Redmond Diary

By Andrew J. Brust

Blog archive

Sallee Brust and a Bygone New York City

Some of you knew my mother, Sallee Brust (born Sallee Greenberg) quite well. Others of you never got to meet her. For all of you, less than two weeks after her passing, I'd like to tell you a little bit about her and her life, because I think no one knows all of this. In fact, even I wasn't aware of some of these details until last week.

First of all, it's important to know that my mother was a native New Yorker, and so were her parents. Her family lived here on the Upper West Side, which is one reason I'm glad we're having the service here. Sallee grew up on West End Avenue, in the 90s -- the now abandoned 91st Street & Broadway subway station (which you can still see as you travel on the #1 train between the 86th and 96th street stations) was her station. To me, this is a significant piece of data, even if it seems mere trivia, because my mother is emblematic of much of what I might call the "lost New York." As I continue, I think you'll understand that better.

As a young girl, my mother lived through the Depression. Her dad, Harry (his real name was Aaron) owned his own fabric business, and her mother, Betty, was an independent apparel buyer. As such, the Greenbergs weren't poor, but they were very careful to economize, and that ethic stayed with my mother throughout her life. My mother's family was not especially religious, but still identified strongly as Jews, something else that my mother always carried with her.

My mother went to Julia Richman High School, a public school which still exists today as a complex containing six smaller schools. At the time my mother attended, it was a competitive school, rather than one with open admissions. It was on the Upper East Side, and established early on my mother's limit for a comfortable commute. For a variety of reasons, my mother did not pursue a college degree; she did, however, attend continuing education and some Freshman classes at Fordham much later in life. In fact, her student ID card is amongst the pictures we have on display here today.

My mother had my sisters at a fairly young age, and stayed home to raise them until they were aged 10 and 7. From there, in the 1960s, she started working, first in a brief stint as a dental assistant, and then as a hostess at the World Trade Club in Manhattan. The similarity of the club's name to that of the World Trade Center is not a coincidence, as the club was essentially the precursor to Windows on the World, which occupied the 107th floor of 1 World Trade Center, before it fell.

I remember on September 11th, checking in with my mother, her saying "they've taken part of my city." At the time, I thought she meant that figuratively -- I didn't understand her connection to the towers. Once again, a piece of lost New York that my mother was part of.

The World Trade Club was a popular lunch spot with many powerful Wall Street figures. And here is yet more lost New York: restaurants on Wall Street were in short supply and a club membership was crucial to lunch plans and status; if there were a Mad Men-like TV series about Wall Street in those days, the club would have typified the scene.

Anyway, since my mother, as you can tell from her photos here, was beautiful, we shouldn't be surprised that she befriended and then worked for two different Wall Street magnate club customers: Jack Fitch and then James Dines. Fitch owned and ran Francis Emory Fitch, Inc. which published financial documents; the company still operates today as part of the Fitch Group. James Dines was a financial technical analyst and pundit who, among other things, predicted the deregulation of gold. My mother oversaw marketing and fulfillment for his subscription investment letter, which exists to this day.

After working for Dines, my mother suspended her career to raise me, as she had my sisters before me. She was very proactive in my education and entered me in a threes program at The City and Country School, which in those days was a pioneer in Progressive education. She also worked tirelessly, despite her New York civic pride, to rid me of a New York accent: she was fond of saying "say ‘these,' not ‘dese'" and I now do the same with my kids. And the educational involvement didn't end there: for example, my mother knew all about Sesame Street before it ever came on the air, and she sat me down in front of our 9-inch Black and White TV to watch the very first episode, as it first aired. Both of my parents were ardent supporters of Public Television from the very early days.

In the 1970s, after I was older and more settled in school, my mother took a job in the fundraising department of the Spence Chapin Adoption Agency. During her employment there, my family moved to Long Island. As this was much further than the Upper East Side, my mother was not thrilled with the move. She made certain that we rented out our brownstone on West 4th Street, rather than selling it, and two years later, when my dad's job moved to a location that was more easily commutable from the City, we left Long Island and moved right back into our house in the Village. For my mother, equilibrium was re-established.

In the 1980s, my mother took a job with Balch, Hardy and Scheinman, a firm that was a pioneer in the stock options market for pension funds and other tax-exempt clients. She ran their customer service organization and was their Office Manager as well. Originally, the firm was located at 2 Wall Street, and later moved to 501 Fifth Avenue at 42nd Street, across from the Public Library. I can remember going to my mother's offices, in both locations, after school sometimes, and feeling like they were quintessentially New York places to work. When I later worked at One Wall Street as a consultant for two years, I felt like my career had become real. And my current office, just three blocks north of 501 5th Avenue, felt like home right away. Sometimes I think my standard of being a real, grown-up New Yorker is defined by measuring parity with my mother's life. The more I think about it, the more certain of this I become.

My mother was practical, direct, liberal and supportive, in unexpected ways. When I started smoking, she gave me an ashtray. I soon stopped. In college, a girl that I really liked, but was afraid to ask out, was coming through New York on her way to London, for an academic term abroad. I asked my mother if she could stay over one night. My mother replied that she could, but that she really didn't feel like cleaning up the guest room, so said my guest had to stay in my room. I figured that would be a deal-breaker, but the bizarre invitation was nonetheless accepted, and by the end of that visit, we were dating.

Kidding aside, when I nervously presented to my mother the idea of starting my own company, she asked, almost in an annoyed tone, how at this perfect time, when I was single and childless, how I could think of not starting my own business. So I started it with full confidence, and now help run the company that bought it, ten years later.

My mother was frugal. I used to kid her -- sometimes even harass her -- about her habits of saving aluminum foil or using paper towels until they seemingly disintegrated. In school, as some here can attest, I was often teased for having store brand cola in my brown bag lunch. But for someone who grew up in the 1930s and 40s, and given my parents' modest financial beginnings, my mother's frugality was really in dedication to her kids. When the NYC public schools became especially tough, Jill and I were sent to private school; all of us went to college, without financial aid, and without loans. I even had dormitory fees covered while I was a student at Columbia. Of course, that was partly out of generosity, and partly something else: like many New Yorkers, my mother liked her privacy.

Can you blame her? With five of us squeezed into two floors of a 20-foot brownstone, space was at a premium, but that was a small sacrifice to be able to live where we did. My mother always loved New York, well before that was the State's slogan. And within New York, my mother really loved Greenwich Village, her adopted home neighborhood of some 40 years. When she got there, the Women's House of Detention was still on Greenwich Avenue, and Balducci's was just a local fruit and vegetable stand. When I was little, our block, the one I live on to this day, really was part of neighborhood. It had a fruit stand at one corner run by a man named Gus, a shoemaker on another corner, diagonally across from a corner grocery store called Shanvilla run by a group of friendly men with deep, sing-song Irish accents. In front of that store, my mother had me in a baby stroller as she listened to a man named Ed Koch chat with the locals about his campaign for Congress. Back on our side of the block was the Jamaican tailor shop, and the florist run by three gay men, who were also proselytizing Christians, I kid you not. This was Greenwich Village in the 70s. We knew most of our neighbors, went to their houses for Christmas parties, their kids and I played ball in the street, or we hung out on our stoops. You don't see that much in the Village anymore.

If this sounds like a lot of indulgent reminiscing, forgive me. But also understand that this was the same era that President Ford told New York City to drop dead, when the subways were dangerous and filled with graffiti, when no one even walked near Central Park at night, and when Police Officer Frank Serpico, who also lived in the neighborhood, fought against systemic corruption in the New York City Police department. To borrow a phrase, it was the best of times; it was the worst of times. Really, it was what you made of it.

My mother made the most of it. Everyone in the neighborhood knew her. Not just the shopkeepers, but the local electrician, plumber, handyman, UPS driver and even the Con Ed meter reader. These guys still ask about her, and say hi to me in the street (except the meter reader, who we can't even get to show up). This isn't just about friendliness. It was about taking a scary city and making it a safe and welcoming place for her children.

Our mother taught us how to be street-smart, to avoid the end cars on the subway train, so that no one could block one door and trap you. She taught us which station exits to take, and which streets to walk down, or avoid. She had us carry "mugging money." And with all this she gave us the confidence and sense of control not to feel scared. Then she introduced us to what we couldn't get anywhere else: the museums, dance, Saturdays for kids at Lincoln Center, our local public library branch and, once we had the palate for it, the wealth of great cuisine and people from all walks of life.

My mother took a place that most parents saw as a war zone to protect their kids from and showed us what it really was: a wonderland that was a privilege to live in. You needed the right skills to see it that way and take advantage of it, and she gave us those skills. For me, it was the greatest gift I could have. I used it to discover neighborhoods, subway lines and stores that I read about. When I was older, I used it to discover night clubs and restaurants and to take after-school and summer jobs working with kids from totally different, sometimes poorer backgrounds, without fear and without an attitude of superiority. I still use these skills to make friends, contacts, and build my business.

The New York of the "bad old" 70s, as shown in movies like Taxi Driver, is gone now. The neighborly Greenwich Village that we (and a few of our childhood friends here) grew up in is gone now as well. Die-hards like my mother, who tolerated the Taxi Driver reality because she and they saw the reality of other films, like Annie Hall, and Manhattan, are now gone too. It's all part of that lost New York. And now, New York has another loss, in my mother's passing.

Posted on 02/08/2010

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