Henry Schickerling. 1983.
I arrived at JFK in New York City very early on a freezing, bleak January morning in 1983.
After the sun and summer colors of South Africa and Brazil the cold and grey morning came as quite a shock. Robert fetched me at the airport and I was very thankful for that -I needed to see a friendly face. The flight was long and I did not sleep very well and felt very groggy and depressed.
We drove to Brooklyn as people were starting to wake up get ready for work. It was a very different scene as a year ago when I arrived in Hartsdale when I came to visit Dale and Lucia.
This was the New York City and not the suburbs. This was a working class neighborhood and this is where I belonged. I was no millionaire that could afford to live in Westchester.
Robert was born in Brooklyn and he lived there most of his life.
I came to realize that Brooklyn finds it place in your heart after a while .There is a rumor that you can not make it in America, if you were not from Brooklyn - but that morning it was grey and very depressing.
Robert lived in Midwood a very nice and safe neighborhood of Brooklyn .It had a strip mall and the subway was close and it took about 40 minutes into Manhattan. Very convenient.
Rijs Park in the snow.
Among the famous people that came from Brooklyn were:- Neil Diamond, George Gershwin, Rita Hayward ,Lena Horne, Jerry Seinfeld, Beverly Sills, Barbara Streisand and even Mae West -- to name a few.
The first few days Robert helped me to get a Social Security number and then open a bank account .Nothing is easy in New York so this took quite a long time .I would not have known where to start. The next day I had to start work and I took the subway into Manhattan. Robert also took me on a test run the day before.
The subway was heated and with so many people packed together I had a panic attack and got off the train. It took me getting off twice again before I got to Manhattan .It went better after that but even today I am rather claustrophobic-a very strange thing to be in a city of almost 8.5 million people and where 800 different languages are spoken.
Garment District of New York City.
Rosella was located on 38th street off 7th avenue , in the heart of the garment district of New York.
She was very attractive and around 40 years old .She was divorced and had a son of about 14 years old. The son stayed with his father on Long Island to go to school and visited her over the weekend. She had her showroom in Manhattan but the factory, where the clothes were made, was on Long Island. She had a collection of gowns that she sold to specialty stores -- but she also had a lot of private customers.
Those days the garment industry was blue collar and a cut throat business run by Eastern European Jews and Italians.They were very rude , manners were left at the door . They spoke to you if you were dirt. I learned very quickly to forget all the manners my mother taught me and gave back as good as I got. Rosella was born in Italy so she was not as bad ,but dealing with anybody else was no walk in the park. I learned very quickly that you could not be timid if you wanted to do business ,or work in New York City. You had to set your limits as soon as you met these people and when they overstep your boundaries you must pounce- and hard. Then they respected you. If you did not do that they would walk over you.
After the genteel life in South Africa dealing with sophisticated woman buying couture this was another story .Nothing about New York's fashion business was gentle or kind. People would walk over you and there were not time for being polite. In a coffee shop people would walk in and scream "Give me a coffee with half and half" and wait for it to be handed to them No thanks or if you please.I quickly realized if I did not do the same I would be ignored. One learned very quickly to fend for yourself.
The Mafia ran the garbage removal in the garment district and every company had to pay them even if the city did remove it .This was part of doing business in NYC.One day an oily looking guy came to the door and asked for Rosella .When I told him she was in Dallas he told me to tell her Jimmy was there- and asked about her. When I told her this when she called from Dallas - she went ballistic .
"Tell that SOB that I deal with Sal and if he comes near me again......"
The next day Jimmy rocked up again and when he heard Sal's name, his whole demeanor
changed and he could not apologize enough..
"Please tell the lady I will never bother her again and I apologize".........
What that was all about I don't know. All I know that was Rosella had protection that made Jimmy shake in his pants! This was so far removed from the life that I was use to in Europe and South Africa. I toughened up very quickly!
Rosella had a lot of Orthodox Jewish customers and they spent a fortune on gowns as they had to have long sleeves and high necks as their religion required. This meant that they had to have the gowns custom made. They were very demanding but wanted very elaborate dresses and did not mind paying if it was what they wanted and after quibbling about the price. The personal shopper that brought them was Martha Lunzer.
Martha was from Budapest originally and she had a big business She had contacts with all the big designers and would take her customers to all the showrooms to buy wholesale. Everybody on Seventh Ave knew her. She did a roaring business with Rosella so I got to know her very well. She was no shrinking violet but we got along well.
After about five months I decided I lived on Robert's neck long enough and started to look for accommodation in Manhattan. The subway was getting to me. It was filthy, dangerous and full of unsavory characters -- and I was spending almost two hours a day on it .
One morning as I got onto the subway- very early to find a seat .There were 6 passengers on the bench made for 8. I asked the one guy to move up so that I could fit in. He gave me lip telling me that I was a big boy and that I could not fit in there as well. It was quite something coming from him as he was twice my size! I did not need to say anything. A nice Italian Mama , that sat across from him screamed at him: " You don't own the goddamn train -he paid as much as you did. Quit lounging ,you are not in your goddamn living room-move up!"She fought this fight for me but I was getting tired of his nonsense.Robert did not work in the city so he did not use the subway during the week .He worked for the Navy on the Staten Island Base. For him it was very convenient to live in Brooklyn as he was picked up by a colleague every morning.
New York is not Americ.It is a melting pot of the world and one was surrounded by people from all walks of life and from every country imaginable. People had few manners and were very rude and fights would start at the drop of a hat. They would spit and blow their noses on the platforms .New York was a violent place in the early '80's but when a crack cocaine epidemic hit the city it became even worse..
Graffiti was all over and the subways cars were covered in it -- inside and outside as well as the platforms and walls of the subway stations. Crime was rampant and to take the subway after dark was not something I felt comfortable with.Rudolph Giuliani became Mayor in 1994 and he started to turn the city around , but before that it was a mess.
I started to look around for accommodation in Manhattan.
Eventually I found a residential hotel on the Upper West Side that I could afford -- The Imperial Court Hotel in a very nice neighborhood . It was on 79th street near Riverside Drive and between Riverside Park and Central Park. I could not believe my luck. It was two stops from work and walking distance to the Metropolitan Opera as well.
At first he showed me a studio, but the view was over the roof of the lobby - so I complained
(I was learning fast) .He then he showed me a corner studio with windows on both sides on the second floor with a street view, and I grabbed it .
First thing I did was to go and buy Clorox and alcohol and scrub the bathroom and kitchenette from floor to ceiling. I threw out the filthy shower curtain and bought my own. I also purchased a big plastic cover for the mattress and my own bedding. I bribed the cleaning lady to lend me the vacuum cleaner and I cleaned the place as well as I could. With the cross ventilation it was cooler as there were no air conditioning. On a hot evening I just sat in the park next to the Hudson River until it was dark and I was ready for bed.
Riverside Park and the Hudson River.
The first night I discover I was not alone in the room. When I switched on the light to go to the bathroom.I saw a rat run across the floor from under my bed into the closet. I stayed on that bed till dawn ,and I did not move. I bought some steel wool the next day and stuffed every hole I could find in the floor and walls. That took care of that.
The hotel was located next to a Orthodox Synagogue and when they had a wedding in the hall the music and dancing went on until 4:00 am. I bought earplugs for that, as well as the ruckus that came from the adjoining rooms.I then realized why this place was affordable. It was welfare hotel that the city paid for . I am sure the money the owner got from me was over and above the amount the city paid him for my room in any case. I could not care - it was central, very convenient and I could afford it.Even Robert could not believe my luck!
With the holes plugged ,the bathroom clean and my own bed sheets. I started to feel like a my own person again .I even bought a small TV on sale for $45.00. I would rush through the lobby to my room and not look left or right. It took me 10 minutes on the subway to get to work on a good morning. I was very thankful to be in Manhattan and so close to everything.
Central Park with the Hudson River and the Upper West Side.