Wednesday, January 9, 2008

Before Consciousness

I was born prematurely and my mother spent ten days in the hospital. The bill she saved from Mary Immaculate Hospital in Jamaica, New York shows $85.00 for her room, $15.00 for the delivery room, $5.00 for laboratory fees, and 25 cents for “special medicine.” Dr. Siner’s bill for “confinement, prenatal and postnatal care” was $125.00, so it cost $230.25 to bring me into this world. This was 1942 when a new car was less than $1,000 and a gallon of gasoline was 15 cents.

It’s difficult to write with enthusiasm about something you’d like to forget. But a lot of life is about stupid choices and my high school years in particular seemed to have an abundance of those. I was a product of New York City schools, Public School 90 and Richmond Hill High School.

My early schooling was unexceptional and without much merit. My kindergarten report card revealed more about the times than me. I had high marks for posture and satisfactory ratings for cleanliness, and the ability to use a handkerchief and covering my mouth when coughing. I also displayed good working habits, showing improvement in the ability to express myself and to speak clearly. Unfortunately, I needed improvement in the ability to dress alone.

Going to and from school, walking along 107th Street to Jamaica Avenue and onto Public School 90 were social events, gathering friends for the hike. We talked mostly about vacations and the upcoming summer, plans of playing ball until dark, roaming the neighborhood on our bikes, or watching Captain Video and His Video Rangers and Hopalong Cassidy on our recently acquired DuMont TV.

For me, excelling at baseball and its variants, punch ball, stickball and stoopball, became a priority to compensate for being one of the younger kids in the neighborhood and being smaller. I learned to throw hard and accurately, throwing a baseball with my older, next-door friend, Skip, who settled behind a manhole, which became home plate. Put a rubber Spalding in my hand and I would whip it against the garage doors on 107th and Atlantic Avenue, side arm, overhead, fastball, curve or screwball, or throw it at the right angle on a stoop step for a home run.

During the first few years of schooling my most difficult “subject” was penmanship. I was one of the first generations where they no longer forced left-handers to become right-handers. Instead, we sat at right-handers’ desks but were nonetheless expected to produce perfect cursive handwriting. This problem came to a head when I nearly flunked the 5th grade because of my handwriting, but my Plaster of Paris rendition of a Mississippi river boat won awards, redemption, and allowed me to pass into the 6th grade.

One part of the summers I looked forward to was our annual two-week rental of a cottage in Sag Harbor, usually during the end of August. Mysteriously, the clouds of family conflict would clear briefly for that event and we would spend the days on Peconic Bay. There was a food shack on the beach, where we would get a frank or hamburger with salty French fries bathed in ketchup, listening to Teresa Brewer belting out “I don't want a ricochet romance, I don't want a ricochet love” on the jute box. It was in Sag Harbor where I developed a love of boating, renting a rowboat with a small Johnson outboard engine. It was also where I went through my first hurricane when Hurricane Carol in 1954 drove water into the first floor of our rental, blocks from the Bay.

I give my mother credit for buying a piano and insisting that I take lessons. I did so reluctantly and practiced as little as possible and after two years of occasional classical lessons, I was allowed to quit. A few years later, I voluntarily took guitar lessons hoping that some of Elvis’ charisma would magically materialize through me. When that did not happen, I quit those lessons too but that paved the way for learning what, at the time, was called “popular” piano – playing by improvising chords. To this day, piano is very much part of my life.

While posture, politeness and penmanship may have been the most admired childhood attributes of the post WW II era, McCarthyism, the Korean War, and the constant shadow of nuclear war with Russia lurked in the background. Frequent air raid drills disrupted our days, having to hibernate under our desks while shades were drawn, presumably to shield from the light and fallout of a nuclear blast. While this “protection” was preposterous, one has to wonder how those drills psychologically impacted our generation.

My graduation from the 8th grade and my choice of Latin as my foreign language put me directly into Richmond Hill High School instead of the “Annex” where most freshman went. I would have been better off staying with my class plus at that time we moved to another home in Richmond Hill, near Kew Gardens, leaving my neighborhood friends.

Unfortunately, I squandered the first few high school years mostly because fleeing my house was my highest priority -- anything to escape the litany of strife between my parents. In another era, my parents would have divorced, but instead they stayed together and were at constant war, with the fallout on my sister and myself.

My poor mother; she never really understood her self-imposed prison of a marriage. She was racked with guilt and rage, constantly trying to “justify” herself in the eyes of my sister and myself. Who was “right” and who was at “fault” obsessed her (and, in a more passive way, my father as well). Her letter to me, written soon after I graduated from college, shows her ongoing misery. It is a deeply sorrowful letter, but I share it below as it ties together much of my youth.

My solution was to disappear, onto the subways of New York, into sports, to my neighbors, out on the streets, or setting pins at the bowling alley of a local men’s club. I finally fell in with the “wrong crowd” – a group of kids who were hell bent on destroying their lives in some way.

One of them, Paul, was my best friend during my early high school years. He was a rebel with a James Dean aura. In later life Paul became a psychedelic artist. His road to that distinction was paved when he first learned to carve simple tattoos into himself using India Ink, graduating to having professional tattoos injected all over his body. He and I would go off to a Coney Island tattoo parlor on the subway for those. For some reason, I hesitated doing the same (probably because it was painful). When I read John Irving's haunting and enigmatic Until I Find You I couldn’t help but think of Paul.

We were members of a small “gang” along with Livio and John. Livio’s parents had a small shed in the back of their house, which we turned into a clubhouse. There we smoked, drank and did other stuff our parents would disapprove of; when we finally got caught we built an underground clubhouse in Forest Park, near the railroad tracks where we could hide and continue our antics.

It wasn’t until Paul’s tattoos were “discovered” by his parents (they were under his clothes, never exposed) and John got into trouble with the law that the clubhouse started to disintegrate. Finally, as a junior in high school, I was free of that influence.

Luckily for me, a “new kid” on the block moved in around the corner at about that time. Ed did not go to my school but instead commuted to Brooklyn Tech. His family had cultural values that were new to me. Whereas most of my generation worshiped Elvis and the like, Ed was into Frank Sinatra and jazz. I’ll never forget the first time I heard his recording of Ahmad Jamal at the Pershing playing But Not for Me. I called him “Ed Cool.”

I grew up in a household where most of the books were the Reader’s Digest condensed version, along with a collection of zither music on vinyl 78s. We never went to the theatre but instead watched TV, Milton Berle’s Texaco Star Theater, Sid Caesar's Show of Shows, and The Ed Sullivan Show. So, I found my own voice and cultural interests through others. In fact, having now escaped my “clubhouse” friends, I befriended neighborhood kids who excelled at school, Ed, Bud, and Ken, and adopted their families.

Bud lived immediately next door and we played on the same church basketball team. We also threw a baseball until dark during summer days, or we would shoot hoops at the backboard over his garage door. He was one grade ahead of me, and he was allowed to drive his father’s T-bird. That opened new geographic as well as social vistas. Bud and sports had a steadying influence at the time.

Ken was an honors student who lived in an apartment house up the street. We watched Sputnik on his rooftop and shared the sense of wonder that accompanied that feat. Little did we realize at the time how much that would change our lives.

By my senior year, I made honor classes in literature and economics (still, may favorite interests). For the first time I also became active in high school activities, becoming one of the school yearbook photographers, using the same Speed Graphic camera my father had during the war. With that camera I prowled the halls like a professional journalist. I began to date and finally had a social life. Judy and I danced to the Theme from Summer Place.

Unfortunately, by this time my three somnambulistic years of high school resulted in a mediocre scholastic average. That, combined with my parents parochial outlook towards schooling left me with few choices for college.

In fact, the “plan” was not to go to college at all. After all, no one from my family other than my Uncle had gone past high school. My father favored my going into the army to learn more about photography so he could ultimately pass on the family photography business (see:

The 1960 Archway yearbook entry reveals much about my limited outlook: “Bob, a member of the Union Cong. Basketball team…most pleasant experience will be graduating…holder of 2 attendance certificates…favorites – H.G. Wells, Yankees, English, all sports…hopes to become photographer. Next stop: Army”

Nonetheless, at the twelfth hour I convinced my father that if I went to college, I could still learn what I needed about photography on the job (as I did during my many years of working with him during the summers). Between my grades, my parents’ reluctance to send me out of state, and my late application, I was accepted on probation as a business major (from which I switched to psychology and eventually literature) at Long Island University in Brooklyn. I commuted there for my first year by subway, worked during the summers, and used my earnings to finally move into the dormitory the second year. That began a new chapter in my life.

October 21, 1964

Dear Bob,

Last night’s conversation with your Father gives me an opportunity to finally explain something to you.

I hope you are aware of his everyday twisting, exaggerations and distortion of every subject and everybody. I hope you are aware, as you saw last night, that he always needs a defender when he has a family discussion or fight. I was put on that telephone last night to back him up; if you recall, you or your sister were always called for help when we had a discussion or fight.

I realized after getting on the phone that I should not have, because I was the one who always ended up having a fight with either you or your sister when I never started it.

I realized after getting on the phone and the recalling of the fact that he did forbid you to continue with the club, and you, of your own effort did so, but later thanked him for having the interest to forbid you.

Your Father’s remembrance of the smoke filled room took place when he helped you boys move the radio and phonograph combo down to the club, but since he is so prone to distortion and exaggeration, this vision exists in his mind as the day, HE flew bodily down to the club and broke it up to teensy weensy bits, took you bodily out and closed up the shack like a GI catching the Gestapo. Pray tell I’ve heard the story enough.

I silently gave you the credit and was happy your Father took the initiative.

I know you don’t want to go further but I hope you read further; I should once in my lifetime be able to explain how his behavior has affected us all.

Your Father has been a good provider and doesn’t spend on “wine women and song.” A lot of men are good providers. But I am reminded daily of this day in and day out.

Do you remember when you children would say to me, “Oh Mommy this cake or cookies or dinner is delicious” and was reminded by him that if it wasn’t for the money he gave me, you wouldn’t have the cookies. The attention then focused upon him – oh isn’t Daddy wonderful, completely pushed me out of the picture and no one gave a damn how many hours it took to make this treat.

When I brought clothes for you children – and I did buy you nice things once – and wanted to display them to your Father at night, and have you go over the thrill of owning them – we were reminded again that if it wasn’t for the money he gave me, you wouldn’t have the clothes.

Your teeth were fixed because he gave you the money; not because I faithfully every six months took you both there. I worked at being a Mother. That WAS my job.

The birthday parties, the Christmas parties and all the other things I did to the best of my ability only existed because your Father gave me money. Little can you Father see that no matter what, I would have given these things even without his money.

Little by little I began to withdraw from doing the things I loved to do. I baked less, I shopped less, I took less interest in the type of clothes I bought for you both. I wouldn’t show them to him. It gets to a point when you get no credit, you don’t give an ounce of care.

When I screamed for credit I was told, “who are you”.

I was brainwashed into “who are you”. Confusion reigned until I realized I didn’t even have the respect or love of my children.

Confusion reigned until I didn’t know how to chose friends anymore. No matter who they were, good, bad or indifferent, they were bums. I was even called a bum by one of my kids.

Perhaps you don’t recall during your high school days you were brainwashed with “who are you” and “what the hell do you know.” You can’t convince me that your high school work suffered from lack of brains; it only suffered from your feeling of nothingness pounded into you by the same brainwashing I received.

We start on your sister now. “Who are you and what the hell do you know,” was her daily message too.

I lost my ability to fight anymore and tried escaping listening to “who are we”.

You rose above all this garbage and did a great job at college. Your Father will take credit for that too. I only hope your sister will do it too. I know she will.

Love, Mom