Villager Expat

Two years ago I moved away from Greenwich Village. Now I'm trying to move back.

October 16, 2019

Psychics and gypsies: a shared fascination by the women in my family

As I walk past psychic storefronts and kiosks in the Village I'm tempted to stop in and make an appointment. Things that happened around my mother's passing have made me curious to seek out more. 

Recently an exotic young woman sitting in an old lawn chair on a sidewalk on Houston Street waved me toward her but I kept walking. A few years ago I'd had palm read by a sidewalk fortune teller on 38th Street. I wasn't expecting much but I thought it would be fun. She said, "I won't tell you anything bad," which was good, and "You will have three kids," which didn't happen, but I don't believe anyone can tell the future. I want to talk to my mother again, but are there reputable psychics? Those in the Village who were convicted of bilking their clients are still in business so I'm wary. It happened to my great-grandmother, as told in a story by my mother. 

Annie's Gypsy
by Barbara Carter

On my way home from kindergarten I would always cut through Annie's backyard. The chickadees were at the pedestal birdbath in her garden of rosebushes of all colors and kinds, and two huge blue willows bowed over the goldfish pond where I would play. In the center of the yard was a bright silver gazing ball. When I walked around and around it, a miniature world was created reflecting all the garden's splendor. Everyday I would stop in to see Annie on my way home from school. Her house sat on the corner of our street next door to mine.

Bobbie, in front, and her aunt Doris
who was eight years older in 

front of the goldfish pond
On this day when I tried to open the screen door it was locked and Annie didn't answer my call. I ran around the side of the house and up the back porch steps and found the door to the kitchen locked too. Why had she locked all the doors? Then I remembered and ran down the steps to the basement door; it was unlocked. I looked down into the dark cellar and two bright yellow eyes stared back at me from the old stuffed owl; a neighbor had shot it from Grandpa Snyder's black cherry tree then had it stuffed 'for the fun of it.' The owl's eyes followed me up the curved stairwell to the first floor and I came out into the hall. The house was so quiet. No one was in the kitchen as I walked through the dining room with its cut glass chandelier and doily-like tablecloth Annie had made. Doris was still at school because her books weren't stacked on the table. I kept wondering where Annie was. I called out again. There was no answer. 

The Gypsy
illustration by Barbara Carter
Ahead through the foyer, wallpapered in a jungle pattern of silver and blue ferns, was Grandma, sitting on the cream velvet settee by the front door with her back to the sunny windows. A strange, large woman was seated beside her, and very close. Her skin was the darkest I'd ever seen, and when I saw that large black mole on her face, my hand went instinctively to my mouth and I began sucking my two favorite fingers. She was the ugliest person I had ever seen.

Grandma didn't say anything. She was looking off into space with a delicate serene look on her face. The stranger beside her was wearing a bright red blouse and a long, full striped skirt with yellow sandals poking out; one foot poked the black pottery cat that sat by the front door.  

The stranger's coarse face looked more like a man's. Her thick head of black hair was stuffed under a bright green scarf and gold earrings dangled from long earlobes. Her large hooked nose jutted out, and from under heavy black eyebrows two piercing black eyes squinted back sharply at me. The big flat black mole, the size of a quarter, to the side of her mouth began to twitch.

Cautiously her heavy dark arm, wrapped in gold and silver bracelets, slid out from under her purple shawl and her hand fell on top of Grandma's very white one, caressing the sapphire diamond ring. The thing whispered something to Grandma who slowly turned her head to gaze at me through her silver-framed glasses. Again the stranger whispered and all at once Grandma looked right at me and said, "Bobbie, I have company now. You'll have to go home. You can't stay."

Grandma had never told me to go home before, unless I had been tiring her out by playing the piano too long. The stranger moved her jowled head up and down once and I backed away into the hallway. As soon as I could get out of Grandma's house, I would run home and tell Mom.

I ran up the back walk to our house but Mom wouldn't listen to me. "Don't come home with stories like that anymore. Annie is probably just tired and doesn't want you bothering her." I told her that the stranger looked just like Little Black Sambo's mother but not as nice.

"I can't go barging in down there. Annie wold think I was being nosy."

Later that afternoon everyone said to Mom, "Why didn't you listen to Bobbie? Didn't you think that something strange was happening?" 

The neighbors were coming into Annie's backyard; they had seen the police car in her driveway. In the reflection of the garden's silver ball the whole world was becoming a wild, distorted panorama. People pushed aside flowers and became monstrous shapes. Doc Abbott and Kate came around from the front, cutting across Grandma and Grandpa Snyder's backyard and stepping about the croquet hoops. Cliff was across the street weighing his truck on the coal scales in the alley by Jerry's store. He phoned Ruth to say something was going on at Annie's place. Then Ruth phoned Beth. Soon Beth's Nash pulled into our driveway.

Mom confided to Beth, "I was so embarrassed to be caught in this old house dress. When that state trooper knocked on the back door, he could see me though the screen. He was so good-looking, I could have died. Right in the middle of supper and the kitchen all a mess. I pushed Bob outside to talk with him. After all, she saw that creature." Beth laughed relief. At first she thought someone had been murdered. "Th-this was b-bound to happen sooner or later. Annie always wa-wanting to visit those w-weird fortune tellers. She found a good one this time. She must have told her how young and pretty she looked. Th-that's all she really wanted to hear."

Annie and Oscar
When Grandpa Oscar came home from work he found Annie walking in circles, round and round, clutching a little blue book to her breast. She began a dismal, moaning chant, "She stole my money. She stole my money." Later at the kitchen table she pointed to the numbers under withdrawal in the little blue book. "Why'd you do it, Annie?" and she said, "I don't know. I can't remember. She made me do it." This was the story Oscar told to the police.

The trooper in his uniform, like a mounted police, only in gray with black boots, followed Oscar and me through the house trying to recreate the theft, searching for clues and any tell-tale sign the gypsy might have left behind. By this time, the townspeople had given the stranger a name, "the gypsy." The stairway down to the basement proved "fruitful" as the trooper reported. A distinct, dark fingerprint stood out clearly on the yellow overhead riser above the stairwell. She must have grabbed onto it for support because there was no railing. The trooper was pleased because he didn't have to bother dusting the print to get a clear look at it. He surmised that the house must have undergone a thorough search and when no money was found, the gypsy hypnotized Annie, drove her uptown to the lower bank and forced her into withdrawing all that money. The gypsy remained outside in the car waiting because no one in the bank had seen her. 

Nellie and Pris Lodge, the two sisters who were tellers, would certainly have remembered the brightly clad character if she had been there standing beside Annie in front of the cages. But no, Annie was alone. They were both adamant about that. "She did act a little peculiar, though," Pris told the police. Nellie agreed, as she always did. Since their parents died and left them the small white house, the two spinster sisters continued to lead their lives in a small way. The only time they were seen uptown was in the morning when they went to work and in the late afternoon when they left the bank, clutching identical black purses under their arms and on rainy days sharing a large black umbrella. But as Cliff, a neighbor up back, said they were really two strong old birds, the way they told their story matter-of-factly to the police. Ruth said that the only thing that upset them was that they didn't get their names in the paper.

Annie clipped the article and pasted it in the black scrapbook, along with the family photos, which is kept in her glass bookcase. 

My cousins and many of the townspeople respected my participation in this event. From then on, I was always chosen to play the gypsy in school plays, backyard carnivals and on Halloween. Dressed in a riot of bright clothing from the attic and covered my aunt's costume jewelry, I looked into the crystal ball from Annie's backyard garden and was so authentic that many saw me only as the gypsy and were scared.

This event, however, did not deter Annie's interest in fortune-telling. On Saturday nights at Lake Hopatcong she always drove with us to the amusement park at the far end of the lake, and while we were on the merry-go-round or the roller coaster, she managed to slip away into the fortune teller's tent. Perhaps she was still looking for her gypsy.

The End

Somehow Annie's clipping got lost a long time ago; my mother didn't have it when she wrote her story, but I had to find that clipping. After a few attempts to track it down digitally, I made a trip to the library in my mother's hometown, coincidentally on her birthday, to search through microfilm of the Hunterdon County Democrat. That my mother was in kindergarten when this happened helped narrow the search, and after a couple hours of looking at fuzzy images of small write-ups on police activity I didn't think I'd find it. Then bam! "I found it!" The librarians in the reference room cheered and came running over to look at the old microfilm machine. There it was on the front page, and a whole column: Police Handicapped in Hunt for Gypsy of Local Swindle / Teletype Alarm Spread For Palmist Who Took $1400 From Flemington Lady / Promised to Work Black Art. My need-to-know now satisfied, I'm grateful to librarians Judith, Karen and Cortney for their guidance. There's nothing like the people in a small town.

Hunterdon County Democrat, April 28, 1928
click to open as PDF in new window
click to open as PDF in new window

October 1, 2019

My tenement apartment in Soho, and how air rights have changed the neighborhood

The view from across the street, 
my former tenement building (Google Maps screenshot)
I wasn't getting my hopes up. I'd seen an apartment in this building three years ago. It was on a high floor and overlooked the small park and tenements with antique stores where I lived 17 years ago. But the home of an old woman who used to emerge from the front door of the house to go sit on the benches with the Italians in the park has been torn down, and a glass tower twice as high as the tenement buildings has taken its place.

September 11, 2019

Veterans Fishing Station, a/k/a The Clam Bar, Cold Spring Harbor

Do you remember those days hanging out at the Village Green?
Engineer boots, leather jackets and tight blue jeans
--Billy Joel,
"Scenes From an Italian Restaurant"

Last week I had the pleasure of seeing two lithos of my mother's at the financial services firm Deloitte U.S. in Rockefeller Center (below). One is an image of the Veterans Fishing Station in Cold Spring Harbor, a/k/a The Clam Bar, next to the Village Green that Billy Joel sings about. The Whalers Inn across the street is now the Harbor Mist restaurant. Many thanks to Huntington town historian Robert C. Hughes for identifying the site and to Jeff Springsteen for sharing the photo of his friends from 1978-79 ("I Grew Up in Cold Spring Harbor" Facebook page).

September 1, 2019

Small talk with friends in New York restaurants

On this Labor Day my friends from the Chinese restaurant Charlie Mom are on my mind. It was my Cheers, I made small talk with the waiters, mostly about my never-ending apartment hunt. For the apartment upstairs, David told me, they were asking $4,000 a month for a thousand square feet. "They remodeled it." After a pregnant pause in which we both imagined how nice it could be--a Greenwich Village apartment that used to be a house in the 1800s, the brick walls, original wood floors, lots of windows--we agreed that the rent was ridiculous and anyone would be crazy to pay it. "Rent is money thrown away." And the rents in Greenwich Village were over the top.

August 3, 2019

Celebrating John Sloan's birthday around the world

A Woman's Work, 1912,
Cleveland Museum of Art

What images come to mind when you think of John Sloan? For many women from as far away as Spain, Turkey and Iceland who remembered his birthday on Twitter yesterday, it's his paintings of women hanging laundry.

Sloan painted these scenes from his apartment windows in Greenwich Village and, later, Chelsea. In his time, clotheslines were ubiquitous in immigrant neighborhoods (for  photos see "A Fine Line: The Art of the Clothesline" on MCNY Blog: New York Stories).

May 12, 2019

Ladies who lunch: remembering my mother on Mother's Day

Are you a lady who enjoys the ritual of lunching out?

I am! When I was around five my mother invited me out for our first lunch together, a special trip to Kaufmann's department store in Monroeville, PA. It was a Saturday, and we spent all morning getting ready . . . 

April 17, 2019

Making my way back to Greenwich Village

Are you stuck with your lease, wishing you lived somewhere else? I made a mistake. I left Greenwich Village. Tempted by larger apartments and lower rents in other neighborhoods, I left. But once you've lived in the Village, you'll miss it.

I'm trying to get back. I signed a lease for a one-bedroom in Midtown . . . 

November 12, 2018

Exploring opportunities in digital and other media. No longer representing writers or accepting submissions.

Waverly Place Literary Agency has closed. If you're looking for an agent, I recommend looking at writers' conferences' websites for participating agents. 

Writer's Digest held a conference in NYC August 22-25, 2019