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.