Vodka On The Rocks

My grandmother, my mother, my brother and I are sitting at a corner table of Sant Ambroeus, an expensive Milanese restaurant on 77th and Madison, right by Lily Pulitzer, The Carlyle Hotel and Central Park. We’ve taken my grandmother from her empty home in Shinnecock Hills, on Long Island, back into New York City to celebrate her 85th birthday.

At the Sant Ambroeus, the waiter, in his black vest and bowtie, is taking our drinks order. My brother and I ask for water. My mother orders a glass of wine and my grandmother orders a vodka on the rocks. The waiter pauses. He looks to my mother for assurance that the painfully small, white-haired old woman next to her is really allowed to have the vodka on the rocks. My mother does not give him the satisfaction of a nod or any other form of permission, instead sending him on his way. His eyes remain so wide that I almost wonder if he’ll bring back a glass of water with ice instead.

After all, there’s not much outward difference between a vodka on the rocks and a glass of water with ice. A high quality vodka is one that tastes and smells of nothing. Surely such a vodka would be offered by a restaurant such as the Madison Avenue location of Sant Ambroeus, which is briefly advertised on its website as a “true neighborhood meeting place” created by the “infusion of the classic style of Sant Ambroeus with its uptown clientele”. It would thus be rather easy to dupe the small old woman with a tumbler of water. What the waiter could not know was where my grandmother had come from.

In the midst of the Second World War, Joyce Kidd had moved from Peekskill, in upstate New York, to Manhattan, specifically Greenwich Village, to study at New York University. She didn’t leave until 1992, when she moved with her husband out to Long Island. In the Village, one was able to flow freely through permeable institutions, from Bleecker to the Bowery, ordering vodka on the rocks as one pleased. If you could pay for it, you could have it—and my grandmother could pay. She had a steady salary from the NYU School of Education, where she took a job in administration after she graduated.

My grandmother continued to drink vodka on the rocks for her entire life. Just as vodka whirls and sloshes inside the tumbler, a woman in mid-20th Century New York City would occasionally knock up against the rocks of Manhattan. My grandmother, however, was not one to be sloshed around. Her favorite advice to her children was Buck upKeep a stiff upper lip and Quit your bitching. She had returned to work immediately after having her first and second children and she kept working while attending night-school to obtain her master’s degree and then PhD. She continued to work while her husband attended law school and she continued to work when he later resigned from his job, inaugurating the family’s long money troubles. I always ascribed her perfect posture to her preoccupation with manners but perhaps the secret is really a steel cord that stretches through her back where her spine should be.

My grandmother knew exactly what it was like to hold a glass of vodka on the rocks in her hand and thus she knew exactly when she was being left empty-handed. Far from senile, she knew precisely why a waiter in an Upper East Side restaurant in 2010 was so reluctant to hand over the drink she’d asked for. If he’d tried to con her with a glass of water, she would have recognized immediately that she was being given something that was much thinner—and cheaper—than what she was paying for.

The Sant Ambroeus does not act alone of course. The way its waiters like to hesitate after glancing over a customer is simply part of the many family traditions it partakes in with its cousins, which include the Carlyles, the Lilly Pulitzers and various other descendants of the great matriarch herself. The Upper East Side (UES) has indeed bred so expertly that she has transcended geographic location and become institution; her perfume can be smelled on Long Island, in the Maidstone Club, which shunned Diana Ross, and perhaps hints of it can be caught in Deerfield, and Aspen too.  So it is not just the Sant Ambroeus but all the offspring of this gentle pedigree that are quick to glaze over my grandmother, to turn to someone else to ask permission on how she should be dealt with.

These cousins—and certainly many others—look at my grandmother and see tissue-paper hands, skin far too thin, too translucent, too pale, too purple and too crumpled to be strong or capable of anything. In the Village, I imagine, they are still able to see the sturdiness of a skin that cannot be pierced and the robustness of a set of bones that cannot be broken. Though her veins now chase half-heartedly up from her wrist to her fingers, those fingers know what it feels like to hold what one is owed, and though now wobbly they are still able to wrap themselves around a glass and bring it up to the lips. When my grandmother drinks I imagine that vodka does not taste of nothing, but definitely of something—perhaps of poetry and music and political cocktail parties full of civil rights lawyers discussing student unrest within clouds of smoke.

We are not sitting in Sant Ambroeus anymore. That was eight years ago—the last year my grandmother lived alone before the episodes began manifesting more intensely. Never one to admit weakness, she hid it well, but eventually she called the police, wracked with hysteria about the burglars and spies in her house who were moving her things. Now, she lives in a home in Cambridge, Massachusetts. When I visit her in her room, she greets me at the door with a smile and warmly invites me into her office. She apologizes for not expecting me. It is the first day of classes and, as Dean of Students, she is absolutely swarmed. She complains about some of the incompetent staff but reiterates her commitment to the mission of education. She often thinks I’m my mother.

My grandmother is not allowed to have vodka on the rocks in the home in Cambridge. During one of my visits, she told me that it had been so long since she had had a drink that she had forgotten what it was all about. Indeed, we have watched as her memories have been worn away, taking parts of her self along with them. She no longer spends Christmas at my aunt’s house around the corner in Cambridge, because she becomes flustered and anxious and angrily demands to be taken back to her office. This is to where the last parts of her mind bring her. She is back on University Place in New York, running her office, busy but enthusiastic, capable and in control, with adrenaline and vodka on the rocks flowing through her veins. She is content to stay there, back in a place where she knows what it’s like to hold steadily in one’s hand what one has asked for.

On a different trip to New York, my mother and I took the 6 down to Astor Place and walked through the Village. I’d read enough about Stonewall and Dylan Thomas to realize that it had changed, massively. I couldn’t imagine Dylan Thomas wandering the streets in the early morning among Brooks Brothers and Tiffany & Co. The early 2000s brought the arrival of a Sant Ambroeus on West 4th Street, next to an also new Ralph Lauren, a testament to the neighborhood’s rapid gentrification. According to New York Magazine, it was “like having a flamingo suddenly turn up in a familiar old chicken coop.”

My mother took me to the street she’d lived on and she pointed to me their apartment, the one that she’d let herself into after coming home alone from school at the age of nine. Her mother and father would come home late and in the meantime she’d make dinner or sometimes she’d sit with her sister at the window and watch the people who walked by. They’d make up stories about the New Yorkers below them and decide the kind of person each one was—perhaps confidently assessing that a man in a holey sweater and crooked glasses was a disillusioned communist with a soft-side for Joni Mitchell or maybe more of a Joe Gould type, maniacal and irritating but innocuous at heart. I wonder if they saw their mother, coming across the street as she made her way home from work, and if they played the game with her too, if they could tell by the way she walked that she was an educator and a mother and the type to say Quit your bitching.

As my mother and I stood there, her pointing up to the apartment and me looking up at it next to her, perhaps there were two little girls looking out of a window at us, deciding who we were. What would be our stories? Would they think us chickens or flamingos in their familiar old coop? Though my mother hadn’t lived in New York for twenty years and hadn’t lived in the Village for twenty two, she would not, I was certain, be mistaken for an interloper. Rather, any little girl watching her would easily be able to tell that as a small nine year old, my mother had attended the 1968 presidential rallies and handed out anti-war buttons on street corners before joining the crowds in the road, that as an even smaller six year old she had charmed the activists and intellectuals at her mother’s cocktail parties, mixing the perfect martini, and opening the door to say How do you do? exactly as her mother had taught her. They would be able to tell that she had been raised by a mother determined to build her robustly, to build her properly, and that she was now a brave woman with a strong stomach who could have drank vodka on the rocks had she held the affinity for it.

Two years before leaving New York and moving to London, my mother moved uptown, to live in an apartment on East 79th and Second— in other words, the middle of the UES. She is careful to disclaim that she hardly “lived” there, leaving home at 5 am and returning in the dark from her banking job. She says she moved there to try something different, and to be closer to the Met and Central Park.

While one might find a flamingo on West 4th Street, one will not find a flamingo in the Park. The Central Park Zoo doesn’t own any flamingos but it’s possible that if it did, it would feed them artificial pellets containing synthetic pigmentation, as zoos all over the country do. This practice allows captive flamingos to regain the vivid pink coloring they lost when deprived of the nutrients existing in their natural environment. Thus no zoo visitor is disappointed with a dull grey flamingo.

On the Upper East Side, my mother says, one walked out the apartment door and looked polished and pulled together. The UES sits perfectly on New York City’s grid system, boasting wide avenues and right angle after right angle. In the Village, an older part of the city, one is more likely to find twenty-nine and seventy degrees in the jumble of small and crooked side streets that can hide and stay hidden. It was this mess of a coop (with all its eclectic chickens) that my mother came from and yet even she— the individualist, the non-conformist, the “free spirit”— says that while she lived on the UES she felt there was a pressure to look and act a certain way. On the UES, one can feel the danger of becoming sanitized, of being bleached and then painted over, in a new color, by someone else.

Today, my mother is a parenting teacher and recently received a Masters in developmental psychology. According to developmental psychology, children can be split into “dandelion” (meaning resilient), “orchid” (meaning sensitive) and “tulip” (midway between the two). My mother and I often joke about how delicate an orchid I am and how tough a dandelion she is. My mother believes, however, that she was born an orchid, but very quickly learnt she had to be self-sufficient and self-assertive, and thus cut herself down to become a dandelion. My grandmother would not let a daughter of hers have thin skin and a head in the clouds.

Not often, however, do I look at my mother and think she has been shortened. Most of the time, I find her strength, and the strength of my grandmother, breathtaking and enviable. Quite often instead I fear that I am a flamingo, who turned up quite surprisingly, like the Sant Ambroeus, in a family of chickens.

Growing up, my mother always told us to drink milk to become strong. I haven’t decided yet if I should start drinking vodka instead.

Marina can sadly never be President of the United States, because she was born and raised in England, but she really likes hot dogs and knows all the words to Country Roads so if you want to let her know she’d have your vote, write her at marina.albanese@yale.edu.

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