Hell’s Kitchen – like so much of our beloved city – is changing rapidly. But few have seen the area change more than 93-year-old Mary. This lifelong New Yorker has spent nearly a century living between 37th and 42nd Streets.
Born in a ramshackle tenement more than a decade before the Lincoln Tunnel opened, Mary affectionately recalls the tight-knit community of her childhood. Irish, Italian and Polish families, many recently transplanted to the country, all living alongside each other. Mary even remembers filling buckets of water and pouring them into a tin basin in the kitchen. She and her two sisters would wash themselves, fighting to go first before the water got cold.
There were always familiar faces around her building, along with an array of exotic culinary aromas. Mary loved watching her own mother cook, especially Polish classics like borscht and pierogies. And every Sunday – no matter the weather – Mary could look forward to chicken noodle soup.
Food was easy to buy back then. Carts on every sidewalk sold fresh fruits, vegetables, meat and fish. And Patty’s Market was right around the corner. Sadly, even if Mary could get outside today, there are no longer any grocery stores nearby.
As she got older, Mary worked many jobs, including eleven years at the National Biscuit Company – known today as Nabisco. Mary loved being on the assembly line making animal crackers. “When they put me on Nilla Wafers, I hated it” she laughs.
Every morning she walked to their factory in Chelsea. Mary loved walking so much she never even bothered learning the bus system. “Walking was my exercise. That’s the only exercise I liked.”
Sadly, making it down the stairs of her fourth-floor walk-up is simply not an option anymore. All the strength in Mary's body is gone and her legs have become weak. Maintaining her balance is a constant struggle. Even with her walker, she can barely manage the two rooms of her small apartment. All of her furniture has been carefully placed so Mary can hold on to a table or a chair as she goes between the kitchen and bedroom.
“I don’t know what happened, but my muscles ran away from me,” Mary explains.
Today Mary’s younger sister is her only link to the past. Mary remembers when their mother had a bit of extra money she’d take the girls to Central Park to ride the carousel. Giddy from their special trip uptown, the sisters would roll down the grassy hills until they grew tired.
Her sister used to visit and help her down the stairs, yet she too is now homebound. Both are hard of hearing, but they try to keep each other company with weekly phone calls. They love reminiscing about their trips to the Arena movie theater. For just ten cents, they could see the latest movie and a news reel.
These days Mary spends much of her time in solitude sitting at her kitchen table and listening to the radio. “Oh that first year stuck inside… I thought I’d go crazy,” she admits with frustration in her voice. All Mary longs to do is walk again in the neighborhood she adores. “I wish the Lord would put new feet on me. I’d be out exploring. There are so many new things around and I haven’t seen them.”
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