Mel Birnkrant's
Mel Birnkrant's
TWENTY-EIGHTH and LEXINGTON
 
All Original Written and Photographic content is Copyright MEL BIRNKRANT
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         Eunice had a friend named Susan Toriello.  She and her husband Frank lived in a rent controlled apartment two floors above a shoe store at 128 East 28th Street, one corner bar away from Lexington.  Susan and Frank were getting a divorce, and they planned to move.  So, Susan asked if we would, for a fee, like to become “members of their family,” and “inherit” their apartment.   Yes!  Oh, Yes!  Most certainly!  The rent would be the same as we were paying in the Old Loft, on 26th Street, $100 a month.  It did go up a few bucks, as permitted by rent control when it was transferred among relatives to the next of kin, but the sum was nominal.  And so, it came to pass that we would have a legal home, at last! 

        
The Apartment was a floor through, consisting of essentially three rooms.  There was a small porch in front, just four feet deep, with an iron railing, overlooking 28th street.  Here is my favorite photo of Samantha, standing on that narrow porch.  It is just a humble Polaroid, but a precious one.
         Three very tall French doors opened out onto the porch.  Two of these served as windows for the front room, and the third illuminated the tiny kitchen.  How tiny was the kitchen?  Seven feet deep by four feet wide, with a sink and a refrigerator along one side, and a countertop and oven on the other.  The narrow standing space between them was barely wide enough to open the oven and refrigerator doors.  Our only phone hung on the kitchen wall.  The entire apartment was fifty feet long by sixteen feet wide, and a large part of this was occupied by the hall and stairs, outside.  Nonetheless, compared to the Old Loft, in terms of comfort and freedom from anxiety, this place was Paradise.

The front room was dominated by single sixteen foot long wall that became the showcase for my growing collection, and the focal point of the apartment.  This floor to ceiling patch of vertical Manhattan real-estate was the designated garden, in which the seeds of Mouse Heaven were planted. And, along with my increasing passion for collecting comic character imagery, it prospered and grew exponentially, over the next six years.  This photo, which appears in several places on this website is the only one I have that, more or less, conveys it all.  By the time we left the city, which was soon after this photograph was taken, I could no longer remember what that front room was like when we first moved in, or believe that this was once an empty wall.
          The apartment was what one called a “railroad flat,” divided into three rooms in a row.  Traveling from front to back, the next division was part room, part hall, with a single window in the middle.  This became Samantha’s bedroom.  And because the ceiling was so high, I built a false roof, in the form of the upper portion of a Victorian doll house, complete with a bell tower, to bring the proportions inside down to a more cozy size.  Its design was adapted from an Image d’Epinal, complete in every colorful detail.  Thus, Samantha’s domain became a petite French chateau, with flowered wallpaper, frilly drapes, and fantasy decor.  A heavy curtain could be pulled across the front, from wall to wall, at bedtime, to afford some privacy from our footsteps, passing in the hall.  The view through Samantha’s window was dominated by the nearby roof of the small shop next door, and beyond it, to the rear windows of a loft building, located on Lexington Avenue. 

Last in line, was a room the same size of the one in front, with a bathroom to one side, and two windows spaced wide apart that looked out onto a long expanse of roof that sheltered the much larger space of a photography studio below.  The ceiling in this room was also very high and the floor sloped outrageously.  So, I built two raised platforms, one filling half the room, three feet high, with a storage area beneath it, and another half that size, just large enough to contain our bed.   I originally thought the raised portion, which still had an 8 foot ceiling would become a small studio, in which I could work at home.  It ended up as the bedroom, instead, with delicious purple carpeting, and the bed placed dramatically between the windows, with a mirrored ball, suspended over it.  Several pinpoint theatrical spotlights with colored lenses were focused on the ball.  And thus, on rare occasions they filled the darkened room with a thousand floating multicolored stars.  The effect was startling, when the motorized mirrored ball was rotating, but also slightly nauseating.  The moving dots of colored light inadvertently created the illusion that the entire room was spinning.  Therefore, we almost never turned it on.  But it seemed like a good idea at the time.

The bathroom walls were papered, from floor to ceiling, with gray pressed cardboard egg crates, stapled in place.  Then, the hundreds of protruding bumps were painted blue.  I realize this sounds weird, and it was.  But, at least, it was unique.  I doubt that there had ever been a bathroom, like this, before or since. 

This completes our verbal tour, apart from the floors. We carpeted the living room in a thick luxurious shade of beige, while the hallway and Samantha’s room were paved with dramatically bold black and white squares of linoleum that Eunice and I laid.  Now, fifty years later I regret the fact that I did not take more photographs.  But I do have the one, below, that shows a portion of the floor.
         All of these developments were taking place, over the next six years.  But going back to the beginning: We realized that this small apartment was not big enough for both Boutique Fantastique and us.  Therefore, I had resigned myself to traveling 6 blocks away, each day, to work alone, in the loft on 26th Street that we had once called home.  Then, fate, which had been kind to us of late, smiled on us once again, and before the move to the apartment on 28th Street took place, we discovered an empty loft for rent, just around the corner, at 116 Lexington Avenue, which was practically next door.  It was the very one that I had noticed, through Samantha’s bedroom window.  Although, this New Loft was smaller than the old one, in as much as we would not be living there, it didn’t matter.  The rent was $100 a month.  So now, between both places, our rent would double.  But we appeared to be handling more money than before, and half would be a business expense for Boutique Fantastique.

         “
The New Loft” two floors up on Lexington Avenue, like the one that preceded it, was one big open space.  The entire front was a wall of windows, two tall ones on each side that rotated to open, and a large square picture window in the middle.  These overlooked Lexington avenue, and offered a panoramic view. 
         Like our new apartment, "The New Loft" was also on the second floor.  The loft below it was twenty feet longer, so where our loft ended, beyond the three back windows, a small expanse of roof began.  This was dominated by a large skylight that supplied illumination to the photography studio, one floor below.  Incredibly, just beyond the edge of the building, was the side wall of our apartment, with Samantha’s bedroom window in the middle.  The two buildings were separated by a narrow three foot gap, a shadowy sliver of inaccessible space, sealed off, and trapped between them.  God knows, what random refuse, animal, vegetable, and mineral, dead or alive, had collected there over the years, to rot and fester at the bottom of that ominous crevasse. 

Renting these two properties came with a serendipitous hidden bonus:  Through an amazing twist of fate we had blindly stumbled into a unique situation, one that would be difficult, if not impossible, to duplicate anywhere else in Manhattan.  And this was purely accidental.  The deal was done, and the leases had been signed before I realized our good fortune, which was the discovery that...

        
I could climb out of any one of the three back window of the loft, onto the roof behind it, and from there, step over a waist high wall to the roof of the small store next door, then, scale a considerably higher wall to arrive on the front porch of our apartment.  By this convenient, but unconventional route I could travel back and forth from the loft to the apartment at any hour of the day and night, without descending to the street. 

So, for the next several years, at any time, from early morning in summertime to the dead of night in the dead of winter, you might find me climbing over the five foot wall of our front patio, tiptoeing across the adjacent roof, and entering the back window of the loft.  Here are Eunice and Samantha, posing, before that very wall.  I scaled it, with some difficulty, several times a day, to travel back and forth to work the easy way.  Samantha is standing on the bench I used to help me clambor up half way.
          A few days ago, I looked up 128E 28th Street on Google.  Very little has changed in the past forty-five years.  The tenants are all different, but the buildings remain the same.  The loft still looks the the way it did, although, the two rotating side windows have been replaced by ones that are more conventional, and an air conditioning unit has been installed in one of them. 
Two of the three, once elegant, tall doors of the apartment have been converted into windows, and  unsightly AC units have been installed right in the middle of each.  The Bar on the corner has been become a produce market, and the photographers studio, that used to be below us, is now “Famina’s Aura Spa.”  I’ve copied these two images, and labeled them to point out both the loft and the apartment.  What a wonderful arrangement this was for us, a convenient corner of Paradise, and one, in which I rarely had to come down to earth, or permit my feet to touch the street.
          The man who lived in the second floor apartment on the corner, whose rear windows looked out upon the small adjacent roof I crossed, was a loner.  I met him only once.  On that occasion, he saw me passing on the roof behind his place, and introduced himself.  He was about my age.  He invited me step through the window into his apartment.  What a dump!  Everything about him, from his glum demeanor, to his apartment’s woebegone interior, was dark and somber.  Thankfully, I never encountered him again, until ... One day, several years later, I was unobtrusively traveling my usual route, the short distance, from the roof behind my loft to the patio wall on 28th street, in broad daylight, when he suddenly scrambled out of his rear window, angry.  He told me that he was fed up with seeing me go back and forth, and ordered me, in no uncertain terms, to never cross “his” roof again.

      
   And so, the world’s easiest commute was over ... for all of under half a day.  There happened to be a lumber yard, not far away, that would cut wood to size “while-U- wait.”  That was how I built the shelves that lined the walls of the New Loft.  Now, within minutes of this unpleasant confrontation, I was at the lumber yard, buying supplies.  By midday, I had built a four foot ramp that bridged the ghastly gap, between Samantha’s bedroom window and the roof that was officially mine.  And so, although, my wall climbing days came to an end,  henceforth, I crawled across that narrow ramp, instead. 

Alas, although, I made that perilous crossing several times a day, I never learned to do it with agility.  I inched along precariously, on hands and knees, at turtle speed.  Worse still, when crossing in the dead of night, I never failed to fantasize that something, lurking in the pit below, would reach up a slimy tentacle, or boney hand, and pull me down into that dark foreboding crack.  Eventually, a search party would descend on ropes to look for me, and find only my broken bones, gnawed clean.
         In contrast to the ogre on the corner,  all our other neighbors, and both our landlords were delightful.  Our upstairs neighbor in the apartment on 28th Street was a rather famous editorial cartoonist, Bill Crawford and his wife, Claire.  Bill was the president of the National Cartoonists Society, for many years.   Here is a Polaroid of them, standing in the foyer, just inside our front door.   I had wallpapered this tiny area with black and fuchsia shopping bags from the Vatican pavilion at the 1964 World’s Fair.  On this occasion, Bill and Claire were on their way to a celebration, at which Bill was awarded the prize for “The Best Editorial Cartoon of the Year.”

The studio, beneath us, was enormous.  It extended out beyond our apartment by at least fifty feet, and was occupied by a quiet photographer, named, Tony Pappas.  We almost never saw him.  On the other hand, we saw a lot of our landlord, Harry Borden.  Harry redefined the term, rough diamond, but he was an honest man.  He would come around, whenever the heat broke down, which was often.  Harry had an sidekick, a graduate of the Rube Goldberg school of Plumbing, who he called on for repairs.  The two of them together, were like a pair of comic characters.  Watching them try to fix the ancient furnace in the cellar was hilarious, like a Laurel and Hardy comedy.  Somehow, they always managed to get it up and running. 
         At the New Loft, next door on Lexington, the floor beneath us was occupied by our good friends from Pratt, Lowell and Nancy McFarland.  They still remain friends to this day.   Lowell and Nancy both were, and still are, artists and photographers.  Nancy is also a designer.  One could not ask for better friends or neighbors.  When I was working on the Outer Space Men, they kindly let me use their darkroom. 

        
Our landlady at the New Loft was Mrs. Kcuhukian, a widow, who not only owned the building that it was in, but was also the proprietor of her late husband’s business, the bar on the corner of Lexington and 28th Street.  We didn’t know her well, but we did get to know her son, Paul, a young man in his early twenties.  He helped us out, from time to time, and became a good friend of the family.  When we moved to the country, Paul, rather than continuing his mother’s business, went off to make a living, his own way, and we never heard from him again, for the next forty years.

Then, several years ago, he suddenly reappeared, dropping in, from out of nowhere.  Forty years had not changed anything; it felt like we had seen each other, just the day before.  And what an amazing person he turned out to be, a genuinely free spirit who more than a little bit resembled Ernest Hemingway.  Paul had led a life of high adventure, been married and divorced, and, in all that time, had never occupied a house.  He had lived his entire life, and still does, on a boat.  He keeps it moored in Miami, part of the year, but spends the rest, sailing it throughout the Caribbean, and beyond, to the farthest reaches of the Seven Seas.

       
  Not long ago, our good friend James Gurney posted a short video about Mouse Heaven, on his popular blog.  To my amazement Paul surprised me by leaving a lovely comment.  His kind words touched me deeply.  I wish I could convey how very much they meant to me.  They carried me back to happier times and better days, when rather than seeking a career, my goal was little more than an attempt to avoid pain.  This is what he wrote:

“Mel is an amazing human being. He and his wife Eunice were one of my first employers and they opened up my universe. He was the first person to show me that you could make a living by doing what made you happy and you didn't have to fit into the molds other people had created for you. They changed my life. Thank you again.”

        
The floor above ours in the loft was occupied by an artist, Haig Adishian.  His amazing girlfriend, Mimi Hovsephian lived there with him.  Haig made a living designing LP record album covers, including many famous ones, and Mimi was an art director for Burlington Industries.  The four of us became great friends, for a while, anyway.  But that’s another story.  Suffice it to say that in the beginning, Mel and Eunice, Haig and Mimi enjoyed each other’s company greatly.  Just sitting around and chatting felt like a party.  Haig had a tendency to be more than a little moody, a trait that proved to be the friendship's ultimate undoing.   Mimi, on the other hand, was always good humored, gregarious, funny, and outgoing.  She was also, and still is, an ever flowing fountain of mind boggling energy and creativity.

If I don’t restrain myself, this whole website could be about Mimi.  When she wasn’t at work art directing, she was either painting or doing embroidery.  She carried her embroidery supplies in a huge carpet bag, and embroidered all the while that she was talking.  She taught Eunice how to embroider too.  And it soon became Eunice’s hobby.  Mimi got her started by quickly sketching this Alphonse Mucha inspired portrait of her on a blank canvas.  Eunice did the rest herself.
         Among the many fun things Mimi talked us into doing, was displaying our fan dancer music boxes in an Erotic Art Show.  Mimi’s own contribution to that exhibition was a series of outrageously X rated animation strips that she drew for our “Great Zoetrope.”  The results were hilarious, and redefined the word “risqué.”  Mimi also got Eunice a modeling job, participating in an ad for Charles of the Ritz .
          Many of the photos on this website, including the one below, were shot by Mimi, in a spur of the moment project.  Just for the fun of it, she shot a bunch of Polaroids of the three of us, Eunice, Samantha and myself.  Then, she cut them up, and assembled them into a photo collage.  Mimi’s good humor is infectious and, as usual, she instantly put everybody into a playful mood.  Forty five years later, so many of the memories and images we have of that happy time of our lives are associated with the fading images that Mimi captured on that pleasant afternoon.
         The heat in The New Loft was interesting.  I never saw the likes of it before or since.  It consisted of two gas fed radiators filled with water. The goal was to simulate steam heat, and they did.  They were efficient,  but, in my opinion, dangerous.  I had to light them with a match, when I came through the window, in the morning, and either extinguish them, or let them run, when I left at night.  The one in the back sat right below the middle of the three windows.  If I was working back there, I would fire up just that.  The good thing about this primitive heating was the fact that I was in full control.  The bad thing was that I was paying for the gas.

In retrospect, I realize that I was living dangerously.  By now, I had three girls working for me, every day.  Not the young sisters from 26th Street, but three veterans of Austen Display.  Mostly, they were making stained glass ornaments.  I cut out and planned all the different colored gelatins, and they glued them in place.  Then, they coated the half completed ornaments with airplane cement, and placed the second half on top.  The fumes were overwhelming, and with radiators running 20 feet away, it was a miracle that we didn’t immolate, and send the whole loft skyward, in a giant ball of flame. 

        
Throughout this time, I was doing very little in the way of developing new items.  Between packing, shipping and cleaning up, I don’t mean cleaning up financially, I mean cleaning up the lavatory, and doing all the many things that I thought would be too demeaning to ask the girls to do, I seemed to be busy every minute of the day.

        
Nonetheless, I was working on a couple of projects.  One was both old and visionary, and in light of current trends, way before its time.  Tattoos are wildly popular today, but in the mid-1960s, they had become illegal.  This was due, to health issues.  Exotic tattoo parlors, like the one I painted when I was in art school, were rumored to have spread disease, and all of them were required to shut down.  I would not consider having a tattoo, myself, but I did find traditional tattoo designs fascinating.  In fact, I had amassed a small collection of of genuine tattoo flashes, and the only books on the subject, available at the time.  The most intriguing of these was a rare groundbreaking volume, by Albert Parry, published in 1933, and amusingly titled. “Tattoo, Secrets of a Strange Art as Practiced among the Natives of the United States”  The book digs deeply into the secret meanings of traditional designs, and their most revealing implications.  I had also acquired a modest collection old photographs of tattooed men and tattooed ladies, including some of entire tattooed families, from grandparents, who were human art galleries, to tiny tattooed babies.
          The product that I had in mind would be both decorative, and utilitarian.  Ha!  This is about as utilitarian as I get.  It would consist of a sort of tattoo chart, on which genuinely authentic traditional tattoo designs would be displayed in the general suggestion of a human body.  This would be printed on a kind of gossamer translucent paper.  Now here’s the gimmick.  Do you remember those water soluble tattoo transfers that often came packed with coloring kits for decorating Easter eggs?  I tracked down the company that originally made them, and still did.  Just as I suspected, they were printed in large sheets, and afterwards, cut up.  So that was the idea.  I visualized a tattoo poster as large as the entire uncut sheet of  transfers, and suitable for framing.  When the buyer grew tired of looking at the poster, they could cut out the individual tattoos, and apply them to their skin.

I invested considerable time and research in this project, hoping to come up with an item that did not require labor.  Alas, I have no record of it, other than this photograph of one of several preliminary mockups that were tacked to the loft wall.  The rubber cement had darkened, and many elements were dropping off, by the time I took this slide.
This transferable tattoo poster was intended to be folded and presented in an elaborately impractical package, configured as a Tattooed Man.  There would also be a Tattooed Lady.
         From there, my agenda became more ambitious.  What I proposed next, was a series of inflatable life sized ladies, slightly risqué, but innocent.  They would be highly stylized and humorous, along the lines of the Fan Dancer’s in our Petite Theatre de Montmartre Music Boxes.   Many years later, something similar was actually manufactured, the so-called “Party Doll.”  I had inadvertently come up with almost the same concept, decades before its time.  I say “almost,” because, in my naiveté, the possibility of these inflatable ladies being functional and anatomically correct never occurred to me.  I saw them as merely amusing and decorative.  The name that I had in mind for this bevy of blow up beauties was nothing short of great!  I called the product, “Inflate-A-Mate.”  By "mate" I meant companion, not anything more intimate.

        
A few days before Christmas 1964, a most most amazing event took place!  An article about Eunice, and I, and Boutique Fantastique appeared in The New York Times.  This article, forever changed our lives.

With only a few hours’ notice that a NY Times Photographer would be arriving soon, I frantically faked out an area at the front of the loft to look like a sort of showroom.  Never was a photograph more hurriedly staged than this one.  I literally composed every element, from where we would be standing to which zoetrope strip I would be holding in my hand, and just how I would hold it.  A convenient gap was left, for Eunice to display the lid.  Every object on the shelves behind us was placed there with precision. 

If the truth be known, a display area like this served no practical purpose, for all our business was coming from Ross Haver, our reps in the Gift Building.  The thought never occurred to me, that I might be setting up a scene that would catch the eye of destiny!  But that, in fact, turned out to be the case, for it caught the eye of Harry Kislevitz, the owner of a toy company.  He telephoned me later the same day!  And the rest is History!  
          Another project I began was equally bizarre.  The technology for vinyl inflatables was in its early infancy, at the time.  No one had capitalized on it fully, beyond some basic swim rings, air mattresses, and beach balls.  I tracked down a company that made these.  As they were located on the Upper West Side, I could travel there by subway.  We discussed the items that I had in mind, and they assured me that they could make them for me.  The first, was an inflatable American flag, made up of separate pieces and linked together.  I had even gone so far as to produce the finished art.  This concept was admittedly weird.  God knows what I was thinking! 

The second item made more sense.  It consisted of a series of inflatable transparent throw pillows.  Inside each, would be a sheet of semi-rigid plastic, printed on both sides, with carefully placed holes die cut in its surface.  This would act as a divider, slightly smaller than the size of the pillow when deflated, but fitting snugly along the mid-seam, when the pillow was blown up.  Before the unit was heat sealed, the manufacturer would insert the divider and throw in several plastic balls. or other objects.  Thus, each decorative inflatable, when inflated, would become, what, in France, is called a “jeu d’adresse,” or I would describe as, “a rolling ball puzzle.”  The art would be based on traditional designs.  But more modern variations could be added, later on.
         Mimi and Haig, alas, did not remain together.  After they broke up, both Haig and life in general, on the corner of 28th Street and Lexington Avenue was never the same again.  Mimi had a brother living in Denmark.  She traveled there to visit him, where she met and married a handsome Dane, named, Bent Vang Olsen.  Thus, Mimi Hovsephian became “Mimi Vang Olsen.”  I mention this now, even though, it’s jumping ahead, just so you can click HERE and see some of  Mimi Vang Olsen’s amazing art work.  Mimi returned to America with her two young daughters, where she has forged a fabulous career, painting amazing portraits of entire families, their homes, and their belongings, in a charming folk art style that is both sophisticated and primitive.  These days, she is most famous for her wonderful portraits of pets.  Here is Mimi and her two delightful daughters, many years later.  The occasion was a visit in the country with Eunice, Alexandra, and our beautiful dog, Heidi.
Meanwhile, some new shelves, intended to be work related, ended up becoming a gathering place for stray windup toys, instead.  I began picking these up, casually, on Canal street, for 50 cents apiece. 
I weeded them out, over the years.  These are the few that still remain:
      The back area of the loft became my studio.  I set my wooden door up there, along the wall on the left. Sitting at the desk, I could look out of the window on my right, and see the small expanse of roof out back, with the large skylight rising in its center, and beyond it, the window of Samantha’s room.  Behind me, tucked in a corner, formed by the stairwell and the wall, there was a primitive bathroom.  It consisting of an industrial sink and a toilet, sectioned off, with a curtain serving as a door.  The wooden shelves that had displayed my humble collection in the Old Loft, were now mounted on the wall behind me, where they became a kind of catch all for odds and ends of minor objects that didn’t merit being moved to the Great Wall of Comic Characters that was developing next door.  This photo must be from 1966, as I can see the Batman Bat-O-Rama, along with many things I have no more. 
         What happened next is a long story.  It’s told in all its gory details HERE.  This life changing phone call from Harry Kislevitz, marked the great turning point in my life, and launched me on a path that would, eventually,  turn into a career.  From that day forward, I spoke to Harry almost every day, for many years.

         
Meanwhile, our so-called normal life continued.  Christmas was in the air, and so were Eunice’s parents!  At that very moment, they were flying to America for the Holidays, on a flight arranged by Eunice’s friend Audrey, with whom she had traveled to the USA.  Audrey still worked for BOAC, but now lived in NYC.  And so, at last, Alex and Dolly would meet their son-in-law, that chap, who, to their puzzlement, attended a school called "Pratt," which is a word that in England was once considered an obscenity.  And they would  get to meet their new granddaughter, Samantha as well.  It turned out to be an amazing visit, and we had a ball.  I was crazy about Eunice’s parents.  I couldn’t help but like her mother, Dorothy, who signed her letters, “always Mum.”  And I was nuts about her father, Alexander.  He and I immediately became chums.  This photograph was taken in the hall:
Here’s Dolly in a festive mood.
          And here’s good old Alex on the roof, outside the bedroom window, in the snow with "Tom."  The rooftop, beyond the bedroom was Tom’s domain, his own private Wild Kingdom.  Tom, who Samantha named, was our first cat since Fish Face, and one of the best of the many beloved kitties that fate would designate to follow in his paw steps.  Tom’s life with us was an adventure, from falling off the balcony in New York City, on which occasion he busted through the awning of the tobacco vendor below, and landed in the candy, to vacationing on the beach at Fire Island.  He later moved with us to the schoolhouse in the country, where he purrrrsued his hobby of meowing to be let in and out, a hundred times a day, and continued to enjoy nearly nine lives, with great gusto and high energy.
And, here are Alex and Dorothy, posing for a photo, out on the roof again.  They were good sports, great fun, and game for anything.  One wouldn’t find MY mother out there; that’s for sure.  Well, on the other hand, if the next few days were any indication, maybe, even that was possible.  
         Leila arrived a few days later, just in time for Christmas.  I viewed the coming clash of cultures with a certain trepidation.  All the while that I was growing up, I heard my mother boasting that she had never seen a foreign film. “I’m an American,” she proclaimed, “and I only watch American movies!”  By foreign film she meant a movie made in England. “The people in it all talk funny! I can’t understand a word they say!”

To everyone’s astonishment and relief, after a few hours that were strained, the newly acquainted in-laws, hit it off, and got along quite famously.  The crazy thing that broke the ice was a kiddy game called “Booby Trap.”  It involved carefully removing wooden disks from a tray.  The disks were under pressure from a spring loaded pusher.  One false move, and the whole thing would blow up in a players face.  The three of them sat around the round table in the living room, and played this game obsessively, nonstop, for several days.  Below, is a really bad photograph of a relatively good time, being had by a slightly inebriated bunch of relatives.  Why some are on the floor, beats me.  Samantha, who I assure you was not drinking, sure looks like she had one too many!
And here we are at Christmas dinner.  My Mom and Tom are at the Kitty’s table sharing a drink.  Apparently, Leila, who here appears incredibly youthful, had a few, already.
         Two events stand out in my memory as highlights of the visit.  The first, was a hilarious day that Alex and I spent together, sitting at the big front window in the New Loft, having a drink or two, or maybe more, lots more.  Outdoors, there was a blizzard raging.  It had, in fact, been snowing heavily for several days.  The streets and walkways, in spite of the bad weather, were teeming with pedestrians. The sidewalks had been shoveled so many times that walls of snow had built up, waist high, around them on all sides, and every horizontal surface was covered in thick ice. 

I can’t remember how we got from the apartment to the loft.  The streets were utterly impassable.  The only explanation could have been that we, somehow, climbed over the wall.  Now, we sat together, looking out the big front picture window, laughing like hyenas, drunk ones, as we watched every animal or human who dared set foot or paw on any patch of street or sidewalk, slip and fall dramatically.  Yes, I do know that things like that are not supposed to be amusing, and laughing at the mishaps of others is naughty, maybe even evil.  But this was not reality. The ice and snow had set the scene, and we were watching an old fashioned silent comedy from those half remembered days when falling down was considered funny, particularly when framed within the rectangle of an enormous picture window or a silver screen.  This snowy winter day was actually a marathon matinee, and we had front row seats!  The relentless snow had transformed reality into a movie, one filmed in glorious black and white, but mostly white.  And we two chums, best drinking buddies, had shed our grown up inhibitions, and became two blameless children, laughing our asses off, as we watched our hapless fellow human beings, falling on their “prats,” repeatedly. On that amusing afternoon of jovial comradery, Alex Richards and his new son-in-law, an alumni of Pratt Institute, clasped hands across the sea, and formed a lifelong bond of friendship.

         The second unforgettable occasion took place on a snowy evening, a few days later.  While our charming neighbor from across the street baby sat with Samantha, Eunice, Alex, Dorothy, my Mother, and I, all piled into a taxi cab, and, equipped with young Paul Kcuhukian’s membership card, headed for the Playboy Club.  This, being the mid-sixties, the Playboy Club was in its heyday.  And we were, clearly, a bunch of hayseeds.  No one could look more out of it than I did, or more unlikely to even read the magazine, let alone be a member of the club.  But, for one magic evening, I became Paul Kcuhukian, an identity I was required to maintain, from start to finish.  I dare say, this establishment didn’t resemble any pub that Alex frequented in England.  I have to give Hugh Hefner credit, everyone that we encountered that evening, form the bushy tailed lady maître d’, to the herd of scantily clad bunnies that descended on us quickly, treated us like royalty!

The experience was amazing, but not necessarily one that I would have been in any hurry to repeat.  I guess, the proof of that is the fact I never did.  Being Paul for just one night was quite enough for me.  By the way, the Playboy bunnies were everything the center fold of Playboy Magazine had led me to expect  they'd be. You could hardly fail to notice that each one of these wascally wabbits was amply endowed with an enormous pair of wabbit ears.  And their bodies were inhumanly attractive.  Nonetheless, inhuman is a matter of opinion, and there was something strangely unsettling about them.  Perhaps, it was their makeup.  They were heavily made up, from top to bottom, and not just on their amply rouged cheeks, both sets of them, but every square or round inch of their bodies was covered in thick body paint.  Their eyes were dramatically made up, with eyelashes as long as Bambi's, and their tails were giant powder puffs.  Although, everything about them was cosmetically correct, I was careful not to get too close, for fear a schmear of greasepaint might rub off on me.  Perhaps, that was the management's subtle way of encouraging the patrons not to get too friendly, lest they be caught red handed.

The menu was unusual; every item on it was priced at just one dollar!  A steak was a dollar!  A drink was a dollar, so was a napkin, or a fork.  When one tallied up all the items on the table, the meal didn’t seem like such a bargain after all.  But it was worth every dollar of the price, because we had a once in a lifetime good time.  Alex and I both imbibed our fill of dollar drinks.  And with each successive one, the center fold invoking eyefuls that titillated our eyeballs looked ever increasingly more real.  Meanwhile, we were all attempting to act suave, as if all this was commonplace to us, and we, perhaps, ate there every day.  One moment that kinda gave the game away was when a bouncing bunny placed a dollar fingerbowl before each one of us, a small saucer of hot water with a slice of lemon, floating in it.  Each rested on a neatly folded napkin.  Alex exclaimed, “Blimey! What the hell is this?” as he squeezed the lemon into the water, lifted the saucer to his lips, and drank it!  Eunice found this quite embarrassing, but I thought it was delightful.  A kick under the table dissuaded me from doing the same.

Of all the things that took place on that enchanting evening, the moment that stands out in my memory most vividly, was leaving the restaurant, aglow at having pulled off the masquerade successfully, and stepping out into the night.  A heavy snow was falling all around us.  We stood beneath the maroon colored canopy of the Playboy Club, while the doorman conjured up a cab.  The city looked so beautiful, so magical!  An overwhelming wave of happiness welled up inside of me.  The night had been a Great Success!

        
In fact, every moment of the holiday had been successful.  Alex and Dorothy, having lived their entire lives in Dover, never dreamed that they would, one day, travel to the USA.  When Eunice came to America, they were convinced that they would never see their daughter again.  Now, clearly, this was not the case. They loved their trip to New Your City. And they had seen and done it all, from the Empire State Building to the Christmas Show at the Radio City Music Hall.  And so, a few days after New Year’s Eve was over, Alex and Dorthey returned to Dover, promising that they would soon come back again.  And just a few years later, they did!  Best of all, Samantha’s World had been enriched.  She fell in love with her new grandparents, her charismatic Granddad Alex, and Grandma Dolly, who signed her letters: “always Mum.”