They come for the money

“Ma’am!” the voice came from a bullhorn on the roof of the 7-story building across the street. “Please close your window immediately!” I saw men with rifles. Our living room was on the 6th and top floor of a pre-war building, overlooking Madison Avenue.

My mother’s reaction was to stare even more intently catty-corner to the north side of 96th Street between Madison and Fifth. In fact, she crooned her neck out further to see if he was getting out of his limousine. At some point in their candidacy, all the presidents, not just Clinton this particular evening, had come to that street to do fundraisers. We had photos of FDR and his motorcade passing beneath us on 96th Street. I had seen Reagan’s procession while standing on the sidewalk. And a day before “W” came through, they had sealed the mailboxes on Park Avenue and 95th so he wouldn’t get blown up by an IED. But they all came here for the money.

“MA’AM! Close the window NOW!”

Oh, shit, I thought, Mom’s gonna get blown away by Secret Service sharpshooters.

But she didn’t die that day. She died of brain cancer ten years later. At 3:58 a.m. on November 26, 2001, with Mom already in a coma and under hospice care at home, a fire broke out in the deli on the ground floor of 50 East 96th Street. Ladder Company 22 and other units descended quickly on our street, sandwiched between our building and 49 East 96th. Firefighters extended their ladder to her apartment and carried Mom down unconscious and strapped to her ironing board—deemed the best stretcher at the time. It was an urban deus ex machina like no other.

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Fanfare for the common man

‘A warm…soft—warm, soft sound without any sawtuhf effuht. Sawtuhfa warm clarinet sound…’

Aaron Copland rehearses the London Symphony Orchestra—1969, his ‘Appalachian Spring.’ Twenty-five years earlier he had scored it for Martha Graham, and he still referred the musicians today to the passage work: ‘Remembah, she would be dancing here.’ Passages he didn’t want these musicians—some of whom might have been children when the piece was written—to miss. He knew it earlier as ‘Ballet for Martha.’ The New York Times had called it ‘shining and joyous.’

‘That’s good! Swell. Hold it a little longer!’

The piece won the Pulitzer Prize for Music, and Isamu Noguchi designed the set for the premiere, which was performed at the Library of Congress. How did he divorce his conducting this day from his visual memory of a quarter century earlier? I wondered. The premiere was on October 30, 1944, when America was at war.

Earlier that day, October 30, two young women were deported from Auschwitz to the Bergen-Belsen concentration camp. They are Margot and Anne Frank.

That day, Navy Lt. J.N. Christenson wrote from his ship to his ‘Dearest Mother and Dad,’ saying:

I’ve tried recently to inventory the experiences in this part of the world and measure them against my expectations of what life in the tropics would be like. It all is about as expected. The heat is not much worse than in summertime Washington, D.C. The margin of discomfort is the humidity which gives wringing wet clothes and dripping brow. Strangely enough, the heavy khaki shirt, wool sox and heavy shoes that I wear seem to insulate. Then, too, the heavy footwear is more comfortable for the long hours of watch standing and treading the steel decks.

The beautiful blue and green waters I had known would be here and the various backgrounds of white beach and green jungles. There isn’t evident as much bird and animal life as I had thought, but then I haven’t spent any time in the bush. The evenings are surprisingly cool. Many of the men sleep out on deck in hammocks slung from gun to rail, on cots, or just ‘flaked out’ on the deck. There’s always a breeze stirring. Oftentimes they get a wetting down before morning, but the percentage is in favor of an uninterrupted night’s sleep.

Mother, I’m enclosing a check for $50. Will you make it stretch for gifts to the people I like, name of you and Dad, the nieces and nephews, and Carl. Like most of us out here, I’ve been hoping to find some things to send home, but outside of a few shells, a souvenir anchor chain link, and a brace of .38 caliber revolvers, my possessions aren’t of the Christmas gift sort. So, you’ll have to play Santa Claus for me, please.

Copland said when he was younger that he wanted to write music to ‘make you feel like you were alive on the streets of Brooklyn.’

‘At 2, gentleman—everybody—ladies—watch out about…it’s getting too sweetly sentimental. It, um…it’s a little on the Massine side there. Play it sawtah more cleanly. And 14,…nobody else would be disturbed by it, but I get a little disturbed by it. 14 is, uh, it’s too sentimental. Too much sentiment. It’s the wrong sound. It sounds on the Tchaikovsky side. Don’t play it so…,’ Copland’s voice fades. ‘Make it more American in spirit and—the sentiment isn’t all shown on the face. You know? It’s more…cool. The music by itself is warm; you don’t have to help it by… 16, everybody, please!’

§

My father wears a khaki-colored shirt. It’s a beige herringbone pattern, drenched in the armpits and on the spine from the New York City summer heat. It’s open at the neck two buttons down toward the chest, showing his graying and scraggly hairs and, beyond that and held by hard-working buttons, it cradles the stomach cultivated by gourmet meals. I am sure he bought the shirt from St. George’s Thrift Store. Perhaps it was 1977, the summer we had the blackout. That day, July 13, there were 3,776 arrested for looting, disorderly conduct, or nefarious behavior. That summer is 32 years after the end of the Second World War but only eight years since Copland had rehearsed the London Symphony. I was 14. The year before, 1976, Martha Graham was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom by Gerald Ford, whose wife, First Lady Betty, had once danced in her troupe. Martha was 82.

His trousers are khaki as well. He had tried to enlist in the military before the start of the war, but his asthma and other conditions earned him a medical rejection. I always held it against him that he never fought, unlike my five uncles—two on my mom’s side and three on my father’s—who were in the Navy, Air Force and Marines. They never told me stories about the war, but I knew they had been part of it.

In his khakis and sweating in the summer heat, maybe in the blackout, Dad concentrated on the carrot, paring each one carefully, making sure to not cut his finger and that each was sliced diagonally and evenly, the same thickness, and at least an inch and a half long, to make it suitable for scooping his homemade curry mayonnaise dip. Aaron Copland’s ‘Appalachian Spring’ played on WNYC-FM on the radio above the refrigerator. The radio had a TV band as well, because he liked to listen to the MacNeil/Lehrer News Hour on Channel 13 at 6pm, and because ‘there’s no need to watch the news; you only need to listen.’ In 2009, when Jim Lehrer introduced the new NewsHour format, he read some guidelines he considered pillars to his work, including these two: ‘Assume the viewer is as smart and as caring and as good a person as I am,’ and, ‘Assume the same about all people on whom I report.’

The kitchen tiles were maroon linoleum with a Moorish trellis pattern. Dad had designed and built two counters with storage units below. One was attached to the stove and curved around to the entrance to the kitchen. My brother Jim and I ate all our meals here, except on nights when we had family dinners in the dining room. The latter room my father had painted and then added a heavy lace stucco to the walls and ceiling both, along with a Christmas-tree-light chandelier with hand-painted gold leaves. A room fit for bacchanalia. The other counter he built was next to the dishwasher. In addition to the storage beneath it, there was also an 18-inch square cutting board raised ¾ inch from the top. Around the cutting board were glazed tiles he had purchased in East Harlem. I had gone with him when I was about eight or nine.

Dad had wanted to be an architect but, as his mother died when he was nine and his father, later remarried, died when he was 20 in 1941, he was forced to quit college as a junior and begin earning money to help out his two younger half-brothers, his half-sister and his widowed step-mother.

He was a page at NBC on Sixth Avenue and used to go across the street to Hurley’s and buy two ryes for the cost of one whiskey.

photo: nickmur

A tile from Spanish Harlem

After both my parents died, some of the most difficult things to get rid of were the kitchen utensils.  Most were useless:  old, grease-encrusted relics of the 60s and 70s that these two frugal people had bought or found along the way of their married life and had been deployed literally thousands of times while I was growing up on the Upper East Side of Manhattan.

 

I remember Mom’s and Dad’s actions in the kitchen because of these egg beaters and ladles – the way the two of them moved like dancers between stove and counter and sink and refrigerator.  These utensils defined their domesticity and care for my younger brother and me.  Yet they were of little use for me and my wife.  They were broken or about to be broken.  Throwing them away, however, was like discarding living memories.  Yet one survived.  A spatula with a wooden handle and six-inch long blade with 1/2-inch holes in it makes it the perfect pancake tool.

 

When the Lovely K and I traveled from New England to the City in early December 2001, about two weeks after Mom died, to go through the apartment and determine what to keep and what to toss, I came in contact for the first time with how much a pack rat my dad was.

 

He had been born in 1921 and grew up during the Depression in Babylon, New York.  He often told me how men would come to his back door which led into his family’s kitchen and ask for a hot meal.  He wouldn’t tell my brother Jim and me these stories during dinner, in order to get us to eat our food.  He would just tell us to tell us.  His mother died when he was nine, and he also had to get rid of his dog when he was young because of an onset of asthma.  His early childhood was marked more by hardship than by joy.  His father remarried and had a daughter and two sons, and then his dad died when my father was a junior at Hamilton College.  He quit school a year before graduation to move back home and support his family.  Hamilton considered him an alumnus and they sent him appeals for money, and he went to his 50th anniversary reunion.

 

He told me once, and only once, that he had always wanted to be an architect – he was quite a handy draughtsman and artist – yet he had to get a practical job because of family need.  He went into television as a buyer of movies, mainly westerns, which he watched so many of that he and his colleague would make bets on how they turned out.  He would go to Hurley’s on 49th Street and Sixth Avenue when he got off work and order two ryes for the price of one scotch.  That was a better deal, and who cared if rye didn’t taste as good as scotch.  It was still a better deal.

 

Dad eventually went into advertising sales with Transportation Display Incorporated, which was bought by the Winston Network at one point.  He was there for years, becoming VP of Sales, and finally, at 64, when it went through an LBO, his revenue forecast was not so sanguine as top management wanted, and they fired him.  He sued and claimed that it was age discrimination.  He won and got a modest settlement, something in the neighborhood of $40,000, but he ultimately lost, since this job and his interaction with clients was his life, and his rapid decline started from that point and continued until his suicide in 1998.

 

The apartment’s second bathroom, off the dining room, had a commode and a sink only, intended for a maid who would have lived in this room a hundred years ago when the building was built.  The commode had an overhead tank and a pull chain that caused a rushing sound of water going down a copper pipe about two inches thick.  We called it “the Dragon Toilet.”  Perhaps mom coined the name, and it stuck.  She was known for creative things like that.  She had worked at J. Walter Thompson.

 

When you sat down in that bathroom to do your business, you would look at a floor-to-ceiling storage space – about ten feet of vertical – which had advertising posters from the 1960s, scraps of wood of all sizes and types, and jars upon jars of semi-matching screws and nails and tacks.  It had my father’s tools.  Tools he used to build the kitchen cabinet and countertop covered with the tiles he took me to Spanish Harlem to buy.

 

Tools he never used as an architect.

 

But rather as a father.

 

 

 

photo:  konaboy

Mrs. Spaghetti

Susie Scott was my pre-school girlfriend.  Except in the 1960s it was called “nursery school.”

This is her real name, since there is nothing in this post but admiration for her and because there are many Susie Scotts out there:  I Googled her, and – believe me – her anonymity is secure.

Susie and I attended Park Avenue Christian.  I had graduated at age 3 from Miss Brown’s school, which was on 95th Street between Madison and Fifth, and where I recall singing songs and wetting my pants.  Park Avenue Christian was a full 12 032108anissat2.jpgblocks south of us, at 84th and Park, and most mornings Dad used to walk me and Stuyvie Wainwright, who lived across the street.  Stuyvie’s dad would walk us other mornings.  Sometimes I walked alone with Dad, my two steps and skips trying to keep up with every one of his strides.  I am also using Stuyvie’s real name because, one, it’s a pretty darn cool Upper East Side name – short for Stuyvesant – and he is most likely related to some serious old world celebrities (check out his ancestor’s wikipedia page) and, two, I owe Stuyvie an apology.

In 8th grade, I wrestled him when he was at Buckley and I was at Trinity.  I think I beat him in the end, but I used some unnecessary roughness at one point and made him cry.  Or so I remember it that way.  His dad saw the match and was probably not featuring me.   In any event, Stuyvie, I’m sorry.  I beat you fair and square, but I probably inflicted more pain than needed.  There, my conscience can rest, and I have done my Ninth Step with you, in an e-sort of way.

There’s a picture my parents had of Susie and me sitting on a rock in Central Park, not far – perhaps 50 yards or so – from where I used to make mud pies with glass in them for the Jewish men who sat on park benches and fed the pigeons bread crumbs.  We are holding hands:  I on her left.  Her black hair is pulled back around her ears, and she is smiling like Annette Funicello.

Our teacher was Mrs. Pascetti, whom we all called Mrs. “Spaghetti” since that was either easier to say or a whole lot more fun.  Each afternoon we’d take our naps on our “blankets,” which were usually small pieces of shag carpet.  Mine was yellow with blue trim.

My mom kept it for a few years after nursery school ended.

photo:  anissat

“Urban Haute Bourgeoisie”

My colleague was telling another colleague about “Metropolitan,” Whit Stillman’s 1990 true film about the upper crust independent school scene in New York City, in which I grew up but in which I was the protagonist in real life, the proverbial red-headed boy in a sea of tow-headed trustafarians, the one whose modest background remained largely hidden – the one who never told his friends that we bought our toothpaste from Korvette’s department store and whose primary and secondary education Mommy’s rich daddy bought for me and my brother and that my own dad probably put up a public fight over but secretly acquiesced gladly to because he was all for Korvette brand toothpaste – and which I attempted to hide by intricately weaving myself into the drug/drinking/promiscuous party lifestyle.  I gained access only through my success in this endeavor.

On Saturday nights, we could be often found at Pedro’s (listed in the once widely-circulated and obsessively adhered 030208leroys.jpgto Preppie Handbook), literally a 25-foot square room that accommodated what seemed to be hundreds of yuppies and high school kids with fake IDs, all drinking Spaten from 16-ounce steins or putting back “tidal waves,” a concoction of vodka, Southern Comfort, orange juice, grenadine and Rose’s lime juice.

My high school classmate Michael, whose middle name Ashley became his nom de guerre during college, could basically open his throat and pour a stein of Spaten down in less than two seconds.  We timed him.  Seriously.  It was inhuman.  He didn’t have an esophagus; he had a PVC tube running down to his stomach.

One night during college, when I went to Pedro’s during Christmas break with my friends, I returned home sometime between midnight and 5:00 a.m. – can’t be more specific than that – and I saw a homeless guy sitting on the front step of a locked residential building about a block away from my house at 96th and Madison.  It was maybe 20 degrees out, if you were under a streetlight.  I had pity, and I took off my scarf and wrapped it around his neck.  He looked up with as much gratitude as I had rationality.  I thought this act of mine atoned for the previous eight hours at Pedro’s.

Of course, it didn’t.

Only one act could.

And that act wasn’t up to me.  And I wasn’t up to it.

photo:  leroys

MOVE!!!

How the neighborhood guy with the Hummer finds a spot to park on New York City streets is beyond me.

Tonight I saw it on the northwest corner of 84th and West End Avenue.  Other days I’ve seen it on 84th itself, between Riverside and West End.  It is metallic slate, or metallic taupe – if a guy would be caught dead driving a car of this hue, which fits more the color of Karen’s bridesmaids dresses than a machine that can scale sixteen inches of vertical.  Actually, the website calls it “Graystone Metallic.”  In the Hummer 2 that I am building on its website as I read this – in a separate 021108alve.jpgtab of Internet Explorer made possible by the fine vision of Bill Gates and his crew that will one day also bring us YahooSoftCitibankLite – I chose a model with a First Aid and Tool Kit.  ‘Cuz you never know.  So far it is costing me $58,250.

I also included a sun roof, ebony leather seats – can you believe anyone would put upholstery in one of these babies…?!  Please!! – 17″ polished aluminum wheels, wrap brush grille guard (make sure you spell grille with an “e,” please:  I am spending a lot of money to have extra vowels that serve no purpose), chrome wrap brush guard (cuz I can), chrome hood louver (cuz it’s more chrome), and two removable “U” steps to make it easier to get in the cab since I have very little in the way of developed quadriceps or hamstring muscles.  I’m at $60,850, and I better stop while I’m ahead, because my budget’s $61K and I’ll still have enough to buy the Chemistry 101 textbook for my oldest son when he ships off to college in ten years.

And then there’s Ed.  Ed’s a family friend who owned a Honda Accord and for many years kept it parked off Park Avenue on 94th Street, because he could.  He snuggled his two-door coupe in a space only he seemed to know about between a fire hydrant and the corner.  He knew how much room legally had to go between his front bumper and the fire hydrant, and between his rear bumper and the crosswalk, over which he must not extend, and apparently the brownies who ticketed him multiple times thought they knew, too.  Each time he got ticketed, he’d protest in writing.  And he won, each time.

Ed was terrible to drive with in traffic, however.  I once had the pleasure of his company returning from Long Island with his wife and daughter and had a delightful conversation until we hit the 59th Street bridge and stand-still traffic.  He started contemplating jumping a 6″ high concrete divider and driving along a pedestrian walkway.  He would turn the wheel violently to the right and left while we were stopped and shouted obscenities at the drivers in front of him.  His face turned redder than his usual ruddy complexion by about 6 shades on the Benjamin Moore scale.  I thought he would suddenly eat someone, starting with a passenger and continuing his way forward.  Or have a heart attack.

Eventually we got going and, of course, he committed no crimes, whether moving violation or cannibalistic.  Most of my memories of him are much fonder, like how he carved a turkey at holidays:  a jerking action with a long, serrated knife, not producing slices so much as chunks of bird.

But I’m telling you.  Don’t get in front of him in traffic.

Just don’t.

photo:  alve

Polyester shirt

Dressed in cordovan penny loafers, chinos, white shirts with Trinity ties – navy blue with gold shield motifs – and blue blazers, we hopped on the #96 crosstown bus at 7:15, no matter what the weather.

In grades 1 to 3, Roddy, Danny and I had a fourth grade chaperone, compensated by our parents for his efforts.  One year it was Grady, the headmaster’s middle son.  He was okay.  We paid little attention to him, and it was mutual.  When he was a little older, he broke his leg and – when recovering on crutches – he dropped one of them through the stairwell down seven flights in Danny’s apartment building just to see what would happen.

I doubt he even sat with us, those “little kids.”  We had colored rectangular bus passes, different color each month.  Wrong color, no ride.  Though I didn’t know anyone who was actually kicked off the bus for the wrong pass.  Kids bootlegged them all the time.  Or they took a purple pass from 1975 to use in 1978 and kind of wrinkled the year real good so you couldn’t read it from the bus driver’s seat.

We rode across the park through the 96th Street transverse and got off at 97th and Columbus, at that time a fair to poor area where, half a block south at the intersection of 96th Street and Columbus I once saw a pair of squad cars come screeching to a halt around a getaway station wagon full of thugs who the police had been chasing, and the cops jumped out of their cars with their guns drawn and aimed at the station wagon.  I only saw an occurrence like this once, however.

081907polyestershirtralev-com.jpgWe’d walk six blocks south to 91st Street to school, past the public high school – actually there were two schools, one on either side, and I never was sure what levels each was, middle or high, but both were filled with white-kid-haters.  And every now and then the black kids would be there in the morning just looking to hassle us, and one time a couple of them punched my brother Jim and me in the face just because.  Just because.

Danny befriended the only black kid in our class, Darnell.  He later hung out with black kids much more than I did, and I doubt he got picked on like Jim and I.  He would buy polyester black pants and wide lapel print shirts from Korvette’s Department store on 46th Street.

This pretty much assured that he wouldn’t be mugged.

Photo:  ralev_com