Only 5 more blobs till I hit the big Eight-O. After that, there won’t be more daily blobs, but maybe I can crank some out as the spirit moves me now and then.
Before I get to the last daily one, though, grandson Bryce keeps asking me to write about this story – so here goes.
My husband Gene and I got married in 1951 when I was 20 years old and he was 24.
At first, we lived in Miami, Florida where we worked for Pan American Airlines – Gene in Operations, and me in Flight Watch.
I got pregnant almost immediately when we settled there. We liked working for Pan-Am, but we really didn’t like living in Miami. The OB doctor didn’t approve of our traveling until I got further along, but when he finally said it was okay, we packed up and moved to the Manhattan borough of New York City.
The second place we lived there was an old brownstone building on 164th Street, not far from where Gene got a job working for Columbia University.
Except for Gene and me, the neighborhood was mostly populated by Jews and a few Cubans. We rented one room of the downstairs apartment that belonged to our landlady – a colorful Jewish woman, named Mrs. Grill. I think her first name was something like Zelda, but hardly anyone called her that. She might have been in her early sixties when we lived there.
Mrs. Grill was a popular member of the community and enjoyed a kind of celebrity status among the other Yiddish women in the neighborhood. She was a handsome woman and she carried herself with a kind of presence that made you notice her. But I soon observed that one reason for the deferential respect she was paid by the other women wasn’t because of her looks, or because she owned the brownstone building, but because of her extraordinary shopping skills.
In Manhattan in the early 1950s, I think there were very few grocery stores – and no supermarkets. All our food for the kitchen we shared with Mrs. Grill was purchased at little shops on a street not far from our building. The meat was acquired at little butcher shops, fruit at fruit stands, bread in bakery shops. So also, dairy, fish, and most other products were sold in little speciality shops.
The shopping was an important ritual performed in my neighborhood every day except the Sabbath. For the housewives there, it was an important part of the day – economically and socially. Almost as soon as the shopkeepers opened their doors in the morning and arranged their products, it was like somebody had just yelled “Let the games begin!”
The price of the food was labeled but completely disregarded by the housewives and shopkeepers. The labeled price was merely to set the stage for the mighty armed combat which would ensue. The point of the game was to test the negotiating skills of the opponent, thereby allowing a price to be settled on.
I was introduced to the shopping “arena” soon after we moved in with Mrs. Grill. I was always seasick with “morning” sickness, but Mrs. Grill was adamant that I should accompany her every day, while she went shopping for today’s food.
I presumed that the reason for her interest in having me accompany her might be due to one of the following:
1. Maybe she enjoyed my company, or
2. She wanted me to get out of the house to get some exercise, or to get my mind off the nausea, or
3. Maybe she wanted me to learn how to properly negotiate with the neighborhood shopkeepers.
Any, or all of the above. That’s what I assumed.
So, every morning, Mrs. Grill would rap on our door. “Patty, aren’t you ready yet?” she would say urgently. “Get up, up, UP”.
So it was that every day except the Sabbath, I would don my maternity tent, and drag my swollen feet and belly out to the sidewalk where I could waddle alongside the imposing Mrs. Grill. In her housedress, purse hanging from her arm, she was girded for battle. I had to admire her pluck and power.
At the first street where the shops were located, we would proceed from shop to shop, and at each one, Mrs. Grill would “introduce” me to the shopkeeper and the other customers. All the introductions and comments were spoken entirely and solemnly in Yiddish so I had no idea as what my decorum should be. I decided that trying to smile in a casual but friendly way was the safest response on my part.
Once I had been presented in each shop, the negotiations would commence. In spite of my horrible morning sickness, I really enjoyed the entertainment that always followed. Watching the housewives haggle with the shopkeepers and anticipating who the winner of each contest would be was world-class suspense at its finest. Jousting over the price of a pound of green beans may not sound thrilling to you right now – but you had to BE there. And it was a marvelous temporary relief from morning sickness.
To this day, I remember those shopping excursions fondly. I wish somebody would write a musical comedy about them. It was Show Time on 165th Street.
Of all the ladies that shopped on that boulevard, Mrs. Grill racked up the most wins. With dignity, she would hand over her coins as the shopkeeper begrudgingly handed her a little sack with her purchase in it, and then we would proceed to the next shop.
Invariably, on the way home, I would catch a glimpse of a big smile on Mrs. Grill’s face. I figured it was because clearly, she had made the best deals of any of the other shoppers. Victory was hers every time.
This went on six days a week for about five months. We danced to the same tune each time – Mrs. Grill solemnly presenting me, and then the shopkeepers and other customers earnestly discussing me in Yiddish. And all the while, not sure as to how Miss Manners would handle it, I always tried to nod my head as though I understood perfectly, and always, with a friendly, dignified smile.
Finally, on August 16th, our first baby – Mark Peter Ford – was born. I had to give up our shopping trips at that point, and Gene would bring groceries home.
A week or so later, Gene and I were going to church with the baby, and one of the housewives I remembered from the shopping excursions saw us. She looked kind of shocked. She came over to us and, in English, asked me “Do you remember me?” I told her I did and then, looking at Gene, she asked with a kind of awe, “Are you married to each other?” Puzzled, Gene said, “We sure are”.
That’s when the jig was up! The lady explained that on each of our shopping trips, Mrs. Grill had paraded me before every shopkeeper in order to “explain” that I was an unwed mother and she had taken me in and given me shelter out of the generosity of her heart. And she made it perfectly and painfully clear to each shopkeeper that she fully expected them to be generous because of her sacrifices.
And that’s how the wily Mrs. Grill was always the champion shopper on 165th Street. She adroitly used me in order to play the charity card. Talk about Chutzpah!
We laughed all the way home, but needless to say, I was a little embarrassed to ever be seen again in any of the little shops on 165th Street.
When Mark was two weeks old, some of my family came to visit us. Here’s a photo of us outside Mrs. Grill’s brownstone building. On the left is my dad Jim Gorman holding my niece Chris Fitzpatrick (now Milner), then my mom Josie, my brother Richard, and my sister Joan. The little girl named Judy lived in the building, Gene is the tall guy in the back row, and in front of him is a character who lived in the building. The woman he has his arm around is Mrs. Grill. I’m the one turned to go up the step, and the man behind me is another character from the building.
About two months after Mark was born, we knew we had to have more room, and we found an apartment on 73rd Street.
Mrs. Grill never really forgave us for moving away and spoiling her shopping fun. But I’ll always admire that proud spirit of hers, her generosity to us, her indescribably good cooking, and the shameless way she used me in order to negotiate the best deals.
Here’s one more photo of her taken in the room we rented in her brownstone building. It was taken on Mark’s christening day. On the left is Mark’s godfather, an actor and friend named Harry Scully and his sister Rita. To the right of baby Mark is Mrs. Grill and I’m the one leaning over her looking at the baby.
So that, Bryce, is the whole sordid tale about how your Grandma was once – briefly – an unwed mother.