My second apartment in NYC was a 5th floor walk-up on 91st and Lexington. It was nice – a living room, a small kitchen, a bedroom. The bathroom was nicely tiled with, ironically enough, American Olean Tile and featured an authentic stain glass window. The living area overlooked the 92nd Street Y. The apartment was rent stabilized—which was great. Initially the rent was under $300 and only modest increases were allowed throughout my tenancy.
On the fourth floor, below my apartment and that of my next door neighbor, in a six-room flat, boasting two fireplaces, a kitchen and a pantry, overlooking both 91st and Lex, lived Mrs. Graham. Mrs. Graham could not remember when she moved in, it was after the War, but she wasn’t sure which war, could have been WWI, may have been WWII. I didn’t pursue it. Her rent was $104 throughout her tenancy. She was convinced the landlords were trying to kill her. They weren’t.
Mrs. Graham and I became fast acquaintances. When I introduced myself to her the first time I pronounced my name phonetically Mac.EL.fresh. I was used to talking to the elderly; my grandmother back home was hard of hearing–pronunciation and pitch were important. Shortly thereafter there was a timid knock at the door and Mrs. Graham queried me about my name. She had picked up a package, brought it up to me and saw the name McElfresh spelled out. Puzzled she said, “I have relatives in Maryland. They have the same name, but they pronounce it McElfresh.”
Her pronunciation was the same as our pronunciation – we were somehow distantly related.
Mrs. Graham was old and needed help. I found myself frequently changing light bulbs, feeding her cats, running errands, typing her angry memos to the landlord, letters to the editor, and other diverse correspondence. I agreed to type a poem that she had written, “Home”. Needless to say it was an epic poem.
In return she baked me things. I saw her kitchen, the cats on the table, the milk sitting out, and then there was the rattling I heard one day. I glanced around and under the table was an open coffee can—the rattling was the mass of cockroaches crawling around it in. So when baked goods were offered, I very politely thanked her and tossed the delectables out—living in NYC in the 70’ and 80’s a good sense of self-preservation was necessary.
My grandmother loved my selected Mrs. Graham stories—and there always one to relay to her. Even after Mrs. Graham passed away, for my Grandmother’s sake, I kept her alive and continued to pass along stories.
Select Mrs. Graham Entries
Thursday, Jan 5, 1984—New York City—Mrs. Graham is downtown in court today–her malpractice suit against Lenox Hill Hospital. She used my credit card last night to order a Fugazy Limousine.
Tuesday July 3, 1984—New York City–Incidentally, Mrs. Graham has been having difficulties and I was supposed to take care of her cats if anything went wrong or if she had to go to the hospital. She said on the telephone, after a visit to her doctor, that she is in trouble. We whispered a small prayer.
Wed. Nov. 28, 1984—New York City—Mrs. Graham called first thing in the morning to say that she was having a coronary. I got down there and found her weak as a kitten and panting. Sat her down in her chair where she leaned back, tears streaming down her face and breathing strenuously. I called her doctor and got her nurse who telephoned for an ambulance. When it arrived fifteen minutes – in between the police came and went and Mrs. Graham gave me instructions in a very weak voice to have the cats killed and herself cremated—the crew said, “Where’s the emergency?” and indicated that Mrs. Graham was fine. I was a bit flustered, truly. I had to deny that I called 911. Anyway, I called her niece K.R. and another ambulance came and things ended up all right.
Mon. Dec. 3, 1984—New York City—Had a phone call from Mrs. Graham. She sounded fine. Took an abbreviated walk. Dad bought 32 acres, including a quarter-mile of shoreline in Vinalhaven, off Maine.