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The Nicest Gesture

Life Story Club Contributor

I met my husband when he was, unbeknownst to me, when he was leaving. I met him at an October, Halloween party, and he was leaving January for a two-year national tour. But I didn’t know that when I met him.

So we started dating in like November. In mid-November they were doing the gala for the show that was at the Palace. The show was Man of La Mancha. He was acting like, a little cagey, and I didn’t know why. He said, “I have something to tell you.” I said, “ok, what?” He says, “I really would love to take you to the gala.” And of course Richard Kiley and all the actors and he, I mean a big, big to do, the whole red carpet thing. I said, “I would like to go.”

And he said, “Well that’s my problem. Before I met you, the costume woman had a really bad break-up with her boyfriend and was really devastated. Of course she had arranged for all this make-up to be applied and bought all this very expensive dress and shoes and what-not, and I felt really badly for her, and I invited her. I said, ‘You can go with me, I’ll escort you.’ And now, I just feel really badly that I can’t escort you, I can’t, I met someone else.” He said, “I don’t know what to do.”

I said, “You know…” that he was that sensitive, that he was a feminist, that she had paid all that money, kind of endeared me a lot. I was really disappointed and upset, but I dealt with it, so I said, “it’s okay, take her.” He says, “I will take her, I’ll be there a little while, and I’ll come home.” So what am I going to do, I’m staying in his apartment. The show comes down like 11:15, it was at the Palace, so it was very nearby.

Then I hear the key in the door, and I look up and I say, “What happened?”

He says, “Well I took her, I introduced her to some guys, we had a glass of champagne, and I’m here. Where I want to be.” And I was thinking as he says that, “I’m going to marry you, you just don’t know it yet.” Because any man with that kind of sensitivity towards a woman… I just really thought that he’s a feminist, he’s a good guy, and I knew that he’d be a good partner and a good father. Because he understands women. He’s a better woman with pants on than I am sometimes with a skirt.

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Memorable First Date

Life Story Club Contributor

Do you remember pick-ups? When people used to pick people up? I was a young, fine thing. And I was working in Queens. I was a Mrs. Sportswear Manager for Macy’s in the Round. If you know anything about Queens, Macy’s had opened up in Queens and there was this little old lady in the middle of the area that Macy’s could not buy out. So in order to enter into Macy’s where my department was, you went past someone’s house, which was right in the middle of Macy’s property. It was so bizarre. This was the 70’s. And, I was a sales manager, and everything was fine.

Then one day, I lived in Brooklyn, in Park Slope. Remember the GG train? Which is not the G. I used to take that to work. One evening, I’m coming home, and you know, I’m fine, I’m waiting for the train. You know how awful that was, but that was the time when the trains were cleaner and people would talk to each other on the train, they would say hello.

I’m waiting for the train and this guy comes up. This guy was eyeing me, and I wasn’t scared. And he’s smiling, and I’m doing my best to ignore him, I say, “ok, he’s trying to pick me up.” But he was handsome! You know? He was a handsome guy, and he’s trying to inch his way to me and I’m being very coy and very New York, and ignoring him. Finally, he approaches me, and he says, “Hi, My name is John.” And I say…I said something flippant because I was very flippant. And he says, “I’d like to get to know you.”

And I said nothing. I hear the train so I say, “Woah, saved by the train!”

And he says, “I really would like to take you out.”

And I say, “Well, I’m really am not that interested, thank you.” And the train is coming so now I’m really getting sassy.

And he says, “I really would like to get to know you.”

I said, “Okay, um, but the train is coming.”

And he says, “Well, can I have your number?’

I said, “No.” But then you know, I was very fresh. I said, “ok, ell me one thing that would make me interested in you. One thing.”… as the train is approaching.

He says, “I used to be a Jesuit priest.”

Now how can you not be interested? I was a Catholic! Why did this guy leave the priesthood? Why is he so good-looking and why does he want to talk to me? The train stopped, it’s opening its doors. He says, “I really want to take you out.”

So I said, “This is my number” and I blurted it out real fast and I figure he’ll never remember that and I’m leaving. The train door closes. I get off at 7th avenues, I lived at 7th avenue and 1st street, in Park Slope. In the area with Pete Hamill, which wasn’t that safe, it was still a little edgy. I go home, Pat and I start dinner. Pat was my roommate. She was the cook and I wasn’t. And the phone rings. Lo and behold, it’s John! I said, “John who?”

And he says, “You just met me on the train station.”

I said, “Oh hi, you were the one that was the former priest.” To make a long story short, he taught me so much. He took me to my first concert, The Requiem. Took me to the theater. He did the one thing most men don’t do, he listened.

I really liked him, but you know, I had an opportunity. My friend calls me at work again, at Macy’s, and she says, “I’m still in Italy, why don’t you come down.”

I said, “I’m working!”

And she says, “Yeah but hey, you’re going to have a great time, why don’t you come down and hang out with me? We have a place, don’t worry about it.” So it was Italy or John, Italy or John. So I decided to fly off to Italy because John was getting too serious. He scared the heck out of me. I’m in my early twenties. He was a former Jesuit priest, he’s talking about marriage, and children, and buying a house. I couldn’t get away fast enough. I was terrified. I mean, c’mon, I was doing my salsa, I was like the cat’s meow in my neighborhood. I wasn’t going to get married to some former Jesuit priest.

But you see, not all pick-ups end well, and this one did. I unfortunately broke his heart, he didn’t break mine. Other people broke mine. But, never, ever, ever say no to a pick up. You never know, or where it’ll lead you! It lead me to Rome, because I was so busy running away from him! Because he got too serious too quickly.

Well that’s not my first date, but my first romantic pick-up. He was a carpenter. And that really blew my mind. Here was a former Jesuit priest who was a carpenter, like Joseph. No, nah. I decided, nah.

My daughter

Life Story Club Contributor

My greatest accomplishment is raising an independent, smart, self-sufficient daughter. Because many mothers, and they say this to me, and I don’t get it, they’ll say, “Oh my daughter is my best friend.” And I said, “You know, your daughter is your daughter, you’re a parent.” I did not raise my daughter to be my best friend, I have friends. So when I had her, Hector was in town. And it took me a long time to realize that I had reached that sanctified title of motherhood. You know, you need a license for everything but anyone can have a kid. And some of us are better at parenting than others. I raised a daughter who doesn’t need me. She’s in the country, at her husband’s family’s country house, they wanted to get out of the city. She now has 2 children. Since they’re spending so much money, I said, “I want to give you some money, what’s your bank account number and what bank, so I can put some money in.” And she says, “Oh no Mommy, that’s really very nice of you, but I don’t need anything.” I said, “Oh my God, this is unheard of! A daughter refusing money from her parents. What is the world coming to?” And sometimes I feel odd that my job is obsolete. I don’t have a job as a mother. Because she doesn’t need me! I hear a lot of complaints from people and how upset this gets them, and I’m perfectly delighted.

That was the plan. I sent her to an all-girls school so she can build a community of women that would be there for her. She had like 8 bridesmaids, which was like 7 too many, but they were all from her school. She’s just really self-sufficient, so I guess I did a good job. That’s my accomplishment. She’s emotionally independent, financially independent, she’s knew what she needed in a mate. I read somewhere that most women spend more time deciding what shoes to buy, than they do picking a husband. You know? That’s the most important decision you’ll make in your life – a partner, and women don’t spend enough time figuring out what their needs are, and selecting. My daughter’s name is Degan. Degan did. She knew exactly what she wanted, she dated a few men. Everyone wants a doctor, I say, “Oh dear, I hope she gets along with this guy.” Because we really want a doctor! But he was really withholding, and not demonstrative, so that didn’t work out. And the young man she has now understands her perfectly. So I have a daughter who doesn’t need me anymore, who is doing very well, so I decided a few years ago, I was trying to get my husband interested in fostering – being a foster mother. And you know he said, “No thank you. I’m away a lot. You’ll have to handle it alone.” So that was the end of that. But that was my greatest achievement. That I raised a New Yorker who can fend for herself and I don’t have to worry about her, because she has the most important thing: common sense.

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Being Selfless

Life Story Club Contributor

Well, I discovered that I was good at being selfless, forgetting about me and doing something for someone else. I used to work for the Daily News here. I was in the editorial department. It was summer, and I went to work one day, and I was downsized. I didn’t see it coming, but the Daily News was going through a lot of changes at the time. This was the 80’s. I walk into work all ready to go, do my thing, and I get called into the office…and they tell me. and of course you feel awful and worthless, and you don’t know where it came from, and you feel betrayed. I was given this wonderful package, 6 months salary, a year of healthcare. But I was still devastated, so I called home and my husband answers the phone and he says, you’ll never get this, “I got the co-starring role in Crocodile Dundee!”

So my news…you I said, “I’m going to go do my nails.” To share they way I do things, When the going gets tough, the tough go do their nails. So I sat down, I’m having my nails done, I’m thrilled for him, and I’m devastated for me. It was summertime, we had just rented a house at the beach. I’ve gotten fired, my husband is off, and I don’t want to rain on his parade. So as my nails are being done, I’m talking to myself in my head. And I said, “ok, this is not about you. This is about him. You are not going to say anything that’s going to rain on his parade. Get it together girlfriend, and do your thing. And your thing is, sitting by the sideline and applauding.” But of course, life gets complicated. My daughter, who was 5, had just broken her wrist! So have a 5-year-old daughter with a broken wrist in a cast, a husband who’s going off to have his dreams fulfilled, a dream of a lifetime, and I’ve gotten downsized. And I have to pull up my panties, and be a big girl, and say, “Hey it’s not about you Carmen.” So I go home. I lived on Manhattan Plaza, the Daily News was on 42nd between Lexington and 3rd. I do my nails, walk home to 42nd and 9th avenue, and go upstairs and he opens the door, and of course he’s thrilled, and he’s “Wow this is what every actor wants, to be in a big Blockbuster film!” And here I am, little old me, my little heart is shriveled. And I’m doing the best acting I’ve ever had to do. The next day he gets picked up. I’m walking downstairs and I say, “Ok, have a great time, be you, be the best you can be, break a leg” and all that stuff. The car drives off, and I’m left there with a 5-year-old with a broken wrist and a cast. I couldn’t make it to the building, I just broke down. It was really, really difficult. But to this day, I’m so happy that I put me aside and put someone else first. You’re used to doing it for your kids, but to do it for another grown-up, someone of course you love and live with. It was just an accomplishment for me because I never thought I could do that.

I never told him until he came back 5 months later. I never told him. And he would call…there were no tweets or zoom in the 80’s! This was ’85/’86. So that’s something I discovered about myself, that I was able to do. You know…to me it as devastating, I mean death is devastating, but if you know anything about me, I’m all about the job…you know, my career, and anyway, that’s what I discovered I was good at.

You know what I’ve learned? When you pull deep down, there’s grit. It’s grit that got me through it. This is not the most devastating stuff, cancer is more devastating and what not, but when you look at someone’s life, or when you look at your own life, and you decide what’s important or not important…for me, it was very telling that I believed that there was something more important than me. It’s not always you. There are other people in the world. And there’s a time to take a back seat. And I had never known that. I’ve never had to deal with it. But I give myself an A+, you said to brag, I give myself an excellent.

Because it took 5 months, I finally told him, when he came back of course. He was…I mean, and I was still unemployed to get another job in media. I did a little freelance here and there. No one wants you when you’re unemployed. Everyone wants you when you’re employed. You need a job, you’re looking for a job, but they don’t want you. They want you to have a job. It’s crazy.


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An Extraordinary Day at Work

Life Story Club Contributor

Fox used to be WNEW and that was my first job. I got hired as a production assistant and got promoted to field producer and then producer of the show and I have the privilege of meeting one of my heroes, Desi Arnez, who was the husband of I Love Lucy, Lucille Ball. He was a lovely, lovely man. I don’t know if people know this, but Desi Lou Studios was really his idea. He started the three camera angles and the show only became her show—it was I Love Lucy but it was told in his perspective. Sometimes people lost sight of that.

To make a long story short, my boss came in to see me and said, “So I booked Desi Arnaz.” He said, “Carmen, I want you to billboard the show.” Billboarding the show is telling when the next segment was. It’s a lead into that segment. He asked me to ask Desi Arnez to be the billboard for his segment, and he gave me a cigar and a camouflage hat as if he were Che Guevara. He was supposed to put a cigar in and put on the hat. I was so embarrassed because if you know anything about Desi Arnaz and the Cuban revolution, Castro and someone like Desi would be on opposite sides and Desi’s father was the mayor of his town in Cuba.

I was so embarrassed and I didn’t know what to do. He said, “No, I want you to ask him Carmen.” I said, “Gary, this is really difficult. I can’t do this.” He said, “Well, you have to decide.” I went over to Desi and pulled him aside and said in Spanish, “Forgive me, but I need to ask you this in a loud voice in English. This is something I have to do or my job’s on the line.” He was so gracious. He said, “Okay, ask me in a loud voice.” Gary was in hearing shot.

I said, “Mr. Arnaz, would you please use this cigar and this hat and billboard the next hat.” He said in a loud voice, “I pay my publicist a lot of money to promote me, so they can get their own publicist. I’m sorry Carmen but I won’t do that.” I turned around to Gary and he said, “Don’t worry, don’t worry, we’ll do it.” It was extraordinary because I had to ask this incredible man to do something that I knew he would never agree to, but my job was on the line.

I don’t think that he would ever remember this. He’s now deceased. He was invited to do the show because he wrote his autobiography. He signed it for me and left me a lovely note. It’s one of the things I remember about my television days. Every time I see Lucille Ball or the show—they always promote it on television—I always think of that day.

He was lovely. I then had the pleasure of dealing with his daughter at another time. They will forever go down in television history. When you’re in television, you have those experiences. You just have to realize that that’s a job and you come home and that’s your life. I am who I am today because of the opportunities that television afforded me.

People have to know the political histories of other countries before they go around asking such silly things. It was just so embarrassing but I survived it.

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Greatest Spectacle

Life Story Club Contributor

I’m going to talk about Cuba. I’ve always wanted to go to Cuba and I went a few years ago. I just happened to mention it and all of the sudden, everyone I spoke to wanted to go. I’m not a tour guide but I got hung up in taking care of travel arrangements.

When you want to go to Cuba, what do you do? You go to New Jersey, where the Cubans live. I was told about a travel agency that booked trips to Cuba and also sold Visas. So for $200 round trip, including Visa, I got six people to Cuba.

We went to a town that was near the beach and we walked in and it was the most hysterical thing: We walk in and there was this, what they call a casa, what they call someone’s home, and there was a car. It was very odd. And the reason there was a car parked was because if it was parked on the street, not very nice people would put sand in it and mess up the gasoline tank. So there was a car, almost like a piece of artwork, parked in the middle of the living room and everybody walked around it like it was the most magical thing in the world.

So this couple took care of us and we all roamed the streets of Havana. Literally everyone was dancing in the streets. We walked into restaurants and there were musicians, and I mean class A musicians playing in the restaurants and the bars. And people were just hanging out in the streets, looking into the restaurants. So I was standing there, looking into a restaurant and there was this woman next to me who must’ve been about 90. She was dressed in a very long skirt with a turban in her hair and she comes over to me and takes me out to dance. So here I am in Havana, Cuba, dancing with this 90+ year old lady who doesn’t know me from Adam. And we were dancing and to me it was a spectacle because I’d love to see dancing in New York, but we can’t touch anyone anymore and we can’t congregate.

That was a spectacle to me. The car in the living room as a piece of artwork and a 90-year-old lady who was literally dancing in the streets, and who set me free. I was really able to enjoy the Cuban people. The food is sensational, and the artwork is sensational. Taking into consideration all the have-nots that exist there, they are the most gracious, lovely people I’ve ever had to deal with.

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What Makes Us Different

Life Story Club Contributor

I come from a traditional Catholic immigrant family and you leave home for two reasons. You get married or you’re dead. I left to live with a girlfriend, a roommate. I used to read those romance novels. Everyone had a roommate and a twin bed and I wanted to be an American girl. And you were when you lived in that kind of household. I was grounded for a little while because in that kind of traditional setting, you’re supposed to get married, get a job, and contribute to the family finances. And then I moved out and I had to pay rent. That’s one of the things that makes me different.

I didn’t get married until I was 33, I didn’t have kids until I was 34. I became an “American girl.” That’s what they used to tease me about: “Oh, leave her alone, she’s too American.” I love my culture but there’s certain things that just weren’t me. I was the first one to graduate from college. I went to CUNY and got my Master’s from Cornell. I don’t cook and every Puerto Rican girl is supposed to cook. I do still speak fluent Spanish and a lot of 2nd, 3rd generation Puerto Rican girls do not.

I went to several different growing ups. It was my Rock and Roll era of English and my Salsa era of Spanish. Somehow they merged and you have a complete person. I’ve been able to somewhat successfully combine them both, so I’m a new Puerto Rican. If you come from a bilingual, bicultural home, it’s a never-ending question mark: Who am I supposed to be? I finally figured out that you identify you. Never let anyone else identify you. You are the captain of your ship.

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Life Story Club Contributor

For the Christmas holidays, people of my background do Christmas Eve. In Puerto Rico, you do a Saltos and you come with a whole bunch of musicians and food and you wake people up and you party. But since we don’t do that here, what we do is we all meet and do our Christmas Eve tradition. My daughter’s married to a fabulous person. He’s also part of our tradition. We now all meet at my daughter’s house because she has two small children. We do the traditional meal which is pork, yams, and potatoes. All that good greasy stuff that you eat on Christmas Eve.

The most favorite are called pasteles. Pasteles are made of yuca or plantains. They are mashed and kneaded together like a dough and filled with beef, chicken, or pork. And they are wrapped in plantain leaves, wrapped in paper, and thrown into boiling water for an hour. The hassle is opening them up because you have to open them up and water spills all over the place. And of course there’s lots of rum and coquito.

That’s how we do Christmas Eve, and then on Christmas day we just hang out. We also do Hanukkah because my son-in-law is Jewish. And we play Dreidel and all that good stuff. There’s lots of food and kisses and all that stuff you can’t do now with our distancing. There’s Spanish music and lots of joy and lots of love.

I order from a restaurant and put them onto beautiful plates. With lots of rum and coquito so by the time the meal has arrived I really need to eat.


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Living Abroad

Life Story Club Contributor

April 7, 2020

Something that makes me smile is when I think back to my two years living in Rome. I just met marvelous people and created a new life for me. I’m from New York. My parents came in the ’40s. I grew up in Long Island City, which is now not affordable for anyone.

Can you hear me? And what I think about my time in Rome is that I was a different Carmen. This was in the ’70s, so it’s not the Italy of Corona Virus. It’s the Italy of love and romance and a different way of doing things. I worked there at a newspaper called the Rome Daily American, met some marvelous people. What makes me smile is that for the first time I felt I was an American.

Living in New York city as a person of color, of Puerto Rican background, I was always the minority and I always felt a little marginalized or a whole lot marginalized. And I moved to a country where everyone was excited to be with me, to know me because I was American. Lo and behold, finally someone gets it. The Italians just lifted my spirit. It was party, party, party. I learned to speak Italian. I learned to be an Italian. And one thing that everyone said to me was, “Oh, America. Oh, Spanish. Yeah. Everything free in America.” Everyone knew Westside Story. I just, “Okay.” Which was kind of interesting.

When I first decided to go, my parents were very nervous and scared for me, so they took me to a spiritualist, and she foretold my future and gave my mother a little, what we call a black hand. And she put it in a little red pouch and I was supposed to add this on my brassiere always because it was going to protect me. I don’t know what from, but I was too nervous not to do it, so I did it. So that’s what brings a smile to my face.

I still love Italians. I speak Italian somewhat because there’s no one to practice with. But I recommend to everyone to live somewhere else, learn another culture and language if you can, is the most expanding experience. And I’m grateful for my two years there, for my love of the country, and for finally feeling that I was an American.

In this time and space that we are in with the whole immigrant issue, it’s really important to live in another man’s culture, eat his food, and understand what someone I worked with used to call they come from. She says, “You always have to know someone’s come from because that will help you understand the person.”

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