Monday, January 27, 2014

Sex and Sinclair Lewis

WINTER in Manhattan. On the Down escalator, cradling my stack of overdue library books, I am taking one last dip into Sinclair Lewis's "Arrowsmith," wallowing in the agony Martin feels after his wife’s death. No, no, Martin, don’t do it! Don’t give out the vaccine to everyone and ruin your experiment! Science is at stake! I stumble off at the bottom platform, struggling not to drop my awkward pile. A young man, very pale with dark hair cut in a vaguely foreign style, gently taps me on the shoulder. He wears a very thick, expensive-looking black topcoat buttoned tightly at the neck, and no scarf.

He apologizes for bothering me and asks me what I am reading so intently. I tell him and surprise! He too is a Sinclair Lewis fan. He asks permission to walk me to the Donnell Library, my destination. As we walk, he tells me he is Canadian, that his name is Ron and that he is an actor who has only recently moved to New York. He is homesick and lonely. Would I consent to meet him occasionally on Sunday afternoons? He is good-looking enough for me to believe his story. His porcelain skin and inky hair make him resemble every Prince in the Russian fairy tales I had only recently abandoned in favor of "Babbitt" and "Main Street" and "Arrowsmith." A bookworm without a boyfriend, I saw no reason to reject the opportunity Fate was handing me.

                                                    *                                          *

The following Sunday, I finished my homework (mostly trig) before noon and took a long bath. Ron and I were to meet in one of the sculpture galleries of the Metropolitan Museum. It was not my first time, of course, but always before there had also been high school classmates on a field trip or maybe my father taking me to see the Baroque Christmas tree ornaments and later for hot chocolate and cookies. Prudence and the tornado of butterflies in my stomach decided me in favor of not telling anyone where I was going or who I was meeting. I arrived early—Ron was already there! We spent two hours strolling around as he pointed out subtleties of form and delicate bronze gestures that he loved, especially among the Rodin collection. His fingers were long and slender. I was unbearably aware of them as he traced outlines in the air, his crisp diction a sharp pleasure. The sense of the words was completely lost to me. I learned that he was twenty-eight and hoped he would not find out that I was fifteen.

Week after week we met, and week after week I lied to my friends and family about my Sunday whereabouts. Always, he wore the heavy black overcoat. At the Central Park Zoo, he seemed riveted by the sea lions. This was my moment. Inhaling the mingled odors of sun-warmed metal railings and fish-splattered wet cement, I took that occasion to present him with my official senior yearbook photo, of which I was very proud. In back-buttoned black Orlon cardigan and borrowed pearls, hair rigid from overnight foam rollers and hairspray, complexion airbrushed to flawless, I thought I appeared worldly but bemused—ready for anything. Perhaps even an affair (whatever that was) with an older man.

Ron held the photo in his slender hands. “My God,” he said. “It isn’t you at all. You look so old. What did they do to you?”
It seems to me that we did not see each other again, as the earth thawed and the trees in Central Park sprouted their pale green fringes. We never wrote or talked, since I had no address, or phone number. He knew only my first name.

I am certain he existed, because I still have that picture of myself, with the pearls and the trusting (yet worldly) gaze.

Years later, I saw in a shop window a reissue of an older recording of Bach’s Goldberg Variations by the Canadian pianist and famous eccentric Glenn Gould. The CD cover shows him sprawled at a piano, in heavy wool gloves with the fingertips cut off. His black hair hangs down over his forehead. The pale face is somehow familiar. He is wearing a thick, dark overcoat. Is it even remotely possible?

It’s possible. In New York City, anything is possible.


My Best Friend Couldn't Be A Communist

“What about the police dogs?”

“Yeah? And what about the Russian tanks?”

IN THE fall of 1956 the front page news is the invasion of Hungary by Russian troops. Our ninth grade social studies class is drenched in cold war rhetoric and here is a perfect example of Russian “brotherly love” in action. But things get more complicated at lunchtime, as we stand around on Christopher Street opposite the Threepenny Opera marquee of the Theatre DeLys, munching on tuna salad sandwiches brought from home or Italian heroes dripping with vinaigrette salad dressing. My best friend keeps needling me.

 “What about in the South? Didn’t you see those pictures of Negroes being attacked with police dogs? Even little girls. Just for wanting to sit next to whites in a bus station...or a lunch counter!”

 “Yes...but,” I swallow a mouthful of salami and provolone, “they don’t kill them. The Russians are killing people for no…”

 “And what about lynching? That’s killing for no reason!”

 “Yes, but…” I know I am in over my head. “But that’s illegal…. And if you write about it, if you write protesting the treatment of Negroes and try to make things better, they won’t come get you in the middle of the night and send you to SIBERIA like the Communists do! They are really bad people.”

Suddenly my friend changes the drift of her argument. She fixes her big brown unblinking eyes on me. “What if you found out I was a Communist? Would you still be my friend?” I look at her and laugh. “That’s just a stupid question. In the first place, I would never be friends with the type of person who was a Communist, so that’ll never happen. I’ll never have to worry about that. You want the rest of my pickle?” I am stalling for time. What was I going to say in the second place?

She is tenacious. “But what if…just what IF?”

“Nope. Not going to answer,” I say, tossing the stem end of my dill pickle into the gutter.

DONG! DONG! DONG! Lunch was over. Saved by the bell.

On the way back to the rest of our day at P.S.3, my friend asks me how I know for sure that the pictures of tanks on the streets of Budapest weren’t retouched fakes. I retort with the same question about the German shepherds in Mississippi, but those, I know in my heart, are all too genuine.

Years later, I will learn that the fathers of two of my closest friends had been ardent supporters of the American Communist Party, New York City branch. For years, their children, too, had lived painful secret lives. This whole culture of “red diaper babies” was a revelation to me. All I knew was that these families had shared the warmth of their modest apartments and the food on their tables unstintingly with my ragamuffin self and I loved them deeply.

My own parents, vaguely liberal peaceniks who hoped for the best and voted for Adlai Stevenson, never talked to me overtly about civil rights or the Cold War. They muddled along, more afraid of the empty shelves behind closed cupboard doors than the imminent threat of a nuclear holocaust. Their first thoughts were for their supplies of alcohol and cigarettes, and their personal demons took up so much time they couldn’t be bothered to be afraid of Communists, if they were even existed. No, my mother and father were more afraid of themselves.
As my beloved Pogo would say: I have seen the enemy, and the enemy is us.



Surviving the Hotel Marlton



ON a bleak winter afternoon in 1957, I sat in the lobby of the Hotel Marlton (vintage1900), located at 5 West 8th Street, watching my mother try to negotiate with the desk clerk.  The weekly rent for our two room suite (plus kitchenette) was way overdue, and we were locked out. All my schoolbooks were upstairs, not to mention my toothbrush and pajamas.  I was in the 9th grade at P.S. 3 on Hudson Street and much was expected of me. To show up with my homework undone……and I was hungry.

   To distract myself from the unbearable sight of my mother’s pleading face, I took out some hotel stationery and wrote down a brief description of my plight, our hotel room number, and signed off with a depiction of my favorite cartoon character, Pogo.

Then, inside a big heart, I wrote I GO POGO and stuck the note inside the top desk drawer of the writing desk.

      Lo and behold, my mother beckoned to me and indicated that we were going to be able to stay on, at least for a while. I stepped eagerly into the elevator and soon we were wolfing down Hormel canned chili con carne and saltine crackers.  My homework awaited me.

   The Pogo-strewn plea for help was forgotten.

     A week later, the clerk handed me an envelope addressed to me with no stamp. Inside was a whimsical typewritten letter signed, “The Man in Reverse,” from someone who claimed to be a fellow Pogo fan and also a Hotel Marlton dweller.  For several months, we corresponded.  I was 12; he told me he was a journalist and I finally figured out that Man in Reverse meant that he lived in Room 712 while we resided in 217. Eventually, the Hotel Marlton lost patience with us and we had to transfer to the Albert Hotel (vintage 1882) on University Place.

    Both hotels had long been home to a variety of writers, musicians, and actors down on their luck and hoping for better times.  Edna St. Vincent Millay and Lillian Gish lived at the Marlton; Jack Kerouac wrote The Subterraneans there.  Hart Crane wrote part of The Bridge at the Albert, and much later, the Mamas and the Papas composed California Dreaming there one nasty winter when “on a good day the hallways smell somewhere between old socks and vomit.”

    Recently, I found a sheaf of yellowed typescripts from The Man in Reverse….herewith some unsettling quotes:

     “Hi, Genius:

           I’m leaving town---by land, sea and air (over and under)—so this is farewell.  But I’ll be back to “Sweet 712”, in fact in time to celebrate Washington’s birthday under the Arch. (In case of rain, I’ll repair to Nedick’s.)

          I hope you didn’t mind too much my tracing you to the Hotel Alligator, I mean Albert.  It’s just that I don’t like minor mysteries dwelling on my mind.  So, I put my Paul Pry instincts to work, and—Presto!  Rest your fears, however.  I shall refrain from stealing into your room some dark night and strangling you in your sleep with your bobby sox.  The worst I might do would be to fill your bobby sox with a few spiders, scorpions, sharp tacks and a purple-toed elephant.”


    This was acceptable chitchat in 1957 between an adult man and an adolescent girl?


     Somehow I survived the Hotels Marlton and Albert, and the Man in Reverse, and did become the writer I confided it was my ambition to be.


     I’ll say this much for him – he did encourage me in that pursuit.

                                                         *                *                    *


    (Did I forget to mention, Valerie Solanas was living in Room 214 of the Hotel Marlton at the time she shot Warhol in 1968?)





Togetherness (n.) meaning “harmony in a group,” “a unity of purpose,” “the combining in social and other activities, as in a close-knit family” is Standard:  Their  togetherness  will see  them  through  these difficulties. 

Kenneth G. Wilson, The Columbia Guide to Standard  American English, 1993.

* * *

THE question, is, Mr. Wilson, who foisted this word, this concept, on America?

In 1951 my mother was an editor at McCall’s magazine. The perks were lovely—she managed to get me occasional modeling jobs (me in a starched pinafore knitting, me in a salmon-colored dress fingerpainting) for their special children’s issues and I was able to buy the patent leather Mary Jane pumps of my dreams with my modeling loot (at least $10 an hour). Her real claim to fame during her editorial tenure, however, was her invention of the concept of “togetherness”—or so I was told.
She probably dreamed it up one night, sitting alone after I’d been tucked in. A full ashtray is on the table by the daybed that also serves as couch, and she’s fully equipped with pencil and legal-size yellow pad. At this time we lived in a one-bedroom garden apartment on Perry Street, and so what if you have to pass through my small bedroom to reach the bathroom. I sleep on the top bunk of a bunk-bed that had been left behind, and the lower half (minus mattress) makes a perfect playhouse. The narrow space that remains between it and the opposite wall is an adequate passage to the bathroom for my mom and her boyfriend of the moment and thank goodness I’m a heavy sleeper. There aren’t many visitors—we’ve recently returned to New York after an interlude in Hollywood, she’s six months pregnant with my twin sisters and is working long hours at McCall’s.

On this quiet spring evening of my imagination she is doodling, waiting for inspiration—maybe cursing the Universe for her fate: pregnant at forty with twins, a seven­-year-old asleep in the next room and no husband or partner in sight.

What would a beautiful, brilliant and talented woman—now a grown woman with no living parents, no siblings, no husband—crave on such a soft April night, the door open to the back garden, hearing the sounds of people eating, clinking knives and forks on china, people singing scales, feeding cats, washing up...what is missing from her life? What does she deserve?

Togetherness. That’s it. McCall’s. The Magazine of Togetherness.

If she didn’t invent it, she certainly could have. Never did one person understand a concept so well, obsess over it so much, and be so completely incapable of attaining it.



EVERY day as I walked to second grade I passed it, and every day I tried to pronounce the word that blazed forth in large block letters from a poster showing a twisting cobble-stoned street leading uphill to an unknown destination. The travel agency also displayed posters of Spain (that word I could easily decipher) and England (ditto). But this other word had a very tricky EU combo in the beginning—one I had never seen before. I was too embarrassed to ask anyone.

It started to give me a headache. The -ROPE part I could sound out; there was plenty of “See Jane jump rope, see her jump” where I came from. I was, after all, nobody’s fool. But how to combine ROPE with the letters E and U? Whew. The word didn’t seem to come up much in conversation, although how I would recognize it, I didn’t know exactly. I just knew I would. The way I would know when my future husband walked in the room, like Debbie Reynolds or Janet Leigh knew. Some things you just knew.

I tried making three syllables out of the word: EE­-YOU-ROPE. Inside my snug P.S. 41 classroom on Greenwich Avenue, across the street from the infuriating poster, I debated whether to ask Mrs. Elliot if she’d ever been to EE-YOU-ROPE.

I figured it must be a place of some kind...unless it was a state of mind that you felt when you were there, or a quality of the place. (Like a picture of a hotel that might proclaim LUXURY….) But I couldn’t get my courage up. What if it was a really, really stupid question? I had to keep up appearances. So far I was in the top level reading circle and I’d be damned if I was going to be displaced by asking about an unassigned word.

The headache, though. Or, more like a brainache.

Finally, one afternoon after school, as I paused to confront my nemesis, I seized my chance. A kind-looking woman stood next to me, peering wistfully at the various posters. I pointed to the offending, the maddening one, the one that haunted my dreams.

 “Please, can you tell me how to pronounce that word?” 
 "Sure. Spain.”
 “No, the other one.”
 “Oh—sure. You’re up.”
  “Excuse me?” 
  “You’re up."
  “That’s right.” 

  “Thank you!”

And I skipped home, headache-free for a long time to come. And waited for someone to ask me.

I couldn’t wait to say proudly, yet off-handedly,”Oh, that? That’s just YURRUP. It’s a place near Spain.”

And I knew I would go someday, and find out what was at the top of that cobble-stoned street. It didn’t look any more exciting than Macdougal Alley, just five blocks away, but you never knew.
You just never knew what those Yurrupeans might have up their ruffled sleeves.



IT ARRIVES in a stiff  blue and white box, not wrapped in paper like other hand soaps. Inside, the bar of soap is thick, curved like the Universe, but with slightly sharp edges. It smells like the jar of Pond’s Cold Cream my mother keeps on her dresser. (The top of the refrigerator, actually.) On the box is a stylized picture of a dove; a gentle dove. In the Cold War Fifties, a slightly provocative dove of “peace”—a curvy, Einsteinian bar of soap with cold cream added, gentle on your face, mild on your pocketbook. New, new, new. And we are privileged to use it before almost anybody else because of my mother’s position as editor of McCall’s, a well-established women’s magazine. We are to report back on our opinion of the product.

Well, I like it, but I don’t LOVE it. It gets soft and gooey really quickly if you are sloppy and leave just a little water in the soap dish—not like the English or French soap I sometimes receive for Christmas. And the unique added ingredient—cold cream—somehow gives it a vaguely clinical odor. Like the emergency room at St.Vincent’s the night I had strep throat. Or maybe it’s as simple as not wanting to smell like my mother.

However, and most pertinent, it is free. The hotel where we are currently living also supplies free soap, little pink bars of Camay, but the perfume in these is so strong that it tickles my nose unpleasantly, and eau de Camay tended to overwhelm my Lilac Time cologne (Woolworth’s finest). So Dove it would be.

In my father’s apartment, about seven blocks away as the pigeon flies, the samples are not of soap but of small household appliances. Toasters, steam irons, waffle irons. His electrical engineering degree from Purdue had slowly engineered him into the downwardly mobile job of traveling thermostat salesman; his territory, New England. The benefit to me—the best and fanciest steam iron of anyone in my class at school. His kitchen cupboards are full of various models of toasters, each more complicated than the next. If only they could be given as birthday presents to my peers, my popularity would be astronomical….


It could often be confusing. In our hotel kitchenette, my mother and I mostly scrape the burnt charcoal off the surface of the toast we make in the oven  of the clunky gas stove. At my Dad’s, he and I debate over whether to use the medium-light setting, or be daring and go for medium-dark. (I think he never offered to give us one because he knew that most likely, before it could even be plugged in, it would be on its way to a cold and lonely shelf-life at our local pawnshop.)

Being a residential hotel dweller and a privileged recipient of “samples” did not exactly prepare me for the life of the typical American consumer. (Coupled with an actual lack of cold cash, of course.) No family trips to Sears to buy patio furniture or Laz-Y-Boy chairs; no shopping for refrigerators or mattresses, television consoles or barbecues, no lawn mowers, vacuum cleaners or table lamps with white shades encased in crisp cellophane. No, each hotel room was always set up and ready to live in, like a stage set portraying perfectly nuanced genteel poverty, New York City circa 1954. Shortly after arrival, I would have my corner outfitted with my Tab Hunter Fan Club posters and my Albert Payson Terhune collie books, ready to make hot chocolate and Wonder Bread toast (try thick margarine with sugar sprinkled on top). Ready to open my copy of Seventeen Magazine and discover “17 Things to Do With Straight, Limp Hair”; “10 Ways To Get Him To Talk To You”; “Why Heavy Petting Can Wait.”

While I hunkered down, reading and munching, my father, only a few blocks away, would undoubtedly be packing for the road. He never talked about his work; the closest I ever came to contact with that world was one visit to his boss’s family spread in suburban Connecticut on the occasion of an elaborate outdoor barbecue.

Unbeknownst to any of us, I was at that precise moment incubating a vicious case of whooping cough, which nearly killed me that summer. I would hack and cough until I turned pale blue, coughing up weird little pieces of white stuff. In my deliriums, I imagined myself a pre-teen Moby Dick, spitting out pieces of Dove soap. Later we found out that the boss’s daughter had mysteriously come down with whooping cough right after our visit, and couldn’t go to the fancy summer camp she went to every year. Her parents had to cancel their long-planned trip to the South of  France to stay home and nurse her back to health.

Shortly after that terrible summer, my father quit—or was fired. The flow of samples dried up, and he moved to Southern California. He found an apartment in a cheesy concrete building with a pool, where old people hung out in their bathing suits drinking gin and tonics from breakfast until dinnertime.

They didn’t seem to eat toast all that much and certainly didn’t need steam irons.


Sunday, January 26, 2014


BACK home from summer camp in New Hampshire. Back from the scents of balsam, sun on lakewater, mushroom mold, burnt and blistered marshmallow skin. Sweat, sunlotion, horsedung.

Back to Riker’s, Nedick’s, White Tower. Sutter’s. Chock Full O’Nuts. Howard Johnson’s. Nathan’s.

Home cooking? Canned Hormel Chili. SPAM omelettes. Corned beef hash (fried crispy) with a sunny-side-up egg in the middle. Tamales in a can, wrapped in corn husks, pickled lamb’s tongue in small glass jars. Salty chipped beef, peeling like birch bark. French toast with Log Cabin maple syrup. The cheapest ground beef, burnt on the outside, pink in the middle, with sliced tomatoes and boiled potatoes with plenty of margarine.

Dining out? The vegetarian special at Riker’s in Sheridan Square: canned peas and carrots, pickled beets, canned string beans, mashed potatoes, a slab of iceberg lettuce with “Russian dressing.” Hot dog and an orange drink. Toasted Almond Good Humor bars. Shrimp egg foo yong with extra gravy. Hot chocolate and a whole wheat donut smothered in powdered sugar. Chicken croquettes, cole slaw and pistachio ice cream. Pizza with extra red pepper flakes at Wollman Memorial Skating Rink in Central Park.

And the smells! Roomfuls, cathedrals full of smoke from my mother’s cigarettes, lungs full of truck, car and bus exhausts (leaded, diesel and every other kind) from the streets of Manhattan, the thick, creosote-spiced air of the subway stations (at 42nd Street, add cotton candy and roasting peanuts); unfiltered tap water, shared rooming-house bathrooms, chipping leaded paint in furnished rooms, under-ventilated and moldy, a thin coating of cockroach spray over everything; the acrid tang of ancient perfume on used clothes purchased at the Salvation Army and not yet (or maybe never) dry-cleaned. Urine-soaked doorways, feces-smeared sidewalks, garbage burning in trash barrels on vacant lots, smokestacks belching the residue of coal-fired boilers, school bathrooms reeking of disinfectant.

Home from summer camp. September. Manhattan. Hooray.