When I was a resident professor at the late St. Bernard's Seminary, just up-avenue from Kodak Park in northern Rochester, I used to drive down to East Main Street for any important shopping. At noon I would lunch at the street-level coffee shop of that superb old department store, Sibley, Lindsay and Curr's.
On one such shopping day around 1956 I entered the restaurant, made a bee-line to the full-service counter, and slid into one of its revolving stools. Having ordered my favorite menu, I waited to be served. Little did I know that an utter stranger would soon subject me to a pitiless third-degree.
The utter stranger arrived a few moments later.
A short, heavy-set, lively but obviously aged woman clambered up onto the stool next to me. A few discreet side-glances told me that her clothing was haphazard; that she had a wisp of mustache on her upper lip; that thick eyeglasses framed her bright eyes, and that the felt hat which crowned her white-streaked brown hair needed dusting. A committed nonconformist, I guessed.
When the blonde teen-age waitress had served my soup, she turned to my new neighbor. It soon became evident that Madame was either hard-of-hearing, or naturally trumpet-voiced, or both, for when she spoke she shouted.
"WHAT AM I GOING TO EAT? she now challenged the waitress.
"Are you hungry?" the latter asked helpfully.
"Well, I CAN eat!"
"How about a sandwich?"
"NO!" snapped the customer. "Give me a salad: A POTATO SALAD! Now, what am I going to drink?"
"A nice cup of tea?"
"NOT AT ALL!" she snorted, whacking the counter. "I'll take COFFEE!"
("This woman will not be pigeonholed," I said to myself.)
I had meanwhile freed my saltines from their stubborn plastic envelope and begun to savor my mushroom soup. My chance companion now looked around a bit, and for the first time saw me.
"WELL!!!" she roared.
The spoon almost fell from my hand. I looked at her fearfully. Had I somehow offended her?
Actually, she was beaming at me. Deferentially!
"TO THINK THAT I SHOULD BE SEATED BESIDE A GENTLEMAN OF THE CLOTH! WILL YOU PLEASE BLESS MY LUNCHEON, SIR?"
Some rubrical problems flitted about in my mind. Then I quietly said yes.
"GOOD!" (And that was the last time she referred to the matter!)
Now she launched into a cheery conversation, mostly monologue, with a whoop and a hurrah, audible, I was sure, to all patrons of the restaurant.
"I AM 90!" she proclaimed. "I have come here from my art class at the Memorial Art Gallery."
"I PAINT," she announced, with proper pride. Then, looking me defiantly in the eye, she added, "MODERN art! NOTHING TRADITIONAL! DO YOU LIKE MODERN ART?"
"Wait a minute,"I thought; "this could become a donnybrook." So I tried to put her off with a bit of humor: "I guess I'm too young to appreciate it."
"Why, you're not too young at all! HOW OLD ARE YOU?"
"I smiled weakly and winked: "Shh!" But my coyness intrigued her all the more.
"LISTEN," she insisted. "If you tell me how old YOU are, I'll tell you how old I am. I am 90!"
"I'm just about half that," I answered softly. This seemed to satisfy her. But now she switched to an even more delicate line of inquiry.
"ARE YOU MARRIED?"
My ears turned red at that one. I am sure that every luncher around was eavesdropping. I tried to whisper my reply. "I'm a Catholic priest. We don't marry." But whispering didn't work.
"YOU SAY YOU'RE ABOUT TO GET MARRIED?" she roared.
I guess I did make my point after that, somehow or other. Luckily she changed the subject once more.
"Lots of my friends are Catholic," she averred. "I was practically raised among Catholics. One of my father's partners was an Irish Catholic named McGrath. But you're too young to remember him. We had a Catholic maid once. A niece of Father Hartley."
Then she suddenly interrupted herself. "DID I ORDER MY LUNCH? I wonder what I ordered. Potato salad, I suppose!" Looking down at the counter she saw the salad at her place. With a sigh of infinite disgust, she picked up her fork.
As she toyed with the chunks of potato she continued to reminisce, a little less noisily.
"I never married. I used to do settlement work. We would find out who was in need and see to it that their needs were taken care of."
Now I was finally able to bolt down my apple pie à la mode, finish my cup of Sibley's special coffee, and pay my bill. Yearning only to break away, I quickly excused myself. She raised no protest; but she did fire after me one last question:
"DO THEY LET YOU GO TO THE MOVIES?"
It was wonderful to be back on Franklin Street. As I hurried off to finish the day's business, I thought gratefully of the psalmist's verse, "Broken was the snare and we were freed" (124.7).
My goal was the Pike Stained Glass Studio at St. Paul and Andrews. Unfortunately, the director, Mr. James E. O'Hara, was out; but I had a chance to visit with his mother, Mrs. Helen O'Hara, who was the secretary.
"I have just had," I told her, "the most extraordinary conversation"; and I went on to recount the Sibley's episode.
Before I was half through, Mrs. O'Hara's head began to nod in recognition. When I had finished she said, "That would be Fannie Benjamin!"
Fannie, she explained, belonged to a rather prominent local Jewish family. A perennial art student at the Memorial Gallery, she was notorious for her blunt speech and stoutly disruptive behavior. The Benjamin family had some means, but Miss Benjamin had little sense of the value of money. She would often indulge in downtown buying sprees, and her patient, affectionate younger brother would be obliged to send the purchases back to the dealers.
Fannie was especially prone to striking up booming and highly personal public conversations with total strangers. One time on a bus she cornered a friend of Mrs. O'Hara's who had lately retired as a buyer for Sibley's. Miss Benjamin was soon inquiring, "ARE YOU MARRIED?" Next she asked, "DID SIBLEY'S PENSION YOU OFF?"
Death itself was almost preferable to such interrogations. Yet Miss B. fascinated me, and I have sought, with some success, to discover more about her.
The obituary, in the Times-Union of December 15, 1959, informed me that she died the previous day, aged 93. A few people who remembered her added other recollections to what the newpaper had supplied.
A native of Rochester, Fannie was apparently rather well educated. She was one of the early volunteers at the city's Baden Street Settlement House. Attracted to the fine arts, she made painting and sculpture her lifelong pursuit. The obit said that she began art studies in the Julia Wall Settlement House in New York City. (Others have said that her initial studies were at the New York Art Students' League.) But her principal schooling was in Rochester: at the Rochester Museum, and, particularly, at the Memorial Art Gallery. While Miss Benjamin did take lessons in sculpting, her chief interest was in watercolor painting. Fritz Trautman of the Gallery, an able watercolorist, was her teacher.
Despite her years as a student, Fannie never developed first-class pictorial skills. I am told that even her best paintings were only fair in quality, and verged toward the primitive in character. But her enthusiasm for painting and for the Gallery itself never waned. Between 1949 and 1959 she donated, under her own name, an award for the best watercolor entered in the annual Finger Lakes Exhibit. In 1960 the award was given in her memory.
Those fully acquainted with the crotchets of this ancient "original" still admired her vigor and her joie de vivre. I have often thought, since our unforgettable encounter, that if there had been "flower children" in Victorian times, Fannie could easily have been a survivor.
Did I avoid Sibley's cafeteria thereafter?
Well, no. The patrons of this fast-food service were not normally folksy, much less terrorist. Had they not come in from East Main, that reserved Yankee street where nobody stopped to chat? I admit, though, that when in future I dropped in for lunch, I would first look over warily to see whether You-Know-Who was at the counter.
I certainly had no desire to be pilloried again by the formidable Miss Fannie Benjamin!
© 1994, Robert F. McNamara