* I am indebted to Leonard Michaels and his short story, “In the Fifties,” to which this essay is intended as a response.
In the eighties I failed to learn fractions. I was frequently lonely. I stood in right field and wore a baseball glove on my head.
I lived in a commuter suburb, in an aluminum-fronted split-level house that had once belonged to the patriarch of the family who baked Pechter’s Jewish Rye Bread. My own father was a physician specializing in diseases of the kidneys. Twice the business, he joked. Twice the work, griped my mother.
Al Jolson had lived in our town. So had Judy Garland, briefly. My father, as a medical resident, had treated a rash for one of the Rockefeller brothers. My step-grandmother’s cousin by marriage played the Cowardly Lion in The Wizard of Oz. I did not personally know anybody famous.
I accompanied my parents to our precinct on Election Day. They argued bitterly over whether a vote for John Anderson was a vote for Ronald Reagan.
My second grade teacher, Mr. M., related his only memory of second grade: That his second grade teacher had stood on a ladder to wind a mechanical clock. Mr. M’s story is my only memory of second grade.
I collected stamps. My third grade teacher, Miss S., arranged for me to correspond with an elderly philatelist named Bailey who was giving away a trove of duplicates. Each month, I wrote him a brief letter on my father’s electric typewriter, requesting specific treasures, and he sent them back in a glassine envelope. I never requested more than twelve stamps at a time, fearing I might seem gluttonous and he would cut me off. The collection remains inside a drawer in my childhood bedroom. I have no idea what became of Mr. Bailey.
I read abridged biographies of historical footnotes: Crispus Attucks, Mathew Brady, Clara Barton, Nellie Bly. “Johnny Appleseed” won me a marathon game of “twenty questions” against my younger brother.
I was warned not to stick paperclips into the electrical outlets. I did not heed this warning. I still have the faint brand of a clip at the base of my middle finger.
A family friend gained employment at a film archive. For his daughter’s birthday, we enjoyed a private showing of Peter Pan on a large screen.
A woodchuck devoured my father’s eggplant sprouts. I helped him set a perimeter of humane traps around the garden. Over the years, his eradication efforts grew less humane.
My brother asked for a pet hamster. He named it after our rabbi. We had a funeral two years later in our backyard. I asked for a pet macaw. I was told to be realistic.
I was sent to day camp over my vocal protestations. I carried a copy of Thucydides’ History of the Peloponnesian War in my swim bag. While the other campers played underwater tag, I read the Melian Dialogue beneath a nearby tree.
Our family went shopping for a VCR. My parents argued over whether to purchase a VHS or Betamax device.
I grew my hair long. My grandfather, a Belgian refugee, found my haircut “un-American” and dragged me to the barber. I complained that both Thomas Jefferson and Benjamin Franklin had boasted long locks, even as mine fell to the linoleum.
I pilfered a tulip bulb from our local garden shop. I planted it under the kitchen window. It did not grow.
Hurricane David knocked out our power for eight days. My mother shouted at an electrical crew in her bathrobe. A downed linden came yards from crushing me to death in my sleep.
I refused to sit beneath a grove of conifers in the schoolyard because I feared they might fall in a stiff wind. My teacher sent me to the school psychologist, a mousy, Puritanical woman with who wore her steel-gray hair in a bun. I drew pictures of my family and explained the meanings of proverbs: People who live in glass houses shouldn’t throw stones, one swallow doesn’t make a summer. Later that winter, the trees came down in a squall.
I attended “Hebrew School” on Wednesdays and Sundays. We were not taught Hebrew. We were taught that when the Jews arrived in Palestine, the land was entirely unoccupied. For a while, I believed this.
Our grade performed a musical version of Roald Dahl’s James and the Giant Peach. I volunteered to play a court jester so I wouldn’t have to sing.
I contracted chicken pox. I contracted pneumonia. I boasted one of the first recorded cases of Lyme disease in Westchester County. A photo of my leg appeared in an obscure medical journal.
I inherited a set of binoculars and took up birdwatching. I wandered the adjoining backyards with my Peterson Guide, stalking juncos and waxwings. The surgeon across the street suspected I was a peeping tom.
My favorite uncle died while I was away at summer camp. For weeks after I returned home, my parents put off telling me. My father finally let the news slip during dinner at an upscale bistro, mentioning the funeral to family friends. I mourned in the restaurant bathroom.
I signed up for piano lessons. After six months, the teacher recommended to my parents that I stop. I studied clarinet in school. When the time arrived for our concert, I was permitted to sit on stage after I promised not to blow into my instrument.
I had a Black friend. His mother taught in the district, so he was able to attend our schools while living in an adjoining town.
We visited the local golf course one night with several other boys and rearranged the trail markers so the greens ran backwards. I considered this subversive.
I watched the Challenger blow up on national television and abandoned my aspiration to become the first human being on Mars.
I was fitted for a bespoke suit for my bar mitzvah. When the event arrived, I wore my dungarees underneath my tailored trousers.
Rock Hudson died of AIDS. Liberace died of AIDS. Nobody who I knew died of AIDS. Then the drama counsellor at my summer camp died of AIDS. The camp director renamed a theater building in his honor and never mentioned his name in public again.
My father bought me a used Cadillac Sedan de Ville. I inadvertently drove it up the exit ramp to a major highway and a police cruiser escorted me back down. On an officer’s direction, I pulled into a nearby parking space—and backed over the parking meter. I was sober.
I sent flowers to a pretty girl in my English class. She told me that I was sweet, but I should never send her anything again.
I won a contest for eating fifty-nine powdered beignets at one sitting. I spend the remainder of the day vomiting into the hedges.
I volunteered for a local congressman. I answered phones and ran errands. Law students from NYU also worked in the office. If they spilled coffee on a constituent’s letter, they slid the document into the circular filing cabinets beneath their desks. One day a man entered the congressman’s office and identified himself as King David.
I smoked menthol cigarettes by the carton.
I pretended to enjoy the taste of beer and then stopped pretending.
I frequented the Nautilus Diner, the Unicorn Diner, the Flagship Diner. I left a love note for a busty, red-headed waitress in her twenties. She quit her job without responding.
One of our neighbors went to jail for marketing sneakers as orthopedic shoes. My brother’s fifth grade teacher went to prison for molesting a child. I received a ticket for making an illegal U-turn on a side street.
I read Leonard Michaels’ “In the Fifties” and Joan Didion’s “Goodbye to All That” and Norman Mailer’s “The White Negro,” and I thought, my life is nothing like theirs.
I arranged with several high school classmates to wear togas to the annual assembly at which students received academic honors. They chickened out. I received an award and shook the principal’s hand dressed like an extra from Spartacus.
I listened to my mother’s memories of childhood, spun with romantic nostalgia, and I swore I would never tell anyone stories like that.
- In the Eighties - February 20, 2016