Monday, December 24, 2007

December 12, 1931

This is Velma's posting from December 12, 1931 given to you on Christmas as per her request. I can see why she feels this is fitting. Happy Holidays to all who read.

Needing a break from my grueling final's preparation, I decided to do some Christmas shopping for my family. Now that I am earning a side income, I feel obliged to repay those who have shown me kindness and love in the past.I also had it in my mind to find little gifts for Dottie and Sarah even though Hanukkah ended for her two days ago. Both have helped to make New York City feel a bit more like home for me during these past three months.

I have heard Abby say that the only places worth shopping in New York are either Bergdorf Goodman or Saks Fifth Avenue. I'm sure I can afford neither, but I thought it would be fun just to take a trip downtown by myself and see what treasures I could find. So I rode the IRT downtown to 50th street and walked across to Fifth Avenue. I was told that both stores were within walking distance of each other, Saks Fifth Avenue being on 49th street and Bergdorff Goodman's being on 58th street. Once I reached Fifth Avenue, I noticed the towering Sak's which stood with its rigid canopies and faux columns like a giant gift box under St. Patrick's Cathedral. What grand sights to see standing next to one another. When I walked through the doors, I was amazed by what was on the other side. Like Alice stepping into Wonderland, I was in another world, one that was completely unknown to me. The smells of perfumes and powders immediately caught my nose, as my eyes spied these giant trees that wrapped up the columns of this marvelous room. There were white lights wrapped around every branch which made the store look positively magical.

Wandering around, I noticed that many people where looking, but not buying much. I have heard that since the Depression is taking its toll on all classes, people are less concerned with gifts and more concerned with putting food on their table. Walking through the women's department I saw a rainbow of cashmere scarves lied out on a mahogany table. I just loved the look of them and decided that I would purchase one for Dottie and one for Sarah, and green since all three of us love the color green. My mother's favorite color is blue, so I picked a blue one for her. Then I went and bought simple pins that suited the personalities of each of the women. A diamond shape for Dottie because she is a diamond in the rough, a locket pin for Sarah so she could put a small photograph in there. My mother would a receive a horse pin for when she goes to the races.

I went upstairs to the men's section and decided on silk neck ties for my brother and father. Although the event, rarely presents itself that they would wear them, I thought it would be nice for them to have for holidays and special occasions. When I brought my purchases up to the cashier who, I think, was amazed to see a girl of my age with such expensive tastes. When he rang the total, which I shall not record here, he asked if I was interested in opening a charge account at the store. I told him that would not be necessary. He then asked if I wanted the items gift wrapped and I said, of course. He packaged them and told me to take them to the gift wrapping room on the fifth floor. I did so. I choose different wrappings for each of the the people I was giving, which made the young woman behind the counter less than happy.

When I was through I exited out to Fifth Avenue and saw the most peculiar thing. Directly across the street from the store were heaping mounds of earth behind make-shift fences. There were dump trucks and bulldozers all standing dormant. A sign on the fence read, "FUTURE SITE OF THE JOHN D. ROCKEFELLER CENTER." It went on to say that it was going to be a complex of fourteen commercial buildings. I found the optimism of the sign and the size of the lot odd considering most development has been halted due to the Depression. The stranger sight was a line of men waiting beneath a 30-foot pine tree. It was wrapped haphazardly with garland, as if decorated for Christmas. At first I thought it was another breadline. But then I realized the men were being handed slips of paper. Most likely paychecks by the looks of their faces. Seeing as they had lunch pails and hard hats, I presumed they were being paid for their labor. I can only assume that the Christmas tree was erected in celebration of the work which is so scarce. The Christmas of 1931 would, perhaps, be the best for them. One they would never forget.

I wanted to run and tell Sarah to photograph the picture because I doubt there would be a sight like it again. It was an obvious impossibility so I walked up Fifth Avenue content to keep the image and feeling in my heart.

Thursday, December 20, 2007



NOTE: On Monday night I found two Christmas cards in my mailbox both with my name and address on them and both with Velma’s handwriting. I opened each. They were from Velma but, I assumed one of them was not meant for me.

VELMA: Hallo!

JUSTIN: Hi Velma, it’s Justin.

V: Hey there sweetheart. How are ya?

J: Great… Look I was calling because of your Christmas cards.

V: Oh did you get it?

J: I did and—

V: —I got yours. That pig is cute (my Christmas card had Olivia on it) and the note was very nice.

J: Thanks. As for yours, I got two from you.

V: Two? I didn’t send you two.

J: I’m not exactly sure if the other one was meant for me.

V: Wait a minute, did you get the card about the office and no one doing work.

J: Yeah, I got that one.

V: What did the other one say?

J: Something about unwrapping me under the Christmas tree.

V: Shit! Yeah that wasn’t meant for you. I wasn’t getting’ fresh with ya or anything. (She starts laughing)

J: Although I was flattered, I figured as much.

V: Well when you reach 91 sometimes your ducks get outta their rows.

J: Would you like me to send it back to you?

V: Nah, keep it. I’ll send another one off to the intended party.

J: I won’t ask who the intended party is.

V: Good, cause I ain’t tellin’. We gotta keep some things sacred right, kid?

J: As much as possible.

V: But you did get my note about the entry to your readers?

J: I did, and I’m working on it as we speak.

V: Cause you’re not done with ’31 yet are you?

J: No.

V: God bless your delicate constitution.

J: God bless all of us.

V: Right. Ok. Look if I don’t talk to you, have a merry merry and sorry about the mix up.

J: You too. Not a problem

V: Bye now.

So I’ve attached Velma’s cards with this posting for your viewing pleasure and the next entry will jump to December 12, 1931 as per Velma’s request. I will then go back to finish October and November. Enjoy.

Thanks to Courtney Zell for scanning the cards.

Monday, December 17, 2007

October 20, 1931


I was at a formal garden party. I was dressed well. In white. I walked into a large white tent full of people who did not know me. They were sitting at tables donned with crisp white linen table clothes and large floral centerpieces. I took special note of this, and I have no idea why. A woman with dark hair was following me and I remember having the feeling that I was in danger. A faceless man stopped her from pursuing me. I woke up short of breath.

I feel back asleep.

Then I found myself on a river bank. The river was very wide and the bank was marshy. I remember looking into the water and seeing my reflection. I woke to the morning.

I marched into Dutch class today and told Loockersmans that I would accept his post. He said that he sensed a new found air of confidence in me. I thanked him and sat at my desk a little relieved that the decision was made. I guess I have a new found talent of hiding my true feelings because I'm still nervous about the whole affair. After class he told me to report to his academic office in one week's time for my first assignment.

Friday, December 14, 2007

October 19, 1931

I have been sleeping restlessly for the past few nights, which is not typical. In Saratoga I would sleep straight through the night, or the through the world ending as mother would say.

I feel as though I am having a string of nonsensical dreams that when I wake, I cannot even begin to recall. They are so erratic. I think I am going to start writing down these images as they come to me. Perhaps they are pieces to a larger puzzle. More likely, they are the product of an anxious mind. Regardless, My thoughts are out of sorts and it must be tied up in this post that was offered to me by Professor Loockersmans. Tomorrow is the day I'm supposed to accept or decline the offer and I still have not made a firm decision either way. Part of me feels I need to break out and do it and another wants to run in the other direction.

Sarah's consul on the matter was clear. She said I have no reason not to try. If I don't feel comfortable I could just resign instead of living with the regret of never having tried. She also said that Loockersmans is doing this as a service to a student that ,he feels, has promise. She said she's heard of these kinds of things happening before. As she was wise to remind me: "It's one of the reason we go to Barnard."

Tuesday, December 11, 2007

October 16, 1931

Dinner last night was the grandest time I’ve had in a good while. Sarah and I did walk east to the elevated Second Avenue line. The train itself was much like any other except higher in the air and more rickety. It stopped quite a bit and there was a great deal of rocking back and forth. This was all offset by a symphony of banging and clanging. It didn’t much seem to bother any one else, but at one point I did feel a little sick in my stomach.

Once we arrived downtown at a stop called Grand Street, we stepped off the train into a patchwork of tenements and brownstones. I’ve never seen streets so packed with people. From the languages I heard there was German, Yiddish, Italian, and even a little Spanish being flung through the air. The sidewalks were almost four or five people deep on both sides of the street. On the curbs were pushcarts full of wares being peddled. Meats, cheeses, and even barrels of pickled vegetables lined the streets. Sarah directed me toward Madison Street and we came upon the Schimberg Family Kosher Deli. The golden letters on the window were written in both English and Hebrew characters. When we walked in Sarah’s father, Ira, boisterously greeted us. He instantly hugged me and said he was so happy to meet me. It was a warm gesture even though his embrace had a smell of cured meats to it.

He promptly closed the deli and the three of us walked up a backset of stairs to the Schimberg’s apartment. I’m beginning to think that all of New York is a series of back staircases. The apartment was small and cluttered. There were piles of books strewn about in all corners. Apparently Mr. Schimberg is an avid reader. I instantly could smell something like a roast cooking on the stove.

“I made a brisket,” Mr. Schimberg said.

“Ewww brisket, pop. You went all out huh?” Sarah said.

“I figured what better way to introduce the Jews to a girl from Saratoga.” He laughed. I wasn’t sure how to respond.

“It smells delicious.” I said.

“Well it should. I’ve been cooking it for five hours.” He laughed again. It seemed that all his statements were punctuated with laughter. It put me at ease immediately.

Dinner was dressed with boiled potatoes and cole slaw. We stuffed ourselves while we discussed everything from horse racing to the Depression. Mr. Schimberg is a very educated man. He was telling me that his father came to New York from Germany in the 1870’s. He started his business out of a pushcart on Essex Street selling pickles and whatever meats he could get off the boats on South Street. From there his business grew and in 1909 he finally saved enough to buy the building that we were sitting in.

“That’s why I’ve been able to fair through this damn Depression. I didn’t have a bank breathing down my neck. My other tenants are giving me whatever they can. And who doesn’t need a good deli, right?”

Sarah offered, “And what about banks, pop?”

“Please, don’t get me started. They’re all a bunch of crooks, even before this crash. Never went to one. Never will. Why am I goin’ to let some grimy suit take my money when I can keep it here.”

“Pop keeps his entire life savings in his father’s old pickle barrels.”

“So when that house of cards fell, I was none the wiser,” he laughed.

After dinner, Sarah brought me to her room where she showed me photographs of her mother. It was then that she told me her mother died of stomach cancer when she was four years old. Sarah’s grandfather was a professional portrait photographer, which is why she had so many photographs of her. She confided in me that she wanted to become a photographer herself, even though her father was sending her to Barnard to be a teacher. She saved up some of the money she made in the deli to buy herself a camera. Under her bed she pulled a box of photos she’s taken and developed herself. Most of them were of her surrounding neighborhood and the people in it. Although I know nothing of photography she has a wonderful eye for people in natural situations.

I regretted having to leave but it was getting late and I had an early class. Mr. Schimberg was gracious enough to put me in a taxicab back to campus. What lovely people they were. So happy to have found them.

Monday, December 10, 2007

October 15, 1931

Tonight I go to dinner at Sarah’s home on Madison Street. She says it might serve us well to walk to the elevated line on the east side. She said she's a walker and doesn't mind hiking going across town. I said that I didn't either. I haven’t been out east yet. By the way she speaks, Sarah makes this Lower East Side to seem almost magical. I can hardly wait to see it. She also informed me that her father is a very jovial man and likes to kid around with all of her friends. Apparently she has an extensive network of neighborhood comrades. She said that she had a feeling that a sense of humor might scare me since I don't seem to have one. She laughed out loud when she said it, but I think she's right. I might be much too serious for my own good. I think I need to laugh more. I wonder if there's a way to work on that. Perhaps a book of jokes will help. Perhaps I'm hopeless. No one laughed in the Graydon household. We were workers. We barely spoke at dinner. Mother liked things quiet around the house.

Speaking of mothers, I have noticed that there has been no mention of Sarah’s mother. She has never brought her up in conversation and I have not had the courage to ask. I can only hope that it is the best of all possible situations. I'm not completely sure what I mean by that.

Regardless, I am excited for a new neighborhood and a ride on public transportation. It will be a refreshing change from bakery speakeasies and menacing Dutch professors. All which have been weighing heavy on my mind lately.

Wednesday, December 5, 2007

October 14, 1931

I went back to the speakeasy last night for my meeting with Professor Loockersmans. It was a a bit of a humbling experience to ask Dottie if she would accompany me. When I asked she simply looked at me and said, "You wanna go back? On a Tuesday night?" I told her that it was for purely academic reasons. She laughed and said she would gladly bring me there. I'm not quite sure but the idea of her going with me, comforted me. I thought that if anything were to go wrong, Dottie wouldn't hesitate to jump in and protect me. It was most likely an irrational thought.

Much proceeded as it did the last time I went to the Bakery. The secret codes, the dark alley, Mick and Rick or Rick and Mick. I did not don the trench. When I arrived inside Dottie headed for the bar and engaged the bartender, Fox in conversation. She came over to me standing sheepishly in the corner. "Fox says Look is sending someone down to bring you to his office." She looked at me and winked. My heart sank. I realized she thought I was going to engage in some indiscretion with my professor. "Dottie, it's nothing like that?"

She smiled, "Sure alright. There's nothin' wrong with workin' for your grades." She nudged me on the shoulder. "Girls do it all the time."

"How disgusting," I gasped.

Dottie ran over to Fox and ordered two whiskies. She brought one over to me. "Look, this time, not so fast, unless you think can handle it."

I hesitated and then in one breath thought it might just help me relax since my nerves had been getting the best of me for the past week. I took a small sip. The burning sensation was indescribable. I gagged a little. Then I took another sip. It wasn't so bad. Neither was the third sip.

"Thatta girl," Dottie was almost proud. She took a large sip of hers. "You know Abby is having it off with her literature professor." I nearly choked. "No one's suppose to know. So that's between you and me. Got it?"

"Yes of course," I said smiling a little bit on the inside. Dottie confided in me and Abby was not the perfect girl she tried so hard to be.

"Girl's got no self-esteem. I don't get rich dames."

"You two seem to be very close." I said now feeling comfortable to say it.

Dottie grimaced, "Nah. She was using me for booze. Howie had a connection to get some bottles onto campus. She wanted them for entertainin' her other society dames. Not my scene. Once she got the hooch, she booked."

"She went home with you though," I said.

"No. She couldn't handle Brooklyn. Ma says those girls have broomsticks up their asses. You think I'm refined, you should see ma."

In the middle of our conversation Mick or Rick came up to me. "Hiya Velma, Mr. Look is ready to see you." It really bothered me that I was not able to distinguish between the two of them.

I downed the rest of my whisky. "Good luck," Dottie said.

I handed her my glass, "Thanks." I followed Mick/Rick to the back of the room where a black curtain was pulled back to reveal a black door. It was opened from the inside. We walked in and down a hallway lit by gaslamps, which I found strange. We stopped at the end of the hall. "Mr. Look. I got Velma here."

The door again opened from the inside. Professor Lockersmanns was sitting behind a huge mahogany desk in a room stacked high of books and ancient maps. He stood up. "Rick, be gracious and refer to her as Ms. Graydon."

"Sorry, Ms. Graydon." Rick said.

"I don't mind using Velma." I said nervously.

"Thank you, Rick, you can go. Wait outside until we're done." He left and the door was closed by Harold who was standing behind it. "You remember Harold?" Loockersmans asked. "Have a seat, please." He motioned to one of the chairs opposite his desk.

"Yes, hello Harold." I sat.

"Hello," He said standing in the corner.

Loockersmans sat. "I'll make this brief, Ms. Graydon. I'd like to offer you a job. A way for you to make not only a side-income but also contacts that could help you in the future."

I squirmed in my seat. "What type of job?"

He smiled, "I need you to be a messenger for me. But not just any ordinary messenger. You will be delivering top secret transmissions to different members of one of the oldest societies in this city. It is a job that will require you to be alert, focused, and most importantly, to be fluent in many languages."

"But I'm not," I blurted.

"But you are and you will be. I've seen your records. I've searched far and wide for you, Ms. Graydon." There was a pause and I really had no idea what to think of that statement. "Who do you think it is who approved your scholarship? Who do you think it is who placed you in Dutch when German was closed?" My throat felt like it was closing up. I couldn't swallow. "Don't look so frightened you are a student of the utmost promise. You don't realize how important this job I am asking you to do is."

I felt Harold staring into the back of my head while Loockersmans grinned his way through his offer. "What do I have to do?" I scraped from the back of my throat.

"Do you accept?"

"Do I have a choice?"

He smiled wider. "Of course you do. You are not obligated to this. Although If I were you I would view it as an honor and a privilege, it does not affect the status of your scholarship."

I wanted to say no right at the moment. But there was something greater in me that hesitated to say anything. "I honestly do not know what to say, Professor."

"Why don't you try it and if it does not suit you, then you are free to leave and continue your studies... I assure you Ms. Graydon, there is nothing unlawful or nefarious about these dealings. This operation is a separate dealing. Your work would only deal with bringing and at times translating messages between members of this society."

"What is the society?"

He shuffled in his chair. "If you except, you will meet the President and he will be able to explain more to you."

I said nothing. I was still not assured of anything with him obviously withholding information.

"Take a week to think about it. You can give me your answer at any time before then. But I want you to seriously think about it."

"I thank you for the offer Professor, I am honored. And I will consider it." I'm not positive I meant what I said. "Am I free to leave?" I stood up.

He stood, "Of course. Thank you for coming." Harold opened the door. "Oh and Ms. Graydon, feather to left is Rick, and feather to the right is Mick." I did not quite understand him.

When I walked out into the hallway, Rick was waiting for me. The first thing I noticed was his hat. The was a yellow feather pinned to the right side of it. My immediate thought was, how in the world did Loockersmans know I was struggling with identifying those two?

So I went back and found Dottie. We had another whiskey. All in the course of an hour I became a card-carrying law breaker.

And I have not an ounce of guilt for it.

Monday, December 3, 2007

October 13, 1931

I just woke from the strangest dream and feel compelled to record it.

I was walking in broad daylight past a series of stately townhouses, I presume somewhere in this city. It didn't feel like Saratoga, but it could have been. Then in an instant, the sun went dark and I was in an open field. There was raging water all around me and I could feel it growing colder. A woman came directly up to me from, what seemed to be, nowhere. She was young. Her dress was not modern, but almost colonial, a long skirt and apron. Her long hair fell out of a tattered bonnet and her face was pale. She handed me a feather. It was long and blue with a dark blue blotch at the top of it. It was the most beautiful feather I had ever seen from an extremely exotic bird. I swore I could feel every inch of it in my hand. Suddenly this girl ran away as it grew completely dark around me. Then I woke.

How strange. I rarely remember my dreams. This one I fear I'll never forget.

I'm blaming all of this on my nerves. My meeting with Professor Loockersmans is tonight. I can't even imagine what I'm getting into.