Remember Me to Herald Square
My only blood-relative first cousin passed away this week. He was only 66 which was hideously depressing. But he had been in poor cardiac health for years, so it wasn’t quite the shock it might have been.
I loved Kenn dearly; he was really, really odd in a fabulous way. A bona fide opera and theatre junkie, Kenn, a rotund funny man, quick with a naughty joke and even quicker with opera and Broadway trivia, knew how to make us laugh. And think. As Rabbi Sharon Kleinbaum from New York’s gay synagogue said at his service, he was a humanist, a classical, Renaissance scholar devoted to our world and the people in it.
However, scholar and writer, though he be, the rabbi knew he was not above loudly and flamboyantly booing Maria Callas at the Met or standing up at the family Thanksgiving table singing “I Yam, what I Yam” in a Harvey Fierstein baritone. Graveside, the rabbi mentioned that she hoped when he got to where his soul was going, he would meet up with his idol, singer Renata Tebaldi, and the two of them would be able to stay out of Maria Callas’ way.
We have so many Kenn memories. Opera queen direct from the womb, after one holiday meal he had himself, me and my sister, ages 11, 10, and 7 respectively, perform the last act of Tosca, including miming its famed acts of torture, murder, and suicide. We had no idea what we were doing, but Puccini would have been so proud. Or perhaps nauseous. I have no recollection of the looks on my parents’ faces, but perhaps that’s good.
When Kenn’s funky New York neighborhood started to gentrify, with dozens of upscale boutiques arriving, he announced he was surprised the funeral home didn’t change its name to Death and Things.
And whenever anybody had a birthday, you’d get a call announcing “This is Ethel Merman calling from the great beyond to wish you a Happy Birthday.” Kenn would then launch into the Happy Birthday song in his very exaggerated Ethel Merman voice. It was a tradition. It might have been what caused the break-up of Bell Telephone.
Actually, Kenn wrote for Letters for a couple of years a while back, with a Broadway Trivia Quiz column, which elicited plenty of fan mail to him, and not a few arguments.
I tell you all this because, one, I’m sad and I wanted you to know a little about my quirky cousin. In the ‘70s there was a gay magazine in New York called Michael’s Thing (honest), where he wrote a popular opera column. At first he proudly called himself the only straight writer at Michael’s Thing. One day he just called himself a writer at Michael’s Thing. His having dropped the bomb to the family first gave me the courage to come out.
But I’m writing now to tell you about the very last Kenn experience I had. It was a gift.
I drove up to New York the night before his funeral by myself since, for a combination of good reasons, Bonnie could not join me. I borrowed a friend’s apartment for the night and faced the prospect of an evening alone in Manhattan. What could be bad?
I took a taxi from my digs in Chelsea, just above the Village, up to Times Square, soaking up the frenetic billboards, throngs of people, and and general mad hysteria of the scene.
As a tribute to Kenn, I took myself to dinner at Juniors, a deli harkening back to its start in 1950s Brooklyn and Miami Beach. As my cousin would have done, I ordered a towering chopped liver sandwich on rye. It recalled the rhetorical question, “What am I chopped liver?” to which the answer, in Kenn’s case, might have been yes, the cholesterol adding to his coronary woes. In his honor I only ate half.
From there, on this clear, comfortable, October night, I walked to Sixth Avenue, heading for Bryant Park behind the New York Library. From ten blocks away I could see pink lights projected up into the trees, and, the closer I got, the more music and cheering I heard. It was an outdoor Shakira concert, which I stopped to enjoy, standing to watch the performer, the videos, and the light show. At one point I looked to the right and saw the lit spire of the art deco Chrysler Building, and to the left, the pink-lit upper floors of the Empire State Building. Breast Cancer Awareness Month. New York was in the pink.
Traveling south, back towards Chelsea, I passed Herald Square, as in George M. Cohan’s “Give My Regards to Broadway, Remember Me to Herald Square.” There stood Macy’s, the biggest department store in the world, with—here comes the strange part—a long lap pool erected in front of the store, where Macy’s was hosting Nyad Swims for Superstorm Sandy Relief.
That baby boomer lesbian dynamo, Diana Nyad, who had just completed the history-making swim from Cuba to Key West, had vowed to swim 48 hours without stopping to raise money for the victims of the devastating storm.
I stepped forward off the street, up two steps of temporary bleachers and leaned over the side of the pool. Diana Nyad, in a pink bathing cap, swam by me so closely I could have reached out and patted her on the back. I wanted to. An inspiration.
Moving on, I was approached by several aggressive panhandlers, homeless I suspect, but I did not stop to fill their coffers. My favorite sign, however, was, “Why Lie? Need Beer.” Several blocks later, I did spy a woman who appeared to be homeless, camped on the street with her small dog. I handed her a twenty. It just felt right.
By the time I walked the 29 blocks back to my lodging, my spirit was willing to continue but not the soles of my feet. I briefly considered going to the Stonewall Inn or Marie’s Crisis piano bar in the Village, but I came to my senses.
Upstairs I went, and walked out onto the apartment’s balcony, overlooking the still-busy, brightly lit and noisy streets below. It was fun being part of it, New York, New York. I popped the metal tab on a diet Coke and toasted to Cousin Kenn. Thanks, buddy, for an amazing night on the town in NYC.
I can’t believe I won’t ever get a Mermangram again.
Fay Jacobs is the author of As I Lay Frying—a Rehoboth Beach Memoir; Fried & True—Tales from Rehoboth Beach, For Frying Out Loud—Rehoboth Beach Diaries, and the soon to be released Time Fries—Aging Gracelessly in Rehoboth Beach