Tuesday, August 27, 2013


They say you can't remember much before the age of five, but I have a vivid memory of my first trip to New York City when I was four.   My mother and I went to visit her older sister, who lived with her doctor husband in Queens.  We took the Boston and Maine Railroad from our small home town in northern New Hampshire, and clickety-clacked through Massachusetts and
  Connecticut until we arrived in Grand Central Station in the heart of rush hour.   Rather than pack my favorite peanut butter sandwich to eat on the train, Mom bought me lunch from the man who wore a stiffly starched white waiter's jacket.  He pushed his food cart from car to car, selling the kinds of sandwiches we never ate at home, like ham and cheese, and he sold my favorite soda pop too, which was Orange Crush.  He handed out packages of candy cigarettes for free, but charged money for sweet black licorice, like Good and Plenty.  

As soon as we arrived at Grand Central, my mother gathered all of our belongings and took my tiny hand in hers to walk through the crowded station.  We took the stairs down several floors to catch the subway to Jackson Heights where my aunt and uncle lived.  

Grand Central Station

Although my mother was not a city gal, she knew the New York subway system pretty well, which train to take, what level it was on and in what direction we wanted to go.  What I remember most about being on subways in those early days was how intensely I watched other people get on and off the train.  Between stops they might stand to read the newspaper,  sit and stare into space or gaze down at their shoes, but they never, ever smiled or talked to a soul.    

My aunt's name was Marian but we called her Aunt Mimi.  She and my Uncle Peter had no children of their own,  so when we came to visit, they took every opportunity to spoil me.   I remember the big things we did when I was there.  I loved the red-nosed clowns in their baggy clothes performing at the Ringling Brothers Circus.   We bought special food to feed the exotic animals at the Bronx Zoo.   I sat in the Peanut Gallery during a taping of the Howdy Doody Show, and when I saw this cute little girl smiling on the TV monitor, I could hardly believe it was me. 


I remember the little things too, like when my Aunt handed me a heavy coffee tin full of copper pennies she wanted me to roll, so she could turn them in at the bank.    This was a regular assignment that I came to expect on our visits. In those days there wasn't a Coinstar machine at her local supermarket that would take coins and turn them into dollar bills.   When I wrapped ten rolls,  Aunt Mimi gave me two of them.   


Mother and I took the subway into Manhattan several times during our many one week visits.   As a little kid, I remember riding the escalator up and down at Macy's just for fun, while Mom and my aunt shopped worry-free for a couple of hours on multiple floors.  It never occurred to them that I might be scared or become lost or, heaven forbid, abducted.   I'm afraid that today my mother could get into a whole lot of trouble and might face child endangerment charges, but in those days she was lucky.  So was I.    My favorite place to visit was FAO Schwarz, the ultimate kids' store on Fifth Avenue that was filled with toys beyond my wildest dreams, and the place where Tom Hanks danced on a giant piano keyboard in the popular movie BIG.

An eye surgeon by training,  my Uncle Peter would examine  mother's eyes when she visited New York.  Mom's vision was always a major issue for her.  When she was a teenager, she was robbed at gunpoint and hit over the head while selling tickets at her family's movie theater in Vermont.  Her recovery from that incident was long and painful, and her vision was never the same after that.   Mom always took me to her eye appointments, and as I watched my uncle fiddle with the complicated equipment,  I wondered what he meant when he asked her, which is better,  one or two?  Two or three?  On a visit when I was five, I asked my uncle and my Mom if I could look through the same machine and choose one, two or three.  "Why not," he said, "after all I have a new machine specifically designed for kids."   That's when he discovered I couldn't see very well and needed prescription glasses.    From the age of five I either wore glasses or contact lenses until I had cataract surgery at 68.  Now I only need reading glasses occasionally.

When I was a teenager, I often visited my aunt and uncle by
  myself.  Most of the time I took the train from New Hampshire.  Once I flew, but that was too complicated because the flight originated in a town that was two hours from home by car.   It didn't really make sense.  Like my mother, I knew how to get from Grand Central to where ever my relatives were living and never stressed out over getting lost.

As my uncle's medical practice became more successful,  he and my aunt moved up:  from a small house in Jackson Heights to a larger place in Forest Hills, and eventually to an upscale apartment in Manhattan on the Upper East Side.  There on 68th Street, they lived just a few doors away from heavyweight boxing champion Rocky Marciano.   My aunt told a  story about the time Edward R. Murrow interviewed Marciano on his 1950s famous TV show Person to Person.   She described how the television crew took over their building with all the equipment and fancy cameras, and how she had trouble using the elevator while they were preparing to film the popular show.  Of course, she never got a siting of Murrow  because he interviewed his guests from a remote location.     

In 1961, as part of a college work program during my freshman year,  I somehow landed a sales job at Lord and Taylor, a high-end specialty store on Fifth Avenue, where I worked for four weeks between Thanksgiving and Christmas.  My brother, his wife and their two small children plus a baby were living in a tiny two bedroom apartment in Kew Gardens out in the suburb of Queens.   Despite their crowded living space, they graciously invited me to stay with them on the condition that I take off the sheets and blanket every morning before I left for work and revert the pullout bed back into a sofa.   It was a nuisance to have to do this every day, but I now understand how inconsiderate it would have been if I had left the sofa bed open all day in their small living room. 

ME 1961

Only seventeen years old at the time,  I was too young to work without a permit, so on my first day in New York,  I took the subway from Kew Gardens out to a government office in Jamaica, where the permit would be issued.   I had a map but got confused about the subway stop and in what direction I should walk to find the building, but I finally got there.  It was just a couple of days after Thanksgiving,  and I remember how cold it was with a sharp wind and spitting snow.  After I showed someone my birth certificate and job offer letter,  he or she handed me a stamped permit, and off I went, back on another train, which dropped me off at a subway stop just a few blocks from L&T.   After that experience, I felt like a true New Yorker. 


The two-day training program for temporary sales people like me was a bit overwhelming.  Learning how to operate the pneumatic tube that transported cash back and forth from the point of sale to the head office, and process a customer's personal check was new territory.  The only short-term jobs I'd ever had were during the summer when I worked as a long-distance telephone operator for New England Tel & Tel and waited on tables during the free continental breakfast at Perkins Motel.   Visa and Mastercards hadn't been invented yet, so processing a personal check at Lord and Taylor required scrutiny by several people other than myself.    I never got used to punching in and out on a time clock or having my purse examined by the security guard when I left the store each evening, but I took to selling men's accessories like a fish to water.    "Sir, may I show you some beautiful hand-made silk ties, some soft Italian leather gloves perhaps?  How about a high quality cashmere scarf?   That red color looks perfect on you."  

All the clientele who shopped at L&T were distinguished looking men and women who were very well dressed.  They wreaked of money.  Women decorated themselves lavishly with solid gold jewelry, not the thinly gold plated stuff I was used to, but I was always careful to be professional and extra friendly.  I worked hard not to appear awestruck or intimidated by their refined demeanor or their status in life or level of wealth.    Although I always considered myself pretty sophisticated for my age, now looking back, I'm really not so sure.  People I worked with took me for much older,  so I was often included in after-work parties at bars and lounges.   Even though I was only two months away from New York's legal drinking age of eighteen  I wasn't much interested in alcohol.  I just wanted to have a good time, and I did.    

My supervisor, Naomi, was a Black woman who worked her way up at L&T.   Despite my attempt at sophistication, she recognized my innocence and took me under her wing.   We had lunch almost every day in the store's cafeteria on the top floor.  We talked about life in New York, about my school project, and what I might do after I graduated.  The first time we had lunch, I checked out my immediate surroundings, and saw more Black people working in that cafeteria than I'd ever seen in one place in my life.  They were in the back cooking, up front serving, and out in the dining area wiping down tables and stacking dirty trays.   Other than Naomi, I didn't see any other Black people eating in the cafeteria.   

I grew up in a totally white environment.  There were no Black families in our small town and probably very few, if any, in our entire state.  There were no Black students at my boarding school in Maine, and only one Black girl at my college, and we referred to  her as Mulatto, since we thought she was of mixed race.  In those days we didn't call people Black, we called them Negros, and I didn't know at the time that the word Mulatto is considered a racist term.   Being the direct person that I am, I asked Naomi if all Black people working in the cafeteria were from the South because they had a different accent than she did.    I don't remember her answer, but I do recall we talked about the Civil Rights Movement a little bit, although she didn't give it that name.    I knew that six months earlier groups of Black people, called Freedom Riders, were attacked and injured by angry White mobs as they traveled through the South by bus.   It was a tough and complicated time in America's history,  and as naive young woman from a small state up North, I was trying hard to understand. 

Working on the sales floor at Lord and Taylor's was a learning experience I'll never forget, and I'm sure it helped me in my fundraising career later on.    Unlike actress Clare Danes in the movie Shopgirl, I didn't have a love experience with someone like her co-star Steve Martin, but I did sell a pair of gold cufflinks to Tony Perkins, whom I'd seen in the movie Psycho.   He saw from my identification tag that my last name was Perkins, so he said, "My last name is Perkins too.  Do you think we are related?"  Not knowing who he was, I explained that he and I were not related and that the only Perkinses I was related to were my parents and my brother and sister since my father changed his name from Pisperikos to Perkins when he emigrated to the United States from Greece and eventually met and married my Greek mother whose last name was Tegu but her family never changed their name to Thompson which might be equivalent to Perkins.   Definitely TMI (Too Much Information), but I was just being me and telling it like it was.   He was very nice,  thanked me for my help, and then, as he extended his hand to shake mine, he introduced himself as Tony.   It wasn't until after he left the store that I put his first name together with his last name and realized I had just waited on the famous movie star Tony Perkins.   Suddenly, I felt like such a dope.

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