There used to be shop on Third Street in Greenwich Village where you could buy a cotton t-shirt and have the store clerks write anything you wanted on it. I bought several during those years when making a statement that way was considered cool, even in the Village, the World Headquarters of Cool. With the sale of our country house, a few of those shirts that I hadn't seen in years emerged from my unjustly extensive collection of memorabilia. Somehow, the six shirts shown here wound up in one pile on my closet shelf. They tell my story, not the whole tale of my life, but some of the significant bits. The first two were on sale, as is, from the store. The others show personal messages. Here is what they say about me:
I went to Catholic school for 17 years, all of my formal schooling. That experience was largely a blessing for a poor, working class girl like me. The quality of my education was for the most part excellent, if rule bound. On that score, a passage in The Once and Future King really spoke to me. In that book, to teach the young Arthur about life and leadership, Merlin turns him into various animals. When the future king is transformed into an ant and approaching the ant colony for the first time, over the entrance he reads, "Everything that is not compulsory is forbidden." I could relate to that! On the other hand, I went to a women's college on scholarship. There I met brilliant nuns dedicated to educating the minds of women. I revere them. They gave me my college degree as a gift. And showed me that women could be gifted. And take charge.
I emerged from college right into the transformative experience of the feminism of the 1960's. I have written elsewhere on this blog of my participation in what I call The Pink Collar Wars. The nuns of my college primed my engine so that I might zoom right into the movement and have it broaden my horizons and multiply my possibilities.
When New York City was on the verge of bankruptcy in the 1970's, the real estate market wobbled for a few months, making a small house on 12th Street, badly in need of renovation, affordable for me and David. A beloved friend whom we greatly respected for his real estate acumen and financial prowess, begged us not to buy. "Buy near us in New Jersey," he said, pointing out New York's state and city income taxes, the city's sink-hole-of-depravity reputation, and the leafy beauty of the swanky suburban town where he lived, where we could have bought a mansion for the same price. We agonized. We even did a financial analysis that told us that, in the long run, it might cost us $10-20K extra per year to live in New York. But we were in love with our city, warts and all. We decided to buy that house on Twelfth Street. During its chaotic renovation, while staying in New Jersey with my father, we drove in and rummaged around the dusty construction site to find clothes suitable for a friend's wedding. When, in duds relatively filth free, we boarded a taxi to go to the church, David said, "We are more like a track team than a married couple." The next week, when our daughter was still commuting through the Lincoln Tunnel to the 4th grade, I moseyed over the Third Street to get us team shirts. Staying in New York was the best decision we ever made, in many ways, especially financially.
This shirt has more to do with my daughter's education than mine. Brilliant as she is, she qualified for the ultra-prestigious Hunter College High School, a public institution where the 200 most brilliant New York kids, by a rigorous testing process, attended. Because of the heady milieu where she had been studying, by the time she was ready to apply to college, she considered herself average or a little below. She fretted that she would never get into a decent institution of higher education. No amount of reassurance on my part calmed her fears. "You're just saying that because you are my mother," she said. I went to Third Street to get shirts that spoke about where her parents attended college. I chose sayings to communicate that one did not have to go to Harvard to have a good life. Her parents both started out just this side of destitute, and we both had jobs we loved that we're quite financially rewarding. We were, after all, living in our own Greenwich Village townhouse. Mine is the shirt you see here. David's said, "Unimpressive State University." Even having parents wearing such billboards did not calm her down much. She got into the top four small liberal arts colleges in the country. She went to Swarthmore!
I wore this shirt to Luciano Pavarotti's first free concert in Central Park. I learned to love the opera, literally, at my grandfather’s knee. Music of all sorts of, including opera, brings me enhancement of my joys, solace in sorrow, companionship when I am lonely, help concentrating on any task at hand, and especially inspiration when I am writing. I consider making music the highest calling for humans on this planet. I can’t play a lick myself, but I am so very lucky to have been born into a family of people who can experience ecstasy when listening to music
Most New Yorkers used to call that Pharaoh of old two-TANK-ah-men. But when the first big exhibition of artifacts from King Tut’s famous tomb came to The Metropolitan Museum, Philippe de Montebello, the museum’s president, made sure we all learned how to pronounce the ancient name properly, with the accent on Tut (long o sound). I got this shirt to wear to the show. But I also keep it as another talisman of how lucky a person I am. The photos of ancient Egyptian artifacts in my fourth grade text book were the first taste I got of the breath of history and the existence of exotic locales where one can see the art of the centuries. I have lived to see Karnak and Abu Simbel and to celebrate my 60th birthday at the Great Pyramids of Giza under a full moon. Not bad for a little girl from Our Lady of Lourdes School in Paterson, NJ.
I am keeping the shirts. I don't ever want to forget any of this.