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.



Honor Thy Father


MY FATHER and I are on our way to our weekly shrimp cocktail and ravioli feast, to be finished off with a tortoni ice cream cupcake, dusted with almond crumbs. Or maybe the pale green slice of spumoni, with its surprising nuggets of candied fruit. Our destination is the little Italian hole-in-the-wall bistro a few steps down from street level near the Charles Street “apartment” that is my mother’s current stopping-place. She has one bed-sitting room, and I have my own, two floors above. (The bathroom for each floor is in the hall; a water-closet containing the toilet, and a room with a bathtub where you literally step into the tub when you open the door. There is no visible floor space. The walls of these tiny rooms are painted shiny Chinese red—for good luck? To obscure bloodstains?) I am allowed to have one pet in my bedroom—a white mouse named Melvin who lives in an old fish tank, atop an ever-mounting pile of cedar shavings.

Rather than clean his abode, I tend to dump fresh shavings in on top of the old ones; an early sort of home ­composting. But clearly, if I want to prevent his escape over the top, I will have to reduce the level soon. Also, the reek of mouse pee is becoming too pungent for even a twelve­year-old to ignore. It’s a wild taste of freedom, my own room on the top floor of a Charles Street tenement. My mother two whole floors away! (This unparalleled freedom is my secret compensation for the nickname “Rolling Stone Riddle” that has been given to me as our frequent moves become common knowledge among my less-sensitive peers.)

On the shelf next to Melvin’s holding tank I keep a candid black and white Brownie Kodak snapshot of Peter H. taken near the fountain in Washington Square Park. Peter, attired in a spotless white t-shirt and half-unzipped black leather motorcycle jacket, is slouching the best James Dean slouch he can muster. Peter, Peter, Peter. He is my black hole of adolescent lust crystallized onto a 3 x 4 glossy piece of paper. He is terrifying. He, too, is twelve.

Nights, while Melvin soggily rustles in his springy campground, no doubt plotting his break-out, I gaze at Peter’s picture and marvel that this boy/man had actually danced a slow dance to Earth Angel with me at our crowd’s most recent Friday night record party. I worry a bit about what might be expected of me next time—some of the girls said they could feel “it” when their partners pushed up close against them during slow dances. In the meantime I can admire his garrison belt, his t-shirt, his thick dirty-blonde waves.

Of course, of this nothing is revealed to my father. Rather, at dinner tonight I am expounding on my latest take on the Ten Commandments. (I was experimenting with Methodist Sunday school, mostly because of the young basketball-playing minister at the Eleventh Street church that my classmate Judy had dragged me to one memorable fall Saturday.) I tell my dad that I don’t see why one should automatically honor one’s mother and father—Is that last shrimp yours or mine?—if they weren’t truly worthy of respect? I mean, after all, why should it be an automatic deal?

My father has a strange expression by now. He is pretty silent and doesn’t really rise to the bait of my question. He just keeps eating and then he orders another drink.

The ravioli somehow aren’t so good tonight. They seem to encounter a lump in my throat. Ditto for the tortoni. The almond crust tastes like sand. Some words cannot be taken back, ever.

Alone once more in my room, I take Peter’s picture off the shelf, then put it back. It’s Sunday night, with the school week stretching out before me like the African veldt in a story by that writer guy my mom likes. Before I will allow myself my nightly half-hour of gazing on Peter, I will clean Melvin’s cage. Yes! All things will be new and clean. I will redeem myself. I will earn the privilege of sinking into my fantasy world.

Nothing in this world came free. You had to earn your pleasures, your self-respect. The respect of others.

Even the respect of your own kid. My father should know this by now. Shouldn’t he?


Wo Bist Du, Fraulein Rheingold?

THE future Miss Rheingold was always white. She wasn’t even “white.” She just was.

She and her six fellow contestants just appeared, every year, on a glossy full-color poster in the window of the butcher shop on the corner of West Fourth and Perry. Although I never saw my mother or father lift a stein of Rheingold—or any other—beer, the Miss Rheingold contest was of burning interest to me and indeed all of the ten year-old-girls on my block of Perry Street. We took sides, argued for our choices, and shamelessly stuffed the ballot box. A faint intimation of Lamarckian genetics theory must have been at work—if our blonde, blue-eyed, pageboy-hairdo’d favorite won, then maybe the magic would stickily transfer itself and somehow we too could someday aspire to such looks, such glory. And, too, it was a contest of The People—we sincerely believed our votes counted. Sincerely enough to cheat like bloody hell.

I sometimes wondered if Miss Subways and Miss Rheingold hung out together. They would probably go to the Automat and order coffee and lemon meringue pie, or maybe rice pudding with raisins and that thin cinnamon crust. They would, of course, be saving their prize money for college, or to help pay for their father’s knee surgery. They’d never sit at the White Horse Tavern knocking back a few frosty ones while flirting with unwashed poets—which was, needless to say, my fervent ambition, if not that of my best friend Bernice. My tongue swore allegiance to the parade of pristine Susans, Ellens and Mary-Lou’s, but I wanted to become one of the long-haired, lipstickless young women who floated mysteriously past us in Washington Square Park, wearing sandals as thin as the olive loaf slices that Mr. Flanagan gave us just to clear out of his butcher shop so the real customers could have some breathing room.

Hilariously waving good-bye to him with our lunchmeat held high and our spirits higher, our summertime gaggle would move on to torment the next merchant. Or perhaps to trail that dark-haired young woman right up to her boyfriend’s front door, which the moment it opened would send us cackling in all directions, a firecracker of girls exploding with mirth from behind a parked car as the startled lovers attempted to exchange a good-night kiss on a muggy August evening.




EACH breast was like a slightly lopsided vanilla cupcake, with a cherry on top. My mother’s boyfriend (funny word for an old guy with yellow teeth and baggy corduroy pants) kept the calendar with Marilyn’s picture on it behind the folding door to his little galley kitchen. There was just one picture, with the months printed on sheets that you tore off a big pad stapled to the cardboard backing. It wasn’t exactly hidden, but it wasn’t exactly obvious either.

It was the first photograph of a nude woman that I had ever seen.

I was terrified that my friends would somehow find out my mother’s boyfriend had this calendar in his kitchen, although there was little opportunity for them to even cross his path, much less enter his apartment.

He was a tall, pear-shaped man who wore, in addition to the baggy olive-hued corduroys, a maroon beret that covered his slicked back longish hair. His soft, gray shoes I suspected were really bedroom slippers. He was supposed to be a writer but I never saw or heard him at a typewriter. His main claim to fame during his brief tenure as my mother’s man-about-town was his lamb kidney stew— which, fortunately, my mother did not force me to eat.

The visual decoration in my friends’ homes mostly consisted of mothers desperately holding onto their babies in the middle of war-torn cityscapes. Or etchings of steelworkers sweating as they tossed red-hot rivets to each other, or lovers gently kissing while lying in alpine meadows. Not, as in my home, Picasso reproductions torn out of Life magazine, or a Ruth Orkin photo of street kids playing cards carefully razored out of the catalog from The Family of Man—and certainly not a nude photograph of Miss Marilyn Monroe.

It was just that she seemed so young. Her skin was so white, like she was just newly hatched.          
It was hardly skin at all.

Will The Real Arthur Murray Please Stand Up?


MY father returns from his dance lesson all fired up. Hey mambo, mambo Italiano, go go go. He tries to show me the steps. Rather, he does show me the steps, and I try to learn them. My feet, in size eight brown and white saddle shoes, cannot negotiate the twists and turns of the tango or the mambo. Benched, I admire from the sidelines as he demonstrates. See? It’s so easy. I refuse a second chance. I have French homework like you wouldn’t believe.

Later, with the Hit Parade blaring in my room, I imagine him at the Stork Club snaking across the dance floor with a tall brunette in a short scarlet dress. It has fringes all over it that shimmer as she twirls. She would be a dead ringer for Cyd Charisse in that nightclub number from Singin’ in the Rain. And my father would be wearing his old penny loafers, just like Gene Kelly.

Arthur would be so proud!

Will the Real Arthur Murray Please Stand Up?

The pile of conjugated verbs grows larger. Finally, the DJ announces that The Great Pretender will be played next. It’s Number 3 this week. This makes me deeply happy. I wonder if my father got to meet the real Arthur Murray. I wonder if they danced together.

I wonder who took the lead.


Jewish in My Mind


JEWISH was Kathe Kollewitz lithographs of thin women and hungry babies in your living room; Pete Seeger records on your hi-fi: If I had a Hammer, This Land is Your Land, There Once Was a Union Maid (who never was afraid, of goons and ginks and company finks and deputy sheriffs who made the raid...). Jewish was warm bagels and mountains of cream cheese and your grandmother with thick ankles and flesh-colored stockings rolled up just below her kneecaps, heaping strawberry jam on your plate.

Why oh why couldn’t I be Jewish? It was embarrassing, always being the guest. I wanted to be the host, to ask someone else to set the table, my table, before eating my food.

I tried unsuccessfully to bring my father into the spirit of my quest. Over hamburgers at the Blue Mill Tavern on one of our week-end visits, I probed. Couldn’t that great-great-grandmother named
Mottinger have been just a little bit Jewish? Couldn’t I, on the basis of this almost certain fact, be allowed to stay home on Jewish holidays? It was lonely at school on those mysterious days, whose rituals were never really explained to me; it was taken for granted that I knew. I hated not being in on the secret, but was too shy to ask the real meaning of those “holidays”— or were they true holy days? They seemed a lot more serious than Christmas and Easter, with all the reindeer and bunnies and Bing Crosby on every friggin’ loudspeaker in Woolworth’s. A few blue and white greeting cards in the windows of the Hallmark shop did nothing to dispel the mystery. I was given no helpful clues by my lapsed Catholic mother or my ex-Methodist father. “No,” my father would repeat each time I asked, “the Mottsingers were Austrian mercenaries who made guns during the Revolutionary War. I doubt they were Jewish.”

I wanted it so much. Jewish was co-ed summer camp, fathers with strange accents who said vine instead of wine and always came home without stopping first for a scotch and soda at the corner bar. Jewish was reading the newspaper and looking worried while dinner was being cooked and the kids did their homework. After dinner, Jewish was your father shaking off his day job, going into the den and closing the door and doing his “writing,” like my friend Laura Liben’s dad.

Jewish was kitchen cabinets chockful of canned apricots and pears and boxes of delicious macaroons and matzohs and in the refrigerator tangy wine-colored horseradish and mysterious packages in white paper: sliced turkey, aged Emmenthal, roast beef that had just a hint of pink in the middle. Bowls of tuna fish salad loaded with freshly chopped celery. Ice cream in the freezer.

Jewish was teasing and laughing and sometimes your father shouting like my best friend Janie’s when she ran up a $25 phone bill talking to her boyfriend, or if your new cocker spaniel peed on the old Turkish carpet in the hall. Jewish was art lessons and guitar lessons and fancy, painful wire braces for crooked teeth, and every spring new Capezio flats and for your father new heels on the same old brown lace-ups.

Jewish was inviting weird kids like me for dinner—my very infrequent chance to eat such unforgettable food: thick slices of pot roast and string beans and beets and hot rolls with real butter, and noodle pudding sprinkled with cinnamon for dessert. Or meat loaf with a crusty top of onions and tomato sauce, rye bread, cheesecake. No, Jewish was never fried SPAM or chile con carne from the can or the Vegetarian Special at Riker’s in Sheridan Square. I think I hoped that if I ate enough dinners with my Jewish friends, that I could become Jewish: an early version of ‘you are what you eat.’

Many years later I was browsing in a used bookstore in Union Square and opened an anthology of prize-winning stories to find one by a writer named Meyer Liben. He was the Jewish father working, night after night, behind the closed study door! After the day job, the money job. Not for him the eternal résumé to write and rewrite, visits to the pawn shop and the unpaid loans from friends.

And apparently Mr. Liben had written many more stories. Many more. All the tip-toeing and shushing had not been for nothing. I was happy for Laura, and sad for myself.

                                                      *                                *

Being Jewish was doing something serious, and getting it right. And I would never be Jewish.



The Bathrobe

THE Lane Bryant shop on West Eighth Street was right near one of our favorite bookstores, the Marlboro Books outlet that sometimes had marked-down copies of Pogo books. After we emerged victorious with our latest trophy, my father and I often lingered at the windows of the ladies’ shop, which seemed to have clothing that was made for no particular purpose or time of day that I could ever figure out. Except for the bathrobes. Those were no-brainers. They were meant for Sunday morning brunch, my mother’s favorite meal.

And one December I worked up the courage to ask my long-divorced father if he would buy one for my mother, his ex-wife, to replace the ratty pink chenille one that was like a reproach to me every time I saw it. I could not in good conscience hope for anything new in my own life while she continued to don that grayish garment that bore the evidence of many a late evening cigarette. He and I knew that the time was long past when they needed—or wanted—to exchange presents, but I desperately wanted her to have it. The garment of choice was navy blue quilted satin, with red piping on the tailored lapels, and a double-breasted set of buttons covered in red satin. It looked like something Ava Gardner would wear on the terrace of a Manhattan penthouse while sipping champagne, while Frankie crooned to her. And my dark-haired mother could carry it off.

Miracle of miracles, my father agreed to buy it. The saleswoman wrapped it in yards of white tissue paper, and I managed to get it undetected into the two-room apartment on Perry Street where I lived most of the week with my mother. Just like a kid on a Norman Rockwell Saturday Evening Post cover, I hid it under my bed and started counting the days until the twenty-fifth. It was almost like being a family again.

On my eighth Christmas Eve, I could hardly close my eyes. I tossed and turned all night, imagining a hundred different variations of delight on my mother’s astounded face when she opened our gift.

In the morning, my father came by, ostensibly to take me out for lunch. It was then that I brought the package out. As she glanced at the now glaringly enormous box, uneasily trying to unknot the bow without cutting the ribbon (so it could be saved for next year) I became really fearful. It was too big a present. She couldn’t match it. But it was too late.

She opened it, and gasped. The navy satin gleamed like a million bucks. Her right hand clutched instinctively at the opening of the old pinkish-gray robe. She looked up at us. A deep blush was spreading up from her neck, past her high cheekbones to the roots of her dark brown hair. She was as pretty as a movie star, and now she had the wardrobe. But she had an odd look on her face.

     “Is this one really so awful? Why didn’t anybody tell me?” She seemed to be shivering, but it wasn’t cold at all in our apartment.

And I didn’t know if my father and I had done a bad thing or a good thing.  Why wasn't life simple and kooky, like the mix-ups on I Love Lucy? Where everybody hugged at the end. Really, that's how it should be.



The Women's House of Detention

THEY said the woman had escaped during the night, squeezed herself through window-bars, shimmied down the building and run. They said you could still see some drops of her dried blood on Greenwich Avenue.

After school we rushed over. Yes, indeed, there were some dark red stains on the sidewalk. It was thrilling. A prison outbreak, one block from our very own P.S. 41; maybe she was even hiding in the neighborhood.

I had never paid much attention to the Women’s House of Detention, except to be aware that it was ugly, with barred windows and sharp angles, an out-of­proportion insult to the small brownstones and townhouses nearby. There was a high chain link fence around a cement courtyard, not a tree or a plant in sight. You instinctively crossed the street rather than get too near it. Now I stared at it frequently, before and after school. Once while I was looking, an arm emerged from a window, and a hand waved at me. There really were people living inside, “detained” women. What, I wondered, did you have to do to be detained? What was the next stop on their journey?

Sometimes, during the next year when we all moved on to junior high school at P.S. 3, I dreamed about her, the woman dripping blood on the pavement as she fled down Greenwich Avenue in the dark. Was she a murderer-murderess sounded too British—or just “loose” like Patty Esposito, who had B.O. and wore lipstick and Capezio ballet flats and put her chewing gum under her desk and wore wide black elastic cinch belts and see-through nylon blouses with her slip and bra clearly visible underneath the skimpy ruffles in front. Once in the Girls’ Room I heard her talking about “making out” and I tried to imagine what that might be, but my imagination failed. I did know, somehow, that the women in the dank and decrepit House of Detention had probably “made out” when they were teen­agers, and I was not anxious to join their rank and file. Patty also smoked. The sweaty armpits of her amply-filled angora sweater and the stale smell of tobacco on her breath hinted at a life more complicated than worrying about a report on Geography and Culture of the Fertile Crescent. I never wanted to be in Patty’s shoes; I didn’t want to be sent to a house of detention, much less a real prison.

A prison was a thousand, a million times worse. A prison was a building like Sing-Sing, the fortress in the town of Ossining, that my mother and I passed by in a taxi on the way to visit my little sisters, temporarily living in a foster home. Blank walls, small windows, people in cages. Why did they call it Sing-Sing? Nothing about it suggested singing, or musicals like the ones my own dad took me to. And why couldn’t my mother find an apartment and a job, and have all her children at home? Especially someone who had invented the word “Togetherness” and been an important editor at McCall’s magazine. What was a nervous breakdown, and why did my mother have to have one? When would she be through having it? When she was ready to bring the twins home, did that mean her nerves weren’t all broken anymore? I looked for signs, any signs at all. But we just kept taking that train ride.

When we arrived back in Manhattan after those long trips to Ossining, I never felt like singing. Nor did I feel like crying. I just felt numb. I wanted to erase the image of bare tree trunks, and the long empty streets of Ossining in December, and the faces of my sisters looking out at us from their foster home window when the cab arrived to take us back to the train station. If only Patty Esposito was a friend of mine, a good friend, we could go for a smoke and find a couple of guys who knew how to “make out.”

From the next room, where she sat reading the Saturday Evening Post and eating a Milky Way, a few tendrils of smoke curled forth and I knew by her silence my mother was feeling pretty much the same.


Pool of Kings

ONCE my mother’s fine for overdue library books came to a grand total of, I think, something like $179.00. This was in spite of a year of my constant nagging about the Notices, which kept piling up on the kitchen table by the salt and pepper shakers. Having that pile meant I could never go to the Leroy Street branch of the library, near Hudson—my favorite, since although it was at least twenty blocks from home was also right next to the Leroy Street Pool.

It meant, too, that we were becoming criminals, as the edges of the notices transmuted from a cowardly yellow to a violent red. We would never be able to pay such a sum. We were doomed to life in the shadows.

Then she had a brilliant inspiration: we would say the books were lost and pay the actual, lesser, cost of replacing the books. This would make us liars, but somehow respectable liars. Not the cheapest solution for me, since I was called upon to lend her the money from the dollars I had slowly accumulated walking a fat old Schnauzer named Otto after school for a fashion editor who lived right off Sheridan Square. It was now July and my funds were somewhat stagnated since Otto and his mistress were away for the summer. However, my mother’s logic was irresistible and I agreed to participate in her scheme.

At last, $37.50 the poorer but happy, I was once again able to go swimming and to the library, hair dripping chlorine onto long oak tables, releasing fumes of furniture polish and Waterman’s ink. It was a bit tricky, combining swimming and reading. I worried that my sandaled feet still reeked of the disinfectant that we had to wade through on our way to and from the open-air pool, and it was often hard to concentrate with my head still aching from the wall of noise created by dozens of wildly thrashing kids jammed together in the tepid and not altogether clean water.

The pool was usually wall-to-wall kids, splashing and jumping and groping. Sometimes you got touched at a place on your body that made you jump in surprise. The hot, wet poolside concrete smelled of cigarette butts when you tried to lie by the edge of the water and get a tan, and the little pebbles they mixed in it to make it less slippery left tiny pockmarks all over your calves and thighs and back. It was a pleasurable kind of pain, to lie on that hot, wet, rough cement and inhale the tobacco-y perfume of the teenagers who had just moved on.

In the library, afterwards, when the chlorine had dried on your skin and hair and the late afternoon light came in through the high transom windows, there was no rush to be anywhere else.

And there was always a book you hadn’t read yet. There always would be, probably.


Cufflinks, or The Teeth of Gerard Philipe


THERE are eight boxes neatly arranged in the Sixth Avenue window of Kaiser’s Shop for Men, artfully placed next to a striped silk tie (maroon and navy), a cashmere scarf (camel-colored), and a pair of pigskin gloves splayed out to show, reassuringly, all ten fingers. In each box is a set of cufflinks, moored to their satiny base by little white pieces of elastic, like miniature ski bindings.

My father’s birthday is in three days. Do I dare give him yet another set? I agonize over the reproduction Greek coins, gold-plated and daringly irregular in shape. A man’s head is immortalized on both sides of each link. These are my favorite. But for a traveling salesman? I let my eyes slide once again over the plain silver disks with the etched concentric circles, the horse’s heads in “antiqued” pewter, the Aztec serpents in what must be sterling…beyond my budget. I wait for my eye to be permanently caught, for “it” to happen. Then it does. The mother-of-pearl ovals, skiing on royal blue velvet slopes. My heartbeat accelerates as I imagine my father’s eyes widening, his bushy eyebrows going up as he opens the white leatherette box.

The shop window is fogged and greasy in several spots by the time I step away and push the door open. An hour must have passed, easy, since I first began my scrupulous fact-finding mission. But I am sure now. There is no other choice but the mother-of-pearl, shining like the teeth of Gérard Philipe, my latest crush. When my father wears them, he and I will both have reason to smile.


Swimming and Shopping


THE HOTEL SHELTON was large and moist. At least the health club part was, steamy and reeking of that nose-tickling chlorine smell that on this day especially signified luxury and fear. Luxury because I knew that not every dad took his daughter to an Olympic-size swimming pool on the umpteenth floor of a hotel in New York City, and fear because this Saturday might be the day that I would finally have to do a dive from the high diving board. After this, we would be going to Wanamaker’s to buy a charcoal corduroy skirt and pink oxford cloth shirt and I didn’t want to make my dad angry in the slightest. If we didn’t get the clothes today during the Post-Christmas Day Sale I would never get them, and I had already told three of my friends that I would be looking really sharp at Peter’s party tonight. Most of the other girls in the seventh grade had far more extensive wardrobes than I, but there was a lot of trading around, and I knew charcoal corduroy was going to be a prime bargaining chip in the future.


My teeth chattered as I wiggled into the turquoise latex tank suit with the breast-shaped top (currently not filled out by me, that’s for sure). I stuffed my thick hair into the white rubber bathing cap that smelled like new tires and left bright pink ridges on my forehead. I ran through the antiseptic footbath and emerged, trembling, into the huge tiled room to confront the Pool From Hell, with second-story balconies all around, and three diving boards. My dad, on the high one, waved to me, did a little run, hop, jump thingie and then he was in the air, his arms outstretched, like wings, until at the last second he folded them together and parted the water with his hands in praying position, toes neatly pointed until they disappeared. This signature Swan Dive was followed by his even more spectacular Jack-knife, and then it was my turn.

From down below, he urged me on. Several (expensive) summers at camp were supposed to have led up to this display of aquatic skill. I inched out, toes clinging prehensile fashion to the diving board’s scratchy hemp carpet. It was wet and cold but at least it wasn’t slippery, like everything else in this room. In my mind I tried to recreate the little hop and jump he had performed, but I couldn’t. Again and again I reached the end of the board and all I could think of was how much it would hurt if my face hit the water full on. Finally I went to the back of the board, turned and ran. When I reached the end, I grabbed my knees and flung myself into space. I believe it was the only Cannonball ever executed from the high diving platform of the Hotel Shelton pool. Let us be kind and say only that my maneuver did not pass unnoticed.

We made it back downtown to Wanamaker’s all right, and I somehow managed to score not only a skirt and blouse but also a jumper and two pairs of pink and gray argyle kneesocks. The way my homeroom teacher carried on the next day about my new clothes made me think I must have been looking pretty raggedy up until then, and the more effusive her praise the stranger and more self-conscious I felt.

Worst of all was the knowledge that I had not really earned the clothes; I had not done The Dive. My father that day had not been angry, but a look of defeat appeared that I had not noticed before, and that afterwards never really went away. More of our weekend afternoons were spent henceforward at the movies than the Hotel Shelton. Which was quite o.k. with me. Gene Kelly and Danny Kaye were the best company an eleven-year-old girl could wish for.

And inside Loew’s Sheridan, ensconced with our box of Junior Mints, one thing was certain: in this cozy dark cave, I would never have to wear the damn bathing cap.



Seahorse Anything

THAT was what she wanted for Christmas or her birthday: seahorse anything, in copper, silver or pewter. And they were everywhere! Earrings, pins, an ashtray with a seahorse motif. If it existed, I tracked it down, new or used, bent or slightly chipped, it didn’t matter. The motif was esoteric enough that trips to Woolworth’s never proved very productive, but the Salvation Army and various church or symphony thrift shops often proved fertile hunting ground.

My mother knew not to wear too much jewelry, and so even the clunky copper seahorse earrings looked elegant, dangling above a black scoop-necked leotard top and a long, batik-patterned skirt, her hair pulled back from her face.
    “When your face is candy-box pretty, you have to be careful not to overdo it,” she’d say, looking in the mirror, and that puzzled me, because I would have been thrilled to be pretty that way instead of cursed with ears that stuck out perpendicular to my head like England’s Prince Charles, or Alfred E. Neuman of MAD magazine fame. At eleven, all I wanted in the world was to be able to pull my thick dirty-blonde hair back into a ponytail without being called Donkey Ears by every boy in the sixth grade.

    And lo, one day my wish was granted, and I was waking up from general anesthesia after having surgical “tucks” made in the ears I’d been born with, sadly lacking the correct wrinkles and folds. I have no idea how much this plastic surgery cost my father in 1956, but it was the answer to years of desperate hoping. My parents, long-divorced, had managed to agree on this major event and both were at my side when I came to in a world of nauseatingly white curtains.

    The ponytail became a standard look for me, it grew ever longer and thicker, but life stayed pretty much the same. Boys were not throwing themselves at my feet. Then I read somewhere that the male seahorse hatches its young, and afterwards stays around to babysit.

   So that’s why she liked them so much! It wasn’t the delicate equine face, the gently curving tail. It was because the male stayed around and played with the kids—that was, indeed, her wildest and most glamorous fantasy, never to be realized.

   Well, my ponytail and I would do better. Anyone could do better, really. I stopped looking for seahorses one year, and she never asked why.







Skunks and Bladders

BABS was the first person who talked to me woman-to-woman. I was about five; she must have been about twenty-five. She had very short, curly, frizzy blonde hair—the shortest I’d ever seen on a woman—and a tall “Negro” boyfriend. They were living in a little town on the West Coast called Carmel, sort of like the candy. She was one of the first friends my mother made when we moved briefly from Greenwich Village to California in 1949—so my mother could make better “contacts” in her stalled screenwriting career. I worshipped Babs—she was pretty, fearless and kind. She treated me like a person.
    “Honey,” she said when she saw me wriggling and postponing a needed trip to the bathroom (I didn’t want to miss out on any delicious adult talk), “You must NEVER put off going to the bathroom. More women ruin their bladders like that. For no good reason! None at all!” Then for dramatic emphasis, she took a prolonged puff from her long-handled black plastic cigarette holder.
    I was shocked to hear an adult use the word bladder in polite company. But that was Babs all over. And she owned a pet skunk with its glands removed, and its own rhinestone-studded leash! California was living up to all my wildest expectations.

   Carmel, however, proved to be too tame for my mother. After a stint writing a column for the local paper, The Pine Cone, she packed the two of us off again to her ultimate goal: Hollywood. She managed to find a place in the hills not far from the Hollywood Bowl, which at night poured forth long cones of light that swept the sky for hours during all the glamorous events that I imagined but never attended.
    Our rented house had a fireplace with brightly patterned Spanish tiles all around it, and an actual nectarine tree in the back yard. There was a curving stairway with an ornate black metal railing, and a landing with a little niche in the stucco wall where you could put a statue if you had one that size. Later, after my mother fell in love with a handsome woodcarver (or, as she  preferred, “sculptor”) she did receive a small statue. I believe it was a Don Quixote figure, carved out of olive wood; his lance broke off later, during the hasty move back East.  

There was never much furniture in our Hollywood house, but the sunlight (which smelled like warm pine needles) streamed in through small, mahogany-trimmed windows, and the place had a friendly, welcoming feel to it. We just never got settled in, that’s all.

My mother became unexpectedly pregnant at forty, but halfway through the pregnancy the handsome sculptor caught pneumonia and died. As fate would have it, we flew back to the Village on money that my mother found on Hollywood Boulevard in a paper bag. She turned it in to the police right away, but no one ever claimed it. They called her after a few weeks and she returned from the police station with plane tickets and a bit of cash left over.

It was meant to be, she often said. My children were all meant to be born in New York City.

Before we left, she bought me the new yellow cowboy-style rainboots I had coveted for months. Running and jumping into puddles and gullies, I created a sensation on my last day of school, yelling for joy and shouting that I was going home to New York. I desperately missed the streets of Manhattan, where sweet little dogs were available for petting on every corner and it seemed like a Chinese fortune cookie came with every meal.

My new sisters were born prematurely in their seventh month. As we skipped hand-in-hand to the Foundling Hospital to visit them in their preemie incubators, two beautiful fraternal twin girls produced by my forty-year-old mother and the talented sculptor, my mother confided in me that giving birth to all five of her children in New York City was one of the great achievements of her life.
Although there was no denying that I missed the free nectarines, I knew exactly what she meant.





THE pastel portrait of Ava Gardner was based on a LIFE magazine cover photo. As pastel portraits go, it wasn’t bad. My father might have been able to support himself as a sidewalk portrait artist, except for the minor detail that it took him about four months to finish the one of Ava, and that was already pre-framed and colored for him by the artful LIFE photographer. So when my father talked about chucking his sales career and becoming a full-time artist, it scared me more than a little. Would we then have to cut back on our outings to the little basement Italian restaurant on West Fourth Street that had the best shrimp cocktails and ravioli in the Village? It seemed to me that the words starving and artist always appeared together in the same sentence. I didn’t like this new development at all.

My fears abated somewhat when he offered me twenty-five cents an hour to sit for a sculpture of my head and shoulders. There had to be more money where that came from. Maybe somewhere in this new pursuit there were advantages for me. Time would tell.

Hour after hour on countless rainy Saturdays I sat still, inhaling the smell of damp modeling clay and watching while a head of what appeared to be a twenty-five-year-old woman emerged on his modeling stand. He’d gouge out yet another, improved eye socket shape with one of the miniature teak paddles purchased from the new art supply shop located a convenient three blocks away, then step back in a state of rapture.

 “Finished for today!”

He’d drape the creature in moist cheesecloth and we would traipse off to dinner, visions of the forthcoming ravioli dancing in my brain. He’d start off with a highball, traces of clay still under his fingernails. A happy man. An Artist.


The Japanese Stallion

MAGGIE and Muriel had more books than any of my mother’s other friends, and that was saying something. Their books were neatly shelved in pine bookcases that reached to the ceiling of every room in their apartment, including the long hallway. I liked them a lot because they always let me take home whatever book I picked out while they and my mother talked and talked. I would lie on my stomach, propped up on their prickly straw rug while the three women consumed cup after cup of Medaglia D’Oro coffee and discussed the French movies they had recently seen or which book had been most highly praised in that Sunday’s New York Times Book Review.

Then one day there was big news: Muriel was engaged. This was Really Big News, because Muriel was at least fifty, with thin brown hair, a receding chin and buck teeth. Her shoulders sloped sharply down from her neck, but what you noticed about her were the large, intelligent eyes and her soft, pleasant voice. She was also at least a head taller than her intended groom, a nervous red-haired actor who seemed to be not just shorter but significantly younger than Muriel. The bride and groom would be moving to San Francisco. Maggie would not.

I began to worry about my seemingly endless supply of Thomas Wolfe novels. As the day of departure grew near, the already demure and birdlike Maggie seemed to grow quieter and smaller. She had started out to be about five foot two inches, my height at age ten, but she was shrinking by the week. With domestic chaos erupting in every room, I loudly and nervously admired a framed Japanese print that Maggie and Muriel had once featured at the end of their book-lined hallway. Secretly, I hoped it would somehow find its way to me.

At her wedding, Muriel appeared in a voluminous lavender satin garment with lots of pleats. We drank champagne and then stuffed ourselves with homemade paella at their place. As my mother and I were leaving, Maggie presented me with a large, flat package wrapped in brown paper and string. I didn’t need to open it. The coveted prize was mine!

The Macdougal Street apartment was soon disassembled, espresso pot and all, and the happy newlyweds flew to San Francisco as planned.

Six months later, I heard my mother speaking in low tones on the telephone. It seemed that Muriel was back in the Village, solo, house-hunting. But no one asked me to return the splendid print of the Japanese stallion, rearing, mane fanned out and tail arched. He was now above my bed.
                                                          *                              *

I never learned where Maggie moved to, or if she ever forgave Muriel. Our Sunday afternoon visits never resumed. We never saw either of them again.


Lincoln Continental

IT WAS my favorite of all, best because it wasn’t flashy like the stupid Cadillacs with the huge fins that looked like paper maché Flash Gordon rockets, or tacky like Oldsmobiles in two-tone combos that reminded me of the shoes worn by musical comedy gangsters. When we played the game of what car would you buy if you could buy any car in the world, I always said “A black Lincoln Continental.”

No chrome, and glossy as a black satin evening gown.

Actually, it was about the only make of car I could even come close to recognizing, and I didn’t care two Hershey bars about cars anyway. Almost none of my friends’ parents had cars, because what do you do with a car in New York City? But my father, destined to travel around New England with his heavy samples of toasters and steam irons, did have one. He kept his cream and turquoise 1955 Chevy in a city garage, and occasionally we would drive north, parallel to the Hudson River, to visit a woman he had met at the Stork Club or somewhere. She would knock herself out trying to impress him by making a huge home-cooked meal for us, usually roast beef and asparagus, and salads with huge hunks of blue cheese.

I could never do justice to these offerings, having eaten too many jumbo cashew nuts and downed too many ginger ales before dinner. It always took so long before food was on the table, and there was a lot of giggling in the kitchen while I sat in the beige-carpeted living room and watched Ed Sullivan by myself.

Sometimes after dinner I’d sit quietly for another hour while the woman gave me a Toni home permanent or something, and then finally we’d be driving home to the Village at night along the Hudson, and we didn’t have to make small talk with a stranger anymore; I could just look out as the lights of the other cars on the parkway blipped by, blurry white and red lights, and the windows of the houses and factories across the river in New Jersey were reflected in the river, sparkling and twinkling at us, safe in our green velour Chevrolet universe. The window felt cool against my cheek, but my feet were toasty warm, and my father’s tweed jacket was draped around my shoulders.  I wanted Sunday nights to last forever.

It was dark enough to imagine, if I wanted to, that we were in a Lincoln Continental, but I never did. That would be pretend, and this was real.




IT WAS something to do with words, how they could trip you up and confuse you if you weren’t careful. It was a night course my father was taking at NYU, and he was very excited about it. The main implication for me was that I would be left alone on those nights. Did that mean I would have to cook my own dinner? At least it would be less expensive than the dancing lessons from Arthur Murray, and most likely would not involve any special clothing.

I had not reckoned on the books, and the anxiety. The true cost of going back to school, in even so tentative a fashion. Couldn’t we just continue going to Gene Kelly musicals, laughing as Donald O’Connor duck-walked around a Hollywood backstage or Gene tap-danced up a wall in his penny loafers (just like my Dad’s) and yellow V-neck sweater? What was wrong with that?

Our record of Danny Kaye singing manic set-pieces from Gilbert & Sullivan gathered dust while my frowning father tried to cram a week’s reading into one hour before class. Ever since being laid off as a thermostat salesman for the New England Territory, he had been fighting a growing depression. I didn’t think reading books with titles like "A Generation of Vipers," was helping his moods. We could have been riding on the top deck of the Fifth Avenue double decker bus, or ice skating at Rockefeller Center, followed by watery cocoa with huge gobs of whipped cream. This scalding concoction could be sipped for HOURS while we contemplated our throbbing ankles in the ugly tan rental skates with the numbers painted in green on the back. It felt so fantastic when you unlaced, the torture over, and wobbled around on flat feet in your old comfy shoes again.

Then, if we were feeling really wild, we’d follow up with a small bag of roasted chestnuts so hot you could burn your fingers trying to dig out the sweet, mealy morsels that you tongued and shifted in your mouth until it was safe to bite down.

But no, that winter Semantics ruled with an iron fist, and I spoke less and less, so as not to provoke an excruciating discussion of what I had really meant, or thought I meant, by what I said, or thought I had said, and then pretty soon he was talking about something called Dianetics. The cover of the book was dramatic; it featured a bolt of lightning zapping someone’s brain. Sort of a Benjamin Franklin meets Moses motif. Perhaps his training as an electrical engineer saved him from the clutches of the Dianetics people when they started trying to hook him up to their little Amp-O-Meters, or whatever they called them. Or perhaps the Semantics class actually had done him some good, given him some kind of immunity after all.

Then, in the spring, with no particular warning, matchbooks from the Copacabana and The Stork Club began appearing on his coffee table. (The place was so small, and my father so compulsively neat, that a few new matchbooks were immediately noticeable.) He began to travel on business again, and after I had gone back to live with my mother I heard less about Semantics and more about the relative tightness of the new black chino sheath skirt I was so proudly wearing to school every day of the first month of high school. Although it was true that I could barely walk in it, everyone else was similarly hampered, and so no one of us was being particularly flamboyant. I was proud of that word (I practically shouted it, as in “I am NOT being…”) and of my line of argument.

I was equally sure that Dad’s professor at NYU would be impressed at my discourse on the relative meanings of the words “skin,” “tight” and “cheap.”



The Snows of Kilimanjaro, The Floors of Bank Street

THE bookshelves were low to the ground, only two shelves high, built into a half-wall between the two large parlor rooms on the main level. Easy for a small eleven-year-old to reach. At one end was Bank Street, at the other, large windows with a glimpse of garden and brick walls. The book I picked that week was by a writer I had never heard of, but something about the sentences mesmerized me and as if in a dream I kept reading, only dimly understanding the story. It was puzzling—the words were all short and simple, but I couldn’t penetrate the meaning. A man and a woman were unhappy. The man was sick, wounded and maybe dying. They were waiting for help. Vultures were circling overhead.

In the afternoons, I rushed home to our narrow four-story townhouse in a smelly neighborhood near the wholesale meat warehouses that bordered the Hudson River. My mother and I finally had a real house! It had 4 narrow levels, including the one under the front stoop. The basement level had its own doorway, and was mostly the old kitchen. It had a hearth so big I could stand inside it. We hung an iron pot on an old swinging hook, just for looks. Each story had two rooms and a long hallway. There were four marble mantelpieces and floorboards as wide as my looseleaf notebook. After I finished my homework, I was allowed to read until supper. My mother’s current boyfriend, who had lived in France, would sometimes cook. He wore a beret at all times and smoked a big pipe that had a twist at the end like a toilet bowl. His corduroy pants were very baggy in the seat. When he cooked I always prayed it wouldn’t be kidney stew, but once a week it always was.

My room would darken as the sun set over the Hudson, just a pool of light remaining on the pillow of my bed where I lay reading my book, wishing the man would get well and the woman would love him and they would go back to America and be happy.
The rented house was not ours for long. The used upright piano, painted pale gray, never got stripped down to its birthright mahogany. The first night we slept there my mother had actually played Für Elise, but then she was too busy. The public relations firm she and her sort of French boyfriend had launched (with money borrowed from my father, I learned from eavesdropping) failed in less than a year. This turn of events didn’t surprise me too much. I never really understood what “public relations” were, or why anyone would pay you for doing it. Although I did kind of like it when my mother talked about being in “P.R.” when people asked her what she did. They always just nodded and looked impressed. Come to think of it, maybe they didn’t know what a “P.R.” person did, either. It certainly didn’t pay that well.

I packed up my white organdy curtains and my stuffed animals and The Snows of Kilimanjaro. My mother parked me temporarily with a classmate’s family and then we settled into the residential hotel where we had lived before she met Mr. Kidney Stew. A dump, indeed, but right off Fifth Avenue—close to lots of bookstores and the place in Washington Square Park where all the folksingers hung out and there was a swath of black asphalt perfect for roller skating.

The vultures were circling, but if we kept moving, they wouldn’t get us.

At the Hotel Marlton I no longer had a room overlooking trees and a garden, just an alcove off the kitchenette. Soon Tab Hunter and several dozen assorted collies and kittens were Scotch-taped on the wall over my daybed, and my encampment was fully furnished. All I needed now was mosquito netting and a kerosene lamp. In my story, the two men and the woman were alive, but everyone lived in separate buildings. They didn’t love each other any more. In his story, they were in the same room and everything, but they are always about to leave each other.

I liked my version better. At least you knew where you stood.


Looking for A Job


SHE COULDN’T look for a job (of course) without a résumé.
   She couldn’t type her résumé without a typewriter.
   She couldn’t retrieve her (rented!) typewriter from the pawnshop without cash.
   She couldn’t come up with the cash without a job.
Therefore, my mother’s only logical course of action (of course) was to sit on her daybed propped up against all the pillows, smoke the last two Pall Malls, and summarize all possible sources of quick cash on the last few pages left in the legal-size pad lifted from the office supply cabinet of her last “temp” job:
1) Borrow from B.’s father? (Did I pay back the last 20 bucks?)
2) Pawn Persian lamb coat? (15 bucks? Left sleeve is torn)
3) Maggie and Muriel? (5 bucks? Still owe 3 from last week)
4) Blood bank? (No, no, no, no)
5) Dr. Heilbronner? (Wife in town?)
6) Ask front desk clerk if would give rent credit for box of DOVE soap samples?  Offer consult on holiday brochure to Hotel Marlton? 
7) See if 8th St. Playhouse stills needs Espresso Lady for late show?
                                                             *                              *
I would watch her make the list, pressing my fist into my stomach to stifle the growls, knowing that within twenty minutes I would be on my way over from our shabby hotel suite (with “kitchenette”) to my father’s Washington Place apartment building five blocks away. There I would ring his bell and wait outside on the sidewalk for the wad of bills, wrapped inside a knotted linen handkerchief with one heavy coin for ballast, to come plummeting down. On the way back to the Hotel Marlton, I’d stop for a large can of chile con carne and a box of Saltines, two root beers, a Milky Way and a pack of cigarettes.
    Within a day or two, the crispy onion-skinned résumés would be making the rounds of the offices of the dullards who needed their lumpy letters recrafted, polished and sent out shining into the world. This my mother could do better than anyone in Manhattan. Maybe the world. The Universe, even! She and I both knew this.
                                                            *                         *
But without an updated résumé, it was a plain fact, a person and her ten-year-old daughter could actually starve to death. Quicker even than The Little Match Girl—her mother didn’t smoke Pall Malls.