By Michelle Railey
Another lifetime ago, back in New York, my neighbor was an elderly lady called Virginia. Her apartment was crowded with tchotchkes and stereotypes and was strongly steeped in rosewater and deep nostalgia. Virginia had coal black hair. She wore glittery things and old-fashioned hats. Her dentures slipped when she spoke, nearly impossible to look away from, like a lazy eye or the proverbial car wreck. You know you shouldn’t be looking at it, but where do you look, and ohmygod what did she even just say? And then you’d retrain your focus on her words and look at the brooch or the curtains or for the pet you could smell but never see and you’d hate yourself for noticing any of it. Virginia was kind. And gnawingly, achingly in need of company. So you with your backwards, equally lonely Midwestern-in-a-big-city self, accompanied by your far more dashing and self-assured roommate, would find yourself occasionally sitting in Virginia’s rosy-musty living room, eating Archway cookies and Milanos from dainty china plates, listening to Virginia.
Virginia, again like god-awful stereotype, reeked of the past, some other time. She was alone and she had, it seemed, limited her world to her apartment and the shops (it seems silly to refer to them as “stores,” even. Impossible to talk about Virginia’s world without reverting, in part, to the language of it). If she had children, there were no photographs among the shelves (stuffed animals and dolls in crocheted dresses, yes, but few photographs), no mentions. There was a husband, once, but she had lost him long ago in her past. She was a mix of the decades from the 30s to the early 60s and everything about her was strongly reminiscent of everything from black and white film stars to Jackie Kennedy to early TV. It would shift while she was talking, as disorienting as her highly mobile dentures, pinning her down to times you had only heard about and, I suspect, hiding the real thoughts and concerns of Virginia. Virginia never talked about the present; she didn’t much ask about the lives or backgrounds of these girls in her living room who were eating her cookies. She didn’t talk about life in the past, strangely, since she was so evidently still, well, living in it. What she talked about, and exclusively talked about, was her plan for a TV Christmas special.
I’ll give all the following due respect to Virginia: her imagination and childish glee were second to none, her belief in the imminent success of said Christmas special was unshakeable, and her descriptive powers were strong enough that, holding my cookie, I could see absolutely her TV show in my mind as real as if it had already aired. Mind you, it had the same coloring and video qualities as an Andy Williams Christmas repeat (that strange, Kodak-y both dull-and-over-bright chromatic quality that will date any video as several decades old) but nevertheless, in the mind it stood like the memory of an actual show you really had seen before. Virginia’s Christmas special was “A Trip to the North Pole.” It had dancing penguins who ice-skated in front of Santa’s workshop, described down to the personalities of each little penguin and the fact that said penguins were wearing red bow ties. She had personalities and casting ideas for the elves. She could — and did —describe endlessly and lovingly the set requirements, the costume changes, the scenes, the props. There wasn’t a lot of plot (Virginia was a detail-oriented sort of gal) but, it too, was outlined and tight: to say she had given this a lot of thought would be the understatement of a lifetime. I truly believe Virginia had given it her every thought. Virginia’s Christmas Spectacular was her opus, her masterpiece, her passion, her life. And the critical piece of her beloved TV show was Santa. Her Santa would be played by Frank Sinatra. She had, so she said, written letters to Mr. Sinatra and his agent with the script proposal, the details of her Christmas special. I think she said she had contacted NBC, CBS, and ABC. But it gets harder to remember that now; like I said, this was a lifetime ago. And truthfully, after a couple of hours of listening to Virginia wax effusively about Frank, and the elves, and the reindeer, the attention would start to wander when she’d get into the infinitely less thorough and thought-through parts of realizing her dream. But then, my best guess is, it wasn’t the realization that mattered to her, not really. It was the dream. Just the dream.
I am glad I knew Virginia. I am glad I ventured across the hall to hear about her Christmas special. I am glad she, like H&H Bagels and Gray’s Papaya and the free baklava with purchase of coffee at Nick’s, is a part of my New York in that lifetime. And I am heartily sorry that I couldn’t always manage to look away from her dentures. I hope she never noticed that.