Saturday, March 8, 2014

"An Egg Cup Makes a Very Good Hat"

The poor Wagners* have taken a bit of a beating in my Nanny Notes of late. I have used them to illustrate some of the darker aspects of child-rearing among the very wealthy that I have witnessed repeatedly, mostly on the East Side.

But recently I remembered the egg cups.  I wanted to write about those too, as it is only fair to reveal the kindnesses as well as the slights. (I have plenty more of the latter to share as I have the time to recollect and write.)

My husband and I were married in the fall of 2008. It was a beautiful, early fall that year, as I have previously mentioned. I took the two Wagner girls to their tennis lessons in September and October and lay under a canopy of golden leaves while the rubbery bounce of balls on the tennis courts just beyond the gate induced a near meditative state.

For a glorious 45 minutes I was child-free but on the clock, and as long as there was no incident on the courts requiring my attention, I could ignore the chatter of Park Avenue mothers on surrounding blankets and dream about the wedding approaching at the end of October. I was nursing a labral tear (although I didn't yet know it) but aside from the pain I was floating on the thrill of our late autumn wedding.

I was scribbling vows into a spiral notebook when I took the bus to and from work and I was getting my $99 wedding dress altered to fit perfectly. I didn't want a veil or bridesmaids or flowers. Not that those things aren't beautiful and don't make for lovely forever photos, but they just didn't suit us. We were getting married in an old movie theater that had fallen into disrepair after its heyday in the 1920s. It had once seated a thousand people but the seats had long been torn out and all that remained were a few fading Art Deco touches on the walls, a marquee out front and a crumbling, cavernous space within. The place barely had running water and we had to clean the space, hang our decorations (some strings of white lights and a few balloons and candles) and put soap and toilet paper in the bathrooms in the week leading up to the big day.

A few days before we were to take the train to Philadelphia to begin our week of hands-on location preparation, I was at work, giving Ariana a bath. We were singing together and her mother and older sister were in the other room, working on homework. When I had gotten Ariana into her nightgown and combed her wet curls we emerged and she ran over to her mother and sister. On the table were two wrapped packages. I knew they were for me and they were for the wedding and I felt a tremendous shyness overtake me. I have never been good with presents -- I love pretty new things but I am embarrassed to be the recipient of any sort of token, however large or small.

 I don't know why, perhaps it's in my nature or perhaps some long-forgotten childhood experience turned me off of this particular social exchange. Anyway, in the face of this sudden goodwill from a client who was the source of such consternation to me, I felt an instant guilt for thinking ill of her and her social choices. Here she was, proudly presenting me with something special for my big day! Shame replaced embarrassment as I sat down at their dining room table.

The first box held a beautiful silver frame. I still have it -- I believe it actually holds the one wedding photo we have up in our apartment. Of late I have been writing of silver frames and their uniform ubiquity on the East Side, like soldiers lined up to do battle in a war of Martha Stewart blandness. And yet they are indeed quite beautiful. At least the one given to me by Adelina and her girls was beautiful to me.

The second box held a painting. Ariana's older sister Samantha had drawn a wedding cake and filled in the colors in a wash of beautiful paint. "Congradulashions on your wedding!" it read at the bottom. It's in my wedding book to this day. It matters not one bit how I ultimately felt about the Wagners almost two years later, when I finished working for them. That card and a few photos I have of the girls, not to mention the fancy frame, will always mean a great deal to me. People are complicated. They can be cheating the Whole Foods delivery man of any tip out of anger at the company for charging more money to come to the East Side with over $500 worth of groceries one minute and thanking their nanny lovingly for teaching their children about climate change the next. They can teach their children that status and money and connections are what matter in life on a regular basis and on a particular afternoon take some time to give a token of genuine affection to a virtual stranger in their employ only two months.

After the wedding, I returned to work. The Wagners were getting ready to move back into their renovated showplace off of Fifth Avenue. It was around Thanksgiving, and lush baskets of corn stalks and baby pumpkins overflowed in the lobby 17 floors below. Adelina couldn't wait to get out of the rental space on the slum of Third Avenue and into her newly gilded marble home on Fifth Avenue.

Almost everything was to be new. So what would become of the old wooden side table by the couch and the woven storage baskets and the odd chairs that were slightly worn? Even the set of mother-of pearl-cheese knives in a velvet box was evidently no longer welcome in the Wagner universe. I was selected to be their recipient. I can't remember how Adelina asked me if I wanted her cast-offs, but my husband and I were newlyweds without much money and we could certainly use nearly everything she offered. My husband had recently sold a screenplay and we had used most of that paycheck to finance our relatively modest wedding. Now that I think of it, the very monitor I am looking at as I type this belonged to Adelina.

One cold night in November, my husband came after work to help load the odds and ends into a taxi. We lived just across the park then, but that might as well have been another universe. To the west of Central Park, around 100th Street, there is a group of buildings called Park West Village and while they are perfectly nice, they are institutional, grim looking buildings that date back to a very unfortunate period for New York architecture. I believe our buildings were built as housing projects, and the amount a city cares for the beauty of a housing project is sadly in evidence when one looks at the buildings in our old neighborhood.

Since we lived there, Columbus has become a bit of a shopping mall, with a Sephora and a Whole Foods having moved in and towering modern high-rises overlooking the once down-trodden section of the avenue. Long gone is the dilapidated C-Town grocery store on the corner of 100th, with its sad displays of limp fruit and dusty boxes of graham crackers. Even so, crossing from East to West on the 96th Street transverse (starting around Madison Avenue especially)  is crossing from great luxury to a place where people don't wear Hermes scarves. You re-enter a world of many skin colors and income levels and you leave a world of polished streets and shining sidewalks, marble staircases and fancy doormen.

Oh yes, the egg cups. Adelina asked if I wanted 12 blue porcelain egg cups. I said yes, because why say no? They were so adorable and perplexing. My husband and I lined them up on the top shelf of our insanely tiny kitchen and stared at them, pondering what we would do with them. We would never have 12 people over for eggs. And further, what type of egg were they meant for? They were so little. Too little for poached, we decided, not that we ever poached eggs. Too little for hard-boiled. My husband finally decided they were meant for soft-boiled eggs. He knows about these sorts of things: varieties of egg preparation, from years of watching cooking channels. But he acknowledged they seemed a bit small even for that. Maybe they were for canary eggs? Or those fancy quail eggs they now sell at Whole Foods?

They were the only utterly useless item we kept in our house until we moved years later. We loved their uselessness and their uniformity. We loved how pretty and silly they all looked lined up together. We loved having a visual punch line for guests. But mostly I loved the cups because they represented the softer side of the East Side. I suppose one could argue that giving your cast-offs to the help is not an act of kindness, but even that Adelina didn't want to put things on the trash heap just because she was finished with them meant that her soul was not, perhaps, completely lost. She told me it mattered to her that these things find a home and that she was thrilled for newlyweds to have them. And I chose to believe her.

My remaining time with the Wagners was punctuated by more ups and downs: ups mostly with the girls, downs mostly with their mother as she settled back into life on Fifth Avenue. Ultimately my realization that my beloved Ariana was lost to the forces of Nightingale Bamford and Hampton Jitneys broke my heart and led me on a path to finding new employment.

But the kindness and humanity of people I feel are mostly lost is particularly powerful. It's like Westley in The Princess Bride being mostly dead. The difference between mostly dead and all dead is all the difference in the world. Just ask Miracle Max.

I don't know where those egg cups went. I fantasize that toddlers of all income levels and colors and New York City neighborhoods are using them for hats, just as Eloise does. I love a good bit of irony.

Eloise in her hat wear of choice. 

*All names have been changed. A lot.


  1. I really enjoy the way you tell your stories. Such detail that feels very alive and always wanting more of the story.

    1. That is so kind of you, Kristen. I am trying to remember the sensations of that time in my life, and there were some soft moments i wanted to record. Especially as i do intend to wade deeper into the dark side of it all. You need some balance, even in your memories! Thank you for reading my stories!


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