A Carload of Innocents

by Elaine Greene Weisburg

Rummaging recently through an overstuffed file drawer, I found a packet of snapshots taken on a cross-country motor trip from Forest Hills, Queens, to Los Angeles, California. The year was 1946; the month was June. The travelers were my mother, the excellent and only licensed driver aboard, her mother, my kid sister, and I, holder of a learner’s permit. The plan was for me to drive a little to relieve my mother. It was legal and I really knew how.

One of the rediscovered black-and-white snapshots showed me in a printed cotton dress posing beside a shield-shaped road sign saying Route 66, which, as the popular song said, “winds from Chicago to L.A.” A mildly interesting fact is that I remember the colors of the dress. A more interesting and actually astonishing fact is that Route 66, a major highway between the middle west and far west of our country—in other words, an interstate— was two lanes wide, one in each direction! Some of the cities and towns we went through were St. Louis, Joplin, Oklahoma City, Amarillo, Gallup, Flagstaff, and San Bernardino—place names I recall easily through the words of the song.

We were traveling to see the country and to visit my mother’s kid sister, Sylvia, who with her husband, Irving, and her in-laws, was operating a chicken farm in the San Fernando Valley. The four adults, native New Yorkers, had moved there during the Depression and were assisted in becoming farmers by California’s department of agriculture. My cousin Joan, thirteen at the time of our visit, was a toddler when they moved. Tall and lanky Uncle Irving was my only low-key uncle and my favorite out of four. He took us to the track at Santa Anita during our visit and taught me how to read the Daily Racing Form. I was prouder of that than of reading poetry in French. None of us bet more than four dollars for the day; breaking even was considered a win, although Uncle Irving, as usual, came out ahead. I haven’t been to a track since, but I keep up with racehorse movies and they always remind me of him.

When my aunt, a trained light-opera singer, wasn’t cleaning, sizing, and packing eggs, she took us sightseeing. One destination was Knott’s Berry Farm, a farmers’ market and souvenir shop; another was a museum of ancient natural prehistory, La Brea Tar Pits. We also attended a fashion show luncheon at Bullock’s Wilshire department store, which I remember vividly because a fat, inch-long leaf-green caterpillar was creeping through my salad. I considered myself a hero when I did not mention this to my companions. Or scream.

My mother had planned the trip with the help of the travel department at the American Automobile Association, the Triple A. She had pages of maps with the route marked in pale purple ink plus confirmed room reservations for every night. The cross-country drive, which my husband and son made in five days a few years ago, took us twice as long because my mother limited us to 250-300 miles a day. She gave driving her full attention, only asking me to spell her now and then, and she wanted to be in the shower by four every afternoon. She felt this was all Grandma could take, but Grandma proved to be a good road traveler.

My sister and I complained more than our grandmother did and what we complained about was the heat. I don’t know who chose the southern route for driving in June when there was a northern route in existence. Cars were not air-conditioned then, nor were most accommodations. I picked up athlete’s foot along the way and cured it in one day by sticking the afflicted bare foot out the car window in the hot sun. Toward the end of our trip we began to notice that numerous other cars had damp-looking canvas bags hanging on their front bumpers. At the next gas station we asked the attendant what they were. He said they carried a gallon of water in case the radiator boiled over. “Oh, we should have one,” Mother told him, “for when we get to the desert.” He peered into the car to see who else was there. Nobody smart, obviously. “Ladies,” he said, “where did you come from?” Mother told him. “Ladies,” he said, “You have been in the desert for two days.”

We bought a water bag, although we never had to use it. You can’t blame us Easterners for not recognizing a desert terrain: we all thought the desert would look like an endless sandy beach and there were lots of plants growing here.

Our accommodations matched our car–this was the first post-war year after all, the first year civilians were permitted to buy unrationed gas and resume such travel. You might even say we were traveling to celebrate peace. Our car was a pre-war second-hand black Plymouth with a temperamental fuel pump. Every hotel and motel along the way was pre-war and patched up, which didn’t bother us. I don’t remember most of them, other than one in the Southwest consisting of individual teepee-shaped, teepee-decorated units sleeping two. My sister and I addressed each other in Lone Ranger-Indian style during our overnight stay: “How, sister. Got-um toothpaste?”

It was out in this barren country–maybe the next day–that the stuttering fuel pump finally gave out at the top of a steep rise. We had no choice but to let gravity take us downhill where there stood a gas station in the middle of nowhere. The well-spoken Indian mechanic on duty happened to have a new fuel pump that would work in the Plymouth and he fixed us up with minimal delay. Thinking about this trip now and the problems and even dangers we might have faced, I feel a guardian angel was watching over this carload of innocents. I sometimes wonder how my father let us go. Another innocent, I guess.

Along the way we made a few major tourist detours to see Hoover Dam, the Grand Canyon, and Las Vegas. I recognize in pictures of today’s Las Vegas the place I saw in 1946 when it was far, far smaller but just as glitzy. What really showed us our country’s vast complexity was the day-to-day panorama we drove through, revealing remarkable geographical and cultural differences.

When we got to L.A., Grandma was a guest on the farm while Mother, my sister, and I stayed at the Hotel Miramar overlooking the Pacific in Santa Monica. It is a luxurious place now, compete with bungalows; during our stay it was modest and pleasant. I learned an important lesson about California one day sunbathing at the nearby beach. The locals bragged so much about their state that I didn’t believe them when they said the sun was stronger there than in New York. I was wearing a two-piece swimsuit and my midriff got so burned that it looked like raw meat. I had to lie in bed on my back for two days, thinking the locals were right about one thing anyway.

We were all glad to be seeing the West Coast, but none of us wanted to move there. Just the slow-motion tempo of simple transactions like buying shampoo drove me crazy. The original idea had been to drive back but we all agreed that crossing the country once was glorious and crossing the country once was enough. At the end of her stay, Mother put the car on a ship that took it back east through the Panama Canal and my sister and I left two weeks early on the train. A letter from my boyfriend about going to Jones Beach with a former Chief Petty Officer (a girl) and about how she awarded him her Good Conduct ribbon had the desired effect on my peace of mind. Back I went.

From L.A. to Chicago we were on El Capitan, famous for its beautiful “Big Dome” lounge car from which you could watch the scenery going by. Here in a few sessions a college boy taught us how to play poker. We loved going to the dining car with its little lamps on each table and far better food than we’d found on the road. Late one night we stopped for a long time in a station—Omaha I think—and I looked through the window in my berth at a mysterious scene devoid of any people or color until we pulled out.

I believe every American should drive across the country once and not just on major highways. I am grateful we traveled on the song-worthy Route 66. And I was thrilled to discover only recently that John Steinbeck, who knew it as the Dust Bowl farmers’ escape route to California, called this highway the Mother Road.

Elaine Greene Weisburg spent about twenty years each at House & Garden (Conde Nast) and House Beautiful (Hearst) as design reporter and features editor, eventually editing a memoir column and two memoir anthologies.

Arthur J. Kolatch

by Walter Weglein

Arthur J. Kolatch died in 2011. His obituary was in the papers. AP from the West Coast. I’d forgotten all about him, I was surprised that he’d become such a big deal. But then my daughter, the wife of a strict Orthodox Jew, knew he’d written many learned books about Judaism. She’d read some of them.

From the obit I learned that he was 11 years older than I was. When I was 12 years old I’d thought of him as much older. As the newly appointed assistant rabbi of Anshe Emeth Temple and Hebrew School principal in Youngtown, Ohio, one of his tasks was to prepare sons of congregation members for their Bar Mitzvahs. That’s how I first met him and how he helped me turn my unhappy young life around.

I was born in 1930 in Nuremberg, Germany, the son of moderately prosperous parents. Even in 1930, before Hitler became Reich chancellor, my parents sensed the tensions of being Jews in the waning years of the Weimar Republic and its extreme anti-Semitism, and so, like many of them, they decided to have only one child.

I loved my young life in Nuremberg. I lived across the street from the moat and hilltop castle that divided the modern city with its art deco houses from the walled old city. Cobblestoned streets wound among ancient leaning stone houses in the town center. As a 5-year-old I was never aware of danger as I walked among the marching Nazi soldiers to the center of town, where my mother’s parents and brother owned the city’s largest luggage store. The store was on the ground floor of the main shopping street. My grandparents lived on the floor above, while the top floor housed the workshop where the large steamer trunks were manufactured.

I went to a Jewish school outside the city walls, which was still isolated from the turmoil in the city, a city that would ultimately become famous for the dreaded Nuremberg Laws. Most of my family—uncles, aunts, cousins—lived in nearby Fuerth. We visited them almost every weekend, where, as the ‘baby’ in the family, on Chanukah I always got a new piece for my electric train from an uncle who was ‘king’ of the world-renowned Nuremberg toy business.

I only became tense and unhappy when my parents and I emigrated late in 1939, among the last of Nuremberg’s Jews to flee Hitler. Most of my relatives would later die in concentration camps.

A few months after our arrival in New York with its large Washington Heights concentration of “refs,’’ as the German Jews were called, my unhappiness grew. The Hebrew Immigration and Sheltering Service (HIAS) relocated us to Ohio where HIAS believed my unemployed father would be able to find work.

My mother, who had never worked, put to good use her girlhood training as a baby nurse, tending to the needs of large Jewish American families. It took awhile, but my father finally found a job in a factory that prepared heavy leather hides, very different from the office work he was used to as the comptroller for his uncles’ large chain of shoe stores throughout Germany. The heavy labor contributed to the heart attack he would suffer when I was in high school.

My own life in Youngstown was painful too. Though we lived among the few Jewish families who had fled the Nazis and had settled on Youngstown’s pleasant Northside, I went to a grade school where no Jewish students attended and plenty of young hecklers called me a “Nazi” because of my German accent, which I tried rapidly to lose, although apparently not fast enough. The girls by and large ignored me, except one who followed me around. She had a clubfoot.

I took refuge after school in the Youngstown Public Library, where I lost myself among English and American books, all new to me. I also loved Hebrew School at Temple Anshe Emeth. Shortly after Mr. Kolatch arrived, he started giving me Bar Mitzvah instruction. Sensing my unhappiness, he appointed me ‘director’ of the temple’s small library. He turned my Bar Mitzvah preparation into fun. He told me what books to read for pleasure and urged me to develop my writing skills. I guess today you’d call him my mentor. He was still a bachelor and must have roomed with one of the congregation members. Later he would have a large family with many children on the West Coast.

One of the loves we shared was New York City. After my Bar Mitzvah, I spent part of each of my summer vacations there with my uncle, aunt and two cousins who had arrived from Germany a year ahead of us. I constantly roamed the city streets with the $2 a week unlimited ride subway pass. Kolatch would tell me where to go and what to see. It was obvious from the way he spoke that his love for New York—his home town—was as great as mine. Fort Tryon Park and the Cloisters, to Times Square, Rockefeller Center, Washington Square, the Battery and the farmlands in outer Brooklyn and the beaches of Coney Island and Rockaway—I loved it all. Each summer I yearned for those two weeks, which began with the fifteen hour Greyhound bus ride to the city. A round trip cost $15 in 1943.

Ultimately it was Kolatch who made me a man, not in the Bar Mitzvah sense but by helping me find my self-confidence. By the time I entered junior high school I had started to make friends. Some of those friendships have lasted a lifetime.

I’d forgotten all about my childhood mentor until I saw that Times article in 2011. It reminded me that my long life has been filled with people who’ve helped me smooth out some pretty rough patches. I’m grateful for all of them and for the self-confidence they instilled in me, and for my long-forgotten mentor, Arthur J. Kolatch.

Walter Weglein is a former editor of the Voices print edition, along with Judith Fried.  His writing has been in journalism, public affairs,government affairs and speech writing …never a published author, his most appreciative audience has been his wife, Phyllis, his son, David, and his daughter, Jessica, a superb writer…


by Charles Troob

My father’s friend Ben–a writer of documentaries and one hilariously bad play–was a schnorrer, a Yiddish word that means “freeloader,” or sponger. Like much of Yiddish, it comes with a smile. We admire the chutzpah of the schnorrer at the same time that we deplore it.

Ben once visited my family on a fine September day. After lunch–Ben always came before lunch and stayed for dinner–he and I went out to the back terrace. I’d just returned from a year in swinging London, and I had on a broad-brimmed cap from Carnaby Street, royal blue with large black polka dots.

Natty Ben admired the cap. Then he asked me to get him one like it. I was startled but amused. “Gee, Ben,” I said, “I’m not going there any time soon. I’ll give you the name of the shop. You can order it.”

A half hour later he solemnly took me aside. “Charles, don’t take this personally, but I have an interesting story I think you should hear. I once told a friend how much I liked his shirt, and you know what he did? He took it right off and gave it to me.”

“Ben,” I said, “that is very interesting. I’m really glad you told me.” And I was. I repeated the story for years, long after I tossed away that hideous cap.

When Dad died, Ben—now well over 90–phoned from Connecticut, where he lived with his third and wealthiest wife. After heartfelt condolences, he said that Dad had promised him his tuxedo, and would I send it on? It gave me much pleasure to pack up the tux and ship it. Ben called to thank me, and then asked about the formal shirt that went with it.

A shirt? A perfect ending for this story! But we had already taken Dad’s shirts to Housing Works.

Charles Troob wrote this for the study group on The Art of Writing. Each week the IRP prods me into flexing my writerly muscles. It’s hard work–but if we do it well, it looks easy.

The Mass Murderer

by Alix Kane

We lived in Brooklyn on Washington Avenue, directly opposite the entrance to the Botanical Gardens. The Garden was my magical world, my childhood playground. I was about eight. Every day after school I came home, collected my jar and net and asked a neighbor to cross me to the other side of Washington Avenue. I entered through the main gate, turned left and took the path to a large, muddy pond (much smaller when I returned as an adult.) I stretched out on its muddy banks and waited. There they were, thousands of tiny tadpoles swimming in the water, hiding in the mud; they filled the pond. I was fascinated by the world that existed there. I filled my jar with water, took my net, swooped it through the water and gently turned the net over into my jar and dropped the tadpoles inside. I have few strong memories of my childhood, but I recall this clearly a whole eco-world was captured in my jar.

After a while I returned home and poured the jar into a fish tank that had no fish, only other tadpoles. There were zillions of them, an accumulation of weeks of foraging in my pond.

* * *

I really wanted a dog. My mother did not. For years I tried to negotiate a cat, a bird – anything real, something of substance. Of course she wouldn’t hear of it. Who would walk it? Who would feed it? Who would clean up after it? I would have but nobody listened. So I turned to tadpoles. It was feasible and convenient. A fish tank was provided after months of pleading. Not only did I have a pet – I had thousands of them! Entire communities of tadpoles.

The first time I found the fish tank empty, I didn’t get it. Mom said the dirt killed them, and “Why don’t you begin again? There are lots more where those came from.” Dutifully I returned to my pond. And regularly I found the tank empty. I was young maybe eight or nine, but not stupid. One day I found her flushing the contents of the tank down the toilet. A bitch and a liar!

* * *

In 1963 I was married at nineteen to a young man of twenty-three. My family made the wedding as was proper for the girl’s parents to do back then. As a wedding gift Elliot’s family gave us a budget to furnish our apartment. They were well-off and very generous. In retrospect, it was a huge amount of money, probably as much as our lavish wedding cost. But at the time I had no understanding of the value of either the wedding or his family’s gift. They also told us – not suggested, but told – to use their interior decorator, Michael DeSantis. They didn’t want their contribution going to waste. Michael was well-known in the designer trade and so easy to work with. Whatever we told him we liked, he spun into something of good taste. We said avocado green and lemon yellow. He gave us breen (a combination of brown and green) and muted yellow — much softer and more sophisticated. The apartment was gorgeous. In the end I’m certain we went over budget, but as Michael’s bills went directly to my in-laws, I’ll never know.

When we had ordered all the furniture for our four-room apartment, it was time to think about accessories…the things that really represent the taste and personalities of the occupants: artwork for the walls, tables and shelves – even the floor. Ashtrays (we both smoked).  Stuff.

* * *

Michael and I were roaming through shops one afternoon, and I spotted a large toad, about 12” x 12, ” the colors of our apartment, green and yellow. I swooped it up and announced I wanted it… and more frogs.  “Frogs?” Michael asked. I could see the shock and plunged ahead. “Yes, lots of them. I LOVE frogs!” My past had caught up with me and I wouldn’t be deterred.

And that’s how my collection began. That was 1963, fifty-one years ago. At last count in 2001, when I moved in with my current husband, Bernd, there were about three hundred and fifty. As I unwrapped each one in Bernd’s apartment he was visibly upset. The collection was clearly that: an accumulation of all the frogs I had bought as serious art, received as gifts (when you collect, people bring presents from all over the world) and just cheap chotchke frogs that had caught my fancy in catalogues and store windows. You know, the kind holding an umbrella with a “ribit” sign on the stand.

I saw Bernd’s face. I knew many had to go. But I kept thinking of all the tadpoles that had been flushed away the minute they sprouted legs and began to appear as frogs, and I had a difficult time choosing. In the end I kept all the frogs of real value, as well as those of intrinsic value. Three of them had been at my second wedding under the Chuppah. At Bernd’s request, none had attended my third. Several had been gifts from my grandchildren (a bit tacky but meaningful.) Finally, sadly, I packed up the frogs that would go the way of the toilet and asked Bernd to get rid of them in a humanitarian way. I never asked how. I hope he gave them away to good homes but I doubt it. More likely, they were collected by the Sanitation Department. Hundreds of them.

I’m pleased to say I have survived, although I will never forget that my mother was a mass murderer.

Alix Kane has been writing essays and short stories since college. The IRP Memoir class has lately been the catalyst for the creation of short memoir pieces. Thank you Carmen and Leila!

The Watchmaker and the Soccer Player

by James Gould

Marin Vukovic left home early to walk to his shop before the cruise ships disgorged the tourists so he could pretend that things in Dubrovnik were as they used to be. He saw small trucks and pushcarts making deliveries, a couple of nuns and a few old-timers like him. He walked the stone streets between the stone buildings, looking up at the stone palaces and churches and the twenty foot stone walls. Aside from the red tile roofs, this was a city of stone which was good when the Serbs had fired their artillery.

His route looped by the fountain where a man in Renaissance Guard costume sat reading a newspaper and drinking coffee, his halberd spear at his feet. Soon enough he would be standing at attention for the tourist photos all day, with the only break the marching to the next gate every so often, passing the other guards. “Pretend soldiers who have no idea of war,” Marin thought. Not for the first time, he had the passing thought that the city of his birth, that had withstood centuries of would-be conquerors, was falling to the tourists, turning into a kind of movie location. But what saddened him the most was the declining number of children in the city, a result of foreigners buying apartments for vacation retreats, delayed marriage and young families’ preference for modern apartments. Even his son moved to a high rise.

Marin talked to himself, an indulgence of age. He pondered, “What is a city without children?” He answered, “A museum!” He especially missed the sounds of flocks of boys and girls running past his shop, their shoes slapping on the paving stones, their voices echoing off the stone walls. But it is not easy raising children in a movie set.

Marin shook his head. “Not my city any more. But why think of such bad things on this day? I have too few days remaining and should just enjoy them.” He continued his walk down the Stradun and looked up at the clock tower and its two statues with hammers that rang the bells to mark time. “Even they are not real, just fiberglass and epoxy,” he thought. But the originals were in the museum after years of restoration. “Maybe that’s what they should do with me; do a restoration and put me in a museum with a sign ‘One of the last two watchmakers in Dubrovnik.’”

The clock tower bells rang 7 A.M. as Marin turned back through the gate, past the palace and turned right before the cathedral into the open air market. At least this was real, with people bringing in honey and lavender from the Island of Hvar. When he heard the horn blow on the cruise ships in the harbor signaling the arrival of the shuttle boats, he knew it was time to retreat before the stampede. He bought a paper and walked down the street past the pizza place, the T-shirt shop, the wine tasting store and the souvenir store to his shop.

He looked up at his sign “Expert Watchmaker, All Makes Repaired.” “Some repairs nowadays,” he muttered to himself. With digital watches all he did was replace batteries and broken bands and crystals. And sometimes flush the saltwater out of supposedly waterproof watches tourists wore swimming. No wonder there were only two watchmakers left, the other one even older than Marin. They both would have retired by now had the city council not given them essentially free rent to keep at least some of the old crafts alive.

He unlocked the door and walked into his tiny shop. Three walls had floor to ceiling shelves with clocks and cabinets of drawers with parts and tools. The fourth had the door and his workbench in front of the window. Over the years, as he used his tools less and less, he had neglected to return things to their proper place, a cardinal sin for a watchmaker.

Marin sat at his bench, put on his glasses and started reading the paper. Hours later he was still there, dozing, no customers having disturbed him. He was reliving his student days when he was working on his final examination. To be certified a Master Watchmaker, it was necessary to make a watch from scratch. He remembered the happy hours making the gears and pivots and springs. He was up to the best part when his watch won the first place award when some loud tourists going by awakened him.

Marin stayed in half sleep for a while, holding onto the memory. Then he shook himself and said aloud, “Enough of this foolishness. No customers so no reason to delay lunch.” Lunch was Marin’s favorite meal of the day, the subject of much cogitation. As he was closing up with his mind full of mussels, a young boy of eight or nine came running up.

“Sir, do you fix watches?”

“Can’t you read the sign?” Marin said grumpily.

The boy studied the sign. “So you can fix mine, then.”

Marin thought of the mussels and started to tell the boy to come back after lunch. Then he stopped and looked closely. The boy was trying hard not to cry, knowing that Dubrovnian men were supposed to be strong. But the boy’s lip was quivering. Marin also saw the soccer shirt with the Croatian team colors and the skinned knee.

“What happened?”

“I was goalie in the soccer game and made a dive for a save. When I landed I heard a crunch and when I looked my watch had stopped. Please, can you fix it? My father is in the Merchant Marine and bought it for me when his ship stopped in America. It is my most special thing in the world and I wear it all the time, except for baths and swimming.” The boy said all this without pause on one breathless rush.

Marin smiled, remembering playing soccer himself as a boy.

“One question – did you make the save?”

“Yes. And we won the game.”

“For a gallant goalie, let’s see what we can do. Give me the watch.”

The boy took it off and handed it up. A Mickey Mouse watch.

“Great,” thought Marin. “Just the thing to remind me how far I have fallen.”

He was about to make a sarcastic remark, but was stopped by the boy’s face which was looking at him as a hero. For the first time in quite a while, Marin felt some professional pride. At least someone would appreciate his work.

“Come back after lunch,” Marin said.

“If it’s all right, I would like to stay and watch.” In truth the boy had no appetite with his watch broken.

“You can stay, but keep your hands off things.”

Marin cleared off a space on the cluttered workbench, laid down a piece of chamois, unscrewed the stem and then popped off the press fit back. He took out the broken crystal and replaced it, thinking that it should be called a plastic rather than a crystal. He tried a new battery. Nothing. He put on his magnifiers and looked closely at the electronic circuitry. The tiny printed circuit board had a crack. He could fix many things, but not that. It would have to be replaced.

“Now where did I put that Swatch I found in the street last month with a broken band?” He started opening drawers, then more drawers. With increasing frustration, he remembered the days when he knew the contents of every drawer. That knowledge was gone and the cryptic labels on the drawers did not help.

“My God! Is this what I’ve become? No self-respecting watchmaker would be this disorganized.”  The boy, unaware of this inner turmoil, just kept watching. Finally, Marin found the right drawer. He disassembled the Swatch and put the Swatch innards into the Mickey case. It fit, but loosely. “That will never do for a soccer player like you. You need it snug so it will not rattle around.”

Marin started opening more drawers, looking for the spacer rings that help the movements match the cases. He found the drawer and tried every one. One was close, but not perfect.

“Close is not good enough!” Marin said out loud. Lunch forgotten, he put the closest fitting ring in a tiny anvil and found his jeweler’s saw. He cut an opening in the too-small ring, cut a small section from another ring, and then clamped the cut ends together. Rummaging furiously in the clutter he found his jeweler’s torch and solder. Adjusting the flame to a fine point he soldered, filed and polished the ring. He put the movement in the ring, the ring in the case. Perfect. He fit in a new battery, attached that hands and Mickey face. He reattached the back, set the time and polished the assembled watch.

“Give me your hand.”

Marin fastened the watch on the small wrist as the boy saw the second hand moving. “You did it! You did it!”

Marin smiled, a real smile, the first real smile in a long time. He looked at the boy, then around at his shop and an idea came to him. “Yes, it’s fixed. Now about my payment.”

The boy was suddenly crestfallen. “I don’t have any money. Are you taking the watch back?”

“No. But I have a business proposition for you. You see my shop is a mess. I need someone’s help organizing it again. Someone with small hands. Someone like you. Help me do that and we’re even. Is it a deal?”

The boy’s face lit up. “Yes, it’s a deal. I’ll come by tomorrow after soccer.”

Marin and the boy solemnly shook hands, sealing the deal as men are supposed to do.

The boy went running down the street, as boys who play soccer never walk when they can run.

As Marin locked up he finally thought of his delayed lunch. But mainly he thought that for the first time in a long time he truly looked forward to tomorrow.

James Gould, since retiring after 34 years of patent litigation, has pursued non-legal writing in many genres, including travel, self help, short story and children’s stories. Present projects include a memoir and a screenplay. He also loves travel and City culture.

Revenge Is a Dish Best Served in China

by Moya Duffy

I can’t remember what I did to make him so angry. All I can remember is his revenge.

It was early in our marriage and we were living in Hong Kong, traveling occasionally up The Pearl River to Guanzhou, the main city in Canton. By the late 1970’s life was getting better for most people in the cities of Mainland China. There was a whiff of capitalism in the air with many small shops reopening and even the odd foreigner turning up to do business.

Tom and I were two of those foreigners having started a toy import export business. Competition was fierce and our cash was dwindling, so I was pleasantly surprised at how agreeable he had been on this trip, almost solicitous, letting me wander the art shops while he finished up our business negotiations and arranged our last dinner.

“Are you sure your wife likes snake?” asked an anxious Mr. Zhu, who was originally from Shanghai and wasn’t too keen on eating reptiles. Snake is a delicacy only eaten in the South of China and often for nutritional reasons.

“Absolutely loves it,” smiled my duplicitous husband.

In my naivety I thought we had arrived at a pet shop. The front window was filled with curving boughs and leaves with possibly some movement in the upper branches. We went up the narrow stairs to a warm room filled with tables and chairs and some local people tucking into dinner.

We were in the most famous snake restaurant in Canton with possibly the best snake chef in China, and our fellow diners were delighted, as they knew the chef would demonstrate his extraordinary skills for honored foreign guests.

He arrived at our table carrying a basket, took off the lid and plunged his hand into a writhing mass, pulling out a black cobra. He held the lashing creature aloft, made a surgical slit and out popped the bile, which fell into the waiting glass of maotai, turning it green. This is the propitious drink that starts a meal of snake soup, followed by snake meat, civet cat and other delicacies developed to shore you up for a hard cold winter.  “Darling,” said the solicitous Tom. “We are honored guests and you are not drinking your maotai.”

Pale, furious, and feeling a little nauseous, I could only manage, “We’ll talk about gall when we get back to Hong Kong.”

Moya Duffy has recently observed that the more formal education she has acquired the duller the jobs. Modeled in London, a stewardess in NYC, a lay-about in Liberia and a university lecturer in Hong Kong.


by Eileen Brener

I started Tulane Law School with a few handicaps. At 40, the oldest in the class, and newly divorced, I viewed the world darkly. Having recently left a thirteen-year marriage with few assets—no real estate, no children—and just enough in savings to live on and pay tuition for three years, I felt like Joe Btfsplk, the Li’l Abner character with a perpetual black cloud over his head. My niece, a lawyer, encouraged me to apply. My favorite family member, she assured me I could do well; however, she was full of warnings: don’t raise a hand to volunteer an answer to a question, never assume any goodwill on the part of the professor for if I answered his first question correctly, he would skewer me with one question after another until he found the limits of my knowledge. He’ll never leave you feeling the least bit competent, she told me. This grim scene suited me. I relished the idea of three demanding years.

Most of my classmates were 22 to 24 and nonchalant about appearances. They dressed in tattered blue jeans or warm-ups, stained shirts and sneakers. There was one exception: Miss Lilly Labourgeois. Miss Labourgeois, as I thought of her then, wore outfits that highlighted her curvaceous figure: short skirts, tight-fitting blouses, and high-heeled shoes. I soon learned she was the youngest in our class—barely 20; she hailed from Lafayette, LA, a town in Cajun Country known for its Zydeco music. I heard that before law school Miss Labourgeois sang with a Zydeco band.

I wasn’t surprised to find that she had stage experience for she certainly had the presence. Her shoulder-length red hair, her spirited expressions and her confident swagger reminded me of Susan Sarandon in Thelma and Louise. I wondered how ready she was for the tedium. not to mention the challenges of law school.

All my professors that first semester worked at being abrasive if not abusive, but one, Professor Sternler, stood out from the rest. He taught Civil Procedure—court rules—and he imposed many rules on our class. For instance, at the moment class was to start—8 a.m.—he would lock the door so that anyone a fraction late would miss class. That first day when he was explaining his rules with emphasis on the penalty for being tardy, Miss Labourgeois appeared at the door about five minutes late. We could see her through the glass upper section of the door. (The class was in an amphitheater with the professor and door into the class on the lowest level.) As our professor repeated his warnings to her, Miss Labourgeois nodded and smiled beguilingly at him. He concluded by pointing to an empty seat on the top row of the classroom and saying, “Please, don’t let this happen again.” To our amazement, she took a curl of her red hair in her left hand and wound it around her finger and mounted the steps singing, “Do dee do, do dee do.” I was fascinated yet terrified for her; the prof watched her with his mouth open.

He said, “You are?”

“Lilly Labourgeois.” She paused and turned toward him.

“Perhaps, Miss Labourgeois, you’d be so kind as to give us the facts of Pennoyer v. Neff.”

“That’s an 1877 case where Neff was sued by a third party, but because Neff was not to be found, the third party won the lawsuit in a default judgment . . .” She continued giving the complications of the case while walking up the steps to her seat.

“Do you agree with the Supreme Court’s holding?”

“I don’t have the slightest idea. I studied to remember the facts for class. I expect you to tell me what it means.” Once again she wound a red curl about her finger, but she did not sing.

Professor Sternler’s face darkened and he turned to someone else for the next question.  The next day at 8 a.m. on the dot he made a wry face at the class and turned to lock the door. As soon as he turned the lock, we saw her through the glass pane in the door smiling at the professor.

“Well, I do believe it’s Miss Labourgeois gracing us with her presence today just in the nick of time.” He opened the door.

“Good morning, sir.” She climbed the stairs humming.

“Would you comment on the issue of foreseeability in the court’s decision in Palsgraf v. Long Island Railroad, Miss Labourgeois?”

Without a moment’s hesitation she began: “A person is liable only for the consequences of an act that can be reasonably foreseen rather than every single consequence that could follow. It’s somewhat parallel to being 30 seconds late to class as opposed to 3 minutes.“

“Enough, Miss Labourgeois.” Professor Sternler had forgotten to lock the door after letting her enter and while he was questioning her, two hung-over-looking students had crept into the classroom trying not to attract notice.

About a week into classes, the forces-that-be declared that students would be seated alphabetically so that a secretary could take the role. As luck would have it, my surname—Lacrosse—placed me next to Lilly Labourgeois in two of my classes. She surprised me by being very friendly. I felt that I was invisible to most of my classmates who rarely spoke to me and certainly didn’t invite me to any of the many parties I overheard them discussing. Yet in spite of our age difference, Lilly and I became study-buddies and regularly had lunch together. One evening a week we worked on our course outlines together. I had the advantage of owning a computer at a time when few classmates did. Lilly was eager to learn to use it and caught on very quickly as she and I regularly updated our outlines. After our study sessions we drank red wine and complained about our heavy workloads.

Lilly’s extra-curricular activities– which she described to me in great detail—were impressive. She went out every night, had boyfriends from her hometown coming to see her and boyfriends from law school as well as admirers from among the professors. She laughed as she told me our contracts professor had invited her into his office to discuss a research project.

“He’s so old! He should be after you.” She gave my shoulder a squeeze to soften the blow.

I tried to smile, but the bitter lines in my face wouldn’t bend that way.

“Say, why don’t I fix you up with some men I know from Lafayette? I can think of two judges who are single.”

“Oh, maybe after exams, Lilly. I ought to focus on studying these next few weeks.”

I hadn’t had a date in fifteen years. The prospect was formidable. I wasn’t ready for a date. Lilly said we’d talk about it later.

There were no classes the week of Thanksgiving and I had no plans to do anything but study, because exams were the following week. A few days before our break, I was sitting in the cafeteria with Lilly discussing her Thanksgiving options. She told me that one of her hobbies is wing-walking, where she wears a harness attached to the top wing of a biplane and strolls along the lower wing or sits on the upper wing while the plane is in flight. The plane doesn’t go very high or very far, and it is all for a good cause, she assured me. She had plans to practice one day next week. I was amazed to learn that Lilly had soloed as a pilot at aged 16, and she now had a certificate to fly as a private pilot. Her father was a pilot for Delta; flying was a passion—one of many—with her.

This new aspect of Lilly was too much for me. I gave up on eating my lunch and just stared at her. Glowing with youth, beauty, and breath-taking confidence, she seemed my exact opposite. I felt like an unlucky Cinderella with no glass slippers while Lilly danced like a princess down an enchanted path. Breaking all my resolutions to study the entire week during the break, I told Lilly I wanted to see her wing-walk and that I would drive to Lafayette for the event.

Lilly called to arrange our meeting on the Friday after Thanksgiving at a small airfield outside of Lafayette. She mentioned that the pilot of the biplane was one of the judges that she intended to fix me up with. I began to whimper my excuses, but she shushed me by saying this meeting was all about wing-walking.

On Friday I arrived just as Lilly and Judge Allard drove up in his convertible. Lilly leaped out of the car wearing a yellow spandex jumpsuit. She walked me around to meet Judge Allan Allard, a pleasant looking, balding man who appeared to be about 50—the owner of the biplane and the pilot in this adventure.

As we walked toward the hanger, I saw the small plane being rolled out to the field. Lilly climbed into the front seat, put on goggles, secured her hair into a bun and buckled a harness around her. Allan piloted from the second seat. I knew I should be worrying about my young friend, but visions of Snoopy in goggles and scarf gave me the giggles. The plane took off and after it was in the air a few minutes, Lilly got out of the cockpit and walked to the end of the lower wing. She waved to me, turned around a few times and walked back to the cockpit. Then she raised herself so that she was sitting on the top wing over the cockpit. She lifted her arms and kicked her legs as though she were in a swing at a park.

After the plane flew a few more circles around the field, Lilly slowly lowered herself into the cockpit. The plane gained altitude and I lost sight of it. About thirty minutes later, I saw it return, land and roll to a stop. Lilly was not on board. I rushed out to meet Allan hardly daring to think what might have happened. When I saw his smile, I relaxed.

“Lilly had an idea,” he said. “She wanted to stop at Grand Coteau for coffee. I left her there and came back to get you. Would you like to fly over there? If you are nervous, we could drive.”

Of course, I would NOT like to fly over there. I’ve always kept a healthy distance from small planes. But I had been too damned cautious all my life and missed so much. . . . So I said, “Sure! Let’s fly!” trying to hold steady my trembling hands.

I climbed into the front seat and put on goggles and a helmet. Allan explained that we could hear each other during the flight, and I should tell him if I was nervous or felt sick. Otherwise I should stay buckled into my seat and enjoy the beautiful ride. It was mercifully short and uneventful. Grand Coteau is a rural village; I saw rolling green hills dotted with a few impressive homes and buildings.

We arrived and found Lilly at the coffee house in the center of a group of friends from her days performing with a band. She decided to get a ride back to Lafayette with them and told us we were on our own.

After coffee, Allan said, “Well, I guess you’re up for the return flight to the airfield in Lafayette.“ As though I had a choice.

“Sure!” I guessed the man thought that’s all I could say. The return trip was almost enjoyable; I was catching on to this Snoopy thing.

* * * * * *
After our last exam, Lilly and I met for lunch. We hadn’t seen each other since the day of her wing-walk. When I complimented her on her stunt skills, she asked me how I liked Allan and if I enjoyed flying in the biplane. I told her we had dinner together that evening and we were going out next weekend. Lilly smiled and predicted that before long I’d be wing-walking. She was right: Reader, I married him.

Eileen Brener has enjoyed studying writing–poetry and prose–at the IRP.

Confronting Miss Fox

by Ivy Berchuck

I was told up front that my name would be Miss Fox. I was never to discuss my identity with clients or other counselors. First names were never to be used. It all seemed theatrical, like an undercover operation. I was sitting opposite Mrs. Birch of the Birch Employment Agency. I had gone there to answer a job listing for a research assistant at the University of Chicago. There I was, a recent bride, a recent college graduate, and we were in the middle of the recession of 1955. I had been pacing the icy Chicago streets convinced I’d find the job of my dreams. I had already captured the man of my dreams and had an inflated sense of what I could do.

After a few disappointing interviews on my own I approached what sounded like a high class agency. It turned out to be a bare room with two rows of desks where young women talked to jobseekers and chatted on the phones with prospective employers. The key to the work were small index cards that held descriptions of available job openings. It reminded me of bookies in old movies, except for the gender difference. After a short interview with a Miss Washburn, who informed me that the research assistant opening at the university was no longer available, I was turned over to the matronly, tightly curled head of Mrs. Birch.

She was all flattery, and thought what I should do was work for her placing other girls in jobs while collecting commissions for myself. The base salary was so minuscule I’ve conveniently forgotten what it was. The commissions were to make it worthwhile. Although the job description that brought me there was for a college graduate, the openings the agency usually filled were for file clerks or girls for the steno pool. Those waiting to be interviewed looked like a forlorn lot.

I don’t know why I took a chance on it. It had an aura of sleaze, but I was tired of the search and was beginning to sour, even about my new husband. No way did I want my marriage to start like this. “What about training?” I asked Mrs. Curlylocks. “Don’t worry,” our Miss Haskins will give you all the information you need. She brought me over to an empty desk and the next thing I knew I was introduced to Miss Haskins. She had a long, sallow face and spoke as if she had graduated magna cum laude in elocution. She explained that the success of the operation was cold calling Chicago companies to get job listings which were then shared by all of us. We were to interview a girl and send her out after calling the company to remind them that the outstanding applicant was a Birch Agency girl. Miss Haskins let me know she always placed the most applicants and if I worked hard, I too could earn lots of money.

Always the good girl, I plunged in. The personnel men liked my gentle banter and I copied Miss Haskins and flattered them wildly. “Oh, you sound so smart, Mr Jones. I just love working with you. And you know that a job applicant from Birch Agency will always be competent and attractive.” It was enough to turn your stomach, but I thought of it as an acting job and the role of Miss Fox was the only way to break into this theater.

Two things happened during the first week on the job. When I got a listing, I quickly delivered it to Mrs. Birch so it could be disseminated to all the counselors. By the time I wanted to send a girl over there, the personnel man would tell me that the job was already filled and by someone from Birch. It did not take a genius to figure out that Mrs. Birch had passed my listings on to her favorites. In order to place someone in a job I’d have to send my candidate out before I turned over the job description to be shared with others. It was an ugly, cutthroat and deceptive operation. I swallowed, and started to play the game. By the end of week two, I had a few commissions.

Although I thought that act had compromised my ethical standards, it was nothing compared to the next thing. It appeared by day three, when after the job description for a clean cut, modest file clerk, a Mr Smithers said to me, “ And remember, dear Miss Fox, only send a Nordic. Be sure that you mark that down on your description. I don’t want some kike walking into my office.” I could not believe what I was hearing. There was no legislation here to prevent blatant anti-Semitism. Mr. Smithers was not the only one, although the language was mostly more genteel. I was appalled, and my husband remarked that Chicago was like that. “Be glad that you’re not a negro,” he said. ”Can you imagine then what the prospects for a job would be? If you can’t take it, quit.”

I held on. I dreaded going to that office and could feel something developing akin to self- loathing. I thought of collaborators during the war, of French girls who had their hair cut off by their countrymen. Here I was, a Jewish girl helping to perpetrate this outrage by collaborating with an odious practice. But an exit strategy was going to appear. During the second month a cold call got me an unusual listing for an assistant at a service agency that lobbied for public education. “We would require a college graduate,” said the woman. “We’re a small group and we work closely together. I thought that the Birch Agency only supplied clerical help. With an adrenalin rush I assured her that I had a recent college grad who would really fit her needs and I could set up an interview for the next day. Then I gave the job listing to Mrs. Birch.

I called in sick and went for the interview. As soon as I entered that office I loved the atmosphere and they offered me the job at the end of our conversation. I reminded the woman to contact Miss Fox the following day at the agency to give her the news, and arranged to start in two weeks. That would be enough time for my commission to come through.

Before I left I had one last conversation with Mr. Smithers. He had started to like me so much that he called me directly when he needed a new file clerk. As usual, he reminded me to send only a Nordic and I responded, “Oh, Mr. Smithers, I would never send you a Jew like myself.” I hung up, emptied my desk, and told Mrs. Birch that I needed to quit immediately, because I was pregnant and not feeling well. Deception for me had become easy, but I felt this lie would be the truth before too long.

Ivy Berchuck writes memoirs to remember, reflect and learn more about herself. It is a joy to share the writing with colleagues and is an addiction that I highly recommend.

Twisted Sister

by James A. Avitabile

Miriam and I were classmates in the sixth grade at P.S. 45. She was petite in frame and delicate in mind, a serious girl and as fragile as a porcelain doll. She needed someone to watch over her. I took on that responsibility. Except for me, she stayed apart from most of our classmates.

She talked in whispers as if everything she said was a secret. Whenever she spoke, teeny bubbles dribbled out of her mouth with every word. Maybe no one else noticed but I did. Her skin was like white tissue paper. I could see tiny veins under her eyes and on her cheeks that looked like roadways on a map. They weren’t major highways, more like country roads.

She wore expensive clothes. She came from money, but money never got in our way. Miriam wasn’t sloppy and she wasn’t groomed to perfection either. She was neatly disheveled. Her dresses must have come from Garber Brothers or Lobel’s where people who had money didn’t have to wait for a sale to purchase anything like my mother had to.  But my mother never dressed me poorly. Every day I wore a freshly washed and neatly ironed shirt and carefully pressed pants. When it came to cleanliness and clothes my mother made sure I floated in a sea of Ivory soap.

My classmates and I were a fusion of all kinds of vegetables in a slow cooking stew. We were Irish, Poles, Italians, Jews and some blacks that blended together. If intolerance and bigotry existed, it stayed at home in a different pot.

Miriam and I sat next to each other at lunch. On Wednesdays, she could see a mood change in me. I became gloomy. On that day, lunch was like the Last Supper. I played with my food; I sagged and sulked. I wanted the day to stop right there, but that wasn’t going to be. Wednesday was released-time day. I would be shuttled by bus to Sacred Heart School and handed over to the nuns to learn about God’s love for us and what we had to do to attain His love. And if we didn’t get it they’d beat it into us with whatever they had in their hands. They tried to beat love into us when they didn’t know what love was. Miriam knew how I felt about Wednesday afternoons. As I gathered my books she would look at me and whisper, “I hope it goes fast for you today.” I hated the two hours I had to face those twisted sisters with their ugly warts. Time dragged on as if the hands of the clock had weights on them. Even when that Wednesday finally came to an end, the thought of next Wednesday loomed.

I was so happy when Thursday morning came and I returned to my delicious stew of public school. One morning, Miriam bubbled: “I’m making my bat mitzvah in two weeks. Would you like to come to the ceremony? It’ll be at Temple Emanuel on Post Avenue. After the ceremony, they’ll be a reception with all kinds of food. I’ve even invited some of our classmates.”

Miriam had come to my confirmation party in my backyard on a warm
and sunny Saturday in May. I had invited many of my classmates and most of them had come, even Mr. Dizard, my homeroom teacher, was there. Now it was Miriam’s turn to be confirmed and recognized as an adult by God. I told my mother about Miriam’s invitation, not because it was a question of whether I could go or not but because it was about a gift.

“What do you think you would like to get for Miriam?”

“A necklace, Mom, a necklace with little pink beads. That’s her favorite color. I saw a necklace in Sonia Pitt’s window that Miriam would like. It’s pink beads with little white pearls on a silver chain.”

“How much is it? Could you see the price tag?”

“Ten dollars, Mom. It’s not cheap but she gave me those silver cuff links and those weren’t cheap either. I think I should get it before someone else buys it.”

Sonia Pitt and her sister were spinsters. They lived down the block from us on Pelton Avenue. They had a shop at the corner of Davis, a block away from my father’s hat cleaning store. Many mornings I would see the neatly dressed pair—one tall, the other shorter by a foot— walk smilingly to their shop. The shop was really a hair salon, but as you entered there were showcases of jewelry. While customers waited for one of the beauticians to take them, they could browse the showcases. The sisters knew how to dress the window and lure you with pretty jewelry. They had quiet taste, like Miriam’s.  The taller Sonia had a natural talent for wrapping a gift in such an inviting way that I was certain that Miriam would want to open it first. I watched Miss Pitt as she selected a paper that hinted at what the color Miriam’s gift might be. She carefully dressed it as if it were a little girl.

The sun shone gloriously the day Miriam came of age as a Jew. She recited in Hebrew certain religious passages. I could barely hear her. The rabbi had a distinct British accent that seemed very strange to me. Couldn’t they have found an American? Many rabbis had come to my father’s shop to have their hats cleaned. This was the first time I heard a rabbi with a British accent.

Miriam glowed and bubbled. Her eyes showed how happy she was. Like the custom at an Italian wedding, she’d go around to each of the tables and accept the gifts offered to her and place them in a very large white silk purse. She received many envelopes. I was one of the few ‘gift’ givers. I kissed her on the cheek.

“Thank you James for coming and thank you for your gift. It’s so beautifully wrapped. I can’t wait to open it when I get home.”

The following Wednesday came too soon. The paddy wagon picked us up and off we were carted to have love beaten into us. As we settled into our assigned desks, Sister Judith with her deeply creased forehead and strands of silver gray hair escaping from beneath her wimple asked, “Did anyone do something special since last week?”

I raised my hand. “Yes, James, what special thing did you do?”

“I attended my friend Miriam’s bat mitzvah last Saturday at Temple Emanuel. They gave me a paper yarmulke to wear on my head.”

The deep crease on her forehead turned beet red; so did her whole face. Like an overheated pressure cooker she exploded. “You have committed a mortal sin! You have broken God’s first commandment, you heathen. ‘I am the Lord thy God. Thou shalt have no other gods before Me.’ Get out of my sight. Go tell the Monsignor that you worshipped the God of the Jews who is a false god.”

I hunched over and buried my head into my shoulders to convey a visual expression that I was truly sorry for worshipping a false idol. I wasn’t sorry at all. I felt I had done something good. I obeyed her and walked to the rectory where the Monsignor lived. I rang the bell. The housekeeper opened the door. I asked if I could see him. She told me he was at St. Vincent’s Hospital giving last rites to a dying parishioner. “Thank you, I’ll come back another time.”

I descended the three brick steps to the cement walkway. I couldn’t go back to class right away. I needed more time. I went to a nearby candy store that had an old fashioned soda fountain. “Egg Cream, please.” I sipped and slurped it for as long as I could. I wiped my mouth and drank some water to wash away any scent of sweet. I returned reluctantly to my designated cellblock and Sister Judith, feigning remorse. “What did Monsignor say to you?”

“He took me into his office and asked me to make a good confession
to him. I did.”

She couldn’t ask me too much more. Confession is a private thing. There’s no sharing. I could see in her sadistic eyes that she imagined the worst and that the Monsignor became so enraged that he might have punched or slapped me for worshipping a false god. When I went to public school the next day, Miriam greeted me with a beaming smile. She was wearing my necklace.

“I really love it James! Thank you so much.”

Thank you, Carmen for helping me stay focused in finding my voice and telling my story and feeling it. ‘Twisted Sister’ sends her regards.

Locust Valley Lockjaw

by James A. Avitabile

Thank God ‘Mama Don’ was in my life. He knew what I was going through with my mother. It was so different for him. His parents were Irish immigrants who never talked to each other. Sheila stayed at home while Pat delivered the mail. They then sat silently in overstuffed club chairs in their Bronx living room and read for hours. Words came from a page and not from their mouths. Donald was a good student so they let him do what he wanted.

I was a good student too but I couldn’t do what I wanted. I was the son of Italian immigrants. My mother had a tough time conceiving me. She suffered five miscarriages before I was born on Father’s Day. She held onto me tightly. She didn’t want to lose me as she had with the others. My father was hard of hearing and couldn’t read. My mother had to yell to get through to him. He worked hard as a hat cleaner. Until I was eight, my mother raised two children: my father and me. I didn’t think he was any different than other fathers until I went to school.

That’s when I saw how fathers took an active part in their children’s education but my father couldn’t. I dreaded Father’s Night when students honored their fathers. My father never attended. How could he? The fathers would find him strange. I was ashamed of what my schoolmates would think about me if they met him. My mother couldn’t accompany him to be his interpreter. She had to stay at home to take care of my baby sister who was eight years younger than I. I felt like an orphan on Father’s Night. When I was in the third grade I began to realize that he would always be in the background of my life. He deferred any arguments I had to ‘our’ mother for resolution. He was soft. She knew it and used it against us both.

“Daddy, mommy won’t let me go to the movies with Johnny. Can’t I go? Please, daddy, please?”
“What does mommy say? If mommy says no, then no.”
I loved him and hated him. He was my mother’s puppet. He couldn’t talk and he couldn’t teach. I began to search for that someone who could.

I met Mama Don as Donald the first week I got to Cornell. When I first met him he was dictating a recipe for sweet and sour meat loaf to an eager and plump female graduate student. “You’ll love it Peggy. I guarantee it.” That was the first hint for me that he might be a member of the ‘committee’. It was the 60’s and he was more comfortable in being accepted as a straight man. He locked his gay secret in a closet that only came out in the dark anonymous rambles of Central Park. I was more comfortable with who I was. I used my closets for clothes not secrets.

At first sight he was just a Black Irishman’s face in the crowd. Over six feet tall, he rose above it. His eyes were chards of gleaming obsidian and his skin the color and feel of kneaded semolina dough. His black kinky hair was cropped short and looked glued to his head. He wore second hand tweed jackets that were broken in but not broken down. He could hand knot a bowtie with studied imperfection to make it look like a hasty afterthought. He shed his unacceptable Bronx accent and eased into a ‘Locust Valley Lockjaw’ with its ponderously slow cadence and mumbled elision of words. Mama Don had given me a ‘stage name’ too.

“They don’t want ‘Bronx Irish’ Ceil, they want Wasp. Mama will teach you.”

He was a good teacher who made it a fun game. We laughed along the way. Gradually, I became fluent in this new acceptable language where I could even pronounce both t’s in bottle. My jaw wasn’t as ‘locked’ as his.

It was never sexual between us. He led and I wanted to follow. He was a ‘grounded’ gay man with goals. He was my pattern maker and not my missing father. In Ithaca he introduced me to buying Brooks Brothers at thrift shops and twenty-five cent sumptuous, homemade Saturday night church suppers where members of depleting congregations were trying to rebuild their flock by tempting us with delicious bait.

“How about seconds of that brisket and maybe another piece of apple pie or the cherry cobbler or both?” Unfortunately for them, they filled my stomach but not my soul.

At Cornell, we lived well with little money and a lot of imagination and had a lot of fun along the way. Through Mama Don, I became part of a family of gay men who were focused on making something of themselves. And during that summer of ’67, I migrated with him to a rental cottage in East Hampton: a place I had once thought I could never belong. Mama Don was there to dare me to let go of my insecurities and to accept that I was a hat cleaner’s son.

“You’re like Mama, Ceil. We did it. We came from there and we’re here now. Let it go!”

I did.

He died at 46. The fable was that he ate contaminated salad greens that grew in human feces on the slopes beneath the Parthenon.

Thank you, Dr. ‘O’ for encouraging me to apply for admission to the IRP Program. I dedicate this piece to you and ‘Mama’.