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Something Good #88: Irene
Longtime readers and friends will know that I spent several years of my life poring over YouTube comments and collecting the most poignant I could find for my project Sad YouTube. It was my impossible goal to rescue the countless personal stories I found in the comments sections of old songs before they were deleted or otherwise lost.
Some of the most meaningful experiences I had over the three years I ran the site were when I was able to find and speak to various commenters, such as I did for this piece I wrote for the late BuzzFeed News. Even when the stories were decades old, the emotions remained fresh and powerful. Talking to Mike Mennen, an Iowa resident who witnessed a horrific drag race car crash on a street in Burlington in 1962 while the Tornados’ “Telstar” played out of the radio of one of the wrecked cars, and who 50 years later described the experience in the comments section of the song, will forever be one of the highlights of my career.
A couple of weeks ago I received an email out of the blue. The subject line was “Walk Away Renee”—the title of a wistful 1966 orchestral pop song by the Left Banke which had inspired quite a few melancholy comments over the years.
The message read, “Just wondering if you knew who this 1912Universal person is?” It then quoted a comment I had posted to Sad YouTube in 2012 by a user who went by that name:
When this song hit I was totally crazy about a girl named Irene Eckstein from Forest Hills NY…..she lived on Yellowstone Blvd and was fast friends with another together chick named Suzanne Faye…….anyway one summer she was staying out in Long Beach LI and as I did not have a car……..I actually rode my bike out to Long Beach to see her. Boy would I love to see her after all these many years……….this song will always take me back to the feelings I had for her as a young "lad’ :-)
I had no idea who 1912Universal was, and the original “Walk Away Renee” video from which I’d harvested the comment had been long deleted. So I wrote back, “Sadly, I do not! You might want to look up Irene Eckstein from Forest Hills.”
The reply came back a few hours later:
“I am Irene Eckstein from Forest Hills.”
I nearly fell out of my chair. I’d reached out and spoken to YouTube commenters before, but I’d never once been contacted by one, let alone somebody mentioned in a comment.
“I wish I could remember who this person was!” she wrote.
What a mystery to have dropped in Irene’s lap—an anonymous love note dating back over 50 years, found coincidentally in the infinite ocean of YouTube comments, that would have disappeared entirely if I hadn’t come across it by chance a decade before.
I felt obligated to help Irene discover the identity of her still-secret admirer, and I asked if we could talk.
We spoke over Zoom on a sunny September morning. Right away I was charmed by her open-hearted personality and forthright, New-York-accented way of expressing herself. Irene is 72 years old, and lives in the same apartment in New York’s Union Square that she’s occupied since 1979. Previously her family lived on Yellowstone Boulevard in Forest Hills, Queens, and before that, Greenwich Village.
She described a New York upbringing with cosmopolitan parents who loved Samuel Beckett plays, Marcel Marceau and The Living Theatre. Until his passing a few years ago at the age of 97, she lived right next door to her beloved father, himself a child of Jewish immigrants. As a teenager, her summers were spent at summer camp or vacationing in Long Beach, Long Island.
She had a long career working an admin position in the Physics department at NYU. “I worked and I worked,” she told me, and it wasn’t until after she had retired, in 2019, that she found she had time for that very commonplace 21st-Century activity: she Googled herself.
How did you first come across the comment?
They always say, see what people are saying about you on the internet. So I put in my name, “Irene Eckstein,” and I put in “Yellowstone Boulevard” and all of the sudden I saw it.
I was in shock. It was so emotional.
I had to be 16 when I went out to Long Island with my parents. Wouldn’t I know if some boy came out to see me?
I looked it up. It would have been a two-hour bike ride from Queens. No small thing.
Exactly. It’s the weirdest thing. Suzanne Faye was my best friend. We lived in Greenwich Village at the same time, before my family moved to Forest Hills.
So he knew Suzanne. He knew I lived on Yellowstone Boulevard. It’s so, so bizarre.
What did it feel like to read the comment for the first time?
It was so, so emotional. I couldn’t believe anyone ever felt that way about me. I never knew I inspired anything like that.
It was shocking. It was wonderful.
You come from another generation. I was born in 1951. My generation, I’ll tell you, we never spoke feelings. Even in my house, nobody spoke about feelings. Never. So if somebody liked me back then, I can understand him not saying.
I don’t come from the same generation as you, but I was kind of the same way! I remember when I was a teenager, the scariest thing in the world to me was to tell someone I liked them. I was terrified of it. And looking back, I really should have been more bold! Those unrequited crushes still have so much power. It’s like if you never get to express them, the emotion just sticks around and never has a chance to fade away.
So I guess my next question is, why did you wait four years to write to me?
I didn’t know it was you who ran the site! For years I was just looking for “1912Universal.” I thought I’d found just a comment somebody left on a website, and I had no idea that somebody had put all this work into collecting them. I didn’t understand the whole thing until recently, when I looked for the comment again and found the page on your site where you explained the whole project.
It was a weird period in my life where I spent a lot of time staying up late reading YouTube comments. I was obsessed with it, with rescuing them before they were inevitably deleted. Eventually I decided to wind the project down, when my life got more complicated. But I kept the website up, because things like this would never happen if I didn’t.
It’s so incredible to me that you would do this. It’s… how do I say it?
It made my day. It made my life.
Even though I don’t know who the person was, I didn’t know I could inspire such a feeling, or that anyone felt that way about me. I’ve lived my whole life not knowing, and then I find this? I’m just overwhelmed.
I’ve spoken to commenters over the years, but never somebody who was mentioned in a comment. And certainly nobody has ever reached out to me directly, it’s always been the other way around.
This is the first time it’s happened in over 10 years, and I just find it really moving.
It really is, because it impacted me in such a way. It’s still resonating. It’s incredible to me.
I just can’t figure out who it was! You know, I lived a very sheltered life, basically. Very sheltered. My parents were just very, how do I say this word, overprotective.
Do you remember any friends from that time, besides Suzanne?
You mean like boys?
Sure, or just anyone you might have been friends with in high school. I’m just hoping to trigger some memory here.
There was only one person I thought of. His name was Arnold Gelbstein, and he lived in my building at 68-61 Yellowstone Boulevard. He also went to this private school I went to for junior high, called the Rhodes School, where Suzanne also went. So I know he knew Suzanne, and he knew me.
What are your memories of him?
He was just a very nice guy. He was always very reserved, very nice, very courteous. If he liked me, I didn’t know it.
So, I found some other comments by the same user, 1912Universal. I thought I would share them with you and see if there are any clues there. Does that make sense?
Yes, it makes absolute sense.
I’m going to share my screen so you can see them. So, uh, I want to say first that they’re a little spicy. Not obscene in any way, but he’s clearly, uh, remembering some good times he’d had. I just wanted to warn you in advance. They’re, I guess, what we would call a little bit thirsty.
The first is from a Ronnie Dyson song called “(If You Let Me Make Love To You Then) Why Can't I Touch You?”
“This song more than any other released in the late ‘60s early ‘70s will forever evoke strong emotions… That girl I mentioned in my comments concerning Harlem Nocturne…” Oh my goodness.
“Becoming lovers within months of dating, our relationship continued for two years. When it was almost over, she would still make love with me, but that was all. Her mother always said this song was written for me and was devastated when it ended.”
Oh this doesn’t sound like Arnold!
I was going to say! (laughing) “Shy, reserved” Arnold…
He mentions talking about this girl on a comment to this other song, “Harlem Nocturne,” by the Viscounts, so I looked it up and found it and got a little more of the backstory.
Oh my god.
“We all know this theme after watching the film Christine. But when I was freshman in college in the ‘60s I remember parking along the Miami, Florida waterfront late one evening with my lava hot girlfriend…”
Oh, this is not Arnold. There’s no way this is Arnold Gelbstein.
“Well, this tune comes on the trusty AM single 4x10 speaker, and if you thought the necking was passion riddled…”
Oh my god, I feel kinda embarrassed reading this.
I’m just going to keep reading it. “Well let’s just say sadly… the back seat… was too damn small for what this song evoked from deep within those two young lovers.”
Now I really want to find out who this is!
I’m wondering something else now. My mother had a friend named Elvira Wasserman. She was a psychotherapist or something. My mother met her when I was going to camp. I was homesick, and my mother took me out of camp. We went to a motel, and at that motel my mother met somebody by the name of Elvira Wasserman, and she had a son, Louis Wasserman. He would come out with his mother to Long Beach, but I didn’t know he would like me other. I don’t remember him coming out with a bicycle though.
The comment does mention Florida, right? 1912Universal talks about going to a college there. Do you remember anyone with a Florida connection?
No. God, this is really a mystery.
What about Suzanne Faye? Is she still with us?
I was maid of honour at her wedding at the Hilton Hotel. But we were both only 18. She got married right after high school, then I remember they split up.
We went our separate ways. The last thing I remember is talking to her mother one time, and she told me Suzanne had joined the reserves. She went into the military. I did try to look her up, but I can’t find her. Even my sister, who’s four years older than me, tried to find her.
When I first found the comment, my sister said, “I don’t remember anybody biking out to see you.” I would remember, unless they just came on their bike, saw me and left!
Right, like if they hadn’t said anything and just went back!
I mean, anything is possible.
Anyhow, Mark, I’m so happy you did this because it’s just a nice feeling that somebody thought this about me, that I made such an impression. I had no idea I made this impression. I had no idea that someone saw me like this and felt this about me. It was just very emotional, even if I don’t know who it was. But maybe I’m better off not knowing and just living with this emotion, this feeling. I’m a plain person. I didn’t know I could inspire anything like this.
This is the thing, you just don’t know this about yourself. I didn’t know anybody would feel this deeply about me. I was flabbergasted. My sister read it. She can’t figure it out. (laughing) She was also flabbergasted someone felt that way about me!
It’s a wonderful feeling. And I just wanted to ask you, if we never actually solve this mystery, is that enough to satisfy you? Just to know that somebody wrote that?
Yes, it is.
It’s incredible. You know, when I realized what your site was really all about, I started to read some of the other comments, and they were so gut-wrenching, some of them, and so emotional. It brought back me back in time, through what people felt. I just love the fact that you did this. It’s meaningful enough for me to know that you did this.
I can’t express how thankful I am to Irene for reaching out and for generously sharing her memories and old photographs with me. 1912Universal’s identity remains a mystery, and will probably always be. All we know for sure is that he was probably a film fan; 1912 was the year the Universal Film Manufacturing Company, now known as Universal Pictures, was founded in New York.
That said, if you have any idea how to find this person, or Arnold Gelbstein, or Louis Wasserman, or even Suzanne Faye, please get in touch and I will pass along the information to Irene Wu, née Eckstein.
There’s a great New York Times article about gentrification on the Lower East Side from 2004, “Trendiness Among the Tenements,” that mentions Irene’s family’s store.
I’ve just announced our third Barely a Book Club selection, Angélica Gorodischer’s Kalpa Imperial: The Greatest Empire That Never Was. Read about it over here; even if you don’t feel like joining us, it’s worth checking out the post for the book’s opening sentence alone.
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