Wednesday, November 25, 2009


Not that I was getting religion. Not that I rose to otherworldly explanations. At the start I gravitated to people in ACOA who opposed the religiosity they saw in more orthodox 12-step programs.

There was Veronica, a clinical psychologist divorced from an abusive fat man,who for the first time in her life was closing in on deep past family matters that had haunted her all her years. She seemed to look out at the world from behind a pane of grey-tinted glass, but from meeting to meeting the glass became clearer and more color came into her face. In her work, she had used the past as a starting point, but before ACOA she had never really stepped into the past, she said, either in the therapy she gave others or the therapy she received.

Avoidance by therapists of anything truly risky, not getting at what was at the center of a person’s history, came up over and over in the stories I was hearing. Not that some had not benefited from therapy, but far more often their therapists had run from the harder parts of what they remembered.

It felt much like what I had seen all my life of conventional literary worlds, from members of a puffed up English department in college to the smug Times reviewers to editors I pretended to respect to literary people out in the world as well as back in time in my family. James T. Farrell should never have said what went on with his sister. Hemingway told about people in his life the way no gentleman ever should. We don’t object to sex, they said, but Henry Miller needed boundaries and so did D.H. Lawrence, and also James Joyce when read without the decoding of critics. And the Russians were really quite silly in their intensity. And as for Thomas Wolfe….

Teachers and critics who had their own unresolved issues and usually fled from anyone dealing with true stories that reached into points of danger that might remind the critics and teachers of what they were suppressing in themselves. These careful literary people and careful therapists. These kibitzer critics and sham healers.

Although ACOA was nominally a 12-step program, like AA and its many offshoots, almost no one in it showed respect for the steps. My ACOA cohorts were not following the system, which directed you, step by step, to admit powerlessness over an addiction, decide to call upon a “higher power,” take an inventory of your life with an idea of changing and making amends to all you had harmed. In the untamed Manhattan version of ACOA the only amends that interested us were those that were owed to ourselves. A member of ACOA would admit only to being an adult child of one alcoholic, rather than something shameful the member had gone through. We were out to find the villains in the stories we were bringing to light. We wanted justice. We did not want to bow to anyone. New authorities in 12-step programs did not tempt us.

Most in Manhattan ACOA, as opposed to the far milder versions of ACOA we heard existed elsewhere, ignored the AA, and also Alanon, system whereby you were supposed to get someone to act as your “sponsor” to help you discern right from wrong and keep you on a better path. This was okay for the kind of ACOA that paralleled Alanon, but most of us had contempt for Alanon, which had apparently been started as a sort of ladies’ auxiliary of AA in the early days when AA was mainly male. Something to keep the wives busy. Orthodox 12-step ways could seem to us like enforced religion. We sometimes protested when someone wanted to close a meeting with the Lord’s Prayer, which some called the Our Father, as was always done in AA and Alanon. One night a rigid AA person, a tightly wound old-seeming young man, came to an ACOA meeting at the Corlears School and acted like a right-wing political protester crashing an opposition rally. He lectured on the subject of how we were getting it all wrong. How there was no excuse for the anger he saw in ACOA – people so self centered they did not try to see the other fellow’s side. actually used the words "other fellows side," th of 1930s colleoquial language of classic AA literature. He sounded much like Bill Cosby, the comedian turned moral scold and advocate of family discipline, who was talking these days about how he was sick and tired of hearing people put down their families. Like Cosby on the air, this AA guy in our ACOA meeting seemed to be issuing unspoken threats.

I did, however, feel there was nothing set in stone in our version. Although not many in ACOA had any more use for organized religion than for organized families, there were exceptions. There was a girl far older than her years named Michelle who was living for the time being with a group of actual nuns while she journeyed inside herself and through time. I was her admirer, despite the connection to nuns. She was one of the ones about whom I wanted to cheer when she entered a room, her anger so white hot and clear, her eyes wide open as she tried to pull the past into the present. Her father was a therapist who had become a cult leader. And she was sure he had violated her physically as well as mentally. She was looking for evidence, and she hoped to find it in memory. “I want the visuals,” she said.

The visuals!

Monday, November 23, 2009


I return to the block on East 66th where my grandmother had lived. I enter the big church there on the other side of the street from her building. This Catholic church, huge and gothic, that had been patronized by the cooks and maids of people in her circle. So many of the servants Irish, whereas the 66th Street owners tended to trace, or claim, their lineage straight to England. And they would no more enter a Roman Catholic church than use a subway.

I had last known it as the church for my grandmother’s loquacious old servant Evelyn, who seemed to be a white woman, though when she was in the hospital she was visited by relatives who were quite black West Indians.

I walk into this church. It is dark inside, and as cool as stone. It is hardly full but there must be 50 people here, and they are all kneeling. Although this is 1986 there is no sign of what I have read is the modern church. There are no guitars. The priest is not in jeans. He is in full fancy dress. And he is droning on in actual Latin. And then there is silence.

I sit in a pew and try to make myself inconspicuous by kneeling like everyone else. I cannot hold it in the straight up kneeling position of born Catholics, so I relax, half kneeling and half resting on the pew seat. My eyes roam. There are religious paintings in dark places, and it does occur to me that they are hack imitations of something that might have been real long go in Italy. But I do not feel a need to hold on to that thought.

I have the sense that in the silence people are communicating with each other without words. And I don’t need words either. It seems to me that I am connected with these kneeling Catholics in the way people in the war might have felt connected to all with whom they shared a bomb shelter.

I was not in the war. I am not English. I am descended from people who wished they were. But I am walled off from people of my past here. And it as if everyone in the silent church is in on some secret.

Some stand up and leave. Others walk in and take their place. No one appears to have any need to speak. The all know the secret. And I feel that I do too, though I have no logical conception of it. And I am hit by a wave of emotion, glad I am surrounded by these people. For knowing the secret is as dangerous as being alive, in a bomb shelter.

Wednesday, November 18, 2009


To me now the landscape of the city has changed. These diners and coffee shops where I get together with new friends and associates. These churches and schools where I go to wild meetings. My comfortable lair in the part Chelsea that has the feel of a time warp. My beginning forays to the farther reaches of the parks, and to the Drawing Center and the Frick and the Met and the Brooklyn and the Modern and the Guggenheim and the Whitney and the National Academy, and then the galleries on 57th Street and then up into the 80s and down into Soho. This unfolding landscape of mine.

I was beginning to meet people in my narrow four-story building where I had my sunny place, two apartments on each floor, on the front tiny balconies with designs in concrete that I thought were probably intended to look Venetian, and across the way the new Korean grocery and salad bar and hot dish place that was becoming a center where I met the other tenants from the building. From the apartment across from mine, \ the jolly Venezuelan man, and his trim Brooklyn airline girl wife; on the fourth floor, a round and musty couple who spent their time coming from and going to the Catskills; the girls, young and confident, on the second floor. I met another tenant who sat on sunny days in a wheelchair in the overgrown garden down below my window. This garden that had been left to go wild. I liked that it was down there. And I liked that from it grew a tree that went right by my third floor window. Some people said it was a weed and not a tree but it had a big round trunk, and when I gazed past it to rooftops and water tanks I could see all the way, it almost seemed, to the Battery.

One sunny day I met this old man parked in the undergrowth garden in his wheel chair. I knew he lived on the ground floor. I had been told that he had for many years lovingly tended the place, and when he could no longer handle it no one else took over. We did not say much. We talked a little about our landlord, who he thought was fair, which was not something I expected to hear about a landlord. He just seemed like a kindly old man. A retired teacher he said.

Then one evening I came home a little after dark and there were bright flood lights playing on my building. Lights for television cameras. A breathless Channel 2 newsman was standing on the stoop steps talking into the camera. I joined onlookers and listened.

Somebody had been murdered. And it turned out he had been a prominent member of something called Namboy, North American Man Boy, an organization to promote sexual relationships between men and male children, and it was clear that this had been the kindly old man from the garden. He had picked up a young man who had sliced him to ribbons. Inside there were yellow police lines blocking off his end of the ground floor. And there was this smell that I somehow knew, not knowing yet how I knew it, was the smell of fresh blood.

And on the radio for the next few days, before they caught him, I heard how the murderer was calling in to the TV station as he made his way down the East Coast from town to town as far as Baltimore, saying he would kill again and again, called in saying that the old man and many others has abused him, saying the old man deserved what he got.

This in the middle of this new life I was leading.

Thursday, November 5, 2009

#29 – DATING

I go uptown for dinner at Jenny’s place. She is in the low nineties near Lexington in a studio apartment that is in the name of her twin brother. The brother, she has told me, is a rich youngish writer on Hill Street Blues. He gave the place to his sister when he was called to the West Cast. She has an actual twin brother! A successful twin!

I go up there in the sharp light of an early winter evening. I take the subway to 86th Street and come up near Loews’s Orpheum, a place I loved long before it was a cineplex, back when I was 11 years old and we moved to the city for the year, to East 84th Street. We were on the sixth floor of a solid old apartment house – Mother and Dad and Peter and me and Mother’s Southern mother, Grandmother Clark. Then, mysteriously, Gaga and Nana arrived to take a similar apartment for the winter two flights below us. Soon they were joined from London by Aunt Betsy and her five-year-old son Robin, the one whose father had been killed while in the RAF before he was born. All these people together for the winter as we often were in the summer. And Peter and I were placed in a cramped, musty and cruel faux Anglo school, Allen-Stevenson, where my father had once suffered and that was everything my open and free public school in Connecticut was not.

Though Peter was no outcast, like me, at Allen-Stevenson, he did join me in fantasizing about what we would do when we got back to Connecticut, which was to act like the farm people our family had, it seemed to us, almost become when for two years during the war, to get around rationing, Mother and Dad had added first goats, and then ducks, and then two huge black pigs to the chickens we were already raising. In our room in the city, Peter and I hand lettered a sign to advertise the roadside egg business we fantasized we would start when we had escaped back to Conneticut.

But meantime, hard as things got at that vicious school, there was the big, exciting Orpheum. I could see it up on 86th before I turned down from 84th towards Allen-Stevenon on 78th. On the way I would go by a pet store where I acquired white mice. Gaga, in his tweed hat, was the one who took us to the movies. We saw The Harvey Girls at the Orpheum. I could not work up enthusiasm for the goody goody played by Judy Garland. I was in love with the young Angela Lansbury's bawdy and lovely barroom prostitute, though at that point my ideas about the sex act were so uninformed that if I had somehow gotten the clothes off a bawdy prostitute I would not have known where and why to make the insertion with my still tiny but very interested penis.Gaga also took us to look down at the city from the elevated railroad that ran along Third Avenue, but what we saw from that distance did not seem as immediate as the Orpheum.

There is big Jewish deli now in 1986 across from the Orpheum on the south side of 86th Street, the sort of place I started patronizing the moment I was in New York on my own. Across the street there is no sign now of The Corso, a Latin dance place where I met Irma in 1960 when Vannie was out of town, the night of a memorable blow job. But some of the old German umpa band places are still around, and on Lexington I see there is still a restaurant Dad had told us was a hangout for politicians. Near the big deli there is a Marlboro bookstore now, featuring cheap remaindered books, which had not been a category of bookstore when I was in the 6th grade, at which time a neighborhood bookstore would likely be a Womrath’s which was also a private lending library. Gaga had been unhappy when the news came that Womrath’s was buying his latest book in bulk for that meant people could read it without purchasing it.

Near the deli there is small flower shop which I do not remember but looks like it has always been there. I get a Jolly bunch of what I guess are lilies, even though this is mid-winter, to take up to Jenny’s.

A bright faced older woman is coming out of Jenny’s building as I am going in and she gives me a nice conspiratorial look that makes it clear that she is especially happy to be witnessing this particular part of a traditional love story, the guy on his way with flowers to woo a lady. And again I am in many different time periods at once – picking up Kitty in Greenwich, Bonnie in Bangkok, Vannie in Athens, Sheila in Singapore, Mary Anne in Manila and all those New York girls, and even those summer girls way, way back in New Hampshire. All time is the same time.

Monday, November 2, 2009


And I remember all the dark tales of childhood -­ of people being struck by lightning almost anywhere -­ freezing to death in sudden mountain storms - dying from blood poisoning after scratching themselves on rusty nails - crashing out of control cars careening down from Franconia Notch - being clawed to death in pine woods by angry Mama bears.

New Hampshire. These White Mountains townships, Sugar Hill and Franconia, that our houses straddled. On that trip up last September for the English Party, they still looked just as they looked more than forty years back when I was a child here. And they would have looked just the same when my parents were children, except that I knew from old photos that so much of what had looked to me like part of an eternal forest had when, my parents were small children, been open fields.

The summer people’s houses, not a one of them owned by either a Jew or a local person, still contrasted with the bare bones farms in this rocky windblown landscape. These houses were so perfectly decorated and so formal and the people in them dressed up every evening – and yet they were part of the countryside in the sense that so many of the people in them, including older people, hiked – they called it “climbing” - in the Franconia Range, which we saw towering over us, and sometimes in the more distant Presidential Range too, using the “huts” of the Appalachian Mountain Club, where the men and women hikers slept separately on bunks in dormitory rooms and everyone ate great hearty meals at long, unfinished wooden tables, the food carried up the mountainsides by healthy college boys, who were what we might become one day. People who went to the same boarding schools and colleges, had relatives in the summer communities, and shared a love for New Hampshire’s mountains that started in infancy. This was the outdoors and we were part of it and so not completely separate from the world beyond the family houses.

But when my non-identical twin brother Peter and I were children walking between birches on Davis Road, past the driveways for all our family places and also for the places of our grandfather Gaga’s old Princeton roommate Otto Mallory, we would often imagine ourselves in worlds that went beyond the summer places. We fantasized about how when we were older we would make it be more like pioneer days here, like worlds beyond our big summer houses’ grounds, for we would open a roadside log inn and restaurant right among the birches on Davis Road, and in the inn we would wear and also sell heavy boots and black and red checked flannel shirts – and the place would be open not just to family and certified family friends but to everyone.

And anyway not everything about our life outside the formal summer world was fantasy. I was amazed that tucked away here in the midst of our houses, down a bit from our dark, circular, ominous House on the Hill, in sight of our rambling old Farm House, across from the long winding driveway through woods to our main house, White Pines, and just up from yet another of our houses, White Wings, quite close the Poole Playhouse, which had once been for dances and theatrical shows, right here near the middle of all this was the Caretaker’s Cottage, which was heated with a pot belly stove, and, even more amazing, out in front was the pickup truck the caretaker used. Our truck!

And in the direction of our tennis court there was a barn that was our barn, and with a cow, our cow, that supplied the fresh milk Peter and I drank and our housekeeper Mrs. Miner used in cooking, with the cream served on Nana’s breakfast tray. The caretaker’s old wife taught Peter and me to milk the cow. It was hard at first, but soon we caught the rhythm and while I worked, pulling the udders just firmly enough so as not to hurt the cow, the warm milk zinged against the side of the milking pail, and I was one with a big world.

When we were very small our nurse, Ann, took us one day to the caretaker’s place. Lying on a bed in the cottage's small, low-ceiling living room was his sweaty old father, who was unshaven, dressed in long underwear, and apparently unconscious, so out of touch with what was around him that shiny black flies were alighting on his nose and eyelids. For not the first time in this idyllic summer world, I felt the nearness of death. It was so often in the air here in the White Mountains where, where in addition to warnings about deadly dangers all around, so much of the talk was about better days. And I had felt death the only time I ever saw my great grandmother, Mrs. Winterbotham, who one day was in a bathrobe standing in the doorway to the Farm House, which she, no farmer herself, had owned forever and which had been the first of the houses belonging to our family. These houses that could seem to constitute an entire world.

When we were a little bit older there was a caretaker who had a son, Teddy Noyes, who was our age and became our friend, along with Teddy’s friend Herby Whipple, who became our friend too. Together we built a tree house platform on a path through the pine woods leading to one of our two "reservoirs," which were bigger than wells, rectangular rather than circular, and with shingled roofs. We were aware that Noyes and Whipple were big names among the year-round people. At this point I saw no real barrier between the “them” and the “us.”

Mother and Dad were in the mountains for two weeks, driving around with Peter and me in our Plymouth convertible – which Dad, to Mother’s disgust, had purchased just before the auto plants were converted to making war machines. It seemed to me that by now, with the war ended, we had had that Plymouth forever, and that it had become dowdy and old hat. But when we all stopped in front of the caretaker’s cottage to pick up eggs before turning down to White Pines, the whole Noyes family came out to see this modern car. And watch how Dad could make the top go up or down by pushing or pulling something on the dashboard.