The Mahjong Girls

Growing up in Stuyvesant Town—a large apartment complex on the Lower East Side of Manhattan—was more like Peyton Place than you would think. It seemed that everyone knew each other. The complex stretched from 14th Street to 21st Street and consisted of a multitude of 13 story buildings. Stuyvesant Town was built in 1948, and was geared for returning vets and their growing families. My parents and other young families moved in, creating a common bond—something you don’t find today. There was a sense of camaraderie and belonging among the new residents who were often either Jewish or Catholic that is absent today. My mom and a few of the Jewish ladies formed a ladies group that met once a week at each other’s apartment, to play Mahjong (a Chinese tile game) and they became known to us as The Mahjong Girls. When it was my mom’s turn to host, we were always in a frenzy—frantically vacuuming and dusting, putting out hors d’oeuvres, nuts, chocolate, drinks, etc. When the first doorbell rang, my older brother and I were exiled to the bedrooms. Since I did not have a room of my own, the evening was particularly magical because I got to watch TV in my parents’ bedroom and eat the goodies my mom would bring into me during a break. Mahjong seemed to be the exclusive domain of Jewish ladies and I don’t think the Christians played it. Now, each Mahjong girl had a distinct personality—and where we didn’t know much more about them, my brother and I invented personalities. There was Ethyl, Anita, my mom, Shirley and Sarah. Anita was chubby, and had a gravely voice, so my brother and I imagined her as someone obsessed with cookies and imitated her voice asking, “Do you have any cookies?” She had two sons, Jay and Steven, who my brother (Gordon) and I played with. Their son Steven was odd, and nobody could really put their finger on what was wrong with him. But, years later Gordon and I came to the conclusion that he was probably autistic. My brother and I could sometimes be pretty cruel, not directly, but looking back I see that our funny games were born of jealousy. On the surface, Anita seemed to have a charmed life, but one day, we found out that her husband, Sydney, was “visiting” somewhere for an extended period of time. Since Stuy Town was somewhat Peyton Place like, we found out through the grapevine that he was actually in jail for perjury. So, from then on, my bro and I referred to him as “the criminal” in our conversations (again, just between us). Unfortunately, their son Steven inexplicably was found dead one day—a real tragedy. Now Shirley, who also lived in our building, was a very stylish and refined beauty whose husband, Bill, was a commercial artist. Their apartment was impeccably decorated and she was the height of fashion. She had blond tresses that she wore in a tasteful upswept hairdo, which never looked out of place. However, Gordon and I had a theory that her hair was not real, and was, in fact a wig—that underneath her golden faux locks, she actually had “black, kinky, greasy hair.”

My family’s circle of friends went beyond our building too. And, just like Peyton Place, gossip abounded in Stuyvesant Town. Since we considered our family so imperfect (and it was, but probably not much more than some other families), we hated seeing seemingly perfect families. One such family was headed by the matriarch, Marion. She was a pillar of the community, always traveling on vacation, head of this or that committee, beautiful apartment, and seemed to live a “Father Knows Best” or “Leave it to Beaver” existence. But, one day, we heard through the gossip mill, that Marion and her husband were getting divorced. I remember sniggering with my brother about that, and being not so secretly thrilled that the perfect Marion was, indeed, human like the rest of us.

It’s so strange that although my memories of growing up in Stuy Town, with my very dysfunctional family, are not particularly great, I still have dreams every so often. I dream that I am somehow still living at 455 East 14th Street, in apartment MG, but I am my age now. Sometimes my parents are there too (the age they used to be) yet it seems perfectly natural. These dreams are never happy ones, but somehow I have them periodically—although less and less as I get older. My brother and friend Janet (who lived across from me) have these types of dreams too, which is so curious, since our childhoods were less than idealistic. But somehow, although there were many painful memories, there were actually some good ones too and, in spite of myself, I find reasons to laugh and reminisce about them. I guess these dreams somehow represent a time of innocence, although imperfect, innocence nevertheless.

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