Touched

In my high school days I spent uncounted hours in a Providence bookstore, gone these dozen years, browsing the stacks with intent to buy, and, until I understood the odds, hoping to meet like-minded girl-nerds. I had no idea that the more you strive and search for happiness outside of yourself, the more elusive it grows. And I overestimated—we're talking orders of magnitude here—the attractiveness of an aura of cool intellectuality, and, more crucially, my capacity at 17 to deliver it. Needless to say, my library grew faster than my social circle, not that that was a bad thing.

Though battered by Amazon, my affinity for bookstores endures. They are on my short list of places in which I can stomach shopping, right there next to hardware emporia and wine shops. Even so it gave me pause last year when Cheryl suggested we spend Black Friday afternoon at the newly-opened establishment two towns north. First, only a damn fool goes shopping on Black Friday; second, my impression without actually having seen it was that this bright, shiny, brand spanking new bookstore might be a little too trendy for me.

Its orientation toward the modern, away from the antiquarian, jibes with its physical newness. I'm uneasy that I'm not quite young enough to be in the target demographic, but it's liberating not to be subjected to ads for back braces and catheters. The place is overtly cheerful and laid back. I'm glad to see a local business well-attended, and I can still navigate the aisles, relieved that there's no gridlock, no subway-packed hell. I see smart phones—where do you not?—though also people wedged against shelf ends engrossed in actual books. I try to cling to my misgivings, but the place wins me over.

It's a bookstore cum café, with a compact and well-crafted menu of soups, salads, and wraps. Cheryl and I decide to make it a day on the town, opt for salads, and find the last seat in the house. They rack up points by not deprecating meat, and their espresso claims your attention. We fortify ourselves for a serious expedition.

Now that I've deemed the place worthy, I'm dying to apply my bookstore litmus test. It's simple: how much Balzac do they have? My teenage nirvana had a good foot of Penguin Balzacs. Here, I'm disappointed to find only a single volume of stories from the Comédie Humaine, but in compensation there are a half dozen volumes of Dickens, plus Tracy Kidder and Paul Theroux to boot. A bookstore I went to a week later had neither Balzac nor Dickens, but several Jane Austens. My test is subjective, yet flexible; hardly any bookstore fails. It's hard not to start a virtuous circle: the more you read, the more attractive all bookstores become.

Cheryl and I wander as our separate whims take us. My neck, knees, and eyes are not as flexible as they used to be, so fighting gravity along row after row of tall shelves is not an unalloyed pleasure. An unoccupied comfy chair beckons—you might know it's that kind of bookstore. I heed the call, sit, tell my feet they're welcome, and close my eyes to throttle back the brain inputs a bit.

For a scant second I feel a hand on my knee, and a woman tells me, “Don't fall asleep.” I do not know her, and she has touched me. My aura of cool intellectuality dissolves, failing me yet again. I think I replied along the lines that I was tempted but would resist. The exchange may have continued for one or two more rounds, but I don't remember. If I did, I would certainly still be going over the words, again and again, testing meanings, inflections, nuances, and especially insinuations.

Seldom do I need to ask if I'm the target of a seduction attempt. “Never” is more accurate, but I'm as vain as any man. Is “Don't fall asleep” a pickup line? There's a good argument that it's clearly not, but we hear what we want to hear. The thing for me with pickup lines is that if they're obvious enough to be unambiguous, then they're unattractive. The proper level of ambiguity must be calibrated with care, and there are so many variables to consider.

The touch is the crux. I am aware of every touch. I take every deliberate touch personally. Does a touch on the knee signify more than a touch on the shoulder? Touch complicates things for me. I can dismiss words, but not a touch. Touch catalyzes meaning from words that signify nothing.

I've never had a problem with medical contact—a special case of deliberate touching—in its gamut from immodest to uncomfortable to distasteful, but touchy-feely alienates me. Yet I've gotten better about that; I've mellowed, and I actually notice. Though I no longer take my personal space quite so seriously, I still do not willingly choose to make myself emotionally accessible to the random stranger. People whom I've known since puberty or before are now free to hug me without repercussions.

I've eked a year of idle speculation out of this incident—no one I know is so frugal he can wring as much mileage from a fantasy. It's time to lay it to rest without regrets, and I'm pleased that it had no chance to mushroom into a sterner test of character. If I'd interpreted “Don't fall asleep” in my usual bloody-minded literal fashion, I'd have recognized it as a selfless public service and no word of a come-on, an assertion of connection and belonging. Had I nodded off, the bookstore zone of hipness would have been rent by the gaucherie of an old guy snoring and drooling. Sometimes it's a moment of grace when a thing doesn't happen.

 

About the Author: Ray Scanlon. Massachusetts boy. Lucky to be above ground, lucky to have grandchildren. No MFA. No novel. No extrovert. Not averse to litotes. Twitter: @oldmanscanlon. On the web: http://read.oldmanscanlon.com/.

Latchkey Kid

by Nina Lichtenstein

     As a kid, the key to our apartment dangled on a string around my neck. I guess my working parents felt confident I would manage on my own in the afternoons until they came home at dinnertime. If I had any spare time on my hands I did not spend it inside reading, keeping a diary or doing puzzles, but instead, I roamed the neighborhood looking for nooks and crannies to explore, for people to talk to. Sometimes that meant getting into trouble. I was a crafty, devious and curious youngster, who loved sneaking around doing my share of shoplifting candy and comic books from the corner store. I loved to befriend my older neighbors, who were looking for company and someone who would listen to their stories. These were the adults who were around and also had time to pay attention to me. Visiting with them, I did not feel awkward as I did around my peers, and the older folks would welcome me into their apartments, smiling and offering a snack or two. No need to act cool or prove my belonging here. Although their homes would often smell funny and the foods they offered seemed old fashioned compared to what I was served at home, I loved having places to go where I was welcomed, accepted and made to feel as though I mattered. My parents never worried about my safety. It might have been the times. It might have been my parents. My dad would later tell me I was raised with “freedom under responsibility.” It’s possible I might have preferred less freedom and less responsibility. 

***

     Emilie Fleischer, or Mille, as was her nickname, was in her early eighties, and had I known the word when I was a child, I would have said she looked bohemian. In her floor-length pleated black skirts and black velvet headband dramatically accenting her thinning pageboy-shaped white hair, she fancied herself an artist, or at least a connoisseur of art. Mille was a spinster like her sister Helene, and they lived together in the apartment above us in Oslo, Norway, where I grew up. Somber paintings lined the walls of their dark apartment that smelled musty and faintly like old bodies that needed to bathe. The long, deep-red velvet curtains in the archways between the large, high-ceiling rooms made their home feel dramatic, as the fabric hung heavy from massive dark wooden rods with rounded, carved finials, the drapery forming pools of red on the floor like on a theater stage. I was happy here in this unconventional and mysterious place, where my arrival was anticipated with food and companionship. 

     I often went upstairs and rang their doorbell right after I came home from school. Mille wore dentures, and sometimes she would open the door without them. I was enthralled and a little scared by the cavernous hole of her mouth, her tongue prominently visible as she lisped her greeting past lips that turned inward, wrapped over her pink gums. When Mille offered me a snack she might fish out an overripe banana from their pantry and hand me half while mashing the other half for herself, like baby food. Sometimes she would let me mash it for her, making me feel conscientious and competent. We took turns cutting up fruits on a wooden retractable cutting board hidden directly under the kitchen counter, above the top drawer. Pulling it out, she would grasp the small white porcelain knob with a silver center that had gray dirt encrusted into its circular ridge. The board was usually moist looking or full of breadcrumbs, and the middle section of the wooden surface was worn down, creating a slight dip from years of slicing bread in the same spot.  

     Sometimes when I visited, the sisters would say they wanted to celebrate—I never knew or understood what the occasion might be other than it was something special. I would help them whip up three raw eggs and several tablespoons of sugar until the foamy blend became stiff enough to hold a shape when we pulled a spoon through it to check if it was ready. The egg cream or eggedosis is a traditional Norwegian treat loved by children and is usually served on holidays. The sisters would let me portion out the sweet, creamy froth into three identical cut crystal goblets. The fancy glasses stood gleaming, lined up on the kitchen counter where I was meticulously at work making sure I achieved an equal division of the smooth, yellow blend, licking the spills from my fingers. Helene would leave the kitchen and I could hear her rummage with bottles in their antique curio cabinet in the dining room. Taking up an entire wall, the massive piece of furniture was dark and ornate with beveled glass doors and a carved wooden front, and sat heavy in the brightest but least utilized room in the apartment. Helene would return with a fancy bottle of golden brown liquid, its gilded label inscribed with foreign words I didn’t understand. Using an old, large and dented silver spoon—so tarnished even I noticed that it needed polishing—Mille would carefully measure three spoonfuls into two of the three glasses. 

     In the living room, the deep and plush, moss-colored velvet couch was supported by clawed wooden feet and adorned with a carved top rail. Sitting between them, we slowly nursed the egg cream with teaspoons while looking through their family albums of black and white photographs. The sisters had many such books—big, heavy guardians of memories, and they would share a little story for each photograph as they took turns pointing out this one or that one. Small, square or rectangular images with white zigzag borders, attached to heavyweight, matte black pages, were held in place by tiny triangular white corner pockets. Beneath the photos, most of them faded, captions were written carefully in beautiful cursive handwriting with a thick white pencil; names of people, places and dates going back to the 1920s, 30s and 40s, when everything looked glamorous and romantic. In some of the photos I recognized a younger Helene or Mille, their dresses long, elegant, white and full of lace. Some of the faces were blurry, and many of the people seemed serious. There were photos of the sisters as girls, posing in sailor dresses with matching hats, somberly looking at the camera from the top of the front steps of their summer home, or in front of a blooming fruit tree. 

     Time would fly like this; me, squeezed comfortably in between the sisters, the heat from their soft bodies surrounding me. I looked up toward the tall windows facing the street, only partly visible through the archway connecting their two spacious living rooms, and I noticed, but did not care, that it was growing dark outside. 

     Sometimes my mother would ring the doorbell to fetch me for dinner, but it remained my little shared secret with the sisters that we had indulged in such a decadent afternoon snack.

***

     My family never knew much about their quiet, enigmatic lives, and one day when I was about thirteen, Helene died and Mille was alone for the first time in her life. She became a recluse, and when my mother would ring her doorbell to see if we could help with food-shopping or other practical things, she would peer through the crack with the safety chain still attached, trying to discern if she could trust the caller. Sometimes she would reluctantly let my mother help, but often scrutinized the receipt and claim that she had been cheated—blaming the grocer, other times my mother. My parents bought a townhouse in the suburbs around this time, and we moved away. I missed my old neighborhood and all the connections I had made there, and although we were just a short bus-ride away, it wasn't the same. The daily-ness of it was gone. Soon we learned from other neighbors in our old building that Mille had been moved to a nursing home. I took the bus to the other side of town and visited her once or twice, and while she seemed to remember me, she had what seemed like an imaginary, confusing story to tell about the thieves in the nursing home and her many lost and stolen personal items. She kept a stash of toilet paper rolls in the basket attached to her walker. I followed Millie down the hallways of her new residence so she could show me her room. Her body hunched over the handles of her walker, she mumbled, “they sure do steal around here.” 

     I don’t remember when Mille died, or the last time I saw her. I recall my mother mention the sisters’ niece, who was making all the “arrangement.” As the next of kin, she would inherit their apartment. 

     Whenever I go back to Oslo to visit family and friends, I detour through the streets of my childhood. Passing the pre-war brick apartment building where I used to live, I look up at the windows of our old living room and my parents’ bedroom above the gateway to the inner courtyard, and above them, the windows of the Fleischer sisters’ apartment. In the place of their heavy drapes are fashionable Marimekko curtains with bold, orange flowers with black eyes, and a set of glass Ikea vases, purposefully arranged.  

     I resist ringing the doorbell. I know that seeing the inside of the apartment will alter forever my ability to vividly recall the afternoons spent in their company. How I would nestle on the couch between two warm, generous women’s bodies, and sense that I belonged. They made me feel welcome and important. Their wrinkled faces beamed as they spoke, and their hands—with paper-thin almost translucent skin—gestured with generosity, offering food and stories. Our souls were kindred and in need of one another. Their door was always open. I didn't need a key.

 

 

About Nina Lichtenstein: 
Nina is a native of Oslo, Norway, and has a PHD in French literature. She has lived in CT for nearly 30 years, where she kept busy studying, teaching and raising her three sons. An empty nester, she recently migrated north to Maine to pursue a quiet writing life, which is constantly interrupted. Her first book, on Jewish women writers from North Africa, just came out. Some of Nina's writing lives on her blogs https://vikingjewess.com/ and https://thatsfunnyyoudontlookjewish.wordpress.com/, and other essays have been published on the Brevity Blog, in The Washington Post, Lilith Magazine, Literary Mama, and Hevria, among other places. You can learn more about Nina and her work at her website: https://www.ninalichtenstein.com/

Cobble Hill

by Robert Boucheron

     In June 1978, I graduated from the Yale School of Architecture and started my first full-time job in New York as a drafter-designer for the firm of Harold Buttrick, a gentleman architect on the Upper East Side. His office was in the English basement of his townhouse. He designed apartment renovations and new houses for his well-to-do friends and neighbors, with forays into their private schools, charitable projects, and carriage-trade shops. His wife, a granddaughter of the New York architect Stanford White, was also an architect. She raised their five children and drew residential projects of her own upstairs.

     Buttrick was a benevolent despot to his staff of five. They included a secretary named Amy, an office manager named Hal, and two other drafter-designers. We three and Hal occupied the front room, with a door and window on the street. Amy was somewhere in the middle, and a library-conference room was in back, along with a private office for Buttrick. He was often out meeting clients and possible clients, socializing and drumming up business, a chancy pursuit.

     “There’s many a slip twixt the cup and the lip,” he said.

     We drew in mechanical pencil with graphite leads on vellum, a translucent rag paper that came in large sheets or rolls as wide as three feet. For a presentation, we traced in black ink using filament pens which often clogged or made blots. Drawing in ink was a slow and nerve-wracking task. We used a T-square or a parallel rule, which ran on wires attached to the drafting board, a triangle, a compass, and an array of templates. We wore dress shirts and neckties, professional attire which got in the way. Each man devised his own solution to the necktie—flipped over the shoulder, stuffed in the front pocket, clipped to the shirt front, or tucked in military-style. Ink and graphite got on our hands and clothes. Old photographs of drafters show them wearing sleeve protectors, sheaths that covered wrist to elbow.

     From the vellum sheets, we made prints on newsprint coated with photosensitive chemicals. An improvement over the blueprints that showed white lines on a blue field, these blueline or blackline prints were easier to read and better for marking corrections in red. A large office had its own machine to make prints. Buttrick’s firm sent drawings to a printer located near East 42nd Street. As the youngest on staff, I was the office boy who took drawings downtown by subway. In the heat of summer, clutching big rolls of paper that grew limp from humidity, I boarded decrepit subway cars covered with graffiti like psychedelic circus wagons. I returned with fresh prints that reeked of the ammonia used to develop them.

     A young architect serves three or more years of apprenticeship before he or she can take the state examination to qualify for a license. Hal, the office manager, gave me on-the-job training. In his thirties, he was short and stocky, smart and blunt.

     “You ask too many questions,” he said. “Instead of constantly interrupting me, use the library and figure things out.”

     Hal taught me the basics of architectural drafting, how to measure an existing building, how to inspect a construction site, and a little about the methods of getting a project built. Early in his career, he said, he was sent downtown to City Hall to deliver a sealed envelope to the official in charge of granting permits. In the 1970s, he used the high-priced services of an expediter, a person skilled in the New York City Building Code and the personalities who administered it. A quick-sketch artist, Hal drew a caricature of this man, named Nat Silberman, as a buzzing gnat.

     Architectural lettering was a stylized way of writing notes on drawings using straightedge and triangle. You flattened the lead to a chisel point by rubbing it on a scratch pad or sandpaper. You wrote in block capitals in evenly spaced lines. Verticals were vertical, and horizontals had an upward slant. It was considered good form to line up notes on the left in a column, and not to scatter them across the drawing. Arrows from the notes to the things they described could be straight or curved, but like electrical wires in a circuit, the arrows must never cross. There were symbols, abbreviations, and rules. The number “8” for example, was made of two ovals. A string of dimensions had to be straight, and the feet and inches had to be checked several times to be sure they added up. Some drafters used a non-print blue pencil for guidelines. You could draw curves freehand, but a novice was advised to use the giant ellipse template or the French curve. Like a monk in a scriptorium, I labored over my drafting until Hal approved.

     One morning, Buttrick hailed a cab and took me across town to the Dakota, the famous cooperative apartment building on Central Park West at 72nd Street. He left me to measure the kitchen, pantry, and service rooms for a modernization. Preparations were underway for a formal luncheon in the palatial suite on the park. As I sketched and inserted my tape measure through the hubbub, a tiny woman dressed in black darted here and there. She ignored me, and I said nothing. Later I learned that she owned the apartment.

     Other projects on which I helped were the eighteenth floor of the Chrysler Building leased to a law firm, a penthouse atop a grand apartment building on Fifth Avenue, a baboon exhibit at the Bronx Zoo, and a billiard room over a garage on a Long Island estate. All that first year, I felt elated. I was working in the profession I had chosen, on interesting projects, in the city to which I aspired. After seven years of higher education, with their arbitrary demands and expenses, partly met by a series of odd jobs, at last I was earning a salary.

     As for a place to live, I made shift. My first week in New York, I slept on a sofa in the apartment of an acquaintance. The apartment was high in an old building on Riverside Drive, with a sweeping view of the Hudson River. A museum administrator, Lila was married. Her husband was away on business, and she was absent most of the time. Witty and gracious, she owed me nothing. She got nothing in return when I decamped, suitcase in hand.

     The Buttricks had a schoolteacher friend who left town for vacation in the months of July and August, a single woman who sublet her apartment. Miriam accepted me without question as a subtenant. The apartment was on East 89th Street in a quirky brick pile built as a residential hotel in the 1890s. Walls were massive, windows were hard to open, and bathroom fixtures dated from the period. The apartment was crammed with antique furniture and knick-knacks. I worried aloud that I might break something.

     “There’s nothing valuable,” Miriam said. “There is, however, a box on the mantel that contains love letters my father wrote when he was courting my mother. He was aboard a ship in the South Pacific. You might enjoy reading them.”

     I got through the summer without damage and without reading the letters. Excited to be in the big city and on my own, I walked the streets of Greenwich Village, trooped through museums, jogged around the Central Park Reservoir, and rode the Staten Island Ferry. 

     As September loomed, I looked for an apartment. To afford it, I would share with a friend from Yale, a man who worked for the federal civil service. We found a place on West 21st Street near Ninth Avenue in a renovated tenement. A bedroom window faced a light well. Street windows faced the rear of Public School 11, a dreary prospect. It was also noisy, as children played in the school playground. We were not prepared for the squalor of low-budget city life. We were not well-matched, either. Domestic life became strained, and after a year, he stopped talking. I looked for another berth.

     A new friend lived in Brooklyn. I visited him on Wyckoff Street, walked the neighborhood, and checked ads for apartments for rent. In March 1980, I moved to Strong Place, in the area called Cobble Hill.

     South of Brooklyn Heights, Cobble Hill is much like it, with a stock of brownstone, brick and stucco row houses, “one of the city’s finest collections of nineteenth-century houses,” according to The Encyclopedia of New York City, by Kenneth T. Jackson and Philip Kasinitz. Built up between 1835 and 1860, the twenty-two blocks are low-rise and intimate, with plenty of trees, several old churches and a synagogue, and a few apartment buildings and schools. Long Island College Hospital occupies the northwest corner, and businesses line the boundary streets: Atlantic Avenue, Court Street, Degraw Street, and Hicks Street, which parallels the Brooklyn-Queens Expressway. The New York City Council created the Cobble Hill Historic District in 1969 and extended it in 1988.

     Turned ninety degrees to the prevailing grid are six blocks formed by streets one block long: Cheever Place, Strong Place, and Tompkins Place. Henry Street and Clinton Street run through. The arrangement discourages traffic, while it encourages safety and privacy. Even more private is Warren Place, a mews-type development off Warren Street. Two rows of diminutive cottages, eleven feet wide, line an alley planted as a common garden. Philanthropist Alfred Treadway White developed Warren Place and the nearby Towers and Home apartment blocks on Hicks Street as affordable housing for the working class in 1876. Romanesque Revival in style, an early example of such housing built for profit, they were restored in 1986. Most of Cobble Hill, however, was built for the middle class: bankers, merchants, and lawyers who commuted by ferry to lower Manhattan. 

     History had come and gone. The Battle of Long Island in the Revolutionary War was fought here, but its earthworks were erased. The western edge, toward the harbor, was fortified in the War of 1812, also invisible. The hill that gave the area its name was cut down long ago. In the early twentieth century the area declined, and immigrants moved in. Cobble Hill took on an Italian flavor. The Catholic church of St. Frances Cabrini stands at one end of Strong Place, where I lived. By the 1950s, new buyers were renovating houses, and a revival was underway. In 1963, a tiny park was carved in the middle, between Congress Street and Veranda Place.

     By chance I stepped into an urban wonderland, a pocket of architectural style. The one thing missing was public transportation. To reach the nearest subway stop, I hiked a mile to the north or east. Remoteness may have been the reason Cobble Hill survived intact. But the daily commute on trains packed full was an ordeal. The transit strike of April 1980 made matters worse for the ten days it lasted. Stranded commuters shared cabs, walked, bicycled, and stayed with friends in Manhattan. I did some of each. The Brooklyn Promenade, the elevated walkway with its spectacular view of New York Harbor and the towers of Manhattan, was a great place to stroll. And I loved the domestic scale of Brooklyn. Could green space and historical charm outweigh inconvenience?

     The house on Strong Place had three stories with one apartment on each floor. Seventeen feet wide, it had a square-shaped stair in the middle, with a skylight. My apartment was on the second floor, with a big bedroom in front, a galley kitchen and a little sitting room in back, and a narrow passage between. On the passage was a bath as compact as an airplane lavatory. Built for a single family, the house had been adapted.

     The new owner lived on the first floor with his wife and two young sons. Dan wanted to restore the house, but for the moment he needed the rental income. He apologized for the archaic cast-iron radiators. He promptly fixed some plaster damage—there was a leak at the front window. He said I could climb the fire escape in back to the flat roof, since I had no balcony. One summer day, I did climb to the roof, though getting past the cornice was tricky. From up there, I looked into fenced back yards, a comparative study in private gardens. I lay on a towel with a book, fell asleep, and woke sunburned.

     The landlord was friendly, but we saw little of each other. The neighbors threw an annual block party in the fall. Caught by surprise, I wandered through, sampled the spicy ethnic food, and said hello. Long-time residents were wary. I did not connect, and I was unsure where I belonged. What I am sure of is that odd apartment of less than five hundred square feet was the first place I could call my own. Up to the age of twenty-seven, I shared a bedroom with a brother, a dorm room with a student, or an apartment with roommates. There were episodes of house-sitting and solitude, but this was my first crack at making a home. 

     I shopped for furniture in Brooklyn antique shops. I measured the apartment, drew the floor plan, and sketched possible arrangements. I still have the drawing in pencil on yellow trace paper. I also have a map of “Cobble Hill and Vicinity” that I drew in pencil. I gave photocopies of it to Manhattan friends I invited to visit. One of these, scornful of the “bridge and tunnel crowd,” said I had become “geographically undesirable.”

     The antique mirror, chest of drawers, brass bed, cast-iron lamp, and colored prints I bought were of no great value. My one find was a Morris chair, an early type of armchair recliner invented by the English artist William Morris. Stripped of green paint, my Morris chair turned out to be made of mahogany, with front feet carved as lion’s paws. I discarded the worn cushions and had new ones made, covered with a Liberty of London fabric. I bought the chair for thirty five dollars and kept it for many years, through many moves. It showed up in an antique shop last year priced at three hundred fifty dollars.

     In the bedroom, I laid a flush hollow-core door across a low bookcase and a filing cabinet to create a desk and drafting board. Young architects yearn for independent projects, and they often moonlight for extra money. During my stay in Brooklyn, my parents left upstate New York for rural Virginia. They bought land and asked me to draw a new house. This I did, with visits to them and the wooded site. They built the house in 1981, and they lived there until my father died in 1994. I drew other projects, and I wrote poems and stories on my college typewriter.

     Nightlife in Manhattan was a problem. Taxis were extravagant. The New York City Subway ran all night, but with long waits and anxious rides. Then there was that long walk home from the station. Once after midnight, full of nervous energy, I walked home across the Brooklyn Bridge. Halfway I saw what a risk I had taken, but by then there was no turning back. No one else was abroad. It was winter, the sky was clear, and the steel suspension cables shimmered. The fresh air cleared my head. Warmed by exercise, I took off my jacket and slung it over my shoulder. I reached home safe and ready for bed.

     About a year after I started work, Harold Buttrick moved his office to a rental space in Midtown, and a nephew of his wife joined the firm. Six years older than I, a Harvard graduate, Samuel White had greasy hair and a slight lisp. He affected striped shirts and Italian shoes. My mentor Hal, who had hoped to become a junior partner, perceived his doom. He left the firm to pursue independent practice. I was laid off briefly, then wrote in a letter:

I went back to work Monday at Harry’s request, though I saw no sign of work overload. That day after work, Harry and Sam and I went out for a drink at Crawdaddy, a swank restaurant. To me it was a puzzling conversation. On the one hand, they were both critical of me for not speaking up more, Harry because he misses the benefit of my opinion, and Sam because he senses controlled resentment. On the other hand, Harry dropped a hint that some sort of promotion may be coming my way: when a project small enough to cut my teeth on comes along, it will be mine to follow through construction. I suspect Sam called the meeting, as he was negative and threatening.

     Soon after this, Buttrick invited us again for a drink after work, this time at the Harvard Club on West 44th Street. In brown leather armchairs in the vast parlor meant to resemble a baronial hall, he again praised my work. Sam, as if to make casual conversation, quizzed me on my plans for the future. He then suggested I might be happier employed somewhere else. That night I made a panicky phone call to Hal. 

     “You have to face reality,” he said. “It’s not the end of the world.”

     I searched for a new job, found one, and gave two weeks’ notice. Buttrick was sorry to see me go and asked for a delay. Again, there was no turning back.

     At the firm of Edward Larrabee Barnes, a prominent American architect, I joined a team to develop the design of the new Dallas Museum of Art. The environment was high-style, and the staff of fifty architects was a little United Nations. They came from Turkey, Finland, Pakistan, England, Venezuela, and especially China, thanks to John Lee, the second-in-command, who came from Shanghai. A Chinese classmate from Yale worked for Barnes, and she welcomed me.

     Weary from the job hunt and the longer commute, with no family or other tie to Brooklyn, and with a higher salary to pay living expenses, I looked for an apartment in Manhattan. I went to crowded showings, filled out rental applications, put down deposits, and crossed my fingers. At last I nabbed a rent-stabilized studio. I returned to Chelsea, to better subway access and a fifth-floor view.

     I joked about my year and a half of exile. Now I remember Cobble Hill and sigh. I hope that Dan restored his house, and that he and his family lived there happily ever after.

 

 

About the Author: Robert Boucheron grew up in Syracuse and Schenectady, NY. He has worked as an architect in New York City and Charlottesville, VA. His short stories and essays appear in Bangalore Review, Fiction International, Litro, London Journal of Fiction, New Haven Review, Oxford Magazine, Short Fiction.

From Now On or Bust

by Melanie Lee

     Today was Day Three of what everybody in the whole world said was From Now On and my knees were going to buckle but I said they didn’t hurt. Kids were playing. I gave my mother a peck instead of a hug. I would see her again the next morning, probably — she told me again that she had to come home from work after I went to bed. Ophelia would pick me up and take me home. I pictured Ophelia and pushed all the fluttering down my arms as I walked past Miss Cecil into the noisy clouds of Kindergarten. Mommy waved her hand near her high cheekbone before she left. I walked around the groups until it was time to do whatever Miss Cecil said.

     This was how the rest of the days the rest of the year went.

     After lunch Denise would climb the monkey bars, jut out her jaw like a pirate, swing and jab all around with her air sword. A strip of her brown bangs always dropped over her eyebrow when she turned to face this way. Each time I started to climb higher, she scrambled over the bars to block me. When I told Miss Cecil that Denise wouldn’t let me go high, she told me to talk to her tomorrow.

     I faced Denise. “Miss Cecil said.” I walked over to the edge of the bars and climbed up, then clambered sideways to the center. This was going well. But Denise closed in, locked and stuck out her jaw even more, squinted the points of her eyes even tighter and swung her sword wider. “I’ll push you off.”

     I considered huffing bravery, but I checked and it was a lot of bars down. I hated seeing me all crumpled at the bottom so letting Denise win was nothing. Bar by bar, I climbed all the way down. I found something new: a soft path of square red tiles made of rectangles and triangles. I followed it until I found a bench between two painted wooden towers set up like a storybook. There wasn’t any door to the towers, but even so, the bench was where I went during lunch.

     Late one afternoon, Miss Cecil and her assistant told us to form circles between the bench and the monkey bars and hold hands. They told a songstory I couldn’t hear most of but everyone else was walking around and I walked with them. They peeled us off into lines, saying we were getting our coats for a journey over mountains, through jungles, to animals in a faraway country. 

     I was ready for the trip. I bounced on my toes. My eyes got bright. I would leave Denise, Miss Cecil and Ophelia far behind, all alone forever. Maybe Mommy would come sometimes.

     The lines stopped in front of the cubbies. I waited for Thomas to get his coat on before I walked to mine. When I was pulling my coat from its hook I froze in a flash of newest knowing: we were just going home. Not going on a journey or seeing animals. Not leaving anyone here. Ophelia would be downstairs with the mothers in a few minutes.

     I was stuck in my throat. Stuck… I turned my head. The other kids were black figures between me and the sunlight coming over from outside through the windows.

     I swung my eyes around again for anything that knew me. My book bag was rumpled on the floor of the cubby.

     “I need to get my coat.” It was Cathy. I looked at her. Long blond hair, blue eyes. I looked at my bookbag.

     “Move. I need my coat. Miss Cecil.”

     Miss Cecil came up beside me. “People are waiting. Put your coat on. Let Cathy get her coat.” I did. The line moved. I crushed my ribs in, went wherever Miss Cecil led me. I kept everything in about that day, and many more, except for what wouldn’t stay in, like the vomit.

     That came the next day at lunchtime and the next and the next. The teachers didn’t yell at me at school. Lucky me. But I found out they did tell Ophelia.

     The train was rocking on the subway tracks home when she told me what they’d told her.

     “No I didn’t.” 

     “Don’t lie or I’ll slap you.” I hadn’t heard about slaps before. The train rocked some more. “I want you to stop throwing up. I’ll slap you if you do and I’ll slap you if you lie to me about it.”

     I stopped vomiting a few days later, slap free. Smart and safe, that was me. Then my lips started bleeding while I was asleep. Sleeping next to Mommy didn’t stop it.  Sometimes I’d wake up feeling blood running out my lower lip down my chin. Fast flutters about the blood falling on the bottom sheet were rising, so I had to think faster than the blood falling. I picked up the top sheet and squeezed my lips into both sides. Brown spots all over my side of the sheet showed me what my lips were like. I showed Mommy.  She said not to worry, got up and went to work without a stop.

     Ophelia looked at the sheets. “These will be hard to wash. Stop using them.” I couldn’t see any of the spots from the hall. “Use a tissue.”

     I forgot not to use the sheet the next day but a slap never came, even though Ophelia was around all day. By two days later, I’d learned the value of tissues. It was a lot of work to reach the box every day. I was surprised when my lips stopped bleeding soon.

     I walked around our apartment slap-and-word free. Ophelia was in everything, then.

 

 

About Melanie Lee: I live with my husband, daughter, our dog and hedgehog across the street from a beautiful park. I write memoir and poetry. onegreendolphinstreet.com

Schenectady by Robert Boucheron

     The Dutch arrived by proxy in 1609, with the voyage of Henry Hudson up the river that bears his name. They built a fort at the tip of Manhattan in 1614, and another fort at the site of Albany in 1624, the farthest point that ships could reach. They were keenly interested in the fur trade, especially beaver. They also sent colonists to farm. Headed by Arendt van Curler, a group of Dutch farmers from Albany bought land to the west from the natives in 1661. On the south bank of the Mohawk River, they built a square village of four blocks surrounded by a log palisade.

     “Schenectady” is supposed to derive from a Mohawk word that means “beyond the pines,” referring to miles of flat, sandy pine forest. There are many early spellings of the name, which strikes some people as comic. It was a standing joke in vaudeville to say that a character was from Schenectady.

     The place had a strategic cachet, probably recognized by the Mohawks and then by the Dutch. It was a natural crossing point for land and water travel. A ferry was established, and in 1808 a bridge designed by Theodore Burr. An engineering marvel, the Burr Bridge was constructed of wood trusses on stone piers and covered with wood siding. At 900 feet, it was the longest such bridge in the world at the time. The wood structure was replaced by steel in 1874. That in turn was replaced by a modern highway span, but the stone piers remain.

     Schenectady far outgrew its origin. The little square village became The Stockade, an enclave of eighteenth and nineteenth-century houses. A fire in 1819 destroyed much of it, including a commercial waterfront to the west, on a channel of the river called the Binne Kill. The Stockade became the state’s first designated historic district in 1962. Now restored, with cobblestone streets, it hosts walking tours and an annual outdoor art show.

     English warships took control of the New Netherland colony in 1664, and the English crown renamed it New York. But the Dutch people, their language, and their landholdings persisted. Dutch names are still common in the area, and the First Reformed Church holds pride of place. Built of gray stone in a massive Romanesque style, shaded by trees, it broods in the middle of The Stockade. Soon after my family moved to Schenectady in 1966, my older sister was married there, and we joined the church in a kind of quid pro quo.

     From the start, the Dutch brought African slaves to the area, and Dutch men took native wives. During King William’s War (1688-1697) which also goes by other names, French soldiers from Canada and their Algonquin allies attacked Schenectady. This fact was proclaimed in a lovely cast-iron sign, the first thing you saw on entering the city from the north: 

     Settled by Van Curler 1661

     Burned by French and Indians, February 8, 1690

The attackers killed 62 people and took 27 captive, both numbers including Africans. Marking the same event, a New York State historical sign in The Stockade notes the following:

     Ride of Symon Schermerhoorn
     On night of Feb. 8, 1690, although wounded
     he rode 20 miles to Albany warning settlers.

     According to the Schermerhorn Genealogy and Family Chronicles by Richard Schermerhorn, Jr., published in 1914, Simon (1658-1696) and his brothers Jacob and Cornelius were masters of ships plying the Hudson between Albany and New York as early as 1684. The shipping business prospered, and the family became wealthy. Simon moved to New York in 1691. “The tale of his famous ride . . . at the time of the Schenectady Massacre has been repeated to many generations of Schermerhorns.” The similarity of the story to Paul Revere’s ride in 1775 is striking. The story does not say why Schermerhorn escaped instead of staying to fight. It does say that he was shot in the leg, rode through bitter cold, and arrived in Albany at five o’clock in the morning, “more dead than alive.” 

     Schenectady continued to figure in conflicts. The French and Indians attacked again in 1748. During the Revolutionary War, the Battle of Saratoga, an important victory for the Americans, was fought not far to the north in 1777. General George Washington visited at least three times, including a sleepover in 1782.

     After the Revolutionary War, inhabitants at last broke the power of the Dutch landowners and achieved representative government. Schenectady acquired a city charter in 1798. Around this time, in 1785, the Schenectady Academy was started, to be refounded as Union College in 1795. The college moved in 1814 to a campus planned by the French landscape architect Joseph Jacques Ramée. A model for other American colleges, including the University of Virginia founded in 1819, Union College has the first comprehensively planned campus in the United States. From the Union College website: “We are a small, residential, independent liberal arts college committed to integrating the humanities and social sciences with science and engineering in new and exciting ways.”

     Union’s centerpiece is Nott Memorial Hall, named for the first president, Eliphalet Nott. Designed by Edward Tuckerman Potter, built of stone, and completed in 1879 in an elaborate Victorian Gothic style, the building has sixteen sides and a polychrome dome raised on a clearstory drum. Paved with colorful encaustic tile, the interior is ringed by cast-iron balconies. Formerly the campus library, the Nott Memorial is used for lectures, concerts, and exhibitions. In the 1960s, I attended a performance of Handel’s Messiah there. It appears as a backdrop in the 1973 film The Way We Were, starring Barbra Streisand and Robert Redford.

     In the 1790s, Schenectady shows up in an literary context, the Memoirs of Madame de la Tour du Pin. Born as Henrietta-Lucy Dillon, Madame de la Tour du Pin was a French-English aristocrat. As a girl, she lived at the court of Versailles. She and her husband fled France during the Terror. They reached Boston and then New York, where other French exiles gathered, including the Marquis de Talleyrand and Jean-Anthelme Brillat-Savarin, who would later write La Physiologie du goût. In 1794, with young children in tow, Monsieur and Madame de la Tour du Pin sailed up the Hudson to Albany.

As we did not wish to stay in Albany itself, General Schuyler undertook to find a nearby farm for us to buy. . . . The property was four miles from Albany, on the line of the road which it was planned to build from Albany to Schenectady, a town which was then expanding rapidly.

     By her own account, Madame de la Tour du Pin became a capable farm wife. “My butter was much in demand.” She adopted the dress of the local women, cooked and cleaned, and bought two African slaves.

One day, towards the end of September, I was out in the yard, chopper in hand, busy cutting the bone of a leg of mutton which I was about to roast on the spit for our dinner. . . . Suddenly from behind me, a deep voice remarked in French, “Never was a leg of mutton spitted with greater majesty.” Turning quickly round, I saw M. de Talleyrand and M. de Beaumetz. They had learned our whereabouts from General Schuyler.

     The de la Tour du Pins stayed for two years, until the political situation in France allowed them to return. While they lived in their rustic log cabin, “a pretty cart laden with fine vegetables often passed our house. It belonged to the Quaker Shakers, who had a settlement six or seven miles from us.” The cart driver invited them to visit, and they did.

     The settlement was Niskayuna, led by Mother Ann Lee (1736-1784) from Manchester, England. Niskayuna, also called Watervliet in historical accounts, was the first Shaker village, started in 1776 and formally organized in 1787. Niskayuna grew to about 350 members at its greatest extent, and it dissolved in 1938. Much of the farmland was redeveloped as the Albany County Airport. The village is now a historic site open to the public.

     The Shakers and their mystical, celibate lifestyle were seldom talked about in the 1960s, an era more concerned with the Vietnam War, women’s liberation, the new sexual freedom, and drugs. The Shakers are known today through their design of tools, objects, furniture, and buildings; for innovations in seeds, farming and food distribution; and for the equal status of women in their communities. Two of the best books on Shaker society are The Communistic Societies of the United States, From Personal Visit and Observation (1875) by Charles Nordhoff, and The People Called Shakers (1953) by Edward Deming Andrews. More recent studies, including one by Priscilla Brewer, have examined Shaker beliefs, how their communities evolved, and reasons for their decline.

     At Niskayuna, nine buildings of the central cluster are preserved, as well as an orchard, a herb garden, a pond, and the cemetery where Mother Ann Lee and other early leaders are buried. It is a peaceful, rural place. In its heyday, according to the self-guided walking tour pamphlet:

The Watervliet community operated as a mini-industrial center where woodenware and chairs were mass-produced and agricultural products manufactured for sale to the outside world. They were among the first to standardize production and make use of quality controls. . . . Shakers invented a vacuum sealed tin can and canned hundreds of pounds of fruits and vegetables.

     The meeting house built in 1848 resembles a gymnasium, with a sprung wood floor for the communal dances which were the Shaker form of worship. The dances grew out of the original “shaking” in religious ecstasy. Gestures were symbolic—hands were extended with the palms up, for example, to receive divine gifts. Since Sunday worship was open to the public, it became a performance for which the congregation rehearsed. The meeting house contains bleachers for spectators, as well as high interior windows for Shaker elders in an upstairs room to keep an eye on things. Shakers were noted for their healthy lifestyle and longevity. A secondary benefit of the dances may have been exercise, a forerunner of yoga and movement classes today.

     The completion of the Erie Canal in 1825 was a decisive event for Schenectady. The canal connected Lake Erie in the west along the Mohawk valley to the Hudson River, a navigable route from the Midwest to the seaport of New York, which quickly outgrew all other ports on the east coast. In the 1830s, railroads were built on the same route, among the earliest in the United States. Industry sprang up in a string of upstate cities: Buffalo, Rochester, Syracuse, Utica, Schenectady, and Troy. Iron manufacturing was an early pursuit. Schenectady and Troy became known for cast-iron stoves, and during the Civil War for production of artillery.

     As in New England, water power led to establishment of mills on the Mohawk and Hudson Rivers. The Harmony Mills are a group of red-brick buildings in Cohoes near Schenectady, similar to the complexes in Lawrence and Lowell, Massachusetts. The site is open to the public. Begun in the 1830s and extensively rebuilt in the 1860s, the Harmony Mills are documented in black-and-white photographs, measured drawings and text in A Report of the Mohawk-Hudson Area Survey by Robert M. Vogel, published in 1973 by the Smithsonian Institution.

The Harmony Mills took a great interest in the well-being and surroundings of its employees. The company built tenements for its workers. . . . The Mastodon Mill is an unusually elaborate example of Victorian textile mill construction. The two principal blocks, north and south, built several years apart, are similar and coaxial. Each is of five stories including the usable mansard attic.

     Railroad industries thrived in Schenectady in the late nineteenth century. They consolidated in 1901 as the American Locomotive Company. In 1887, Thomas Edison, based in New Jersey, moved his Edison Machine Works to Schenectady. Soon after, in 1892, Schenectady became the headquarters for his General Electric Company. ALCO and GE, as they were called, developed huge industrial plants. Each was a complex of buildings and streets surrounded by a fence with gates, a city within the city. Other manufacturing included carriages, brooms, and a patent medicine called Dr. Carter’s Pink Pills for Pale People. But Schenectady styled itself “the electric city” and “the city that lights and hauls the world.”

     In the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, immigrants from Ireland, Italy, Germany and Poland, as well as African Americans from the South, came to work in the factories and in construction. The city reached a peak population of 96,000 in 1930. Industry was marked by innovation. Schenectady acquired the second commercial radio station in the United States, WGY. In 1928 in Schenectady, General Electric produced the first regular television broadcast. Politics were progressive. George R. Lunn was elected mayor in 1911 as a Socialist, and again in 1915 as a Democrat.

     Charles Steinmetz (1865-1923), a mathematician and electrical inventor employed by General Electric, was a notable figure in Schenectady at this time. He was born in Wroclaw, Silesia, in what is now Poland, to a German Jewish family, with congenital dwarfism, hunchback and hip dysplasia. From boyhood, he excelled in school. As an adult, he was about four feet tall, crooked, with a beard. Photographs often show him with a cigar. He came to the United States in 1889. Steinmetz helped to develop alternating electric current and electromagnetic motors, and he amassed over 200 patents. To provide engineers for the new field, he started the electrical engineering department at Union College. He also served as president of the city’s Board of Education and president of the City Council.

     With other scientists, inventors, and executives, Steinmetz built a house for himself in the General Electric Realty Plot, a 75-acre tract that became one of America’s earliest planned communities in 1899. Adjacent to the Union College campus, the Realty Plot features grand homes in a variety of architectural styles, including Tudor, Dutch Colonial, Queen Anne, and Spanish Colonial. Among the wealth of details is a copper dragon perched on the roof ridge of 1226 Wendell Avenue. A modified California Bungalow at 1155 Avon Road was the first all-electric house, demonstrated in 1903. The Brown School was built in 1905 for Realty Plot children and run by Helen Brown. The First Unitarian Society, designed by Edward Durrell Stone, was built in 1961. Groot’s Creek Ravine runs through the middle of the tract, privately owned and maintained as a natural area and bird sanctuary. 

     In the middle of the twentieth century, Schenectady produced a historian. Larry Hart (1920-2004) was born in Schenectady, attended city public schools, and graduated from Union College. From 1945 to 1960, he worked as a photographer and reporter for the Schenectady Union-Star, and from 1960 to 1980, he did the same for the Schenectady Gazette. He wrote a weekly column called “Tales of Old Dorp” for the Gazette, “dorp” being a Dutch word for a small town.

     Hart compiled three books from his newspaper column: Schenectady’s Golden Era: 1880-1930 (1974); Tales of Old Schenectady, Volume I: The Formative Years (1975); and Tales of Old Schenectady, Volume II: The Changing Scene (1977). Self-published and abundantly illustrated, the books show colorful characters, local businesses, natural disasters, building demolitions, and vanished landmarks. In his preface to Volume II, Hart says:

The anecdotes selected for these volumes of Tales of Old Schenectady do not follow any chronological timetable. Instead, they are told at random in non-textbook fashion for the enjoyment of those who prefer to take their history in easy doses.

     As in other upstate cities, in 1925 the Erie Canal was filled in to become Erie Boulevard. A landmark at the corner of Erie Boulevard and State Street was Nicholaus German Restaurant, remodeled in 1901 with a turret and cornice to recall the Old World of its owners, Louis and Sophie Nicholaus. At first, it was a men’s saloon with a red mahogany bar and brass rail, with hotel rooms above. The restaurant expanded under later generations. Hart devotes several pages to Nicholaus, including the talking parrot Loppa, a scarlet macaw from Guatemala who entertained patrons in the bar from 1907 until his death in 1936. At that time, he was stuffed and added to the décor. The restaurant closed in 1975, but the ornate building still stands.

     In 1933, Schenectady acquired a new City Hall, a neoclassical confection like a huge wedding cake, designed by McKim, Mead and White. But from the Great Depression onward, the city declined. ALCO shrank to a shadow of itself, and the plant closed in 1969. General Electric steadily reduced its manufacturing. After World War II, retail business moved to the suburbs, especially the triangular area between Schenectady, Albany and Troy.

     In 1946, the federal government established the Knolls Atomic Power Laboratory, with General Electric as its operator. KAPL was located in Niskayuna, several miles away from the main GE plant, and adjacent to GE’s Research and Development Center. The two research centers provided a host of well-paid jobs for a highly educated, international work force.

     Niskayuna in turn became an affluent suburb. In the 1950s, the town reorganized its school system. In 1957, it completed a new high school, staffed with newly hired department chairs and teachers. Rapid growth required an addition, and in 1967 the building doubled in size. From a report titled Niskayuna Schools at 50, “the school population rose from 1,530 students in 1968 to 1,870 students in 1974.” A vocational-technical program offered job training. As a college preparatory school, Niskayuna ranked high at state and national levels. It placed bright students in a fast track, with senior year courses at the college level for advanced placement credit. In the 1960s, elective courses included computer programming and Russian language.

     When my father took an executive job at General Electric headquarters in 1966, he bought a new house in a new subdivision that lay in the Niskayuna district. My brothers and I attended Niskayuna High School.

     I took my studies seriously, earned high grades, and was president of the Honor Society. Bookish and awkward, I practiced each fall with the soccer team, though the coach rarely let me take the field in a game. Small for my age, I played one of Medea’s children in a school drama club production of the play by Euripides. I played clarinet in the school band and orchestra. Thanks to a program set up by the music department, I took clarinet lessons from Augustin Duques of the Juilliard School. He and a brass colleague drove up once a week from New York City. I joined the Junior Etude Club, a city-wide group that met monthly to perform. A 1968 photograph in the Gazette shows four new members seated on the grass, with me holding a guitar. I never played guitar, so the photographer must have staged us.

     In the 1960s, the downtown district was dreary, centered on a seven-block stretch of State Street, but it still had most of its buildings. They included banks, a New York Central Railroad station in the Beaux Arts style, and the dour Schenectady County Office Building at the top of a hill. The Carl Company was a multi-floor department store where my mother worked briefly. Hermie’s Music Store sold sheet music, instruments, and musical supplies. I often went there to buy clarinet reeds. Proctor’s Theater, built in 1926 as a movie palace and vaudeville theater, with an interior arcade, was a cultural landmark. There I saw the Tom Stoppard play Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead. The behemoth Hotel Van Curler, Georgian Revival in style and built of red brick in 1925, went bankrupt in 1968. It was renovated as Schenectady County Community College, part of the State University of New York system.

     Schenectady had a YMCA on State Street. On rainy summer days, the Schenectady Inner City Ministry day camp met in the gymnasium. I was a counsellor. On sunny days, we boarded school buses and drove to a camp in the woods west of the city. About equal numbers of poor black and white children got their first dose of nature. As counsellors, we were encouraged to get involved with the children, so I visited the slum where many of them lived. The neighborhood called Hamilton Hill, just south of downtown, was my first dose of urban poverty.

     General Electric moved any lingering executive jobs from Schenectady to its corporate headquarters in Darien, Connecticut in 1980. Some manufacturing remained, notably of large turbines used to generate electricity. My father transferred to a GE plant in Virginia. My younger brother Edward graduated from Union College, while my older brother Pete moved from tool-and-die machine work at the main GE plant to making custom experimental apparatus at GE’s Research and Development Center. Schenectady as a whole continued to decline until the end of the century.

     At that point, the state government in Albany realized that it could develop office space in Schenectady more easily than in the capital. State Street filled gaps from demolition with new office buildings. Schenectady gained population in the 2010 census, up to 66,000. When I visited then, after an absence of thirty years, State Street looked revitalized, with newly planted trees. Hermie’s was still in business, and Proctor’s Theater had been freshened up.

     Samuel Johnson wrote, “If a man does not make new acquaintance as he advances through life, he will soon find himself left alone.” Allow me to introduce myself, then. I am from Schenectady.

 

 

About the Author: Robert Boucheron is an architect in Charlottesville, Virginia. His short stories and essays appear in Fiction International, London Journal of Fiction, Lowestoft Chronicle, New Haven Review, Poydras Review, Short Fiction (UK), The Short Story (UK). His plays will be staged this year in Concord, North Carolina and the Detroit Fringe Forward Festival.

Bellewood by Robert Boucheron

     In recalling childhood, we visit islands of memory that shine in a dark sea. We navigate a course from dot to dot, steering by dates and facts like stars we dimly saw back then. We guess at causes. We make up motives for other people and even for ourselves.

     What follows is set in the 1950s and 1960s in upstate New York. That I lived there at that time is certain, but the story is what I choose to tell. Or is it my parents’ story? They made all the decisions. They and other family members contradict me. I quote these characters in their own words. I cite letters and documents to buttress my case. These attempts to deceive will be painfully obvious.

*

     In 1953, my father started a new job at General Electric Company in Syracuse, New York. Pierre Boucheron, Jr. was thirty-two years old, a lean man about six feet tall, with an olive complexion. He wore his stiff, brown hair in a brush cut. A graduate of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, he wore a class ring sculpted with a beaver, nature’s engineer.

     Pierre bought a lot near the village of North Syracuse, and he hired the developer to build a new house. This man, Bellinger, called his tract Bellewood, and he named the streets after his family: Mary, Cynthia, Patricia, and so on. One Bellewood Circle, at the corner of Leroy Road, was completed the following spring. My mother Charlotte sold the house in Roslyn, Long Island, packed up, and moved her three children: Charlotte, Pierre III, and myself, a baby. While doing this, she was pregnant. Edward was born that summer after the move.

     At General Electric, my father worked for the Heavy Military Electronics Department. During the twelve years he stayed, he developed color television hardware and computer applications for weapons and navigation, things for which the company acquired patents. He researched new products and methods, he traveled to manufacturing plants in the United States, Mexico and Brazil, and he studied to be a manager.

     As I child, I understood none of this. My father’s work was mysterious and invisible. It took up regular hours, and it paid a salary. He left early each morning carrying a lunch box and a thermos bottle filled with hot coffee. After five o’clock, he returned home. He talked to my mother in the kitchen as she made dinner, and they drank martinis.

     He made the martinis in a large metal cup with a strainer coil in the lid. He loaded the cup with ice, gin and vermouth, shook it for the right amount of time, and poured the liquid into a glass shaped like a shallow cone on a stem. He added a white onion or a green olive skewered on a little plastic sword. I asked once to taste a martini. It was bitter, I made a face, and my parents laughed.

     To unwind, as he said, my father gave a blow-by-blow account of his day, full of the names of men, bosses and coworkers, their rivalries and thwarted schemes, the stupidities of management, and his own accomplishments. His talk was peppered with stock phrases that haunted me. What did they mean? Why did he repeat them?

     “That went over like a lead balloon,” he would say. A certain man was “a prima donna” or “God’s gift to mankind.” His boss was “our fearless leader,” to whom loyalty was due, but anyone’s “motivation” could be questioned. Proud of being an engineer—he wore a wool suit, a white shirt and a necktie to work—my father had boundless contempt for “salesmen.” His own father was a marketing director for another company, an irony that was beyond me. “That’s trivial,” was clear enough, but “six of one to half a dozen of the other” was a problem in arithmetic. Though he worked in television and often watched it, he called it “the boob tube” or “the idiot box.” Most baffling was the phrase “as sure as God made little green apples.”

     One day, the thermos bottle came home filled with liquid nitrogen. At work, my father was studying a super-cooled electronic system called cryogenics. Standing in the kitchen, he did tricks with the liquid nitrogen. He inserted a rubber band, which came out brittle and shattered. He turned the bottle upside-down to pour, but the stream vaporized as it fell.

     The house we lived in had one and a half stories, with two bedrooms on each floor and a steep wooden stair. With about 1500 square feet of floor space, it was substantial for the 1950s. It stood on a flat, quarter-acre lot planted with grass and flowering shrubs: lilac, mock orange, forsythia, and honeysuckle. A weeping willow tree stood in a low spot that collected rainwater. Our house was one of four models repeated throughout the subdivision.

     Bellewood was filled with English, German, French, Polish and Hungarian surnames, yet everyone was white and middle class. Many of the men were engineers who worked for General Electric, Porter-Cable, or other industries. The women kept house, but some had careers. Betty Wright was a registered nurse, Anne Raqué had been an executive secretary, and Henrietta Smith was an art teacher, married to a piano tuner and musician named Art. Creative and bohemian, the Smith family was magnetic and right next door. They had three children, a live-in grandmother named Mrs. Wells, and house guests from Japan, Korea, and who knows where.

     Street by street, on foot and bicycle, I came to know the subdivision. The Village of North Syracuse was about a mile away. As young as age eight, I walked there by myself on a two-lane road with traffic, under Interstate 81, to the barbershop on Main Street. With coins in my pocket from an allowance, I walked to a general store on Taft Road, and another on Church Street. Both stocked toys and candy.

     While walking with the family, though, I lagged behind. Something caught my attention, and I got lost—on the street, in department stores, at highway rest stops, and at sites of historic interest. We took day trips by car in summer, to the New York State Fair in Syracuse and to tourist attractions like Fort Ticonderoga. My father drove with the windows down, and the smoke from his cigarettes blew on us in the back seat. He wore tinted shades clipped to his glasses. When not driving, he flipped the shades up, like a beetle about to fly away.

     We attended Andrews Memorial Methodist Church in the village. Sunday service was a dressy affair. Men wore suits and women wore hats. Because my mother waited until a convenient moment came, Eddie and I were baptized as toddlers one weekday in an empty church. We went to Sunday school. Art Smith recruited me for the handbell choir, which was for boys only. My father seldom went with us on Sunday. As he said, he was “not a joiner.” He belonged to no clubs and played no sports. Yet he helped to design a new pipe organ for the church. Art Smith must have recruited him.

     By contrast, my mother played contract bridge with three women’s groups which met at different times of day. A graduate of Wellesley College, she worked full time at keeping house and raising four children. She made all of our family meals, and we always ate dinner together at the table. Mother liked to cook. She experimented, and she tried recipes from the New York Times Cookbook, Joy of Cookingand Clementine Paddleford. She baked bread, pies, cookies, cakes, and muffins. At Christmas, she made loaves of stollen, a yeast bread studded with dried fruit and almonds, some for us and some as gifts. Kneading dough one day, she threw it to me, and we played catch with the elastic, floury ball.

     Since my mother was busy in the kitchen much of the time, I lingered there too, until she ordered me out from underfoot. The radio was always on. In the morning, Don McNeill’s Breakfast Club was broadcast “from high atop the Hotel Allerton in downtown Chicago.” The comedy routines included Aunt Fanny, with her signature tune “A Bird in a Gilded Cage.”

     When not cooking or washing dishes, my mother knitted socks and sweaters, and she sewed on an electric sewing machine. By way of a hobby, she wove—she had a table loom and a floor loom, a large wooden frame in the basement. She was a great reader, had a head for numbers, sang well, and as she said, “I love to people-watch.”

     Here is her letter dated Friday, September 21, 1962, to my sister Charlotte, who had just left home for college.

     What a busy day! We are going on the Stewarts’ boat tomorrow and come back Sunday, so I’ve been making food to take. We’re celebrating Pete’s birthday this evening—I made a double Dutch cake this morning, got a cute little 1 ½ lb. canned ham and baked that. Also made two loaves of bread and four pans of sweet rolls. Pete wanted meatloaf, so I made two, one for us to take tomorrow. Zowey! Hard on the feet.

     Many people I speak to ask about you. Dad and I are so glad you called Wednesday evening. You sounded elated, and we hope it keeps up that way.

     Bridge at Barnharts’ last evening, and I went up by bike—yours. The light is grand, but the air was chilly. We have been having real cold weather. We’ll probably freeze on the boat. Guess I’ll go in blue jeans and sweatshirt.

     Mrs. Eachus came back this morning with weaving books and got all the information on looms we had. She really means to get one. By the way, when she arrived, guess what I was doing—washing the breakfast dishes. So she dried. Poor Eachuses! She wanted to know if we’d heard from you.

     I am sitting in the car at Northern Lights Shopping Center. Dodie is having heels put on her shoes. The boys are browsing through Sam’s. And this is my chance to write. The house seems strange, even if there are still five of us left. I’ll mail this now and see about buying a dish rag.

*

     A creek ran through the Bellewood subdivision, a stream no more than a few inches deep. It was narrow enough to jump across, from grassy bank to bank. The rear boundary of the lots it flowed past, the creek was no-man’s-land, or so it seemed to a child.

     Every family in Bellewood had children. We played outside in shifting gangs. In winter, we played in deep snow, tunneling through drifts, sledding, and throwing snowballs. In summer, we played running games: hide-and-seek, kick-the-can and war. Hide-and-seek had verbal formulas which had to be shouted word-perfect to be of any use. Kick-the-can benefited from poor visibility at dusk, with grass made slippery by dew. War involved gun battles, sometimes with water pistols, prisoners bound and blindfolded, daring escapes; and dramatic death agonies. We disputed who shot whom first, and therefore who was dead.

     On a summer evening, we chased the fogger. This was a cart that sprayed insecticide to keep down the mosquitoes which bred in the creek. Men of the neighborhood took turns towing the fogger behind their cars at dusk, when there was no breeze. We raced ahead and lay face down on the grass. The white, sweet-smelling fog washed over us. The fogger roared. Deafened, our lungs filled with poison, we writhed in ecstasy.

     We played on swingsets in anyone’s yard. We played in weedy vacant lots, on the tar-and-gravel streets, and near the house in a cautious way, knowing that we might be watched. At all times and in all weather, we played in the creek.

     Where the creek crossed Leroy Road through a culvert, it widened to a shallow pool. The south bank had a seesaw and stubby mounts to ride, a half-hearted attempt at a playground. The ground here was pebbly and strewn with trash. The creek, for that matter, was polluted by runoff, drains from washing machines, and more. Each house had its own septic tank, and the drainfields were prone to mishaps. Foam clung to the edges of the creek, and objects lurked in its bed—shoes, cans, a pouchy, airless ball. Still, the water was clear. Minnows lived in it, frogs and creeping things.

     The culvert frightened me as a child. It was dark, the bottom was slick with algae, and cobwebs hung in the air. Another toddler dared me to walk through it in a low crouch, the same one who dared me to climb to the top of a willow oak in his back yard, or to balance on the top rail of a fence and walk as on a tightrope. Three times, I made careful steps halfway through the culvert and chickened out. Finally, tired of my own fearfulness, I dashed all the way through to daylight, splashed with mud and glory.

     In rubber boots or barefoot in summer, with or without friends, I waded in the shallow pool next to Leroy Road. Bending double to use my hands, I built dams of sand and gravel. I observed patterns of ripples, the rising flood, and slowly drowning islands. As water overtopped it, the dam eroded. Then it broke and gushed a torrent. This moment of disaster was worth hours of effort. My back ached from bending like a farm worker in a field, and my feet grew numb, but I was never happier.

     My older brother Pete introduced me to the jungle. This was a marshy area upstream, overgrown with reeds and poison sumac, which was death to touch. Trails wandered through the jungle, which steamed under a pitiless sun. The mud and rotting plants smelled vile.

     “Is it the breath of a cougar?” I asked.

     “Yes,” Pete said. “Cougars lurk on low branches. They spring out of hiding and eat you.”

     “You’re walking too fast.”

     “You have to keep up. But stay on the path. One false step, and you’ll sink up to your neck in quicksand. No one will hear you cry for help.”

     There were forts in the jungle, but all I saw was a small clearing, with a fallen tree trunk that served as a bench. Pete never specified what they did, the gang of older boys. I believe they sat solemnly in council, trooped through the jungle in single file, raided a fort with bloodcurdling yelps, and perfected their skill with knives. Every boy had a jackknife. Some had ropes and other useful gear. Pete’s specialty was pulleys, which he rigged between trees to transfer cargo. Their training as Boy Scouts was not for nothing.

     Farther upstream, beyond the jungle, was a private dump. The creek was a trickle here, down a steep bank, engulfed by briars. Pete and his friends roamed the hillocks of the dump and destroyed whatever they could find—bottles, boards, crates and paint cans. I was drawn to construction debris—bricks, lumber, and globs of plaster that looked squishy but were hard as rock. I collected ceramic tiles and scraps of wood in a damp cardboard box to carry home.

     We had a bin of scraps, a miscellany of wooden dowels, dominoes, offcuts, shingles, and alphabet blocks. Eddie and I built cities that sprawled across our bedroom floor. The ceramic tiles were good for floor slabs—the cities were multi-story. Eddie had a catapult that launched empty thread spools by means of rubber bands. We laid siege, lobbed boulders, admired the ruins, and cleared them to build again. I later became an architect, while Eddie became an engineer and joined a firm that made thermonuclear bombs.

     Where did the creek flow downstream? One listless, overcast day, Eddie and I explored. Exiting Bellewood, we plunged into a dense forest whose canopy blotted out the sky. Along a streambed that twisted and turned, we trudged for miles through uncharted wilderness. There was no path and considerable underbrush. The trees had giant roots that were hard to step over. We wore shorts, and our legs got scratched.

    “Where are we?” Eddie asked plaintively.

    “I forgot to borrow Pete’s compass,” I said. “Lichen grows on the north side of tree trunks. If we get lost, we can find our way back.”

    “I’m hungry,” Eddie said. “Did you bring supplies?”

    “No. Tighten your belt a notch.”

    “It’s lonely out here.”

    “An explorer has to keep going, regardless.”

    “I want to go home.”

    We never discovered the end of the creek.

*

    Our living room had a Windsor chair. Made of wooden spokes and slabs, the chair resembled a cage. It had a rounded back, a double hollow carved in the seat, struts like those on a biplane wing, lathe turnings, and an oval tray on the right arm. I say oval, but the shape was more of a teardrop, and it had a slight tilt. You could write on it or lay open a book, but eating was risky. A plate or bowl was apt to slide.

    Too hard and bony for comfort, the Windsor chair was an apparatus. You could crawl under it, hang things on it, bang the spokes like a xylophone, roll toy cars around the curves, and shake the bars of your jail in despair. Once, I climbed up the back and tipped it over, unaware that I posed an eccentric load.

    A little wooden drawer hid under the seat. You could see it by lying flat on the floor, or by looking between your legs, upside-down. When the chair was vacant, I pulled the wooden knob, and was surprised when the drawer came all the way out. A runner on each side fitted snugly in a slot. With practice, I learned how to close the drawer. Since it was empty, I put things in—a penny, a cat’s-eye marble, and a plastic scoop that came in a can of ground coffee.

    Our grandmother Dodie brought the Windsor chair from Hartford, Connecticut, and she often sat there. She spread a magazine on the oval tray. Her head leaned back, her eyelids drooped, and she snored. We had an overstuffed couch and armchair, a Welsh dresser, and a dining suite. The house was modern, with large windows, clamshell trim, and a one-car garage. It had a furnace, ducts, and a thermostat, but no fireplace or chimney.

    “How will Santa Claus get in?” I asked.

    “Through the front door,” Dodie said.

    “But the door is locked at night.”

    “Santa Claus has a key.”

    “Does he have keys to everyone’s house? Because that would be a lot.”

    “He only needs one. It’s a master key.”

     Dodie steered clear of grandmotherly clichés like knitting. In her late sixties, she had arthritis in her hands. She wore old-fashioned clothes that smelled of camphor, and she had a stock of archaic lore—gypsies, bad luck, and the evil eye. In the Windsor chair, she took one child at a time in her lap and told about her youth in the 1890s. Children picked wildflowers and twined them in wreaths. Dodie learned to play the zither.

*

    On a wall over the dining table hung a large painting, oil on canvas in a gilded frame. The painting showed a young woman in a long white gown and blond braids standing on a stage, with her mouth open. Behind her stood a man in a red robe, hat and shoes, with a sinister mustache and a sharp tail sticking out behind. Red flames flickered in the background. Below, with his back to the viewer, was the top half of a man in a black coat with arms raised, holding a baton. The man in the red costume was clearly the devil, but what was happening?

    Our grandfather, the advertising director for the Radio Corporation of America in the 1920s, had commissioned the painting. It was reproduced in magazine ads for radios. Other ads showed well-dressed people at home listening or dancing to the Radiola, RCA’s brand name. These early radios were large, operated by vacuum tubes. They came in handsome wooden cabinets, which were expensive. But there was no radio in this painting.

    After a detour of many years, the painting passed to me. Then, in a junk shop, I found The Victor Book of the Opera, subtitled “Stories of the Operas with Illustrations and Descriptions of Victor Opera Records” and printed in 1929. In that year, RCA bought the Victor Talking Machine Company, the leading American producer of phonograph records and players—the Victrola with its white beagle-terrier mascot named Nipper. The book confirmed my hunch.

    Loosely based on the play by Goethe, the opera Faust premiered in Paris in 1859. It was popular in New York in the 1920s. The opera “with its conflicting human passions and religious sentiment . . . amazing wealth of melody . . . and colorful orchestral treatment” shifts the focus from the elderly scholar Faust to his young love interest, a soprano named Marguerite. She wears a long white gown and blond braids. Mephistopheles, however, a bass dressed in red, steals the show. He behaves like the devil, deceiving, tempting and mocking the other characters. A child could easily mistake his sword for a tail.

    Faust does not have a duet between Marguerite and Mephistopheles, though they appear onstage with others. The painting, then, shows the essence of the opera, not an actual scene, with the conductor in the foreground. This is what you could hear on the radio—live music, an exciting story, and high culture.

    The grandfather connected with the painting was married to Dodie. But she lived near us in a garden apartment, and he lived in Fort Wayne, Indiana. He visited us in North Syracuse for a few days one summer while she was absent. A dark, cultured, energetic man of seventy, well-dressed, he brought a tray of slides from a trip to Paris and projected them on a wall. He brought a supply of liquor, which he drank in the evening. And as gifts he brought children’s books in French, which we could not read: Bambi, Histoire de Babar, and Le petit chaperon rouge. Was this grandfather also the devil? Why did he live in Fort Wayne, Indiana?

*

    As a toddler I waited for the morning school bus with Charlotte and Pete and tried to climb aboard with them. Once, I slipped past the bus driver. My mother had to fetch me from the school. I have an early memory of sitting with Charlotte on the living room floor, writing letters of the alphabet with a pencil on scraps of wood. By the time I entered kindergarten, I could read and write, and my theory is that my sister taught me. She denies this.

    Legally enrolled, I found school tedious. Coloring printed drawings with crayons struck me as childish, so I used the wrong colors. The teacher made me stand in a corner. I quickly completed written assignments, then chattered and giggled with classmates. The teacher scolded me. Eager to please, I blushed at reprimands.

    The school building was brand new, one story, built of concrete block and large sheets of glass, with a polished terrazzo floor and a flat roof. The curriculum and teaching methods were up-to-the-minute. New York State had a Board of Regents for public schools, and standardized tests were the norm. North Syracuse schools also tested students for sight, hearing, teeth, and muscular reflexes. They gave immunizations for polio, and they evaluated IQ, though they kept those results secret. They offered classes in art, sports of all kinds, social dancing, and field trips to museums, state parks, and the Robert Moses Niagara Hydroelectric Power Station, itself brand new in 1961. In the era after Sputnik, a field trip to a hydroelectric power station was something Soviet children would envy.

    Once a week, the Catholic children boarded buses which took them to a parochial school for something called “religious instruction.” Those of us in the decimated class had art. We cut and glued construction paper into colorful chains for a Christmas tree, or valentine hearts, or Easter baskets. We painted pictures and modeled with clay. We pressed our hands into pads of plaster, which dried and hardened. Our hands outgrew the casts in a year. The Catholic children missed all the fun.

    We had two music teachers, Miss Philips for singing and Mr. Harp for instruments. We sang every day, using children’s song books that included “White Coral Bells,” “Frère Jacques,” “The Battle Hymn of the Republic,” “Dixie,” and “The Erie Canal Song.”

    In the third grade, the whole class took a test in sound pitch and pattern that lasted for hours. The Seashore Test for Musical Ability was devised by Carl Emil Seashore in 1919. Students who did well could then take free weekly lessons on a musical instrument. I chose the clarinet. I took lessons, learned to read music, and practiced at home every day. The elementary school had an orchestra and a chorus, which combined to present two concerts each year. In the cafeteria, which had a curtained stage at one end, Mr. Harp conducted beautifully, while parents listened in folding chairs and applauded.

    On November 22, 1963, as I warmed up on clarinet for the concert scheduled that night, my father came upstairs from watching television. He was in tears. President John F. Kennedy was assassinated, and the concert would be cancelled. This was one of two occasions when I was conscious of national events. The other was Kennedy’s inauguration, which I watched on television in the school library. Each teacher sent one student from her class to watch, then to describe the ceremony to the other children. The word “execute” in the oath of office confused me, so Miss Rand explained it to us.

    We had free subscriptions to Weekly Reader, we had spelling bees, and we had assignments to write in class: book reports and personal essays. At some point, maybe in the fourth grade, we had a series of reading comprehension exercises printed on cards in color-coded boxes. The exercises were self-scored. Students competed for points and speed, to see who got through the rainbow of readings faster.

    Charlotte graduated from high school in 1962. College was by no means assured. Her grades were mediocre, and our father was reluctant to pay for it. But our mother “put her foot down,” Charlotte says. She left for Minnesota, and I got her bedroom, until she came back for vacations. For months at a stretch, then, I had a room of my own. It contained a desk, dresser, and twin beds with padded, pastel headboards. I listened to the radio, played with a tape recorder, and did homework at the desk.

    From age ten, on odd scraps of paper, I wrote letters to Charlotte. While cleaning house for a retirement move, she found a stash and sent it to me. The letters show a precocious brat with an outsize vocabulary and an urge to make up stories. They include drawings. They complain about school and mention a craze for Monopoly. They ask questions, such as: “Did you find the rubber alligator I put in your suitcase?”

*

    By the mid-1960s, the boom in federal defense spending was over, and prospects at the Heavy Military Electronics Department looked dim. My father at age forty-four was not ambitious in the sense of money and power, but he sought advancement in the corporate world. For all his talk about independent thinking and starting a business, the steady paycheck and the pension plan were too good to pass up. Above all, he wanted work that engaged his intellect and made use of his skills as an engineer.

    He applied for executive jobs within General Electric, and he tried a “headhunter” for positions outside. The result was a new job at company headquarters in Schenectady, New York. Again, he started work before moving his family, again he bought a new house in the suburbs, and again my mother was left to sell the old house and pack for the move. We left on a bitterly cold day in February, 1966.

    In town on business recently, Eddie visited Bellewood. He found it unchanged from our childhood. “That was the time to leave,” he says.

 

 

About the Author: Robert Boucheron is an architect in Charlottesville, Virginia. His stories, essays, poems and reviews appear in Bangalore Review, New Haven Review, Poydras Review, Short Fiction, Tishman Review, and other magazines.

Happy 118th to Ariel Durant

A great civilization is not conquered from without until it has destroyed itself from within. 

Will and Ariel Durant

Ariel Durant was born Chaya (her English name was Ida) Kaufman on May 10, 1898, in the Jewish ghetto of Proskurov, or Chmelnitski, in the West Ukraine. 

Ariel Durant helped organize the material for the first five volumes of Will Durant’s opus, The Story of Civilization, a multivolume concise popular summary of human history. She pleaded with him to do justice to the medieval Jews in The Age of Faith (vol. 4, 1950), so Will also included an insightful essay on the roots of antisemitism. Because of her numerous contributions, Will insisted they share authorship.

- From the Jewish Women's Archive