2007-10-26 / Columnists

The Rockaway Irregular

By Stuart Mirsky

When I first met Barbara Eisenstadt, I misunderstood her. Nearly two years ago I called the Rockaway Music and Arts Council with an idea: why not put a Rockaway Writers' Conference together, I asked, and hold it as part of the RMAC's annual Fall Festival? There are plenty of writers and wouIdbe writers on the peninsula, I added, and probably even more folks who just love books enough to make this kind of thing a viable event. Shortly after making the proposal, I got a call back, inviting me to a meeting at one of the RMAC member's homes. It was a small meeting, just a few people, including one lady who came in a bit late. She was a slight, attractive woman, well dressed, I thought, and incredibly soft-spoken.

I noticed that everyone was deferential when she spoke, keeping a respectful silence and hearing her out. I found myself doing the same.

I soon learned that this formidable, if somewhat self-effacing, woman was Barbara Eisenstadt. The name didn't mean anything to me because I'd never been involved with the RMAC before, or with anything Barbara was a part of, for that matter. But, as she spoke, it became increasingly apparent that she knew just about everyone, and not just in Rockaway either. In fact, she seemed surprised, I thought, that she didn't know me. Barbara, in her gentle and quiet way, projected a certain imperiousness, something that said she was used to being in charge. In fact, my first impression of her was that she was somewhat standoffish and aloof because of this, even a trifle overbearing. While generally careful to allow others their say, she sometimes fidgeted impatiently while they spoke. I caught her fidgeting when I spoke a few times, too.

Barbara and I didn't initially hit it off. In fact, I found myself leaving some of those early meetings in frustration, feeling that little was actually getting done. I was running for political office at the time, so I couldn't help being distracted. It was late summer, and then it was early fall of '06, and, as a Republican running against a popular local Democrat, I could sense the unease of many of the RMAC members in my presence, though no one explicitly called to my attention the embarrassing faux pas of my being a Republican. Barbara was especially discreet, though it was clear she'd be voting for my opponent!

Around this time, she was busy trying to secure a venue for what she had by now renamed the Rockaway Literary Arts Festival (she thought "conference" was too stuffy). She had her heart set on the recently renovated Riis Park Bathhouse for the site and, though I hadn't seen it at that point, I was prepared to go along. She kept insisting that it would be perfect. When I finally did get inside the bathhouse on the weekend of the 2006 RMAC Fall Festival, I managed to annoy the people who were then using it at Barbara's behest to set up the Flower Show. When I later mentioned to Barbara that I'd had a look, but that the ladies inside the building had been so annoyed by my presence that they had threatened to have me thrown out by the park police, I was taken aback by her reaction. She said I shouldn't have gone in at all; that it was inappropriate. I explained that I was short of time that day and couldn't wait around for them to open the show, but she wasn't having it. My wife, who was standing next to me, tugged on my arm and said, "let's just go" and so we did. We didn't go back to the festival later that day either, though we had planned to.

Unfortunately, the bathhouse proved out of reach because Gateway management said they couldn't make it available to us and we had to find another venue. With November and my now well-known landslide loss to Democrat Audrey Pheffer (a revered patron of the RMAC, I would later learn) behind me, I was finally able to refocus on literary stuff again. Barbara and I made peace and jointly began to push for a venue, finally securing the support of the Rockaway Artists Alliance and the Rockaway Theater Company for this purpose. Our joint effort to lock in space for the event probably brought us together. Meetings with the Festival committee now began to heat up and, while some participants fell away, new ones joined us. Through it all, Barbara was the constant.

One rather soggy evening, Barbara and I left one of the meetings together. Seeing the miserable weather, she offered me a lift and I quickly accepted. Though I generally liked walking to and from the meetings, grateful for the opportunity to get in some muchneeded exercise, I was even more grateful that night for her offer.

She was speaking wistfully as we walked toward her car and, at one point, she said she was pretty tired. Why, I asked and she replied: "the chemo". She said she'd had a grueling session that day in the city. It was the first inkling I had that she was ill.

I asked her how long she would have to continue the treatments and she just smiled and said "the rest of my life." After that, she changed the subject and we talked about the issues confronting us concerning the festival. I knew then that hers was no minor problem. She rarely spoke about her condition after that and was always upbeat and focused on the work we were doing together. You couldn't tell anything was amiss except that she sometimes seemed kind of tired or a little quieter than usual.

The countdown to the event we had now scheduled for late April proceeded inexorably, and I often found myself sitting at my computer, long past midnight, e-mailing the day's progress to our committee members. Almost as soon as my messages were gone, I'd get responses from Barbara. Astonishingly, she was up and working, too! We developed a rapport over those late-night e-mail correspondences, two obsessives, I suppose, compulsively agonizing over the details of an event neither of us had ever attempted before. Barbara, who had seemed at some of the early meetings to be rather skeptical of many of my suggestions, was soon pushing me harder than I tended to push myself. At meeting after meeting, her energy and vision seemed to drive the discussions. No matter the obstacle, she never wavered.

How would we find a book vendor? Could we even get permission from the National Park Service at Gateway to bring one in? Who would supply food on that day? How much advertising could we afford and how best to get it done? How were we going to manage the set-up for the day? Which panels and participants were appropriate? Would the facility we'd been offered by the Rockaway Artists' Alliance even be ready on time? Everything was in a perpetual state of uncertainty, but Barbara never was. In the end, we were communicating almost daily on what seemed like a 24/7 basis - sometimes by phone, more often by email (my preferred method, though she chastised me numerous times for not returning her phone calls).

On the day of the event, Barbara was there with husband Marvin. I'd only gotten to know Marvin in the latter days of our planning efforts, but he now shadowed her every step, running interference for her as she coordinated the set-up for the day. Everything was hectic as we raced about, juggling activities because, contrary to Barbara's advice, I had insisted on packing the day with back-to-back events. She'd warned me that it could prove too much, but I had stubbornly held onto the idea of doing it all. She turned out to be right, of course. There was so much flying, I doubt anyone saw half of what they wanted. But the conference or, as Barbara preferred to call it, the Festival, came off to everyone's satisfaction (especially to Barbara's).

I knew Barbara was pretty ill by this time and was worried she wouldn't be able to withstand the pace, but I needn't have been. She was cool and controlled throughout the day, and even took a turn as master of ceremonies at a number of the discussions we'd organized. Her cookbook panel, which she'd insisted on including despite my skepticism, proved to be the surprise draw of the event! When she asked me what I thought of it, I had to sheepishly acknowledge she'd been right. She just smiled.

But it all took a toll on her, I'm afraid, and when I recently learned she'd taken a turn for the worst, I didn't know what to do. We hadn't been close and I didn't want to disturb her or her family. I had already begun plans for a new Literary Arts Festival in '08 at her prodding and I felt her unavailability almost at once. There was no one to e-mail at 2 o'clock in the morning now, no one to bounce my ideas off, or to toss ideas back at me. I hadn't gotten to know her all that well during the time we'd worked together, but I was already feeling her absence. Still, her passing a couple of weeks ago caught me completely off guard. You can never be adequately prepared for these things.

Paying my respects to her family afterwards, standing there among the many thoughtful and downcast faces, staring southeastward toward the sea, it all reminded me of the hours I'd sat there with Barbara, herself, going over festival issues and watching the white crested surf beat its way up the sandy beach in front of her home. There aren't any words worth saying at such a time and there aren't any now. All we can do is remember and keep going as she did. Barbara wanted the Literary Arts Festival to be something special for Rockaway and that's what we're going to try to make it - even if her passing leaves a great big gaping hole in all of our hearts. rockirreg@aol.com

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