Villager Expat

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

April 4, 2021

Grandpa Charley, which Foo are you?

 "Why would you want to live on Waverly Place? It's so old."

My realtor wouldn't be getting her commission. I'd found this apartment on my own. I had told her I liked downtown. I missed my quirky tenement apartment in Soho with the exposed brick and pipes, the view of backyard gardens and old houses, but construction drove me out and I ended up in Murray Hill for three years. It was the end of February when I moved there, to 38th Street. A monster wisteria vine in full bloom filled the picture window. It snaked up a tree in the townhouse garden across the way and was nearly as high as the house. But as time went on, life in my building turned into a co-ed dorm with thirty-somethings who didn't belong in Manhattan. Some say "You can do anything in New York." No, you can't. 

I escaped twice a day downtown to bookstores and my favorite restaurant, Caffe Pane e Cioccolato on Waverly Place. Across the street was a massive apartment building, no. 11. It would be convenient to live there but it too was filled students. I learned that the same landlord had a studio available in a West Village walkup a few blocks over and around the bend at Waverly and 10th Street, on a tree-lined lane catty-corner from a bookstore.

I'd always lived on streets with traffic. It felt safer at night, but the restaurants at the other two corners of this intersection meant late night foot traffic so it was safe. The super and his wife, a hip couple from another country dressed in leather jackets, showed it to me one evening at 5:00. Only a few short steps up, a half floor above the street, I entered an apartment that would be my home for the next ten years, a parlor studio dating back to the 1870s. There was a working fireplace that was pretty but I had to ask them to seal it off my first winter, and big windows on either end that faced Waverly Place at the front and a garden and townhouse out back.

Waverly Place parlor studio with sofabed. I moved 
the boxes and books behind me to take this picture.

I knew immediately it was the place for me, even though I had to downsize from four closets in my Murray Hill apartment to one. I had many exciting encounters there but I needed more space. I could no longer stand the mess I'd made with books and papers and clothes, plus two guitars and gear from a life in music I had to give up, and I moved. After years of working on my music, I was surprised when I stopped but I didn't have time to pursue all my interests.

In prior posts I've hinted at the Chinese gg-grandfather I discovered after a DNA test ("A Chinese divorce" and "Walking in their footsteps"). He married the sister of Minnie Kiersted of the infamous Chinese divorce case and most likely was a friend of her husband, Wong Sing Bow. Both Kiersted women were employed as seamstresses in laundries in Paterson when they met their future husbands, and double-dated in opium dens on Pell Street. Both were pregnant brides and for that reason I'm more interested in their husbands who made the extraordinary journey from China and showed up in my DNA, a surprising discovery. And while Minnie and Wong Sing Bow were married in Paterson where they lived, my gg-grandparents married in Manhattan. Their minister, the well-known John Q. Adams, an itinerant preacher, lived at 156 Waverly Place.

Charley Foo's marriage certificate, 1878

Located at the corner of Waverly and Waverly, a yellow brick road into my past, sits the three-story brick house where he had an apartment.

156 Waverly Place, at the
corner of Waverly and Waverly

156 Waverly Place

Only two short blocks from my old apartment, it's one of many places in New York where I've crossed paths with ancestors without realizing it. 

It's likely they were married at Berean Baptist Church where Rev. Adams was assigned that year.

Berean Baptist Church in 1890, 
at the corner of Bedford and Downing, demolished.
The congregation moved to the Judson Memorial Church
at Fifth Avenue and lower Washington Square in 1893.

But they divorced sometime before Bella's second marriage in 1897 and my family never talked about him. I suspected my grandfather was Chinese but my mother said no, he was English. This was after my father had died. Even he didn't know.

How did you get to New York, Charley Foo? I can't find your passenger or immigration records. If you arrived at Angel Island then your records were lost in a fire. The death of your infant son Frank was disappointing, but your daughter Lulu was born a year later and became my connection to you. She was in and out of foster care and she listed a foster father on her marriage certificate, not you. I wonder what happened. Divorce is a chronic event on my father's side of the family. Do you know that I'm looking for you? I wish my grandfather had said something.

Frank Carter, still single at 28, on a Brooklyn street,
Easter 1929

I've found some things about you, and despite the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882, I was happy to find a census from 1892 that showed you living with Bella and Lulu as a family in Williamsburg, Brooklyn. I also saw ads in the newspaper for your laundries in Newark.

Passaic Daily News, 1892

Why did you divorce? Did you gamble? Were you a trainer of fighting sparrows in Chinatown?

"Fight of Birds" 
courtesy of RAMÓN PORTUONDO 

"New York Sparrows Win"
New York Star, reprint: Kansas City Times
10 Apr 1886
Link to PDF

After the divorce, there were robberies at your stores. Maybe more crimes that weren't written about.

20 Oct 1899

It says you were murdered but you weren't murdered, and maybe Hop Sing was a relative of Sam Sing, the laundryman you called a leper. Another robbery was reported in 1905 and the perp kept coming back. So much turmoil!

18 Jan 1907

The Chinese laundries of Paterson organized a union in 1885. Did you become a leader? Were you the Charley Foo, Grand Master of the huge Chinese Masonic lodge who spoke at the funeral of Ching Sing in New Orleans, one of the wealthiest Celestials in the South?

"Chinese Mason Buried With Fantastic Rites"
The Times-Democrat (New Orleans), July 31, 1911
Link to PDF of full page article

"Chinese Masons Have Weird Funeral"
Southern Aegis (Ashville, AL)
6 Sep 1911, link to pdf

I found more articles about Charley Foos out West but they're turning out to be different people, not you. Did you marry again or move to another country in Central or South America, the Caribbean or Europe? I wish I knew what happened to you. I'm hoping that whatever pulled me to Waverly Place will guide me to energies of the past. Unorthodox and extraordinary measures and powers. Traces of you must be out there somewhere.

Contact: Debbie Carter, (212) 925-3721, VillagerExpat@aol.com

August 7, 2020

"A Chinese divorce": my 2nd great aunt's marriage to her wealthy Chinese husband and her influence

"Chinese Divorce Suit," The Mail (Stockton, CA) 24 Jun 1886, p.2

Years ago in a laundry shop in Paterson, when the city was a prosperous manufacturer of textiles and silk, young and pretty Minnie Kiersted stopped by weekly to drop off her employer's laundry. She caught the eye of Chinese owner Wang Sing Bow, better known as Charley Sing.

In reports of their divorce trial the papers called him "the most successful Chinaman in the City of Churches." On Sundays he dressed in a Prince Albert coat, high silk hat and patent-leather boots, and wore "a locomotive-headlight diamond."

In Minnie's testimony . . .

July 18, 2020

In 1923 in Asbury Park, my Brooklyn grandmother's acting career gets sidetracked by a man

Remember our midnight swim? Love, Ralph

"Did you have to send me that postcard?"

"I thought it was romantic."

"My mother saw it!"

"Don't worry. We're getting married. Everything's alright now." 

It was a moonlit night in April as they drove down Ocean Avenue in his Haynes touring car. Exhilarating! but the racket of spring peepers made it impossible to have a conversation. Her thoughts drifted to talks with her sister Evelyn.

He's a good catch, MariaUndertakers always make a living.

He's not an undertaker! He sells pianos and he's musically inclined.

He's in music for now but he'll take over his father's business someday and you'll live in a mansion. He's your ticket out of Brooklyn. You can't be an actress forever.

June 26, 2020

A stonecutter in the family: the Casper monuments business near Green-Wood Cemetery

G Casper Monumental Work,Lettering Jobbing Etc., 24th n. 4th av, Brooklyn, ca. 1880
Photo ©Cathy Tipton, all rights reserved. Used by permission.

He came from Germany in 1846 when he was 20 and made headstones for a living. His monuments mark the resting places of families in Green-Wood Cemetery with love and respect, and commemorate their lives forever.

How did he become a stonecutter? . . .

June 19, 2020

Walking in their footsteps: my relatives from Brooklyn, known and unknown

Bond trader Frank Carter on Wall Street in the 1940s
He didn't like to talk about his childhood in Brooklyn. As the first in the family to work on Wall Street in the corporate world, clients and peers in his day made assumptions about you by your ethnic background. He was proud of being from Brooklyn. Flatbush was nice then, but his father, a bookbinder, deserted his mother and him by the time he was 13 and my grandfather had to go to work, first part-time as a bellhop in a hotel, then full time after his first year of high school. A serious person and a reader like his mother, he wanted a better life. But at 16, at the start of WWI, a wave of patriotism was sweeping the city. He tried to sign up for the draft by lying about his age but was sent home when his mother showed up. He was the breadwinner in the family. He couldn't go. Back at work, he befriended the Wall Street businessmen who passed through the hotel, found a mentor, and eventually became a bond trader with his own firm at 111 Broadway. Unlike his father, who divorced and remarried twice more, he was a a rock. After familial setbacks, and seeing what could be lost in stock market crashes and wars, . . .

June 12, 2020

From my mother's manuscripts: a 1940's childhood worshipping a teenage aunt, longing for happier days at Lake Hopatcong

Doris at Lake Hopatcong
I was playing across town at Millie's house, where I had followed my aunt Doris. They were playing at the piano with two other teenage girls when all of a sudden they said, "Bobbie, you have to go home. You can't play here anymore."

I wanted to be with Doris constantly. She was sixteen and I was eight, and while she was my dad's younger sister, we had grown up like sisters next door to each other.

I followed Doris and her friends to school. I acted older, copied the way she dressed. It was more exciting to be with them than with third graders. To watch Doris dress for a date was a thrilling experience, like watching a movie star prepare for the cameras. I helped her put on her makeup but the climax was the anointing with perfume. Carefully holding the pink cut-glass bottle in one hand, she adroitly squished the satin-covered rubber ball with the other--squish, squish, squish. Apple Blossom. Soon her small corner bedroom became more heady than the apple orchards across from the fairgrounds. We couldn't breathe, and ran gasping from the room. Doris only laughed. "Well, that'll last through the movie." Especially at the Palace when the famers came to town on Saturday nights. "That's why it's called the horse-opera, Bobbie."

"Why do I have to go home?" I had asked the girls. . . .

April 7, 2020

Indulging in Ancestry while staying at home: the great-grandmother who left England and put me in the U.S.

"Why did she come here?" I asked.

"She had a fight with her boyfriend," my grandmother said. I had asked about her mother who immigrated to the United States from England. I was in love with England. It was 1964 and I'd just seen Mary Poppins. When my mother told me we were English, I was eager to know more about the woman whose picture was on my grandmother's mantel.

"She was a governess," Grandma said. I was filled with visions of a great-grandmother who was like Mary Poppins and had a boyfriend as handsome as Dick Van Dyke and thought why oh why did she come here only to marry a fireman, have six kids, and live in a small house in New Jersey?

"The English can be mean" was the explanation she gave me, and her cautionary words come back to me whenever I feel myself falling for an English accent or a man in a suit from Savile Row. But they sound like words Beatrice could have said herself. She never went back to England, even to visit relatives.

At a time when many of us are living under stay-at-home orders, I've been on Ancestry everyday marveling at the powerful search engine that instantaneously finds ancestors and official documents about Beatrice.

She came here in 1905 on the Caronia, . . .

March 6, 2020

Mount Adams, painted by my mother in the 1950s when she lived in Cincinnati

Mount Adams, ca. 1956, by Barbara Carter
casein on board, 15 in. x 20 in.
Followers of the FB page "Greater Cincinnati History Group" have posted 123 likes so far to my mother's picture of Mount Adams. Painted in 1956, my dad had just completed his two years in the service at Fort Bragg, NC, and accepted a spot in GE's management training program. 

My parents lived in an apartment in Glen Meadows. It was two years since my mother had graduated Carnegie Tech's College of Art and  would be two years before she became a mother. 

No pictures on the wall? My parents
must have just moved in
Free from the distractions of caring for a family, she worked as an artist at Gibson Greeting Card then quit when they didn't give her anything to do, then worked at a glass company where she designed etchings for drinking glasses. She felt frustrated by the workplace after the serious training of Carnegie Tech's fine arts department and gave up on commercial art, but she didn't stop seeing as one, and was inspired by the Mount Adams landscape to render this picture. I hope to find a permanent public space for it in Cincinnati. The enthusiasm of the Facebook group has been heartwarming.

I'd also like to donate the glasses she designed but I don't know the name of the glass company. Someone suggested Sterling Cut Glass and I've sent them a message but I see other glassware companies on Google that could have been part of Cincinnati's Art Hill in the 50s.  Here's my photo of three glasses. They aren't overtly commercial as the etched glasses they're making today but instead illustrate hobbies and businesses in Cincinnati at that time. 
Barbara Carter original illustrations for a Cincinnati glassware company

Contact: Debbie Carter, VillagerExpat@aol.com, (212) 925-3721

February 27, 2020

Lost artwork: a search to recover my mother's missing paintings

50th Street snow scene, 1986
by Barbara Carter
Here is a watercolor of a 50th Street snow scene my mother painted from her apartment window on Beekman Place. It's part of her series "Midtown Merchants" which is featured in this week's East Midtown Partnership newsletter. Here is a link to the Midtown Merchant Series on Flickr; a movie appears below.

While this blog began with a search for an apartment in Greenwich Village after I made the mistake of moving away, the need to fix this has evolved into other subplots about what's missing in my life. An even deeper desire to find a permanent home for my mother's artwork has led to a search for missing paintings that were lost in moves. In the mid 80s my father sold their house in Lloyd Harbor, Long Island during real estate boom to buy a company in Palmer, Massachusetts, because he was tired of working for other people. Ten years later they moved again to retire in NYC. My parents thought the city's art museums and restaurants would make New York the perfect place to retire, but a noisy apartment drove them out and they moved back to the tranquility of Lloyd Harbor, Long Island, where my dad could indulge his hobby of caring for a lawn and my mother could paint and garden.

January 12, 2020

A Soho moment

Soho, NYC
Soho mesmerizes me. I slow down from my usual fast-paced self, thinking about other things, paying no attention to what's happening around me to stroll and look, really look, through the big gleaming store windows at the nicest clothes, shoes and handbags in the world. Shoppers decked out in leather and spikey heels glide across the lumpy Belgian block streets like there's nothing to it. I look up and admire the cast-iron buildings. It's not cool to look up at buildings in New York but no one's paying attention to me. It's like floating through a lovely dream. I think I would be happy living there again. 

But I'm stuck in a lease in Midtown. It's been almost a year and and it went by quickly and as much as I'd like to get out of here my hair stylist, the voice of reason in my life, said the next year will go by quickly too; stick it out, it would cost too much money to move. 

November 24, 2019

Lingering at the Waverly Diner for its art of the past

Going to diners became a habit when I moved to New York. The urge to get out of my apartment strikes as soon as I wake up, as much to escape a small space as a craving for that first cup of coffee. I don't like Starbucks. I always pick a Greek diner with windows.

Waverly Diner, looking north to the Jefferson Market Library

The Waverly Diner sits on a corner, and from a table on the raised platform I can look out at Sixth Avenue and down Waverly Place towards the park. A few weeks ago I sat by the window and saw Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez come up the subway steps with someone, looking lost. They turned every which way then took off down Sixth Avenue.

October 16, 2019

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

As I walk past psychic storefronts in the Village I'm tempted to go in and make an appointment but I'm wary. I want to talk to my mother again, and things that happened around her passing have made me seek her out. She wrote a story about the day she found her Grandma Annie with a gypsy and that no one would believe her when she ran home to tell. Was this story true? I made a trip to my mother's hometown this week to look for traces.

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 . . .

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

Photo courtesy of Jeff Springsteen,
used by permission

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 long 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.