BY TARA COX | As I got ready for the Christmas party, I tossed aside the heels that matched my outfit and went with a pair of motorcycle boots, in case I had to run. I was heading to the Cozy Cabin, a go-go bar in Queens. I had been invited by my cantankerous neighbor Adele, a former nun and current longtime owner of the strip club.
“I run it like a church,” she told me. “No funny business.”
I had no idea what I’d be getting myself into, but curiosity and a fondness for the old lady prevented me from saying no. Plus, how could I not celebrate the birth of Christ at a nudie bar owned by former servant of the Catholic faith?
It was like any dive — old, wooden, with neon beer signs and grizzled blue-collar types in ball caps hunched over both bar and pool table. A back room contained a small stage — complete with a bikini-clad hot gal and a pole — enclosed by a horseshoe-shaped bar. Adele sat at the head of the curve gesticulating commands with her cane as she presided over her party. To my surprise, big burley bouncers and tough bartenders alike jumped to do her bidding. When one badass-looking guy repeatedly talked back to her, she kicked him out.
I knew Adele as the slightly hunched, sturdy woman with short, messy hair and pink sweatpants who lived in my East Village building. She walked her two little yappy white dogs while trying to handle both leashes and her cane. She was usually armed with a complaint and an unkind word. Though we lived on the same floor, Adele was someone I avoided at all costs.
Until Hurricane Sandy approached… .
Knowing she was old and alone, I stopped by her apartment on my way to the store to see if she needed anything. No good deed going unpunished, she answered stark naked, trying to hide her freshly showered body behind the door while figuring out who I was. Appreciative of my gesture, she paid me a visit as Sandy hit, and our relationship upgraded to storm buddies. I didn’t mind the company.
For the past few months I had been living a monk-like existence of my own due to a day job with unpredictable hours, and nights and weekends consumed with research for a book. So peeling back the cranky layers of this woman pleasantly passed the time. She nagged the super, concerned with loose items on the scaffolding outside our windows. I was appreciative, having been too busy with work and hurricane prep to follow through.
Adele and I discovered we were both Italian Catholic Long Islanders, a fact that bonded a 38-year-old editor and a 72-year-old grouch. When the power was out the next morning and a scared Adele was convinced we’d starve to death, I cooked her a breakfast buffet of soon-to-spoil food by flashlight over my gas stove, complete with a mocha pot of espresso.
“This is good. Can I pay you to cook for me?” she asked, sweetly.
Three weeks later, I answered a frantic phone call while she was in Florida. After a fight with her dog sitter, she needed someone to look after Marcello and Sophia. When she returned she’d describe me as the one who “saved her babies’ lives.” She also accused me of stealing the pooper scooper.
Now that I had keys to her place, I’d pop in for a chat, texting first, then letting myself in, so she wouldn’t have to get up and open the door. She had a blood disease that was making her weak, and often it was hard for her to get off the couch at all. One night she sat naked under a tiny blanket while we talked as her dog licked my armpit.
“She loves you for saving her life,” she said.
I grew to admire Adele. A self-made woman, she turned to religion to escape a violent household that turned her off to men, only to be disillusioned when a fellow nun put the moves on her. Realizing she didn’t like women, and upset with the nun for breaking her vows, she left the convent and got into the bar business, buying the strip club in the ’80s. Never married, she built her own fortune with nightclubs and real estate.
At the Yuletide party, a group of well-coiffed older white Long Island ladies, relatives of Adele’s, stood back near the wall, bopping their heads to, as Adele called it, “this crap WKTU music,” while watching the dancers gyrate. On one side of the bar was a multicultural array of hospital workers who cared for Adele during her various health crises.
On the other side of the bar sat one sad-looking hunched old man — he looked 95 — shakily holding dollar bills out toward the ladies on stage with what looked like his last bit of life. As one thong-clad go-go dancer turned her rear toward him and did a booty clap, his face lit up so much, I was confident he’d been re-energized to last another week, at least.
Halfway into the night, an elf appeared — well, a little person dressed as an elf — I thought I recognized. Adele introduced us and I did know him.
“I hired you for my birthday party years ago!” I gushed.
I couldn’t forget Randy, the bruised midget stripper from Queens, who was assaulted by a group of teenage girls the night before he performed for my 30th. Adele couldn’t have been more delighted.
“He’s gonna dance, Tara. He’s gonna dance!” Adele enthused.
Randy hugged Adele and said to me, “Oh, I’m gonna dance.” He then grabbed Adele into a big hug, “I love this woman. She’s like a mother to me.”
He was the second person to say that to me that night.
By the end of the party there was no need for the boots I chose to wear — I wasn’t running anywhere. If anything, my relationship with my neighbor was solidified. I adored this lady. As the night wound down, I got a sharp poke on the arm from Adele. “Tara, ya wanna buy the bar?” she asked.
I eventually started seeing less of Adele as my office hours grew more demanding and my freelance workload lightened, resulting in my spending more time away from our building. Visits became less frequent, though we’d chat over phone or e-mail. A year after the party, when she needed help with errands, I introduced her to a friend, an unemployed recent college graduate who needed the money.
“Thanks for recommending her, she’s a big help to me,” Adele e-mailed.
I was happy to connect the two for a mutually beneficial relationship, but within a month my Texas-born pal declared Adele mean. Soon after, Adele accused her of stealing money (a rite of passage when it came to the old lady, in my opinion), and my friend quit Adele. When I went to return the spare keys to her, Adele seemed unfazed by the whole thing.
“I’ve got others who can help,” she sniffed.
A month and a half later, Adele’s blood disease got the better of her and she passed away. I didn’t find out until two months after the fact, when a resident coldly mentioned it at a building meeting. Guilt took over as I realized the most pathetic of New York mantras — “I’m too busy” — was my excuse for not seeing or talking to her for the past few months, even though I thought of her often. My sadness deepened. Though I knew I’d get no comfort from this group — they still viewed Adele as that sour old resident to avoid — I looked up and proudly said, “Adele was my friend.”
Cox is managing editor at Men’s Journal magazine and the author of “Airstream: The Silver RV”