SHIRLEY ANN SENDER TOUILLON
JUNE 24, 1947 - OCTOBER 15, 2013
I don't remember when I first met Shirley Sender. It might have been when I started work at Butterick Publishing and as a gesture of trying to fit in with the new workplace I volunteered to give blood during the blood drive that first week. After my blood was drawn I walked across the main area, threw up, and fainted right there in front of everybody. I think Shirley was the one who came to assist, pushed away my thoughts of awful embarrassment and became my friend.
Shirley was vintage. Not just her last name which always reckoned the song "RETURN TO SENDER! Address unknown! No such number, no such zone."
but everything she searched out was a find.
She was the Queen of Street Fair shopping. This top (kind of a heavy quilted cotton thermal) was one I liked and was hesitant about buying (maybe it was $20?) but Shirl urged me to buy it and I'm still wearing it — 35 years later! [Recently, I did have to restitch a seam at the neckline but hey — small price to pay.] Still there were times when she had to push, push, push me to spend my money on something...
With Shirley, every encounter was an adventure. She knew I loved vintage clothes and she took me to this place where the clothes were piled high in those huge canvas rolling carts used by commercial laundries and dry cleaners. While everywhere else a dress might be $15 and up, here the dresses were $3 each but you sure had to plow and dig for them! Shirl was an expert — she’d dive right in to the bottom (“The top stuff’s already picked through, but these YUPPIES don’t have the balls to work to the bottom.”) and with her keen eye pull out what turned out to be a spectacular garment.
|This is what that dress looked like...|
My very, very favorite was a black crepe cocktail dress from the 50s with a nipped in waist, three-quarter tight sleeves, and a draped boat neckline that stayed in place with a metal weight that was sewn in to make it dip just so…I have a killer photograph of me in that dress in a sea of people at a party in the West Village (not far from where Shirley lived). The photographer (maybe the hostess of this bash) is way above on a loft looking down into this throbbing mass of party-goers and there I am in the middle of the crowd, in the middle of a laugh with a lit cigarette poised mid-air. I look SO happy and I wish I could find that photo.
Another great find of Shirl’s was when she heard I liked old china and took me to this small crevice of a store that sold old restaurant dishes from everywhere made by Syracuse, Shenango, and Sterling China. The dusty shop was filled with old wooden barrels that held piles and piles of these heavy, indestructible plates, bowls, mugs and platters with logos from airports, railroads, university clubs, and restaurants you never heard of (see below) but loved their signature dishes! The place was called Fishs Eddy which made no sense to me whatsoever but today they are alive and well and have a booming retail and internet business. They got “yuppified" as Shirl might say….
Shirl was "Ukrainian from Pittsburgh" and took me from one little place to another to sample pierogies. We loved this place in Tompkins Square Park — Orchidia — probably the only Italian-Ukrainian restaurant that ever was — "It's got raviolis and pierogies!" she'd cry out whenever she wanted us to trek over to Alphabet City to eat. She introduced me to Spanish food at El Faro close to where she lived on Horatio Street. On one of our jaunts through the East Village, she took me (and later my husband) to a favorite dive — what I think was called The Lime Rock Inn — a dark and hidden bar with barely enough light to find your chair but their crispy, batter-dipped soft-shell crabs — OH-OH-OH. Served with a homemade marinara sauce — they were unbelievably delicious. My taste buds cried when that place closed down.
Street-fair shopping was a breeze with Shirley because she always knew exactly which table, which vendor, under which box to look for the most unusual, most exquisite knick-knack to own. Take those red heart earrings. She spotted them and convinced me I should buy them. Even though hearts are no longer the fashion staple they were back then — the summer I wore only red, black, and white — even now decades later, I still wear them every Valentine’s Day. Long after I’d moved away from Manhattan, over the years, an envelope would arrive in the mail from Shirley and inside her funky card with a loving handwritten note would be a little red Chinese paper envelope or cloth pouch with a trinket she’d found especially for me — a pin, a bracelet, a fabulous charm. She was a generous soul like no other.
Shirley was always trying to expand my limited horizons. One summer she called me up and said I had to come spend the day and night watching Live Aid.
“It’s a benefit concert to raise money for Ethiopia and there are going to be some incredible acts. You can’t miss this," she said, sensing my hesitancy and knowing I was not one to just venture out, “It’s a once-in-a-lifetime experience. Com'on it’ll be fun — we’ll be outside in Rigney’s backyard with food and drinks and everything — it’s a happenin'!” she teased me.
So I packed myself up and made the long subway trek from the Upper West Side down to Horatio Street in the Village and entered the backyard garden of Shirl’s best friend Nancy (actually one of two Nancys...the other Nancy the wife of Richie Havens who would be performing at Live Aid) who had run a 25-ft electrical cord out from her apartment to the plug in a TV that was set-up on a table outside. Though the reception was intermittently fuzzy with static the sound was good and a group of their friends spent the next ten hours drinking and watching group after group perform at what was indeed a memorable and ground-breaking concert. The stand-out for me was Sting performing with then new-to-the-scene Branford Marsalis. Branford comes out on stage to play with him — Marsalis on soprano sax is accompanying Sting singing Roxanne and soon he's not just playing, his soprano sax becomes another voice — in exquisitely beautiful harmony — they perform a duet. The performance made me cry then and still makes me cry every single time I hear it. You owe it to yourself to listen to it on youtube. Since that day I’ve wanted to ask Branford Marsalis about that performance — how did he feel? Did it feel as if it was the best performance of his life?
Shirley was a dear friend whose life was cut short by cancer. There are so many more stories to tell and I know I've left out a lot but perhaps I've given you a glimpse at the gift she was to us all.
I suppose now "Return to Sender" will mean our Shirley is from whence she came...
|That's Shirley on the right in happier times with our friend Bob-o — who took the great shot of Shirley at top|