Pure Slush, Snatches of an Aria, Music Folio 1, November 2022
When I was 19, I dropped out of college, wrote my parents a letter that I was going to go to the school of life and moved to New York with my boyfriend. I thought he was older and wiser and that I’d landed a great catch. He had a big fancy job. I had none.
It wasn’t long before my boyfriend and I broke up. I was upset when he gave me crabs so I told him to move out, hoping he’d ask for a second chance. He moved out. A few weeks later, I demanded his keys back, hoping he’d ask to keep them so he could continue to come see me. He gave them back. I was broken hearted. But, I was young, single and living in New York. Life was good.
One day walking with a friend on Broadway between 115th and 116th Streets, I saw a “Help Wanted” sign in a store window. I walked in and talked with the owner. I was hired. It was a hip women’s clothing store, a boutique, directly across from Columbia University.
The owner introduced me to his humorless, non-talkative, old aunt. She took charge of the cash box. We were instructed to call her Auntie. I never did learn her name. My coworker, Amy, a skinny young woman from Ohio who came to New York to be an actor, was always reading Backstage magazine. She told me stories of what she did on the “casting couch” to get parts. She rarely had work.
I sat in a tiny chair across from Auntie when there were no customers. One day she rolled her sleeve up revealing faded numbers tattooed on her inner forearm. She saw me see them. She rolled her sweater back down. I would never see those numbers again. But I could never stop thinking about them.
One day a young woman, undoubtedly a Barnard student, as were most of our customers, came in to buy a dress. She asked me how it fit. Clearly she wanted me to tell her it wasn’t too small. The pleats gapped in the back. She could see that in the mirror as well as I could, but buying the dress in a size too small was what she wanted. Gaping pleats and all.
I told her it looked great. As she admired herself in the three-way mirror, I amused myself by whistling, as I often did.
She stopped. Stared. “Is that Mozart? Were you just whistling the lo non chiedo aria?" she asked.
I thought for a moment. What had I been whistling? “Yes,” I said, “I suppose I was,”
“Imagine that. You’re whistling Mozart. An aria. Amazing. Just amazing,” she said in disbelief.
Apparently, I was a simple shopgirl, a college dropout, who would never have been suspected of knowing an aria.
Eventually I left New York, returned to college, earned advanced degrees. Grew up. It’s been decades but I love to think back on those magical times. How I reveled in the simple joy of my twenty-five-block walk up Broadway to work on spring days, stopping to grab a hot bagel from Zabar’s along the way. Getting high with neighborhood friends at night, meandering the few blocks to Pic’n’Pay at 2 am, enduring the glare of the bright neon lights, to grab snacks to quench our munchies.
I remember the numbers on Auntie’s arms; the hopes and unfulfilled dreams of a sad girl from Ohio; and the condescending words of a young college student.