This is a slightly fictionalized memoir. Nearly everything in the story is true, and happened in the approximate time and place I say it happened. But I’ve speeded up the action so it takes place in the space of a year instead of dribbling on for three or four, with all sorts of cumbersome afterwords and explanatory footnotes. And I’ve changed most characters’ names because (alas!) many of the people are still alive forty years on.
So there you are. You can call it a work of fiction, and assume any resemblance between the characters herein and any real persons living or dead is purely coincidental. But if that were the case I wouldn’t have written it, would I?
Chapter One: Our Shameful Secrets
When I worked in educational television it was so sordid I could never tell anyone about it. I could not even talk about it with the relative I lived with. Actually she was the last person I would tell. You just couldn’t say anything to Aunt Pudge. You took your life in your hands just by giving her the time of day. “It’s two-fifty-two pm,” you might say, and you wouldn’t know if she was going to burst into song, or bash your head through the wall. Though the odds were usually in favor of head-bashing. I figured that out in the first few weeks I lived with her, and for the next two years I stayed as far away as I could. As it was a three-room apartment, I went out a lot.
But had Aunt Pudge been somebody you could talk to . . . well then, my adventures in educational television would have amused her greatly. Because if there was one person in the world who could appreciate the disgusting and the debased, it was Aunt Pudge. She had a dead-end job and worked it for many years, in a disreputable end of the publishing world. Sometimes she would announce that she was going to break out and better herself, but that didn’t seem to be in the cards. She was bored, depressed, inert, mesmerized by the awfulness of her job. And then you have to consider her generation. They all thought “bettering yourself” meant sleeping around with strange men you picked up at book parties and bars. Not all of them, maybe, but a lot of them.
Once I told my shrink a little bit about Aunt Pudge—not too much; shrinks never believe you anyway—and my shrink said it sounded like my aunt drank too much. What a cheap, shallow remark. Why do shrinks make glib comments like that? Because they want to make everyone take Valium and shut up.
The years passed. Slowly and painfully. All two of them. I got involved with that kiddie show and was planning and plotting to make my escape from Aunt Pudge because her moods got worse and worse and sooner or later she was going to kill me. Then the weirdest thing happened. After seeing a lot of sad, weird guys, Aunt Pudge met a guy who wasn’t weird at all. He was so normal he was an ad man, like somebody out of a sitcom. Very normal indeed. I was supposed to call him Uncle Ted. He had been in advertising all his life, ever since the War, and he knew everybody, even Nixon. He was in Moscow back in ’59 during the Kitchen Debate. You can’t see Uncle Ted in the picture, but he’s somewhere off to the left of Khrushchev. I’m not sure he was doing there. Probably making sure the box of SOS soap pads was positioned properly, or something like that. But that’s just a guess. Now Ted was getting on years, past 50, and it was time to do something new. He and another guy were going to open a chain of “American”-style eateries in London. They hadn’t opened anything yet; they were still figuring out the décor. They knew they wanted dark-wood paneling and phony gaslights and framed pictures of old-time ball players and gangsters and movie stars. You remember that “nostalgia” craze of the early 70s? Well it had just reached England. Funny thing was, they didn’t have anything to be nostalgic about in their own country, so they were nostalgic for America instead. Not real America, of course, but old-movies America. But it was a big deal, said Ted, and a fun idea for a saloon or restaurant chain. He was very proud of his ideas. He’d come by our apartment on Perry Street, carrying long cardboard tubes full of decorator sketches. He would pour some scotch and unroll the drawings and Aunt Pudge and I would ooh and aah. The designs were done with colored magic markers in a scribbly-line style. They were amazing to look at because the people in the drawings were so ludicrous. You had these hairy late-Sixties men in wide-lapel tuxedos and Elliott Gould mustaches . . . women who were all either Faye Dunaway or Jean Shrimpton, with false eyelashes and hoop earrings and Courrèges boots and lots of scarves. They were all smoking long cigarettes, and daintily feasting on spareribs and pizza. Being too polite to laugh, I kept oohing and aahing and idly asked if the food was any good. Ted laughed—haw haw!—and said that food was the least of his concerns. What really matters, he said, is that décor and location are tip-top. What we’re selling, Ted explained, is a total experience . . . you shouldn’t think of this business as a restaurant, haw haw haw . . . think of it rather as an advertising/public relations concern that owns its own client . . . and the client here happens to be a restaurant with a unique and exciting theme . . . well actually a whole slew of restaurants with different imaginative themes . . . you understand?
I did not understand at all. But I said yes because Aunt Pudge was looking hard at me and I was quite sure she was going to hit me later, though as it turned out she didn’t. You see, Ted was having a mellowing effect on her. He was just too jolly and dynamic, he sucked out all her energy. Ted was always up, even when he was stone-cold sober. Always full of interesting stories about famous people he had known, people like Henry Kissinger and Orson Welles. Actually it was mostly Orson Welles. I half-expected that Ted was going to bring Orson Welles by our shabby little apartment one of these days, so I got my big copy of The Citizen Kane Book and put it on the cocktail table till Aunt Pudge told me to move it.
Anyway, Mr. Welles never came by. Instead, Ted and Pudge announced they were getting married. It all happened in about three weeks. Pudge chucked her horrible job at Time-Life Books and sailed away with Ted and five tons of second-hand restaurant equipment.
Just before leaving town she wrote up a press release—two pages, stapled—and handed it out to everyone. She even gave it to the dry cleaners. It announced that she was making a career move into public relations. That sounded better than saying she was quitting the publishing world to go work in her husband’s restaurant.