By James Maher
Name: Mildred Guy
Occupation: Paraprofessional, The Neighborhood School
Location: 3rd Street between Avenue A and First Avenue.
Time: 3 pm on Tuesday, April 14.
I was born in Puerto Rico, and came here when I was 7 years old. That was over 54 years ago. Until March 26, I had been living in the same apartment on 45 E. Seventh St. [at Second Avenue] for 45 years. I was recalling the other day when we moved there. We were moving into a nice big apartment. We had seven rooms. We were happy. Before we were all cramped into a railroad apartment that had the tub in the kitchen and the bathroom in the hallway. The tub was right next to the sink. I said, ‘Oh my goodness, what were they thinking?’ Now we didn’t have to run to the hallway.
We came from a smaller apartment and we just went crazy running from room to room. There was a lot of space and deciding who was going to have what room. Until this day, the rooms have names. This was Jenny’s room and Gilda’s room and then it changes to Hill’s room and Lewis’ room. Whoever occupied that room for a length of time, it was their room and they had their name on it.
I had four sisters and two brothers. We all lived there on 7th Street. It was a big, close-knit family. In my apartment we had all the family activities. My sisters used to come from wherever they worked. My mother was holding court. She wanted everybody to come and we used to always fix the food and cook and were all either in the kitchen or in the living room reminiscing.
I remember when my niece was born. Her mother brought her home from New Jersey and we all got together and there was a picture that had all these different generations together — the little ones in the front, the older cousins in the middle, my mom is right in the middle sitting on the sofa, and my sisters are all surrounding her. That’s how it was. We always came for Mother’s Day, Christmas Eve, Easter. We were always there.
When we first moved in back in 1970, there were a lot of artists and authors. It was pretty quiet, quite different from what it’s been in the last few years. [Recently] we had a lot of young people who would come in, rent the apartment to NYU students, in-and-out because they don’t stay there too long. There were people in one apartment who were just party animals. The party was just going on and they said, ‘That’s why you live in the East Village, so you can party.’ I said, ‘I don’t know where you came from, but this is not the building to be partying.’
I work as a paraprofessional — one-on-one mostly. I have been one-on-one since day one. I used to volunteer in my son’s school, PS 19 and I was there from 8:30 a.m. until 4:30 p.m. And then somebody said, ‘Why don’t you go apply for a job with the Board of Education, you’re here volunteering and going on the trips and doing all that stuff.’ There was going to be an opening as an office aid. They said, ‘You know Spanish, you have some college, why don’t you apply for a paraprofessional’ and that’s what I did. Then I got a call from the Neighborhood School and I’ve been here ever since. I’ve been doing that for the past 23 years.
I remember the first time I went camping with the school. Oh man, it rained all three days. We were in platform tents and it rained for three days. They took pity on us and they said, ‘OK, we’ll come and dry some of your clothes.’ We did all the activities in the rain. I said, ‘Oh my goodness, this is my initiation’ and it was great. I have gone camping every year ever since. It was wonderful, seeing the kids all working together, doing the activities, helping each other. I love working with the children. It’s always a learning experience.
My son and his wife relocated three weeks prior to the fire [on March 26]. We all lived together. And he said, ‘Mom I don’t know how you’re keeping it together. I’m so mad and upset.’ I said, ‘You’re able to be mad and upset, and I’m able to hear you be mad and upset, and that’s the blessing that we have.’
People say, ‘How do you keep it together?’ I say, ‘I am so grateful and blessed that my son, my grandson and my daughter-in-law had relocated. My son would have been there in that apartment with the baby. If I had not had a staff meeting… I said, ‘I don’t want to hear anyone griping about staff meetings because I’m here to come in because I was in a staff meeting.’ I feel grateful and very blessed that my family is OK and I’m OK. Everybody has been so supportive — the Neighborhood School family, the staff, the colleagues. On that day, everybody was saying, ‘You want to stay here? You want to stay there?’
The people from my church, Church of the Nativity, have also been so helpful. They’re planning to close, The archdiocese gave us until November. They want us to unite with another church. [They say] there’s too many Catholic churches here, low attendance, and not enough priests. We have a website, Keep Nativity Open. We’ve been trying to have a lot of activities and showcase what we do. We’re a very small, poor community, and the community has changed because the neighborhood has changed. People cannot afford to live in this neighborhood anymore, so they move away. At the beginning, they come and still attend, but then they find their own parishes and churches nearby.
I have volunteered there for over 20 years. I used to run a summer program called HAP for the low income and families for the kids to have something for the summer for six weeks. I am very involved and I think that is what has helped me. When I came back two days before the spring break they said, ‘What are you doing here? I said, ‘I need a routine. I need to be kept busy. I need something else in my mind.’ I was very happy to come.
I love this neighborhood. Everything is so accessible and I love to walk. I went to see a studio from Cooper Square. Oh my goodness, oh my goodness — I cannot describe it. I was suffocating in the hall just to get to the apartment. It was so narrow. But I said, I will take anything and I am going to take the studio for the very simple reason that I’ve been living for the last few days in the Y on 47th Street. I want a place of my own and [for my family to come back to]. That’s what I want, but for now all I want is to know where I’m going to sleep every night and to be able to make my coffee and my oatmeal, which I miss.
I feel blessed and thankful and I want a roof over my head. I want my home replaced that I lived in for 45 years even if it’s not going to be quite the same.
James Maher is a fine art and studio photographer based in the East Village. Find his website here.