Forty dollars a week, my mother’s salary before taxes in 1954, could barely feed my brother and me. For sixty-seven cents, however, she could buy a box of fertilizer that would nourish her plants all summer. By mid-June, when the rungs of the Brooklyn fire escapes sizzled and the police had given up on keeping the hydrants closed, our fire escape exploded with color: purple African violets, scarlet geraniums, yellow and magenta pansies, waxy white begonias. My mother’s plants, as perfect as silk imitations, were a testament to her hunger for beauty.
The summer I was eleven and my brother seven, the flowers were especially vibrant. They seemed a visual counterpart to the shrieking alarms from the firehouse across the alley. Tenement and station faced each other like wary adversaries. Everyone in the building hated the firemen; hated the hearty meals we glimpsed through the window; hated, in between alarms, their late-night card games punctuated by obscenities and the loud clanging of dishes as they snacked. People complained among themselves about being kept awake, but no one complained directly to the culprits, who probably would have paid no attention anyway.
One afternoon, as my mother fussed with her flowers, a bare-chested fireman with a sagging stomach yelled to her, “Beautiful flowers.” He stood with legs wide apart, with a hand shading his eyes from the glaring sun, and a wide grin that I mistrusted. My mother’s eyes narrowed at this, but she shouted, “Thanks,” then turned to me and shrugged. After a moment of being ignored, the fireman went indoors. My mother, at the age of forty, was an attractive woman, small and full-breasted with short auburn hair, and when I later spotted the fireman grabbing his crotch while talking to a friend, I felt certain he was speaking about her. I blushed and angrily deadheaded wilted blossoms, throwing them over the side of the fire escape and into the alley, where they lay like soiled velvet on the litter of rotting garbage.
Though the flowers thrived in summer, the only survivor of each winter’s sunless windows and nightly plunges into radiator heat was my mother’s seven-year-old jade plant. The shine of each fat leaf after I dusted it with a damp cloth delighted me. Its solitary vigil always ended the first Saturday in May, when, at 8:30 A.M., my mother rushed my brother and me out the door and up the street to be first in line at the five-and-dime’s spring plant sale. As the crowd behind us swelled and Mother pushed us closer to the big doors, my brother gazed hungrily at the photographs of tomato and cucumber plants taped to the windows and spoke of the gardens he’d one day have. There was a certain dreaminess in his expression as his imagination transported him to someplace green, far from gray tenements and gritty construction sites. My mother smiled at him, the gentler of her two children, and gripped our hands in dire prediction of rampaging plant-buyers, though the rush that might trample us never materialized.
When the bored saleswoman, who took her own sweet time, unlocked the door and swung it open, my mother flew forward, dragging us past clothes, toys, hardware, comics, cosmetics, and candy stacked in rows. My brother and I, however, were covetous only of breakfast at the luncheon counter newly decorated with pink impatiens, where elderly women settled stiffly onto stools to gossip and sip endless cups of coffee. While my mother’s discriminating eye examined the tiered plant racks in search of the glossy foliage and new buds that promised longevity, we shifted from foot to foot, distracted by the greasy smell of bacon and eggs. After she finally selected the plants and placed them in the wire carriage, she bought us each a hot chocolate and a Devil Dog. As we waited on the checkout line, she indicated the plants she thought especially hardy, optimistic that at least one would survive the winter along with the jade.
My brother dubbed the flower-laden fire escape our “English garden.” This was after I’d read him a book that I’d stolen from a dusty secondhand bookstore on Bedford Avenue. We sat out there after school each day, enjoying the spring warmth before the militant onslaught of humidity and heat that seemed peculiar to New York City summers. I was fascinated by the unrestrained, spiraling growth of leaf and stem, the ability to thrive on so little, as the plants shot up and widened like fans unfolding. I begged to take over the task of fertilizing and marveled at how a quarter teaspoon of fish-scented powder, along with water, could provide a meal. Once, I put a bit on the tip of my finger and sucked it. It was putrid, fit only for plants and perhaps the feral cats that meowed beneath our fire escape whenever I opened the lid and released the scent from the box.
Like the cats, I thought of food all the time, my hunger a constant background to everything else. My mother was paid on alternate Fridays. Each payday she’d arrive home with bags of groceries and a treat, usually poundcake with whipped cream (the Brooklyn version of a charlotte russe) from Stevens, the tiny bakery near the train stop on Marcy Avenue. Halfway through the week, however, despite her frugality, little food remained, and the free school lunch became our primary meal. At night, I often woke to a light in the kitchen and the sight of my mother chain-smoking at the table as she counted over and over the few dollars she had left, as though the counting could accomplish a miracle on the order of the loaves and the fishes.
The tiny, secondhand, black-and-white television she’d managed to purchase one autumn revealed a different America from ours, a blurry world where families passed heaping plates around the dinner table. At the movies my brother and I snuck into, it seemed every film featured at least one elaborate meal, a tapestry of food and romance so interwoven as to be inseparable. And then there were the magazines with feasts spread across their pages, tables set with silver, linen, glass goblets, china, and flowers, always flowers. (Flowers and food became so enmeshed in my mind that even now I insist on having flowers on our dining table.) I was furious at this land of plenty that excluded us. My brother, however, believed that we would eventually be granted access to this abundance. My mother sided with him. “Go to school,” she lectured as she watered and deadheaded her plants. “Go to college. Get a good job.” She shifted the pots to make the most of the sun. She was an immigrant from Eastern Europe who’d arrived in the U.S. with her parents when she was six, and she believed in the American Dream despite her experience of poverty. “I had to go to work by the sixth grade,” she lectured. “Go to school. Win scholarships. Go to school.”
One afternoon, as she pruned her plants, the fireman shouted to her across the alley, “You’re as beautiful as your flowers.” Her mouth tightened in anger. I saw him hungrily assess her body as she knelt over the geraniums. “I can’t make my plants stand up straight,” he shouted. “Come over and teach me how.” His boldness felt threatening, and I wanted to scream, Shut up! My mother shook her head in disgust and said, in a tight, furious voice, “Mister, your plants don’t interest me. Find another gardener.” He stared at her a moment, then laughed with humorless rancor, spun round, and went back into the firehouse, slamming the door behind him like a fist against a wall. She sighed deeply and said to me, “Go to school. Earn enough to plant a real garden in a real backyard. Go to school.”
School. Although my brother attended classes regularly, hoping for the future my mother insisted could be his, I wasn’t much for school. I stayed for lunch and then vanished from the dilapidated gray building. I hopped the train to the big library in Manhattan, where I slaked my thirst for knowledge in the silent immensity of the reading room. I explored the Museum of Natural History and the Met, mesmerized by dinosaur skeletons, remnants of vanished civilizations, and beautiful yet puzzling art by Pollock, Picasso, Magritte. On the way home I stopped in high-end food markets to marvel at the luscious produce and beautiful breads — and to stuff what little I could into the pockets of my denim jacket. I hopped on board the train, teeth clenched in an exhilarating combination of anger and victory.
During the stifling months of July, August, and even September, everyone dragged mattresses out onto the fire escapes to sleep — everyone except the old Lithuanian woman who gave us a nickel to carry her groceries upstairs. Given the choice between the heat that engulfed the apartments and the noise of the busy fire station, we chose the sirens. My brother and I were allowed to sleep outside only after repeated promises to be careful of the plants. The mass of blossoms gave a pretense of exotica, and we imagined ourselves in a South American jungle. The excitement of sleeping outdoors was almost enough to make us disregard our growling stomachs. In the dark, the broken glass glittering beneath us in the alley took on an almost ethereal loveliness. Humidity formed a romantic haze around the streetlights. Car horns, blaring radios, and loud conversations were replaced by the wheezing of heavy trucks, the cries of prowling cats, and the soft chatter of night-shift workers returning home. Despite my brother’s restlessness, the ache in my empty gut, and the snores and groans of neighbors on surrounding fire escapes, I slept. By midsummer, I would often sleep through fire alarms. I awoke to the rising sun and the smell of a firehouse breakfast.
As the only Jewish kids in our immediate neighborhood, my brother and I were friendless, but our days were full. I read to him on the fire escape. We ate what I’d pilfered that day. We prowled for open fire hydrants. We took advantage of the air-conditioned library. I took him to the Museum of Natural History and the Brooklyn Botanical Gardens, where I was dazzled by the glass-domed rain forest, a hemisphere of heat and moisture with electric-colored flowers and green palms arcing overhead. I found especially compelling the ferns that clung to trees, surviving on what nourishment they plucked from the air: humidity and light and perhaps some invisible vibration.
In search of relief from the stultifying midsummer heat, we’d hop a train to Coney Island, wiggling under the turnstile and racing through the open doors of the train. Jammed between our sweating fellow pilgrims, we passed station after underground station in darkness. When the train finally ascended into daylight, it was like being reborn. We strolled the boardwalk, gaped at the gaudy posters of freaks, and drooled at the rich, heavy scent of Nathan’s hot dogs. Then we changed beneath towels into swimsuits, leaped into the ocean, and afterward changed back into our clothes the same way. Sometimes a vendor, in a show of generosity, would give us a hot dog or knish or custard cone, and the Friday before school began, a counterman at Nathan’s, noting our ragged jeans and gaunt frames, gave us each a hot dog, a soda, and a corn on the cob dripping with butter. We licked our fingers long after any trace of flavor remained.
The first week of school, my brother brought home a book about farm life. It was the Thursday before payday. I’d had no luck stealing fruit, and we were especially hungry. Our refrigerator held half a loaf of rye bread, mayonnaise, garlic, and an onion. We would have onion sandwiches for dinner, richly peppered, the bread rubbed with a garlic clove — heartier than you might think. We would eat dinner on the blossom-draped fire escape, which never failed to cheer us up.
Until dinner, my brother and I sat out there on a blanket, surrounded by flowers in their last brilliant blaze of color before cold weather seized the city, its frigid fingers penetrating window frames and doors. The Lithuanian woman hung her laundry on a line strung between her window and a wooden pole cemented into the alley. She tucked in the gray wisps that had escaped from her babushka and called to us, “Your mother?”
“Still at work,” I called back.
“Say hello for me,” she said as she clothespinned a last dress and vanished into her apartment like a turtle withdrawing into its shell. The afternoon was golden. Rainbows flashed in the air as the sun caught drops of water. An occasional breeze released the scent of detergent from the hanging laundry.
Street noise invaded the alley: jackhammers and car horns and radios and raucous kids playing in the fading days of summer. Crazy Eddie, the neighborhood junkie, cursed in Spanish at a group of jeering boys, who goaded him with, “Where’s the stash, man?” Absent were the eerie wails of Rose, a Holocaust survivor who wandered the neighborhood, pulling at her hair and clawing at the numbers tattooed on her arm. Her appearance always evoked silence. The kids feared her madness as though a similar insanity lay dormant within each of us, waiting to be ignited by her ferocity.
“Read,” my brother demanded, holding out the book he’d brought home.
It was a simple book: dogs with lolling tongues, cows huddled in a barn waiting to be milked, horses galloping through a dreamy landscape. It began in summer, when the family gathered vegetables, cut wheat, milked cows, fed chickens, and stacked firewood. Winter brought sparkling glass jars of preserved vegetables, a roasted chicken (the circumstances of its death discreetly avoided), the smiling farm wife setting the table for the family to gather around. I was ravenous, my hunger a physical pain. I wanted to slam the book shut, but my brother was looking closely at the pictures. He nodded as though he’d made up his mind about something. “I’m going to live on a farm,” he said.
“Yeah,” I answered. “In the alley.”
“When I grow up. You and Ma can live on my farm.”
His naiveté irritated me. “Grow up right now and see the light,” I snapped.
He leaned forward and touched one of Mom’s African violets. “I’m going to grow flowers, too, not just vegetables.”
“Dummy,” I answered, but some part of me was unexpectedly thrilled, as though his persistent belief could make it happen. He saw this on my face and smiled in quiet victory. Then he pointed to the book and said, “Read.”
I turned the page. The mother washed dishes while the father and his plump boy and girl, bundled in warm snowsuits, made “sugar on snow.”
“Is that real?” my brother asked. I shrugged, dazzled by the fantasy of maple syrup magically turning white flakes into candy. I longed for this alien farm-family winter somewhere in America, with all its wondrous promise.
Many years later, on a mystical snowy night in Maine, my husband would make sugar on snow for me. A gentle man who’d grown up in Kansas, he offered up the pristine white confection like penance to my still-hungry child self. Watching the sweet brown liquid swirl across the first winter snowfall captured in a bowl, I longed to share this fantasy-become-real with my brother, long dead in Vietnam.
A clamor from the firehouse pulled us from the soothing white dream of the book. Three firemen were hustling from stove to table and calling the others to dinner. The smell of sizzling steak and onions drifted across the alley, and I knew we were not the only occupants of the tenement to stare.
That meal appears in my memory in bold color, like pages from a glossy magazine: salad bowl of crisp greens, ripe tomatoes, and fleshy cucumber logs; bright yellow ears of corn; snowy drifts of mashed potatoes; steak crowned with fried onions; and a glossy chocolate layer cake with syrupy cherries. They heaped their plates high and roughhoused with macho camaraderie. My brother fell silent as heaping platters and frosty pitchers traveled around the table. His stomach growled. I realized my fists were clenched, and I lowered them to my lap. My head pounded, and for a long moment I experienced tunnel vision, the alley stretching out forever, the whole world between us and that table.
The fireman who’d spoken to my mother sat bare-chested, head thrown back in laughter at something someone had said. He scraped his chair back and carried a pitcher to the sink to refill it. Then he looked up through the window at our fire escape. He was looking for my mother; his eyes met mine instead. I looked away, but not before I saw him smile. He turned and said something to the other men. Fifteen pairs of eyes stared at us. Then the men laughed. The fireman who’d seen us first said something to the others before he stepped outside. He walked right up to the fence and waved. My brother, surprised at his show of friendliness, waved back. He thought the fireman might offer us some food, I realized. His optimism infuriated me. At his age, I’d already known that there was no charity, that anyone who appeared generous actually wanted something in return.
The fireman ignored him and stared at me with the calculated look I’d observed on boys throwing taunts and blowing sloppy kisses at passing girls. He stepped back from the fence into the sun, his nude chest glistening in the pale afternoon light. He grinned, waggled his hips obscenely, then languorously lifted his arms and flexed his muscles.
“Hey, kid.” His voice traveled across the narrow chasm of the alley. “If you want something I’ve got, come see me in another ten years, why don’t you?”
He winked, then strolled slowly back through the door of the station. I flushed red-hot, certain that half the tenement had heard him.
At that moment, my mother’s key turned in the lock, and the apartment door opened. I glanced at my brother. His face was pale, and it seemed to me its brightness had faded like fabric left in the sun too long. Then we crawled in through the open window to greet our mother. We never discussed the incident. My mother never mentioned it either. I assume that nobody told her.
That evening, we sat around the cracked linoleum table eating onion sandwiches and drinking water from jelly jars. Our mother was surprised that we did not want to eat on the fire escape.
She was equally surprised the next Saturday by my refusal to help with the plants. That afternoon my mother tended her flowers alone as I read on my bed and my brother napped. I heard the deep voice of the fireman yelling something to her. His husky growl pierced me, and I felt an ache as painful as hunger. I looked out the window. My mother’s face was red as she turned, shoulders erect, and said evenly, “Don’t ever talk to me again. I’m not interested in anything you have to say.” When she bent to the plants again, she caught my eye and, despite the strained look on her face, winked.
The screamed word filled the air. The firehouse door slammed. My mother continued deadheading as though nothing had happened. Her confidence reassured me. I winked back.
Later that day, over iced tea, she told my brother and me, “Some of those plants look really good. I think they might last the winter.” We shook our heads at this dream of hers. She said the same thing every September, and by early November, only the jade would be alive. “Next year,” my brother said, “why don’t you grow some vegetables?”
“We don’t live on a farm,” she responded, mussing his hair.
“I’m going to,” he said, but his insistence was halfhearted.
“Good,” she told him. “I’ll plant the flower garden.”
He nodded glumly. Surprised by his lethargy, my mother went on to describe the flowers she’d plant, the blossoms that would overrun my brother’s farm, the bright colors, the magnificent sun, the endless fields of vegetables that we’d feed on all summer and preserve for the winter. She looked directly at my brother as she spoke, but his face was pale, his usual enthusiasm absent.
“You’ll be fine,” she said to him finally. “You’re tired from the first week of school,” although he’d never been tired from school before. “Take extra milk at lunch if they let you.” She put her hand over his.
“They don’t let you,” I told her.
Within two weeks, a premature cold front killed everything. Leaves and flowers stiffened with frost like sugar icing. The jade lingered briefly but, despite my mother’s nurturing, didn’t last the winter.