I had a wonderful great aunt named Fay Leshner who was born in 1908 and died in 1987. She was my maternal grandmother’s older sister. She lived in the Elmhurst section of Queens and was stout and wacky–I once described her to an apprehensive college roommate, who was from Montana and about to meet her for the first time, as “a female Dom DeLuise,” though that description did her a disservice. (She was heavy, but not unattractive.)
Aunt Fay, though she worked in a dress shop, belonged in vaudeville: She played accordion and harmonica, talked like Bert Lahr, and loved crude jokes. One of her favorites: Pretending to command an imagined orchestra, she’d say “Give me an A,” hum the note, then say “Give me a C,” hum the note, and then say “Give me an S”–after which she’d make a loud farting noise: the sound that an “S,” that is, “ass,” makes. Get it?
Here is a characteristic glimpse of her in action, playing accordion (center), while her husband, Sam (left), plays violin, and my grandmother, Tessie (right), joins in on autoharp. (These are grabs from 8-mm home-movie footage shot by my grandfather, Eli Fuchs, and digitized by my brother, Ted.)
Aunt Fay died a few days after Thanksgiving in 1987. Five days after that, her lone son, my cousin Barry, and his wife, Lisa, had a baby daughter. The girl was named Fay in her grandmother’s memory. Some amount of time later, the extended family gathered in the Brooklyn Botanic Garden, one of Aunt Fay’s favorite places, to dedicate a park bench along the garden’s lovely Cherry Walk in her honor. Its plaque reads: “In Memory of Fay Leshner–May All Who Sit on This Bench Bask in the Warmth of Her Love.”
Here’s where our Urban Googler’s Tale begins. The baby Fay, my second cousin, has since grown up to be a 20-year-old fashion student, part-time model, and occasional babysitter for my kids. She never met her grandmother but has much the same sense of humor. And she has a distinct, some-would-say-kooky fashion sense that is all her own, though it also evokes the collaborations of Peggy Moffitt, Rudi Gernreich, and William Claxton. (I like to think of young Fay’s style as “Peggy Moppet.”) In her way, Cousin Fay has cut quite the swath, capturing the fancy of Scott Schuman, the fashion photo-blogger known as The Sartorialist, and appearing on billboards as an iPod silhouette.
Recently, Cousin Fay went on a work-study trip to London. We heard that she had been featured in the U.K. newspaper the Guardian, so I went online to look up the article. Since I couldn’t find Fay in the Guardian’s search engine, I turned instead to Google.
Typing the words “Fay Leshner” into Google, however, I stumbled across a raggedy-looking blog called Let’s Do This, evidently published by a bunch of young Brooklyn hipsters, that included a springtime post that bore a picture of the Fay Leshner Memorial Park Bench and the words “Cherry blossoms are poppin’ out all over the brooklyn botanical gardens. and no cherry poppin’ is complete without a visit to fay leshner and the sex bench...”
Is nothing sacred? I thought. Are scruffy Brooklyn hipsters in shrunken American Apparel t-shirts defiling the memory of my great aunt by trysting on her bench? And then blogging about it?
But then, I thought, Aunt Fay herself would have been amused by this post. She was an irreverent person, as this mugging montage demonstrates:
I decided to get in touch with the Let’s Do This people. The author of the “sex bench” post turned out to be a freelance illustrator named Nick Manske. Via his Web site, I sent him a note telling him a little about Aunt Fay and then cutting to the chase: “Is the Fay Leshner bench a widely known trysting spot?” I asked. “Has ‘Fay Leshner’ become some sort of nasty, lascivious shorthand slang?”
Manske, a sweet kid from Texas who is indeed a Brooklyn hipster–he lives with his brother, Nathan, in Williamsburg–was happy to explain himself. Let’s Do This, he said, is a blog in which a group of friends, mostly transplanted Texans living in New York, “keep each other up to date on culture, humor, entertainment, music/concerts, and just silly random things that we fancy and want to share. Most of the members of LDT are artists of some sort. There are writers, illustrators, directors, editors, designers, architects, musicians, and the like.”
Okay, but what about the Fay Leshner “sex bench”? “No one has actually had sex on the ‘sex bench,’” Manske said. (Phew!) He then unfurled this rather Judd Apatovian tale for me:
“In June ’04, one of my brothers was visiting from Texas (I have three brothers, two in Texas, and Nathan, who I live with). We went to the botanical gardens, and towards the end of the visit, we sat for a moment on a bench. We were just talking as brothers do, and we started talking about relationships, girls, boys, and sex in general. We were talking deeply and openly about things that we really had never talked about before, and in retrospect, it was really a bonding moment. At one point, as we were discussing some graphic sexual details or conquests, Nate asked, ‘I wonder if this is what... [turning around to look at plaque]... Fay Leshner’s family had in mind when they named this bench after her.’
“We all laughed, continued chatting, and discussing whatever it was that we were discussing. [The bench] forever will live on in infamy as the ‘sex bench’ among my friends and I. We go back to the botanical gardens every year when the weather starts to get warm, and no trip to the BG is complete without a visit to Miss Leshner’s ‘sex bench.’ Even if Nate and I aren’t with our friends, [the friends] are sure to snap a shot with their digital camera phone or whatever, and send it to us, usually accompanied with a ‘Fay says hi!’’’
So there you have it all in one heart-warming, if slightly filthy, tale of the circle of life, and of life in the ever-mutating city of New York. Below is a photograph that Nick Manske sent me of him (left) and his brother Nate on the Fay Leshner bench. Give them an S!