Saturday, October 17, 2009
#20 – CHRISTMAS
It was only two months later but I was feeling better. I was actually happy to be on the hunt. Most days I went to one of these fierce and satisfying meetings, twice a week at the Corlears school, once at St. Jean's, at least twice at places on the Upper West Side near where I had lived several times including four and a half years in my marriage, and often in the East Village near those places where long ago I had started out. Also, each Saturday now I went to a big gathering over on East 16th, upstairs at the Friends Meeting House where the old windows framed tree branches that told of the seasons. Each Sunday I did a writing meeting at St. Vincent's down on Seventh and 12th in the West Village, and most Sundays I also did a meeting across Seventh in a St. Vincent’s Hospital annex that, when I had lived around the corner, had been the old-time Maritime Union building.
In these early days of ACOA I did not completely leave my world as it has been before this time. I had not yet stopped smoking the pipes I had adopted in order to get off cigarettes. I had become such a connoisseur that I had a collection of fine straight grains and smoked only the finest Virginia tobaccos, and I had written a book about pipe making, and I still stopped in to share cocaine with a pipemaker friend who lived in Richmond Hill next door to mafia people, and another old friend who lived that grimy Canal Street loft that I had borrowed the previous summer. I did not take the feelings cocaine gave me seriously, but it did seem my occasional consumption was something a debonair man should do. I would have smoked marijuana too if it had not so consistently led me into depression.
I still saw my oldest friends, John and Walter and Alex and Al. I went with John to watch a Japanese man and woman dance at the Brooklyn Academy of Music, a performance that was was excruciatingly slow and dull, though they were frontally nude. With the holidays coming on, I accepted an invitation to spend Christmas with my Cousin Rob, a family ally, or so I thought. We were different from the others for Rob was in the theater and I had been living a life of adventures and writing. While he had been acting in plays, including occasional brief Broadway runs, I had been being published.
Rob was living, strangely, in a family place – the fake Williamsburg-like town of Princeton adjacent to the fake Gothic university. He was there in a modest blue house with his wife Cynthia, who had danced with Merce Cunningham, and his adopted Korean daughter Kira (named after a friend of his mother, my Aunt Betsy, who was my father’s sister) and he was considering adopting another child. Princeton, where my grandfather had gone, and my father, and, fuck it, me. But he did have an inter-racial family (as indeed I had too not long ago). And besides, he was in Princeton because it was where he was working.
On the edge of the campus there was a very compete old theater, the McCarter, that was independent of the college, where there were sometimes Broadway tryouts and for the past few years a shifting repertory group led by a man Rob had known in the city. Rob was the number two there. I had been down for some of those plays and found them slick but trivial. They did obscure Brecht, Jules Feiffer’s Little Murders fantasy, and, in this fake façade town so proud of early American pseudo-upper class history, a historically altered Shakespeare comedy that Rob set at the time of the American revolution. The rebels of some old Brit ducal faction became George Washington’s people at the nearby Delaware. At one point a replica of the statue of liberty was lowered to the stage floor, to gasps and occasional applause.
After these performances Rob would do a Q and A with earnest aging townswomen who at this time made up the bulk of the McCarter audiences. Rob, one of the few members of the family to actually learn an English accent in England, let the accent get thick with irony as he talked in a supercilious way making fun of each questioner but smiling in his role as a helpful, charming Englishman while he did it – and maybe, I thought, not quite getting away with it. “Oh, so that’s what you think. Ummm. How interesting. Ummm.”
Deirdre, his sister, my favorite, would not be there for Christmas. She had something going on in the Midwest. But it did seem a good move for me to spend a holiday with this particular part of the family. Choosing your own family was something that came up often in the ACOA meetings.
The day I was to go to Princeton I went to a morning meeting where a young woman talked about how she had just gone for a walk and had been looking at the bracelets on her pretty arm and thinking she was really as young again as she still looked now, and how in the middle of the city on this Christmas morning she realized she had never grown up, still had the longings and questions of her youth – almost as if she were not in New York this morning but back walking on a wintry Massachusetts beach listening to the cries of the gulls and wondering when her life would get underway.
So much nostalgia in the air. And I had been buying presents, just as if I still believed. I had gotten a copy of Kay Thompson’s Eloise at the Plaza which everyone had found so charming when it came out. I rememberd receiving it on a long ago Christmas morning. I wrapped it for my Cousin Kira, though I skimmed it first and it seemed now to have warnings about the fate in store for an abused and deserted child. I found a calendar in the stores that year that was about modern art – had everything in from a nude Bonnard woman stretched out, maybe dead, in a bathtub, to a wonderful cartoonish walking bird. I got a copy of the calendar for myself and one as a gift to the Princeton household.
On the subway after the meeting I sat across from an unhappy and lonely looking older man dressed up in sport coat, pressed tan slacks, Christmas red vest and sad, jaunty tweed hat. He was carrying a shopping bag stuffed with gift wrapped presents – clearly on his way to someone else’s Christmas. And just as clearly, it seemed, an outsider, much like a longtime gay pet of my family, a jaunty pianist named Fred Bristol, who would appear at family occasions and make jokes that sometimes held back holiday sadness.
I was relieved to hear that the McCarter Theater was undergoing renovations and so they had canceled Rob’s annual version of A Christmas Carol. Instead there was a catchall Christmas program at Alexander Hall, a strange old round baroque space where in college I had heard Billy Graham and Alan Paton. One part of the program was an outtake from the Little House on the Prairie, a sentimental Christmas story that I drifted away from so thoroughly that it was as if I had had one of those blackouts that had become so common in the last years of my drinking.
Rob played paterfamilias, taking the young people, Kira and Cynthia’s son from an early marriage and Deirdre’s son from her first of several marriages, for checkups with an eye doctor. And he made disparaging remarks about his absent sister. His mother, my aunt Betsy, said she was angry that at nearly 40 Deirdre still looked like the popular and desirable girl she had been before she started getting married. And later out of the blue Rob said “Ah my sister, someone who wants only the frosting on the cake.”
Deirdre, I knew, had always baffled them. My brother Peter once said that the reason he and his wife had never adopted was that they saw how badly families with adoptees (like Deirdre and her late brother Paul) worked out. Nana had seemed to dismiss Deirdre as common, in part, as least, because she did not have the careful hairdos of family women and instead showed off long, straight, silky hair. Deirdre had been something unheard of in this family, a popular cheerleader in an actual high school. Her mother, my Aunt Betsy, now repeated that she was furious that Deirdre was as pretty and loose as the mother had been, and moreover looked so young for her age. And flirted. When Rob spoke of Deidre as being irresponsible, it seemed exactly the way my father had talked of his sister, Aunt Betsy.
Aunt Betsy had moved from the city when Deidre was 11. She had taken her daughter out of the lycée and also ballet school. And then Betsy and her brood had returned to New Hampshire for good when it appeared that Deirdre’s younger brother Paul was about to be sent away to prison on charges of kidnapping and possession of a sawed off shotgun. Thely were denied a vamily house, my aunt deemed irresonsible. So they took the house in the mill town where I had recently been to that awful English party. In New Hampshire a judge given Paul the choice of prison or the army. In the army he had dressed up in a special forces uniform, had his picture taken, and sent it home claiming he was a top undercover killer in Vietnam, though the envelope seemed to have come from Germany. After three years he came back, and was quickly killed in a motorcycle accident. The first in my generation to die.
In Princeton on Christmas Eve we went to a candlelight service at a big stone Episcopal church, where the ersatz medieval décor was in such perfect precious taste it made me cringe. Rob had turned out to be an Episcopalian churchgoer, just like Nana had been. But the Christmas Eve service was better than I had expected, for the minister talked about how this Princeton Episcopal church was a place ready to give sanctuary to illegal aliens who had escaped Reagan era Central American death squads.