Project Princesa.

I will graduate from my MFA program in May 2012. I’m terrified about what happens after that. I am hoping positive visualization (read: delusional daydreams) will prepare me for post-grad school life…

Please step all the way into the room and make space for those still standing outside in the hallway.

Welcome. My name is Luis and I’ll be leading you on this tour of the Nancy Méndez-Booth Homestead. This is the living room of Apartment 4E, where Ms. Méndez-Booth lived from 1971 till she left Ravenswood Houses to attend Amherst College in Massachusetts in 1989.

Some visitors ask if the neighborhood around the homestead was rural when she was growing up or when Ravenswood Houses was built. The area was heavily industrial in the 1930s and Ravenswood was built by the New York City Housing Authority in 1957, so the names have no connection to the surroundings. You probably noticed on your way here that many area warehouses and factories have been converted to residences. There’s also the Silvercup Studios and MoMA’s PS1 nearby.

Ms. Méndez-Booth eats at area restaurants when she visits the Homestead. In fact, she likes The Daily Grind Coffee Shop down the street a lot. They say the fair-trade, shade-grown organic Guatemalan coffee with soy milk is what she always orders. Or a café con leche, no sugar. She’s given impromptu readings and book signings there. She won’t be appearing there today, though.  She’s in Wellfleet, Massachusetts right now working on her third novel. The Daily Grind sells copies of her novels and story collections, and the tour ticket stub gets you a 10% discount off your order. She’s mentioned in interviews that places like that weren’t around when she was a kid.

This apartment was still a residence until 2015, when it was designated a historical site to honor Ms. Méndez-Booth’s being the first Puerto Rican to win the Pulitzer Prize in Fiction. Now Apartment 4E is used for community learning programs and as a study space for residents of Ravenswood Houses. I’ve met Ms. Méndez-Booth here during events and she always insists on being called Nancy. She still considers herself boricua del barrio but I just feel that’s too familiar and confiado. You know what I mean. So even during the tour I refer to her as Ms. Méndez-Booth.

Apartment 4E is furnished and decorated to look the way it did when she was growing up. There is no sitting on the furniture, please. The sofa and chairs are covered in plastic, to recreate the living room authentically. You’ll notice the coffee table is roped off. It is the actual coffee table purchased for this room over 35 years ago when Ms. Méndez-Booth was a pre-schooler. It’s mentioned in most of the stories in her debut collection, Project Princesa. She has talked about how those stories are based on her true life experiences.

On a side note, I lead the search that found this coffee table, the very one from her childhood. It was located in the basement of a friend of her mother’s third cousin. The man now lives in Idaho but had gotten the table in college from his housemate, Raul, the oldest son of that maternal cousin. The man had no idea of the significance of the piece but held on to it for nostalgia because it was the first non-milk crate center table he had as a college student. We confirmed that it is the original piece of furniture because on the underside is still written in purple Magic Marker “I luv Ponch.” It refers to Erik Estrada’s Poncherello character in the 1970s police series ChiPs. Ms. Méndez-Booth had a major crush on him when she was in Catholic elementary school.

So this is the table mentioned in her story Disco Queen. Like the narrator, Ms. Méndez-Booth used to dance on it on Saturday mornings when Soul Train came on television after American Bandstand. She would slide on the linoleum floor in her socks to the table when the Soul Train whistle blew. There’s only enough surface area on the table to dance the groove or an abbreviated hustle but she danced like she was in the middle of the Soul Train Line for the whole hour. Ms. Méndez-Booth recalls she was probably five or six years old at the time and ate enough sugar to have that much energy.

In interviews, she’s also talked about how her mother was obsessive about polishing the coffee table with Pledge, just like the mother in the story. The incident where the narrator flies off the slick surface during a really enthusiastic kick sequence she performed to the early 1970s hit Kung Fu Fighting is true.

The coffee table also caused the injury in the story Stormy Seas. It is on that corner that Ms.Méndez-Booth hit her head, just like the narrator. She was inside a large cardboard box, rocking it from side-to-side, pretending it was a ship in a storm. She hit her head when it tipped over and her parents took her to the emergency room for three stitches. An interview by the NYC Administration for Child Services found there was no negligence in the home. The hospital did suggest less sugar could control Ms. Méndez-Booth’s hyperactivity. Diagnoses of ADHD or possible personality disorder and prescribed medical treatment just weren’t as common in the 1970s.

And this is where Ms. Méndez-Booth’s mother sat and held her between her knees to administer various hair treatments, described in the story Good Hair, Bad Girl. Ms. Méndez-Booth has confirmed it’s true her mother combed mayonnaise through her curls weekly on the recommendation of a cousin. Childhood photos of Ms. Méndez-Booth and of her mother’s cousin’s children confirm mayonnaise has no calming or smoothing effects on hair. The hair treatment was also the cause of the showdown in the story between the first grader, who had dreams of being a Soul Train dancer, and the mother, who had other aspirations for her daughter. Everyone knew you needed funky hair to be a main Soul Train dancer.

I could go on about the coffee table but there’s more to see throughout the apartment and we’ve just started the tour. Follow me to the right and we’ll enter the dining area and kitchen, also featured in Ms. Méndez-Booth’s early stories, such as Platanos and SATs.

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