At least twenty years ago, while I was walking along Fifty Seventh St. in Manhattan, stopping at Fifth Avenue to wait for the light so I could cross, I saw the most amazing thing. Across Fifth, a limo pulled to a quick stop. A beautiful man in a gorgeous suit jumped out and stood, looking around him. Within ten seconds, like dropping a huge dollop of honey in the middle of an ant colony, people on the street immediately started crowding Muhammad Ali. I saw paper and pens and pencils go high up in the air (no cell phones then), all shoved in his direction. He was smiling to the shouts of “Ali! Ali! Champ! Champ!”, and just started signing away. No announcement, no bodyguards. Cars stopped, traffic jammed. A police officer made his way to the center of the crowd to shake Ali’s hand. After five minutes he waved, jumped back in his limo, and was gone.
What a great time to be The Greatest. He might have just invented the Flash Mob. He didn’t have to check twitter to see how he was doing. He didn’t have to check Wiki, or IMDB, or Instagram, or Snapchat, or his Facebook fan page, or be isolated by virtual reality. His reality check was to check reality. He went headlong into it, saw he was definitely still trending, and with a big smile, The Greatest went about the rest of his day.
In late September, 2012, the great Broadway star Audra McDonald sent @QuiltingMuriel a direct twitter message, inviting Muriel and a friend to be her guests at her Carnegie Hall concert on October 22nd, a month away. Muriel was over the moon, but we had a decision to make regarding “@QuiltingMuriel”.
“Audra wants to meet me because she wants to meet the woman who tweets those tweets”, Muriel said. “What do we do?”
I replied, “She wants to meet the 94 year old woman who marched for women’s rights, civil rights, whose mother marched for the vote in 1920. The woman who witnessed history. The woman who is a kind mother, who loves dogs, who has intelligence, compassion and wit, and who actually bakes those cookies she’s always talking about. I don’t think she’ll be disappointed.”
Muriel said, “Well, we’ll insist on paying for the tickets.”
Muriel was so excited. She was twenty years old again. She was all a-twitter (no pun intended, but actually, something to think about) for weeks. I thought of how wonderful twitter was, bringing women together with such vastly different lives, yet having so much in common; their compassionate humanity.
Muriel said, “Audra’s profile page says she likes anything with peanut butter in it. I’m famous for my chocolate chip cookies.”
“Yes”, I replied. “I’ve heard them mentioned in France. Right after they mention Junior’s World Famous Cheesecake. Also in Nepal if I’m not mistaken.”
“Don’t be so smart. Well, I would love to try baking Audra something with peanut butter, but to try a brand new recipe for such an important occasion is too worrisome. I want her to like the cookies.”
So Muriel baked about three million chocolate chip cookies. She wanted to make enough for Audra, her daughter and mother, and if Audra had been married at the time, no doubt she would have baked four million. For that entire month before the concert, Muriel was the happiest I’d ever seen her. The day before the Carnegie Hall show, Audra sent me (Muriel’s “Young Friend”) an email with all the info we’d need upon arrival. She forwarded the logistics from her manager.
Manager: “They’ve put Elayne and Muriel in the Carnegie Hall Corporate box, upstairs on the First Tier. They can take the elevator straight there, and Muriel can drive right up to the door of the private box, park her scooter, and then transfer to a chair in the box. After the concert, a staffer will appear to escort Muriel and Elayne backstage. Carnegie Hall has made a note that they are to treat Muriel like a queen.”
I read Muriel the email. She beamed, “A queen! I can’t believe it. How exciting!”
“It’s just a figure of speech.”
Muriel then said, “I have Access-A-Ride coming to pick us up…”
Oh lord no! Access-A-Ride is New York City’s moving chamber of horrors on wheels for the elderly. While the concept is noble, vans you can schedule to transport you around the city if you use a wheelchair or scooter, at only a two dollar and fifty cent charge, it more often than not is a long day in hell. They make lots of stops to pick up lots of seniors, and their routing is planned by a drunken blind monkey with a dart board. I’d heard Muriel tell tales of being taken from her Brooklyn quilting club on what should have been the one hour trip back to Manhattan, via Istanbul with no food, water, or bathroom facilities for five hours. After one of those rides she often looked like she just crawled out of the desert. The drivers were clearly men who hated their mothers, and used this hostage opportunity to introduce the music of Ghostface Killah and Eazy-E, at the highest decibel, to people they refused to let be deaf. It was always a nightmare.
I said, “The show’s at seven thirty. We have to go a mile and a half. Better schedule the pickup for six p.m., just to be sure.”
“I scheduled the pickup for four p.m.”, she said.
“Why?” I asked. “Are we going to the movies first?”
Muriel replied, “Trust me, you never know. Besides, aren’t we having dinner out before the show?”
Me: “You’re crazy.”
Muriel: “We’ll see.”
At nine a.m. the morning of the show, my phone rings. It’s Muriel. “You have to come over and choose my outfit with me! I only have the strength to try everything on once.”
“I see. We’re getting dressed ten hours before the show, and leaving to get there ninety hours early.”
I arrive at Muriel’s. She’s excited. “Look. They just got here from QVC.”
Indeed they have. Three purple velvet Bob Mackie pantsuits. I truly can’t tell them apart.
It’s now three forty-five p.m., and we’re just about to leave Muriel’s apartment to go down to West End Avenue and wait for the Hell Wagon known as Access-A-Ride. We are reflectively resplendent in matching red lipstick, big earrings, Muriel in her purple velvet ensemble (Cher would be proud of Mr. Mackie), I in my gold brocade coat. As we sail toward the elevator, Muriel on her red scooter, bags of cookies and plentiful gifts hanging from the handlebars, the elevator doors open to reveal her son and daughter-in-law, who see us in our evening regalia, jump back (it is still broad daylight) and say,
“Wh… where are you going?!”
Muriel cheerfully shouts behind us as the elevator doors close, “Carnegie Hall!!”
It is now, unbelievably, six p.m. We have been held hostage in this van, having needed to go only a mile and a half, for two solid hours. We have circled around the Columbus Avenue Fountain in front of the Time Warner Center, only three blocks from Carnegie Hall, five times. When we asked to disembark, as we could get ourselves the rest of the way there, the driver said he was not allowed to let anyone off the van until we arrived at our pre-arranged destination point. We almost passed by Carnegie Hall at one point, but the driver didn’t slow down enough for us to make a break for it. By now, after two hours of deafeningly relentless Lil Kim, five ninety year old passengers are unconsciously singing along with the lyrics,
“Take it in the butt..Don’tcha like the way I roll..”
This driver is blasting noise, talking on his phone, picking up people endlessly, dropping them all over the city, and always, always, teasing us NEAR Carnegie Hall, but not TO Carnegie Hall. We are now on Central Park West and 61st street, once again, a mere few blocks from our destination. Time is actually running out, and I am starting to lose it. A man gets in the van, and incredibly, the driver starts to head uptown, in the opposite direction of where Muriel and I need to go. I try to remain calm, and say over the “music”,
“Where are you going now?!”
The driver yells back without looking at me, “I’m taking this guy to the Bronx!”
If we go to the Bronx we’ll get to Carnegie Hall some time in June. Muriel has tears in her eyes. She knows we can’t make it. It’s eye opening to see how the elderly are treated when they are powerless. I’ve been pretty patient. I’m done now.
“You are not taking this guy to the Bronx first. We have been on this bus for two hours to go one mile. You are taking us to Carnegie Hall. NOW.”
He’s almost gleeful, “Nope! That’s the way it’s scheduled. Can’t change the route.”
I slip Muriel’s beautifully patterned silk scarf off her neck. I walk up behind the driver. I am intense. I speak to him in his own language,
“Listen motherfucker, turn this ride around now. If you don’t turn this van around and take us to Carnegie Hall right now, I am going to put this fucking scarf around your motherfucking neck, and kill you. Do you understand me? I am going to fucking break your neck, bitch.”
I am so far gone, I don’t have the presence of mind to think how this will affect Muriel; what she will think, what will happen the next time she calls Access-A-Ride, her only access to transportation in NYC. What if they ban her forever? Arrest her? Worst of all, she’s made it extremely clear she doesn’t tolerate cursing. I’m never to use the “F” word around her. Suddenly, she speaks up,
“She’ll do it! She just got out of jail for killing someone! That’s why we’re celebrating tonight. Turn the van around or she’ll kill you!”
“Okay okay! I just have to call my dispatcher and tell him I’m changing the route!”
I snap the scarf and say: “Then do it! DO IT!!!”
Fifteen minutes later, Muriel sighs, “This is the best lobster roll I’ve ever had.”
“Well eat up. We have to get down the block and pick up our tickets, and it’s a madhouse over there.”
“Where do we pay for the tickets?”
“Audra won’t let us pay. She says the day we pay for tickets to see her is the day she votes for Mitt Romney.”
Carnegie Hall is a mob scene. I tell Muriel to just stay put on her scooter, as I join the long, long Will Call line to pick up our tickets at the box office. I can’t even see her through the throng. Suddenly, a tall handsome gent in a house uniform calls to me from where I left Muriel,
“Ms Boosler? Over here. I have your tickets.”
“How did you know this was Muriel?”
“Oh, Ms McDonald described her. We were all told to treat Muriel like a queen.” She gives me the sweetest Cheshire Cat grin.
We go up in the elevator, park the scooter, and walk into the box to get settled. Muriel is in front, at the rail. I am directly behind her. The box is full of lovely people, the hall is full and electric, it’s all magical. The show begins. Audra is beautiful. The songs, the music, everything is moving, gorgeous, perfect. Knowing Muriel’s hearing is spotty, I lean into her ear,
“Can you hear? Do you hear the show?”
“I hear the music and singing perfectly. I can’t hear Audra’s talking in between songs though. It’s too soft.”
Song after song is a perfectly crafted piece of theater, a full play in itself. The audience is enchanted, in love, rapt. And again, Audra speaks,
“I want to dedicate this next song to a new friend of mine. This song, ‘My Buddy’, is for the great and glorious Quilting Muriel.”
Audra’s arm sweeps up to indicate our box, gesturing right at Muriel. The entire audience looks up, sees Muriel, and begins to applaud. Muriel also turns her head around and applauds, searching for the recipient of the honor. From my seat directly behind her, I gently put my index finger into her left cheek to face her forward again. I put my hand under her right arm and lift it and begin to wave it at the audience. She whispers out of the side of her mouth,
“What’s going on?”
“This song is for you.”
“Ooohhh!!!!!” she gaily says and with that, smiles and waves to the audience as they smile back at her.
The show was magnificent. We had all these gifts for Audra, but it had been a physically taxing day and night for a 94 year old woman, and there were hundreds of people lined up outside of Audra’s dressing room to see her. That, and the fact that we were going to take a New York City bus home, well, who knew how long the wait along Central Park would be at that hour. We asked our escort to kindly give all of our gifts to Audra with our love, as we couldn’t join that line. He laughed and said we weren’t joining any line; he had been instructed to take us right in to see Ms. McDonald, and he did. He parted the sea of New York City’s finest tuxedos and gowns, and a purple velvet Bob Mackie pantsuit and three million World Famous chocolate chip walnut cookies rolled into Ms. Audra McDonald’s dressing room, and the door closed behind.
It was a wonderful visit. While I hung back and took the pictures, Audra, her beautiful daughter and mother, and Muriel, talked about New York, living in the city, baking, working, dogs, family, music, history, travel, everything and anything fun and interesting. There was lots of laughter. I do believe, and hope, that Audra indeed met the woman she was expecting.
Again, our escort parted the sea of Audra’s admirers and true to his word, “like a queen”, we were escorted out the stage door into the street, where hundreds more fans lined up hoping to catch a glimpse of Audra on her way out. Muriel asked,
“Who are all these people?” I replied,
“These are people who don’t bake chocolate chip cookies.”
We were so happy, it took a minute for us to realize the temperature had gone down into the teens. Because I run an animal rescue organization, Muriel was kind enough not to wear her mink coat that night, even though she kept reminding me it had been dead for over seventy years, before it was “wrong” (her quotes) to wear fur. There were things we didn’t agree on of course, but it was truly generous of her to leave that coat home on a night projected to be well below freezing. So she made me give her my coat to double up as we waited for the bus. Fair’s fair. She was 94 years old, and I hadn’t been cold since I hit a hundred and fifty pounds anyway. We waited unshielded from the wind off the park. When we finally reached her stop, we were still five blocks from her apartment, so she floored her scooter as I ran to meet her at home. She was speeding, freezing, and falling asleep all at the same time.
When I got up to Muriel’s apartment, she hadn’t even had the strength to get off her scooter. She was drained. It was two a.m. She couldn’t open her eyes, she couldn’t move. I said,
“Come on. I’ll help you.”
I got her to the bathroom. I sat her down and took off her shoes, her knee highs, her purple velvet. I handed her her nightgown, then went into the bedroom and turned down her quilt. Tiger jumped into bed to wait for his mom. I helped Muriel into the bed. She fell in hard, spent. I put my face down to hers, an inch away. Her eyes were bright, full of life and light. I said,
“Wasn’t tonight awesome?” She replied, smiling, twinkling,
“It was fucking awesome.”
I could still hear her laughing as I turned out her bedroom light, walked down the hall, put on my coat, locked her front door and went out into the night.
Muriel B. The beloved, independent lady who lived in a beautiful apartment on the upper west side of Manhattan with her little “New Yorkie”, Tiger, is gone at the age of ninety seven and a half. New York will never be the same. You all made her life so rich. Now that it is at an end, here is how twitter’s “@QuiltingMuriel” came to be.
Summer 2010: There she was in Riverside Park, a lovely white haired woman, gaily dressed, with big earrings, sitting on her scooter while working a large puzzle book. Her little Yorkie stared intently at where the squirrels were sure to come, because the woman had a large bag of peanuts in the scooter’s basket. I happily thought, “This is what I’ll be when I’m seventy”. When we started chatting, I discovered she was 92. Amazing. Amazing! (She always said I used that word too much.) She had freedom, mobility, charm, opinions (oh yes), and a dog. She lived independently with the help of a fantastic part time aide named Jean. Once again, I had met a smart, vibrant older woman who had long days and nights to fill, with most of her friends gone, and who had so much life left inside. I seemed to collect them.
I have Helen in L.A., now 83. I had Dottie, my L.A. neighbor, who had such a zest for life, when she died at 86, there were two tickets to “Lord of the Dance” for that Saturday night, waiting on her kitchen table.
And then there was Muriel. We became great friends. She was always lonely when I went back to L.A. She was adept at email and the internet (she once rebuilt her own hard drive), so I had an idea. “I’ll open a twitter account for you. If you use hashtags, you can find like- minded people talking about anything and everything that interests you”. So began twitter’s popular account, “@QuiltingMuriel”.
She never tweeted. “I’m too busy.” She was. She filled her days with classes, quilting, visitors, manicures, baking, taking Tiger to the park, doing all her own paperwork, etc. etc. But she’d get lonely and sad, and I still believed twitter could help alleviate that. So I started tweeting for her, to show her how it was done. Still, she never tweeted. I continued to tweet “QuiltingMuriel”, hoping she’d fall in, as I channeled Dottie and Helen and Muriel and every other senior I had the pleasure, and frustration, of knowing. Helen was the loving mother, malaprop prone, “Gracie Allen” voice. Dottie was the sharp, no nonsense voice, and Muriel was the savvy, lifelong New Yorker, with smart, sensible, Democratic values. All of their mothers marched for the vote for women. They themselves fought for civil rights, human rights, worked their whole lives, raised children, missed their departed husbands, were progressive and open minded, loved dogs. All of them were admirable, and there are millions more like them who stand alone at gatherings and parties and are passed by unnoticed, a lifetime of knowledge and experience just waiting to be shared, yet ignored, by younger people who have no idea what richness they are missing.
Muriel never learned to tweet. I was about to close the account when I realized how much people were responding to its humor, kindness, positivity. I loved the people who tweeted to “Muriel”. And then I discovered an even greater social experiment, if you will.
As a comedian of 43 years, people have decided they “know” me. When, in my own twitter account, I tweeted about gun control, or being pro-choice, or anything politically charged, or things that were uplifting and loving, the trolls came out in force and dismissed and dissed me instantly. When I tweeted the exact same sentiments for Muriel in much the same way, people wrote “Preach!” and “So true!” and “Tell it!” Wow. In accidentally holding this mirror up to society, I found a little bit of hypocrisy, and a whole lot of seeing people blinded by their pre-conceived notions. What a discovery. I never had a loving family, I left home at sixteen. A darling regular, who always called “QuiltingMuriel” “Nana”, and whom I came to adore, tweeted: “Nana, who will you be voting for?” I’m sixty -three, I felt qualified to answer. In answering the questions of people decades younger in a loving and kind way, I finally got the mother I never had; me. And I got to be that mother for others who needed one too. So in trying to give Muriel the gift of being valued and cherished, in her refusal to tweet, she ended up giving that gift to me, and to “her” followers, instead. She was the smartest woman I ever met. Amazing.
Muriel grew to love reading the account, though she never tweeted, and we never told anyone, not even her family. Only the wonderful Jean knew. And our great friend and Muriel’s dear sewing teacher, Judy Isaacs. When the agents at CAA discovered the account and had Muriel and me (and Jean) up for a meeting about a book based on the account, we had to tell them the truth too. Other than that, I stood way back and let Muriel bask in her new found glory. She was happily “@QuiltingMuriel”, I was happy to let her be, and go along with her to all the wonderful events that came “@QuiltingMuriel’s” way. (Thank you to the magnificent Audra McDonald, and Holland Taylor, who brought so much joy into Muriel’s life these past few years. Thank you to the authors who sent Muriel their books from all over the world. How wonderful. Thank you for the yearly birthday wishes, and funny stories, and daily weather reports from around the globe. Thank you. Thank you.) Muriel was incredibly charming, delightful, adorable; people loved meeting her. And she indeed could have tweeted that account if she wanted to, but she baked the cookies and I did the writing.
I hope you will remember “@QuiltingMuriel” for the positive, loving, uplifting gesture it was meant to be. I will tweet “@QuiltingMuriel” no more. I couldn’t, with Muriel gone. This is a heartbreaking day. I am flooded with sadness. In honor of Muriel, please try to see the gray ghosts among us; at a party, at the market, in a store, museum, sitting in the park. They see you. They are so rich in life to be shared. Remember Muriel; her spirit, her generosity, her life spent fighting on the right side of history. Remember her joy in living, her ability to embrace everything that came her way until the age of 97. I’ve never seen anyone enjoy Mallomars with more childlike delight. Or chocolate, or peanut brittle. She was infuriating. I’d bring these delicious gifts all the way from L.A., and she wouldn’t share! Yet she did so much to help us rescue animals, making magnificent quilts for my Tails of Joy to sell so we could save more needy, homeless dogs and cats.
She will be missed by so many, especially dear little Tiger. My heart is breaking. People always tweeted to “@QuiltingMuriel”, “I hope I can be you when I get old”. Why wait? You can be her now. I was.