Characters of the Village

By Joy and Brian Pape

In the March issue of Village View’s Pet Pages, we reconnected with Elissa, because she took in the late Doris Diether’s two cats, Lucky & April, giving them a happy new home. We met with her in Washington Square Park, where we often used to sit for hours and visit with Doris, sometimes with Elissa too. That day the plan was to talk with Elissa about Doris’ cats for The Village View. As we walked to meet her, we saw the pigeons flying up and down and squirrels scampering to and from someone whose back was to us. Brian said, “Is that Elissa feeding them?” She turned around. Yes it was.

ELISSA AND BRIAN PAPE AND THE BIRDS in Washington Square Park. Photo by Joy Pape.

As we talked, we learned so much about her life in the Village, we decided she deserved the honor of being April’s Character of the Village. Now you too can learn more about her and about your Village.

VV: How long have you lived in the Village?

Elissa: I’m a native New Yorker. I moved to the Village 45 years ago from the Upper West Side, West 99th Street between West End Avenue and Riverside Drive, after being burglarized a few times. I felt it was safer here than there in the 70s. Or, at least, the neighborhood was good about not publicizing all the bad stuff that was going on.

I took my flat on a one-year sublease, and I’m still here. As the sayings go: “We make plans and God laughs,“ or Lennon’s, “Life happens when you’re busy making other plans.”
It was amazing then; things were happening 24 hours a day. There were 2 grocery stores, a Lamston 5 & 10, but mainly Mom & Pop stores. The South Village area was very Italian, but overall, the Village was mixed.

VV: What has kept you here?

Elissa: I raised my daughter Julia here. The public schools here were comparatively excellent, and it was a wonderful cultural experience. It was a real neighborhood, kind of combination of Mr. Rogers & the last of the ‘Li’l Rascals’, where kids could go out and play on the streets because they were safe there. Everyone watched out for each other. The late Jimmy Gambino sat at a table outside John’s Pizzeria. He wore prosthetic legs at the time, but would watch out for neighbors. He would get up and walk my daughter across Bleecker Street even though he didn’t have his real legs. It was truly a Village.

When my husband died in 1993, I was working at a locksmith, Blackbelt Security. The owner, Larry Kerwin, always made my daughter feel welcome, just as he did with his own kids. Everybody loved Larry.

VV: Do you want to tell us anything about your husband?

Elissa: Howard had the good fortune to attend the High School (HS) of Music & Art in the 50s when Pete Seeger would take students down to the Village and share his life of music with them. After graduating HS, he moved to the Village and got a degree in recording technology from the RCA Institute in the West Village. He played guitar with those who became well known from the folk-rock era.

VV: How would you describe your relationship with Doris?

Elissa: It started in the park. We were both drawn to Ricky Syers’ puppetry. She hardly knew me then. I had worked for a small law firm that was closing. The next time she saw me, Doris had a list of lawyers, with names to contact. She told me to let them know Doris recommended me. Her generosity of spirit was so touching. So often she was thinking of others and connecting. We grew closer. There was a time she wasn’t well, Erin Rogers cared for her, and I slipped in to help. We bonded. It was a quality and genuine friendship.

VV: What is important to you living here now?

Elissa: My relationship with nature.

VV: We talked about the symbiotic relationship between you and the animals. Please tell us more about that.

Elissa: I am attracted to the critters and they are attracted to me. I feed them regularly. They know me. If I show up the same time every day, so do they. The critters transverse the entire park. The birds and squirrels know their humans. After you left, the cardinals came. They have their times. They call to me for nuts in shells. I toss them up in the air. When they land, the birds scoop down and take them up to the trees and eat them. I’ll save the special foods for their times. They all have their preferences for seeds or nuts.

VV: Do you have a favorite place to go in the Village?

Elissa: My spot here in Washington Square Park, of course, but also the end of Charles Street on the river, and Churchill Square at Downing Street. I am friendly with all sorts of people who are here.

VV: What is your favorite restaurant?

Elissa: The Galanga Thai restaurant, 149 West 4th Street, is my favorite. I think they are the nicest people in the world! Late one night during the COVID lockdown, they were in the midst of closing. There was a dog water bowl outside which was empty. I walked by with my dog. They stopped everything they were doing to give the dog water. They always played the perfect blend of music. The owner, Patrick, invited me to come sit, “You don’t have to buy, just sit here and listen and enjoy the music.” They are wonderful neighbors and the food is also very good.

VV: What is your favorite memory?

Elissa: Assisting with Locomotion Dance Theatre for Children. It was founded by Lisa Pilato and Suzie Page about 30 years ago. Originally located in one of the early Crunch gyms on Charles Street, the program moved to St. Veronica’s Church on Christopher Street, and now it’s at St. Mark’s Church-in-the-Bowery. Younger children are thrilled to collaborate with older ones, and through their art, they are able to process their life experiences and share it with us. It is a joyous experience to watch children grow through their creativity! I have no words to express how wonderful it was and still is. I love living in the Village!

VV: And we love knowing people like Elissa in the Village.

ELISSA AND BRIAN PAPE AND THE BIRDS in Washington Square Park. Photo by Joy Pape.
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