By Lydia Hope Wilen / New York City
Decades ago, my sister Joany and I were looking for an affordable Upper West Side apartment to rent. A realtor took us to a building on West End Avenue in the 70s. The minute we walked into the gloomy apartment, we knew it wasn’t for us. The realtor said, “Once it’s fixed up…” As we were shaking our heads, she said, “I’ll leave you here to picture its potential.” Before stepping out the door, she turned back to add, “Harry Belafonte lives here and also has his recording studio in this building.”
Harry Belafonte! Growing up in Brooklyn, Joany was in love with Harry Belafonte. She had every one of his records and knew every word of his songs. She once asked my father, “I know this isn’t going to happen, but if Harry Belafonte asked you for my hand in marriage, would you say ‘Yes’?” Living in East Flatbush and without any connection whatsoever to show business, what would it hurt for my father to say, “Okay, if Harry Belafonte wants to marry you, I’ll say ‘Yes.’”
Facing reality in the apartment we were supposed to be considering, I joked, “If Daddy only knew how close you are right now to making that dream come true…” We had a good laugh and then as the voice of reason, I convinced Joany that even if we moved into this dreary place, we’d never see handsome Harry. She agreed.
We rang for the elevator. It came. The door opened and …you’re probably thinking, there he was. Wrong! We got in and when it reached the lobby, the door opened and there he was, the beautiful Harry Belafonte. He smiled his radiant smile and stepped aside allowing us to exit. We still didn't take the apartment, but what a memorable Day-O . . . D-a-a-a-a-y-O!
Soon after, on our way to Central Park, we saw a sign letting us know that apartments were available in this fairly new building in an ideal location–between the Macy's Thanksgiving Day Parade on Central Park West and Gartner’s Hardware Store. We came, we saw and we rented a one-bedroom apartment.
A few years later, my father passed away suddenly and we had our mother move in with us that same day, never to return to Brooklyn again. Three women in a one-bedroom apartment. We were in desperate need of at least a two-bedroom apartment that we could afford. Not wanting to move from our desirable new building, we started asking the manager for a larger apartment. He kept saying there’s nothing available. This went on for a few months. We were so naïve. We thought a schmear was cream cheese on a bagel. We didn’t know that to get an apartment, you had to schmear (bribe) the manager.
Stay tuned. The “What are the Chances...?” part is coming soon.
Thank You Internet for Proof of the Show's Existence
My first professional writing job was writing one-liners for the celebrity game show Personality, hosted by Larry Blyden. Because the producer wasn't going to pay me union minimum, I was not able to join the Writers Guild of America East and so I was not allowed to get a screen credit as a writer. I was lumped in with two others as Program Staff. It was still a thrill.
Talk about a thrill... The producer invited me to join him in the control booth during the show's tapings. Also joining us in the control booth was Jane Crowley, NBC's manager of Standards and Practices. She was the censor and had the final say, for instance, if a celebrity's dress was too revealing or if a word like "toilet" could be used. It was a time when networks went to extreme measures to prevent the ity’s: profanity, obscenity, vulgarity and even a mere suggestion of sexuality.
Miss Crowley, as she was known, was strict and stern, like Miss Rochford, my blue-haired junior high school principal. There was no exchange of small talk with Miss Crowley, until one day, when taping stopped and the production staff left the control booth to make adjustments on the set. The only people left in the control booth were Miss Crowley and me.
The thoughts that went through my mind were insane. I wanted to spew all kinds of dirty words. Of course I didn’t and would never do that. Instead, she said, “Hey bitch, who did you sleep with to get this job?” I’m kidding! I just wanted to see if you’re paying attention.
What Miss Crowley really said was, “I hope this doesn’t take long. They close off my block the day before Thanksgiving and I need to park my cousin’s car in my building’s garage.”
For the first time I realized that Miss Crowley was a real person after all. I told her, “They close off my block also to allow bands to line up for the parade.” That fact made us realize we were both Upper West Siders. And then we took it the normal steps further. “What street?” “I’m also on that street.” “My building is…” “That’s where I live.” “I’m on the fifth floor.” I’m on the sixth floor. I live with my mother and sister. We’re looking for a larger apartment.” Miss Crowley said, “I lived with my mother who passed away recently and after the holiday, I’ll be moving out of a large apartment into a smaller one.”
Once I discovered that her large apartment had two bedrooms, two bathrooms, and that no one had looked at it yet, I excused myself and called my mother and my sister, suggesting they both go to the manager immediately and insist on signing a lease for that apartment, sight unseen.
Miss Crowley and I shared a cab ride home. By the time we got to the building, a lease was in the works and Miss Crowley, soon to be called Jane, invited us to see our soon-to-be new home. As it turned out, we moved into Jane’s fifth floor apartment and Jane moved into a one-bedroom right across from us. We all became good friends and enjoyed decades of that friendship.
What were the chances of me getting that first writing job, being in the control booth, Jane Crowley being assigned as censor to that show, the control booth emptying out except for me and Miss Crowley and it being the day before Thanksgiving prompting talk about the Parade and people taking over our block and her cousin driving in to spend the holiday with her? It seems as though it was just meant to be. Can you imagine how thankful we were that Thanksgiving?
If you have a “What Are The Chances...? story you would like to share, I’d love to know about it. Email it to me at email@example.com. Don’t be shy!
Lydia Hope Wilen had a successful collaboration with her late sister Joany as nonfiction bestselling authors (18 books), journalists, TV personalities, writers and talent coordinators on a Nickelodeon series hosted by Leonard Nimoy, Reading Rainbow episodes, skit writers for Dr. Ruth's TV show, Diet America Challenge on CBS, and writers of screenplays (optioned but not produced yet).
Lydia is writing on her own now and has just completed an extraordinary book for young people and their parents. It will have them laughing and learning...once she gets an agent and it gets published.