No vember

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WHEN I WAS ABOUT 9, my uncle taught me this ditty:

No birds No bees No flowers No trees

No wonder…November.

I still find it amusing, even though it’s not true. The goldfinches are still at the thistle feeder. I saw bees burrowing in the catmint just the other day. My cimicifuga sent up about a dozen white bottle-brush flowers, and even the rhododendrons, below — which I thought didn’t bloom this year because the deer had eaten all the buds — have a few stunted magenta flowers on them, months behind schedule. The trees are still pretty leafy, and seem particularly brilliant this autumn.

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Perhaps because I’m leaving? Tomorrow I’m heading to Brooklyn to start my experiment in leading a double life — the Hamptons/New York City circuit that so many take for granted, but for me is a whole new chapter.

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On Monday morning I’ll be in my Prospect Heights pied-a-terre, awaiting delivery of most of the furniture I put into storage a year-and-a-half ago, when I came out to live in East Hampton full-time. That was by default, as some of you may remember, when the Brooklyn place I was to have moved into around the same time I closed on this Hamptons cottage fell through at the last minute.

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Above: Awesome sarcococca, male of the species

I feel like I have unfinished business back in Brooklyn. I’m getting excited about volunteering at the Brooklyn Botanic Garden, taking $10 yoga classes at Shambala, going to BAM more often, hearing some klezmer music, shopping at Sahadi. But most of all, having a city home again, furnished with city stuff. The orange Ligne Roset chairs, the steel and glass coffee table, the Nakashima-esque side table my son made, the inlaid 1950s Italian cabinet we bought in Tuscany and had shipped home, the 8-foot-long beige chenille sofa with cat-scratched arms. Maybe inanimate objects shouldn’t matter so much, but somehow they do. Even more than memories, I think, they’re about identity. It’s been hard sometimes, these past 18 months, to remember who I am in a new place, new house, surrounded by new (pre-owned, of course, but new to me) stuff.

November will not be boring. After settling into Brooklyn, I’m off to Maui for a week (yes, I know, too bad). I’ll be exploring the island with my daughter, who lives there. I’ve got our itinerary planned out. No modern resorts; we’ll be staying in vintage B&Bs. I’ll visit some botanic gardens and flower farms and historic houses and maybe even go to the beach. Then I’m heading down to Philly to cut a hole in a wall that should make one of the apartments in my Queen Village building much pleasanter and more livable. Thanksgiving will be upstate with lots of cousins.

It won’t be until December that I begin to figure out how this pied-a-terre thing really works.

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Photos by Debre DeMers

Down Memory Lane

THIS OLD-HOUSE FIXATION OF MINE is nothing new. I came to Manhattan at 17 to attend NYU and lasted one year in a dorm. Since then, I’ve never lived in a modern building, only 19th century relics — a series of mostly crummy downtown flats which I kept trading for something slightly less small, dark, or noisy.

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That’s 17 Downing Street between Sixth Avenue and Bedford Street, above. I paid $157/month for a ground-floor studio in 1969, tiny and dark. There was an old-fashioned pharmacy called Avignon on the corner, and an Italian luncheonette, Pietro’s, where you could get a bowl of minestrone for less than a dollar, both long gone.

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399 West Broadway, corner of Spring, above. I remember standing in a real estate broker’s office on a rainy night in the fall of 1970, while she shuffled through a box of index cards. She pulled out a card for a 900-square-foot loft at $175/month. “Where’s West Broadway?” I asked. It was remote in those days, but cacophanous, with the Hoffman boiler factory clanging away across the street. Later, the racket coming up through the floorboards from the new Spring Street Restaurant downstairs made living there impossible.

I even worked in old buildings, including 640 Broadway on the corner of Bleecker, below. The large semi-circular window marks the space occupied by the Law Commune, a firm specializing in draft dodgers and drug busts. (Abbie Hoffman was a client.) I was a legal secretary earning $4 an hour, which I thought was terrific, and I made my own hours. usually 1-9PM.

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52 MacDougal Street, between Houston and Prince, below, lasted about three years. A clerk at the Law Commune was leaving his tub-in-kitchen, $100/month apartment, and I took it over. West-facing, on the third floor, it had a decent amount of sun in the living room (the minuscule bedroom looked into an air shaft). Some of the apartments had toilets in the hall. This one had a toilet inside the apartment, which made it a real prize. An elderly Italian lady, dressed all in black, lived on the top floor. She must have been 95, and she probably got to be by climbing five flights every day.

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All the buildings are the same as they ever were — in fact, cleaner and with new windows.

I met up with my sister at Souen for a virtuous macrobiotic lunch. Then we wandered up MacDougal for cappuccinos at the atmospheric Cafe Reggio, which I’m very happy to report is still there.

Second Fall in the Country

IMG_4324IT’S MY SECOND AUTUMN IN EAST HAMPTON, and life is good. I’ve planted a few more shrubs, done a bit of fall clean-up. Things are shaping up, landscape-wise, though I’ve been a little lax on the photos. How many times can I show pictures of the same property? Actually, though, I saw a shot of how the roadside area, which is where I’ve been working lately, looked a year ago, and there is an enormous difference. How quickly one forgets.

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What else have I been up to, for continuity’s sake? I was in Philadelphia last weekend, getting a trinity house ready for a renter. I’ve been eating vegan for the past 2 weeks and I’m getting used to it (just made a yummy tofu/spinach frittata). I’ve written several magazine articles, two for Garden Design‘s Nov/Dec issue  (one on the new Brooklyn Bridge Park) and two for Hamptons Cottages & Gardens‘ holiday issue. I spent yesterday in Bridgehampton with my friend Diana White, who sells extraordinary vintage furniture from Biedermeier to Art Deco to Steampunk, helping her with a photo shoot for the website Vintage and Modern.

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Home #1

And now, to shake things up a little, I’m entering the ranks of those who “divide their time” between two homes. I’ve signed a lease on a 1-bedroom garden floor-through in Prospect Heights, Brooklyn, and just 3-1/2 weeks from now, I’ll be busy getting set up there and settling in for much of the winter — I guess. I’m really not sure where I’ll be when or how I’ll decide when it’s time to stay and when it’s time to go. It should be the easiest move ever, since all the stuff I’ll need for that apartment has been in storage for the past year-and-a-half. It’ll be delivered, and all I’ll have to do is unpack.

Consequently, I was very taken with a column in last Sunday’s New York Times, called “Home is Where the Stuff Is.” Boy, did it resonate, especially this passage, in which the author, Thomas Bellers, describes his feelings on returning home to New Orleans after a summer in Sag Harbor and seeing

“a million details of my life as it had been three and a half months earlier. Pocket change on a mantel, two cans of dog treats for the neighbor’s dog, a three-taper candlestick with wax melted over some Mardi Gras beads…

Nevertheless, I greeted these objects with ambivalence. Part of me felt exhausted by their presence. They exerted a kind of lunar pull, tugging me out of the present and into the past. It was like seeing an old friend after a long interval and being overcome with the sickening feeling that one of you has changed beyond recognition, that the old magic is gone.”

Is that how I’m going to feel, unpacking 35 boxes of books I didn’t look at before I moved? Clothing I haven’t needed? Pottery and dishes I easily replaced at yard sales? Music I’ve re-bought on iTunes?

The thing I’m most looking forward to re-acquainting myself with is my super-comfortable Englander mattress. Experientially, there’s more: Seeing friends I haven’t succeeded in luring out to the Hamptons. Volunteering at the Brooklyn Botanic Garden. Taking a few catch-up swing dance lessons. And coming back here, with the distance that I expect will make me appreciate country life all the more.

Below: Roadside with evergreens in place.  On my way to a ‘tapestry hedge,’ I hope, planning to fill in with looser, deciduous flowering shrubs.
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Detaching from Dean Street

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AT THE END OF APRIL, I’m downsizing from a grand, 1,800-square-foot garden/parlor duplex to a more sensible garden floor-through a few blocks away.

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It’s been 2-1/2 years, which flew, and I’ve loved living here. I’ve realized that my identity is very wrapped up in where I live — and this place has been good for my self-esteem.

Where I’m going will be appropriate and cozy, if not as splendiferous.

Having signed a lease last night, I’m starting the process of detaching emotionally from this house where I’ve been so happy.

It helps to know I’ll always have my photos.

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