A Bit of Real Life, New York

Hot Food in Small Hands

I grew up in Clinton Hill apartments off Myrtle Avenue. There were no coffee bars, pubs, or gourmet grocery stores. There was Cino’s, Joe’s, Venice–wonderful Italian restaurants. Kum Kau may predate my birth (back then it was strictly a narrow takeout spot). We had a few diners (including the Greek one on Myrtle & Vanderbilt), I believe we had a Key Food & there were still butchers I was sent to with a list of meat cuts to buy.

The Freemans lived across the hall from my grandmother. Miss Lee and her husband, Mr. Freeman (I’m still not sure of his first name) were an older couple–only slightly younger than my grandma–who were retired and fascinating to me. I didn’t know many older married couples. They had a daughter…I don’t believe they were close and she lived in Europe with her hubby at a time when such things were still considered a bit odd.

I digress. A few years ago, Miss Lee finally succumbed to dementia-related issues. She was a wanderer, once making it as far as the Brooklyn Botanical Gardens, at night, in a nightgown, before she was found. That broke my heart & I worried for her husband being alone.

As a child, every other week or so, I was sent across the hall to pick up some Tupperware from Miss Lee. It was always a mystery what I was picking up: greens? turkey wings? okra (absolutely disgusting)? It didn’t matter what it was, my grandma forced me to eat it and be grateful for it. My grandma’s cooking was fine & I never understood that things were lean in our household, that a childless couple was passing along their extras whenever possible to help us out, and that my scowling at a free meal made me seem spoiled & ungrateful.

But I was never ungrateful. That food helped a lot. I bought Miss Lee Mother’s Day cards (with some hesitation; she was a hard hugger) and that’s just the way it happened. We had another neighbor, Robert, who apparently gifted us with homemade rolls and then there was pre-fame Millie Jackson, who took me (at age 4?) for drives in her first Cadillac and gave long-forgotten clothes to my aunts. This was the 12th floor, and it was expected that we were friendly, didn’t blast music, and they would always buy a chocolate bar during my Catholic school drives and generally put up with me as the only kid on the floor.

Mr. Freeman lasted several years without his partner, but passed a week ago. I was devastated, because I can see things through an adult’s eyes now, and I’m incredibly thankful. He was the last of the old neighbors. 20-somethings live there now, singles and couples with babies and dogs. I should’ve visited him more often. I wish I’d seen Miss Lee while she still remembered me. But I’ll always remember their kindness, and their amused smiles when I rang their bell to return well-washed Tupperware, and when asked if I enjoyed the okra I’d pipe up, “I loved it!”

clinton hill