I have a gem in my possession I call the owl ring. It’s actually two owls: two golden owls with ruby eyes sitting on branches made of gold and diamonds.
I’ve spent hours looking into this ring, thinking of the significance of its manufacture, thinking the origin wasn’t really New York city but some faraway land that it traveled from, making its way to New York, then to Virginia, and finally landing with me in central-central Florida, the land of droughts, Disney, and owls.
Sometimes what I see are the owls I hear at night, both male and female, taking turns coo-cooing at each other on top of the 1927 brick school building just a block away from me, but the nights have been quiet over the past few weeks. I wonder, with the flood of new houses in my Floridian community, have the owls fled my neighborhood? Have they been killed? Did they move on to greener pastures?
Sometimes what I see in my owl ring is my great grand-aunt, Licha, who gave it to me out of a large, flexible, orange plastic bowl of other gems: necklaces, bracelets, rings, lots of rings, earrings, and teeny tiny snuff boxes. I wanted to put my hands into that bowl and just mix the whole thing up like scrambled eggs, to feel the outlandish expense against my skin, but the owl ring was right there on top.
I plucked it out.
Licha said, “Yours.”
14K gold with four rubies and five diamonds. “How did you get so much jewelry?” I asked, knowing full well that she lived on Social Security and surely could not afford a heaping bowl of jewels.
In her broken English, she told me. “I live in New York much my life. In these buildings. They are not safe,” she shook her head slowly, “These jewels keep me safe.” I couldn’t imagine a scenario where jewels would keep anybody safe but she continued. She smiled, a real slow smile, and said, “Prostitutas live on my floor.”
Licha came to New York via the Puerto Rican diaspora in the 1940’s and landed in Spanish Harlem in the garment industry. As it turns out, she was an astute woman, always knowing when opportunity was knocking. In her spare time, as she was a bold Puerto Rican woman, she would also extract these jewels from johns, many of whom were foreigners. I imagined my ring was from one of those foreign nationals.
She explained in mostly Spanish how the pimps and the prostitutes would pay her in jewels to keep quiet. She’d open her door to them; their view, a sparkling clean apartment. Everything in its place. All rooms brightly lit and the vision from her living room window?
To die for. It defied the environment she was in, the location of her apartment being in front of the elevator on a dank and dimly lit hallway.
She knew every person who came onto her floor. The cops, if they visited, would mostly only stop at old Licha’s apartment. They knew what was going on. She kept the women safe.
Now that’s she’s gone, I wonder about those women. Are they still safe without their “Aunt” Licha, to sit steadfast, watching always, knowing always the right thing to do and when to do it? Rest in peace, Licha.
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