A Gypsy in New York (part 2.3)
by Juliette de Bairacli Levy
Author of Nature's Children, Traveler's Joy, Common Herbs for Natural Health, Juliette of the Herbs
Snow fell frequently during our winters in New York. As everywhere in the world where there is snowfall, it came down over the city in its quiet and mysterious way, silent as the white hawthorn blossom of springtime that tumbles from laden boughs to pile around the roots of the thorn bushes. And, as fallen blossom petals do rapidly become discolored, so likewise the city snow. To enjoy snow in its pure white beauty when in New York City, one seemingly had to go to the top of the Empire state Building or to some lofty, private penthouse, where it would remain for days, unsmutched and unearthly. We enjoyed unspoiled and truly virgin snow in country parts of New York state.
Away on Long Island, at Sands Point, where there are marshes that wild duck and geese still frequent, and woods where rabbits, pheasants, and woodcock etch their tracks over the snow, my children enjoyed the New York winter pleasures of tobogganing, making giant snowmen, and watching the skilled skaters flying like dark birds over frozen waterways. Farther afield in the neighbor states of Connecticut and New Jersey, we saw skiing, and again human adults and children became birdlike as they skimmed over the snow-covered foothills. I could never tire of the snow, although often when visiting the country places we were snowbound for days. During our second New York winter the snowfall was breaking records, and it lay on the ground either newly fallen or as frozen heaps almost continuously from early December until mid-February, when we left America for the Sea of Galilee in Israel.
Snow clearance was always a problem in New York City, probably because of the vast and crowded area requiring to be cleared and the difficulty of obtaining outdoor manual labor and of paying the high wages that such commanded. I remember that young boys, equipped merely with shovels, were asking ten dollars for clearing driveways of snow on Long Island, work requiring an hour or less, and were often getting that price.
Around Washington Square, I saw motor-driven hand ploughs and brushes, in use for snow clearance, but elsewhere, except for halfhearted shoveling by truck crews, who cleaned the roads but left the pavement sidewalks untouched, the snow was allowed to stay for days in the city, until it melted away into yellow-grey rivers. I remember that our first Christmas shopping in New York was done pushing through ankle-deep snow sludge, and that was the same for Fifth Avenue also, where the rich were soiling and spoiling their elegant shoes and stockings, as whenever there were big holiday crowds in the city, its team of about 11,500 taxis were all taken, and there were not nearly enough to serve the people waiting to use them.
In most parts of the city, people were made responsible for cleaning away the snow from their own steps and portion of sidewalk. If they failed to do this and any pedestrian slipped there and was injured, they would be liable for all the medical expenses. Therefore, with that unpleasant thought in mind, if not for any other reason, everyone who possessed property in the city was out with snow scrapers, shovels, and brushes, or were paying others to clean up for them, after every snowfall. As I always like any reason to be out in the fresh air and also enjoy any kind of manual labor, I was happy to help with the snow clearance from my friend Dana Miller's place, above which was the good apartment that she had let me have rent-free for as long as I cared to enjoy it.
The two wide front windows of our apartment overlooked Second Avenue, at 78th Street. Our back windows from a long, adjoining room overlooked the street that joined Second Avenue with First. Books have been written about cities from observations from a window. I remember such titles as “A window in Granada” and “A Window in Paris.” Small details gathered together from a daily hour or so of watching at a window began to make for me part of the New York picture, of a city that stood apart from all others that I had known, as the strangest, and most theatrical, the noisiest, the most written about, and the most unforgettable.
People came and went along the streets, some stayed in one's eyes and thoughts. I am for remembering the elderly scrap dealer, Z. Tickli, that being the name marked on his cart. His cart was pulled by a slow-paced horse, the only carthorse I saw in use during all my time in New York. Z. Tickli held his own road rights against all the impatient motor vehicles that harassed him. His cart was loaded with old junk, easy enough to collect from almost every city street; the cart made slow but purposeful progress down the crowded city thoroughfares: I am sure that it arrived eventually at wherever Mr. Tickli intended it to arrive.
Then there were regulars who picked over the dustbin (trash barrel) contents on the corner facing our front windows. One of these customers was a well-dressed lady, who always had on a good-quality fur coat. New York was the only city where I ever saw well-to-do looking people picking over the trash barrels without any sign of embarrassment at what they were doing. I know that many good things go into the New York trash barrels. In our own case, when I was packing ready for Mexico, there were no poor persons around us to whom I could give our outgrown clothes, or clothes too shabby to go with us to yet another country. None of our friends had charwomen (cleaning women) working for them, "chars" being considered the usual persons to whom one could offer clothes when living in Europe.
And as for the New York Gypsies whom I had come to know by then, they were all so far better dressed than either my children or myself that I would have felt ashamed to offer them any clothes of ours. A friend of mine from France obtained work in New York and was given accommodation in an expensive new apartment house as part of her wages. She told me that for her first years in New York, before she began to earn good money, she almost clothed herself, and also helped many of her friends, with discarded clothing that was thrown out down the apartment's rubbish-chute (garbage/trash chute). She inspected the contents twice daily- it was like a treasure hunt for her.
by Juliette de Bairacli Levy