THE PRACTICE BOYFRIEND: A MEMOIR (PART TWO OF FIVE)

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[Continued from previous post]

3.

My sixteenth birthday fell on a weekday.  In the morning, my parents gave me a new Royal portable typewriter (the better to fill out college applications and requests for financial aid, my father joked), my mother promised my favorite chocolate cake for dinner, and I daydreamed my way through a couple of hours of piano practice during which a dark handsome young orchestra conductor fell passionately in love with me as I played. Then I put on a freshly ironed cotton dress and went off to my job at Where.

“Sixteen!” exclaimed Cris.  “How wonderful!  Are you having a party tonight?”

“Congratulations,” said John, heading out to drum up business.

“We’ll have to buy you a drink after work,” said Perry. “To celebrate.”

At five o’clock, John was still out.  Cris was on hold on the phone.  “Go without me,” she said, blowing a kiss.  “Happy birthday!”

“Come,” said Perry.

“I’ve never had a real drink,” I said shyly.

“Then this will be the first one.”

He took me to the bar of another hotel nearer my subway stop. Inside it looked as you’d expect from every detective movie about the 1940’s you’ve ever seen. Dimly lit, a fan slowly revolving back and forth, rows of glass bottles on the mirrored back wall, a bartender in a white apron with a gleaming cocktail shaker.  It was still almost empty at five in the afternoon.  “What’ll it be?” asked the bartender.  In those days of mixed drinks — Manhattans, Martinis, Old Fashioneds, Whiskey Sours — Perry made the kindest choice. An Orange Blossom.

“I think you’ll like it,” he said. “It tastes like orange juice.”  He had a beer.

An Orange Blossom is mainly orange juice, shaken with a dollop of gin and cracked ice and then strained into a small martini glass with a slice of orange speared on the side.  Not quite like juice, though. It gave a lovely quiver. I don’t remember what we talked about as I sipped.  What I did on weekends?  (Not much.) That he was going to a game that night?   (Dodgers probably.)  Then there was no more in my glass, he paid and helped me off the barstool.

I wobbled. He noticed, and put out a hand to steady me. At the mouth of the subway on Sixth and 50th, he asked if I was going to be all right. I nodded and clutched the stairway railing. He stood there watching until I reached the bottom, where I managed to turn and wave. Then he turned away too. I made it to the turnstile, put in my nickel and fell into an empty seat on the F train to Queens.

I didn’t expect anything to be different in the office after that, and it wasn’t really. He did seem to take more frequent work breaks for small talk. When he went out for lunch he’d sometimes ask if anyone wanted anything and Cris always took him up on it, so once I did too.  I slipped the cheese sandwich from home into the wastebasket and asked for tuna salad on white instead. He wouldn’t let me pay for it.  And the few days he was late coming in were dull until he arrived.

Cris noticed and was amused.  “Oh, here’s your boyfriend,” she’d say when she saw him finally walk through the glass front door. Then I would blush, because yes, I did enjoy it when this very nice-looking young man smiled in my direction, asked how things were going, perched on my desk, and laughed if I had a funny story to tell about someone who’d called that day to ask if one had to wear tails to the Stork or if it were safe for her husband to visit New York alone. (Where actually fielded calls like that.)

Near the end of August, I worked up courage to ask if I could see where Cris lived. She must have been flattered. At five o’clock she took me up the hotel elevator with her. Because of Where’s position off the lobby they had given her a deep discount on the rate, she said. Nonetheless, I must have had some idea, inspired by movies, of how a bachelor girl would live, even at a discounted rate — something to aspire to in my future life, until I got married of course. Perhaps with deep plush rugs and a glass cocktail table in the living-room? A sophisticated satin bedspread on the double bed?

It was a narrow dark sliver of a room, unfit to offer a full-paying hotel guest and probably once a deep double utility closet, now converted into a place to sleep for a woman not earning enough to rent a real apartment in the city. We both sat down on the single bed, no wider than mine at home. It had a dark plain cover to make it look more like a sofa. The matching window shade was drawn.  “It’s only an interior courtyard,” she explained. “Nothing to see.” There was also a small wooden desk with a black telephone on it, a desk chair, bedside lamp, modest three-drawer bureau with a couple of books, a fake flower and a table radio on top, and also a closet. Another closet space with open foldaway door held an efficiency kitchen:  hotplate and tiny square of counter with under-the-counter mini-fridge. There must also have been a bathroom, but I didn’t see it. A small fan on the floor in a corner feebly stirred the warm air around.

Voila.” She knew I’d been expecting more. What was I supposed to say? “But where do you have meals?” I finally managed.

She pointed at the small desk. “I usually have supper out, though. Unless I’ve had a big lunch. Then I just bring something in.”

I tried to imagine living there. Coming up from Where to this cramped and joyless shoebox of space. Washing dishes in the bathroom sink. Nothing but an interior courtyard to look at. Listening to the radio until it was time to go to bed. No wonder she often worked late downstairs.

She cut short my visit as tactfully as possible.  “Won’t your mother start to worry if you don’t get on home?”

She was my boss, so I tried not to feel sorry for her.  Maybe she did have a secret lover who would rescue her from the unhappiness of her living situation. (Was thirty too late for real love? Was she condemned to that room forever?)  But I didn’t have to worry for long. August was winding down, she began interviewing job applicants to replace me, and then it was my last day. John was away on vacation. Perry had an appointment with a possible advertiser and left early.  He wished me the best of luck at school although he was sure I wouldn’t need it — and then he was gone. Cris said I should come back and say hello when I was in the neighborhood — even though she must have known my school was several neighborhoods distant from Where.  “She meant they all liked you,” my mother explained.

Eighth term at Hunter High: On top of the heap at last! I wrote a humorous little piece for the school literary magazine about mastering the confounding three phone lines at Where and then embarked on a whirlwind of high-school senior activity that put Where out of my mind.   I met with the part-time college counselor to register for the state-wide New York Regents exam administered at the end of September to high-school seniors seeking a $1200 state scholarship for four years of attendance at a college in the state. She advised that as I was reasonably certain to place on the scholarship list, I should limit my applications to in-state colleges. She also helped me arrange deferment of automatic February enrollment at Hunter College until the following September.  I studied college brochures in her office after classes, regretfully abandoning thoughts of Wellesley (in Massachusetts) and Bryn Mawr (in Pennsylvania). Why hadn’t I been born rich? Instead, I wrote away for applications to Vassar and Barnard (both in New York State) — but also to Radcliffe, although it too was in Massachusetts, because wouldn’t it be wonderful to go to Harvard’s sister school!

I needed one more college, just to be safe.  “What about this one?” suggested the counselor. She held out a small pale blue book with beautifully thick and creamy-feeling soft covers that looked like a poetry chapbook.  Sarah Lawence College. I’d never heard of it.  Founded in 1928, an offshoot of Vassar. Just nineteen years old.  And experimental. But in Bronxville, which was in New York. Why not? Feeling unconventional and daring, I wrote away for an application there, too.

4.

One evening during the third week of September the phone rang at home. We had only one phone. It sat on my father’s imposing English-style desk in the dropped living-room and almost never rang in the evening when he was away in the city. (He was the leader of a string trio that played cocktail and dinner music at Manhattan’s “better” hotels.)  My mother answered cautiously, then with raised eyebrows motioned me over so she could hand me the receiver.

It was Perry. They all missed me. The office just wasn’t the same. My replacement was the wife of a friend of John’s. She and Cris were trading recipes for apple kuchen. So would I like to come with him to a football game next Saturday? The Giants, at the Polo Grounds? And maybe an early dinner afterwards?

He had a car, and came out to Kew Gardens to pick me up.  He also brought a chrysanthemum, which he carefully pinned on the lapel of my jacket before we left, and took a fringed blanket into the open-air stadium with us, which he tucked around my lap after we’d found our seats. In case I was cold.

I didn’t have a clue about football, pro or otherwise.  The only team games I’d ever played, and not by choice, were grade-school kickball (a baseball variant with no bat and a larger ball) and volleyball in the high-school gym, where the two team leaders, even if otherwise friends, generally picked me last or next to last.

He patiently explained the game before it started. But once the players were down on the field for the first quarter, the feints always fooled me and I could never make out who had the ball. Sometimes I wasn’t even sure which were our guys.  But I jumped up with him and tried to simulate excitement whenever the crowd rose roaring to its feet. Sooner or later it would be over. When girls began dating, this was just something they had to sit through before the good part of the date began.

The “good part” was very good.  After the game, he took me to a small Italian restaurant in the Village.  Except for liver and onions at neighborhood establishments with my mother on the rare evenings she declared herself too tired to cook, I had never been to a real restaurant for dinner, much less had my chair pulled out for me, eaten in a semi-darkened room by candlelight, or looked over a red-checked tablecloth at a man who despite my evident deficiencies as a football fan seemed to enjoy being with me. My cheeks must have been flushed with pleasure, my eyes shining.

But he returned me to Kew Gardens before my mother could worry. And he didn’t touch me, except to take my hand at the door and tell me what a great time he’d had. Two weeks later, he telephoned again. This time we went to the movies nearby, at the small theater on Austin Street.  Now he would have put his arm on the back of my seat. Maybe his hand touched my shoulder in the dark. I wouldn’t have pulled away.

I should remember those things. Instead, I’m reconstructing them as they must have happened, all that easy progress towards what I had begun to hope was coming. It seemed so comfortable, so normal, I didn’t think to keep it in my memory for later.

It must have been at the end of our third evening together that he didn’t get out of the car and circle around to open the door on my side. Instead, he turned and leaned slightly forward over the stick shift. I saw his face and lips come close. At last, I thought. I felt his mouth on mine. It was so gentle. And then it was suddenly something else which I embraced with arms around his neck and pounding heart.  He was the one who pulled away first. Taking a deep breath, he turned off the ignition and at the apartment door upstairs gave me just one more quick kiss goodbye. But I knew something was now settled, so that I could finally talk about him at school.

[To be continued….]

THE PRACTICE BOYFRIEND: A MEMOIR (PART ONE OF FIVE )

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IMG_1195It’s a blurry photograph. It was taken with a box camera (no flash) in the late afternoon — November or early December 1947 is my best guess — probably on a Saturday, because I was still in high school then and he had a job. He’s sitting on a white cotton chenille bedspread in the small half-room that was my bedroom. It has a single window nearly covered with white criss-cross curtains to block the view of the dingy rear. Not much light at the best of times. A late winter afternoon was not one of those times. What I can tell you about him will be equally blurry.  I wasn’t yet sixteen when I met him, just past seventeen the last time I saw him, and voracious for my future life to get going. I didn’t stop to ask, to remember, to value.  Well, we do our best with what we’ve got.

2.

At the end of June 1947, my father found me a part-time job at Where Magazine.  The summer before, I had taken two courses at a pay-as-you-go business school in the city to learn typing and shorthand — skills then considered essential as “the way in” for young women hoping for a post-high school or college career in anything but teaching or nursing.  The shorthand I never did master. My heart wasn’t in it. But I became a quite proficient typist — bringing up my speed with feverish poems by Beaudelaire, the rhythms of which made my head reel and my panties damp as I copied them, and writing passionate letters to an imaginary nineteenth-century lover in high-school French.  I was fifteen and the high school where I was learning to write French so well was just for girls. I knew no boys at all.

But now, a year later, when I had only one more term of school to complete in the fall, it was time to start putting away money to help pay for college. My parents and I hadn’t yet had a discussion as to the finances involved in going anywhere other than Hunter College, where tuition was free because it was a city school and where I would be an automatic admit as a graduate of its associated high school. If I continued to live at home and commute to the city, I would also be saving money on room and board.

This option didn’t appeal to me at all. What I wanted was to leave my small room with the criss-cross curtains for a dormitory and to lead a beautifully dressed college life on a velvety green campus at Vassar, or Radcliffe, or Wellesley or Bryn Mawr — one of those elite and very expensive Seven Sister schools featured in the September issue of Mademoiselle — on which boys from Harvard, Yale and Princeton allegedly descended every weekend.  What else I might be doing in this halcyon future other than parading a new wardrobe over velvety lawns I couldn’t have said, but it didn’t matter.  Away-from-home was the important thing. My mother encouraged me in this; she thought I might meet a “better class” of boy on one of those lawns. Her hopes for me were always upwardly mobile. My father came up with the job at Where.

How did he find it?  He probably picked up the telephone and asked whoever answered about summer jobs.  He was a hotel musician, and Where Magazine was distributed free of charge in every hotel lobby in New York as “the Hotel-Greeters-Endorsed Where-To-Go Guide for Out-of-Towners in New York.”  Work at a weekly magazine must have seemed to him much better suited to what he perceived as my marketable skills than the job I had already located all by myself in the Times Sunday Classifieds.

I was going to be a youthful “saleslady” in Misses’ Budget Dresses at a Fifth Avenue department store north of Altman’s and south of Saks that doesn’t exist anymore. (Russeks? Wanamakers? Ah, let it go; it doesn’t matter.) Just for the summer, of course — although I do recall letting it be understood in Personnel that I was a permanent hire. (An unspoken lie. I had no intention of quitting school at sixteen, much less for a sales career in Budget Dresses.)

My summer sales career didn’t last long.  Nothing was air-conditioned in those days, except a few glittering movie palaces showing first-run films, so Misses’ Budget Dresses, which occupied an interior section of a floor and therefore had no windows, was a very hot place to work, especially under the overhead lights. Wearing stockings (rayon, with seams) was a requirement of the job, which meant also wearing a girdle, panty-girdle or garter belt — all equally uncomfortable — to hold them up. Over whichever undergarment you chose came a slip, either in cotton or new-fangled nylon, both of which stuck to sweaty thighs.  (Teen-age girls didn’t wear silk slips, unless they were Gloria Vanderbilt.) And then over everything the freshly ironed dress, which looked less fresh and less ironed as the day wore on. Selling budget dresses might be a blue-collar job; we were supposed to look like ladies while doing it.

But the thing that broke me after only three days was the no-sitting rule.  Eight hours on your feet, with only two five-minute bathroom breaks and a thirty-minute break for lunch in the employee coffee room!  Even if all the tacky rayon dresses in ugly prints were immaculately arranged on hangers, even if there were no customer in sight, and no one was occupying either of the two chairs placed on the floor for shoppers, even if I had a blister on my heel — even then, no sitting! I came home on the hot crowded subway, sat down on a kitchen chair, kicked off my ballet slippers and cried.

Then my father came home on the hot crowded subway, listened to my tearful story, said I owed no loyalty at all to Misses Budget Dresses and it was absolutely okay to quit. Two days later, I was interviewing at Where. Noon to five (which left me mornings to practice piano). Nice neighborhood, near Carnegie Hall. No stockings, no panty-girdle. (We didn’t actually discuss this, but I could see that Cris, the friendly woman who interviewed me, was bare-legged.)  No dissimulation about having to leave at the end of August.  An airy office where two standing fans blew breezy relief from the heat.  What more could a nearly sixteen-year-old ask of a summer job?

The federal minimum wage in 1947 was forty cents an hour. But the sealed white pay envelope Cris would hand me before I left on Fridays held more.  (I seem to recall being paid for twenty-five hours a week at sixty cents an hour.) Whether this was because New York State had enacted more generous labor legislation or because my father had negotiated some sort of special summer deal for me I can’t say. My allowance during the school year — for transportation, school supplies, movies, standing-room tickets to the opera on Saturday afternoons — was five dollars a week.  My weekly pay from Where, less minuscule withholding for income tax and a contribution towards my old age under the new federal Social Security program, seemed munificent in comparison. My father helped me open my own savings account the following Monday morning.  I was on my way!

I more or less recall the office, a large single room off the lobby of a residential hotel between Seventh and Eighth Avenues on West 57th Street.  It had its own glass door opening on 57th, and another door into the interior of the hotel. (The restrooms were in the lobby.) There were only three desks. The front one, to the left as you came in from the street, was where Cris worked. She was the managing editor. Behind her, but to the right, was the desk where she put me. And further behind her, again on the left, was the third desk — shared by a part-time typist who was only there in the morning, and two space salesmen, who were usually out selling the pages and pages of ads for plays, concerts, restaurants, shops and nightclubs which kept Where running. The last quadrant of the room, behind me, was occupied by filing cabinets.  We also had a water cooler. A bare bones operation.

But that’s all I remember of the job part of the job!  Where was a weekly. Much of the work, such as layouts, accounts receivable, accounts payable, messenger service, must have been contracted out. But as I didn’t then understand what it took to put out any kind of publication, even one as thin on editorial content as Where, I asked no questions and never really grasped the gestalt of it. All I recall now, apart from Cris and the two space salesmen, is an elderly bookkeeper coming in several afternoons a week to do the books. He was forty-five or fifty and all business.  I remember him only because when he was there he used the third desk — which meant the two salesmen, if in the office, had to pull up a chair and use my phone for their calls.

I must have done something for eight or nine weeks.  Answered the telephone. Typed addresses on envelopes for the invoices prepared by the morning typist.  Folded the invoices and put them in the envelopes. Affixed three-cent stamps to the envelopes, using a wet sponge in a glass cup.  Filed copies of this and that in one of the filing cabinets. I certainly did all of those things in subsequent office jobs. But I have no specific memory of any of that at Where.

What I do remember was occasionally looking up to gaze at the rear side view of Cris.  She was often on the phone herself, negotiating with suppliers and gathering information for the short editorial columns of puff she wrote about Where‘s advertisers every week.  Since the phone rang and the front door opened and closed so often for the postman, delivery men, and people wandering in off the street to ask directions — she must have done most of her actual writing and reading proofs after the rest of us had gone home. She lived in the building, so in a sense she was always home. And always working.

This was precisely what fascinated me.  A thirty-year-old unmarried woman from the midwest, living alone in the city, working long hours at a responsible job.  And not even glamorous looking, as “career girls” like Rosalind Russell and Katherine Hepburn were in movies. She had dark blonde, very curly hair styled in that ubiquitous short “feather cut” seen everywhere on New York’s hot humid summer streets before the advent of hair relaxers and straighteners, was a trifle plump, and wore clothes only slightly more attractive than the misses’ budget dresses with which I was now so familiar. And yet here she was, a “woman in business,” as my mother would have said a trifle scornfully — surviving all alone, with aplomb and a pleasant smile. And, as far as one could tell, without a man.

Perhaps she was someone’s mistress? Twice during the time I was there, Cris’s boss Sidney, a fattish, balding man of indeterminate age and apparently considerable power and wealth (he distributed local variations of Where in the hotels of every major city in America) came to New York from Chicago to check on operations. On those two occasions, Cris left early because he was taking her out to drinks and dinner and she had to go upstairs to her hotel room to shower and change.  John, one of the two salesmen, was in the office using my phone the second time this happened. I leaned over the desk towards him and whispered, “Do you think something’s going on there?”  “Nah!” he said. “Not with him!”

So with whom?  The other salesman?   She did once observe he was cute. But he was five years younger than she was, which to my fifteen-year-old mind was an insuperable obstacle to romance. She was right, though: He was cute. Unlike John, he could even have been in a Van Johnson kind of movie, with someone like June Allyson as the love interest. Cris didn’t look like June Allyson. On the other hand, he did sometimes perch on her desk.

Although not often. During the first weeks I was there, he didn’t even show up until near the end of the workday, when he would sort out leads for the next day at the third desk. Then the summer became hotter and stickier. He began making earlier office pit stops — to eat lunch purchased from the drugstore around the corner and then to do some of his work on the phone near one of the standing fans. Which on bookkeeper afternoons brought him to my phone.  He winked at me and perched on my desk.

Cute or no, he was nine years older than I was. A grownup. I was pleased to be treated as a colleague, but I knew perching on my desk instead of pulling up a chair had nothing to do with me personally.  He was just a friendly person. I would go to the bathroom in the hotel lobby, which took some time, and then find some filing to do till he was done.

His name was Perry.

[To be continued…]