Friday, October 15, 2010

Harriet and Me

When I was growing up in Manhattan, I used to go to Carl Schurz Park at East End Avenue and 86th Street, just like Harriet the Spy. I wanted to be just like her, with a spy route and a belt with hooks for all her tools and pens and notebooks. I don't think Louise Fitzhugh actually said which park it was, but Harriet lived on 88th Street in New York and the park was by the river near her house - so I knew. Carl Schurz Park is home to Gracie Mansion, the official mayor's residence, and has many lovely green places, as parks do. But the bits I went to were heavy on cement.

My mother and I sat on a bench at the riverside Esplanade on hot summer days. There are some great photos of the Espanade over at The City Review (and at below left, too - just mentally subtract the snow!). I drew trees, the chain link fence, and the river with a set of magic markers that came in a little tin. They didn't work very well but I loved the tin, so that was what I used. Writing in Harriet-like notebooks came later. And I kept those at home, not on a belt hook. It was safer that way.     

Harriet and I had more in common that Carl Schurz Park, though.  We both had to dress up in humiliating costumes for class dance performances. Harriet was, you may recall, an onion in her class Thanksgiving dance. And in 2nd grade, I had to dress up as an ersatz 1920s flapper to do a line dance version of the Bunny Hop. The boys just had to wear silly sashes, but the girls had to dress up in crepe paper skirts and headbands with Kleenex flowers. But at least Harriet did not have to go out in public dressed up in a lot of silliness. I did - because we had to go dance in a plaza at - you guessed it!  - Carl Schurz Park. I don't know what was worse - Bunny Hopping in the terrible June heat, or walking through the Upper East Side dressed in crepe paper and Kleenex.

Not on my head, please [Examiner]
My class also went to the Carl Schurz playground as a treat at the end of the year - dressed normally, which was in itself a treat. But the playground, alas, was paved with cement. The girls had to wear dresses or skirts - it was a school rule until about 1971. So I ran around in a dress and inevitably fell down a bunch of times which was hard on my knees. I see the photos of us all on that playground (taken just before disaster would strike, always) and that's what I think of - falling on that hard boiling hot grey cement.

But at least I didn't have to dress up like an onion.


Eric said...

I think all the women in the James Bond films had to wear skirts until 1971 also.

It seems like having clothes made out of paper might have certain advantages, like if you had to remember something and write it down.

Anonymous said...

I too had to wear dresses to school until 6th grade, which would have been exactly 1971. Except on snowy days, when we had special dispensation to wear pants under our dresses. Too bad there were no leggings in those days -- only those horrible itchy tights that were always too small.

Jeanne said...

As a kid from southeast Missouri who first read Harriet the Spy in Honolulu, Hawaii, I wondered a lot about the strange way Harriet lived, the places she went. It was one of the triumphs of my life when I found "egg cream" on a menu in Middletown, Rhode Island and got to try one.

Bill said...

I was a big Harriet fan after I read the book. Her lifestyle was completely different than mine, and I admired her adventurous spirit.
As far as costumes for school plays, I'll share this picture of me in my 4th-grade Moonster costume from the dazzling musical, Cowboy on the Moon.
I made my mother take my picture at the back door; no way I was going into the front yard looking like this.

Marcheline said...

I, too, went to a school where girls had to wear dresses, but I was sneaky. I covertly put on shorts under my dress at recess so that I could hang upside down on the monkey bars and not get called into the principal's office!

Shieldmaiden96 said...

Harriet the Spy was one of my favorite books of all time. I feel like I lived in it when I was about 11, and it was, of course, a gift from that one aunt that always seemed to know exactly what books would speak to me. The book inspired my journal keeping (though I didn't write about other people to the degree she did) and my curiosity about cities. I wanted an egg cream! I wanted to ride in a grocery delivery bicycle! I wanted to read Goethe (and I did)!
And that picture of her on the cover? Sweatshirt, jeans, and glasses? That was me.
I think I need to read it again. Its been too long.

Anonymous said...

I had "Harriet the Spy" and "The Long Secret" when I was young. "The Long Secret" is a hoot. The people with names like Zeenie and Bunny, the mystery of the snarky notes left for everyone. I recently bought those books again and enjoyed reading them. I love Harriet; she reminded me of myself at that age. I wrote in the notebooks too.