My Neighbor, Jackie O.
Riding the New York City Subway at rush hour was, as my late aunt would often quip in her Irish brogue, “no cup of tea.” It was my second year living in the city, and by then I knew the ropes for raiding the rails:
1. Pray for a seat but realize God may be busy that day.
2. Do not make eye contact.
This second rule was very important. People were crabby during those tight, pre-latte mornings. Any look could be misinterpreted. It was always best to bury your nose in a novel rather than someone’s armpit. Another option was to feign engrossment in the graphic social outreach ads plastered throughout the train. If you sensed an unwanted advance approaching, the pretense of memorizing the phone number for the STD hotline usually did the trick.
Now, there were some occasions when an allowance for breaking Rule #2 could be granted. In my case, it was the day I saw John Kennedy riding the train.
During rush hour, trains were the fastest way to travel. Even so, I would have gladly traded my tin-can ride for the back seat of a limo. But there he sat in all his handsome glory. Directly across from him, a man read a newspaper held high in front of his face. The New York Post. The paper was notorious for its outrageous headlines, and that day was no exception.
With John’s face on the front page, it read: THE HUNK FLUNKS. He failed to pass the Bar Exam…again.
More surprised than starstruck to see the Camelot heir in the underground depths, I didn’t have time to give it much thought. The train’s breaks screeched to a halt at the 86th Street station. My stop and his. The doors opened and out flew John, photographers hot on his trail. (Where did they come from?) I quickly followed behind. As he ducked in and out of doorways, trying to lose his pursuers, I knew where he was headed.
1040 5th Avenue. The home of his mother, Jackie Onassis…
Jackie moved into the 5th Avenue residence after the assassination of her husband and lived in the penthouse apartment for 30 years. The building is one of the tallest on 5th Avenue and known for its distinctive roofline. To give you a better understanding of the size of these magnificent residences, there are only 27 apartments in the 17 story building. Jackie Onassis’s stately apartment sold in 2006 for a record 32 million dollars.
I only met Jackie once and she was truly, the epitome of class and grace.
Jackie with her daughter, Caroline and son, John
The floor plan for Jackie's apartment
Coming back to Earth… what was a college student doing living in a place like this? As much as I would love to say that the sprawling apartment overlooking the Metropolitan Museum of Art and Central Park was mine. It wasn’t. And even though my bedroom was the size of a closet, I was living far better than any of my classmates. As a visiting friend once commented while admiring the scintillating skyline from the living room windows,
“Well, it only goes downhill from here.”
I worked as a nanny for a lovely French family, and it was amazing that I had even made it that far. They originally hired me for a summer stint in East Hampton for their children ages 14, 11 and 5. I was in my 20’s at the time, and with my responsible nature, the parents felt confident in leaving me alone with my new charges the for the weekend. As all kids will do, I was tested. No one listened. Everyone fought. Dishes piled. And at three o'clock on a Sunday afternoon, I collapsed into one of the unmade beds.
The parents’ early arrival home that afternoon did not help matters, and in between tears, I felt I just couldn’t do the job. (I’m sure they agreed, finding their nanny face down in the Laura Ashley sheets and the kids who knows where.) They took pity and decided to give it a little longer. The children were beyond apologetic and we went on to enjoy many sunny, saltwater days singing along with Milli Vanilli. When the family returned to their Manhattan residence at summer’s end, I joined.
Nanny, Day 1 with Valerie, Ghislain and Stephanie
Nanny, Day 37
I attended college at The New School for Social Research until the children came home from school each day. The small classes were taught in seminar style, which was perfect for creative writing, as well as discovering more than I wished to know about my classmates. The girl who sat next me absent-mindedly tapped her naked woman pen while she read aloud of her wild adventures as a dominatrix.
It was during those college years that my writing and photography flourished, and I was faced with the ubiquitous question of What do I want to do with my life? With the city at their feet, my school offered a fabulous internship program~ a great way to find some answers. Thinking I wanted to become a fashion journalist, I interned at the fashion magazine, Women’s Wear Daily & W. I wrote a small fluff piece or two and was thrilled to assist on a photoshoot with the famous photographer, Francis Scavullo and model, Naomi Campbell (forever on her phone). Even so, fashion did not seem like my cup of tea.
My next interest: children’s television writing. My internship took place at Vanguard Films under John Williams, who later became the producer of Shrek. There, I was given reign to develop my own children’s music television show. Although it never gained financing, I was proud that my proposal saw the light of day at many networks.
But God wasn't going to let me graduate without a glimpse of His later plan for my life. Teaching. As much as I adored children, I was determined not be a teacher (not cool, not hip.) Our school was part of the Teachers and Writers Collaborative, where students worked with published authors teaching creative writing in the inner city schools. I was linked with a poet in a 5th grade class in Harlem.
I remember power-walking through destitute neighborhoods with my hood up (to look tougher). Even in those conditions, I found that kids were kids with boundless imaginations. It was a joyful experience, and how ironic that I later became a children's author and creative writing teacher.
The Old, New School
The New, New School Today
After a day of classes, it was often a relief to return to 1040 Fifth Avenue. Compared to the cacophony of Greenwich Village, the Upper East Side maintained an aura of quiet and calm. Additionally, I found comfort in living with a family and enjoyed my work with the kids. The oldest, Valerie was the warmest teenager I have met, even to this day. She always slid kind notes of encouragement under my door, and was never afraid to say how much she loved you. I admired her bravery in sharing feelings at such a young age.
Every teen has their crush, and Valerie’s was Patrick Swayze. As my bedroom was adjacent to the room with the largest TV, I spent many a night listening to the theme song from Dirty Dancing as Valerie and her best friend, Angel munched popcorn and played the movie over and over and over.
I can still see Ghislain in his navy private school jacket, striped tie askew, one sock hanging off his foot (his after-dinner look). He always made us laugh and would rather be doing anything than his homework. I loved Coca Cola in those days, and Ghislain found great amusement that I called it pop rather than soda. Poor guy was stuck in the middle of two sisters, and as much as he liked to tease, he often tried to be the jokester/ peacemaker in their squabbles.
I spent the most time with the youngest, Stephanie. Her mother was fond of “outside time,” and we spent many fun afternoons at the park, playdates, swim classes, and one of her favorite stops, Bloomingdales. There she was, a little girl on her tiptoes staring into the case of sparkly costume jewelry.
“To die for,” she sighed.
Always clever, Stephanie hid her morning vitamins in keyholes. I still remember her in those red rubber boots helping me to capture the only high-class cockroach that ever ventured up to the 10th floor. As a writing major, my children’s stories were a source of great delight. Just recently, Stephanie related how much those stories influenced her to love writing. Little did we both know that some of those fanciful bedtime tales would come to life much later with The Birthday Triplets, a book she would someday read to her own daughter.
Bedtime with Stephanie and her Muffy Vanderbears
The children’s parents treated me as a part of the family, and I delighted in delicious food and expensive chocolate cakes. Although I never did develop a taste for artichoke leaves dipped in butter, I experienced a lifestyle like no other. It wasn't always easy, but I was fortunate not to be one of those nannies who worked grueling hours with little appreciation. Valerie, Ghislain, and Stephanie were raised to be as gracious as their parents and were always respectful. I think I was looked upon as a big sister, and they reveled in my outrageous stories of the subway and other wacky NYC encounters.
Fond memories of my days at 1040 Fifth Avenue....
After the subway scene, I often saw John Kennedy passing through the marbled lobby with his bike. My mother would joke, “Can’t you do something subtle to get John’s attention, like fall down in front of him?”
The actress Daryl Hannah beat me to it.
"I always wanted to be some kind of writer or newspaper reporter. But after college... I did other things." Jackie Kennedy Onassis