Hide! Here Comes a Car!” Part 2

I cannot remember the first time I heard that we were part Jewish on my mother’s side. Had I learned the truth earlier it wouldn’t have been such a jolt, but, by that time (ca. 12) I had already absorbed the belief that Jews were some kind of inferior race, the butt of jokes and snide comments about being cheap and tricky. (“They” were great on the radio and in the movies.) We certainly didn’t invent the phrase “He Jewed me down on the price,” but it was the lingua franca by the time I was 12. Nobody winced with the exception of the Jews and the more culturally and ethically evolved.

I remember the German woman who ran the deli in Huntington chastised my five year old brother by roughly telling him to take off his hat when he sat down at the table: “What are you, a Jew?” she gasped. I sensed in my then 10 year old nerves that this was some crazy shit, but our maid and governess, a German woman who was working for us on a green card, waiting for her fiancé to be allowed to come to America, didn’t blink an eye. (Her fiancé had been in the SS, but was only a cook. My father said he thought that most of the SS Divisions must have eaten very well because there were so many chefs in the ranks.)

Anyway, my mother said her father was a quarter Jewish so she was an eighth and we were sixteenths. (Those fractions were like floating decimal points. Our mother kept changing them as the winds blew or Sunspots exploded. I recall at one point I was one sixty-fourth.) What I did know was that if Hitler had still been alive and had I been living with my folks in Germany, our maid, her fiancé and my father would have been the only people not on the freight car to Dachau. It not only scared me, it made me feel very weird. I could hardly have been proud to be whatever percentage I was. I was enough to be exterminated but not enough to be fully functional. I was hung between two abstractions wishing to hell I was 100% something authentic.

In retrospect that was the perfect set-up for me. I spent a good deal of my life not being 100% anything. We were rich, but not rich enough to hang with the really rich. We were kinda sorta upper-lower-almost upper but really middle class. My parents told me we were upper class (they really said that, but they blushed a little and cleared their throats a lot) but I knew better. At the fancy dances at the yacht clubs I had leather tie shoes on with my tuxedo while my really upper class friends had patent leather dancing pumps with neat Brooks Brothers black bows across the tops. I knew I wasn’t supposed to compare and be envious, but some of their less evolved bullshit cretin brothers (At Seawanhaka Corinthian Yacht Club and Piping Rock) managed to snigger at my shoes and make me feel like I belonged with my pals from Lloyd Harbor School who said in not-exactly subtle ways I didn’t belong there either. (I know now that I should have been grateful I had three pairs of shoes at all, but that never occurred to me or my pals. Entitlement is a helluva burden.)

But, lest we forget, I began this screed (no Huntington High there, I fear) with the title, “Hide! Here Comes a Car!” That was the game we rural kids played whenever we were out at dusk or after dark. Nobody ever invented it. Like the best of kids’ games it just happened. It had rules but nobody knew what they were or cared—so long as the drivers on the country road didn’t see the whites of our Keds Sneakers as we leaped behind some swamp grass, low bush, berm or boulder. Whatever its rewards, the game was predicated on US vs THEM. They were anyone 18 or over—because in those days you couldn’t drive after sundown from 16-18 years old. The game was most satisfying when we peeked out and saw one of the Lloyd Harbor Police Cars cruising for malefactors or road kill. Outfitted with the latest Hudson Hornets or Wasps (how appropriate) , the local fuzz was really there to protect us from people who didn’t belong, people who might try to take things we had, people who might lower our property values by using our wooded spots for illicit or licit love. Our beaches were private, our roads were public—up to a point, where signs clearly read, “Private Drive”. My father had one such sign posted by our mailbox so people wouldn’t assume our driveway was a picturesque access into the interior or to the beach beyond. The kids on the schoolbus razzed us about that for months, essaying a Locust Valley Lockjaw voice, saying, “Privaaaaht, Draaahve.”

The other job the local constabulary had was to make sure some of our mothers, fathers, brothers, or sisters didn’t hurt themselves while driving tipsy. No one was ever drunk. No one was ever arrested for DWTipsy. On more than one occasion the P.D. would follow a skagooed dad or mom home to make sure neither life nor property was at risk. Why get the court system involved when everyone was so civilized?

I well recall a number of dark nights when our home’s electrical system was on the fritz. Mom called up the Sergeant on Duty in the tiny little one man cop cubicle and he raced out to fiddle with our fuses and bring back the lights in time for my father’s return from The Cotton Exchange in New York City. (Don’t even get me started on the subject of price ceilings and supports which nearly bankrupted us!) It helped that during his off hours that Sergeant was a licensed electrician. Double dipping in the service of domestic tranquility was hardly immoral and its illegality was on a sliding scale which was simply understood non verbally. Everyone knew when you stepped outside the bounds but no one could tell you exactly where the limits were. It was supposed to be in your DNA or you didn’t belong.

I knew I didn’t. And I never would.

And, as Robert Frost often boasted, “That has made all the difference.”

I would have been ecstatic if only two roads had diverged in my yellow wood.

Hide! Here Comes a Car!

We lived in a country area on Long Island (NY) from 1948 to 1957. It was and is still called Lloyd Neck or Lloyd’s Neck depending on which map you are looking at. There were huge estates on the Neck: Marshall Fields’, Mrs. Willis D. Wood, the Eberstadts (Target Rock) and a few others much smaller. Our place was 10+ acres which was gigantic to me but not like those other giants before property taxes turned the tide and jammed the not-quite quietus into the gizzard of the Gilded Age.

Marshall Fields’ Estate was a replica of a small English country town with individual homes for the families of his footmen, his chauffeurs, his dairymen, maids, guest homes, etc. Most of my playmates and schoolmates at Lloyd Harbor School were the children of his employees. His Caumsett Farms was a working dairy which did not exactly sell its fresh gallons at the Local A&P. I have no idea where all the milk went. It was a wealthy man’s hobby. It is all now this: http://www.nysparks.com/parks/23/details.aspx The homes of my pals are gone, turned into a parking lot.

Mrs. Wood’s Estate centered around a very large British-built fort and hundreds of acres and houses and converted stables and squash courts and ponds, and forest. There were stately homes all around, rented out by Mrs. Wood, a lovely old lady who took great pride in skippering her Atlantic sailboat in as many races as she could. When I was 10 I guessed she was about 90, but she could have been anywhere from 65 to 120 for all I knew. She had a limousine (a Buick I suspect—Cadillacs were tacky in that age) that had a small silver lamp on top (just an inch or two high) with a blue lamp, making it very special.

I have been told that her huge front lawn where my best friend Johnny and I played for hours was bought by Billy Joel where he built his house in the 70’s?

I don’t know if any of us in the under 15 set had a clue how graced, gifted and downright lucky we were to be living there at that time. The only two bad things that happened while we lived on Lloyd Neck (I mean really publicly bad that we knew about—I am sure there were all sorts of horrific things of a more personal nature—) were one, Maria A. dying of Lumbar Polio in 1950(?) and somewhere in there Allen Dulles’ Summer home burning down in a huge fire that was so big we could all get phone calls and drive over to watch it. (I don’t think any of us knew what a stinker he would turn out to be historically.)

Henry Fonda and his family lived on Lloyd Neck for two summers—once out near our house on the road up to the Eberstadts’ and once in another house down the road past Mrs. Wood’s. And my mother said Ogden Nash had a summer cottage with a tree house where he could sit and write funny verse. I never saw him. But Peter Fonda and I were great pals those couple of years. Oh, and Kent Smith spent a summer there too.

I was not exactly a student of sociology when I was in my youth and so I lived each year as it came along, paying little attention to the huge disparities between the salaries of some of our fathers and the fathers of our playmates who worked for Mrs. Wood or Marshall Field or Sir Ronald Tree, etc. I mean I knew we had more and better stuff and owned our house, but the subject rarely came up in the 3rd through the 7th grades while we went from playing soldiers and cowboys and explorers in the endless tracts of forest to chasing the Caumsett cows around with dreams of turning their milk green. We were more or less equals who laughed, played, giggled, and rolled down green hills that were literally covered in daffodils. We played on the same soccer, basketball and softball teams. We suffered the same insults from Mrs. Suydam, our teacher for the 3rd AND(!) the 4th grades. She did not go easy on the wealthier, better dressed children in her rooms. She made us all feel small except for the twins who were brilliant and, I reckon in retrospect, middle class.

The kids’ games moved on to other, older things and that is where life stuff got trickier. Some of us belonged to The Lloyd Neck Bath Club which was one of many dividing lines. Paddleball courts and swimming lessons and organized play cost lots of money that we apparently had because my father disappeared into New York City every morning. Some of us had fathers who owned sailboats and belonged to the Cold Spring Harbor Beach Club where we were given tennis lessons and were on Tennis Ladders. But that was the summer, not the school year. During the school year the class divisions didn’t show up so garishly and uncomfortably.

And then, when we began to turn 13 those of us of privilege were taken around to look at boarding schools up north in Connecticut and Massachusetts because that was the deal. Reaching the last two years of Lloyd Harbor School meant soon we might be forced to go on to Toaz Jr. High in Huntington where the pedagogical landscape changed so drastically that it was unheard of for one of “our crowd” to attend. I don’t know any of the children of my parents’ pals who thereupon wound up at Huntington High because H.H. would not have prepared us for Harvard, Yale or Princeton. My sister was already at Radcliffe and my older brother was on the fast track to Harvard. (In 1958 I would go to Yale, the Ivy mixed gender Trifecta—minus Princeton.)

We had no idea that our playmates all knew we would be leaving as soon as the specter of Toaz Junior High came upon the horizon. All the birthday parties, the dances, the Halloween contests, Cub and Boy Scouts and tag games in the woods had a shelf life because that was just the way it was. We would all disappear, leaving our pals of so many years to paddle alone against the sociological tide or surf to happier destinies with lower targets. It just never occurred to me to forecast the dramatically uncomfortable tectonic shift that would sunder us. (Had I gone to Toaz I would never have been able to write the word “sunder’ with a straight face.) I didn’t know that I would be so busy trying to fit into boarding school life that I would shittily forget the pals I left behind. That I would find them less than thrilled to see me return for limited personal appearances at Thanksgiving, Christmas, Easter and Summer.

I should have been really really bothered but my parents had taught me from the ground up that this was the way life was. I might think it unfair or wrong but… There were inalterable classes of society and only a few upstarts rose above their upraising. Q.E.D.: the world was an orderly place and there was no point in swimming against the tide. (Let us not forget that both our parents were born before 1913 in New Orleans, Louisiana. They grew up with Prohibition, legalized racism, lynching and The Klan, though my father assured us no one in our family were ever Klansmen. Our folks assumed that each race was good at something and should pretty much stay at their present skill levels.) We were in The New York Social Register and that carried with it unwritten rules for conduct and lots of hiding family skeletons.
TO BE CONTINUED….

MAYBE YOU HAVE NUISANCE ABILITIES?

Just for defecation and sniggers, let’s pretend that you and I are not as successful as we intended to be. (Okay? Go along with it. It won’t hurt.)

I know you have always wanted to know why you have not won an Oscar or rated a Pulitzer or a Nobel or been elected President of something nobody thought you ought to be president of. I think I may have the answer for why. It is not our fault.

It is the nuisance ability.

Hunh? How can an ability be a nuisance?

Back in the mid 1960’s I was a teacher at a very good prep school for young men. One of these guys under my watchful eye was having some problems with his math grades and his parents ordered up a two-day series of tests designed to measure his academic and psychological strengths and weaknesses to gather suggestions for long-term education and career goals. For example, if you hate food and don’t eat much and can’t stand being precise with things, maybe being a chef would be a waste of your lack of skills.

Well, this young student shared his results with me and that is where I read a most peculiar term: “Nuisance Abilities”. Wow, I thought to myself. I would have said WTF if that had been invented by then. I asked young (let’s call him) Scott what on earth they were. Was that some crazy invention designed to snag cash from eager middleclass parents with disposable income?

Nope. Not at all. They really exist. And the odds are (if you have the time and inclination to read this rambling) you have a whole bunch of them.

Let’s take Pseudonymous Scott’s case for an example. He scored very high in the area of computational skills. (I never did…ever. But Scott was way up there.) In other words there was no logical reason for Scott crashing and burning on his math quizzes—all things being equal…like he wasn’t trying to get thrown out because he hated the school.

But that is where the examiner/consultant/shrink declared that Scott had a very strong “nuisance ability” which kept interfering with his process while doing the math thing he was supposed to be so good at. (Remember that adolescent brains are not completely formed so do not expect them to be able to note these skills alone and tell them not to bother them while they find the square root of a hyponoid.)

Scott’s finely tuned ear and musical sensibilities were about 10 or 20% weaker than his math skills. They were his significant nuisances. Not good enough to make him famous, but bothersome enough to keep him from being able to concentrate on a lengthy math proof. (That was the theory and I still like it. I have no idea if it has now been declared bullshit.) There Scott would be, working like Paul Bunyan in a forest, swacking fractions and strangling logarithms. When to his sensitive ear would appear, but the tinkling and ringing of eight tiny birdsongs, dear. Just when he needed to invert the decimal, he multiplied it by itself.

What has Scott’s life got to do with you, dear readers? (You know who the 3 of you are and so do I.) Well, the reason you and I are not on the “A” List anywhere is that we probably have these like incredibly potent other skills besides being great lovemakers, poets, writers or singers—like just when we are on the cusp, the lip, the thin edge of greatness, we are distracted by the remembered scent of a boyfriend from last summer, a girlfriend from 5th grade, a Shakespearean pun instead of a color wheel, the taste of fried Spam from 1944.

BOOM! As always happens, that great chord, idea, note, landscape, theorem, cancer pill, flies like a Hummingbird protecting a feeder against a persistent female.

I don’t know about you, but my life is drowning in “Look, a squirrel!” cries.

I have an excuse. I used to be a nuisance. Now I have one.

Be well. Are you wearing Chanel#5? Ooops.