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A line between rich and poor

When the apartment's clothesline broke, it offered a brief entree into another world.

By Diane Leon / July 21, 2009

Columnist Cholly Knickerbocker (Igor Cassini) leaving the El Morocco nightclub, 1941.

Ralph Morse/Time Life Pictures/Getty Images

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Our tenement on 53rd Street and Third Avenue in New York City was around the corner from the original famous nightclub of the 1950s. What made it so special was how a thin clothesline linked two different worlds. From my dining room window across a junkyard to the wall of the El Morocco, the line connected the rich and famous to us. We lived in the shadow of the nightly happenings.

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As an 8-year-old girl growing up during the 1950s, I thought the El Morocco gave the neighborhood of old tenement buildings a touch of class. Just knowing celebrities were around the corner made each night exciting. The street beside El Morocco was my playground before the club opened at 4 p.m. and the doormen arrived. It was my favorite place to hang out because downstairs from my building the Third Avenue El train was deafening. Each day as I gyrated in my hula hoop I asked the doormen questions. As they polished the brass poles, swept and laid down a carpet, I wanted to know who they saw that was famous, what they wore.

"Is the place really that expensive?" I'd ask.

"Too expensive for my blood," they'd reply.

The El Morocco became my own entertainment center. Every night I'd sit on the windowsill and wait for the band to start playing. We lived on the first floor and could hear the music clearly. The sound of clanking dishes from the kitchen staff on the ground floor mixed with the Latin beat of music. Men dressed in white uniforms piled dishes and placed hot pies on the windowsill to cool. In the darkness I could see the silhouette of rats from the yard slink up to the window, stand on their hind legs, and smell the food. A thin screen separated the rats from the pies. My family said, "Oh, if the customers only saw those rats so close to their food, they would have a fit."

My connection to the El Morocco came when our clothesline broke. My Sicilian grandmother, Nonnie, told me we would have to go around the corner and see if they could fix it. What a thrill. Maybe I would finally get to go inside. I primped myself, put on my new yellow chiffon dress, and Nonnie placed a satin bow in my long blond hair. I wanted to enter the club and meet the clothesline fixer in style. Even though we lived in a not-so-fancy, no-heat-or-hot-water walk-up, I still looked good.

Nonnie and I walked around the corner as if we were celebrities. I told my doorman friend Ben our problem; he made a phone call and we were escorted inside. The El Morocco looked like something in a dream. Low lights, no people, and zebra-patterned seats. It was just the three of us. I loved it.

As the man opened his window to fix the line, the view of our apartment was strange. How often do you see your own apartment? The white linen curtains my grandmother kept perfectly clean and ironed looked really nice. I felt proud of where I lived and told the man, "Hey, that's our house."

When the demolition of the Third Avenue El train began in 1955, I knew the neighborhood would change forever. In 1961 the El Morocco moved to a new location. I was now 13 and didn't play in the street anymore, and soon our family moved, too, when they tore down our old building.

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