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Helene Hanff

HH in the press


Reproduced from an article in the UK Sunday Times, 29 May 1988, headlined: Helene Hanff, the American writer, talks to Sue Fox.

Sleep has never been a problem. I need seven hours and if I'm in bed by midnight, I beat the alarm clock by 15 minutes. A beep is no way to wake anyone up.

It's a big production between stepping out of bed at 7am and sitting down to breakfast an hour later. Day-beds and furniture that folds up into the walls are for people whose kids come home occasionally, or for putting up visitors short-term. I've had enough of them. What you're sitting on is my beautifully sprung bed. However, there's a price to pay for having my room the way I want it. Each morning, I remove the pillows, fold the sheets and blankets into neat piles and hide them all in a cupboard.

My bed routine is followed by the search for contact lenses, and washing and dressing. When I finally get to sit down with a glass of orange juice, eggs, bacon, coffee and toast spread with the finest no- sugar marmalade in the world - believe me - breakfast is a triumph!

I'm a diabetic. For years I had low blood sugar and steered clear- of sugar to prevent diabetes. I got it anyway. Here's some advice for your skinny, diabetic senior citizen readers: stay off sugar. Although thee official line is no sugar, I'm so thin my doctor said sugar was OK for me. I ignored him because I was sure it caused leg cramps. When my brother recommended a pudding he'd discovered which was sugar-free, I indulged myself; and sure enough, that night I woke up with excrutiating leg cramps. The pain was so bad I thought I'd wake the entire building. I checked the ingredients on the box. The first one was 'corn dextrose' - another way of saying sugar. Was I furious!

Over breakfast, I listen to public radio and classical music and read the Sunday edition of The New York Times. Anyone who tells you they read it on Sunday is lying. There are not enough hours in the day. Have vou seen the size of it? Last year, two weeks before Christmas, my neighbour asked me to bring a copy home for her. In the store, I took one look at it and went home for my shopping cart. Besides thee magazine, books, news, entertainment, real estate and financial supplements, there was a ton of special advertising. A person could slip a disc carrying one paper, never nind two.

At 9am I do the dishes and then get down to whatever work there is. I need to be busy. Now I'm updating my walking guide to New York - Apple of My Eye. It's for visitors to the city, suggesting places I think have something special to offer. I wrote the original book 12 years ago -with my friend Patsy. She lived on the West Side and we had a marvellous time meeting once a week for 13 weeks, going out on field trips. Patsy was in her forties, married, with a family, and died of cancer. Now I've jost four friends who were 20 years younger than me, which is spooky. I haven't enjoyed many of the field trips this time round because many places remind me of all the good times I had with Patsy.

So much has changed in New York since I wrote Apple of My Eye. Some buildings weren't even a footnote, so wherever necessary I'm adding 'PS - 12 years later'. One of the most exciting places is Battery Park City, Lower Manhattan. It's the business centre near City Hall. No one lived there 12 years ago. They commuted to work and the place emptied at 5.3Opm. Now it's a thriving new community, jumping 24 hours a day, and I love it. I don't love the latest building of the Metropolitan Museum which has eaten into even more acres of Central Park and makes me blind with rage.

I adore Central Park, especially with the changing seasons. It's vast and not a space you can lock Like places in London and Paris. New York isn't any less safe than other big cities, but you need some common sense. I wouldn't recommend walking around a London slum at night any more than I would advise it in New York. Some British theatre nuts I know - The Derek Jacobi Cadets - came to see him in New York. Rather than spend money on a hotel, they camped down on Broadway so they could see him on stage twice. They told me they felt safer there at night than they would have done on Charing Cross Road.

If my neighbour hears the typewriter she doesn't come in for morning coffee, but was I glad she came today. She rescued me from The Index, which is hard work - all those cross references and alphabetical orders. I use a manual type-writer on the grounds that it won't matter if there's a power cut and I have a deadline to meet. The real reason I don't like electric typewriters is the noise. If my 1964 model breaks down before I do, I guess I'll replace it, but it looks as though we'll both go at roughly the same time.

You needn't cook in New York, unless, like me, you have to be careful about food. Once in a while I buy pizza, which isn't really substantial if I'm going walking. By 3pm I'm just about ready to climb up the walls of this apartment and I try to walk 40 or 50 blocks a day for the exercise. I need a destination - Saks or the library. I still haunt libraries because there are plenty of books I want to read, but I don't necessarily want to own them. Books I love most are diaries and memories. I'm trying a short story by the English novelist Elizabeth Taylor to see, once more, if I'll like fiction. We all know I won't.

Sometimes I meet visitors at the St Regis - where, because of the diabetes, I can't even enjoy a martini - or at Rumpelmayers for tea, where I daren't touch the gorgeous pastries. If it wasn't for the rain and the thought of having to wait ages for a bus, I'd have met you there. I didn't want you to see my curtains, which need washing. I'm waiting for tall neighbours to take them down for me. They're away and I'm looking after their pot plants. It's a friendly block, I even know all the dogs, and Emily, a sweet little toddler from next door, comes to me for a change of scenery.

Since I had pneumonia, which is when the doctors discovered the diabetes, I've had to restrict how many cigarettes I smoke each day. Usually its nine, but if I'm under stress it goes up to 10. After that, I start wheezing and coughing which is horrible. Before I go to sleep, having taken the pillows, the sheets and the blankets from their hiding plae, made my bed, spent half an hour cleaning my contact lenses and changing to my cataract glasses, I reckon I deserve five minutes of my final cigarette.

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