I love the idea of Lower East Side History Month, if we can just figure out how far back to go. Perhaps to 1624, when Peter Minuet probably floated the first proposal to build the Second Avenue Subway…or we could start with Jacob Riis, who described appalling 19th century housing. Imagine 10 or 15 people packed in a one-bedroom, compared to the spacious four or five per apartment tenants now enjoy if they are thin and try not to inhale.
There’s something in its DNA that’s always attracted the disadvantaged and homeless. As a kid, I’d find winos and gluesniffers nodding out in the hallway — harmless urban nuisances, like raccoons, except they could take the bus. Even today, the neighborhood opens its welcoming, tattooed arms to throngs of desperate trustafarians, Eurotrash, and hipsters yearning for a genuine NYC experience and a really GOOD vegan restaurant.
Our history was hard to commemorate. Nobody had anything to prove back before it became “The Lower East Side” brand. It was just a neighborhood, without romance or drama, of poor people trying to get by. We didn’t rate a nickname until somebody dreamed up “the East Village.” (Our landlady, Mrs. Silber, would have split her kishkas over that.) We didn’t need a Tenement Museum. We just went home. It would be like spending $20 to go to your room.
Boutiques and bistros replaced the markets and drug stores. The urban grunge remains, with a coating of irony that thickens with each luxury high–rise, each $25 entrée. Today’s history acclaims the Ramones and Charlie Parker, but for true local history, my icon is Margaret, proprietor of Margaret’s Specialty Shop.
Margaret and her husband were an aging Jewish couple eking out a living selling cheap womenswear that fell apart after one wash at Jenny’s across the street. Her store had a big sign inside that said “We Accept Returns,” which was partially true. She took the clothes back but she never refunded anyone’s money. We all knew better, but outsiders had difficulty appreciating the Zen paradox of Margaret’s sign, even when she explained it at the top of her lungs.
Sometimes the ladies took it outside, which was a nice way to break up an afternoon when there was nothing good on TV. One time it got physical and the whole block witnessed it, but there’s nothing to mark the event now.
When the screaming began, windows opened, heads popped out, pillows on windowsills were fluffed, chairs set by windows. The guys in the barber shop next door began taking bets. The Avenue had the air of a theater audience settling down, listening to the overture, waiting for the curtain to rise.
It didn’t take long. They burst out of the storefront onto the pavement: Margaret, a short, stocky drugstore redhead with untucked blouse, faced a middle-aged woman with dark hair in a bun waving a red blouse. They used the traditional opener: Margaret yelled, “I’m trying to run a business!” Bunlady yelled , “Why’d you have the sign?” Margaret yelled, “You wore it……….”
“Wow,” we all thought. “Margaret’s improvising.”
It was on. Bunlady shoved Margaret all the way to her plate glass window. Margaret grabbed Bunlady’s coat; there were several minutes of pushing and shoving. Margaret tried a headlock but Bunlady ducked under and grabbed Margaret’s hair. In desperation, she pulled her husband in between them. He was a mousy little guy but this was his moment. He moved with the speed and dexterity of a cobra….to duck out of the way.
It was fabulous theatre, and everyone watching from the window sills laughed and applauded. The fight went out of Margaret after that. She pulled herself loose and kept her distance until her opponent impatiently threw the blouse in Margaret’s face, called her a name my mother refused to explain, and stormed away. Margaret shouted curses in Yiddish after her, picked up the blouse, and returned to the store with her head high. “You know,” my mother said thoughtfully as she closed the window, “She really ought to do something about that sign.”
My mom stopped by the next day to see. The blouse was back on the rack with a new price tag, and the sign was still there: “We Accept Returns.”
Margaret pioneered local street theatre, but her status rests on something more: her bravura display of the authentic Lower East Side attitude called Chutzpah. That’s an attribute worth commemorating in any history of this neighborhood — a tribute to hardscrabble survival. A statue of Margaret, arms folded forever, daring you to return that blouse says more about the true nature and history of the Lower East Side than any hipster theme park fantasy of musicians and artists and activists. But don’t get me started about that.