Woodbury Revisited

mom1945When I was a small child I lived in a town in South Jersey that I moved back to later as a young housewife. I was reminiscing about some aspects of the place to Harold this morning. He told me I should write an essay. Truly my experiences in Woodbury are worth a number of essays. The differences and similarities between the Woodbury of 1943 and the Woodbury of 1963 are worth talking about all by themselves.

Bad plumbing is the first thing that comes to mind. When I was little my family rented the first floor of Doctor and Mrs. Harney’s house on Woodland Avenue, a neighborhood respectable enough to please my mother. The Harneys lived upstairs. The household sewage would back up at inconvenient times and rise up in our bathtub, usually when my mother was about to give a party for the neighbors, or worse, for my father’s fellow naval officers. For some reason I thought it was my fault, because I had dropped some pebbles in a drain in the back yard. For weeks I lived with a crushing sense of guilt (did I mention I was going to Catholic school?) until I dreamed that I confessed everything to my mother and she spanked me. Children were spanked in the old days. That was life.

But bad drains were endemic to the town. Not my fault. Twenty years later my first husband and I rented a second-floor apartment where the landlords lived on the first floor. In a fit of go-go mod enthusiasm I painted the little bathroom in many shades of pink, from deep shocking to palest petal, and it was a sight to see. People remarked on it. To complete the effect I used to buy pink toilet paper until I noticed shreds of pink toilet paper appearing in the gutter out in front of the house. Whatever they used to do for sewage disposal in that town was not awfully effective. Nowadays you can’t even buy pink toilet paper, nor would you want to. It’s bad for the environment, you see.

The tap water, at least the delivery of the tap water, was as bad as the sewage. From time to time the pressure would fail and the water would run backward out of the pipes. Then the air in the pipes would compress. When you turned on the tap at the kitchen sink it would fire a charge of water strong enough to blast whatever you were holding underneath it right out of your hand, smashing it in the sink. And yet I kept forgetting. That’s why I only have three Wedgewood cups left out of the four that my Canadian aunts gave me for a wedding present, along with a teapot, cream pitcher, and sugar bowl, together with instructions on smuggling them all across the border.

One afternoon as I was washing my hair, lathering it all up nicely, the water pressure quit. Luckily I found the landlady at home downstairs when I knocked on her door in my bathrobe. Being on a lower level she had water, and she kindly rinsed my hair out for me in her bathroom sink. Neighbors should take care of each other. If you live in a place where the neighbors don’t take care of each other you should move.

And here I leave you, dripping but squeaky-clean. Perhaps I will continue this reminiscence next week.

Ta-da!

The years of strange research are over, the obsessive collection of the memoirs of WW I spies, the painstaking scrutiny of subway maps, elevated railway maps, street maps, and neighborhood maps of 1915 Manhattan, the writing, rewriting, and finally the deleting of embarrassing sex scenes.

Also the heart-in-mouth approach to agents, those all-powerful gatekeepers to the publishing world, and the three-day depression that comes with each rejection, no matter how encouraging or polite. I’m self-publishing this puppy. It feels like a fifty-pound weight off my shoulders.

I don’t expect commercial success, I just want my friends to read it if they like. Here is the book, FREDDIE ZORN AND THE DARK INVADERS. It will be available as a Kindle on February 10, and you may pre-order it if you so desire. I think $5.99 is reasonable. For $15 I will send you a paperback copy, if you send me the money first and let me know your mailing address, but I have to tell you that the paperback copies are pretty scarce, so you’re probably better off with a Kindle.

If your book club wants to read it and talk about it, I’d be happy to show up, as long as they’re not too far away from Lambertville and they don’t meet on choir night. But I’m not getting on a plane and flying to Houston. I’m not even getting on a bus to go to New York. I’m perfectly comfortable right here. *Sighs contentedly*

Anyhow here it is.

FreddieTinyCover

Going Back to Washington, Fifty Years Later

Washington.

I used to live there, or near there, in the years before the Metro was built. In my mind it was my town, although I had no feel for politics, or indeed any sense at all, being young. But one could get on a bus in those days and roam all over the city, taking in the passing scenery, observing the people on the street. The view was exciting. You can’t see anything worth looking at out of the window of a subway train.

keybridge1The family home at that time was in Arlington, a house my parents rented from some army colonel who had been posted to Panama for a year. (Every year we rented a different colonel’s house.) I would get on the bus and ride to work in the city, passing the most amazing and seductive things. A used car lot full of strange European cars: a pale gray Opel, a huge black Mercedes sedan whose thick passenger-side windows were pocked with bullet holes, a tiny blue-green Morris Minor that I coveted. If I ever got hold of some money and learned to drive, that Morris would be mine. Or the Mercedes. You had to admit it had cachet.

Just over the Key Bridge was a grain factory belonging to the Washington Milling Company. They had posted a sign just outside the factory: “The objectionable odors you may notice in this area do not originate in our plant.” Where, then, did the smell come from? I never knew. In fact I don’t remember it smelling all that bad, but I can’t forget the sign.

One morning I saw, standing on a corner, a tall man in a floor-length black cape, a broad-brimmed black hat, and a long red scarf. I was thrilled and intrigued. You must remember that this was the early sixties. People didn’t dress funny. Come to find out he was only the doorman at a night club, not the actual Shadow. What the nightclub was doing open at eight-thirty in the morning is another of the secret mysteries of D.C.

My job in those days was as a library clerk at the Washington Post. Politics were talked in the library by people much more knowledgeable than me. A friend made me read the Post’s  copy of the Autobiography of Lincoln Steffens, in the hope that it would raise my consciousness. It sort of did. After a year at the Post I was fired for conspicuous lethargy.

Time went on and I married a newspaper man, my college sweetheart, to our subsequent chagrin and distress. When we left Washington we were still in love, I think. John Kennedy was president. The highest ambition of a number of people I knew was to be invited to dinner at the White House. I still didn’t understand politics.

The nature of politics is slowly becoming clear to me. The only reason I seem to have anymore for going back to Washington is to scream at the government, which one is better off doing in a large group of like-minded people. If you do it by yourself you attract unwelcome attention.

It’s not the same city. It’s full of cops and bollards now because of terrorism. Everyone rides the Metro. If you want to dine at Trump’s White House, I don’t want to know you.

We will go to D. C. next Saturday and scream at the government, if only to vent our frustration. I will breathe the air of a place where I was once young and silly. Maybe I’ll cry a little.

Meanwhile I’m going back and reading the Autobiography of Lincoln Steffens again.

Cool as a Cucumber

jajikMany years ago, in another life, I used to subscribe to a monthly magazine called House and Garden. Every issue had a themed cookbook section in the back. The most fun were the exotic ethnic cookbooks, and the best of those was in the February, 1963 issue: The Middle East Cookbook. I tried many of the recipes in that, and several of them made their way into my permanent repertoire. The best of these is a tart cucumber and yoghurt salad, just right for a hot summer’s day.

Here is a recipe for Jajik.

4 cucumbers
1 1/2 teaspoons salt
1 clove garlic, minced
2 tablespoons lemon juice
2 cups yoghurt
1 tablespoon finely chopped dill
1/4 cup olive oil
2 teaspoons chopped fresh mint

Peel the cucumbers, cut in quarters lengthwise, then slice thin. Sprinkle with the salt and let stand 15 minutes. Drain well. Mix together the garlic, lemon juice, yoghurt and dill. Mix with cucumbers. Pour oil over the top and sprinkle with mint. Serve unchilled. Serves 8.

 

 

Clearing Out

Two friends of ours in their eighties have been forced by a number of physical challenges to move into “assisted living.” It’s coming to all of us, folks, one way or another. They sold their house precipitously and somebody threw all their possessions into cardboard boxes, which were moved to a storage unit and piled ceiling-high. I will quickly pass over the fact that the same hand that packed their stuff higgledy-piggledy—or perhaps some other hand—got away with all the lady’s crystal, fine china, and jewelry.  She’s over it, so I should be over it too. Now it’s time to deal with what’s left.

tintypeOur friends go to the storage unit every day and open these boxes, which have to be cleared out before the rent comes due on the unit.They try to sort things. What to keep, in an assisted living facility where there is no storage, there are no locks on the doors, and the staff is light-fingered?  What to throw away, among the memorabilia of two long and distinguished lives? Since they haven’t any children who seem to be interested, we—that is, some of their friends from church—have been stopping by every so often to try and help. Snapshots, souvenir travel booklets, certificates of awards, linen table napkins, children’s books, handkerchiefs, razors, cups, straw baskets, screwdrivers,  old clothes, knick-knacks, tintypes of mysterious unknown relatives, all thrown together in three-foot-square cardboard boxes, with packing paper crammed in to fill the spaces. Bit by little bit we get it squared away.

Why am I telling you all this? As a warning, that’s why. Those of us who are still able-bodied and more or less in our right minds need to go through our own stuff now, today. At least one of the helpers went straight home from the site of this disaster and started in on her stuff.

I must start in on mine. My first editor (may he rest in peace) told me to keep all my papers. He said they would be valuable someday, so I have three bins of literary papers under the guest bed, and you know what? No one will ever want to look at them. I have long since abandoned the fantasy that some graduate student in the distant future might be interested in my work. As for the editor, he died in a hospice in Brooklyn (possibly the same hospital where my grandmother did her nurse’s training in 1903, but that’s neither here nor there). He had no children. What happened to his papers? Probably hauled away by the New York City sanitation people, along with his worn-out handkerchiefs, razors, cups, screwdrivers,  old clothes, kitchen utensils, and knick-knacks.

It just seems sad. Sometimes the passage of time itself seems sad. What to keep? What to throw away? The time to decide is now. Get busy.

 

The Idea of Dancing

dancers

A nice lady interviewed me the other day and wanted to know what I might have liked to be if I weren’t a writer. When I was ten years old, I said, I wanted to be a ballerina. And there are a number of other choices I feel I would like to have made, now that I’m grown up: opera singer, movie director. But I have no noticeable physical grace, no voice, and no Hollywood connections.

The one thing I never wanted to grow up to do was anything that involved making a lot of money. I don’t know why that is. I like spending money; I like having money. But there always seemed to me to be something nasty about making money.

Being a ballerina is the anti-rich person choice. Dancers have even less chance than writers of ever making a buck. All the dancers I ever knew were broke all the time. But I tell you what. A great dancer, or even a moderately good dancer, has something that no amount of money can ever buy, and that’s the ability to create fantastic, ephemeral beauty just by showing up and moving around. Mere rich people can’t do that. It’s not even a gift. It’s an ability dearly bought with hours of arduous daily practice.

Some years ago Harold and I attended Celtic Week at the Ashokan music camp in the wild woods of New York State. He took his famous Irish fiddle, of course, and I brought my English concertina, which I play about as clumsily as I dance. There was dancing. There were serious dancers. Several of them put on a show on the last evening. I was particularly struck by one, a dark-haired girl doing charming things with a red chiffon scarf. She looked like the queen of the world.

Next day I ran into her in the parking lot as we were packing up to go. We chatted, and she revealed that she had no way to get home to New York City and no money for a cab. I was stunned. “I could never do that,” I said, by which I meant go somewhere for the sake of art and create ecstatic beauty with no way to get home again.

She thought I was criticizing her for her lifestyle, but it wasn’t that at all. I was dumb with admiration. Dancers. They’re like butterflies. Seriously, would you sooner be a dancer or a hedge fund manager?

Bar Stories

tavern-unidentified-donkey-inside-web

Wednesday I went into New York City to attend the Mystery Writers of America Edgar Week Symposium. The high point of the event was Oline Cogdill’s interview with Walter Mosley, who was made a Grand Master last night at the Edgar banquet. In the course of the interview he told one of his best stories, which I’ve heard him tell before. It never gets old.

The story is about Mosley’s father’s family, which is the African-American side. Many years ago a number of them were at a night club in Los Angeles, where they lived, when some guy made an insulting remark or an unwelcome advance to one of  the young women.

“Ima kill him,” Mosley’s father said, pulling out a knife.

“Let me,” Aunt Betty said. She was the biggest and strongest one in the family.  The reality of life in Los Angeles in those days, Mosley explained, was that the police wouldn’t bother a black woman who killed a black man, but a black man who did that could get in a whole lot of trouble. So she took the knife away from him and went for the offender.

But Aunt Betty was not skilled at knife fighting. She made a pass with the knife, missed the guy, and stabbed Mosley’s father in the leg. When they saw the blood, everyone in the place rushed out.

Walter Mosley’s tale reminds me of the story a friend of mine tells about his father and his  uncle, Irishmen both. The uncle came visiting and complained that he hadn’t had a good Donnybrook in a while, and the father said, “Let’s go down to the bar and we’ll see what we can do. We’ll take Sally.”

Now, Aunt Sally was a ravishing creature with a movie star-quality bottom. Inevitably, one of the men at the bar admired her bottom in such terms as to give offense. So the uncle swung on him. Soon the whole place was embroiled in a good old-fashioned Donnybrook, the likes of which can hardly be found outside of a John Wayne movie. Big fun, the uncle thought. What Aunt Sally thought is not recorded.

Fortunately Dad was a policeman, so that when the cops came to break up the riot he had only to flash his badge and lead his party to safety.

Which brings me to my bar story.

I was ten years old. My sister was seven. We lived in a small town in Illinois. The four of us were driving home from dinner somewhere, dark night, kind of chilly, when the parents had a sudden urge to stop in at Matt’s Tavern for a quick one. They parked out front. Liz and I curled up in the back seat and waited uncomfortably.

After what seemed like an excessively long time it occurred to me that our house was only a mile or so from Matt’s. My sister and I could easily walk home to our warm beds. We didn’t have to shiver in the back seat all night. But we would need the house key.

So I went into the bar. “We’re going to walk home,” I said. A shocked silence fell over the revelers inside.

Mommy and Daddy had completely forgotten that they had left us out there.

But that was fine. They said, “No, we’re going, let’s go,” and they came out and drove us home. Not until the following day did I realize what a scandal I had caused (I guess I caused it, though it would have been worse for my poor parents if the two of us had died of hypothermia while they were drinking in Matt’s). Katherine Curtis’s mother asked me in her kitchen whether my parents had really left us in the car outside the bar in the middle of the night. I forget what I said to her, but I tried to make it sound as if it weren’t as bad as she seemed to think. Then I started to think, well, maybe it was.

There’s a point to all these stories, and it’s this: none of us grew up to do the kind of thing our parents did. Walter Mosley loves and reveres his father, but he doesn’t live the way he did. He lives by his wits. If he wants to kill somebody he can do it in a book,  the same as I can. I can’t imagine him pulling a knife on anybody. Dennis, as far as I know, has never started a bar fight in his life. As for me, I don’t even drink.