My LES: Laurie Gwen Shapiro

This weekly feature spotlights a wide variety of people who live and work on the Lower East Side. If you know someone you would like to suggest be featured in “My LES,” please email us here.

This week’s L.E.S.-er is Laurie Gwen Shapiro. She’s a writer and a documentary filmmaker with neighborhood roots that go way back.  As you’ll see, she’s got some amazing stories from the Lower East Side!

What do you do?

I tell stories for a living, as a documentary filmmaker, and other times as a fiction writer, essayist  or screenwriter.  I co-directed Keep the River on Your Right: A Modern Cannibal Tale for IFC Films with my brother, and most recently I co-produced Finishing Heaven with him for HBO. I also have written “funny” novels for adults and young adults including The Unexpected Salami and The Matzo Ball Heiress. I have some new film and book projects I’m super excited about in various stages of development. Follow me on Twitter at @LaurieStories, I’m new to Twitter.  Or send me a direct message on Facebook/LaurieGwenShapiro.  I love connecting with creative Lower East Siders. Some great projects have come about from meeting my neighbors. If you know about some great characters, or a marvelous story to be told, I’m interested.

How long have you lived on the LES?

I grew up in East River Housing—once run by the Ladies Garment Workers Union, now free market housing. After college I moved to Australia on a lark. I adore Melbourne, it’s so easy to live there, great coffee and food, they actually have bialys and a Chinatown there too, two requisites for living, but I was really secretly worried all the time about being so far away from parents who had kids very late in life. And I also did the worst thing an aspiring New Yorker trying hard to be mellow somewhere else can ever do, I starting wondering what everybody in NYC was up to. One brief visit home, and Wham! Sucked back into the New York vortex! I now live again in the East River facing apartment I was raised in with my Aussie husband, and our 8 year old daughter. My father bought the place for my grandparents (both were in the Ladies Garment union) as an original cooperator, and eventually he moved in with my mom after buying my widowed grandmother a smaller place in Hillman. After 65 years my folks did the Florida condo move with extended summer visits back to NYC. My mother – the most upbeat proactive person who ever lived, truly a force of nature– passed away a few years ago. My elderly father now lives back at Grand Street most of the year. He is sharp as a whip, wisecracking, and very informed about the world, thus extremely good company—except when he freaks out like I’m 14 at a 1980’s loft party when I go out at night for films and readings. It’s an odd unit, but it works. My dad is like my daughter’s really older brother when they argue over who controls the living room TV. The Ed Show vs. iCarly. We all like the same political party, that sure helps.

Favorite block in the hood?

Cherry Street never gets its due.  It used to extend to just where the Brooklyn Bridge is; my tour guide friend Frederick Cookinham (he’s a wealth of Downtown knowledge) showed me where the first makeshift White House was, there’s a shamefully dingy ancient marker on a hidden section of the Brooklyn Bridge—the house would actually be somewhere 50 yards closer to the new start of Cherry. So George and Martha lived somewhere on the Brooklyn Bridge entrance road to the FDR. I have twice seen Mike Myers playing hockey (so Canadian!) at Tanahey Playground, hanging with the regulars, walking back down Cherry to Grand to get to the subway. Boss Tweed was born on Cherry. The very entertaining writer Harry Roskolenko was born on Cherry Street, Frank Sinatra has a cheesy long forgotten Kojak-like TV murder series set on Cherry Street. I collect kids’ books, and own The Cherry Street House by Eleanor Weakley Nolen, a 1941 story about this forgotten first White House, about a slave daughter and her pal who happens to be the granddaughter of George Washington. Brooks Brothers started on Cherry Street, so did Lord & Taylor. Corlears Hook Park, the 10002 end of Cherry, was opened 1896 in a big extravaganza. I have a print of this event I bought on eBay.

Favorite date spot in the hood?

Paul and I used to go on top of our building’s roof to take in the night, especially on July 4th, but one day they went all electronic surveillance on us and who wants to get arrested? Favorite date spot is The Sunshine on Houston, I love seeing indie fare in a former Yiddish theater, and give me a Schiller’s dinner anytime, as long as it is a local night, I never go near Schiller’s unless it’s midweek, I can’t take the noise level on weekends, I’m an old lady. I’m really bummed Pong closed. Schiller’s and a one-table ping pong venue all to yourself was a great combo date.

Favorite coffee in the hood?

I’m a coffee addict which leads to way too many Facebook postings before eleven which is usually when I get into gear for focused work.  (It takes an hour to mentally recover from getting the kid out the door to school.) I get my swirly Yuppie coffee at Bluebird, 1st and 1st, on the cusp of the East Village. I like it better than any coffee in the city. There’s a good strong $1 Spanish coffee to go at La Isla Cafe, that teeny Dominican take-out place on Pitt & Delancey that was inconceivably half its size a few years ago.

Favorite slice in the hood?

John’s on Columbia Street has the best local Old School slice. I first went there when my daughter took swim lessons at Seahorse Swim Club in Masaryk Towers; it’s a little dicey safety-wise in there sometimes, they have the decoy “Sorry, Bathroom is not Working” sign all the time to discourage those hanging out not eating pizza, I’ve seen a few fights in store, but it tastes like New York pizza should.

A neat L.E.S. pizza day was when some parents of my daughter’s  friend bought some dough from A1 for a few bucks, our kids ladled sauce and sprinkled cheese on it and the other mother baked fresh pizza. We probably order most from Pizza Shack because there is something soothing about hearing the woman who answers the phone say “Pizza Shack” in a raspy voice like one of Marge Simpson’s twin sisters.  She’s a Lower East Side fixture.

Where do you take your visitors when they’re here?

Nothing gives me a bigger kick than showing guests where notable people lived and interesting things happened. Hey, that’s where that’s where the Rosenbergs lived before they were tried as Soviet spies. That’s where Lou Reed and John Cale lived when Lou dropped out of Syracuse, that’s where Stu Unger the crazy world poker champ lived. That’s the apartment complex where short story master Leonard Michaels lived. That’s where Turn of the Century real life Cinderella story Anzia Yezierska lived on Hester Street. (Michaels and Yezierska are my favorite writers from here, along with children’s writers Sydney Taylor, and Elsa Okon Rael who collaborated on great Lower East Side picture books with Marjorie Priceman.) Frankly not everyone is as interested in my obsessions as I would like, I unsuccessfully tried to drag an out-of-town guest to see where freed black potter Thomas Commeraw probably made the first New York 1700’s stoneware (check out, awesome site for kindred Lower East Side history geeks).  But I once took a doll freak to where Madame Alexander lived before she got rich and fancy on doll money and she was ecstatic. I also like the Eldridge Museum, with its incredible renovation of the original synagogue once there, and its amazing new stained glass window by Kiki Smith and Deborah Gans. And Katz’s of course.  Katz’s is the Empire State Building of Lower East Side tourism. You can’t not go. You HAVE to get a pastrami sandwich and a really thick “special” frank and a Dr. Brown’s cream, black cherry, or Cel-Ray soda, and you HAVE to sit at the table where Bill Clinton ate like one of those competitive eating champs before he went on the South Beach diet.

Local dive bar?

I’m more of a hyperchatty daytime coffee drinker than a bar fly.

What sort of changes have you seen in the neighborhood in the last few years?

The day I heard the first cell phone ring in Zafi’s, it was answered by some young guy with shaggy hair in a suede jacket sitting at a bar stool. I distinctly remember saying to my then boyfriend, now husband, “Shit, it’s all over.” (Even though I was wearing a suede fringe jacket myself.) Listen, as much as I moan about gentrification, I would kill for more places to order in from that deliver all the way over to the East River coops. Every time I complain about a place shutting, my father says, “I remember the place that shut before the place that shut before your place that just shut.” He swam off an East River pier, went to high school with Walter Matthau, saw Joseph Papp plays in the Amphitheater – most of his school friends are dead, he just accepts the continuum. I take my cue from him. Make the most of what you got now.

Favorite LES memory?

Don’t make me pick one! I’m going to start with my summer camp friend who lived in the East River apartments, to my knowledge the very first customer from the Grand Street coops to use Delancey Car Service. She had a good Dominican friend who told her to call them. It was so hard to get a cab, and all Pam’s freezing neighbors were still standing on the corner waving our hands at off duty cabs like idiots, and she was in a nice warm car and then she was off. Word spreads fast on Grand Street, and within weeks dozens of neighbors were using Delancey.  I remember the day half of the Delancey drivers left and started “New Delancey.” And then Delancey sued and New Delancey staff got Sharpies and crossed out all the letters of the word “Delancey” on their signs except for  the D-A-Y. The nutty birth of the Lower East Side’s New Day car service!

More random memories:

My grandmother’s Hillman apartment on Lewis Street, being tickled to death in this apartment at Passover by my many older cousins.

The day the East River seagull flew into our window when the new windows were being put in.

Saying hi to Erin Brokovitch getting her take-out coffee in Cozy Corner  (then American Flag Deli, after it was Cozy Corner the first time) when she was brought in by CBS to re-do the amphitheater after 9/11.

Jimmy Smits and Dennis Franz sitting on Hillman’s steps, happy to sign autographs after filming NYPD Blue.

Gilbert Gottfried shopping in Fine Fare, I think he has a sister in Hillman. He always smiles when you wave at him.

The day I rented out our family apartment for $1000 to filmmaker Dani Levi  (the Woody Allen of Germany) to pay some bills on Keep the River on Your Right– I answered a scouting post in the laundry room, and there were 50 people in the apartment in a week, and it was lit from the Williamsburg Bridge.  My neighbors were pissed at me.

When the really good new high end Grand Street butcher store had trouble getting Lower East Side customers at East Village prices, they tried a café, but it still had all the butcher shop accoutrements, and the owner called it something ill-advised like The Meat Café. That was the zaniest place anyone ever had a sit-down coffee.

I have a hazy preschool memory of my mother, who had just started using “Ms.,” really excited to see Bella Abzug with a megaphone on an open flat truck with Barbra Streisand. This memory may come just from the retelling. They were riding around Grand Street, some political rival lived in the Coops, I need to research this. And another year, another open flat truck, when Mom ran down to tell Abzug volunteers to switch the Spanish music fast – they were on a Jewish street. She always wanted Bella to win!

The day the Domino sugar factory clock across the river had the wrong time, and my mom called to let them know, and we had a caseload of Domino Dots arrive a week later.

The rollout mat at Corlears (which used to be a parent-run progressive school collective in the ground level of one of the East River buildings) — named after Corlears Hook, now a fancy private school on west 15th—we always listened to the soundtrack of Born Free at naptime. To this day when I hear that music, I want to take a nap.

Dialing phone numbers : Lower East Side exchanges were YUKON 2  and  SP 7.

Marveling sometime in the 80s at our very own Keith Haring mural the week it went up, over where Bard High School is now.

Walking by Doughnut Plant just as Ric Ocasek dashed in with his kids while Paulina Porizkova was parked outside in a van of some sort. I have a huge soft spot for The Cars.

Oh and of course, the biggie, the day the Odds met the Evens. We used to have two elevator banks in my building section. Most of my life I only knew the people on the odd floors. All of sudden around 1998, with the stops-at-every-floor elevator newly installed, I had to say “hi” to the Evens. It was like meeting an alternative Lower East Side universe.

4 comments to My LES: Laurie Gwen Shapiro

  • Hey, I’m the guy writing the book on Thomas Commeraw. Just wanted to say how glad I am that people are taking interest in this story! Take care, Brandt

  • Hi Brandt,
    Sounds very interesting. Please keep us updated on the book!

  • Pam Kutner

    Hi Laurie,
    Just read The LES by LGS and love it. When are you going to write about how your dad invented the color TV tube? Waiting for this breakthrough when you and your dad appear on Conan.
    Your Cousin-In-Law,

  • Thanks for the plug, Laurie! No one ever took me up on the free tour at the raffle. My wife and I went to Australia in September. We have friends in Melbourne. We saw the Penguin Parade, and the head of the Aus. Art Deco Society gave us a Deco tour downtown.