Thursday, December 4, 2008

The Aqua Mustang 52 - AT WALTER'S PLACE

Often during the last four years of my failing first marriage when I was living with my wife, her son and eventually her mother too in a cramped place looking out on an air well on West 81st Street, often during that time and for two years after I moved out of the place and the marriage and into a bright place on 25th Street that had a view, I would still spend most Sunday afternoons in an old and solid West 79th Street apartment where my very old friend Walter Karp and his sparkling second wife Regina, lived. Walter still did most of the talking, as he had in the 20 years I had known him. He was still trying out verbally before he wrote them the latest chapters for the latest of his political theory books for which he was becoming known. Sometimes it was just Walter, Regina, me and Walter’s younger brother Richard. Sometimes on these Sunday afternoons we would be joined by old friends of Walter’s from his days at Columbia, where he was Valedictorian of his class, and shocked them all by refusing to go to graduate school but instead took a position writing picture captions for show-biz stories in Pageant Magazine. And sometimes there would be some well-known editors too, who had come into the picture after his writing became respectable.

Often on these afternoons I would feel more like an observer than a participant, but this had been going on since childhood.

My childhood was something I rarely talked about, so I was surprised when, one Sunday, Walter brought it up. I noted that he had my last book, the one on the Philippines, displayed on what looked like a dictionary stand. He had this great idea, he said for my next book, which he said should be a light autobiographical work about me and my foreign adventures, my grandfather who Walter knew of as a novelist and internationalist, and my twin Peter, whom I occasionally referred to as someone who worked for the C.I.A. The book, Walter said, should be called Twins in the American Century.

That was one of the rare times that my family came into actual conversation on those Sunday afternoons. On one other occasion the family appeared, but I did not let on. It was when Walter was speaking with humor about a time he had been a Scarsdale girl’s date for a country club dance. Before the dance started he was asked to leave town because the grown-ups had discovered he was Jewish. I shook my head and remained silent even though I knew Walter would have been amused by my experience with the same event.

It was one night when I had fled college, as I often did, for the pleasures of the city. Being broke, but maybe more obedient than I realized, I took my grandmother up on dinner at her New York apartment, which was a tiny replica of their big houses up in New Hampshire that were so much a part of my early years. That night at the dinner table – as formal as in the mountains, right down to careful servers and the finger bowls, she talked about what she said was an awful thing that had happened in Scarsdale to her son Nick and his wife Peggy (who sometimes came up in conversation to be put down for being too careful about appearances). What had happened was that some girl in Scarsdale had invited a boy to their country club dance and it turned out he was Jewish and so of course had to leave. But the worst came afterwards, she said, for at the Episcopal church (which I knew from Scarsdale funerals) the minister had railed against the country club – and so the congregation had asked the minister, too, to leave Scarsdale. The point seemed to be how awful for Peggy that not just the girl but the minister too had behaved so badly.

That time at that dinner table was yet another time when I kept quiet but seethed. At certain times I knew of nothing between violent ranting and silence. And, worse than silence, I actually did make a stab at that book Walter suggested. I took the idea to the point where Macmillan just needed a sample chapter for the record before making an offer. Of course it was impossible to write even a fake chapter of Twins in the American Century.

No comments: