Showing posts with label LIU. Show all posts
Showing posts with label LIU. Show all posts

Monday, February 18, 2008

Old Friends

It was September, 1960. I commuted to Long Island University by subway that first year in college as my parents did not want the additional expense of room and board and probably wanted to keep me at home as much as possible. It didn’t take too many of those one plus hour commutes and the emotional distress of home life to begin plotting a move into the new 16-story dormitory on campus. I took a part time job in a rug store on Flatbush Avenue a couple days a week and knew the following summer I could work full time at my father’s photography studio. Those two jobs would enable me to save enough money to cover the dormitory cost the following year.

That first year was a lonely one. No other students seemed to be commuting from Queens to Brooklyn. I was not interested in any of the fraternities, and those who lived in the dormitory kept to themselves. Between classes I hung out at the Student Union trying to study, but plotting my escape from home, which I succeed in doing with the beginning of my sophomore year.

Moving into the dormitory presented challenges as most students were already paired with a roommate from the freshman year. I was left with someone no wanted to room with, but, except for his eccentricities, we managed to get along. More importantly, on the same floor I met Bruce who was to become a life-long friend.

Friendships formed in one’s youth seem to have legs those formed later in life sometime lack. Sharing the discoveries of youth as well as some of youth’s indiscretions, without the conditional baggage of later friendships, is a sacred pact, something that allowed Bruce and I to continue a relationship later in life, picking up where we left off after occasional absences. No doubt email has made this possible as well.

We saw an iconoclastic side in one another and took pleasure in spending nights reading and writing poetry and listening to Rachmaninoff. Tchaikovsky, and Beethoven, sometimes to the detriment of our studies. Bruce was an English major and was influential in my eventual switch to literature as my major.

As a native New Yorker, I introduced him to the sensations and sins of the city, enjoying occasional weekend nights on the town, downing beers or Black Russians at bars in Brooklyn or Greenwich Village, going to dances at Barnard College, passing ourselves off as Columbia students (I used to laugh at his choice of moniker, introducing himself as Randolph Wallace III with a straight face). During semester breaks, when I could occasionally inveigle my parent’s 1956 Buick Century, I would visit him in Trenton and we’d drive around to nowhere, sometimes with other friends. We once ended up on Jones Beach in the middle of the winter, in the middle of the night, just for the hell of it.

For some inexplicable reason, our school chose us to be representatives to the National Student Association meeting during the summer of 1962 at Ohio State University, where we stayed at a dormitory in Columbus for several weeks. Bruce had bought an old Chrysler – vintage 1952 or so – and somehow we made it to Ohio and back again, the car biting the dust as we drove through Manhattan. It was one of those trips of laughter and discovery.

In Ohio we followed the billboards one day that extolled the wonders of the Olentangy Caverns. There must be a number of entrances to the Caverns but the billboard led us to someone’s house. Apparently, this particular entrance was through their basement. A young teenage boy from the family was our guide and immediately launched into the history of the Caverns like an android. When Bruce and I looked at one another the absurdity of the scene hit us and during the entire “tour” our laughter mounted while the boy’s recitation continued, which just begot more laughter, to the point of uncontrollability. I don’t think I’ve ever laughed that hard in all my life, an experience that just further anointed our friendship.

His passion for F. Scott Fitzgerald and Thomas Wolfe became deep-rooted with me as well and I attribute my love of contemporary American literature to Bruce. I thought Bruce would become a writer of similar stature. And he is an excellent writer, but after doing graduate work at the University of Kansas, he began to teach high-school English and before he was really established in that profession, not to mention writing, he was drafted and served time in VietNam. I escaped that fate as I was already married and had a child. The picture to the left shows us with my son Chris in 1965, before Bruce was shipped off to Nam. Sometimes I feel guilty I didn’t share that burden, but at the time I felt great relief at my propitious although unplanned timing.

We drifted apart after Vietnam, with an occasional letter here and there but some twenty years after we met, we had a “family reunion,” he and his wife and his children and my family getting together in Worcester. I had two sons and he had two daughters. I was then running a publishing company and Bruce was the Chairman of the English department of a Massachusetts high school. It was as if no time had passed at all and to this day we stay in touch and occasionally get together. Following that reunion in 1992 my “old friend” wrote a terrific essay about the experience:

Old Friends

By Bruce Rettman

By the end of February, New England winter is perpetually gray. The wind blows cold, and the streets are covered with the sandy dirt of road clearing trucks. When the phone rang and the voice of an old friend sounded, it cut through the gloom of this most awful of seasons.

I had not seen Bob for twelve years and before that only occasionally, but we had been very close in college sharing a love of literature as a way to understanding ourselves and a fondness for the mature consumption of alcohol at swank bars. We were partners. After graduation we had gone separate ways and led separate lives, but still we would call each other and exchange occasional letters, and though the spaces were great, we would see each other now and then. Christmas cards full of promises to get together had flown back and forth through the years. But in the rush of life, twelve years had passed since our last brief visit. Children had grown, mine were twelve and fourteen. He had a son, now working, by a first marriage and another just beginning high school, a year older than my daughter. Over the span of twenty-eight years since we graduated, our families had never met Bob had met my wife, but I had never met his. I had never met his children, but in the middle of February gloom, he was proposing we meet for brunch in a city near my home where he was visiting his older son who ironically had settled close to me. He explained that his whole family would be there and asked if I would bring my family. "Sure," I said. "Sure."

We met at a hotel for its fancy brunch. Bob had actually suggested he might not recognize me. "Maybe you should wear a yellow boutonniere or something," he said, but we spotted each other in the lobby, shook hands with old familiarity and started kidding about hair loss. I've been bald a long time; Bob was fighting his. We were slapping at each other's heads as though in a dorm room in the midst of youth and laughter. Bob had made arrangements for the eight of us, and we sat at a long table, his family on one side mine on the other. I sat across from Bob. My wife sat across from his wife.

Bob pulled out a manila envelope filled with the letters I had sent him through the years, especially the ones I had written when I was young in my twenties. He brought out a letter written when I learned of his first wife's pregnancy. My eyes wandered over the words that expressed my joy that he was beginning a family, promising as well that I would never put myself in the same predicament. He asked me to read it, but when my eyes fell on the old words, I knew I could never read it without my voice shattering. "I can't read that," I told him and wasn't sure if he knew why. Remembering what I looked back on as the brutish insensitivity of my youth, the gentleness of these words surprised and touched me. When I gave the letter back to him, Bob read my vow of bachelorhood, and we all laughed. I put my arm around my wife of twenty-five years.

Then he offered other less delicate prose full of Sturm and Drang, dreams and posturing. We passed the letters around, Bob asking that his sons take care to read them because I had offered advice on how to raise them. When I looked down the table Ali, Ann, Jonathan and Christopher were hitting it off talking about CD's and tapes, the food and force of contemporary youth. Bob had played the piano and introduced me to Rachmaninoff and Beethoven beginning my love of classical music. Looking down at the old letters, I remembered the dorm and listening to my first symphony. Then Bob said, "I really thought you would write something important." Back there in time's summer, I thought so too, but I had done well as a teacher. Bob had made an enormously successful life in publishing, the president of a major academic publishing house.

Perhaps that explained that he had brought with him my old words and had allowed me to see the self I had once been. I became absorbed for a time in these words and needed to push myself away to Bob's wife Ann and to find out about her business. She chartered cruises and had recently returned from the Greek Isles. She and Bob had a boat, and my old friend had a new facet as a sailor.

We returned a bit to scenes of our youth--a ride out on Long Island when we stayed all night on the beach, a trip to Ohio State as representatives of our college. We remembered an old ice cream place near the elevated train where we went a few times for late night ice cream. I was moving randomly through places playing a kind of mnemonic game trying to remember the self of those old pages.

Bob pulled out a letter about a girl 1'd met, a divorcee much older than I with two children. It was full of braggadocio. I remembered the girl.

We put aside the letters and talked about the darkness of parents dying. Bob had carried on his back his cancer stricken father out of the house Bob had been raised in to take him to the hospital. I told him about being at my mother's bedside when she died. We talked about the prospect of being grandparents, and I tried to say but couldn't because the feeling was too deep that my father whom I had dearly loved had never seen my children. We talked about work and current projects. We sat there gathering in our families, gathering in our lives as though in a dusky dorm room.

When it was all over, we walked to the lobby, took pictures and said good-bye having found in a new time an old friendship that turned out to have existed in a way neither of us had understood. We had taken out an old piece of silver and had rubbed it a bit. It glittered anew, and we saw our faces in the shining surfaces. In the middle of life, we had taken heed of time's passage and had found out that neither time nor event could take the measure of love -- love of family, love of friends. In the commotion of eating breakfast, amidst the crowded togetherness of our families, in the exchange of thought and memory, two old friends had gotten to feel for a moment the force and beauty of life passing and being lived--nothing more, nothing less. Just that.

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