Don't Get Left Behind
I didn't run away the first time. Mother did. I was only six weeks old, just a newborn swaddled in cloth. The supermarket was just at the bottom of the hill, only a few blocks from our apartment in Riverdale. I'll never know what happened next. I do know that Mother left the store, taking her groceries home, but she left one package behind.
Mind you, she was busy. And adored. She had started working for Conover's Cover Girls, a leading model agency run by Harry Conover, then the fashion czar of New York. The job was the gateway to fame, stardom, and fortune. She modeled sable pelts, feather boas, silk brassieres, hats, bathing suits. She was close friends with Lauren Bacall, who also started her career as one of Harry Conover's Cover Girls, and always ran late to auditions. Maybe that was why, in the bustle of juggling grocery parcels and a budding career, something had to get overlooked and left behind in the aisle of a supermarket.
Unfortunately, that something was an infant. And, most unfortunately, that infant was me.
When I asked her about it years later, at least her answer was honest.
"I just forgot," she said. But I never did.
It would not be the last time she left me someplace. When I was five years old, perhaps the earliest age a parent can legally send a child away, I was enrolled in Mrs. Hunt's Boarding School, a depository for errant children, in Cedarhurst, Long Island. My memories? Pulling up to the brick building in a taxi, dressed in a suit and tie, the late spring snow dusting over the windshield in flakes that quickly disappeared.
Mrs. Hunt was the headmistress, and she scared me. Even at that age I could recognize an attractive woman, but her blue eyes were cold, austere, and judgmental. My mother and I sat across from her at her desk, my legs dangling from the seat. Mrs. Hunt listened as Mother told her how I had become a difficult child at home.
The problem was, I was listening too. Apparently, I was a naughty, unloving, unmanageable boy. This was news to me. I wanted to speak up. She's lying! But, being five, I was not adept at personal representation. So I just sat there, and soon I was watching the taillights of her taxi disappear through the windows. I chased after her, and when I knew she was not coming back and I could not catch her, I hid under the yellow flowers of a forsythia bush, already in bloom in spite of the late snowfall. As I had yet to learn the finer intricacies of covert operations, I was soon discovered, picked up under the arms by Mrs. Hunt, and ferried through the dorm, which for some reason smelled like burned toast, and into a quaint room. I watched the heavy door close behind me.
The truth was, I wasn't a bad kid. I just missed my father. And imagining him coming to rescue me, wearing the maroon Woolrich coat he always did when we went fishing, the hood hanging back over his shoulders, got me through my days. When was he coming to get me?
At night, I cried myself to sleep at Mrs. Hunt's, staring at the ceiling. My mother was wrong about me, and I knew it. If I had known more about her past or had the ability to understand that she was doing her best, it would have been different. But I was a five-year-old; my emotional maturity and deep sense of empathy were less than developed.
Your Body Can Do Anything You Put Your Mind To
The truth is, Mother was not suited for parenthood, a predilection that was not her fault. Her own mother had died in front of her, suffering a stroke in a shop the family ran in Brooklyn. Her untimely death left my mother, Greta, and her older brother, Eli, to fend for themselves. They had their father, my grandfather Alexander, but he was a radical eccentric, an intellectual, and a drifter. And after my grandmother's death, drift he did.
Alexander was disabled, so it's amazing he drifted so far, landing on that pirate boat off Costa Rica and living for a time on a Navajo reservation. As a young child he developed a bone disease, osteomyelitis, and his legs never grew. His disease was difficult to treat professionally. So he treated it himself, most unprofessionally: On his shin, there was deep open wound that revealed his faulty bones. He'd take out his pocketknife, flip open the blade, and start carving away at his shin bone, eliciting a terrible odor that reminded me of rotten meat. I don't know why cutting up his own leg caused such a foul smell or why it was therapeutic, but I do know it happened. I assure you. I saw it.
As odd as he was, Alexander was an inspiration. To compensate for his failing legs, he followed an intense muscle-building regimen for his upper torso, which came to resemble that of a Greek god. He was so strong he could perform an iron cross, a gymnast's maneuver in which he suspended himself between two steel rings with his arms held horizontally. And yet he couldn't even walk on his own. To steady himself, my grandfather used a shillelagh, a cane made from dark hardwood, which doubled as a cudgel to threaten anyone who disagreed with his Bolshevik politics, which was just about everyone.
He was hardly a nurturing soul. Once, I remember Flight, our springer spaniel, jumped up on the nightstand and ate my grandfather's dentures, then washed them down with a delicious black slipper. Grandpa was pissed. Shillelagh in one hand raised for battle and the surviving slipper in the other, he hobbled spastically after the frightened dog, frantically whipping the air with the footwear.
"I'll kill that fucking mutt," he said, expectorating brown spittle from the Ivanhoe tobacco curled up in his lip. In his frenetic effort to attack the dog, he lost his balance. But the poor dog lost much more. Terrified, Flight sprinted toward the second-floor window and, true to his name, jumped out. (The dog survived his fall, but he ended up with a limp, just like Grandpa.)
Grandpa was caustic and unpredictable, but he was a dreamer, and his mind swirled with energy and fantastic ideas. He was an amateur mason and liked working with stone, and one of his many cockeyed ideas was to invent a doghouse made from concrete. If he could prefab the design (God knows how), he calculated a massive fortune would follow. Not surprisingly, the cement doghouse never made it to market, but his own personal adventure stories were so riveting, they would inspire my own wayward travels. I remember him describing the way he converted his Model A Ford into a camper, retrofitting the back into his own sleeping quarters in which he caravaned across the country. I can almost see him stopping at those Navajo reservations, regaling the Native American chiefs there with tales of his travels and teaching them herbal remedies found in nature, or, more likely, the Yiddish theater. During the Great Depression he'd arrived in Los Angeles and, with his knowledge about the body and his own natural strength, helped found Muscle Beach. Then he was off to Central America. I never learned how he found work as a cook on a pirate ship, but he did tell me they smuggled mahogany out of Costa Rica. His was a wild life, but as he explored the world, Mother and Eli were left at home to fend for each other.
There Are All Different Kinds of Heroes
Before he disappeared to trek around the world in search of adventure, Alexander left the custody of my mother and her brother, Eli, to a handful of relatives, who shuffled them between their homes like playing cards. The pride of the family was Eli, who first lived in Jackson Heights with Uncle Louis. Uncle Louis worked part-time as a masseuse in the Catskill resorts, never went anywhere without a cigar in his mouth, shot craps in his basement, and possessed the family gene that made him sharply critical of everyone except himself. A cast of cantankerous characters-Cousin Paul, Uncle Max, Cousin Herbie, and Monroe, each a bit eccentric in his own special way-also helped raise my mother and Eli for a while. Not having a family or place of their own left its mark. Eli and my mother rarely had their own clothes as children, always the recipients of hand-me-downs from the cousins and other family members. My mother dreamed of a better life-or at least clothes that were her own-for herself and Eli.
Soon, she would dream only for herself.
My uncle Eli graduated from the Naval Academy in Annapolis, and, since the war had begun, he was promptly shipped out to one of the farthest outposts: the South Pacific theater.
With her mother gone and her absentee father wandering the country in his camper, my mother's closest family member was Eli. He raised her as best he could. Back in New York, along with her relatives, she eagerly read his letters from the front. Shortly after the letters stopped, the military car arrived with the navy's regrets from Washington. There had been an attack. He had been on a destroyer, working as a lieutenant. It was a dangerous assignment, considering Japanese destroyers owned those waters. Inevitably, a kamikaze pilot had attacked them.
Inside their boat, the sailors were rocked, scrambling to put out fires and keep the oncoming water from sinking the ship. Eli was down in the hull, pushing through the chambers, trying to close the large doors to keep more water from coming onboard. The water kept rising, though. He came to a door and started to close it, but there was no way to close it and get to safety behind it. As the water filled up the chamber around him, he grabbed the wheel and started turning it to lock the door tight, ensuring that the others might have a chance to live and guaranteeing that he would not.
Many years later, long after the war, Mother traveled to the South Pacific to visit the grave marker with his name on it, which had been placed in New Caledonia. She must have wondered why the forces of nature had colluded so heavily against her, first making her father disabled, then taking her mother before her own eyes, and finally leaving her hero brother dead in foreign waters. Without Eli, my mother's only protector was gone.
It's one thing to understand the magnitude of these losses, one after another, intellectually. It's quite another to understand them emotionally. It took me some years to comprehend it all. About fifty, if we're being honest. But, many, many years later, on a dock overlooking a lake in Arizona, my mother and I would talk, deeply, honestly, sincerely. She would apologize. And I would forgive her. I came to understand that her circumstances cornered her and drove her to selfishness. With everyone gone, she'd had to fend for herself, she must have thought. And maybe that's why she occasionally left me. And why she left my father.
He was a jock and a bon vivant of his own making. Sure, he had dreams of fortune, but my dad, Milton, was always more than satisfied with what was in front of him. He had been a semipro basketball player for a brief time, standing at the towering height of five foot eight, and was so quick on his feet that he beat the New York City quarter-mile champ in a race once, wearing street shoes. He trained boxers and became a physical education teacher, an outdoorsman, and a fly-fishing fanatic. He had the bank account to show for it.
When I was a boy, my uncle Herbie, my dad's brother, once told me, "Your father is the most successful man I know."
"Why?" I asked.
"Because he has no ambition at all."
His love was always good enough for me. Mother always wanted more. A quick divorce was imminent, and after she married my wealthy stepfather and carted me off to the suburbs, I was always trying to find my way back to my father. I'd escape during the middle of the day and at night. I'd sneak onto trains, run from the Harlem stop to his apartment, and listen to him in the other room on the phone with my mother.
"I've got him," he'd say, and in the days or hours we could spend together, I'd have him, following him everywhere. He was my protector, my hero.
"Someday you'll understand," he'd said about the fight and ensuing legal battle over my custody. He was right. Eventually, I understood. But eventually takes a long time to arrive.
You Are Who You Know
In the mornings, I'd stay on the couch under the sheets he kept for me in the closet and listen to him leave about half an hour before the sun came up. He'd kiss me on the forehead, then disappear out the front door to do roadwork. For a time, he was managing a prizefighter, an Irish prospect turned stumblebum named Jerry McCarthy, whose idea of roadwork was six miles followed by at least six Tom Collinses.
"He's a coward," he told me about McCarthy. "He can only fight when he's drunk."
After those runs, he'd dress up, slipping his coach's whistle around his neck, and wait for the Colonel. The Colonel was an odd character who, like so many, adored my father; in his case, so much so that he volunteered to be his chauffeur. The Colonel was the owner of an old Lincoln that was so beat-up it would have drawn glares and jeers in Tijuana. My father didn't care what the car looked like. He saluted him with ceremony every morning.
"Colonel, take me uptown," he'd say, snapping his hand in a salute like a field commander.
"Yes, sir," the Colonel would say, saluting with the wrong hand and steering his limousine of sorts in the direction of James Monroe, the high school where my father worked, in Fort Apache, then and now one of the most dangerous neighborhoods in the Bronx. There he maintained an eclectic group of friends-the maintenance staff, the crossing guards-and during breaks he would disappear into the boiler room to take a slug from his discreetly stashed bottle of Hiram Walker bourbon and play a few games of pinochle with the janitors and other coaches. He never spent the money he earned in those card games on himself; instead, he used his winnings on new uniforms, shoes, and equipment for students who couldn't afford them. He must have been up in winnings one year, because he financed his own basketball team and snuck them into the high school league.
Copyright © 2017 by Jonathan Goldsmith. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.