Growing Up
Donna Florio
Bank Street

Never a Dull Moment

  • A screaming neighbor who terrorized my childhood became a frightened old lady who sought my help when I learned her language.
  • Open gay marriage and parenthood has been alive and well here since at least the early 1900s.
  • Sexy Secret Service agents ran around the hallway when the sweet but very troubled artist on the fifth floor called the White House and threatened to kill the President. Every time.
  • Grace, the genteel southern woman upstairs was so disgusted by the 1940s racism of her culture that she’d packed and left .Other than that, her life was a mystery.
  • The Waverly Inn was a speakeasy during a time called Prohibition, a favorite haunt of the old Scottish writer down the block.
  • The spy who betrayed his sister and brother in law, Ethel and Julius Rosenberg, to save himself was almost killed by Bank Street dockworkers on the day he was released from prison.
  • A working class guy from Little Italy had the drive and charisma to be as a warm, classy artist and catnip to blonde bombshells to his dying day.
  • John Dos Passos wrote his first novel, Manhattan Transfer, in a Bank Street boarding house. Willa Cather, a few doors away, won a Pulitzer. Langston Hughes published his poems across the street.
  • The implacable humanity and courage of an elderly ex-Broadway dancer taught me how to push terror aside and care for our abandoned gay friends and neighbors, dying of a hideous new scourge called AIDS.
  • Sesame Street, Project Head Start, and just about anything that made education work for American children started here over a hundred years ago, by three fervent, idealistic women.
  • Some neighbors led hidden lives in front of our eyes.
  • Marion Tanner, the real Auntie Mame, had abandoned money and position in the 1920s, turning her elegant brownstone into a haven for the luckless and frail until city marshalls threw her out for taxes in 1964. Her real story towers over everything her nephew, Patrick Dennis, wrote (and is a lot more x rated!). She was a wonderful, magic friend – to me and countless others.
  • Jimmy and Doris, the teenaged Black couple from rural Mississippi who took care of our building in the 1960s, considered the welcoming help from 63 Bank Street’s tenants a miracle.
  • The old vaudeville dancer in the apartment next door who insisted that “the biggest communist in America” had lived below her and that the FBI used her home as a spy post wasn’t the slightest bit senile.
  • Politician Bella Abzug and my father screaming and swearing at each other in public was a regular Bank Street spectacle. Together, they pitched my junior high school graduation into the flames of hell too.
  • Commercials and talking pictures were invented down the street.
  • Actors Jack and Madeline Gilford defied the House Un American Activities Committee by refusing to name names. They stuck through Joe McCarthy’s blacklist after that too. Even though they were too broke to pay the hospital bill and get their newborn out of hock in the maternity ward.
  • It’s possible to pour water on John Lennon’s head while watering a flower pot as a teenager and still live, even though you no longer want to.
  • Inventing the atom bomb, exhibiting your art in major museums, busting TV game show fraud, being watched through your back yard by a famous actress for decades, and living with a ghost happens to Bank Street couples.
  • Anthony Perkins, the Psycho stabber, stood in line for tomatoes at the corner grocery like everyone else.
  • Stella, the elderly woman who shared Mom’s Abingdon Square Park bench as I played in the sandbox, insisted that crooked cops and gangsters had killed her husband, Judge Crater back in 1930. But Stella had some dark secrets of her own.
  • Punk rock star Sid Vicious, my neighbor across the hall until his death, wasn't anyone that the public ever knew.
  • Bank Street women have clubbed store owners with chairs, straddled enemies to land a punch, and dropped flower pots on policemen’s heads.
  • My grade school friend Mary Jacobs’ mother, Jane, led a towering, passionate life when she wasn’t serving after school snacks.

Because whatever life was, it was never boring. Truth wrestled fiction to the cobblestones on this street every day. It's absolutely true that...