How I met Velma–September 2006

Doing research at the Museum of the Native American on Bowling Green, I came across the strangest old woman. Courtney was off making photocopies of Lenape longhouse sketches and I was looking for a book on the the Lenape language. Said old woman was sitting at one of the round reference tables poring over a Lenape linguistics guide. It was likely the only one written and that, most definitely, the only copy in print. I couldn’t help but notice how voraciously she was writing in her black leather-bound notebook. And furthermore I was amazed by the look of her. She had pure white hair in a perfect bob and thick-framed black glasses. For a second I thought Lee Krasner was before me taking an interest in the impossibility of the Lenape language.

Without even looking up she said, “Can’t take your eyes off me, huh?” Her voice was gravelly but not so deep that it would frighten. There was just enough season in it to know she was a life-long New Yorker.

“No, I actually need that book,” I said smiling wide (it worked with all the old ladies).

“You do?”  There was genuine surprise. “What the hell for?” She liked me already. I could tell.

Many have asked that question, “I’m working on a graphic novel.”

“And it’s in Lenape?”

“Parts of it,” I said sheepishly. I would usually lose people at that point in the conversation, but her face turned rosy and warm.

“What’s it about?”

I expelled a regretful sigh, “The history of New York City.”

She lit up further. Her posture even improved, “What’s the story?”

I was confused. I thought that was pretty self-explanatory. “Umm, well, the Dutch settle New Amsterdam after Henry Hudson discovers the island of…” I already lost her.

“You mean it’s straight history?”

“Ah, sure,” I said with no confidence.

She grimaced, like only a New Yorker can, then motioned for me to come closer. Naturally I had been keeping my distance. Anyone interested in the Lenape language shouldn’t be trusted.

But despite my better judgment,  I moved slowly toward her. I figured she was going to hit me with the book for my apparent audacity. “Do you wanna hear a real story?”

I’m not sure I had a choice, “Sure?”

Two and half hours later (Courtney had gone to have lunch without me) she was talking about Coney Island in 1942 and a giant sperm whale out to take revenge for her dead calf (put on display outside of Nathan’s). From the content of what I heard before, I was pretty sure this lady was a loon.

“What? You don’t believe me about the whale?”

It wasn’t only the whale. I was just dumbfounded by the time I had invested in this woman. “Well I-”

“Check it out. Makes for a better story than straight-up history.” And she continued on for forty-five minutes filling in the decades after, which were even stranger than the ones prior.

“Then the story’s not over?” I ask cautiously.

“No, but I bet it’ll be one helluva finish,” she said with a grin.

“I’m sure.”

She knew I was humoring her. “You should read my journals if you don’t believe me. I’ll tell you what. You wanna good graphic’s novel-”

“-Graphic.”

“Read the journals. Come back next week and meet me by the fountain. I’ll give you all of ‘em.”

“I don’t think that’s nece-”

“Come on! Whatta ya gotta lose? Besides, they start in 31. Real slice-a-history stuff.” I was a sucker for history. Her face crumpled, “What the hell is a graphic’s novel anyway?”

That was almost a year ago. Last May I met her again to return all 19 volumes of her journals. What she recorded from 1931 to present is at once fascinating, thrilling and frightening. When I saw her I said, “You should publish these.

“Nah. You use them.”

“I think I might.”

“Really?” Her 90 something year-old face smiled back the wrinkles.

“It’s fascinating stuff.”

“Isn’t it though.”

“But it’s your property-”

“No, no. I’ll be gone soon and this crazy story is gonna end. I need your youth to get it out there,” she smiled and lightly smacked me on the cheek.

“Courtney and I have decided to use some of this in the graphic novel. If that’s ok with you?” I asked.

“Wonderful! And just stay tuned for the ending sweetheart,” said like a real old-salt New Yorker. Crazy as sin and full of heart.

“But why me?” I asked.

“You had a nice smile.” With that, Velma Graydon, a spry 90 years young walked off.  When I last spoke to her she said she was pleased that more people would be able to read them, but she had no clue how to access a “glob” to see if I was doing them justice.

I told her I was doing my best.

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