Life & Living II (Houston)
Every time I see Rear Window, and Lisa Fremont (Grace Kelly) bursts out in exasperation, “I mean, according to you, people should be born, live and die on the same spot,” I’m more and more inclined to agree. Not with Lisa, I mean. I have spent most of my life within a short train ride from Midtown Manhattan. For more than half of it, that train ride has been on the Lexington Avenue IRT line. I grew up in a suburb quite close to the city line.
The fourteen years that I spent somewhere else was divided between Notre Dame and Houston. Notre Dame bracketed Houston. I moved to Houston when I got out of college, and I left Houston to go back to law school. I went to Notre Dame the first time from New York, and I left it the second time for New York. These locations, unlike that of boarding school, had the one thing in common of not being on or anywhere near the East Coast. (Curiously, they are both near large bodies of water. I have never dallied long in landlocked places. The Monadnock Mountains of Southern New Hampshire and — regrettably, never for long — Paris come to mind.) Both intensified my love of my homeland, which lies between Long Island Sound and the Hudson River.
I was never able to see the Midwest for what it was, whatever that might be. I always saw what I expected to see, and the adjective for that is “dull.” Dull in every sense of the word: dreary, drab, depressing. I want to stress that this poor opinion of the region reflects a strong provincial prejudice. When I think of Notre Dame as a place, as a campus, I remember lovely buildings that turn out, however, to be faced with brick made from Indiana limestone, than which nothing on earth is more colorless. Of course, when I was in school I was engaged with a lot of teachers and fellow-students, so the dullness of the Midwest was confined to those moments when I found myself alone off campus. For most of law school, I was in love, moreso every day, and it didn’t matter where we were as long as she was there. I do not mean to complain about the Midwest. It obtruded only slightly. It might be argued that students never fully inhabit their college towns. While I was at Notre Dame, I was aware that I was passing through.
Houston was different.
It was Houston, because I had nowhere else to go. My parents had moved there during my sophomore year. The story goes like this: in the old days, the larger corporations in the oil and gas business maintained titular head offices in New York, because New York was where the money was, and the oil and gas business as an operation was highly decentralized. But in the middle of the Sixties, one of the biggest companies, Shell Oil, decided to move its headquarters to Houston, where it raised an impressive and still rather beautiful office tower. As if responding to a dog whistle, all the other companies did the same. My father was a senior executive with a company called Panhandle Eastern Pipe Line Co. When I was little, his office was in 120 Broadway. Later, it was moved to the fortieth floor of the Chase Manhattan Bank building. His fantastic view of Midtown was obliterated, after a few years, by the Home Insurance Company’s new building, several blocks to the north, near Maiden Lane.
Let’s say that there were twenty executives in the New York office — the Chairman, the President, some Vice Presidents (among whom my father), and a few lesser mortals. Everyone else was either in Houston or in Kansas City. There was an important outpost in the town of Liberal, Kansas. I am not going to attempt to disinter the structure of a complex of corporations that has been wholly absorbed into entities that I don’t know the names of; what I have to say about Panhandle now is that I have largely forgotten all but a few details, most of them personalities. One of my summer jobs put me in the dispatching department of another pipeline company (no competitors in this industry), so what I know about the transmission of natural gas I learned somewhere else. I certainly didn’t learn it from my father, who, we used to joke, didn’t know one end of an oil well from the other. Rather like Sir Joseph Porter, my father got to the top of his tree thanks to skills other than operational expertise.
My mother was thrilled with the new house. I was appalled. I had never thought much of the houses that we’d lived in (two), but 5413 Sturbridge was beyond the pale. Take a plain English cottage. Then sit on it for a few hundred years until it looks stunted and stretched. It would have been beyond my experience to say so at the time, but the house looked as though it were viewed in the wrong aspect ratio. It was largely featureless. The front door was hidden in a recess. There was an almost grotesque bow window with diamond-leaded panes, the effect of which was to point out everything that the overall design was lacking.
It was large. Fifty-five hundred square feet, with thirteen tons of air-conditioning to cool it down. There was a swimming pool in back, surrounded by pea gravel that was almost painful to bare feet. The living room, looking out on the pool, was down a step, but what a step that was, when a mysterious pipe backed up, as happened at least twice before it was discovered that the pipe had simply been capped (truncated) when the pool was installed, and the luxurious wool shag carpeting had to be carried off for cleaning. The roof of the living room was hard to describe, it swept down, from over the step up to the foyer, like a wave, to the top of the window wall. Into the stucco ceiling were fitted canned spotlights. The room screamed “Hollywood!”
The room behind the ridiculous bow window had been intended as the front parlor. Texans, it seemed, still maintained two parlors, one for living and one for receiving guests, preferably in connection with some fatal occasion like a wedding or a funeral. I saw a few front parlors while was in Houston, and all they needed were little museum cordons, with “No Entry” signs. We used ours, however, as the dining room. So had the previous owner, an executive connected with a large chemical company. His wife was the sister, I think it was, of a fashionable California decorator, and the figure that my mother rolled around like a sore tooth was $75,000. That’s how much Mr and Mrs Chemical had spent on redecorating the house before his sudden transfer to another city. His company bought the house from him and was desperate to sell it. It had been empty long enough for geckos to take up residence inside. My parents would never have paid the original offering price; I believe that they were able to get it for about half. And they never spent a dime on new curtains or carpets, either. Most, but not all, of the decorator’s colors lay in the ultra-fashionable beige range, and went with almost anything. The exceptions were conversational.
Meanwhile, there was no wallpaper. The redecoration was too sophisticated for wallpaper. There was naugahyde. There was grasscloth. There was paneling. There was a bar — a large closet with doors at either end, a sink and an icemaker on one side and plenty of cabinetry on the other. The bar connected the Morning Room, which lay between the kitchen and the living room, and the dining room. The decorator installed a special fixture in the ceiling of the dining room that cast a spotlight upon the top of the previous owner’s dining table, and nothing else. We got to know this table pretty well, even in its absence. It was a long and narrow hexagon, more suited to a board room. My mother’s much smaller table stood beneath it as in a forest glade. Even if you pulled back the chairs, they were still in the light. Except when all the leaves were used, and our table turned out to be even longer than the hexagonal one, the ends plunged into darkness.
There were seven bathrooms, five of them full. There was a spot in the long bedroom corridor at which it was hard to decide on the nearest toilet. I remember these and other details because they were stupefying at the time. Back where we came from, only millionaires — a rare species — had houses so big and vulgar. And almost every house on the street was just as big as ours. It was rather like Monopoly, actually. The house sat on the northernmost and “best” street of a subdivision called Tanglewood, of all things. It had been developed in the Fifties. The houses at the San Felipe end were relatively modest. We were at the Woodway end.
On the other side of Woodway there stood a more recent development, known to everyone as “Yankee Tanglewood.” That’s where the influx of executives previously domiciled in New York settled their families. My mother was as proud of not living there as she was of anything.
My room was what had been the original dining room, and my bathroom, which was not small, was carved out of a connecting pantry. As I say, I had nowhere else to go. Home is where they have to take you in, and my parents put up with me for give-or-take a year.
To say that I had no idea of what to do with myself upon graduation from Notre Dame would be not an understatement but a characteristic truth. Also characteristic, somehow, is the fact that I had a job within weeks of settling in Houston, a job that I kept, with modifications, until about a month before I left Houston for law school and forever, seven years later. I don’t like to think what would have happened without that job, which was at Houston’s classical radio station. Later on, I’ll share my qualifications with you; the important thing at the time was that they spared me not only a job search but a soul search. Had I been handy with cars, I’d have found a job at a garage.
Trying to find my own place, once I understood that my parents really were giving me the heave-ho, was traumatic enough. I considered living in a commune. I responded to an ad in some alternative paper, and drove to the wrong side of downtown. I still tremble at the thought of the weirdness. What had seemed like a cool idea in the abstract threatened to become a horror film as I met the strange young people who had banded together in a dilapidated building. I don’t mean to say that they were really strange, just that they came from beyond the extremely limited and homogeneous bandwidth of my experience. I don’t remember whether the commune promised to be too responsible or not responsible enough. I don’t remember the terms on which I left the interview. All I remember is the trembling, as I drove across to the right side of downtown, where I would spend the rest of my sojourn in Houston. My first place was just about as weird as the commune, but it was close to the central artery of Westheimer Road, so I didn’t tremble so much.
Houston is a driver’s town, of course, or it was then. Yet for most of my time there I was without a car. I used a bicycle for a while. I had a car when I was married, but, after that, I took the bus. The bus system in Houston was arranged in a system of spokes running from the outskirts to the center of downtown, which was very inconvenient for domestic help, who made up most of the ridership on the one line that I used. It ran along Westheimer Road. I would board the bus in Montrose and debark at Post Oak Road. That went on for years. It was on the bus one day that I had the transformative experience of my youth. I was reading Anthony Trollope’s An Autobiography when I suddenly realized, with every cell in my body, that I was failing to live up to my standing as a gentleman. It seems absurd now, but it was a change of mind that induced me to go back to school.
Not long before I left Houston, I realized that I had rarely left a long rectangle bordered by downtown, Interstate Highway 59, Memorial Drive, and Voss Road. It puzzled me that I could go for such long stretches without the itch to be somewhere else, but later I would discover that, for me, it was altogether natural. About ten years ago, I went for eighteen months without leaving the Island of Manhattan, not even for an airport. Even now, I rarely leave it except to go to an airport, or to Fire Island. I traveled a lot when I was young. I had been everywhere in the 48 states except the Deep South by the time I got out of college, thanks largely to an unusual mobile summer camp that I attended in 1963. I had traveled with my parents on business trips. I had flown for the first time, to Bermuda, at the age of seven. It wasn’t that travel became ho-hum. But the United States certainly did. With every passing year, everywhere was more like everywhere else. I am too risk-averse to welcome the idea of an unfamiliar restaurant, and I have no taste for natural wonders. (To my mind, Lake Louise is unforgettable because it captures every cliché about nature in perfect aesthetic balance — a wonderful case of life imitating art.) When I travel, I must leave my library behind. This is almost always certain to be inconvenient.
Although I disliked change, I moved about a great deal in Houston. I can’t think when I lived for longer than a year in any one place, and since I spent the first fourteen and the last eleven months in my parents’ house, all these moves took place within about five years. Oak Place, Harold Street, Suffolk Drive, Welch Street, Hawthorne I, Briar Oaks Lane, Hawthorne II, and, finally, I forget. Dunlavy Street? No — Mandell. I lived alone in the last two places, and I have very fond memories of Hawthorne II, which was a small apartment in a building of four units that dated from the Thirties (or perhaps earlier). But those were also the places in which I woke up to the fact that I couldn’t go on living “like this.” Living in Houston but hardly making a living, outgrowing my Bohemian complacency like Alice in the little house. The little house that kept changing.
I moved out of Hawthorne II, the place I liked best, because new owners were emptying the building in order to renovate it. Otherwise, my moves were occasioned by attachments and detachments. This is as good a place as any to declare my policy about the privacy of people with whom I’ve lived and worked and who are still living. I will be saying as little about them as possible, preferably nothing. I shall begin with my sister, Carol.
It was obvious within a few hours of our arrival in Houston that Carol was going to like living in Texas. Within the year, she spoke like a born Texan. It didn’t take much longer than that for her to get married. Perhaps it took even less. Carol still lives in Texas, but far from Houston. We make contact occasionally. The last time I saw her was in 2001, when she made a visit to the Northeast to check in with friends after 9/11. The last time before that was ten years earlier, when I paid my last visit to Houston, for my daughter’s high-school graduation. At that time, Carol was living on Matagorda Bay. She has a daughter, whom I saw at the same time, and a grandson, who was born a few years later.
I shall have a little more to say about Carol when I turn to the circumstances that made us brother and sister. There is little, however, that I could say about Carol as an adult human being that would not be in some way presumptuous. I can say that Carol is very good-natured, but even were I to say that she is unpretentious I should appear to be hinting, because once upon a time I should have said instead that she was bored by country clubs. I was not bored by country clubs. Country clubs, and in particular Siwanoy Country Club, in Bronxville, brought out the Marcel Proust in me, although I rarely committed my acid impressions to paper and am not going to do so now. When I say that Carol was bored at the club, all I really mean is that she wasn’t like me. But then, nobody was like me, so why should I pick on her? It is enough to say that we ceased to live in the same house almost as soon as the family was transplanted to Texas.
I got married pretty quickly, too. The marriage produced a daughter, in November in 1972, and a separation a year later. This was not my idea, which is all that I have to say about it. It is also true that I was pretty short of ideas in general, at that time. I was living from day to day, which is really not appropriate for a parent. My wife and I, not to mention our daughter, were dependent on handouts from both our families, and she and I were not as mature for our ages as our daughter was. I was twenty-four when I married and when my daughter was born; my wife was nineteen when we married, and twenty when she became a mother. Our daughter had not been planned. She might not have been born at all, if I had not been so desperate to be physically related to one human being. It might have been altogether regrettable, but my daughter grew up to be as admirable as she is lovable, which is a lot. I am not going to say a great deal about her, either, but you should bear in mind that that the funniest thing happened to me when my grandson was born. Like any grandparent, I was besotted, but as the infant turned into a little boy, his mother, in my eyes, turned into an amazing woman. Aside from being objectively amazing, it is amazing that she is my daughter, that, notwithstanding this fact, she has grown up to be amazing.
Whenever Kathleen and Megan and I are together for several days, we are sure to play a game of Worst Mom. My mother never comes close to winning. The case against Kathleen’s mother always starts out strong — talking about Kathleen’s mother is often how the game gets going. But Megan’s grandmother always wins. That’s a good reason for not discussing my ex-wife. Although we are all held responsible for our adult lives, Megan’s mother was subjected to an impossible childhood. Her mother, a noted research pediatrician at the medical school in Houston, responded to the call of parental duty with what can only be described as grim caprice. About the everyday details of children’s needs, she was blandly unreliable, and eager to blame them for unreasonable demands. She gave herself a great deal of permission to feel put upon, unjustly, she thought, in view of her heroic professional accomplishments. You can’t eat diplomas, though. Happily, this woman’s loving kindness was revealed, one wonders how consciously, in a self-published autobiography. The thing to know about his unreadable tripe is that her three children are mentioned once in three hundred pages. I forget what she calls Megan — “the greatest joy of my life” or somesuch. That is the sentence about Megan.
In any event, Megan was conceived in Oak Place, gestated on Harold, and born during our residence on Suffolk Drive. The landlord at Suffolk, who lived across the street, refused to renew our lease, so the breakup occurred back in Montrose, on Welch. I moved in with Laura, a friend from Oak Place days, and her roommate — Hawthorne I — and then moved on to Briar Oaks with George, the man who lived in Hawthorne I’s garage apartment. That didn’t last very long, although George remains a friend and a dear memory, and I moved into Hawthorne II, which was next door to Hawthorne I, my friend’s having moved to another unit. There you have the run of my peregrinations.
Except when I was married, I had a bed. I had a desk that had been my father’s, and the kitchen table, with four chairs, that I had grown up with. Along the way, I accumulated a nice couch from one of my father’s colleagues (his wife was redecorating), and a couple of other sticks that I no longer recall. Slowly, I accumulated books and bookshelves. I remember being very disheartened by the short-term viability of corrugated cardboard boxes as storage units for books. Laura taught me how to sew, and I made some curtains. I kept some of the wedding china.
We weren’t hippies. We were too settled for that. And yet we weren’t — we weren’t really like our more successful classmates; let me put it that way. My hair was long, because I had been kept in a crew cut throughout childhood. I grew a beard, but then I have worn a beard for most of my life by now, although only in New York has it been kept in Commander Whitehead trim by a barber. I had a polyester blazer, and a few ties. Along with curtains, I made myself a pair of trousers, out of an unlikely green brushed denim. I drank Gallo Mountain Red. I taught myself to cook Chinese. I also made madeleines, after my mother brought back some tins from Paris. An attempt was made, largely by my mother, to market my madeleines at Jamail’s, the upscale grocery store. I did not smoke a lot of dope or do a lot of drugs, but I smoked enough dope and took enough drugs — if nothing like the amount I’d taken during my senior year at Notre Dame. For a long time, I had no sense of the future. I knew that there probably would be a future, but I didn’t see myself in it. This went on, as I say, until I began to outgrow the present.
Mostly, I listened to music.
It was during my second freshman year at Notre Dame that a friend told me to try out as an announcer at the student radio station. There were two stations, actually. The AM side, which played what students wanted to hear, was piped through the campus electricity lines. The classical FM side, was broadcast — a measly ten watts. The radio station was in the tower of O’Shaughnessy Hall, the liberal arts classroom and office building at the east end of the Main Quad. There was a story that Frank Lloyd Wright had called it the third ugliest building in America. It had been designed as an elementary school by the benefactor’s son-in-law — something like that. A little Gothic drag was tacked on, but the urinals on the ground floor were set for very short people. It was an embarrassing expanse of bland nothing. The tower was pretty cool, though. There was one window, I recall, on the Quad, FM side. There were more windows on the pop side.
I went for an audition. I was asked a number of questions, all of them variations on How many symphonies did Beethoven write. I already knew. I paused knowingly over Mahler. Nine? Ten? I made an audition tape. I wasn’t terrible, but close. What I got was the job of programmer. I picked the music that got played every day. Or something like that. I can’t really have chosen all the music; I would find out in a few years what a full-time job that is.
There’s an interesting computer story here, but I’m going to save it for later. I’ll save the rest of my undergraduate broadcasting career for later, too. I only mention it now because, newly landed in Houston, I soon located the classical radio station — KLEF — and had the idea of writing to ask for an interview. I got an answer from the Program Director, who wrote back with instructions to use the telephone for further communications. (I have never liked the telephone.) This led to an audition on which I was asked to pronounce names like Mozart and Dvorak. Paderewski, perhaps? Chopin certainly. Schubert, too, I suppose; in those days, lots of people, even people who knew how to say Mozart, still said Shoe-Bear, just as people still say Turandoe. I passed the test as easily as if I had written it myself, and was assigned an evening shift — six to midnight. At midnight, we signed off the air. Somewhere along the way, I got my Third Class Radiotelephone Operator license, which basically allowed me to be alone with the equipment and to keep a log of certain types of events.
I soon discovered — no surprise — that there was a lot of music that I had never heard, and some that I hadn’t even heard of. Delius, for example. I hated Delius at first. I have never altogether warmed to Delius, aside from a few short charming things, but I like to listen to things like Brigg Fair principally because it warms me up to remember how much I hated Delius in those early radio days. I also hated Ravel. I hated Ravel because of Daphnis et Chloë. I didn’t know the music very well, but what I heard of it was soupy and goupy. Not to mention the unforgivable Bolero! I had no idea that, within a year, I would revere Ravel as a neoclassicist. I discovered Ned Rorem, and played a record of his short songs to fill out the hours, until the boss told me to stop.
In my very lonely Oak Place apartment, when I got there a year or so later, I got to know music that I had never known, because the station had received a crate of EMI recordings that were already over ten years old — why, I don’t recall. I listened to Pictures at an Exhibition, Beethoven’s Triple Concerto, and Pini di Roma. I listened to Maria Callas sing “Una macchia,” the sleepwalking-scene number, from Macbeth. This music is forever associated with a now wistful, but then quite exalted self-pity. Not for the first time in my life, I was alone, but now I was alone in my own place, a development that intensified the solitude.
At the radio station, there were drawers of typewritten cards. Each card contained all the information about a work of music that would be required for the program listings that the station published every month and mailed to subscribers. The Program Director drew the cards from the drawers (sticking in dummy cards to facilitate replacement) and handed them over to a typist, who filled great sheets of paper with three columns of information. These sheets in turn went to an offset printer, where the actual program guide was produced. I have a clear recollection of working with these drawers on the kitchen table in my Oak Place apartment, which I lived in for a tumultuous (all things considered) six months. If this recollection is reliable — and I’m sure that it is, although I’ve learned to be doubtful — it means that, shortly after my parents threw me overboard, I took part in a plot to do the same to my boss at the radio station.
It’s one of my more hellish memories. Having just got the bad news (to wit, you’re fired), my boss looked at me intently and asked, “Did you know anything about this?” “No,” I lied, feigning surprise. I’m not sure that I’d be capable of such betrayal a second time. I’ve never had occasion to.
I did not take over my boss’s job. He had been the Program Director, a standard radio-station job (in those days?). I did not become the Program Director; my colleague Mark Fowler did. He was responsible for hiring, scheduling, and, if necessary, firing the announcers. He oversaw the production of such commercial announcements as we were asked to make (which we never were, for example, by airlines). He ran the show part of the operation. All I did was pick the music. I became the Music Director. I held the position from late 1971 until the summer of 1977 — the longest I’ve ever had one job.
KLEF was a commercial station. Sometimes, it even made money. It was owned by a partnership in St Louis or somewhere. I used to know why — I used to know why the partners bought the signal, and what they planned to do with it, but how they were squelched by somebody’s false move. Now they were stuck with it — stuck with maintaining it as a classical-music station. When regulations were relaxed, in the 1980s, they unloaded it, and it quickly became a country-music station. The record library was donated to the student station at the University of Houston. My law-school change of course was doubly lucky.
In order to make money, in order to attract advertisers, we had to have listeners — listeners among the people who, for a very nominal sum, kept diaries of their radio-listening choices and supplied them to Arbitron, the ratings service. It was my firm opinion that anyone willing to enter into such a relationship with Arbitron was too stupid to come in out of the rain, much less listen to Bach and Beethoven. But there it was. Some advertisers, notably banks, regarded us as prestige outlet, and would sponsor, say, a two-hour block on Sunday afternoon as a way of telling the world that they were supporters of cultural institutions. At the other end of the spectrum, there were advertisers who bought spots “in trade” — bartering their goods and services for air time. This brought in a few restaurants. The problem with this kind of advertiser was that the ad copy, to be read on the air, usually live, was not professionally written; the salesman and the advertiser would hammer something out. There was a gift shop that ran a two-page ad that included the word “cloisonné.” We hated that.
Although the announcers had little followings, attracting listeners was really my job. I had to do this by playing the right kind of music at the right time, and by especially avoiding playing the wrong music at the wrong time. Most modern music was wrong at any time. Vivaldi was right at almost any time, except late at night. Mozart was always right, provided it was the right Mozart. Solo vocalists were almost always wrong. Our listeners understood that we were going to play the Metropolitan Opera broadcasts on Saturday afternoons whether they liked it or not, but they were touchy about it at other times. Bach cantatas were unpopular, but not nearly as unpopular as German lieder. Piano music was always agreeable, but not if there were too much of it. The truth is, there is no such thing as “classical music.”
What there is is a body of music, written over a stretch of several centuries, that is neither trite nor jazzy. That is, it does not sound like a nursery tune, nor does it make use of what used to be called “African” rhythms. Looked at from another standpoint, it is harmonic music, music in which several notes are sounded at the same time. This may sound like a “duh,” but elsewhere on earth traditional music has always been unisonal (with perhaps an unchanging drone or descant). The instruments for which classical music is written have developed over time into the constituents of the modern symphony orchestra. Most of the “popular” bits of classical music were written between 1710 and 1920. A lot of music meets these four guidelines. But it is hardly unitary.
I personally like most classical music (although I don’t care for the term). In that, I am unusual. I quickly discovered from KLEF listeners that there are opera lovers who hate chamber music, and vice versa (goes double!). Lots of listeners who like the big symphonies of the Beethoven-to-Brahms tradition have a real problem with Mozart, I suppose because they have learned to distrust the immediacy of his appeal, or the sunniness of even his sorriest music. My special favorite kind of listener (not) was the man, always a man, who wanted me to program his favorite recording of Mahler’s Nth Symphony. “Why aren’t you playing Haitink’s recording? It’s the best.” These listeners invariably owned their favorite recordings and could play them at will, but that was not the point, was it.
In addition to trying to keep everybody happy by playing now a little of this, now a little of that, I had to deal with the dearth of little pieces of music. Sure, there are reams of short pieces for the piano, and in fact keeping up with the variety of the piano repertoire was a challenge. But most classical music comes in lengths of twenty minutes or more. There may be four distinct movements in Beethoven’s Eroica, but you cannot play just one or two of them. This symphony’s first audiences are said to have been appalled by its length, about 55 minutes. So was I, because I could not put anything that long in the daily programming.
The day, by which I mean everything before dinnertime, was divided into hours. This was another federal regulation. Within seconds of the striking of every hour (to import an anachronistic image), we were required to identify ourselves. “You’re listening to radio station KLEF.” We also had to announce some sort of news program once in every two hours. Then there were the ads, and the public service announcements (also required), plus the announcer’s chit-chat. For me, an hour consisted of somewhere between forty-five and fifty minutes. If the programmed music came to end with time to spare, the announcer was permitted to choose the music called “fill.” That was how I conducted my quickly-canceled Ned Rorem song festival.
As it was considered bad form to run all of the announcements, commercial and otherwise, in one long block, I was expected to provide at least two, and preferably four or five openings within each hour. This placed an incredible value on works of music lasting between twelve and twenty minutes. Strauss’s Don Juan and Ravel’s Tombeau de Couperin were heavily overplayed every month. You’ll recall that there was a library card for every work. When this card was pulled for the program guide, it was no longer available. One of my favorite things in the world, once I discovered it, was Dvorak’s Bagatelles, for violins, cello, and harmonium, but there was only one recording in the library, so I got to program it only once a month. The Strauss and Ravel pieces that I mentioned have been recorded many times, so I could easily program them three or four times every month. At any rate, now you know why pleasant but unfamiliar concertos from the middle of the Eighteenth Century are so common even on public radio. They provide for breaks while saving the chestnuts from overexposure.
Another thing about daytime programming was the requirement that the music be cheerful and “uptempo.” Anything melancholy, or strenuously minor-key, or fugally complex, as well as anything very lengthy had to be saved for the evening, after eight o’clock. I had to program thirteen hours a day, from nine to four and from six to midnight. The seven daytime hours were a pain; my reward was filling the evening’s six. Sometimes I would tie the daytime hours with an idea, musical or otherwise (a major composer’s birthday, for example). But I usually programmed the evenings as a unit, and toward the end of my tenure the hours were divided among four, not six, blocks, beginning at six, seven, eight, and ten. Looking back over the old program guides, I think I’ve gotten much better at putting together playlists (which is what my programs were), but then I have built up a library of my own over thirty years, and many of the CDs in my collection were purchased because playlists pointed out its gaps.
LPs, as anyone old enough to have known nothing better knows, wear out, and a classical-music radio station, instead of counting on the latest hot forty-fives, played the same old LPs over and over again. Replacing a favorite but scratchy LP was a serious decision in the days when money was very much an object. Replacing records at the radio station was just about impossible, because the budget for record purchases was somewhere between zero and the square root of minus one. For the most part our library was a wasting asset. The announcers learned that a teaspoon or so of isopropyl alcohol would make almost any surface sound fresh and new, but this magic came at the cost of quickly-degraded needles. There was a budget, however, for needles.
New releases dribbled in every now and then. I remember that the Philips label was particularly generous, although its bounty was qualified by its odd practice of not listing the timings of the different cuts. So I would have to sit with a stopwatch and pay attention to endings, which I always found difficult. I registered endings, of course, but I couldn’t train myself to remember to do anything, such as stop the stopwatch, when they occurred. The timings had to be added, so that my library card for, say, Schubert’s Unfinished Symphony would state the duration of its two movements. The tedium of this operation was greatly reduced by an ancient adding machine that had been reconfigured to count from fifty-nine cents to one dollar.
The drawers of library cards that I took over with the new job were arranged by composer, of course, but in alphabetical order. This I found wholly unsatisfactory. Once I had rearranged the composers by the year of birth, I was able to “play” the cards, moving from the early end to the later (rare) or holding steadily within the center (common). For “period” — the prevalent style of a particular time — is, as I have hinted, a big part of the variety of classical music. I think that everyone knows that harpsichords give way to pianos; fewer listeners are conscious of the history of the orchestra. In the beginning, stringed instruments and wind instruments were never sounded together. The strings were for indoors, the winds for outside. It took a while for composers to learn how to make the combination of the two groups suave instead of noisy. By Handel’s day, a string orchestra might be supplemented by a bassoon doubling the bass line and one other “color” instrument, a flute or an oboe. the default orchestra of Mozart’s youth consisted of strings, two oboes, two horns, and two bassoons, with the wind instruments usually doubling a string part. This was changing fast by the time Mozart hit thirty. Throughout the Nineteenth Century, there were two approaches to the orchestra. One, which we might call Viennese, clung to the orchestra that Beethoven knew, while the other, which we might call Parisian, welcomed almost anything that made a sound. I share all of this with you to help you see my drawers of library cards as I did, as a kind of organ. By ranging from the left through the center to the right, I modulated the kind of sound that came out of the radio. As an incidental benefit, chronological order also made it much easier to encounter the work of lesser composers, whom one might not think of by name.
I was always late with the monthly programming. The typist would complain bitterly about the pressure of filling out the big sheets. Then, one day, I had a brainwave. For a large fraction of the typist’s pay — but still a fraction — I would do the typing. The general manager did not need much persuading, because now he would be entitled to yell louder at the actual villain when the sheets were late. My typing had always been pretty good. I got a D in the typing course that I took in high school, but writing papers more or less round the clock at boarding school improved my skill. In college, I even had an interesting little typing service, the less said about which the better. Now, however, I realized that I was going to have to go professional. I was going to have to learn how to type “p” with my right pinkie, and to get the numbers right without looking. Numbers, you say? I thought this was a classical-music program guide. Well, here is a typical classical-music listing:
Mozart: Suite in the Style of Handel, K. 399 — Balsam, p. (OL 60023) 8.
I forgot to mention record numbers. The major classical-music record labels observed enumerating conventions, and the numbers were always conspicuous on the spine of the LP jacket. This made it possible to file LPs by record number, which is what everybody did. If you went to a big classical-music record shop, like Sam Goody’s, you consulted the latest copy of the Schwann LP catalogue, hanging by a cord from the wall, and found the number of the record that you were after. Then you located the record. Radio stations followed the same rule. None other made any sense. Too many recordings featured music by several composers for an alphabetical system to work, and in fact any attempt to order LPs by content was bound to produce arbitrary results. So we went with the numbers, and I had to learn to type them quickly.
I found the large sheets of paper harder to cope with. I don’t remember why, but my solution turned out to be, well, epochal, because, you see, it allowed me to discover how to write a Web log (“blog”) some thirty years before technology caught up with me. Instead of typing on the offset sheet, I typed on adding machine rolls, which I then cut and pasted to the sheets. The virtual endlessness of the roll meant that I could just go on typing and typing without giving a thought to whether it was time to start a new column. The vacuum thus created was promptly filled with commentary. Unfortunately, I no longer possess any early program guides, so I can’t trace the jump from spark to flame, but here is a not atypical remark from the listings for 4 August 1974:
This afternoon’s mint julep of a ballet [Coppélia] was premiered in 1870, meeting instant success and permanent establishment in the repertoire. If it is not frequently performed today, its music has certainly passed into the realm of deep familiarity where one raises one’s brows and says, “So that’s where that comes from!”
As time went by I wrote at greater length, and also in drafts, not off the top of my head. For 11 May 1975, I turned in a nice-looking piece about Strauss’s Oboe Concerto; “nice-looking,” I say, because I’m afraid that close re-reading will mortify me. At about that time, I wrote a very long essay on Die Frau ohne Schatten that people who have read it have asked me to post online, but I can’t copy it out. Every sentence contains either what I now consider a minor solecism or a view of music that I no longer share. The whole thing has to be rewritten. This is the other side of re-reading books. If you’re the one who did the writing, you find that you no longer agree with it.
Everyday life at the radio station was rather like a situation comedy — that is how I can’t help remembering it. There were four stars, of which I was of course one. Of the three others, one was a very attractive young woman. We were all recent college graduates. Mark Fowler died last year, having spent most of his life in used bookstores, or so he told me. The other man, who turned out to be a reader of my real blog, stayed in radio right up to retirement age. The woman is still very attractive, at least according to her Facebook page; she lives on the other side of the country. [I am not even going to hint &c ...]
Then there was the supporting cast: the other announcers, including one old coot who had also been done wrong when the St Louis partners acquired the signal; the general manager and his satellites (traffic, salesmen); and the engineer. The engineer underwent a hypomanic episode that supplied enough sheer event to fill an entire television season; I fondly remember standing in a ring in the manager’s office, everyone holding hands, and learning that future developments would include the move of the Metropolitan Opera to Houston, with KLEF as its broadcasting flagship. The engineer was hospitalized shortly after that, ostensibly because, after months of strict vegeterianism, he had gone on a carnivorous tear. Once recovered, he moved to Los Angeles to work for one of the television networks.
I am not even going to hint at the goings-on among the principals. We were young and smart, we were reasonably attractive, and no one was looking. Two of us got married (to other people, although I did meet my first wife while she was doing a summer internship at the radio station); then we got unmarried. One of us, I now see, may have had long-term plans, and it’s possible that I was the only one altogether without any. But we gave an air of collective insouciance that was very fraternal, even when we weren’t speaking. Mutual contact was somewhat incidental anyway, since we were working shifts. I continued to do the announcing thing after I became Music Director, but not so often; the same was true of Mark as Program Director. He and I were often at the station at the same time, together with the afternoon announcer. But we had our different cubbyholes. Our extracurricular relations all took place in extracurricular locations. Except, as I recall, the once, but that had nothing to do with me. That would have the season in which, had I been an actor, I should have worried about the longer term of my part. It was unusual, and even disturbing, to be Mr Normal for a while. Or Mr Boring.
When I started out, the radio station was located on the second floor of an apartment tower on Buffalo Speedway. From there we moved to a derelict building on the part of Post Oak Road that curves from San Felipe back toward Loop 610. The building was shaped like the business end of a hockey stick, or the piece of cardboard on which you might model a sock. The station occupied the foot part of the second floor. I recall stretches in which we were the only tenant; I also remember an electrolysis outfit. The stretch of Post Oak between San Felipe and the Galleria got more glamorous every day, but our end remained resolutely pokey until we, too, upgraded, to a new building on West Alabama. I don’t remember the third location very well at all, for I didn’t spend much time there, and my mind was already elsewhere, on the future somewhere other than Houston. I remember the Buffalo Speedway setup well enough, but it was nothing special. My sitcom would be set in the funky suite on Post Oak.
The two studios, side by side, one much larger than the other (it also held the library), faced east, and were suspended over some parking slots. I ought to remember the view, but it was utterly unimpressive. At the interior end of the larger studio, there was a large window, but if I ever understood why, I’ve forgotten. On the other side of the window was a room not much larger than a closet. The Associated Press teletype machine was in there. Announcers would visit the machine every so often and rip off the latest news summary for the hourly report. We were supposed to go over the fanfold and improve its prose, but most of us, most of the time, glanced over it right before reading it into the mike. This could be very dangerous, as the pronunciation of the names of foreign newsmakers posed much the same difficulties as those of the composers, except that we were familiar with the composers. We were so young that change of any kind was shocking. I remember when Chairman Mao died, and someone else became Chairman. How was that possible? At the same time, the twinned brouhahas of Saigon and Watergate are as vague to me now as if I hadn’t read about them, not just every day, but every other hour on the hour.
For a while, I shared the little room with the teletype machines. That’s where my drawers of library cards went when I gave up trying to do things from home, because I was no longer alone at home. When my future mother-in-law insisted that her daughter resume living at her one-bedroom apartment on Harold, I moved with her, and there was no room for the drawers. Eventually, I was moved to an office, but I don’t remember it clearly at all, except that Jessye Norman sat in it for a while. She was in Houston to sing a recital of Brahms songs — very well; you can here them on the DG boxed set of Brahms’s complete output — and we had seen her pretty head on at least two Philips record jackets. We were really very surprised by all we hadn’t seen. Another singer who came to the station was Frederica von Stade. She was doing Der Rosenkavalier with Evelyn Lear. They both came to the station, in fact (on different days), and each explained to us how her role was the key to the opera. I smiled at the time, but I have come to believe that a really good performance of Der Rosenkavalier requires a pair of singers equally convinced of being the star. Sadly, Frederica von Stade, even though I feel head over heels in love with her (as who did not?), never sat in my office.
It was established early on that I was a lousy interviewer, so it was Mark who usually did the job, and who allowed me to sit in silently and chat afterward. If you want to know just how bad I was — how I put satisfying my own personal curiosity where introducing the artist ought to be — I’ll tell you that when I had the chance to ask Marilyn Horne a question at a group interview, I asked her how Grace-Lyn Martin was doing. Grace-Lyn Martin was a soprano with a heavenly floating voice who collaborated with Horne and others on an album of Gesualdo madrigals that Robert Craft produced in the early days of stereo. Marilyn Horne’s answer was graciousness itself — Ms Martin was doing very well, lovely person. Everyone else in the room gave me a look. It was a familiar look. I had basically asked this great and beloved artist about a record in which she was practically a member of the chorus. Do you work at being weird? My memories of Benita Valente and Radu Lupu were the same: they couldn’t bear me. Never have I seen such sullen adults.
I learned to prefer performing artists as performing artists, with them on the stage and me in the seats. Paychecks were small, and perks were none, but the Houston Symphony Orchestra, Houston Grand Opera, and Houston Ballet always had a free seat for me, and for every performance. All I had to do was show up. When Kurt Masur brought the Leipzig Gewandhaus Orchestra to Houston, he made me fall in love with Brahms’s Fourth Symphony. I forget how many performances there were, but I went to two at least. (As I recall, the other work on the program was the First Piano Concerto, with Alfred Brendel.) Having dismissed La Bohème out of hand, without ever having seen it or listened all the way through, I was surprised and undone by HGO’s production. (I forget the year, but James Morris, then in the early years of his career, sang Schaunard.) Houston Ballet was always a delight, but sadly the two performances that I remember distinctly were both given by out-of-towners, The Pennsylvania Ballet’s Symphony in C and ABT’s Nureyev-led Raymonda. I doubt that I’ve have paid the price of admission to most of these events even if I’d been a rich man; being quite poor, I took everything on offer. The only downside was the snubbing that I got from the critics at intermission. Unlike them, I had no formal musical credentials, and that made me a non-person. I returned the compliment by teaching myself how to write about music without resorting to technical jargon — and also without padding commentary with tittle tattle about the composer’s mood at the time of composition, or the opening-night response — what I call the “Too Many Notes” tradition of concert reviewing. I began a long private career of considering what it is that critics do. For the past fifteen years, I have been trying to do something better.
The change that overtook my life in Houston occurred not, as you might think, by the return to New York in 1980, or by the return to Notre Dame, for law school, in 1977, but at some point in 1976, when I gave up on the alternative life style that I’d been leading since college. I have already mentioned the shock of recognition that hit me in the bus one day when I was reading Trollope about gentlemen. It was simply the strongest of many blows that undermined my faith in the way I was going about living differently than my parents. It was very important to do that — to live differently. But not altogether differently. I never lost the taste for neatness and order. Comfort remained very important. These attachments foredoomed my stab at what to normal people looked like hippie living. At a certain point, following the arc of a premature marriage, what had seemed to be bold experimentation revealed itself to be slacking. I was coasting. What I did at the radio station looked like work, but it was really no more demanding than breathing. In settling for the tiny paycheck that it earned, I was confined to a small life of numerous, insincere austerities. It wasn’t that wanted more money, I just wanted to stop having to think about money quite so much. I was too this-worldly for poverty. I could not longer justify working at the radio station, at least to myself.
What followed was not simple: I was not transformed into executive material overnight. I was never transformed into executive material. All that happened at the time was a collapse. I had to change my life. Changing it took a long time, has taken a long time. But the extent of the change and the length of time that it took has made it very difficult to remember my social life. Everything was so tentative. Living in Montrose put me in touch with people whom I should never have met earlier in my life. This began instantly, in Oak Place.
In Oak Place, I rented the garage apartment behind a substantial old house that dated to the time when prosperous Houstonians lived close to Downtown. Now it was run-down. Beyond the wall behind the garage stretched the Fourth Ward, a no-go neighborhood for solitary whites. The house itself was occupied by an experimental school for small children — what nobody yet thought to call a pre-school. Arriving soon after I did was a new faculty member, whom I shall call Bee. Bee and I would be great friends for the entirety of our time in Houston, which we would actually leave at the same time, she for San Francisco and I for South Bend. Toward the end, we experimented with being more than friends, and that was fine, but we were inescapably friends. And we remained friends for years afterward. Friendship came to an end for the same reason that broke off a lot my friendships with women: a significant other. Significant others have never taken a shine to me, and I can understand why. When I listen to Kathleen talk about me to other people, I hear myself described as endlessly interesting. Bee did the same, and I guess she did the same after she married. One of us had to go, and Bee made the right decision, especially considering that I had remarried and settled in New York. So Bee wrote me a “Dear John” letter that infuriated me at the time, because of course I liked having it all. I do miss her. She had, and I hope still has, a great laugh. She is also an excellent bullshit detector, which is important when you’re hanging around with the likes of me.
Bee came from a working-class family in the Midwest. She had attended a small Lutheran college. Nothing in her background prepared her for the experimental school. I will say that it didn’t take her long to realize that the experimental school was but a few steps from chaos. The movie that comes closest to the vibe that it emitted would have to be Event Horizon. I wouldn’t want to single out any element as particularly insane. The fellow who ran it was simply too good to be true. He also kept up with a wild man in Hell’s Angels drag who went by a name that was not Vegetable. (He was a sweetheart, really, but I was uncomfortable when he sat me down and made me listen to Tommy and waited for me to declare it a true work of opera.) The children were strange, perhaps only because of the environment. As for the parents, I remember only one clearly. He was a thirtysomething who was trying to find both meaning and excitement before he was completely zipped up in the pod of respectability. His marriage was shaky. I noted that following the program could be harmful to those not fit for it.
My response to the whole enterprise was not unlike my reaction to the commune on the wrong side of downtown. I remained friendly but disengaged. Things happened very fast, unbelievably fast. I moved to Oak Place in September, and left it in February or March. Bee moved in, Bee moved out (with another, now former, teacher). The girl whom I’d met over the summer at the station, and with whom I had struck up a very foolish exchange of letters that began, “Chère Marquise” or “Dear Count” — references to Les Liaisons dangereuses, of all things — well, she showed up one night in December. She had decided to drop out of the University of Texas and live with me. This was a surprise! Vanity and inexperience rendered me accommodating. There was also this awful mother who was talked about more or less non-stop. Somewhere around the time we learned that the young lady was pregnant, I left Oak Place for the relative normality of the motel-like apartment that the old dragon insisted on renting for her daughter.
But Bee continued to be a good friend. When the marriage ended, I moved in with her. She was living with a flower child of River Oaks background. We’ll call her Fleur. By coincidence, Fleur worked as a secretary (or somesuch) at the investment-management firm where someone I knew from Notre Dame also worked, but not as a secretary. (He is still not a secretary there.) I point out this small-world detail only to stress that it was very uncharacteristic of my life in Houston. The numerous worlds that I dropped in on from time to time did not mix. Life with Bee and Fleur was interesting because it was a relationship-free but mixed-gender household. I learned a lot about potted plants and fresh herbs. It was while I lived in Bee’s apartment that I first saw Chinatown and Zardoz. Everybody knows how great Chinatown is, but Zardoz has not aged well. And yet it portrayed exactly what I wanted life to look like at that time. I was so besotted that I persuaded Bee to stitch up some quasi-pharaonic headgear. You can try it out for yourself by tying a scarf over your face like a banditto who goes all the way and hides his eyes, too. Then you pull the scarf back over your head. The things that Bee made were more clever; they did not look like repurposed scarves. You can always watch the movie. By the way, the cool people in Zardoz — bored to death, literally — stay in touch by talking into their rings, which also double as screens. How smartphone is that! I attempted no simulation of the rings, but modestly accepted that, once again, I’d have to wait for technology to catch up.
I think that we even got George to wear a headscarf. George lived in the garage apartment. Garage apartments are very common in the older parts of Houston. I thought that Jonathan Franzen wrote about them in Strong Motion, but it seems (at a cursory glance) that he didn’t. The Houston passages of Strong Motion amazed me, for it had taken me ages to learn the things about Houston that he let drop casually. His protagonist, Louis Holland, even has a job at KILT, which was (and may still be) the big pop station. Louis also lived in the house of a friend of his father’s, near Rice University. The houses in that neighborhood are famous not so much for their garage apartments but for the deed restriction that prohibits renting the garage apartments to strangers. But I’m not here to talk about Houston’s unusual approach to zoning. The detached garage behind the house of which Bee’s apartment occupied the upper floor was, unlike the small building that I had occupied in Oak Place, a one-storey affair. It had an English look to it — long and one room deep. George’s snappy sportscar — a Triumph or an MG, I forget which — was parked just outside the garage whenever he was at home.
George was a development in Bee’s life that occurred while I was married. Their relationship had settled into a not-unfriendly acquaintance by the time I moved in, but I forget whether he was installed in the garage apartment when I got there, or whether he came later. I think that it was later. One day, there was his car. “Oh — George,” Bee must have said. I watched George amble in and out of the apartment. He struck me as self-possessed but not oblivious. There was a cowboy aspect to him that I later noted in the actor Sam Elliott, although George was much more relaxed. Even when he was in a mood to be crazy, George was relaxed.
If I could ever have loved a man, it would have been George. It was a good thing that I couldn’t, because he couldn’t either, but we managed to pass the time together in many of the states that I associate with a bad relationship. He could make me as jealous as his latest girlfriend. Jealous of what? His attention, of course. Whether anyone else suffered this delusion or not, I don’t know, but for me George simply swallowed every possibility of being cool, so that he alone possessed this ineffable attribute. If he yawned or shrugged or suggested any kind of ennui, I felt that my life was a failure and wanted to die, right there. For a while, George stilled my confusion about how to live. I stopped worrying, as I had been worrying for several years by now, about what kind of long-terms plans I ought to have. George’s solution was: No Plans! That is why I eventually left Bee’s place to share an apartment with George, an apartment in a cruddy complex off Westheimer just inside 610. That is why I found myself back in Montrose six months later, my taste for spontaneity badly dented. By this time, Bee had moved, too, to the building next door, which we both called “Hawthorne II.”
The cruddy apartment was within walking distance of the radio station — a real plus. I would get up in the morning and have a shot of Wild Turkey, first thing. George convinced me that this was how he had always started the day, and it was romantic to believe him. Then I would watch The Electric Company. When that was over, I went to work. I remember falling in love with Haydn’s 98th Symphony; and then there was some sort of disaster when, following George’s somewhat ill-tempered guidance, I backed a U-Haul truck into somebody’s car.
We each have the one life, ergo the one past, but George always seemed to me to have many pasts. The cat’s nine lives made a certain sense. Although I expect that the chronology of my life will be clear to anyone who reads this book through, its arrangement was partly inspired by George, by remembering how he talked about his life in terms of stories, which he told without reference to other stories. For example, the time he worked at a hospital at a nurse. There may have been more than one stint of hospital work; it was always at slightly off-center places that didn’t require the full Cleveland when it came to licensing. George had taken plenty of courses in the field, and perhaps his teachers found him work. During this hospital stint, he had to deal with a patient who was forever moaning about pain. “I’ll give you something for pain!” George bellowed as he rolled the patient over in bed and stuck a hypodermic full of gamma globulin into his gluteus maximus. I like to believe this story, but I expect that it’s foolish to do so. If I didn’t, I shouldn’t be repeating it here.
George had started out in a moderately affluent family that seemed a few notches down the ladder from my own, but sound enough. He went to Catholic school and I seem to recall did well in track. I don’t know when he took the decisive turn away from the professional outcomes that his teachers might have expected, but everyone knows, I think, how difficult it can be to get a college degree once you have gotten used to breathing outside of school. I do not believe that he ever acquired a degree higher than his high school diploma, however. Certainly he never boasted of having done so. Even though I knew that dropping out was foolish, and that it made difficulties for George that seemed to multiply, I thought he was a better man than I for leaving. More precisely, I envied his courage from the time that I got to know him to the moment, shortly after we put our common apartment behind us, that I recognized the need for an advanced degree: it was the only way that I’d ever get out of Houston.
I never met anyone to whom George was related; all I had were the disjointed stories. If I sit still and let them, fragments of stories that George told me much, much later, about his parents’ later days, would bubble up. But I’d permit them to do so only if George himself were in the room, ready to refresh them. George really was his stories. Full of disaster though they were, they painted a Golden Age that ought to have been. Or perhaps they told of George’s repeated expulsions therefrom.
I think that the fun was already over by the time we moved in together. We had had enough of doing our favorite thing together, which was to set out for Galveston around midnight and take the Point Bolivar ferry to Point Bolivar, where there was nothing. We would sit on the beach until it was time to take the ferry back. We would watch the phospherescent waves break in the dark, hoping for a miracle. I was hoping for a miracle, anyway. By the last of our Point Bolivar outings, I badly needed a miracle. I must have thought that moving in with George would make one more likely, but it didn’t.
The miracle, too quiet to be noticed as such, occurred after George, during my very quiet time in Hawthorne II, which is the default setting for my recollection of life in Houston.
Hawthorne II occupied the upper left-hand half of a two storey building between Dunlavy and Mandell; behind George’s garage apartment, now next door, and our own back yard, which remains impenetrable to my memory, were the back of shops on Westheimer. There was a living room as wide as the apartment. At the rear of the apartment was the bedroom, in the corner, and the kitchen, which was tiny. In between these and the living room were the bathroom, on the outer wall, and a small dining room, on the inner. The kitchen was really a corridor to the door at the rear (which led to steps and a landing), with exiguous appliances set up on a longer counter to the left, and cupboards overhead. The old kitchen table, which I had held on to, filled the dining room, but more than any other feature it turned Hawthorne II into a home.
I had a sofa by now, and a leather wing chair, both cast-offs from the world that I’d grown up in. I had my desk, and a Windsor chair. In the bedroom, aside from the twin bed, I can’t think what there was. I must have had some kind of dresser. What I remember having is a special auxiliary audio speaker that I created myself. The speakers, which were nothing fancy, were mounted, vaguely, to the bottom of a liquor box. I stapled fabric on the liquor box and pasted a cut-out of a dandy from the Versailles of 1680 on the front (which was really the bottom, and hung the thing on a wall. I dealt neatly with the wires that led to the stereo in the living room. This quick-and-dirty construction was characteristic of my response to poverty. I did not invest in good-quality materials, I did not measure twice before cutting once, I did not stitch a thread. The thing lasted a lot longer than I had any right to expect.
I would get up and get dressed. There was no shower, so I would douse myself with pitchers of water while crouching in the tub. The pitcher was a red plastic vessel designed to imitate cut glass. I used it with the deepest satisfaction, knowing that it would never shatter on me. When I was ready to leave, I cut through the back, crossed Westheimer, and walked to the bus stop, which wasn’t far. On the bus out to Post Oak, I would read. Then I would walk the length of Post Oak Road, which was somewhat embarrassing because I was the only white pedestrian and the sidewalks were intermittent. Crossing San Felipe, I entered the dumpy but conventional little neighborhood in which the radio station was situated. When it was time to go home, I reversed the commute, sometimes getting a ride to Westheimer. It was on the bus going home one day that I read the fateful paragraph in Trollope — which I have never been able to trace. There probably was no single line of insight; Trollope was too woolly to sound like Rilke. But if I had been reading that great poem about the archaic torso, it couldn’t have had a greater impact, because Trollope was not only telling me to change my life but showing me why and how.
Of course I had been brought up to stand with the manly half of “ladies and gentlemen.” But this was simply a matter of manners. Holding the door open for ladies, and letting them step out of an elevator first. Walking between a lady and the curb, and managing the switches unobtrusively. The galaxy of table manners was installed in my head before I was quite aware of it; I remember only being reminded of musts and mustn’ts. I passed trays of hors d’oeuvres at my parents’ cocktail parties. I wore a blue suit, patent-leather shoes, and white cotton gloves to dancing school, most Thursday evenings in the school year, and learned to cross ankles that were clad in dark socks (I wore red ones once, although I knew better). Outside of a restaurant or a dinner-dance, however, there was little call for any of this gentlemanliness in regular life. In regular life, gentlemanliness was under fire.
When I look at Donald Trump’s supporters now, I can imagine the cold terror that must have seized older people when baby boomers began going out of their way to be boorish. I don’t think that I ever went that far (except when drinking a lot, which I couldn’t afford to do very often), but I certainly cultivated a peculiar thoughtlessness. For a few years, I sent out blank Christmas cards in which I’d written “Merry Whatever.” And then, of course, there was the more principled search for an alternative life-style, the hopes for a New Age. I did not believe in the newly repopularized metaphysics of crystals and astrology, but I wished that I did, and I learned how to do I Ching nimbly, the long way, with fifty sticks. (I had no idea what yarrow was, though. Later, in my gardening days, I would chuckle every time I tended the clumps of achillea.) I pored over the Tarot deck.
I was aching for meaning and purpose, and what happened when I read Trollope was that I found both. I already knew what to do; now I simply had to do them better. Being a gentleman meant talking sense (and always honestly) and making other people comfortable. Perhaps it’s negative: a gentleman does not talk nonsense and he refrains from making other people uncomfortable. A sort of corollary of the discomfort rule requires a gentleman to maintain himself, so that he is neither a burden nor a nuisance to others. What happened on the bus was that I realized in a stroke that these requirements, which I had always taken to be superficial and la-di-da, were, insofar as they supported the life of the society in which one lived, far more important than the moral considerations that might once have governed relations between a man and his maker. Kant would say (I suppose), that we must maintain our good health because we have bodies and the brains to figure out how to care for them, and that doing so is a moral imperative inherent in being living human beings. I have no time for that. If we have to take care of ourselves, it’s so that others won’t have to. Of course there are limits. People don’t fall ill solely from neglect. But we have to stay in shape for the sake of others. We live on terms with the world that require us to keep our minds in order. It follows, as I saw at the time, that the search for inner meaning, for some private, personal connection with the universe, is a waste of time. Even if we think that we have attained such enlightenment, it will have been cobbled together entirely from things that other people have said and done.
My new life began in the quiet solitude of Hawthorne II. That was my first real base in this world.
Bee’s place occupied the right-hand side of the first storey of the building; its layout was the mirror imagine of mine. We were up and down the back stairs all the time. If I ever knew much about the tenant across the upstairs landing from me, I’ve forgotten it. Beneath me there lived for a while a vivid woman whom I shall call Luna. She was neither tall nor short, and very shapely, with an eagerly attractive face that might have looked better on camera, although I doubt that Luna possessed the discipline for acting. I don’t know where she came from, but my recollections link her with all the people I’ve ever known who hailed from New Orleans. She spoke much more loudly than most women; you could imagine her wearing a cowboy hat and slapping men on the back, except that she was every inch a woman and always wore a dress. A dress and heels. The dresses that Luna wore were not party dresses as such, but they could have been worn to almost any party: they dressed her up. I feel somewhat ridiculous mentioning her, since there must have been thirty people in Houston whom I spent more time with and got to know better; Luna was a passing ship. But she lived downstairs, and when she tried to paint her kitchen wall a high-gloss sticker yellow, she became part of Hawthorne II.
Into this short time, I squeezed two romantic relationships, one that I scrupulously brought to an end before beginning the other — I was reading lots of Trollope by now. Both women had connections to the radio stations (just as my ex-wife had done), but neither was actually engaged with the radio station at the time of our affair. I don’t wish to talk about either, although they were both lovely people. I didn’t find out why the first relationship would never work out until years later; as for the second, it was foregone that the one of us who wasn’t me was headed for a tribal marriage sooner or later. I was just a fling. Plus, she was on her way to New York, where she had found a job that I ought to recall but don’t; it had something to do with radio, and she used it to find an even better job in Washington. I paid highly romantic visits to her in both cities before law school, although how all this was fit into a matter of months I have no idea. The romantic moment that I remember best, though, occurred in my last Houston flat, the one on Mandell, the place that was lined with clapboard inside as well as out. My little friend and I had been somewhere dressy. We went back to my place. We were gripped by lust the moment we got out of the car, and we made love the moment the apartment door closed behind us. I do mean the moment; clothes were shifted but not removed. Nothing like this ever happened to me, before or after; it was as though I’d won a trip to some impossibly exotic locale that no one could ever think of seeing twice in a lifetime. I am also writing this down because in my memory I have made it even more exotic: I have turned it into one of those daring escapades that draw amorous couples into cramped coat closets in the middle of huge parties. I suspect that it wasn’t a case of being unable to help ourselves. I suspect rather that it was a case of responding to a slight tickle by putting up not the slightest resistance. The last time I saw her, I was cross with her because she had abandoned life in the Northeast for deadly old Houston. I was also cross with her because I had met someone else by then, and really oughtn’t to have attempted a further romantic encounter.
With the other woman, the one who came first, the romance was more cuddly and emotional. Any shortcomings in the romance department were more than compensated by the entrée that she offered to the life of her stepfather, who was the first intelligent adult, or person significantly older, to treat me like a friend, and who at the same time made me want to be his friend. What I mean is that he was a reader, a thinker, and an appreciator of the fine things in life. I wouldn’t call him a connoisseur — that’s too fussy. But Richard made a good life for himself, and enjoyed it —something that I had never seen done before. It figures, of course, that if I could never have known anyone like him before, that might be at least in part explained by his being a Jew.
Richard and his wife, a darting and bright creature from Panama, built a little circle of friends, and a good deal of the time that I spent at Richard’s house was passed in the company of these other sophisticates. I remember only two, because they said something mean about me that I didn’t understand at the time. What they said, and what I took as a compliment in my ignorance, was that I spoke like someone from Glasgow. The man in the couple, who was British, immediately decided that he had been very astute to recognize this, and his American girlfriend, who was much older, readily agreed. I remember saying something like “Gee.” I now think that this was payback for my habit of actually reading the books that Richard recommended. He was always recommending books, and he had plenty of interesting ones. It was from him that I learned about John Collier, Thorne Smith, and Robert Lewis Taylor’s Adrift in a Boneyard. These were exactly the right books for me to be reading at that time, perhaps because they meant a lot because Richard recommended them. I still have a Collier omnibus, and my copy of the Taylor still has its priceless Saul Steinberg illustrations, but I let the Smith go some time ago. I think that Richard may also have introduced me to Tom Sharpe’s Wilt.
In the back of Richard’s house there was a sunroom that he had designed himself — Richard would boast that he had violently abused the permit that he had been given to modify his front porch by adding bathrooms, an upstairs bedroom, the upstairs to put it in, and the sunroom, not to mention an overhauled kitchen. One weekend afternoon, Richard’s circle gathered to read Tom Stoppard’s Travesties. I played Tristan Tzara, I think — not a very big part, and don’t ask me what he was famous for. But it struck me as a pastime that was immensely pleasurable yet at the same time immensely simple. Not that I’m wasting any time wondering why I’ve never hosted a reading of some interesting play; it’s impossible to pin down ten or more halfway capable friends and commit them to showing up, more or less prepared, on pain of death. Even today, I can hardly count upon putting together a dependable dinner party of six.
The dress code at Richard’s was pretty much what it might have been for the faculty of any halfway stylish college: then women wore dresses, then men jackets and ties. Everybody wore good shoes. By the time I met him, I was more than prepared to fit in. My hair was reasonably short again — it was never meant to be long, and there was already a bald spot. Had I known someone like Richard earlier in life, had there been someone like him to talk and listen to, my life would not have been radically different, but I think that I’d have skipped the alternative life style part. In Richard, I finally met someone who, while not being an academic, led what might be called a life of the mind, and was not shy about it. He was also more able than most grown men to take the measure of ideas other than his own. And while I think that there lingered about him some strands of old-fashioned talk about “how women are,” he didn’t take it at all seriously. He really liked women — I think he had to marry a few before he found one who wasn’t shocked by that. Life in his precincts was healthy. I haven’t missed it so much as I have tried to recreate something like it. But I’ll never be the host that Richard was. He outmans me there.
In my mind, abandoning the search for an alternative lifestyle and leaving Houston were, and remain, deeply intertwined. It might be objected that I could have lived a more suitable life — a life more suited to me — while remaining in Houston. After all, Richard found a way. That thought never crossed my mind. Richard’s life might be possible in Houston, and it’s true that he could put up with the weather. But while Richard redeemed adulthood for me, he had no effect on my grasp of Houston. Houston remained the profoundly unsympathetic place that it was from the first. Rather than make a lot of unpleasant remarks about Houston, I’d rather just say that I was homesick for New York. I missed a the seasons, especially autumn and winter. I missed the rocky terrain (yes! look around!) with its rivers and its hills. I missed the public transportation. I missed the cultural density.
One thing that I disliked about Houston was the way people speak. There are many different Texan accents, and I dislike the sound of all of them. There is no getting round my being an Anglophile, to the extent that I feel sorry about obliging any native British speaker to listen to me. If I have to hear Americans, let them come from the Northeast, where there are also many different accents, quite a few of them more distant from English than anything spoken in Texas. I learned to mistrust the sound of Southern accents in Bronxville, where they were more common than you might think. Texans add loudness. But the culture of the language itself is uncongenial to me. It is a studiously unlettered patois — those are the very words, I suspect, in which a Texan might mock my criticism of his way of speaking. It is still the language of a former independent Republic. Many Texans have second thoughts about joining the United States; I can only wish that they had no occasion to.
Houston is of course the least Texan of places actually in Texas. The fourth largest city in the country (which it became while I lived there), it is home to perhaps as many out-of-towners as New York. But the draw is entirely different. People come to New York despite the fact that there aren’t many great jobs; so that making do until the big break comes along can become a way of life. People are drawn to Houston by the money. When I lived there, to be sure, it was also a cosmopolitan magnet for gay men, but one curious side-effect of this phenomenon was that one learned not to associate sexual preference with artistic bent — a good thing, but also not a reason to stick around. Meanwhile, the Northeast in general and New York City in particular were in a slump. The City almost declared bankruptcy. The future wasn’t promising. It was still the creative capital of the country’s most creative region, but competition from the West Coast was increasing. There were lots of people between Seattle and San Diego who didn’t care what was going on in New York. Inland cities, most notably Atlanta, were learning to import what they wanted and to ignore the rest. The food revolution, which would do more to heighten regional sensibilities in the United States than anything since the Civil War, was just around the corner. I still felt that I had to get back.
And I did, but in a final flare of irony, Houston was going to change on me. As I recall, it began with a trip to New York. My father was flying up on a company plane, and my mother was going, too. She wasn’t really up to it, but she felt that she ought to go. I quite forget why. It may have had something to do with Grace, her father’s second wife, a dear woman who had died recently; was there something to be done in Bronxville? She may have gone because she was expecting to be ill for a while, and wanted a last look beforehand. That it would really be her last look at New York, which it was, she would never have admitted. Right up to the night of her death, the possibility that she might die was never mentioned in her presence. But the rigor with which this ban was upheld may have betrayed that its purpose was to preserve appearances.
It’s possible that I knew how sick she was. I had a conversation with an oncologist at MD Anderson at some point around then. I don’t remember why my father sent me in his stead; perhaps he thought that I would understand what the doctor had to say better than he would. I certainly did understand. The doctor was a Belgian with a wrestler’s physique, possibly the scion of coal miners. Speaking with the requisite disparaging French accent, he told me that my mother would be dead in six months — as if it were her fault. They would do what they could, but they couldn’t do much. He did not say that they would try to make her as comfortable as possible, which was good, because it would have made a liar out of him to offer that consolation. She had non-Hodgkins lymphoma, but she would die of the side effects of chemotherapy, which was more brutal than it is today. It did not take the doctor long to dispatch the discussion of my mother’s case. Then he looked at me more closely, with a bit of a squint.
“You are at the radio station, yes?”
“KLEF, yes. I am the music director.”
“The music that you pick in the mornings is terrible.”
Did I tell him that I didn’t actually program the first two hours of the broadcast day, that it was the former owner of the station, no less, who had held on to the morning slot through thick and thin, who pulled together assortments of music that I couldn’t bear to listen to? Or did I just apologize, shocked by the abrupt change of topics? Here he had just told me that my mother would be dead in six month. Then he complained about the way (he thought) I did my job.
It may have been on the flight to New York — for I was asked to come along, as odd as anything — that we had a powwow in which, without acknowledging the seriousness of my mother’s illness, my offer to come home and help take care of things was accepted. Odder still. I closed down my apartment, for once not moving to another one. I got rid of almost everything, but I held on to my sofa. I parked a few valuables with friends, from whom I was able to retrieve them five or six years later. I moved back into my old room, the original dining room of the house. A few friends came over, but I was more likely to go out — I could borrow my mother’s Mercedes now. It was a quiet time. My mother would go into the hospital for a spell and then come home for a spell. She would rally, but never recover all the lost ground. She was too ill to come to the table at Christmas, but I think that she was at home. For the first and last time, I cooked a goose. My father had always talked about how wonderful Christmas goose was. I am sorry that I did not have his mother on hand to consult.
It was in January that my mother gave her last party. She invited two couples; I have long since forgotten which friends they were, but one couple had a Company connection and the other did not. I made the dinner and served it; I did not sit down. I could not say which was more remarkable, my mother’s gratitude afterward or my astonishment at her asking for my help in the first place. It would be nice to say that I felt that all accounts between us were settled by this dinner, and I’m sure that I felt something like that at the time. But I suspect that it would have passed on both sides, and our mutual antogonism, which occurred in a grain too fine for either of us to see clearly, would have resumed its irritation.
But that was the last time that she sat at any table. By the end of February, she was dead — about a week before I received the first letter of acceptance from a law school (Oklahoma). She died in the hospital. She was very sick. I remember when people were “very sick.” It was considered rude to press for what it was that was making them sick. It was impossible to distinguish the ill-effects of chemotherapy from those of cancer — if any. Perhaps the doctor could fix a term of six months because he knew what chemotherapy could do: he knew the poison’s dosage. I am not whining here that chemotherapy was or is a bad thing. But I began, with my mother’s final illness, to understood how far from humanism medicine can wander. I think that things are much better now. It is no longer inevitable that your body will be the battlefield on which a doctor and a disease fight to the finish.
On the night she died, my father and I, and possibly my sister, went out to dinner at Dad’s favorite place, a maid’s-night-out steakhouse on Westheimer. We drove to the hospital afterward. My mother was almost absent and yet strangely agitated. She wanted to know what we’d had for dinner, and what we’d had for dinner the night before that. When I told her, the conversation lapsed. Then she said something that I couldn’t quite understand. I leaned in closer and she repeated it. It still made no sense. The third time, I got it. “Did you freeze the leftover ravioli?” she asked. That, I think, is a measure of how determined she was to appear unaware of what was coming.
When we got back to the house, the hospital was on the phone, and we drove back to the hospital. She had died while we were in the car. The next and last time I saw her, she was in her coffin. The coffin was to be closed, but the three of us were called into another room for a final check, I suppose it was. I looked at her and I was overcome by a wave of sobbing the intensity of which I have never known, before or since. Men from the funeral home held me up. I was as surprised by this outburst as I was stricken by grief, and that made the sobbing worse. The accounts were still not quite settled.
Hundreds of people attended my mother’s funeral and most of them followed us to the burial as well. It was a feather in my father’s cap. The funeral of a very prominent toiler in the oil patch was held the same day. He, however, had shot himself.
Not long after my mother died, I drove home from the station, which was now a short distance away, for lunch. I came home for lunch so that I could put on a bathing suit and sit out by the pool. For the first time in my life, I was going to work on a tan. In Houston, you can get that going in March.
I had never had a tan in my life. Only sunburns. I seemed naturally to dislike sitting in direct sunlight — perhaps my body knew something. The skin cancers that have proliferated on my forearms and scalp — pre-cancers, sorry — date from a later period, as was revealed by an interesting therapy that I won’t bore you with. If my youthful exposure to the sun had had a malign effect, my shoulders, upon which coalesced numerous small freckles into one the size of a pancake, would be riddled with squamous cells. But they’re not, and the tan that I worked on in 1977 has not yet come back to haunt me. I was “religious” about it, as my mother would have put it. Unless the sky were cloudy (rare for spring in Houston), I would spend exactly an hour on a lounge chair by the pool. I would even turn over, something I hated a lot more than direct sunlight. By June, I was beginning to be what the French call bronzé. There were no burns, just an even coat of a darkish color that was hard to describe. The color got darker and stranger. By August, when I stopped working on my tan, I had achieved something like the color of red mahogany. My hair was still auburn then, and the combination was peculiar. Today, you might think that I’d been abandoned in a tanning salon, or dipped in an experimental lotion. Everyone agreed: I had not been meant to have a tan.
Kathleen, whom I would meet just a few weeks later, and who might not have been paying the closest attention, says that she doesn’t remember my looking at all odd, ever. So the tan must have faded quickly. That would be poetic justice, for the era of the tan was a unlike all my earlier periods in Houston. It was a time, frankly, of pleasure, of accumulating lots of friends by the pool and then driving with bare feet to the local Rice supermarket and stocking up for a cook-out. When I wasn’t by the pool, I was out of state. There were two big trips, both with Dad. The first, flown entirely on Company planes, took us to New York, to my uncle’s house in New Hampshire, which I’d never been to, and to the Greenbrier Hotel in West Virginia. The Greenbrier was a revelation on the order of my strange tan. It seemed to be painted entirely in green and yellow, my colors exactly, if you add a dash of pink. The second trip was to Europe. I had thought I’d never get there.
Europe was a confirmation. I don’t think that I saw anything that I hadn’t seen photographs of before. On the whole, everything was as I’d imagined it; the differences were all of scale. Europe was broader than the United States; it wasn’t so upright. We went to London, Paris, Vienna, and, with a stop in Dublin, the West of Ireland. London alone seemed strange, doubtless an “uncanny valley” reaction. The Queen was celebrating a jubilee, and the Tower Bridge had been painted purple. (Can that be right?) Paris was brilliant, but the important thing was going to Versailles for the day by myself. I didn’t then realize that Versailles was the modern West’s first stab at a national capitol, but when the idea dawned on me later, the vast majesty of the place made complete sense. Vienna was cobblestones that Mozart might have stepped on. In each city, my father had too much to drink, fell down, and had to listen to the hotel doctor tell him to lay off the sauce. His response was to threaten to go to American Express the next day and book an immediate return home. This he never did. I could have been a much more gracious companion, but I always had dinner with him, and when we finally got to Ireland I learned how much better the trip would have been had we stuck to the original plan, and driven from Paris eastwards, through Bavaria and the “Sound of Music Country,” which he’d been to with my mother and loved, onto Vienna. That road trip fell victim to Dad’s little collapses. But the morning after we arrived in Dublin, we drove back out to the airport, loaded our rented car, and drove across Ireland. I drove. I had never driven on the left before. It didn’t seem to be too hard to do. I never hit anything or anybody. And from our hotel in County Clare, Dromoland Castle, we drove all over the place.
Ireland was very beautiful, but I had the impression that all the smart people had emigrated. And that was true, in a sense; anybody capable of seizing an economic opportunity abroad took it. The de Valera dispensation, about which I knew nothing, was just beginning to wind down. It was still an overtly Catholic country, and there was still an overall air of heads-down diffidence. I knew that American money had a lot to do with such luster as remained — our hotel, for instance, an Ascendancy pile in the Gothic mode — and for a long time after I got home I would refer to Ireland as a theme park for Americans. It would be wrong to say that I didn’t feel Irish, because I didn’t feel anything else; I was a one-off who belonged nowhere. (Or so I thought, until I discovered Amsterdam, where I very much felt like the native that I was so often taken for.) My adoptive family’s American experience, bleached of Irishness in the Midwest, almost made Ireland into just another country. But of course it couldn’t be. The language was too familiar. I’d heard it all my life in New York. And understood it for nearly as long.
Over the Atlantic, on the flight back to New York, the pilot announced that the city was experiencing power problems, but that we would probably be able to land — not to worry. And so we did, in the great blackout of that summer. I have always chosen to regard this coincidence, of my just happening to be in New York, a city I hadn’t spent any time in for more nearly ten years, for this particular occasion, as a Janus-faced event, drawing past and future together, and eliding Houston altogether. It is, as is said, pretty to think so. It would be more apt to see that dark touchdown as the last thing that happened in my childhood and the first thing that happened to me as an adult. I never lived at home again, or anywhere near it. When I went back to Notre Dame in late August, I began the maturing experience that ought to have taken place there when I was an undergraduate. Going through law school seven years after I had gone through college at the same place had a reiterative quality. I have to do everything at least twice.
About the blackout itself, I’ll tell a story about Dad that was utterly typical. We made our way to the Company flat on Madison Avenue, and the porter and I lugged our luggage up to the tenth floor. I called up Fossil Darling — I had seen him on the earlier trip in the spring — and he invited me to a party in Greenwich Village. I don’t know what arrangements were made about giving Dad some sort of dinner, but I didn’t trouble myself about them. I hailed a cab and went downtown. But before I left, I got my father’s attention.
“Now, listen,” I said. “Pay strict attention.”
Some sort of assent was expressed.
“When you use the toilet, do not flush it. Do not turn on the taps to see if water comes out. Unless the lights are on, there will be no water. But above all, do not flush the toilets.”
I left to the sound of mumbling.
The party downtown was great fun, and, in the middle of it, the lights came back on. There was food and drink everywhere, and everybody seemed to be interesting. I did not leave early. When I got back to the flat, I found the scene that I expected. Dad himself was passed out in a chair. There was no evidence that he had flushed the toilets, but the showers in both bathrooms were streaming, as were the bathroom sinks and the one in the kitchen, too. I was very tired as I turned everything off, and very glad that there had been no overflowing.
End: Houston stands between my childhood and my maturity.
By the time I had to leave Hawthorne two, I had a small black-and-white television and an air conditioner in the bedroom. Until then, I had lived largely without.
and itching for good conversation. The result was a fair amount of hanging out with friends. Aside from colleagues at the radio station, with whom I didn’t socialize much (socializing at work was enough), I had two groups of friends. One consisted of two fellow graduates from Notre Dame. One of them had grown up in Houston; the other was drawn to it by a wealth management opportunity. The other group extended from a woman whom I got to know on Oak Place. There was some, but not much, interaction between these three groups.
It is very hard to write about music.
“Traffic” is another word for scheduling — scheduling everything that wasn’t, in KLEF’s case, music chosen by me.