It took me weeks to finish because summer just waltzed right in and pulled me away from my reading habit. What can I say? There was too much going on, and summer wasn’t all that lazy or hazy or slow. But don’t let my experience keep you away from Saint Mazie, a story about a tough New Yorker who sacrifices her life to stand by family and the army of unemployed, penniless men from the Lower East side of Manhattan during the Depression.
Author Jami Attenberg based Saint Mazie on a real person, Mazie Phillips Gordon, who was profiled in a 1940 issue of The New Yorker. She was known as “the Queen of the Bowery” for her devotion to the neighborhood’s down-and-out. She offered money, advice, candy to kids, but was best known for helping homeless men find food and shelter on cold winter nights. It’s reported that she’d find men sleeping out on the streets and wake them up to urge them to find shelter.
I loved Maizie’s voice, which comes through loud and brassy and fearless with each diary entry—the book is a collection of her diary entries by the way. I think I’d classify her as a dame. You know. Streetwise with a heart of gold. A lusty heart beating within her ample chest. The kind of single woman who doesn’t think twice about hitting the bars alone if she wants a drink and some company. That was Mazie.
But that whiskey was well deserved in my view. She scuffled her whole life. Grew up poor with parents not up to the job. She was raised by an older sister with a lethal combination of infertility and fragile emotions. There was a younger sister, too. Jeanie, the lithe, fun-loving sister who was never happy roosting in one spot. She left them for years at a time to work as a dancer. So Maizie earned her reputation. She was a solid, calming presence in her family and stayed put out front of The Venice, in her little cashier’s cage, selling movie tickets and watching the world pass her by.
Attenberg has divided the book into three parts, all connected to neighborhoods where Mazie lived. Her first diary entry–in 1907–begins section one, Grand Street. Mazie is 10 years old and living in a apartment with her sisters. Part Two, Surf Avenue, begins in 1919 when Mazie’s family moves to a Coney Island home and then Part Three, Knickerbocker Village, is back in Manhattan. In between there is Prohibition, the Depression, an unlikely alliance with a nun and a near miss with love.
Mazie is one tough cookie. An angel. A fighter. A rescuer. I hope you do what I didn’t. Find time to really get to know her and not let days go by between readings. She deserved better.