Thursday, August 31, 2006

3 Rooms Above a Store

Ghosts of young Max Levine, and his parents Jennie and Harris, followed me last week as I toured their recreated 1900s’ flat and garment shop. This scene, as well as the trials of its long dead inhabitants, is staged by the Tenement Museum on New York’s Lower East Side in “Piecing It Together: Immigrants in the Garment Industry” -- one of several tours that illuminate family and work life in that singularly New York industry.

In Max Levine’s world, immigrant families ate and slept in the same space where customers and employees ambled in and out. This combination of daily home life and commerce made me think of my own childhood – just a few decades later –when I grew up in three rooms above a store.

Certainly my experience, described in my 1940s memoir "The Division Street Princess," was a paradise compared with the problems faced by the Levines and their neighbors. Gangs, garbage, prostitutes, poor sanitation, and tuberculosis, were just some of the chaos within their building and at the curb.

While many of these plagues still hammered the very poor of my era, the challenges in our three little rooms on Division Street were much less overwhelming and precarious. And unlike Jennie and Harris Levine who worked right there in their airless apartment, my parents, Min and Irv Shapiro, descended a flight of stairs to reach their jobs at Irv’s Finer Foods, our street level grocery store.

Because we had a kitchen in the back of our store, in addition to the one upstairs, in many ways my childhood was not unlike that of Max Levine, with my mother and father here, there, and everywhere.

Readers of my memoir are often curious as to why I selected this particular period of my life to write about. “What was so special about those years, rather than another handful, that compelled you to share them with others?” they ask.

My theory focuses on the very same combo of home and workspace experienced by the early garment workers. Because my parents did not leave my sight to go off to work, because we were together so many hours of the day, I learned many of my life’s lessons back then that affected the woman I grew up to be.

I learned the joy of being your own boss, but also the diligence and fortitude need to keep a small business afloat. Both my brother and I have been entrepreneurs: me in my home-based public relations business, and Ron with various ventures. And like our parents, we’ve seen profits rise and fall; but still, we choose ownership over employment.
Ron in a grocery store apron during a reading at Women and Children First bookstore.

I learned that a daughter who grows up listening to her parents’ quarrels could become a woman who prizes peace over confrontation. Sadly, this reluctance to talk things out was as harmful to my first marriage as the clamor was to my parents’.

I learned that a child often scrutinized about her weight and appearance can become a mother who only finds the wonders of her children to comment on. Praise, rather than judgment, can produce amazing daughters: Faith and Jill are proof.

I learned that a father who ignores doctors’ warnings could depart this earth early and leave behind a forever-grieving princess. Attention to my own health is his legacy. I yearn to see my grandchildren grow up, a pleasure denied my dad, and a loss for both sides.

I learned that despite having dutiful parents ‘round the clock, vulnerable little girls couldn’t be shielded from dangers outside their doors. Fear, an illness contracted during my childhood, had been a companion for most of my life. Now, strengthened by age and accomplishment, I’ve become braver, with my tattoo (see Aug. 10 post) and revealing memoir as testimony.

For these lessons, learned in three rooms above a store -- in a world only slightly resembling Max Levine’s –the 1940s on Division Street deserve my 209-page tribute.

Photo Captions:
No. 1. Pauline and Max Levine, circa 1910.
No. 2. 97 Orchard Street, owned by Lukas Glockner, a German immigrant who opened his tenement in 1863, hoping to turn a profit by providing cheap homes to the immigrants who were flooding into Manhattan.
No. 3. Irv’s Finer Foods, circa 1940s. Dad, Mom, and Dad’s sister Mary. My brother Ron and me.

Postscript: If you missed the August 30 edition of the Chicago Tribune, click here. The story, by reporter Eric Benderoff, has me in the lead and final paragraphs -- on the front page, above the fold, first column. Yea!

Wednesday, August 16, 2006

School Daze

As summer ends and September nears, school bells start clanging in my ears. This annual cacophony – accompanied by an imagined aroma of pencil shavings, glued bookbindings, and musty classrooms -- is a relic of my youth that tempts me still.

Witness my current dilemma -- albeit a shift from traditional academics: Shall I enroll in Spanish 102 at Wright College, Inicial 4 at Cervantes, or self learn with Rocket Spanish CDs? Swim lessons at the East Bank Club or paddle the pool on my own? Music 105 at Wright, Alfred’s Basic Adult Piano alone on my Yamaha spinet, or hire a music student who swears she can teach me as well as the tot next door? Help!

The pathetic part of my perennial problem is that my three targeted subjects: Spanish, swimming, and piano, have been in my sights for years. I’ve stumbled through private and group lessons in each, and by now, you’d think I could habla español, crawl without fins, and play on tempo. Alas.

This trajectory of mine – a shot put of enthusiasm, followed by mediocrity, and ending with bailing – would surprise anyone who knew me as the ardent student of my various schools. Consider: I was teacher’s pet at Lafayette Grammar School, which is fully described in my memoir, “The Division Street Princess.” Gold stars, “E’s”, and praise graced each report card. At Roosevelt High, I excelled in English, was a member of the Student Council, and graduated in the upper 10 percent of my class. (Fortunately, we had multitudes, so there was plenty of room on the list for me.)

Members of Roosevelt High’s Class of June 1956 Student-Teacher Relations Committee: Row 2: Elaine Shapiro (me), Audrey Solomon, Dolores Isman, Joan Levin, Harriet Singer, and Alan Jacobs, Chairman.
Row 1: Kathryn Piazza.

Next came Roosevelt University where I majored in Education and wrote for the school newspaper. A part-time job to swing tuition barred college fun, but no matter, that didn’t sour me on higher ed. For in 1975 I enrolled in the University of Illinois at Chicago’s very first Masters in Urban Planning Program.

Although marriage, two children, and a freelance job writing newsletters for The Habitat Company tussled for my time -- and despite being older than my classmates and professors -- this two-year program was the highlight of my academic life. Imagine this Division Street kid -- who swoons at the word “urban” -- studying housing, healthcare, education, economic development, and social services. Intoxicating.

With degree in hand, my thirst for formal education ended and my quest for self-improvement stoked. Thus began the pursuit of my three suppressed desires noted earlier: to be a fluent Spanish speaker, an able swimmer (i.e. not drown), and an ivories tickler for the occasional group sing.

Lest you feel sympathy for my struggles, be assured I’m content with this annual fall folly. For if I had persevered -- if I could speak Spanish beyond the present tense, swim unworried in Lake Michigan, or play Rogers and Hart while pals bellow in the background, what then? What other September siren would lie in wait? Pilates? Parasailing? No, gracias, no.

Postscript: On August 11, “The Division Street Princess” and I were guests of the Good Timers Club at Lone Tree Manor in Niles, IL. That’s Marvin and Charlotte Levy (she is club president) pictured in the first photo below and Peter and Edna Schmelkin (event chairman) in the second photo. Many thanks to both couples for a delightful lunch and for recruiting more than 35 members to hear my friend Ruth Gilbert and I read passages from my memoir.

Thursday, August 10, 2006

Happy Birthday Dear Tattoo

Eight years ago on my 60th birthday, I got a tattoo, despite knowing I’d be violating Jewish law, perplexing loved ones, and startling onlookers.

Because today, August 10, is our mutual birthday, as a present to my tattoo I’m devoting this post to the artwork of the flesh and including photos of fellow tattoo wearers who are identified at the end of this column.

In 1998 when I acquired my tattoo, I sought to justify the bold act by penning an essay that appeared in “Today’s Chicago Woman” magazine. You can read that piece on my other website and while there check out some additional follies and findings by this writer.

In that original essay, I said I got the tattoo “because achieving age 60 is a chance to thumb your nose at society, a don’t-give-a-damn-what-anyone-thinks time to stray from conformity. So there’ll be critics. Who cares? After many in my age group have endured the collapse of a long marriage, kids who grow up and leave, and loved ones who die too soon, we get our priorities straight, and a barb tossed our way is harmless.”

While this prior theory still holds true, it took the writing of my 1940s memoir, “The Division Street Princess” to provide yet another clue to that rash act eight years ago. In recreating my childhood, I met again the little Elaine I defined as a “fraidy cat.” Besides the timid genes I may have been born with, in those tender years I acquired several real reasons to be scared: run-ins with neighborhood sickos, the terrifying murder of little Suzanne Degnan, squabbling parents with the threat of their divorce, a father I feared would drop dead any moment, a near drowning; and of course, the war overseas with my four young uncles on the front.

Fortunately, many sunny episodes in my memoir balance the dark. But is it any wonder the child I was back then – more dainty than daring, bookish instead of athletic – would grow up to be a skittish adult?

Over the years my disposition improved. Bolstered by good marriages, great children, loyal friends, and successful careers, I slowly discarded many of the fears that clouded my Division Street childhood. And by age 60 (okay, so it took me awhile), I was ready to proclaim a new me. An audacious me. What better way to display this strength than with a tattoo on my left biceps? A wildly-colored, five-inch picture of a chubby heart, musical notes, rays of sun, and roses, intersected by banners bearing the names of my two cheeky daughters, Faith and Jill.

Eight years older now, I understand that the tattoo – wearing my heart on my sleeveless arm, calling attention to myself – not only was a symbol of new courage, but also opened the door to writing the memoir. If I could survive onlookers’ stares, surely I could expose my private self to a wider audience. And based on affectionate and enthusiastic responses to my book, I was correct: truthfulness is welcome; childhood experiences, universal.

While Leviticus 19:28 does state: “You shall not make gashes in your flesh for the dead, or incise any marks on yourselves: I am the Lord,” and charges me a lawbreaker in my religion, my tattoo does not keep me from being buried in a Jewish cemetery, as many mistakenly believe. And considering all of the other laws I have sideswiped, including marrying my Gentile Tommy (we’re figuring out how to sneak him into the family plot at Waldheim), I’ll take my chances on reckoning day.

Hopefully, my judge on high will weigh both sides of my ledger and declare, “What’s a little tattoo? Let her in.”

Happy Birthday Tattoo!

Photo Captions:
Photo No. 1: Me and my tattoo in 1998.
No. 2: Linda Chaput, our favorite Dapper’s East Family Restaurant waitress displaying one of her six tattoos.
No. 3: Kyle Woods, a South Florida motorcycle stuntman I met in Los Angeles, with tattoos decorating the length of each arm.
No. 4: Taken last year, in this photo my hair is naturally grey (talk about courage!). I’m merely posing, never riding, Dink Adams’ Harley. Dink, a member of my L.A. family, is head of Voodoo Grips, a West Coast film and T.V. production company.

Tuesday, August 01, 2006

Going Hollywood

Typically, a starry-eyed kid follows in a parent’s footsteps. But in the case of my family, it’s been this mom trailing greedily behind her daughters.

On July 25th, Jill, author of “Tiny Ladies in Shiny Pants,” greased the way for me to join her at the Borders/Westwood in Los Angeles. This daughter-mother gig (details to follow) hosted by essayist Romie Angelich and also starring Melanie Hutsell, sent me musing about my own mother, Min Elkin Shapiro, and our brambly relationship described in my memoir, “The Division Street Princess.”

Left to right: Romie, me, Melanie, and Jill.

I realize now that everything I learned about being a mother was taught to me in the 1940s, but instead of mimicking Mom’s style, I turned it upside down and raised my own two daughters differently.

There was no doubt my mother loved me, but as a child, I often felt I was not pretty or thin enough to please her. Despite this, I deeply loved my mother and wished I could better match her own beauty, as well as her expectations for me.

Wait. That’s not entirely true – the part about my mom not being impressed with me. As I grew up, married, had a family, career, accomplishments, I remember her beaming when she was introduced to my prestigious bosses: Mayor Jane Byrne or School Superintendent Ruth Love. And I still have the birthday card with her inscription, “I am so proud of you.” But little Elaine in my memoir couldn’t have foreseen what would come later, so the harsh memories stick. Forgive me Mom.

So when my daughters were born – Faith in 1964 and Jill eighteen months later in 1965 – I was determined to be as nonjudgmental as my mom was critical and as awestruck by their specialness as my mom was blasé about what I perceived was mine. This translated into letting the girls choose their clothing (which frequently meant mismatched tops and bottoms), hair combed when they felt it necessary, bedroom cleaned when wading through floor debris was a hazard, and never measuring or commenting about their shapes.

I like to think this approach steered them towards the creative, independent, kind, and resilient young women they are today. (Of course, their dad Harry, and other nature/nurture factors deserve credit, too.)

As for their specialness, I’ve been the mom kvelling in the audience for all of their creations – from “Coed Prison Sluts” and “The Real Live Brady Bunch” at Chicago’s Annoyance Theater to Faith’s recent Boston production of “Jesus Has Two Mommies,” and Jill’s episodes in HBO’s “Six Feet Under,” plus dozens more original shows.

Faith, me, and Jill outside of Joe’s Pub, New York. On March 16 of this year, I joined my daughters on stage for an event launching the publication, “Guilt and Pleasure.”

My daughters know where I stand in their cheering section, and when I don’t overly embarrass them, happily accept my applause. In turn, they profess to being happy and proud to see my book published, which led to my L.A. appearance with Jill.

The evening’s host, Romie Angelich, met Faith and Jill during the Brady Bunch days when Romie was chosen to play Alice in one of the touring companies. Romie learned of my memoir through one of Jill’s e-mail announcements and suggested the daughter-mother combo for her monthly Borders event, “Published, Produced, or On Their Way…” Melanie Hutsell, also on the bill, is a former “Saturday Night Live” cast member, and more importantly, former Jan Brady.

“People” magazine July 1991, with my daughters on either side of the original “Real Live Brady” cast. Melanie is in the middle row on the left.

Romie launched the evening’s program with her essay, “I Write to Dead People,” Jill followed with “Please Don’t Try to Kill Me After You Read This,” a chapter about dogs from “Tiny Ladies in Shiny Pants,” and Melanie followed with a story of her own parents’ views of attractiveness. In Hollywood speak: the three of them killed. I followed these laugh-out-loud pieces with excerpts from “Searching for the Spotlight,” a more poignant than funny chapter from “The Division Street Princess.”

The crowd of friends, family, and Borders’ customers applauded us all and they bought books! By evening’s end, the store’s entire stock of “Tiny Ladies…” and “Division Street…” was nearly gone.

Cousins Leonard and Estherly (Kaplan) Reifman. Estherly and the rest of the Kaplans are major characters in my book.

Jill and me signing copies of our books with my grandson eyeing his mom’s inscriptions.

I’d like to think that my mom, from her cushy spot in the afterlife, was in the Borders audience, just as I imagine her presence at all of Faith’s and Jill’s performances. And I believe, despite my bratty description of our 1940s relationship, that Mom’s beautiful blue eyes would be blazing with pride as she proclaims, “Great job, sweetheart. My granddaughters are amazing. Great job!”