Back in the early 1970s I was living in a charming section of New York City called "Turtle Bay" in a townhouse across the street from Katherine Hepburn. Ruth Gordon, the character actress, lived to the right of Kate and Stephen Sondheim lived to the left. And John Wayne Jr. lived in the house next to mine. Our block association meetings were star-studded.
However charming those famous folk were they did not influence me in any particular way. Delight me, but not influence me. The lady who did influence me had a tiny shop a few blocks away called NANCY'S FANCY. It was a magical place for children of all ages.
Nancy made the poor Church Mouse look like a millionaire. Her shop offered an array of refurbished junk that she had rescued from the trash and turned into a piece of enchantment with paint and brush. She had a tiny workroom in the back of the shop just behind the counter. On the counter was a silver desk bell and a sign that read "PLEASE RING FOR KIND COURTIOUS SERVICE." If you rang the bell she would poke her head out and shout "What the hell do you want?" She gave new meaning to the term "character."
Over the years we became great friends and she taught me many life lessons about humility and the delights of poverty. With the current economy in the dumps these days her wisdom has come in handy.
She taught me the virtue of "one doll" -- hers was a blonde 1969 GREGOR named "William or Mary Depending" -- depending on how she dressed him/her. But it was her joy in the discovery of beauty hidden in everyday junk that impressed me. We would go junk hunting late at night and she would pick up some beat-up old chair and giggle in delight. A few days later it was transformed into a work of art.
Perhaps her greatest gift to me was sharing the world through her eyes. I was a successful businessman and she was a successful Church Mouse. But our successes were very different. She showed me that the pleasures of the world were all free if you looked at them in a different way. That was her wisdom.
Monday was her day off and she would put on her best outfit and head up to Fifth Avenue where she spent the entire day wandering through the fabulous and expensive shops. She loved FAO Schwarz and Tiffany's as well as Bergdorf Goodman and Bonwit Teller.
When I asked her if these travels into the realm of wealth and indulgence depressed her she would just smile at me.
"But you cannot afford any of those things." I protested.
"No, I can't," she replied, "but I just think of all those stores as museums where I can look and touch but cannot buy."
In the end, Nancy had a richer life than anyone I knew. And she enriched mine beyond measure. When she died hundreds of people mourned the loss of her magic. Her partner put a sign in the shop window that simply read, "THE END OF THE RAINBOW."
I like to think that Nancy would have loved the Internet. She could have spent hours and hours enjoying all the beautiful things available and never once been tempted to hit the BUY NOW button.