Beyond Wardrobe Staples: Clothes I Can’t Throw Out

When it comes to wardrobes, New Yorkers have to deal with two fixed realities.  First, winter and summer require different kinds of clothing.  Second, closets are few and tiny.

The only way to deal is to change out your wardrobe twice a year.  It’s a ritual Lifelongnewyorker learned from her mother and one she’s continued in Alabama.  But it mystifies people who have lived all their lives in the South, where most clothing can be worn across at least three seasons, and spacious closets.

So, despite living in a house with three walk-in closets and in a climate that simply does not require woolen garments, I have held on to my biannual sorting routine.  My mother made sure it was hard-wired.

So, over the course of a couple of weeks, I go through my clothes and shoes and divide them into three piles: Give away, Throw away, and Keep.  Keep is simple: make sure they’re clean, pile them into baskets or bags and bring them to the upstairs closets.  Parting from stuff has never really been hard for me.  Oh, sure, there have been plenty of years that I’ve kept stuff believing that someday it would fit again … But not anymore.  Now I realize that if it hasn’t fit for two or three years, it’s never going to fit.  And if by some miracle — or perhaps because of a wasting disease — I lose 20 pounds, I’ll buy new clothes.

Once all the old season’s stuff is out of the closet and off the shelves, I reverse the process.  I pluck hanging items from upstairs and bring them down; open the cedar chest and pull out the bulkier sweaters; open some storage bins and grab the long-sleeve tee’s; pull out the boots to replace the sandals.

I’m ruthless, too.  Not all the stuff that got kept in the spring will make it into the current rotation.  I’ll do another round of reckoning.  This year, for example, I finally accepted that, after surgeries on both feet,  there are some shoes that I will simply never, ever wear again.  They will never be comfortable, and even wearing them for a couple of hours is more misery than I’ll accept.

No matter how ruthless I am, though, I will never touch what I call the “archival clothes.”  These are the ones that never move from the upstairs, out-of-season closet.  I never expect to wear them again.  But they’re talismans and I have to keep them.

It won’t surprise anyone that my wedding dress is one of these.  Not that I’m saving it for a future descendant — despite having it “preserved” and boxed right after the big event, and wrapped in acid-free tissue, it’s yellowed and stained. Possibly I shouldn’t have stored it in the attic for 25 years.  Likewise, I have the “peignoir set” my Aunt Alice gave me at my bridal shower, despite the fact that I can no longer fit any part of my upper body into it. I use the term “peignoir set” loosely.  Do not think of delicate lace or somthing like a negligee — this was the height of the peasant look: it’s a demure cotton nightgown and matching robe.  But it’s a connection to a favorite aunt who died way too early.

And no one can blame me for saving The Abandonned One’s christening outfit or the navy blue double-breasted Nordstrom suit he wore for his First Communion (I’ve never seen a more dapper 7-year old).

But how do I explain the decision to hold on to the blue velvet dress with the satin sash that I wore for my mother’s 80th birthday party, or the cotton print Gunne Sax dress with ribbon trim and lace-up bodice that I bought in 1978?

Or the tissue-thin t-shirt from the No More Nukes rally I attended in — when? 1980? — on the site that would later become Battery Park City?  It looks like a child’s size.

CostellSo much, of course, is about memory.  One of the sweatshirts I pulled from the bin could still be worn, but I won’t anymore for fear of destroying it.  It was yellowed and stained, so Mr. NYer washed it twice, pretreating the stains, and drying it in the sun to bleach it and restore it to something close to its original white.

It’s a sweatshirt I found in a catalog and ordered for my father back in the mid-’80s.  It features his last name, Irish coat-of-arms and eponymous Australian pub. It was the perfect gift, a nod to two of his favorite things: beer and Australia (he was there during World War II).  And it was practical.  He wore it often.

When he died, my mother gathered their daughters to sort through my father’s clothes for the last time.  We put them into three piles: Give Away, Throw Away, and Keep.  And I have kept the sweatshirt, and have no plans to part with it.



When Lifelongnewyer and Mr. NYer moved to Alabama, we brought two cats with us.  Like us, they were ex-pat cats.


It took only a few weeks before these guys became buddies.

One of them, Harpo, aka, “The Mush,” has passed on and is buried next to a pond in our development.  He loved to munch on tulips, so Mr. NYer planted a clutch of them atop his grave.  Rather than make his steady companion, Simon, an only cat, we adopted a new guy, an Alabama native named Stan.  The two of them get along better than any cats we’ve ever had.  Our household was complete.

In the last few weeks, however, we’ve become a three-cat family, having added a female tortie to the mix.  The adoption was entirely predictable as it was in the works for over a year.  How it happened tells a lot about life in Alabama, and about

Mr. NYer.  Let’s just say that retirement changes a man.

Some background:  In NY we were a one-cat household for many years.  Lifelongnewyorker lobbied for a second cat, and Mr. NYer resisted. His reasons were sound. We had a single bathroom shared by us, the Abandoned One, and the litter box.  The idea of making that a multi-cat litter box appealed to no one.  Finally, though, Lifelongnewyorker got a second cat (Harpo) as a Mother’s Day gift and we settled into life as a two-cat family.

In Alabama, we have four bathrooms. 

Our third cat appeared on our patio one warm Friday in May nearly two years ago.  She was young, probably less th

an a year old, comfortable around people, and healthy looking.  We had a cast party that weekend for a play that Mr. NYer was appearing in, and the cat schmoozed with the guests and sat contentedly on several laps. 

We had no idea whose cat this was or where she had come from.  Our corner of the development has six townhouses,

only three of which were occupied and, as far as we knew, none of our neighbors had a cat. It was hot, so we put out water.  She seemed hungry, so we put out food. 

Days passed and the cat made camp on the patio.  By day three, we began to scour the “lost pet” section of Cr

aigslist, looked for flyers on telephone poles, and called animal shelters to see if anyone was looking for a tortoiseshell cat.  Mr. NYer was hopeful when a woman whose tortie was missing called.  She and a friend came to rescue her cat, “Muffin,” but alas, patio cat was not she. 

Finally, on day five, we decided to take patio cat, who we were now calling Sunpie, inside, but not until she’d been thoroughly vetted.  Mr. NYer took her in to our vet, who shaved her belly to see whether she’d been spayed.  She had, and it had been done by the local Humane Society.  She even had an ID chip implanted, and the owner was contacted.

Imagine our surprise when we learned that the cat belonged to our newest neighbor, a judge who had moved into one of the townhouses.  He and his girlfriend had gone out of town for five days and left the cat outside without adequate food or water.  Somehow we found out that the girlfriend, who maintained her own place with its own cat also wanted a cat in the judge’s new place.  They went to the Humane Society, signed the adoption papers agreeing to keep the cat indoors, and took “Angel,” as they named her, home.  The judge, though, wasn’t really fond of cats and used one accident in the house as a reason to cast Angel from paradise.

I was furious that anyone could leave a cat for five days, but it appeared that the judge and his girlfriend now realized the cat needed to be fed and watered and that was that.  She became a fixture on the property, and spent many hours lounging on our patio, where we kept a bowl of water for her.

Just as a matter of note, Mr. NYer and I theorize that Alabama is more of a dog state than a cat state.  So many people have dogs that we wondered whether it was a legal requirement for residence.  In our neighborhood, many of these dogs spend days outside on their lawn and rush barking at you as you walk by.  Which explains why most walkers carry big sticks.  But all these properties also have “invisible fences,” so the dogs come rushing at you only to skid to a stop six inches from the street.  It’s scary. 

At some point last spring the judge moved out.  He left the cat. 

Yes, you heard that.  He left the cat.  I don’t know about you, but in my book that’s grounds for impeachment.  Certainly for a complaint to the local bar. 

Mr. NYer slid farther down the slippery slope as he put food out in addition to the water.  She was out in all kinds of weather, and the rain was particularly hard as the patio is fully exposed.  Mr. NYer would open the patio door, pick her up, carry her through the living room and place her outside the front door where a covered entry offered some shelter. 

She grew from a cuddly people-oriented cat into a savvier outdoor cat, less likely to jump on a lap and wary of being approached.  Occasionally she left gifts of mutilated birds for Mr. NYer on the doormat.  She learned what time the food came out and showed up promptly, meowing if it was late.  Often, she scooted into the house when the door was opened and had to be retrieved and brought back outside. She lounged on the windowsills with only a screen separating her from one of our cats lounging on the other side.

In short, whether Mr. NYer admitted it or not, she had become our responsibility and thus, our cat. As the weather got cold, he fretted about her being in the cold.  I pointed out that the one unoccupied townhouse was still in construction mode and the garage doors were kept open; she probably took shelter there.  Mr. NYer put out a house for her with blankets.  She was having none of it; her sights were set for indoor life.

And then the polar vortex was forecast. I knew what would happen, of course. The first night of cold weather, Mr. NYer set up a litter box and food in the garage and brought her in. I asked what would happen to our belongings if she freaked out in the middle of the night and felt trapped. He raised one door a few inches. She ate, rested, and left. 

The next day the temps were projected to fall into the teens that night.  A colleague advised me to turn on our taps and let the water run to avoid freezing pipes.  Our house is well-insulated, but it’s built on a slab and several sinks are on outside walls.  It seemed smart, but I knew Mr. NYer would object that this was over-cautious.  So I was surprised when I came home from work and told him I thought we should run the water and he said OK.  I took off my coat.  “Oh,” he said, “the cat is in the guest room bathroom.”

It was just for the bitterly cold weather of course. 

That night, I heard her bumping against the door a few times, trying to get out, but she was fine when we visited.  The next morning, I asked, “How’s the hostage doing?”

“I let her into the bedroom.  She seems happier.”

Great, the cat now had her own suite.

And so it went for a few days until one night at dinner Mr. NYer said, “We need to decide if we’re going to bring her indoors.”

And so it happened that we added Tortie to our cat house.  He took her to the vet where she got her shots and a clean bill of health.  She was introduced to the household.  The boys are not thrilled.  She has made herself at home. 

It’s been a good two weeks now, and she has never tried to go outside, even when the temp went up to 70 last weekend.  She doesn’t even look wistfully out the door. 

Clearly, this was a cat with a plan.  And patience.  And a willing accomplice.



What’s to Eat?

Lifelongnewyorker has never been good at feeding herself. If left alone, she will have cheese and crackers for dinner. Unless someone else makes her lunch, she’s going to be buying it. And there’s only one rule: it has to be fast and easy to get; something that can be brought back to eat at one’s desk.

Luckily — really really luckily — MrNYer makes her lunch for her these days and makes sure she doesn’t leave the house without it. And, yes, she knows how lucky she is. Truly. Because she’d be in big trouble if she had to depend on what’s available close to work.

Back in NY, she had plenty of choice within a single block. At Newsweek, if the weather was bad, she just rode the elevator up one floor to the company cafeteria, Newsbreak. Venturing outside, there were Pax, Cafe Europa and Le Pain Quotidien, not to mention neighborhood diners and the fabulous (and now out-of-business) Crystal Cafe, which had the best chunky gazpacho every.

Later, at Scholastic, the neighborhood offered new options. In the building was the rooftop cafeteria and grill. Across the street, Dean & Deluca lured her, especially in winter, with its savory soups. If she were adventurous, she could stop at any of the food trucks that arrived in Soho about noon, or even stop at a street vendor for shish kebab (or “street meat” as her younger colleague called it).

Not so in Montgomery. Downtown has a number of lunch shops — they open at 11:30 and lunch is done by 1:00. Few are within easy walking distance, especially in summer, where walking three blocks would bring on heatstroke. The Commerce Cafe, however, is conveniently located right across the street. The cafeteria specializes in homemade southern food, with a meat-and-three hot lunch. Today’s entrees are fried chicken and chili mac. Sides include turnip greens, rice succatash, potatoes. There’s always salads, but most of them include either cheese or bacon. It’s really amazing how much you can do with bacon.

And if you’re hungry during the day? Need a snack? Not to worry. We don’t have an in-house cafeteria with healthy fruits, veggies and salads, as my two previous employers did. But we have vending machines. Here’s a few pictures. Which snack looks good to you?



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Growing Things and Pictures # 6 & 7

Not a single potted plant lives in our Alabama house.  It’s not that Lifelongnewyorker — or Mr. NYer for that matter — find plants fussy or see them as some kind of unattractive nuisance.  But in moving we learned that it’s just as easy to live without them.

When we set to living together, back in the last millennium, plants were very big.  So big in fact that one of our wedding guests gifted us with a Ficus tree. It arrived, along with herself and three other guests, incluuding my boss, just as we emerged from the church and they emerged from their car. They were late.  My boss, the Dean of the college from which I had recently graduated, and her husband, a psychiatrist, lived on 12th Street in the Village and, rather improbably, owned a white Cadillac convertible.  Which was fortunate, since this tree would never have fit in a VW Beetle.

But I digress.  I was speaking of house plants. During this period they were an essential ingredient for the post-hippie home.  The ideal was to have lots of them, hanging from macrame holders, training around windows, sitting in baskets on the floor.  It was supposed to look lush, but mainly the greenery served to distract from the cinderblock-and-particle-board shelves and the assortment of furniture you could afford in your twenties.

After the wedding, the Ficus — which in no time grew a robust colony of mealy bugs, turned sticky and died — joined an assortment of other potted plants.  We had a prayer plant that arrived with Mr. NYer and must have lasted for twenty more years.  There were snake plants, a favorite of my mother’s (which I’ve since learned are also called “mother-in-laws tongue,” spider plants, zebra plants and other garden variety greens.

With rain in the air, my mother hurried to put her plants out on the stoop.

With rain in the air, my mother hurried to put her plants out on the stoop.

We liked plants and, in addition to being part of 70s-era decor, we grew up with them.  Mr. NYer’s father had a green thumb that he mainly used outside, but he kept a ledge full of African violets in his living room bow-window.  My mother disliked gardening because the soil might contain worms, but indoors, in pots, it seemed safe.  That’s where the snake plants came from. She grew especially fond of African violets, and kept some intensely blue-purple ones on her kitchen windowsill.

My mother had some odd beliefs about plants needing to experience the outdoors (just like children and wet laundry). When the forecast promised the right kind of rain — not a downpour, not just a sprinkle — she put the pots out on the stoop to get a nice soaking.

She continued the ritual until she died, and one of our chores was figuring out what to do with her plants.  Most were kind of measly, but the African violets, upon which she had lavished care, were too fine to toss.  I took one, a sister took another, and my father-in-law, a man who could make a desiccated stump come back to life, took the third. From that he pinched and repotted and produced generations of the plant.  And everytime I visited, he would say, “Come and look at how well your mother’s African violet is doing.”

Rain in the air? My mother set out the plants.

Rain in the air? My mother set out the plants.

When Mr. NYer and I moved to Alabama three years ago, our plants presented a problem.  The movers would not, could not take them.  With two cats aboard, the car was packed tight; besides we’d be parking overnight in below freezing weather. We disposed of them as we could, pressing them upon visitors, offering them as tips, leaving them on neighbors’ porches.

And here?  If we really missed having plants, we would have bought new ones.  But something held us back.  Yes, we had one cat, the Mush, who liked to dig.  And no plants meant no watering or picking up dropped leaves.

I did miss those African violets, though.  They were a deep blue, a mix of indigo and midnight, with a little periwinkle thrown in. The Abandoned One took his grandmother’s plant from our house, but alas had neither the right location or the skills to keep it going.  At least those in Mr.NYer’s dad’s house lived.  We saw them this November, at Thanksgiving. They were beautiful, but I do not expect to see them again.

In December, my father-in-law moved into an independent living facility in Florida, with no plans to return to the house. He left a lot behind, including the African violets.  They are on their own, and the prognosis isn’t good.

You’ve Got WHAT in Your Garden? and picture #5

It’s time to talk about garden pests.

In moving from New York (hardiness zone 6) to Alabama (zone 8), Lifelongnewyorker expected some differences when it came to gardening.  Longer growing seasons (mmm … tomatoes in June!), more insects, different plants.

What she didn’t think about was the difference in four-legged pests.  On Staten Island, planting bulbs was like putting out a “dig here” sign in neon for squirrels. And while one could surprise an unwary possum or raccoon from time to time on the deck or front porch, at least they didn’t dig in the garden.

Armadillo 1

Note: We encountered the armadillos seen on this page in Louisiana, NOT in Alabama.

What could we have in Alabama that we hadn’t encountered in New York?  Wild boars?  No. The problem in the South is decidedly more hard-shelled.

I first learned about it during cocktails at a colleague’s house.  The conversation had meandered from hummingbirds to various shrubs when my host leaned over and asked, “Are you having problems with armadillos?”

Not if I don’t see them, I’m not.

Turns out the plated mammals (yes, mammals) entered Alabama in the 1940s. Experts offer the usual explanation — accidental releases from nearby Florida, hitching on trucks and trains from Texas.

As it happens, we’ve never seen an armadillo here in Montgomery,  probably because we have a six-foot brick wall — with proper footing — around the garden.  ‘Dillos live in burrows and dig for grubs and insects.  Besides general garden damage, they fancy excavating under patios, driveways and even foundation slabs.  Since few houses here have basements, it can be alarming.005

But mention armadillos in company, and the stories start. “Oh, yeah … they’re digging up our yard something fierce,” one person will say.  Another chimes in, “They can take out your foundation.”

Other than building a solid wall that extends at least one foot underground, there’s little else to do but toy with their sense of smell.  According to various websites, the lion’s share of an armadillo’s brain is devoted to its olfactory powers.  Liberal applications of vinegar, ammonia or pine sol may deter the critters.

We encountered these armadillos at dusk in a bayou in the Atchafalaya Basin in Louisiana about five years ago.  We’re keeping an eye out here.

A Winter Walk in my Alabama Neighborhood

A week or so ago, the  sun came out and the temperature rose into the low 70s.  It was a perfect day to take a walk through the neighborhood.  Here are some pictures.  The captions explain it all.

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Flying First Class

New Yorkers enjoy one big advantage over many other folks when it came to flying: three airports and plenty of carriers.  Traveling on business to Los Angeles rarely cost more than 300 bucks, if you were willing to haul yourself out to JFK.  And with town car service, it was no big deal.

The downside for the business traveler?  It took a lot longer to rack up those frequent flyer miles or qualify for the perks they could bring when you took a different airline for every trip.

But when you live in a small city, life is simpler. Montgomery is at the end of a short radius in the hub-and-spoke air travel system that emerged in the late 70s.  Although three airlines fly into the Montgomery airport (MGM), two of them provide service that is more theoretical than actual.  American runs one flight a day to Dallas. Perhaps two U.S. Air flights take you to Charlotte.  Otherwise, you’re flying Delta, to Memphis or Atlanta. Mainly, you fly Delta.

Since virtually every trip involves two legs in each direction, and since Delta counts “segments” toward Medallion status (of which there are three levels) it only takes six flights to qualify for Silver Medallion.

And what does that get you? A special luggage tag. Zone 2 boarding, before the overhead storage is full. Seating closer to the front of the plane. Fees waived for checked baggage.

But the best perk?  When you’re a Medallion member, you are automatically put in for a first class upgrade.

Delta’s policy is to fill first class.  Keep that in mind next time you travel: those people in rows 1 through 4 most likely did not pay $1,000 for the seat.  They just paid their dues by flying.  A lot.

When you book a coach seat on Delta, there’s a bit of a thrill at the end when the message appears, in red, that an upgrade has been requested automatically.  Sometimes, a message arrives in your email a day or two before the flight that you’ve hit the jackpot: You’ve been upgraded and your new seat assignment is 2A.  Mainly, though, you get to the gate and watch the TV to see what position your name has on the upgrade list.  All those gold and platinum members are ahead of the mere silvers, so when you’re number 18, you figure you’ll be flying coach.

This week, I got the prize, an early upgrade on my return flight from Boston to Memphis.  And then the snow started.  My flight was pushed back an hour, and the risk of missing the connecting flight in Memphis was just too great.  I switched to an earlier flight to Atlanta, and saw my first class 2A seat assignment morph into 33E.  And I was cast into Zone 4.

But then, just as they began boarding, my name wafted from the PA system.  Come to the desk, it said, for “reassignment.”  In other contexts, this could be alarming, I know.  I drifted to the desk and traded in my boarding pass for one inscribed 2D.  I had scored.

On the inbound flight I’d sat in row 18, and watched as a restless three year-old, followed closely by his mom, approached the first class cabin.  He wanted to visit, but she held him back, explaining that they weren’t allowed in there.  It was weird.  I kept expecting him to hold out his hands and ask, “Why do they have food?”

Because that’s one of the things you get in first class: food, served on plates, with real metal forks and knives.  They’re dull, it’s true, but that is beside the point.  When you arrive, the flight attendant (one, just for the folks in first class) takes your coat and hangs it in a closet.  You arrive at your seat to find a bottle of water sitting on the broad armrest that has ample room for your elbow, your seatmate’s elbow, and the two bottles of water.

Almost immediately, even while the folks in steerage are jostling aboard, you’re offered a drink.  Wine and beer are part of the service.  But really, anything for you.  After all, you’re first class.  Your coffee is hot and it comes in a ceramic mug.  No styrofoam here, except perhaps in the extra-wide seat cushions that envelope your body.

The steward winks when you inquire about stowing your laptop in the seat pocket prior to takeoff.  Those rules don’t apply to you, ma’am.  She offers another drink.  Would you like that water in a bottle or in a glass with ice.  That’s right.  A glass.  Your wine comes in a stemmed glass.  Soup is served with your southwestern salad.  It’s a Thai tomato, and it’s good.

After the meal, the steward offers you a hot towel.  She picks it out of a bowl with bamboo tongs and places it directly into your hands, murmuring, “Be careful, it’s hot.”  As soon as you’ve finished removing the grime (no doubt drifting forward from the nether regions of the plane), she appears again to remove the used towel from your sight.

It’s quieter in first class, and there’s plenty of room to set up your laptop, spread out your papers, and work.  If that’s what you want.  Otherwise you can recline and burrow into the spacious seat, ask for a blanket, and doze off.

What did you do to deserve this?  Not much really, and therein lies the problem.  The absurd difference between the treatment in first class and coach is, frankly, disturbing.  I kept imagining that scene in Dr. Zhivago, when Yuri returns home from the war to find his once-aristocratic in-laws’ home transformed into a commune for the comrades.  He is welcomed by the comrade-in-chief who explains how the previous arrangement was wasteful and bourgeois.  “Yes,” Yuri stammers, “This is much more … fair and egalitarian.”  He explains to his wife as he climbs the stairs that he really means it, it is more fair, but at the same time he knows he’s being seen as a decadent aristocrat.

Which is kinda how I felt when it was time to deplane and I saw the final perk of being in first class.  This was a 757, with the boarding door located between the first class cabin and the coach seats.  As we pampered first class passengers, having been handed our coats, skipped up the aisle, I saw that the flight attendants were physically blocking the aisle in coach so we could leave the plane first.  The rabble in steerage would follow later.