Growing Up
Donna Florio
Bank Street

How Did I Get Here, Anyway?

"Opera Baby Arrives," wrote The Villager. My future parents moved to the Village to sing and direct at little, local Amato Opera. Sneaking between shows, their friends joked, they concocted a small native. I grew up backstage, babysat by courtesans and toreadors. Once onstage, at 4, as Madame Butterfly's love child, I officially joined the clan. From then, it was rehearsals and nights onstage. Mom joined the Metropolitan Opera's ladies chorus. I, now 8, tagged along in the Met's kid chorus. Adolescence ended that gig but I had a Met acting role until I left for college. Friends loved my life of falling scenery and backstage antics and insist that you will too.

As I grew, I realized that other Bank Street performers, like John Lennon, Alan Arkin, and Christopher Plummer didn't bellow Pagliacci, sweating greasepaint. Neighbors were the cool ones! 

​I ran in and out of their homes as they discussed arts, politics, and spiritualism. I giggled when the courtly old man downstairs kissed my hand and bowed as he put his newspapers on our hall radiator/book swap, thanking me for sharing my candy. Mom coached me to keep eye contact, since he never wore clothes. The retired vaudeville dancer next door let me play in her 1920s costumes and taught me the Charleston. She insisted that the 1940s FBI had spied on "the biggest communist in America,” who’d lived in 1A, from her place. Marion, my adored friend at 72 Bank, with her constant houseful of mumbling guests, told me that Buddha sent me here as a divine flame from Heaven as she combed my hair. Why did some people call her "Auntie Mame"?  Katherine, the gentle old lady at 23 Bank encouraged me to stand up for myself as a female. I promised, with no idea that she was a feminist author who'd lived here with a gay lover and their two adopted children, since the early 1900s. Yeffe, the Native American artist in 11 Bank admonished me to create the life I wanted and to NEVER be dull.  She was her own living proof, in ways that defy belief. Actors Jack and Madeline Gilford at 75 Bank refused to name names to the House Un-American Activities Committee. Blacklisted and broke, they raised their kids and stuck to their principles. 

Bank Street was sometimes a puzzle. What are civil rights? I wondered.  Black people lived here, together or with white partners, like everyone else. Isn't that normal, like gay people? Some matters stayed vague but there were definite rules for others. Stand your ground! Defend your principles! Politician Bella Abzug and Dad had regular, screaming fights.  Flaunt it, darling! Divas rule! Rozzie, a character actress, gave me fashion advice, as did Tish, the female impersonator who still reigns on the corner.  Unite against evil! When a storekeeper tongue-kissed me, Bank Street mothers ran to join Mom, beating him almost senseless. Push past yourself and do the right thing. Billy, a twinkling old dancer, rolled up his sleeves and cared for our gay neighbors, suddenly helpless and dying of a terrifying new disease called AIDS, until his implacable humanity moved me to join him. Take care of the fragile ones. Later, when 9/11 turned my world black and I teetered over an abyss, neighbors brought food and walked me to doctors, gently pulling me back.

​The Village pulsed with life. Bob Dylan and Joan Baez sang as my friends and I rudely pushed through their Washington Square Park fans to play tag. So what? They were all outsiders to us, although I regret that I never saw the Village through their fresh eyes. A friend's dad managed The Fillmore East music theater. We hung out backstage with friendly people like the Allman Brothers and Grace Slick. In 1979, reporters sandbagged me, sleep-deprived and clueless, on my stoop when the Sex Pistols’ Sid Vicious died across the hall. I never knew that I'd been gargling "Oh my Gawd!" to the press online, a consummate YouTube idiot, until the gleeful young guys downstairs showed me. OMG, indeed. 

​It would be years before I appreciated how my glorious neighbors' splendid life lessons shaped me for their world, where feisty, principled, free-thinking, opera singing, feminist flames from Heaven have no limits and should never be dull. Still at the Met, I kicked into previously all-male Stuyvesant High School and pestered techies at then-new cable TV stations until I ran cameras and, by my senior year, produced shows. Bored by college, I ran to Italy to study art and language for several years. Outraged by the TV expose of a New York school for the disabled, I got special education degrees and worked with the school's rescued children. Curious about Wall Street, I became an executive until corporate life staled, and then ran off to set up education programs in Thailand. During my six years in Asia I also poked my Bank Street nose into Cambodian refugee camps, English language cable TV production, comic book AIDS lessons for child prostitutes, and a Thai version of Sesame Street. When I returned, I taught, using summer and winter breaks to travel the world and do whatever else took my fancy: experimental theater, sky diving, Bach, cable TV arts shows, white water kayaking... 

​There were men, but mulish Bank Street broads are scarcely everyone's cup of tea. Then the stars sent a kindred wild spirit, the one that The New York Times calls "her husband, a doctor." Bank Street approves!