Thursday, July 2, 2015

People in your Neighborhood

New Year's Eve, 1982 or 83, NYC's Upper West Side. That would have made me 15 or 16, but I looked more like 13 or 14.

I promise you this story is true.

My good friend, J, who lives in an upper west side high rise apartment building, is having his annual NYE party. J has the "cool" parents, who let us drink and pretty much do whatever we want, as long as we agree to drink only in their apartment, spend the night there, and not do anything foolish. By 11pm, I am three sheets to the wind. Like...can't-stand-up-for-more-than-a-few-minutes-I-need-some-fresh-air drunk. I leave J's 12th floor apartment, in just jeans and a t-shirt, get into the elevator, and press all of the buttons. Don't ask me why I do this. I'm drunk and 16. It makes sense to me at that moment. Before the elevator even gets to the 11th floor, my legs give out. I slide down and sit on the floor. The elevator gets to 11, and this really gorgeous couple gets in.  Maybe the two most beautiful people I have ever seen in person. He is wearing a tux and tails, spats - the whole nine yards. And she is wearing a fabulous gown and a cloak. Like a princess. Something you'd see in a 1940s movie. I think she is just gorgeous - beautiful, thick, dark hair,  an exquisite face, cafe-con-leche complexion. Just beautiful.

Anyhow, the couple gets in the elevator. The guy doesn't notice me,  sitting all curled up in the corner of the elevator, but the woman does. She's says, "Oh, my God, hon - there's a kid on the floor. Honey (to me) are you ok???" 

"Yeah," I tell her,  "I'm fine...I'm a little drunk and I'm just resting and going out to get some air."

She grins and replies, "Sweetie (To me! That ridiculously pretty, elegant lady called me sweetie!), you don't even have a jacket - it's got to be 20 degrees outside. You can't go outside like that!" 

At this point her date mumbles something about how the elevator is stopping at every floor, and how they're going to be late.  It's close to midnight. No one wants to miss the ball dropping. I confess that I've pressed every button, and the pretty lady assures me it's not a big deal. We (the pretty lady and myself - the guy seems nice enough, but is not at all interested in me) continue talking as the elevator goes down. She asks me how old I am, and if I live in the building. I reply, "No. My friend J lives here. He's having a party. I'm just spending the night." She asks how much I've had to drink, and if I think I'm going to be sick. I assure her I'm fine - drunk, but fine. We chit-chat. She repeats that she doesn't think I should go outside without a coat, as it's winter in NYC...and that she'd feel better if she knew I was just planning to go back to my friend's apartment, drink some water, and get some rest. I try to act cool, and tell her I'm A-ok, even though the truth is that I'm not entirely sure how to get up off the floor.

We finally reach the ground floor, and the beautiful couple are about to step off the elevator. The guy points out towards the street and says, "Look - our ride is waiting." The pretty lady steps off the elevator, turns back to look at me, and gets back in. She tells her date, "Make them wait. I can't just leave this kid in the elevator like this. I'm riding back up with her to make sure she doesn't go out and get pneumonia." Her handsome, well-dressed date sighs in frustration, but he jumps back in the elevator, too. I think to myself, "Wow...these are such nice people. What a nice lady. A nice, pretty lady." I'm just drunk enough that I start saying out loud things that I really only mean to think to myself, and I blurt out, "You're such a nice, pretty lady. You're beautiful. You look're so beautiful, you look like Maria from Sesame Street." She and her date laugh at this, but not in a nasty way...very sweetly, really. When the elevator gets to the 12th floor, I pull myself off the floor and get off. I turn around and tell the woman, again, how pretty she is, and that she looks like Maria on Sesame Street, and I promise this lovely couple that I'll go straight to J's apartment, drink some water, and sleep off my drunkenness. They wish me a happy new year, and the elevator doors close.

The next morning I'm having breakfast with J and his family, and a bunch of other kids who have spent the night. The phone rings and I hear J's mom talking, but I don't really pay attention to what's being said. She returns to the breakfast table and says, "How odd. That was Sonia from downstairs. She called to say she ran into one of the party guests in the elevator last night, and she wanted to make sure she was ok. She said the girl was pretty drunk, and was trying to go outside without even a jacket, and that she (Sonia) just wanted to make sure the girl had come back here and slept it off, without doing anything dangerous."

I suddenly remember the whole thing about the night before, and confess it to the table full of people: "Oh my god. That was me. Your neighbor was so nice to me. She probably got to her party late and missed the ball dropping because she insisted on riding all the way back up with me to make sure I got back ok. And I'm such an idiot. I was so out of it, I kept telling her she was beautiful, and that she looked like Maria from Sesame Street."

J and his parents start laughing, as does everyone else at the table. Even I laugh, because it's all so silly. Then the clincher: J's mom says, "Our downstairs neighbor is Sonia Manzano. She IS Maria on Sesame Street!"

Note: The talented, beautiful Sonia Manzano has announced her plan to retire from Sesame Street, a show she has been on for 44 years. I'm 48, so I don't really remember a time when "Maria" wasn't a character in my life. As a kid who grew up watching Sesame Street, I loved Maria. She was sweet and friendly and kind and, most importantly, she looked and sounded like the best women I knew: Puerto Rican women who lived in NYC. Seeing someone on TV who looked and sounded like that? It went a long way for this Puerto Rican kid growing up in Brooklyn. 

Along with Mister Rogers, Maria was one of the characters on TV who I used to think of as MY friend, MY neighbor.  It's no shock that Ms. Manzano's plan to retire has made a stir: she's played an important role in the lives of so many people of my generation, and of every generation that has come, since. Thanks, Sonia, for all of it....but especially for being so nice to an annoying, drunken teenager who probably made you late for New Year's Eve. You really did look fabulous.

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Lock Smith said...
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