Susanna Salk



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Making Arrangements
Monday, May 14th, 2018

Right after college, a boyfriend hooked me up with one of Manhattan’s first star florists. I loved flowers and needed a job and as a favor to him, Carla hired me without even meeting me. Her tiny Upper East side shop was crowded with finches chirping inside faded Victorian cages, Oscar Wilde-worthy ferns, hundreds of paper whites, orchids and tulips, Mozart wafted from unseen speakers.
I was instantly enchanted but the fairy tale setting was soon shattered when Carla - part Blanche du Bois and part Fran Drescher- shouted from the back for someone to answer the god damn phone. I picked it up and gamely exclaimed: “Marla’s Flowers! “Toooo nice!” Carla shouted still unseen. “Hello?” purred a girlish yet aristocratic voice on the other end. Carla finally poked her head out of her nest-like office, the stub of a joint clasped between her teeth and gestured asking who it was.
“Who is calling?” I said in a tone which I hoped sounded less polite.
“Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis.”
I mouthed dramatically who it was and handed her the phone but Carla waved it away and whispered. “Ask her what she wants.” It turned out Jackie wanted some flowers for a party at her apartment but wanted to be sure “it didn’t cost more than a car.” Clearly they had history.
It wasn’t long before I witnessed why Carla could charge what she did: she could make red carnations look sexy and, with one fell swoop of her sheers, cut thousand dollars of white tulips to the nub, plunking them effortlessly into a vase with a sly grin. “A bouquet is like a home,” she’d say over her blue glasses that swung forgotten on ribbons around her neck. “They should have secrets and mysteries.” We’d jump into the back of a van driven by her model-gorgeous husband and careen up Park Avenue to deliver to some of the poshest addresses in the city. I had never seen apartments like this: they stretched entire floors, had Titantic-sized staircases and were anointed with sumptuous velvets, chintz, tassels like frantic exclamation points, gleaming kitchens bustling with staff and hostesses the size of Twizzlers who greeted us in pressed jeans and Chanel jackets.
We went to Trump Tower once after a woman called - she had a read a profile on Carla in W- and asked if we’d decorate her Christmas tree as a surprise for her husband when he came home from a business trip. I put my hand over the phone and whispered to Carla how much it would be. “We don’t DO Christmas trees!” she puffed back. But the woman wouldn’t take no for an answer and to get rid of her, Carla quoted $10,000. The woman accepted without a hesitation. Once the word got out that Carla did trees, the phone didn’t stop ringing. We did a tree for a widow on Sutton Place and, as the coup d’etat, wrapped her mink coat around the base. The shop phone kept trilling like one of the finches. “I’m not heeeere!” Carla wailed. We went to a famous philanthropist’s apartment and filled it with dozens of arrangements that made the ones at the Metropolitan Museum seem like FTD. I snuck a peek at the calligraphed place cards in a dining room: “Henry Kissinger” was seated next to “Nancy Regan.” I touched the gilded tip of the chair and imagined it being held for me, while Nancy and Henry jockeyed for me to explain my senior thesis topic one more time. I imagined tucking the napkin the weight of my bedspread onto my lap, gazing at the massive white lilies and being served. But we were ushered away by the butler and down the service elevator we went. The shop van was gunning outside like a getaway car, its exhaust smoke mixing with the joint Carla’s husband already had waiting for her. As we sped away I recognized one of my parents’ friends entering the building. I was about to wave but it was too late. We were off to set up for another party and their evening was just beginning.

Stolen Plums
Saturday, May 5th, 2018

This is just to say I have eaten the plums that were in the icebox…” I thought of that wonderful William Carlos Williams poem as I trespassed onto someone’s boat house property this afternoon. I’ve passed it dozens of times over the years: either by boat, car, bike or foot. I always admired its patrician stance on the water: large yet unaltered despite the recent flurry of gussied up structures now the majority. To me it still stands as queen. Today I meant to pass it as I always do and yet for some reason as I neared it, the poem came into my head. Beckoned me to slow down…stop and consider its possibilities. And like opening the refriderator door, I opened the gate (actually jumped over its unimposing low posts) and went down the old stone steps to finally have a taste. Like a house being empty and free of witnesses, so too was the lake deserted this time of year. In a matter of days the abandoned nature of the boathouse would bloom with summer traffic and visitors, the gate opened dozens of times a day by its actual owners. But for a few minutes, it was mine to love. And I how I loved this family just by the clues they left unknowingly everywhere. I peered past a Wacky Pack sticker placed on a window to see inside: what glory! Old college flags hung down from the ceiling, above fantastic high backed wicker chairs; license plates hung next to a President Ford 76 bumper sticker… a sign saying Cuba was near I ❤️ NY. A generous stone fireplace didn’t need a fussy log basket or an arranged mantle: it knew its role. A small unplugged white refrigerator with a magnetic bottle opener clamped to its side felt as familiar as a favorite cousin. Like every great poem, the room felt instantly recognizable to me even though I was a stranger. How I longed to open the doors and witness every decade as it had so generously hosted the family, for better for worse, along the thread of its life. There was nothing special about this room and yet, like a perfectly fresh, cold plum, it was remarkable.

Ready To Receive
Saturday, May 5th, 2018

Every summer Gray announced his arrival with a phone call wrapped in a Southern accent as velvety as the scotch and pot he took like vitamins: “Tell me: who died while I was gone?” He was in his 60s and I in my early 40s so our perspective of time was completely unaligned. But we were bound as fast friends from the moment we were introduced as tennis partners. Every July Gray rented the cozy cottage on Rose and William Styron who lived near me. The rest of the year he lived on the Upper East side in a rent controlled apartment I imagined to be filled with perfunctory furniture and wiring. Gray leased a Rolls-Royce for the country months and when he picked my best friend Holly up at the bus station (insisting, because while never having met her he already loved her from my stories of our shared childhood) he asked her to help him find the high-beam switch so he could navigate them back to me through the unexpected summer fog. Gray loved women in all their glory and girlfriends with names that sounded and bloomed up everywhere like meadow flowers and clung to him like vines, seemed to understand that his love for them was the very reason he couldn’t commit to any of them. One night on the phone together while opening up a box of spaghetti as my kids watched Sponge Bob, I listened to Gray rhapsodize about Marilyn Monroe (who had lived nearby when married to playwright Arthur Miller): “She loved to love!” he drawled and I knew it was his biggest compliment. The driving force behind Gray’s day besides cocktail hour was arranging tennis games. You got a call Monday morning to find out your availability throughout the week via a dusty landline and the matches were then noted on a hall calendar you could tell wasn’t used for the rest of year. A mixture of people were gathered: seniors, teenagers, locals, New Yorkers, producers, writers, someone’s mistress. The mossy courts of the Styrons was our salon and Gray presided over us all in his faded whites and mildewed tennis towel. At the end of one summer I presented him with a fresh towel with his name in simple monogram. “ I will use this,” he said, holding on to his “I” like he was pulling honey apart. On the court Gray and I had an unspoken alliance that we always played together. We relished in strategizing our often impossible odds at victory. One match we were down 5-0 and fourty-love with our opponents serving. I turned to him and said “Do you think anyone in the history of tennis has ever come back to win from our current situation?” “I’m not sure,” Gray said in his thoughtful drawl. As I walked to net I could hear him roll out a series of farts and we began to laugh so hard we had to sit down flat on the court before we could continue. We didn’t win but we won the next four games. The only time we didn’t play together was the morning I arrived to see Daniel Day Lewis climbing off his motorcycle and casually pulling a racket off the back. “Good morning everyone,” Gray said striding up behind him. “Susanna why don’t you and Daniel face off against me and Rose.” Daniel played with the elegant ferocity of a ballet dancer. At one point he and I rushed net and I looked over to see him soaring up like an eagle to get an overhead. I wanted to pause and freeze this moment forever. Most especially because he was upstaged by Gray’s sly smile, so happy to give me this moment and as always, ready to receive.

The Face Book
Tuesday, April 24th, 2018

My brother just unearthed our grandfather’s The Harvard Freshman Red Book from 1936. It wasn’t called The Face Book yet but it did showcase the Freshman class’ male faces: my grandfather’s freshly shaved one gleams above a jaunty grin and striped bow tie. I remember posing for my own Freshman class look book for high school. I had thankfully transitioned from glasses to wearing contact lens just days before but my teeth still held vestiges of a permanent (for another year) bottom retainer- as if my early teen hood self was playing a prank on the older one desperate to emerge. My Grandfather had gone to the same prep school and growing up I had heard stories of how he commandeered that campus as if mayor of his own private town. Here I was following a few decades later on a campus now coed. I waited in a line full of Freshman to sit down on a box in front of a white screen. I had carefully chosen a striped sailor shirt over khakis and espadrilles with a slight heel and as I approached I suddenly felt as if my clothes were meant for another body. The It Freshman girl Clare, was finishing having her picture taken. “Beautiful!” the photographer exclaimed as the flashed popped. Clare had a timeless beauty and a smile that rolled off her face like summer rain on a warm roof. As I stepped aside almost deferentially my heel caught. Clare grabbed my elbow and righted me. She was wearing a faded Grateful Dead T-shirt over a peasant skirt with the same grace and poise as if it had been an evening gown. I was too surprised to thank her and sat down on the box. “Smile!” said the photographer. My lips refused to part and reveal the small metal bar my orthodontist had positioned in with a satisfied snap. “Stripes!” The photographer then exclaimed, and indicted the horizontal ones of my shirt for what reason I couldn’t tell. In the distance I could hear Clare’s easy laughter and I wanted to hold onto to it the way we used to grab on to a T Bar as kids to be whisked up a steep ski hill. My tongue ran along the brace bar that held my teeth in place as if considering my options. Before my lips parted, I could already see my image placed on a page and the page viewed, then turned.

Tree Sick
Friday, April 6th, 2018

I used to drive by this tree all the time on the way to take my kids to school. I was impressed how close it was to the house and the country road but more importantly how old and grand it was, how it liked to show off all the seasons in its many fans of branches while still humble in its location: vulnerable to traffic, yet a potential threat to a roof. One winter morning I pulled over to capture how perfectly every branch was so evenly draped with newly fallen snow. I shared the picture on Facebook and then I deleted it, as I keep my camera roll highly edited.
Eventually I stopped driving by the tree as my children graduated. So it seemed sadly coincidental that I happened to drive by it again exactly as it was being cut down. I gasped and began to roll down my window to ask the cutting crew why, as the tree looked so healthy but what did it matter at that point and would the answer have really comforted me? Traffic urged me on and there was nothing I could do except try to steal one more glance of its branches in my rearview mirror. Were there new owners in the house who did not want to risk its proximity? I would’ve welcomed its sweet shade, and considered the very fact of its many years on this earth a balm during turbulent times. Later that afternoon when I drove back past the tree I was sickened to see how much of the stump remained, how ugly the humans had left it. I dreamt that night that I was lifted high in the trees’ branches to scream at the couple in bed through an opened window but no sound came came out from my mouth. Today for some reason, I pulled over. I thought back of the tree on that snowy day and my boys snuggled in the backseat, the world where it should be. I took the picture of the stump, willing it to feel reverential not expository. Willing every fiber of my being for the tree to understand why I had come back and how truly sorry I was. The owner saw me and came walking over from the back yard and I quickly drove away. For if he asked me what I was doing there how could I ever begin to explain?

Thursday, January 4th, 2018

Shoveling snow today, I suddenly thought of them, two college seniors digging their car out from the aftermath of an unexpected blizzard one Sunday morning. They weren’t really my friends. But there I was one winter morning in an unfamiliar Manhattan borough depending on Nick and Joe in their vintage overcoats and converse high tops (sharing a Marlboro) attempt to dig out their car so we could get back to campus in Poughkeepsie. Our mutual friend was a senior named Caroline. Even taller than me with bright blonde hair, her raw energy demanded connection and she was feared and loved in equal parts across campus and somehow had chosen me as her Freshman lady in waiting. She and I had spent the night in search of a party but in the blizzard’s onslaught we were too short on cash and our heels too high to make it. My head was bent so low against the wind, my chin touched the frozen zipper of Caroline’s shaggy chic coat I had borrowed. Sensing my defeat, she stole some string cheese from a convenience store and handed me a stick. “Fuel,” she said and began to do a Tina Tuner impersonation in the middle of Third Avenue. We sought shelter in an apartment of a friend of hers nearby. She rapped loudly on door and it buzzed opened with the enthusiasm of a dying insect. The dark, dank hallway made me want to go back outside but I followed her singing like a flashlight. There was a shower in the kitchen and Caroline hopped in and faked a strip tease until even I felt festive. Nick and Joe were there and offered us a ride home the next day. Where did we spend the night? I don’t recall but eventually there we all were in their car, barreling down the Taconic in the blinding sunshine of the new morning toward the safe grid of Vassar’s campus. As Nick drove, Joe passed him some deodorant and he gamely applied it one handedly. I turned to Caroline, eager for her make one of her perfect jokes but she was watching the city retreat out the window her face gone uncharacteristically soft. “I’m not going back,” she said. “City sucks,” I told her, thinking of my Russian literature homework. “No, school,” she said. And from the depths of her pocket handed me the last of the cheese.

Momentary shadows
Wednesday, December 27th, 2017

Hiked high up to the secret pond behind the barn today with my son Winston. I felt privileged to share the view with him. The silence surrounding us up there felt storybook, like looking into the tiny keyhole of an Easter egg to a created, hushed world. The circle of water was almost frozen and dusted with snow. Shadows from the surrounding trees cast their black vertical bands everywhere yet left the snow untouched. I looked down at the footprints we had made and felt a rush of regret. On the footbridge a creature had recently scurried ahead of us, reminding me nothing is ever ours alone. I took a picture and added our shadows momentarily to the landscape and then we went home.

Friday, December 22nd, 2017

My late mother in law had an apartment on Central Park West and on her coffee table was a copy of Ruth Orkin’s book “A World Through My Window” 30 years of panoramic photographs taken from the vantage point of Ruth’s apartment window somewhere near my mother in law’s and at the same height too. Page after page the view was the same and yet entirely different as Ruth reflected life’s remarkable and unremarkable moments through its dependable seasons: parades, picnics, rallies: people and nature unknowingly arranged beneath her window, its own picture frame to her camera’s. Buildings pushed through the skyline over the years making it more crowded; children captured in earlier pages were surely parents by the later pages. You could almost touch the sadness from the crowd gathered in Strawberry Fields after John Lennon died. Ruth seemed to link you in to what was immediately necessary and human. Her photos of winter made the white feel magical and I tried to remember her fairy tale take of its coated trees as I hustled through its stark February paths in the chilled air as a way to warrm myself. From Ruth’s window, everything had a perspective: it was neutral enough not to be judgmental yet it only existed because Ruth committed to capturing it day in and day out. She opened her window and focused her lens and trusted that someone would appreciate her vantage point. Sometimes, I would walk down the sidewalk along the park and I’d imagine she’d be above me, pointing her lens down, capturing the collective moment I happened to be a part of. It made me feel less alone, knowing she might be up there. She needed me to be a participant as much as I needed her to document. The everyday ordinariness in life can only become extraordinary when someone takes the time to trust its unfolding. I wanted to look up in case she was there. But I didn’t want to ruin the shot.

Home Fires
Saturday, December 16th, 2017

When I heard about the Ojai fires I felt a particular sense of despair. Could these fires be impacting Patina Farm, a real life paradise created by Brooke and Steve Giannetti which @quintessence and I were lucky enough to visit last year? On that magical day, Brooke came out in jeans to greet us with her beloved Shih Tzus, hundreds of pale roses blooming around her. The home the Giannettis had created from scratch was as much stylish oasis as working modern farm as envisioned by a designer architect duo who happened to be married. Goats frolicked in a space nestled alongside Brooke’s serene home office, a resplendent chicken coop felt like a dinner party you wanted to join and Sicilian donkeys roamed the property with Zen like purpose. Lush garden vegetables practically pushed themselves into your hand as you walked past. Post shoot, I swung on their swing from the branch of a giant tree and soaring through the warm air, I saw a linen chair perched outside the master bedroom facing the hills: a gentle wind scattered rose petals down around it. And now Brooke’s Instagram showed those same hills licked with hungry frames. I was aghast at Patina Farm’s sudden fragility: surely the devotion and determination gone into creating it could stop the fury of this fire? But there were pictures of the animals being evacuated and Brooke and Steve leaving with no more than hope that when they returned Patina Farm would still be there. I went to bed in Connecticut wishing my snow fall could blanket those fiery hills. A few days later Brooke was hosting a live feed from her backyard. Fires were still burning and ash was omnipresent but Patina Farm was still standing. Relief was pouring in from all over the world in a steady steam of comments. It was a privelege to be able to be in the nerve center along side her even if it was only through phone screens. Brooke’s appreciative voice was still uncertain. Technology could connect all of our prayers for her in live time but all we could do was watch the fires burn together and collectively wonder. But Brooke made us feel like that was enough. Paradise doesn’t exist after all, unless it is shared.

Saturday, December 16th, 2017

At Thanksgiving we went around the table and shared a favorite memory of a grandparent. I knew that I wanted to share a story about my mother’s late mother, Anne Weld. Her unique style and confidence were dazzling to me but never intimidating, even though I was very much an awkward duckling to her swan-like being. She never wore makeup but was always the most beautiful woman in the room. She crossed her legs with the confidence of a general and drank a cocktail with the grace of Garbo. My love for baths, dogs and gardens comes directly from her DNA. One time I told her about a bad boss and she merely said with a sweep of her hand: “What an utter jerk,” and I never let the idea of him bother me again. When I was a child, I picked out the ugliest glasses I knew in hopes I’d convince people I wouldn’t have to wear them. She arrived at my door the following week to pick me up to go shopping, wearing the same pair. “Aren’t they fabulous?!” she said as we climbed into her Peugeot. To this day I don’t know whether she was just being kind or whether she really believed that they were fabulous but it doesn’t matter. But last week I shared the story - even though it was just a moment- about a dinner party at our house when I was thirteen. I had just gotten the new Vogue and I wanted more than anything to share my impressions of its exotic pages with her. Children were not part of the evening festivities but I wormed my way into the noisy, smoky dining room and stood next to her in my pajamas. She stopped immediately listening to her dinner partner and made room for me. We then turned the pages together as if the world had stopped. Relaying the memory last week, I burst into unexpected, persistent tears. My beloved young nieces put protective arms around me like doves’ wings. I didn’t leave their sides for the rest of the night. May we all realize who needs us to witness their days and may we remember to share ourselves with those who may look up to us. May we convince them they matter. The small moments bloom inside us over and over even when we don’t know the seed has been planted until much later.