Lovers & Latchkeys: Tales From a Greenwich Village Girlhood

Shoes and Gloves for the Young Lady

PINK or black, that was the question. When the day came to pick out the new ballet slippers, I still hadn’t decided. A kind of paralysis had seized me. It was understood that the shoes were merely a means to an end: I would take ballet classes and gradually become a graceful, sylphlike 11-year-old of whom my father could be proud. He would attend my recitals (if and when he was in town). My toes would no longer point inward; from pigeon-toed klutz I would evolve into a confident, splay-footed walker dashing to class with my changing bag slung over one shoulder, shining hair pulled back into a jaunty ponytail.

I wanted those shoes. Pink leather slippers with white elastic straps over the insteps. It was only a small matter of being willing to lie. Or shall we say pretend. I pretended I was willing to put on a black leotard and white tights and stumble around in front of strangers. I pretended I would go register at Greenwich House. Week after week, I procrastinated until my father finally saw the light at the end of the barre…

He confronted me and I began to sob, pleading with him not to make me do this thing. He, Arthur Murray’s star mambo pupil, the high-diver, the fearless college sprinter who still had track cinders embedded in his knees—he didn’t understand, but he relented.

BY then I had worn the slippers around his apartment so much that the little leather soles, mere attenuated silhouettes of a footprint, were too gray and spotted to pass for new. They couldn’t be returned. Victory was mine! All for the small price of lying by implication…

IT is spring by now, and all the boys are tossing baseballs to each other in Washington Square Park. There isn’t enough room to actually play a game on the balding patches of brownish grass, but they are happy, tossing the ball back and forth after school as we girls stand in the background, licking our shaved lemon ices in small paper cups pleated like our skirts, whispering our opinions of their hairdo’s and general cuteness. But then suddenly a wild idea erupts and will not be squelched. The girls will play catch, too! I have not the slightest interest in this venture, but cannot stem the tide of opinion, the all-engulfing swell of enthusiasm.

Beyond my financial reach but essential, a catcher’s mitt has to be purchased. Again, I bombard my father with dulcet-toned supplications. I imply that he and I, too, could have twilight evenings of father-daughter catch. I suggest that possession of it will improve my coordination. (I cannot unequivocally deny dropping cheerful hints, may I be forgiven, that facility with the mitt would give me the courage to attempt ballet for real.)

And one day I arrive home to find that I have succeeded. The box before me contains a brand-new Spalding mitt. I pick it up in one hand and my arm sags. The sucker is HEAVY. I realize I have never before come so close to such an object. It is unrecognizably stiff and rather a garish orange in color. It bears little resemblance to the soft, gleaming brown gloves that all those lords of the park brandished so easily as they casually caught the speeding balls that could leave a nasty welt indeed on a bare arm. (I know whereof I speak.)

When I insert my hand in the new mitt, I can barely move my thumb or my fingers. My father hands me a tin of glove grease. He informs me that it could take a while to season the leather. Then, he says, the mitt will last for YEARS. (Exactly what I feared.)

We hasten to the park to try out this monstrosity. He is beaming. He throws a ball at me. I raise my arm, the ball hits the mitt, bounces off and hits me hard on the knee. And so on. I doubt if any human being on the planet could catch a baseball with a brand-new mitt. (Didn’t my father know this?) In disgust I throw the mitt on the ground and try catching barehanded. (Do you know how hard and fast a baseball travels? When my palms are red and stinging, after only a few catches, I call a time out. (Let’s not even discuss the bent and aching fingers…) What am I going to do? My life is ruined. I am not only incompetent, I am evil. I deserve this punishment. Perhaps I can redeem myself by wearing one of the soft pink ballet slippers on my hand as a protective device, if nothing else…

ONLY one of the girls ever got any good at all at “catch,” and I think she was using her father’s old glove. The rest of us went right back to clustering on the sidelines, admiring the sweaty backs of our menfolk and helping the Italian sorbet vendors make a living wage. Raspberry or lemon? became the burning question that spring and summer.

So much easier than the question raised the following fall: whether or not, in the balcony of Loew’s Sheridan—afternoon hangout of no less than Edward Hopper, I learned years later—whether or not to let the wannabe star outfielders of Washington Square Park fumble with, undo and lift the complicated white cotton harnesses that suddenly, like the alien fungus in a 3-D sci-fi feature, seemed to bloom in unison on all our chests.