Archive for the ‘Personal History’ Category

Gotham Diary:
28 June 2012

Thursday, June 28th, 2012

Taking a walk after lunch the other day, I was arrested by a forgotten but instantly familiar sight: a truck painted orange and emblazoned with the Auer’s logo. Not surprisingly, the truck was parked along Gracie Square (the last block of East 84th Street, between East End Avenue and the East River); the firm speicalizes in upscale moving.

Two houses down Hathaway Road from our first house in Bronxville (Eastchester really), in a much prettier little house (Nº 23, if you want to stroll along in street view; we were at 29), lived the Auers, Mr and Mrs, an elderly couple. I would guess that Mr Auer was the founder, or co-founder, of what is still the family business; by 1955, when we moved to Hathaway Road, he was retired, and the moving company was run by his son — I am also surmising. I so surmise because of the occasional appearance of the Auers’ grandson, known as GJ. I suppose GJ came to spend the odd week with his grandparents, perhaps because his parents still lived in the city — probably not far from where I’ve been living all this time. GJ was a bit older than I was, and taller and leaner, as I remember, and very lively; and I remember getting into trouble for doing something with him. I was about eight years old at the time, and the world of forbidden things was immense, but doing anything at all with GJ would probably have been enough. The Auers were “from the city.” This was not a class problem but a “ways” problem. Our ways were not their ways.

My mother’s fear and loathing of New York was one of the differences between us that I never understood while she was alive. That’s to say that I didn’t see it. When she complained about the city, I imagined that, if whatever she was complaining about were fixed, then she would stop complaining and start enjoying the place, because how could you not? She could not. Her childhood was spent in Wilmette, a suburb of Chicago comparable to Bronxville in many superficial ways, but ultimately quite incomparable because of the difference, not really measurable to my mind, between Chicago and New York. You hear a lot of talk about New York versus LA (or you used to do), but LA is just another Long Island sprawl populated by thinning ranks of overlooked locals by the vacationers from New York. New York and Chicago are the American antitheses, or would be, if New York were really American. Chicago is really American.

My mother eventually found happiness in Houston. Even then, I didn’t see her fear and loathing of New York for what it was. I was confused by her readiness to jump on one of the company planes at the drop of a hat for a jaunt to the Big Apple. I didn’t understand that she liked going because what she liked even better was coming back, and coming back loaded with goodies. Kron’s chocolate — that was a big deal for a while. Tortellini were another. My mother had a dish of them at Barbetta (natch) and “found out” where to buy them “wholesale.” I wasn’t paying a lot of attention by this time, so I can’t say from memory how many dozens of boxes she flew down to Houston, but I’m sure that the number was exaggerated.

My mother loved visiting New York. But she hated living anywhere near it.


My father, I think, was indifferent to New York. It didn’t bother him. He was where he was. Until he felt that his game was falling apart, he liked best being on a golf course. I didn’t understand this, either, but that’s another matter. My father’s fears and loathings remained unknown to me. He seemed naturally confident always — a fine Midwestern bluff. There was one exception, in the last years at the Hathaway Road house, when as part of his job he began to have to address the security analysts on an annual basis. Did what I just say mean anything to you? It sounds Egyptian even to me. Security analysts? Who were they? How to describe them in today’s terms? I must ask Fossil Darling. In any case, I expect that my father was addressing the New York Society of Security Analysts (they seem to be CFAs now). Not a natural public speaker, at least in his own mind, my father rehearsed his speeches by delivering them into a microphone attached to a cassette recorder (new at the time, and “cheap.”) He stood at the tall dresser in his bedroom and pretended that it was a lectern.

My memory of these rehearsals is corrupt and contradictory. Did I ever try to listen to one of the speeches all the way through? If I did, I wasn’t allowed to do it again — or would I have wanted to? I had no idea what my father was talking about, except that in some extremely obscure way he was making a sales pitch. He was touting the stock of the company for which he worked — but of course I wouldn’t have known to put it that way then. But it was the one time that I actually watched my father work. So this was what he did! Well, it was something. Everything else that he did was done in an office in the city, to which he was not unhappy about commuting every day, invisible and impalpable.

(He was very fond of telling a story about his father-in-law, who, after the War, decided to cut down on commuting time and get to work earlier by moving into the city. He took at an apartment in Sutton Place shortly before I was adopted. After two years or so, he gave it up and moved back to Bronxville. It turned out that he was spending the commuting time by sleeping late and lounging over breakfast. I don’t think that he cared for the city much, either. I think that my father liked this story because it cautioned him against suggesting anything of the same to my mother.)

I remember asking my father what a sinking fund was. It wasn’t what I wanted it to be, and it still isn’t.   

Gotham Diary:
Sitters, cont’d
8 June 2012

Friday, June 8th, 2012

The weather was so lovely, yesterday morning, that I was tempted to trot down to the Shake Shack for an early lunch. I had planned to stay in and get a lot of paperwork done, but by 11:15 I’d taken care of the first and most important item of business, and my spirits tended outwards.

The problem was, I had nothing flat to read. I was caught up on the litloids, and more or less completely put off The New Yorker by the double science-fiction issue. Books are an ordeal to read at the Shake Shack; there’s nothing to weight down the pages. And then of course there’s the occasional mess. So I had a bright idea: I’d stop next door at Barnes & Noble and pick up an unusual periodical. (I’d stop in at the CD department as well, to find something suitably odd for my Spanish Songbook playlist.) Bingo.

But by the time I’d picked up a copy of Port, the new British magazine about which I can remember reading something, but not what, and dawdled over CDs (selecting a box of Schumann chamber music, a disc of Debussy and Ravel from the Seoul Philharmonic, under Myung-Whun Chung, and a Simone Dinnerstein recital), the Shake Shack had gotten very crowded. Getting a table and holding onto it would be tricky. It was at this moment that I realized that I’d forgotten to bring a napkin. The only way to keep the mess “occasional” at the Shake Shack is to bring along a stout cloth napkin.

What to do? Tough it out at the Shake Shack? How about heading to the Seahorse Tavern, for one of their very different burgers? Virtue prevailed: I stopped in at Fairway, where I had to get a loaf of raisin bread anyway, and picked up a Cobb salad. I came home and read the next chapter of Kwasi Kwarteng’s examination of six imperial muddles, The Ghosts of Empire: Britain’s Legacies in the Modern World. Having staggered through Iraq, Kashmir, and Burma, I’ve arrived at Sudan. Together with the fifth section, on Nigeria, these are all accounts of modern hotspots that might be more stable if it hadn’t been for the Union Jack.

If the little thwartation at the Shake Shack had occurred on any day earlier this week, I’d have run home panting and weeping. I don’t understand why, but I’ve been rather a mess this week. Monday was awful, and Tuesday wasn’t too much better, until I fetched Will and forgot about myself with him. On Wednesday, I coped evenly enough, but I still felt tired and inane. I spent much of the afternoon and evening piling things up to deal with yesterday. Kathleen and I did have a nice little dinner of veal chop with steamed potatoes and corn on the cob.


One of the week’s many site-related disorders was yesterday’s somewhat truncated entry. I dashed off the final sentences before heading to the dermatologist’s office, and somehow thought, when I came back home, that I’d finished the piece. Perhaps I had. There was no more to say about Randy Paar. We never did meet, which I regret only because it would have been amusing to talk about Ra-Ra — although maybe not. I’m genuinely grieved to learn of her death, which seems untimely or accidental. It appears that she lived in Greenwich; that’s why she was on a platform at Grand Central at eight in the morning, on her way to work presumably. She fell, off the platform and onto the track, and was taken to Bellevue Hospital, where she died a few days later. Is that what happens if you’re in an accident at Grand Central Terminal? Next stop: Bellevue? It makes one shudder.

Miss Nelson retired while I was still in school, and moved back to Portland. I stayed in touch with her; I still have, I hope, some of her carefully-written letters. At some point, someone wrote to tell me that she had died. I have no idea how old she was, but she was certainly beyond middle age. Nelsy could be dreary; a medical humorist would have taken no time to pronounce her melancholic. Her face was fixed in a worried frown. You’d have thought that she’d have been naturally drawn to the Bach organ fugues that I was asked not to play when she was in the house, but no. I was fond of her anyway. I wasn’t fond of Ms Rogers. She had a nasty edge, and she was also the first older person in my life who believed that the world is going to the dogs. I thought that it was just her idiosyncrasy at the time, but the power of her disagreeableness has checked my own inclination in this direction, now that I am at least as old as she was when she couldn’t hide the disappointment of having to spend an evening with my sister and me, instead of with Randy Paar.

Gotham Diary:
7 June 2012

Thursday, June 7th, 2012

When my sister and I were very little, we were watched over, on our parents’ nights out, by a lovely girl called, I think, Betty Dwinnell. She was connected somehow to the drycleaners along Palmer Road. She was sweet and pretty, as I recall, and of course she got married and that was that. The rest of our childhood, with few vacations, was overseen by a pair of dragons, Miss Nelson and Mrs Rogers. Or, as we called them, Nelsy and Ra-Ra.

They were not really dragons, but they were certainly the alternative, in unmarried womanhood, to Betty Dwinnell. I’m not entirely sure, at this remove, about Ra-Ra’s “Mrs” — whether that’s how she was known and whether it was meant honorifically. We were told that she had driven amubulances during the First World War. Although Ra-Ra was not seen to drive in our day, this wartime career did not seem implausible. She had lived in the city, too, in Manhattan, and, like everyone who has lived in Manhattan and left it for somewhere else (no matter how close by), she declared that it had become too dangerous for honest people to live in. I didn’t doubt it, because for a very long time, all I saw of Manhattan was Hell’s Kitchen, as it then really was, through which we would drive on the way to parking garages near the theatres.

Also, like dragons, Ra-Ra and Nelsy never worked together. Heavens, the thought! Nothing really unattractive was ever said, but I certainly learned that saying something admiring about Nelsy was an invitation  to be looked at as an idiot by Ra-Ra.

The third thing that these ladies had in common — and it was probably the most dragonish thing of all — was that each of them babysat for one other household, a household containing a child or children that each vastly preferred to my sister and me, as neither tired of telling us. In Nelsy’s case, the other household had been broken up: the parents had been killed in a plane crash. (This was in 1955, and I remember my mother rather strangely waking me up in the middle of the night to tell me the awful news. She and the Clearys had been very good friends, and no one we knew had ever been killed in a crash. For years, my parents flew separately whenever they were traveling together.) The children so beloved of Nelsy went to live with cousins in Ohio, where they effectively grew up. Nelsy tried to stay in contact with Maury, but he was really too young, when the awful thing happened, to remember her across a great distance. Nelsy’s gifts, a few of them at least rather too expensive for her budget, had to be put to a stop. I was sure that Nelsy, good-hearted soul that she was, would have sealed us in a barrel and sent us over Niagara Falls if doing so would have reunited her with little  Maury.

As for Ra-Ra, her other charge was Randy Paar, whose obituary in the Times I was shocked to read yesterday.  


If Nelsy’s regrets about the Cleary children were necessarily mournful, as if they, too, had been killed, Ra-Ra’s reports about Randy Paar could have served Jane Austen as drafts for Aunt Norris. The difference was that we never actually saw Randy. I don’t think that either of us met her once. We lived in a very small village, but it was a village inhabited exclusively by ambitious professional people, and there was enough density for several circles to fail to overlap. My family was part of the business-executive crowd that played golf and bridge at Siwanoy. One heard that a few more artistic people still lived in Bronxville. Brendan Gill of The New Yorker, for example (although by the time I find out what that really meant — who Brendan Gill was — my Bronxville days were long over.) Durward Kirby, Garry Moore’s sidekick, lived around the corner. Jack Paar, whom I don’t think I ever saw live on television, lived in a little red house on Studio Lane, in one of the village’s more Alpine recesses. It was out of the way, oddly situated below street level, and, aside from being red, it had nothing remarkable about it except its owner, who was in any case a mysterious name to children.

Thanks to Ra-Ra, Randy Paar was my first paragon. She was everything that a child ought to be — obedient, diligent, sweet-natured and cute. In addition, she was possessed of a wisdom beyond her years, and routinely turned up her nose at foolish pastimes. (There’s no need to specify, as everything that my sister and I wanted to do was foolish.) In Ra-Ra’s hagiology, Randy was all the more a princess for having no yothful companions; other children did not figure in Ra-Ra’s updates. Randy Paar appeared to spend her life, very happily, among adults. I didn’t understand much about life, but the picture that Ra-Ra painted of an irreverent media prince (going by “Jack,” professionally, was iconoclastic enough; see “Durward Kirby,” above) and his clever handmaid daughter was so luridly exotic that I was never inspired to compete.

My parents didn’t know, and never mentioned, the Paars. Not even Ra-Ra mentioned Mrs Paar. I was free to believe that she was making it all up.


It would seem, from the sequel, that she wasn’t. Randy went off to Harvard and NYU Law, and seems to have done very well as a corporate litigator with actual courtroom victories. Her field, it is true, was hardly sensational: she represented businesses against insurers who weren’t sufficiently recompensatory.