Vale of Cashmere


Location Prospect Heights

Rent $1,100 [rent stabilized]

Square feet 500 [three-room apartment in early-20th-century building]

Occupant Elizabeth Grajales [landscape designer and artist]

Your lobby is so medieval—carved dark wooden beams, leaded windows, big black lamps like torches but with bulbs, carved bears holding up the horizontal part of the fireplace. I walked through the park with the pumpkins and the squash and the beets and the cauliflowers and the green beans and the people in their wool hats. You were at the market.

Then I walked along the moss-covered road with the black trees waving their arms in the air and the wet orange- and plum-colored leaves on the ground. I was on my way to the Vale of Cashmere but I was too scared to go into it.
I told you.

It was so deserted. I read that the Vale was named after a line in Thomas Moore’s “Lalla Rookh” poem—”Who has not heard of the Vale of Cashmere! With its roses the brightest the earth ever gave.” There used to be a fountain with a nude boy holding a duck in his arms surrounded by six spouting turtles but the fountain was stolen. I just discovered the Vale. I’ve walked the park for 20 years

Who lives in the building? All kinds of people—white Pratt students, elderly black senior citizens, and Miss Joan. I met her when Cynthia, who lives across the hall—she’s from Trinidad—and I were trying to have the doorman keep the front door locked during the West Indian Day parade. Miss Joan came up with a folder. She goes to all the art exhibits. She had a flyer from my mural at Penn Station. I also did the blackbird tiles, 28 of them. I’m a ceramic artist, too.

Look at your portfolio. Here’s a drawing of a woman feeding a bear. And these drawings of houses with stormy strange blue skies. I got a commission to do a tapestry of New York. [ The conversation drifts.] I saved a bunch of pigeons one time. The newspaper wrote a story. I must have had 50 phone calls. I even had a proposal of marriage. I was already married, almost 20 years. We lived in his family’s building in Park Slope. He’s from an Italian family. I still have a studio there in the basement. I moved to this apartment with a drafting table, books, and Jackson, my cat. And my teapot. I have a really wonderful teapot. Would you like a baked apple?

Can we go over again how you grew up in the Red Hook projects and your father made animal soaps? My father worked for a soap factory, carving animal soaps. Every month there was a new animal—lambs, elephants, giraffes, bears. There was one little one that got fuzzy when it got wet or maybe it was the other way around. He’s dead so I can’t ask him. One time, I left a soap in the sink. A relative said, “What is this? Does your father make soap or something?” We had a manger made out of soap, the Blessed Virgin Mary, Joseph, Baby Jesus—all in soap. My mother used to carve Ivory soap.

How did they meet? My father’s Puerto Rican. My mother was an orphan, English-Irish, red hair, blue eyes. She was married to his brother. His brother was killed in World War II. It’s very traditional in a Puerto Rican family that he had to take care of his dead brother’s wife. She met her husband dancing. She said it was love at first sight. He was really handsome. His name was Angel. His picture was always around. He had like a Purple Heart. After Red Hook, we moved to Washington Heights. My father got a job as superintendent of a building on 174th Street. My mother and father both did. We got free rent. He still worked at the soap factory. I think I was 18 when my parents split up. I went to school in Queens. I met my husband in Puerto Rico, on vacation. My sister and I went. My sister and I married two brothers.

Do you have photos? [She goes to get the photos and there is the sound of wind chimes.] They’re at home.

You don’t live in your husband’s house anymore. I know. I still call it home.