A PHOTOGRAPHIC MEMORY
All Original Written and Photographic content is Copyright MEL BIRNKRANT
All too soon in 1962, winter arrived. And, in spite of our efforts to winterize, it was colder than ever in the loft at night, and the heat appeared to shut off even earlier than it did the year before. Sleeping in the small newly constructed enclosure with an electric heater, and huddling there all weekend when the furnace died, did not prove to be an adequate solution. So, I went to one the two landlords, whom I barely knew, and asked him to please turn up the heat. I even resorted to the emotional plea that we had a baby upstairs. The fact is, Mid-Town Electric had no idea what we had up there. In the four years that we were tenants, they never once walked up the three more flights of stairs to see what we were doing there. They simply took our check for $100 a month, a sum that must have been meaningless to them, and forgot about us. The landlord replied that he would see what he could do. Meanwhile, nothing changed.
One afternoon, while the office staff of Mid-Town Electric Supply toiled over their books, phones, and typewriters, on the second floor of 306 East 26th Street, a mysterious figure, dressed in black, silently slipped through the door, behind their backs. With fingers crossed, praying that no one would turn their head and spot him, or worse still, walk in and confront him, the intruder slowly made his way on tiptoe, to the warehouse space in back, ducking in and out, between the shelves of electrical supplies, until he found the thermostat.
To his dismay, it turned out to be no more than a rectangular metal box, painted gold, with vents on top, and a single sliding indicator that could be moved from side to side. Just moving the pointer from 65 degrees to 70, a repositioning that could easily be moved back again, was not what he had in mind. The controls that he had hoped to find were sealed inside. Crestfallen, he crept out again.
Looking back over my life, I realize that I never did anything daringly adventuresome, nothing exciting, like defusing a bomb, or engaging in espionage. I never had a “Mission Impossible” moment, except this once! Therefore, the very next day found me back again; this time, with a screwdriver in my hand.
Once again, I slithered in. Thank God, my eyesight was good back then, good enough to see four tiny screws that held the cover of the thermostat in place. I hurriedly unscrewed them, one by one, and put them in my mouth to keep them safe. Then, I removed the cover, with shaking hand, and lest I accidently let it drop, clamped it between my knees. Once inside the thermostat, I bent the spring that tipped a vial of mercury, so it would produce a temperature higher by five to ten degrees than the setting on the slide intended it to be. Finally, I moved a marker on the timing clock that was set to operate from 7:00 A.M. to 8:00 at night. I left the morning setting as it was, so when the workers arrived each day, the heat, as usual, would just be starting up. But I changed the shut off time dramatically, from 8:00 P.M. to 3:00 A.M. Then, I placed the cover back again, and screwed it shut. Perspiring profusely, I quickly, quietly, made my escape. Mission accomplished! Hooray! Nobody in the place was ever there as late as 8:00 to discover that the time the heat shut off had changed.
That Thanksgiving, we had more to be thankful for, more heat! And Christmas, that year, was much warmer and cozier than the one before had been. Once again, my mother would be visiting, and Harley, too, would join us for Christmas dinner. Many years later, as a souvenir of that Christmas Eve, a mysterious full color photograph appeared. I don’t understand where this Christmas photo came from, a single image shot in color, when all the rest, are black and white.
I remember that Christmas Eve quite well. Earlier, Samantha heard sleigh bells on the rooftop, outside her bedroom window, courtesy of Santa’s helper, Mel. Now, while she was sleeping soundly, Santa Claus stopped by, and left her a magic talking galloping pony, alias Mattel’s “Tony,” newly repainted in the cheerful colors of a carousel. Tony would be there to greet Samantha, on Christmas morning. And so, in the glow of that year's chubby Christmas tree, overseen by a paper lantern, in the likeness of the Man in the Moon, Eunice contemplated the year gone by, and wondered what the next would bring. There were about to be big changes in our lives, as my days with Austen Display were on the wane, and the era of Boutique Fantastique was about to begin.
My Mother, who, having seen our loft before, insisted on staying at a hotel, arrived early Christmas morning, just in time for the grand opening. There were few photos taken of The Old Loft, in for four years we lived there. Therefore, I find myself studying this one carefully. Scattered, among the pleasant pandemonium of that Christmas morning, I can detect so many memories. In the lower right hand corner, is our trusty little electric heater. The box, hiding behind it, is my sad old portable record player, a far cry from the once glorious Klipsch corner horn. On the wall, I can detect a set of “Looking Glass Pictures,” evidence that Boutique Fantastique was already happening. The lamp that overlooks the scene was a wedding present from Bob Grosvenor. He brought it with him to Ann Arbor. I always found it wonderful that he actually found it in the garbage. Philadelphia was a treasure trove of antiques. And on the left side, I see a corner of the hammock, more about that later, and there in the lower left, is a gift that I gave Eunice that Christmas, a tin bathtub, very much like the one the Welsh coal miner’s family bathed in, when she was an evacuee in 1940. Living in the austerity of this secret haven in Manhattan, Eunice regarded this old tin bathtub, not as an amusing antique, but as a welcome luxury.
Samantha, joyfully, took her new Christmas doll for a ride on Tony the Pony.
She loved her new doll, and she loved Tony.
And I love this photograph of Christmas dinner. With a real production model of the first Mexican tin candelabra, alight, on the shelf along the wall, it had been a good year after all. Everything appeared to be all right. And it felt like there was Peace on Earth that Christmas Night.
Now the day was over, and way past Samantha’s bedtime, but she could not say good night, until she had just one more ride.
I always wished I had a photographic memory, but as I never did, that’s what the remainder of this page will be, a random cornucopia of lost photography. When I took these pictures, over fifty years ago, and only printed up a few in Ellen Kunsel’s darkroom, it didn’t occur to me that the remaining negatives would one day be a time capsule. Now, the miraculous PC has enabled me to open that capsule wide, and see the treasures that it hides, many of them for the first time. Although, each one is worth a thousand words, they do little to advance the narrative. Nonetheless, the very fact that they exist, still fresh and new, is reason enough to offer them to you, a Photographic Memory
In those lofty days, many of the good things in our lives came from Austen Display. One of the luxuries that I found there was a genuine double wide rope hammock. And one of the benefits of working there was getting these things wholesale. Then, I purchased two 14 foot long four by fours, and attached them from the ceiling to the floor. The hammock was suspended between them. Samantha loved to swing in it. But, on this day, it was unhooked, to use the wall behind it as a backdrop, as Miss. Samantha got ready for her close-up.
Eunice, didn’t use her new old bathtub often. Filling it with buckets of hot water was difficult. Emptying it was even more so. But we both agreed that the first time she tried it was an event worth documenting. One thing led to another, and soon, we were into an enthusiastic photo shoot. These old photographs of Eunice might have seemed a little daring, fifty years ago. Nonetheless, the few that I printed, back then, have decorated our various homes, ever since. Thus, some of these images are familiar to our family and our friends; others will appear to be brand new.
Eunice never lost her British charm, or her English accent. Nevertheless, a few years after we were married, she became a citizen, a flag waving American.
And I became a founding member of the Eunice Birnkrant Fan Club.
Eunice not only rocked my world, she turned it upside down!
After a childhood of being terrified by this scary Egyptian chair that my father believed was found in King Tut’s tomb, I no longer found it frightening. Now, it held a place of honor, among my favorite things.
So much for that nostalgic journey down mammary lane! It’s time to get the story back on track again. The heat issue that began this page was still not completely solved. Although, the landlords never discovered that the thermostat had been changed, we continued to be plagued by nights and weekends, when the heat would unexpectedly shut off. Therefore, the following winter found me dragging an old pot bellied stove up the five flights of stairs. Fortunately, it disassembled into many pieces, but, nonetheless, the main unit weighed nearly 200 pounds.
I'd purchased it for fifty bucks from the same antique shop as the tin tub. The stove, itself, was beautiful, with many mica windows. It was the first of several flaming cathedrals that were destined to warm our lives, over the next fifty years. By this time, we had come to realize that the landlords were never going to come upstairs. So, I went out on the roof and measured where the chimney pipe for the furnace was located inside their brick enclosure. Then, high up on the wall downstairs, I brazenly chiseled a hole right through the brick to tap into it. Thank God, I hit it perfectly, broke through the ceramic chimney pipe, and installed my own tin stove pipe. A store right down the street from us sold fifty pound bags of coal. We used our folding grocery cart to drag them home.
The stove, which I intended as a Christmas gift for Eunice, and managed to sneak up the stairs when she wasn’t there, could not have come at a better time. Would you believe that the heat went out that very night, which happened to be Christmas Eve? I remember the occasion well. Herb and Judy Kohl were there, along with Joe and Carolyn Lelyveld, and the author, Jonathan Kozol, who we met in Paris. He, like Herb, had become an educator. We sat around the pot bellied stove, resting our feet on the chrome bumpers, and basking in its glow. Thus, an evening that would have been a washout, due to lack of heat, became a charming old fashioned Christmas Eve.
Meanwhile, by this time, we had made it through nearly three years in The Old Loft, without being discovered by the New York City Fire Department. There had been a few close shaves, panic inducing days, when fire trucks parked on our street, and firemen, inspecting every building on the block, were methodically heading our way. Thank God, they all quit work at five o'clock, and did not continue the next day. Thus, we were beginning to feel a little more at ease, even though, we realized that the newly added parlor stove would be one more violation to compound our culpability. It looked like Luck was on our side!