I was grateful to get back to the hotel and leave the next morning.  I learned that the Fialka theater was prohibited from traveling to the West after 1969. I still have my garnets.  When I wear them, I think about the shopkeeper and the man who followed us.  And I think about the dried mushrooms, when no one had anything.

Thursday, August 21, 2014

Summer Exiting

Bus train departing August 20, 2014

followed by a Flutterby.

Wednesday, August 20, 2014

Walking across West 74th Street

Today I took photos on my walk across West 74th Street from Amsterdam to Central Park West.  If you've been on the block recently, lived here for a while, or just stopped to visit, I think you'll recognize some of these places.

Starting at the corner, above Levain Bakery

This brick facade with rondel was exposed years ago when the more modern front was torn away.
It haunts me that this lamp is always burning.  Have you ever seen it turned off?

Finials standing guard, near the lamp above.
Coleus riot!

Silent griffins -- look for them above the fanlight.

Stone entry way

No matter how hard I try, I cannot get these glass jewels in focus.

Green scene, with Patsy's

Perpetual Autumn

Summer exiting

Roses on the way back

Tuesday, July 29, 2014


I have a habit of looking up at lighted windows when I walk down the street in the evening.  I wonder what is going on in those apartments:  people eating dinner, talking, practicing the clarinet, arguing, wondering about the next day and the one after that.  So many stories swirling through my mind -- millions of people here, each in a tiny orbit, one around the other, so many jammed together in one building and then the one next door and the one next door to that, all on a single city block.

Across the courtyard, there is a service entrance that has an amber light above it.  It goes on during thunderstorms or when the light is dim enough.  It is on tonight, making spooky patterns on the blinds. 

Saturday, April 19, 2014

267 Eggs!

Through Friday, April 25:  See contemporary takes on Faberge eggs at Rockefeller Center on the Plaza.  This exhibition is outdoors and well worth the trip.  Read all about the project and the artists at  The captions below are my own interpretations of these wonderful objects.

Here are my favorites from my visit today.  Happy Easter to all who celebrate!  And Happy Spring to everyone.
Purple and blue with eyelashes


Tourist -- I think I bumped into him!

You must know this fellow!

I love the drippy, abstract characters.

Mosaic in the Faberge style

Night sky Everywhere


Robin's egg with nest intact

A fitting companion to Atlas' Globe, 5th Ave.

American Quilt style

VERY popular with tiny tourists

Delicate as Wedgewood

Sunday, April 13, 2014


Sunday, April 14, 2014.  Report from the front.  Fairway is one holy mess this morning, as Passover and Palm Sunday collide.  I went early, thinking it wouldn't be too bad.  All the checkout lanes were jammed, but the express led almost back to the entrance on 74th/Broadway.  Breathe, step, inch forward ... got konked in the shin by a shopper with an over-full basket and nowhere to move. 

Can't wait to see the lines across the street, outside Levain, the destination bakery.  (I'll be hitting the deli downstairs.)  You have to be battle-ready to shop at Fairway the days before holidays.  At least everyone seemed happy and ready to go.  Overheard:  "Are you all done?"  "No, I have to clean my kitchen."  "Oh, I did that last night."  "Wow -- good for you."  Just life, ordinary life.  Life all around.

Saturday, April 12, 2014


When times are tough, I watch TV.  Today it's golf -- the Masters.  Yesterday evening, it was the final game of the Chicago Bulls on WGN America.  On Thursday night, it was Under the Gunn and then I forgot to turn on Vikings.

In an economic slump (which leads to a slump of the spirit), I turn to things that look nice, sound nice, or provide an escape.  Or all three.  Lately, I've been watching a lot of TV, but this is no different than when I was young.  I depended on shows like "Bachelor Father," "Hazel," and "The Addams Family" to provide models of family life.  Even the strangest families were comforting as long as they had a predictable dynamic.

I must have seen this on television:  meat loaf every Thursday night, with mashed potatoes and canned corn.  I begged for this but was ignored.  Just something predictable -- that's what I wanted.   So, when the summer began, I started to count off the days until the new television shows started.  Ads said "six weeks until ...!"  I couldn't wait because then my friends would be home from summer vacation.

I think I became near sighted watching too much TV, even though I observed the six-feet-away rule.  Once I watched so much television that a blood vessel burst in my eye and I had to sit in a darkened room for several nights.  That was nice, because my grandfather read me stories (even though he couldn't read English too well).  I think he made them up -- things about honey bears and birds flying early in the morning and an old mulberry tree that had to be cut down.

Sometimes I turn on the television for company, in the background.  And so, the evening comes and I wait for something familiar and that leads to comfort and then to sleep.