Chapter 3: Sundae at Schrafft’s
[some of this goes into chapter two. have a scene of hornblower in here too. maybe begin this with the postcard.]
So it was all a waste. All those months I worry about Aunt Pudge finding out. Then she ups and runs off with this old guy, moves three thousand miles away, doesn’t even send me a postcard.
Correction: she sends me a postcard. Point is, I never have to see her again. All my sweet agony wasted.
But you don’t care. All you want to know is, why did Aunt Pudge give her press release to the dry cleaner?
I will give you a short answer and a long answer. The succinct and true answer is simply, she was a crazy. However I have been advised that you can’t go explaining people by saying they’re crazy. Supposedly if you call people crazy, it’s your judgment that will get called into question. Or so they tell me.
So here’s a more elaborate explanation for you. Pudge had noticed (and I’m sure you have too) how dry cleaners like to decorate their shops with autographed headshots of their favorite customers, particularly when the customers are some kind of minor celebrity. To Vinnie, You’re the best, Michael J. Pollard.
It’s just a form of cheap publicity, but Pudge read more into it. She saw how dry cleaning people were usually warm and exuberant Mediterranean types. These people regarded their clientele as extended family. So emotional, always gushing. “Why you no come see me no more?” and so forth.
Pudge had the notion that these autographed headshots were really like Christmas cards. Keepsakes, expressions of love, signs of deep emotional bond between dry cleaner and customer. And so, since Pudge did not have a headshot to give her dry cleaners when she said farewell, she gave them her press release instead.
The people at the dry cleaners probably never read the thing, imagining it to be one more glowing tribute to their tender way with wool doubleknits and dupioni silk. But they did pin it up under the framed 8×10 glossies of Bill Boggs and Pia Lindstrom. And it stayed there a long, long time, next to the business cards for the vocal coaches and rug shampooers:
FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE
December 22, 1973
Contact: C. P. Parker
PARKER TAKES POSITION AS INTERNATIONAL PUBLICIST
Aunt Pudge was a very logical, linear thinker. She told me so a hundred times. But logical linearity gets you into trouble. I’m thinking of April 1973. Pudge got an invitation to a book-launch reception for Heinrich Böll’s new novel, Group Portrait with Lady. Unusually for book parties, this one was to be held in the early morning. At least that’s what the invitation said. 4-6 am. Cocktails and coffee. No doubt (Pudge reasoned) the publisher was humoring an eccentric star-author who had just won the Nobel Prize for Literature.
And wasn’t that just like McGraw-Hill (Pudge remarked). So big and rich, with its magazines and textbooks and toy books and bookstores and skyscrapers. Wasn’t it just like them to pull a stunt like that? Who else would dare schedule a cocktail party for 4 am?
If there were other explanations for the strange hour, they didn’t occur to Pudge. This was a golden opportunity to meet the hard-core publishing elite, people who could really do something for her, while the slugabeds were still sacked in. She stayed up all night and at a quarter-to-four took a taxi to midtown. No one was in the top-floor reception suite. The security guard knew nothing about a 4 am book party.
Next afternoon at 4 pm, McGraw-Hill had its little top-floor reception for Herr Böll, but Pudge wasn’t there. She left work early, stopping at various watering holes along the way. (I always imagined her starting at Charley O’s in Rockefeller Center and gradually working her way down to the White Horse Tavern over on Hudson, but that’s my vapid imagination as I know nothing about bars.) Pudge’s plan was to go to bed early, and she needed lots of nightcaps. I got home from school and the TV studio sometime after 6. She was up from her nap, and not too happy, stomping around in her bathrobe (naked underneath; it flopped around untied) and declaiming stuff about “procedures and processes of the faithless ones.” She had a lot of crazy-person gibberish like that that she’d recite whenever she had a spell. It was like she memorized it all out of a book, some Bartlett’s for the insane.
Anyway she was banging around the kitchen cabinets, having formed the notion that she had long ago hidden vodka miniatures somewhere in a cupboard. So I grabbed the opportunity.
“I have to walk the dog,” I said. I grabbed my Whitney Museum of American Art tote bag (always packed with a spare toothbrush and other routine necessities), flipped the police lock and deadbolts, and slid back out. I didn’t really have to walk the dog that day—a neighbor’s dog, not ours—but the dog lady had a couch she let me sleep on when I needed it.
As I headed for the elevator (we were six floors up) I heard the male homosexuals at the end of the hall having another fight. I didn’t really know them, but at that moment I felt really grateful to them. They made even more noise than Pudge. And they did it regularly.
For the next ten days Pudge was apeshit. On the third day I came home from school to find she had broken both the living-room windows and was proposing to throw me out of them. Before I could back away, she’d wrapped both hands around my throat. She settled for choking me and battering my head against the wall for a few seconds; till I kicked her shins and tore away to the apartment door—a bitch to open because as I’ve said it had all sorts of deadbolts and one of those crowbar-style police locks. We had a terracotta Indian club for a doorstop, and I now picked it up with one hand (very hard to do), ready to swing it with both and brain her if she jumped me before I got the door open.
Pudge now tried a new move. She grabbed a shard of glass from the broken window and started slashing her wrists. The ultimate power play: nothing like acting out suicide, is there, to keep people under your thumb? She reeled off the usual litany of accusations—how I was plotting against her and sabotaging her career, “gaslighting” her by hiding the galleys she sometimes brought home and then lost beneath coffee cups and the telephone bills. I was secretly meeting up with her old boyfriends in nightclubs and coffeehouses, and badmouthing her.
I was long past arguing with her when she was in a state like this. I finally got the door open, dumped the doorstop, and was out of there. She ran after me, but instead of following me out she slammed and turned the deadbolts. This was not a big deal, as I now kept the important keys on a sneaker lace around my neck. There was always the chance she’d change the locks or put the doorchain on, but she was usually too disorganized for that.
Where did I go this time? Did I come back that night, or sleep over at the dog lady’s? This might be the night I hung out at Carryle and Elly’s on Little West 12th Street. They were lesbians who lived in an old pickle factory or warehouse in the Meat Market and often had very good drugs. That makes them sound racier than they were. Mostly they gave me Valium, herbal tea, and empty advice. They let me sleep on their strange purple sofa, a ten-foot-long leather beanbag affair that took up most of one end of their sort-of living room.
Or maybe I went home after a few hours. Wander around, see a movie if I had the money, maybe do my homework in the coffee shop at Sixth and Waverly, then return to Perry Street sometime after eleven, by which time Pudge would be passed out in bed or out prowling the town. I’d pull out my Simmons Hide-a-Bed in the living room and crawl in, pretending to be asleep if Pudge came after me again. Drunks and crazies usually leave you alone if they think you’re asleep.
I seldom crashed with school friends. Too complicated. They mostly lived way up on the Upper East Side. And they tended to live with their parents, and their parents often asked questions. This was a revelation to me. I had grown up in boarding schools hadn’t realized there were parents like that, nosing around and asking impertinent questions all the time. Maybe it’s phenomenon peculiar to families that have only one or two kids. The parents have so much invested in that one child, if that’s all they’ve got. What if a truck comes along? That’s why they’re so obsessive. They don’t know where the parent ends and the kid begins. You see mother-and-daughter combinations like this on Madison Avenue every Saturday, going shopping in the same stores, dressed almost identically, chatting like schoolmates. Sick sick sick!
Parents like this, they think they have the perfect right to ask personal questions of their kid’s schoolmates. I knew intuitively that telling the truth was not a good idea. I couldn’t say Aunt Pudge had bashed me in the face or locked me out. They were naïve, would overreact. Just because they live on East 82nd Street doesn’t mean they might not have a streak of that lower-class mentality that believes the solution to domestic problems is to call in the cops and social-welfare agencies. There are millions of people like that, who call the police in every time there’s a big fight at home. I kept remembering Mairie d’Issy, a friend of mine up at St. Swithin’s, what happened that time when she went home for Easter vacation. Her father had married a public-school teacher, who at first she seemed like a perfectly okay lady. But she turned out to be just a low-class swamp yankee. First time they have a fight, the stepmother calls in the Vermont state troopers. Mind you, it wasn’t a big set-to or anything, it was basically just Mr. D’Issy getting mad and smashing up a few Shaker chairs they’d bought at an estate sale which turned out to be fakes. He’d had a few drinks, sure, but he wasn’t going after her with a shotgun or anything. Just smashing up the fake Shaker furniture against the stone wall of the rec room and throwing it in the fireplace, while the schoolteacher was yelling. (I’m sure Mairie was screaming a lot too, because she was such an excitable ditz.) They took Dizzy Mairie’s father away in handcuffs. What a piece of work that stepmother must have been.
Keeping your trap shut is just generally good policy. Even if they don’t call in the cops, people will still dismiss whatever you have to say if it’s outside their immediate experience. They think you’re making it up, or exaggerating, and you might as well stop wasting your breath. So that’s another reason why I tried to avoid talking to friend’s parents, and it’s why I stopped telling my shrink anything worth knowing. When I first started seeing her (this was in the first few months after moving in with Pudge) I tried to explain what a nutball Aunt Pudge was. Doctor Sixties dismissed it all a smile of generic sympathy—one size fits all—and a wave of her hand. It was just a generational conflict, quoth she: my aunt was thirty years older and had never handled a 13-year-old before, and anyway (this was the implication) I was undoubtedly a hellion, with a moodswing every five minutes.
She didn’t actually say that, but you could see it in her eyes, just as you could see that her clinical judgment was based on some situation comedy she’d seen on TV. So, la-di-dah, I never pursued the subject again. Instead I filled the session by reciting whatever we were covering in school. Grown-ups always imagine that schoolwork is good, innocuous conversation fodder. I was happy to oblige. Hic haec hoc, Huius huius huius. Nurses who live together synchronize their menstrual periods. Henry IV said Paris was worth a Mass and was stabbed to death in his carriage. Or I let her talk on her field of expertise, which was supposed to be the developmental problems of children and adolescents but was really Life in the Sixties.
Where were you when JFK was shot? (No idea. I was five and not watching TV news.)
Granny glasses! Summer of Love! The Lovin’ Spoonful!
Time Magazine 1967: “Hippies, the New Subculture”. Clean for Gene! Oh how blessed it was to be in the springtime of life then, blah blah blah. Not young like you, Doctor Sixties would say in other words, but old enough to appreciate it, like me.
She was about 30, freckled and chubby-cheeked and rapidly going to middle-aged fat. It meant a lot to her that she had been just the right age to appreciate the Sixties. This Sixties obsession was endemic to the people in her age group. I had teachers the same way. If we hadn’t done our biology homework, we’d derail the whole class period by saying, “Tell us about the Sixties! Tell us about the Sixties!” Mr. Smerm, the bio teacher who looked about 55 but was really 34 the way teachers so often are, could wax very lyrical when recalling this lost Golden Age that ended with the inauguration of Richard Nixon in January ’69. Smermy could also fill a whole period with a rant against Nixon, whenever he ran short of Sixties material. We baited him all the time, rode him like a tricycle.
I considered telling Doctor Sixties about educational television but never quite got around to it. I think I was afraid she’d want to talk about it all the time, and I hadn’t quite sorted out in my head how to describe it.
It was not at first glance a very credible operation. Our producer was always stoned—I mean always—and he wasn’t even a hippie. He was about 30, looked 40, and wore clothes that looked like they came out of an old Sears catalogue. He lived in a tiny triangularly shaped “studio apartment” on Gay Street near Christopher, and he worked there too, if you can call it work. When we had meetings for the TV show, that’s where we all usually met. There would be Mr. Hornblower, and the Keen Teens, and some street kids Hornblower picked up, and other assorted hangers-on—fifteen or twenty people—all squeezed into this tiny space. The air perpetually thick with marijuana smoke. You got a full rush of anxiety from it the moment you stepped in the door. Hornblower smoked it all day, in joints, bongs, and a brier pipe with a little copper screen stuck in the bowl. He balanced this diet with regular cigarettes, a pack or two a day (some wretched low-tar-and-nicotine make that was always doing two-for-one promotions, e.g., True or Doral), as well as a lot of cheap vodka that he poured from a jug-handled bottle under his desk.
Hornblower had trouble describing his kiddie show. One reason was the amount of marijuana he consumed, easily four lids a week, which made him talk like the decircuited HAL in 2001: A Space Odyssey. You know: I’m going…Dave…I can…feel…it. Imagine that with some Midwestern nasality. Hornblower’s outlines were very vague and he changed them from to week. At one point he described it as a “yeasty . . . stimulating . . . educational show for . . . pubescent youth.” Someone had to tell him that made it sound like it was all sex-talk and hygiene.
His next precis, “a lively intellectual young person’s roundtable discussion and debate on the issues of the day,” was more promising, but the people at the educational channel commented that it now sounded like a junior version of the David Susskind show. This distressed Hornblower greatly. He had never seen David Susskind, in fact he had never owned a television set, but he did know that David Susskind was supposed to be very racy and controversial.
Hornblower did not want raciness or controversy. He hoped to target the wholesome Middle-American audience because that’s what he was, or so he thought. I don’t know where he got this idea. It seemed to have something to do with his haircut and clothes being straight out of 1961 J. C. Penney’s.
“Hornblower, why do you dress so strange?” some new kid would ask.
“Oooh…important for Hornblower…blend in with…crowd,” Hornblower would explain, putting down his brier pipe and exhaling a big wad of smoke.
(You always heard about medical studies that said cannabis shrank the brain. I visualized the Hornblower head in cutaway: a long, narrow walnut shell with a tiny dry bit of nutmeat rattling around in there.)
Then Hornblower recast the concept into a juvenile quiz show. This was a format he felt he understood, having done most of his TV viewing in the 1950s, when such panel shows as What’s My Line, were the ne plus ultra of broadcast sophistication. Beyond which, the only long-term job he had ever had in the broadcast biz was two years as head question-writer for the What’s It All About Game (Ron Greenglass Productions, weekday afternoons on NBC).
And the names he would try out! He liked to pick titles that were obscure, weird, barely pronounceable. When I first met him the proposed moniker was Virgule. You can imagine what a hit that was. Things went downhill from there. We ignored his bizarre titles and capsule-descriptions, made up sarcastic ones of our own. “Teentime! Starring the Keen Teens! A yeasty confection for early adolescents whose minds have not yet gelled…”
When we finally started rehearsing and taping at the video studio they had us entered down on the taping schedule roster as the Keen Teens Show. Nobody could remember what Hornblower’s title-of-the-week was. I liked that, the Keen Teens Show. Very dated-sounding, or as they said in the early 70s, “nostalgic.” A panel of kids in sweater-vests and Deanna Durbin puffy-sleeve frocks. No one was going to mistake us for Zoom! or The Electric Company.
I don’t know what the other Keen Teens were looking for, but it gave me something to do after school and distracted me from the horrors of the home front. And it might lead me to a Better Life. I would have sneered if you’d said that to me, but I definitely did have a notion that Teentime!, or whatever, could get me away from Pudge. I could become an Emancipated Youth or whatever they call it, maybe share an apartment with some of the other kids from the show. I visualized a sunlit breakfast nook, a living room with track lighting and framed posters, a Parsons table with glossy magazines all fanned out. A potted fern. I imagined this taking place in one of those buildings where the stewardesses lived, those white-brick high-rises in the East 60s. On a nice day I could even walk to school…
That’s as far as I got. I had weak imagination and couldn’t think who my flatmates could possibly be. I didn’t have much in common with the other Keen Teens. They were mostly boys whom Hornblower had met on the street or the dock, spoiled day-school twinks a year or two older than I, and most definitely not semi-homeless. They were all comfortably situated, living with a parent (in some cases two), and some of them earned generous pocket money with the casual prostitution that kids that age get into. I did not understand that scene at all. I knew of girls at St. Swithin’s who did that sort of thing—14, 15-year-olds who’d go visit some old guy named Homer or Deke for long weekends at the Copley Plaza—but they did it singly, and you tended not to know about it while it was still going on. You found out only when they joked about it later. Boys on the other hand seemed to travel in wolf packs, hunting down easy old guys they could hang out with and get drugs and money from. There was probably some kind of sex involved, but I didn’t speculate about those disgusting aspects, and anyway sex wasn’t the main point. The main point was hanging out with their buddies.
I didn’t fit in with the Keen Teens at all. But so what? Nothing in my life fit with anything else. I was just bothered that some day I might have to explain what I was doing with all these weirdoes.
Hornblower and Aunt Pudge encountered each other exactly once, on the telephone. Our next afternoon at the video studio had been rescheduled, and Hornblower was calling around. Pudge was blitzed, and Hornblower’s speech—grating, slow, nasal, stoned—was so strange that it was all she could do to write down a phone number with a scribble that looked like hornplaster. She forgot to tell me but I found the slip of paper on the telephone table the next morning. I wanted to kill Hornblower. I was livid at the thought of him talking to Pudge.
I quickly invented a story for who this Hornplaster was. He was, um, the guy who ran audio-visual at school. We are doing a class trip to the TV studio at the educational channel. Yeah, that’s it. You spoke to Hornplaster, Pudge? Slightly demented, talks funny, right?
I never had to use the story. Pudge completely blacked out on having taken the message. But for weeks I had recurrent panic over it. I visualized her breaking the window again (we had cardboard in it for weeks), and literally throwing me out. I would not survive a six-story fall. Then she’d throw my American Tourister clamshell suitcase after me.
She never did do that, nor did she again have an episode as bad as the Heinrich Böll period, but she got close a couple of weeks before Christmas. She banged me hard into the antique beveled mirror that hung on the living room’s long wall, gouging me pretty badly. A sort of goodbye gift.
It began as a typical argument: Pudge being snappish and sulky and telling me she hoped I appreciated these last two years living with her; me saying it was actually less than two years and thank God for that; Pudge telling I was lucky she took me in since very few people would take in an emotionally unstable girl like me; me saying I hadn’t cost her a dime, seeing as my grandmother sent her money for my upkeep every month (as well as paying for school and the dentist and the shrink and whatever else, so there), and anyway where does a crazy drunk like you get off calling anyone unstable, no wonder most of the men you went with dumped you after three weeks.
All the usual stuff, up to when she slugged me for being “fresh.” She was very old-fashioned that way, using expressions like “fresh.”
Except this time I wasn’t paying enough attention when she slugged me, so I went off balance and hit the mirror with such force that it fell off its wall hangers, and chipped off a big hunk of its corner when it hit the floor.
What sliced up my shoulder and back was not broken glass but one of the sharp tungsten brackets that kept the mirror screwed on to its wooden backing. “Just a flesh wound!” Pudge laughed lightly, when she pulled me into the bathroom. She made me take off my top and pushed me against the old clawfoot bathtub while she examined the damage. Then she fished an ancient New Deal-era bottle of mercurochrome out of the wastebasket (she’d been tossing out the medicine cabinet that week) and sloshed whatever was left over my back.
Then suddenly she turned away, put her arm to her forehead, and started to cry. “Oh I am sorry. Oh I am so sorry.”
This was cheap and theatrical but immensely satisfying. She’d never said “sorry” before.
She decided I needed to take an antibiotic, and since we’d finished up all the ampicillin she poured some PhisoHex into a paper cup and diluted it with water. “Drink up,” said Aunt Pudge. “It’s good for you. It’s got hexachlorophene!”
That’s just what it tasted like. I gagged most of it up then lay down for a few minutes on the Hide-a-Bed (folded up because it was daytime) and moaned.
“Oh I am sorry,” said Aunt Pudge again, less emotively this time.
I moaned again.
“I said I’m sorry. Shut up!”
And then another unexpected thing happened. Pudge said she’d make it all up to me. Yes, she’d take me out for a “treat.”
Specifically she was thinking of taking me out to Schrafft’s for an ice-cream sundae. Right away I saw trouble. The old Schrafft’s restaurant chain was on its last legs and most of the ones I knew of had shuttered up, one by one, in the two years I’d been in town. Pudge must have been oblivious to this. Oblivious as well to the fact that I’d just turned 15, a bit old to be buying off with ice-cream sundaes. It occurred to me I’d probably end up paying for it anyway, since Pudge never seemed to have any ready cash around.
But I was touched that she was trying to be nice in her clumsy, inexperienced artificial way. A shot of pity went right through me. She’s trying! She’s like—my only parent. Something like that. With all the mercurochrome and Band-Aids on me, my main thought was not hurting her feelings. Of course I also didn’t want to start another fight.
So here we are. Imagine us walking east via Perry and West 10th Streets to Sixth Avenue. It’s one of those quiet overcast early afternoons before Christmas when you can hear people’s conversations a half-block away. Not too many people on the sidewalk. We pass a couple of unusually graceful old gentlemen, with matching wavy white hair and velour windbreakers, and they are talking about seeing Blossom Dearie sing at Trude Heller’s.
A block or two down Sixth Avenue, somebody is screaming. It’s a little kid in a red parka, walking with her mother. Whenever I hear screaming around here I always think it’s the Women’s House of Detention, because somebody once told me you always heard whores yelling out the windows. But actually they closed down the Women’s House of Detention before I even got here.
Pudge and I walk up Sixth Avenue and then over to Fifth and Thirteenth because Pudge thinks she remembers a Schrafft’s there. But it’s not there now.
“I think there’s still one up near Gramercy Park,” I say.
“That’s such a hike,” says Pudge. A black cloud has descended on her features.
I try to humor her, skipping around like an eager puppy, brightly suggesting that, aw gee, maybe we should do blueberry pancakes at the Pink Teacup instead. Wouldn’t that be swell? Unless—haw haw, as Uncle Ted would say—you have your heart set on ice cream, in which case why the hell not go all the way up to Rumpelmayer’s?
But Pudge is too far gone now. Back to Perry Street we go, via 12th Street, where we pass the wavy-haired old gentlemen. They’re still talking about Blossom Dearie, but now they’re dicussing her upcoming appearance at Reno Sweeney’s. We get back to Perry Street without Pudge saying a word. Upstairs she sits in her broken armchair by the window and stares out, not really looking at anything. I sit quietly in the living room with her for a half-hour. She gets up, goes to her bedroom, slams the door.
I go visit Carryle and Elly at the pickle factory. They are always happy to see me. Unlike most people who wander into the pickle factory I never tell them sob stories, I don’t want their black beauties or their 95% pure cocaine, and I never wtry to borrow money from them. Truth be known (as Hornblower would say), I’ve brought them money. I’ve introduced them to this guy I know slightly through Hornblower—a TV producer, I mean a serious producer, not a Hornblower type, somebody with a couple of daytime Emmys—and now Carryle and Elly are cutting up old industrial films for little segments on an afternoon kiddy show called The Funny Factory. The Funny Factory is a serious, established program, not like the Keen Teens Show. The great part about this work is that Carryle and Elly don’t even have to leave their pickle factory. Not even to hunt down old stock footage. They’ve been collecting old industrial and educational films for years, as though they just knew that some TV show would want them someday, and they’ve got them all stored there, down in the basement and in the moviola room behind the purple beanbag sofa. They’re making somewhere between nine hundred and a thousand a month. So when I sleep over on the purple beanbag sofa, I feel I have a right to be there, and it pisses me off if they play their television or stereo loud when it’s after midnight and I have a school day tomorrow.
The neighborhood is eerily quiet these days. A whole chunk of the West Side Highway near their house has suddenly cracked and fallen down onto West Street, as though in an earthquake. The whole West Side Highway is now shut down south of midtown. The old paving-block cross-streets near the Meat Market are full of rubble, and blocked with concrete barriers that have gone up to reroute some of the traffic. All the trucks on the old elevated highway made a constant hum that nobody noticed until it was gone.
“The quiet is nice,” Elly says, picking her ear, “but Carryle says the neighborhood feels a lot less safer. We’re getting another police lock.” They have two already.
“And a $300 burglar alarm,” says Carryle, smoking a cigarette while she waits for the water to boil.
Blonde, curly-headed 36-year-old Elly from Waco, Texas is a onetime Broadway chorus girl and now a minor-league celebrity, dirty-movie business. She acts under the name of Orphea Smithee. She has had one famous film, as famous as these things get, called Orphea in the Underworld, and it has been playing for almost a year in one of those art houses on 57th Street. She only got a few thousand for it but it seemed like big money at the time. Way back in 1972, nobody dreamed how chic and hot porno would be in 1973. So she got $3,000 for that one, and $15,000 for the Orphea sequel, which hasn’t been released yet. With all this unaccustomed prosperity they’ve almost finished their renovations to the pickle factory, or at least they always say they have. I don’t know what they mean by finish. Every time I come in there it’s the same mess of unpainted drywall and raw 2×4 studs. But I congratulate them anyway.
“You’re always welcome,” says Carryle, refilling my herbal tea. “Remember that.”
“You’re always welcome here,” said Elly. They always repeat each other.
“I’m grateful,” I say. “I really am. It means a lot to me to have mature friends like you guys.”
What we’re doing here is talking around the question that’s always on their mind, which is where the hell I’m going to go when Aunt Pudge leaves. I have made vague noises about moving in with the relative of an ex-classmate (it’s the truth!), but they’re not buying that. Both of them lived with parents—two parents apiece—till they were well into their teens, and they have real trouble understanding the fact that I’m not going with Pudge. They know how she beats me and everything, but that doesn’t seem to make any difference to their thinking. It’s funny how family dynamics affect you like that.
Next day, Pudge said, “I feel really sorry for you. Really sorry. Tsk-tsk-tsk. Place is falling apart.”
We both looked at the smashed mirror, still leaning against the wall, with bits of hardware strewn around. Next day we’d lug it out to the street along with the broken armchair.
I didn’t know what to say.
“Whole city is falling to smithereens,” Aunt Pudge continued. Oh! So she meant things were falling apart in general—roads and bridges and such. Big deal. Today’s Times had had another story about the West Side Highway, its effect upon local businesses, and how it probably could not be rebuilt before 1977. I hate it when people try to make conversation over something they read in the newspaper.
It was a tiresome theme anyway. Every month, some 19th-century tenement or office building was spontaneously collapsing of its own decrepitude. Last February my friend Kem and I saw El Grande de Coca-Cola at the The Mercer Arts Center, this multi-layer hive of theaters built in a big old mid-19th Century hotel south of Bleecker; a few months later one entire side of the building collapsed inward, and the Mercer Arts Center was no more. It was very exciting when you heard that a building you’d been in suddenly collapsed. Generally, though, people didn’t get too worked up over these things. There was that famous house next to Dustin Hoffman on West 11th Street, the one the Weathermen blew up a few years ago, and I suppose that made an impression, but I don’t think anything else did. Buildings grow up, buildings fall down. So far as the West Side Highway was concerned, chunks of concrete and rebars had been falling down onto West Street as far back as I could remember.
It was a running joke in the trendy local weekly, where they liked to put on blackly comic scare stories—“How to Avoid Imploding Buildings: Ten Best Bets!” “Can This Skyline Be Saved?” One cover had a Robert Grossman cartoon of the new World Trade Center towers saying to the Empire State and Chrysler buildings, “Mind if we join you?” and Empire State and Chrysler replying, “Why? Are we falling apart?”
Anyway…back to Pudge. Sitting at our rickety dining table, filling out commercial invoices and customs declarations for some equipment Ted had picked up. What boring work. She looked very smug and happy, though. For once she was doing something unrelated to Time-Life Books, Perry Street, and me.
But I wanted to say—out of the frying pan into the fire! You want to talk about a place where everything is grinding down into total disrepair. London. Not that I’d ever been there, but we did get Punch and the TLS in the school library, and it always came across to me as recognizably the same enervated, bombed-out place that killed Orwell. The place to hide out—the place where all the smart money was going—was Oregon or Idaho or one of those. At least according to my friend Page’s mother. She was after all Mrs. J. R. Tuckernuck of Hobe Sound and East 78th Street, and she had recently visited her cousin in Missoula, Montana, so she knew a thing or two.
I really had to work at keeping my trap shut. Pudge was doing so well now. Almost happy. Almost? She was as happy as that breed of animal was capable. And very soon she’d be sailing away.
But first, Christmas.
We had no tree of course, though with half the furniture and junk thrown out there was plenty of room for it. I planned to celebrate by watching Fred Astaire movies on Channel 9 while eating a take-out a turkey dinner from a cardboard box.
Ted came by to take Pudge out to a party at his business partner’s house in Short Hills, New Jersey. As he drank a bottle of wine with Pudge, Ted practiced a story he planned on telling in Short Hills. Like many of his stories, this one involved mistaken identity and Orson Welles:
“Of course everyone’s interested in Orson Welles, whether they remember him for the War of the Worlds broadcast, or Rita Hayworth or whatever. No trouble at all selling this one in.
“Studebaker’s going to sponsor the whole two-hour spectacular. Then it turns out there was a mix-up.
“We were all told it was a two-hour biography with interviews and film-clips about Orson Welles and his rise and fall. But get this. It’s not Orson Welles.
“No! It’s Oscar Wilde! Do you know who Oscar Wilde was? Haw!
“Can you imagine! Nineteen Sixty-One! A two-hour spectacular on Oscar Wilde, sponsored by Studebaker!”
Uncle Ted had a good long laugh. Aunt Pudge and I laughed a little too, though I felt I was missing something.
“I had to go explain it all personally to Sherwood Egbert, the CEO. Fortunately he did not know who Oscar Wilde was, and his mind was on other things anyway…
“Are your neighbors brawling or something?”
The male couple at the end of the hall was having another fight. What I said before was literally true: they were a lot louder than Aunt Pudge. You could hear them very clearly. Somebody was beating a wall or floor with a chair and somebody was shouting in a whiny voice something like, “You never gave me no antsy-pantsy.”
“I love local color!” Uncle Ted laughed. “You are going to miss this all this excitement.”
“Oh everybody in the building has fights. It’s nothing,” I said. I quickly corrected myself. “Most of them anyway… The Dinkelspiels, this old hippie couple downstairs, they have the absolute worst. She throws him out and then throws his clothes out the window. ‘Course they’re on the first floor so it’s only a few feet.”
“And Marty Dinkelspiel doesn’t own any clothes, really, just a couple pairs of jeans,” Pudge added.
“Oh. So that’s why there’s a pair of dungarees hanging on the rail out front,” said Ted.
“Yes,” I said, “the Dinkelspiels were really going at it last night.”
“Must be Jews,” said Ted. “That is one of their customs, the woman throws the husband’s clothes out the window. I worked with a Jewish fellow for years and came to have an appreciation of their ways. The other interesting thing they do is call the cops in when they have a domestic quarrel.”
“No, really?” I said. “I thought that was just a swamp-yankee thing.” I told them about Dizzy Mairie and the stepmother. This impressed Ted enormously, not because the story featured troopers in rural Vermont, but because it explained that I had been in boarding school before living with Pudge. I guess he thought I’d always been living with Pudge—you know, sleeping right there on the ol’ fold-out Simmons Hide-A-Bed everything night for the last ten or fifteen years.
This was all so enlightening for us both, Ted and me. Pudge never told him beans. He asked if I was going back to St. Swithin’s. I said, no, I’m moving in with a friend’s grandmother on Fifth Avenue.
Pudge and I weren’t too big on presents, but I gave her a Tiffany’s pocket diary, same as last year, and she gave me one of the publishing freebies that came to her office. This was a 1974 calendar with B. Kliban cat cartoons. I looked through it and told her it was trés amusant.
“Yeah,” she said. “You wouldn’t like the other stuff. It was all cheesy and inappropriate.”
“Cheesy and inappropriate!” Ted laughed. “Such as?”
“Well there was a Maxfield Parrish calendar but I think I already gave her a Maxfield Parrish something for her birthday. Time had this cheap travel clock that says ‘Emit No Evil, Live on Time,’ but it was really cheap-looking and she’s not traveling anywhere so what’s she going to do with a travel clock? Then they had one of those awful little paperweights, you know, with the glass dome, and you shake them and—.”
“A snowglobe!” said Ted.
“If you wish. Yes. A really cheesy snowglobe.”
“Given away thousands of ‘em!”
“Well this one had a little naked—a nude of a woman, she was holding a book, a miniature copy of Our Bodies, Our Selves. Our Bodies, Our Selves! Can you feature that?”
“Our Bodies Our Selves?” laughed Ted. “What’s that, an onanist’s sex magazine?“
“You wicked man!” Pudge laughed. “No. It’s a big oversize book you see everywhere. Raggedy old hippie women and dykes on the cover, holding a sign saying, ‘Women Unite’.”
“It’s got drawings of ugly women giving themselves gynecological exams,” I helpfully explained.
“It’s not that they’re ugly,” corrected Pudge. “Just cheap and tasteless. Anyway,” turning to Ted, “this cheesy thing says ‘One Million Copies in Print!’ And you shake it and the snow comes down on the naked lady holding a tiny copy of Our Bodies, Our Selves.”
“But you’d have to, you have to—break open—the snowglobe,” Ted was guffawing, “if you wanted to read the little book!”
“Oh no, it’s not a real book!”
“And all those tiny little gynecological diagrams. How can you read them?”
“Listen to you! It’s just a miniature replica. Oh, you’re joking!”
“Do they give you a magnifying glass in a little drawer, like that Oxford English Dictionary that Book-of-the-Month is always pushing? Do they?”
“Ted, you are not being at all serious.”
“Come on. Work with me here. We’ve got a great routine going. We’ll do it in Short Hills.”