LAST PAPER PAPER

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The New York Times for October 11, 2015, pictured above, is  the last issue of theTimes I’ll be going down to the end of the driveway to collect on Saturday and Sunday mornings. With mixed feelings, I’ve canceled the subscription.

As far back as I can remember, there was a New York Times at home. My father carried it in from work six evenings a week, having bought it at the newsstand outside the subway station in the morning to read commuting in and out of the city.  It would remain in the house until the next one arrived the following day, after which my mother could use yesterday’s paper to wrap up coffee grounds, orange rinds and other organic garbage before taking them to the incinerator. On Sunday mornings, my father got his constitutional by going out to pick up poppy-seed rolls from the bakery and stopping at the newsstand on his return to get a copy of the Times, on that day a heavy and unwieldy multi-section affair.

By contrast, my mother favored an afternoon newspaper, which she bought when she went out to do her daily shopping — first the New York Telegram, and after it merged with the New York World, the New York World-Telegram.  As a young girl, I preferred my mother’s choice; it had bigger type, more photos and fewer boring news stories about government and politics; instead it featured murders and other local tragedies, a horoscope column, advice to the lovelorn, a column of Hollywood gossip by either Hedda Hopper or Louella Parsons (I forget which), an easy crossword puzzle (with the answers appearing the next day) and a page of “funnies” (comic strips).  The Times —  despite its considerably harder crossword — was, in a word, dull. However, I did always piously acknowledge it was where one went for “the real news” (as my father put it).  It was also where you looked for an apartment, a used car, or a job if you were old enough to work and didn’t have one; the Classified Section in the Sunday Times was massive.

Those were the days when newspapers were one of the two major sources of news; there was no television, internet, smart phone.  (The other  news source was radio, but only at certain specified hours in the morning and evening, unless an announcer interrupted a regularly scheduled program with “a special news bulletin.”)  Most cities had at least two newspapers. New York had seven when I was growing up (before the Telegram and World merger).  Besides the Times, the other full-size morning paper was the Herald-Tribune, which my parents dismissed as “too Republican,” whether with justice or not I have no idea. Since they equated “Republican” with “anti-Semitic,” the Tribune never entered our house. These two, plus the Telegram and the World in the afternoon, were all large newspapers, difficult to read unless on a table or with your arms spread wide apart to turn the pages.  You had to learn how to fold these papers to be able to manage them neatly on a train or a bus.

The other two morning papers, the New York Daily News and the New York Mirror, both called “tabloids,” were much smaller in size; you didn’t need to fold them before reading. I understand they were good on sports, but otherwise seemed pretty cheesy; needless to say, my immigrant but educated parents, who didn’t know from sports, scorned them as papers for “riffraff.” There was also the tabloid-size Post  in the afternoon; in my girlhood, it earned theoretical parental approval as “liberal.” But as it was always getting excited about some new scandal in very big headlines, which my parents probably thought uncultured (nyi kulturnyi), it never dislodged my mother’s loyalty to the Telegram or, later, the World-Telegram.

You can safely bet the Sarah Lawrence College library had a couple of copies of  the current issue of The New York Times up near the front desk during all the four years I was there. Then I went to California with my parents and did not read theTimes for five years.  Not that I had really read it before, but it had been there, if I’d wanted to. The Los Angeles Times, which entered the parental home soon after we reached the West Coastwas equally bulky in weight, thanks to much advertising, while at that period of time being considerably lighter in intellectual content.

Back in New York again with first husband — a tight man with a nickel, not to mention a dollar — we were paperless for a while, except for when he pinched part of the Times (or anything else he could find) from street wastebaskets while he was out and about. That wasn’t often, as shortly after we arrived he decided not to accept paid work he deemed beneath him and was devoting himself instead to writing great books. (No, you have never heard of him.)  I myself became gainfully employed as quickly as possible, because one of us had to, and soon thereafter began bringing home my boss’s copy of the Times, with her permission, when she’d finished with it.  I was still pretty much ignoring the front pages, but made careful study of the Times “Help Wanted” Classifieds (in search of a better job) and slightly later of the Times “Apartments for Rent” Classifieds when planning escape from the marriage.

Once legally separated from first husband and ensconced in a studio apartment on the other side of Manhattan, I assumed my own purchase of the Times.  If like me, one were looking for an appealing second husband and father of one’s as yet unconceived children — that is, a not unsightly possessor of sperm and a decently remunerated profession — it was important to be well informed on subjects of interest to upwardly mobile men.  I therefore had to learn at last how to read the Times, including the front page news, on the bus. You open it up completely and fold it vertically down the middle. Then you fold back half a page at a time for reading, as needed. You can bend your half a page horizontally if required. You are thus looking neatly and compactly at a quarter-page at a time and don’t have to hold open a full paper to turn a page, to the detriment of the  faces or laps of those sitting next to you.

The only problem with reading the Times, or any kind of newspaper, in public was related to the white gloves — think Grace Kelly — mandatory for the professional young woman aspiring to upward mobility herself; it was impossible to touch newsprint and also appear at the office with pristine white gloves. The solution? Keep the gloves wrapped in Kleenex inside your purse until outside your office building, at which time you tuck your folded Times under your arm, fish out your unblemished white gloves, put them on, and enter your place of work absolutely comme il faut.

Another observation about theTimes in what we might call my second-husband-hunting days: I spent two summers worth of weekends during this era of my life hunting on the right-hand side of the East Hampton Main Beach. As far as I could then tell, the apparent principal occupation of appealing professional single men in their thirties sitting on towels becoming tan while waiting for an attractive woman to show up — was timing themselves when doing the Sunday Crossword in the Times. The Times Sunday Crossword was otherwise known to most of the rest of us New Yorkers as a real bitch. Some people worked away at it all week, till the answers showed up the following Sunday.  But those young lawyers and doctors and bankers on East Hampton Main Beach: a couple of them could fill in 98% of it in slightly less than an hour!  It’s not clear to me that this skill correlated positively with qualities one might appreciate in a second husband, as I didn’t get to marry one of them and find out for myself, but I was certainly impressed. That’s the Times for you.

In the marriage to the second husband I did get, I continued to read the Times. There was never any question about it.  While we still lived in the city, one or the other of us went out to buy it at the corner.  When we moved to Massachusetts, we had to order it and have it delivered, together with The Boston Globe.  The Globe was for what was happening where we lived. The Times was for what was happening in the world.  (Also for what was happening in what both of us probably still thought of as the center of the universe. But I won’t go there. Not this time.)  I kept on with this bulky habit when we parted after the children went away to college. What was home without the Times? By then, I was a lawyer, and the Times was also the paper of record. But the Globe, which began to improve the longer I lived in the Commonwealth of Massachusetts, was the paper of the Commonwealth, where (and only where) I was licensed to practice.  So how could I choose?  Let me tell you those were heavy trips to the recycling bins in the basement with a weeks’ worth of both papers.

And then came the internet.  Once I had met Bill and five years  later retired, we transferred ourselves to Princeton. Where of course we kept the Times delivery going. What good was a Trenton or Philadelphia paper to transplanted (via Boston) New Yorkers like us?  But what do you know? A few years after that the Times went online!  At first it was free, and a sort of novelty.  But several years later, just when I was getting used to reading most of my news on the desktop, it wasn’t free anymore. You had to subscribe to the paper printed on paper to be able to read more than ten articles on the web.  Except we were already subscribing to the paper paper.  Even if I cut the paper delivery down to weekends, the online Times was still free. So that’s what we did. Every weekend, we had a Saturday and Sunday delivery at the end of the driveway; every day we had the Times on the computer.  And then on the two iPads, with cute little apps to make it even easier. And finally, when I at last succumbed to a smart phone  — iPhone naturally, not to have to deal with too many Clouds — the Times app came with it.

Now I could read the Times everywhere, anywhere, wherever I was.  Well, it wasn’t exactly the Times as I’d known it all my life. It wasn’t the post-Sunday-morning-coitus Times. It wasn’t the after-Sunday-morning-breakfast Times, spread out everywhere, with sections traded back and forth between members of the family. It didn’t carry with it all the associations — childhood, marriages,  East Hampton bachelors — that the look of its type and neat front page always brings up for me, like Proust’s madeleine dipped in tea.

But for the past two years, Bill or I have been trundling two heavy weekend copies of the Times in its paper incarnation back out to the curb in the yellow recycling bins Princeton requires for its bi-monthly recycling program — and they haven’t even been opened!  That’s right: we were now keeping the paper on the coffee table in the family room near the kitchen just for visual effect.  Even the cats have lost interest in lying on it or chewing up bits of it.  So I made a phone call.  It seems we were paying $93 and change every three months for the privilege of bringing the paper paper in from the driveway every Saturday and Sunday and dragging it back out to the curb twice a month. But if we dropped the paper paper, access to the paper through the web and the app on the iPhone would cost less than half that:  only $15 a month, or $45 every three months.

I suspect the Times doesn’t really care if we never turn another page of its newsprint again.  I suspect the Times is pricing its digital subscriptions so favorably because selling advertising on its web edition is more lucrative than selling advertising in its paper edition. The Times keeps interrupting my online reading to proclaim that it’s got one million digital subscribers already.  I doubt very much if as many as a million present and past New Yorkers, libraries, universities and the like bought the paper newspaper, even in its heyday.  What am I saying?  This is the Times’s heyday. It’s making more money than ever, and you have to click “x” (if you can find it) to make its online ads go away.

You know the end of this story.  We caved to “progress.”  Also to the fact that we’re getting quite old, and the recycling bins seem to be getting heavier, and money keeps going out without coming in (except for those “entitlements” the Republicans want to shrink or remove), and we weren’t reading the damn paper paper anyway. Still, it’s hard to think there’s one more thing gone that used to be so much a part of life as I knew it.  At least I took its picture before throwing the October 11, 2015 front section away.  I told myself I was photographing it for you. Who was I kidding?  It was really for me.

LOSING FIFTEEN POUNDS: PART SIX

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[…continued from previous five posts.]

Gathering clouds obscured all traces of sun as I traveled north to meet my friend Emily in Ogunquit – first on a train from New York to Boston, then on another train to Portland, Maine and finally on a bus. During the long trip I mused pleasurably on what the next two days might offer. Cozy confidences while Emily’s new friend Kit was otherwise occupied? Confessions of wrongdoing? Appeals for help? Less pleasurably, I was also quite hungry by the time I reached the Ogunquit bus terminal where they were waiting to pick me up. Emily looked glad, but Kit was merely polite, which made me suspect my presence was some kind of peace offering to Emily.

The weather was both cloudy and cool; beach was out of the question. Not to worry, said Kit, there were plenty of other things to do. Since they’d already had lunch, we stopped at a grocery for two apples I could eat in the car. Then we went from art gallery to sculpture workshop to arts-and-crafts gift shop to seafood restaurant. The proprietors of all these establishments seemed to know Emily and Kit quite well; they were soon engaged in warm conversations about local people and events to which I couldn’t contribute. I smiled whenever anyone looked at me, which was now and then but not often, until I realized smiling was unproductive of anything but a return smile.

There was no private time with Emily; she participated fully in all this Ogunquit-based chitchat. After dinner at the seafood restaurant, I pleaded I really wasn’t up for anything more. By then it was actually true. Kit agreed it was probably time for bed. My mother had been wrong about the house. It was an A-frame, with an open area that served as living room, dining room and kitchen. There was only one bedroom — with a double bed, I noticed as we passed by the door. “Will I be using the sofa?” I asked when we got back after dinner.

“Oh, no. You’re going to have a place of your own,” said Kit, as if this were wonderful news. “We’ve fixed up a bed and lamp in the barn. I left an extra quilt out there, too.” What was wrong with sleeping on the sofa? Their bedroom had a door. If they were very noisy doing whatever they did, couldn’t they refrain, just for this one weekend?

I let myself be led to the barn. An oval braided rug had been laid down in a corner and a few minimal furnishings arranged on the rug. Kit lit the lamp. The light showed the rest of the barn floor to be tramped-down dirt with bits of straw scattered on it. They showed me how to bolt the barn doors from inside. “Now let’s go back so you can do whatever you need to do in the john,” said Kit. “As you can see, there isn’t one here.”

After hurrying into pajamas in the cold barn and burying myself under the blanket and quilt, I tried to imagine for a few moments what might be going on in the main house. Had I been sent out here because they preferred doing whatever they did in front of the fireplace? Just what did they do, anyway? Absent factual knowledge of such matters, my thoughts soon faded into sleep. I awoke to dim cloudy light filtering in from a skylight at the top of the barn and checked my watch. Morning. Very early to be sure, but time for the bathroom. If they weren’t up yet, I would sneak in quietly.

I scuffled into my ballet slippers and opened the barn doors. There was the A-frame, just down the path. I walked around the house in the damp grass to reach the door and set my hand on the cold doorknob. It wouldn’t turn. It definitely wouldn’t turn. It was locked. They had locked me out. How could they!

Back in the barn, I rocked on the bed, really a camp cot, holding in pee but not rage. If there’d been anything to eat within range, anything at all, I’d have gobbled it up. But the barn held nothing edible. Why should it? It belonged to Kit, who pushed food around on her plate as a prelude to smoking.  An hour later, I returned to the house. The door remained locked. Now it wasn’t too early to knock, and I certainly did.  Nothing.  I put my ear to the door. Nothing. I knocked more forcefully. Nothing. What were they doing in there?  I picked up a rock from the flowerbed by the door and pounded. Still nothing.

What choice but return to the barn? This time I found a crumpled piece of Kleenex at the bottom of my purse, took off my pajama bottoms, stepped off the rug onto the dirt of the barn floor, set my feet wide apart and let go with a vengeance. Only a little dribbled down my legs, and the Kleenex took care of that. Then I put on the pajama bottoms again and slid between the sheets to brood. If the whole barn stank of stale urine when I was gone, what did I care?

At ten o’clock, I finally heard voices outside calling “Wake up, sleepyhead.” We had brunch, prepared by Kit, who now seemed in exceptionally good spirits. Of course, she ate none of it and neither did I, since it was fried eggs and bacon, followed by pancakes with syrup – a meal that could have undone a week of fast walking up Forest Hills Boulevard and down Austin Street. Like Kit, I had only cigarettes and black coffee. Emily, who’d never dieted in her life and had apparently worked up a tremendous appetite overnight, was glad to eat my share as well as her own.

The meal over, we cleaned up and read the Sunday Times and went to a summer playhouse matinee of Harvey and had another early seafood dinner. I read more of the Times in the evening while they went through the local paper. There was no talk, except about the play and what was in the news. Before I again retired to the barn, I asked them please to leave the house door unlocked so I could get to the bathroom. They professed surprise they hadn’t done it the night before. “Force of habit,” Emily explained.

And that was the whole visit. Next morning, after more black coffee and cigarettes for me and Kit (and eggs benedict for Emily), we all three exchanged hollow thanks for how great it had been and I embarked on the long trip home. Reading furiously without remembering a word of what I read, I tried not to think how much I had wanted Emily to be my friend again, how hurt I felt and also how starved. I remembered when I reached Grand Central I could buy eight or ten candy bars to eat on the subway ride home to Kew Gardens.   But it was Labor Day, and the newspaper stands were all closed.

When I returned to college a week later, the bathroom scale did indeed read 128. Despite my own subterranean (and not so subterranean) urges, I had finally managed to succeed. By anyone’s definition, I was thin.  For now.

LOSING FIFTEEN POUNDS: PART FIVE

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[…continued from previous four posts.]

Three weeks before returning to college,  I had a long distance phone call from Maine. It was Emily, with whom I’d shared a dormitory bathroom the year before. My mother left the room ostentatiously, to show she wasn’t going to listen.

Emily — plump and until recently lovelorn like me — had probably become my closest girlfriend by the end of our sophomore year. We shared some difficult elective classes and the same sense of humor, enjoyed the same kind of movies, and on dateless weekend evenings indulged together in making up time-travel fantasies over half-pints of ice cream delivered from the town drugstore. As rising juniors, we’d even chosen adjoining dorm rooms (with that shared bathroom).

But in our third year, Emily began spending several evenings a week, as well as many weekends, with someone else:  an emaciated and chain-smoking special student who had neither waist, hips, stomach, breasts or, when she occasionally joined us in the dining hall, interest in food.  Kit’s very narrow jeans required a broad leather belt to keep them up. She wore her straight hair chopped short like a boy’s and (Emily reported) could really hold her liquor. Rumor had it she’d been on suspension during our first two years for having come onto another girl. The object of her desire had complained. Now, after mandatory therapy to address her conduct, Kit was being permitted to finish her degree, provided she lived off campus.

Emily and her new friend were always affable when I ran into them together, and occasionally even asked me along when they went somewhere. But I always sensed they were sharing something from which I was excluded and about which I tried not to speculate. Perhaps I’d been invited to serve as camouflage? They did speak mainly to each other on these occasions.

I had very much resented the entry of this hermaphroditic-looking person into Emily’s life, and still did. Emily had been my friend, always available to complain about our respective mothers, critically examine everyone we knew, faculty included, and discuss the difficulty of meeting a really nice boy. [She had also served as a kind of control on ice-cream eating in the evenings; when we ordered a delivery from town, she was inclined to ask for two half-pints, whereas I would have gone for a pint each.] My simmering hostility towards Kit achieved nothing. Emily’s father was in the foreign service and her parents were therefore always overseas; she went home with Kit for Christmas and Easter. Then she announced she’d be spending the summer with Kit too — at a country house in Ogunquit, Maine.

On the telephone, Emily now said she was sorry she hadn’t been in touch earlier in the summer but things had been a little crazy. (What did that mean?) Would I like to come up for the Labor Day weekend? I asked if that was all right with Kit. Well sure, she answered. And added she’d really like me to come. She’d mail travel instructions. And I should bring a sweater. It was already getting chilly in Maine, especially in the evenings.

“Your friend must be rich,” said my mother when informed about this sudden uptick in my social life. “They’ve got to have a big house up there, if there’s also a room for guests.” I explained the place in Maine was just a summer house, and anyway it belonged to the family of the friend of my friend.  “She’s not your friend, too?” asked my mother.

“Yes and no,” I said. “I’m not exactly wild about her.”

“Why are you going then?”

It was too hard to explain, so I changed the subject. “I just hope they have stuff up there I can eat.” Stupid of me to bring up food and dieting. She must have been waiting for weeks. Now she pounced. “What difference does it make what they have when you eat cookies?”

I tried to keep my eyes steady on hers. “I don’t know what you mean.” My face felt very hot.

“You know.”

She waited a few moments for me to say something more. What could I say? Then she walked away. I heard the vacuum start up in the living room. I hated her. Over and over I told myself how much I hated her. What did she know, anyway? Did she think I’d merely been nibbling away at her hidden treasure one or two fig sandwich cookies at a time — the way she would do it, if she’d been me? Except, of course, she wasn’t me. She had “will power.” How could she imagine, much less understand, that once I began there was no way I could keep myself from emptying an entire box — or even two, if there had been two — in the middle of the night?

[…to be concluded in next post.]

LOSING FIFTEEN POUNDS: PART FOUR

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[…continued from previous three posts.]

My nights were hungry. Often I had to drink two glasses of water to fill me up long enough to fall asleep, but then I would wake at two in the morning to pee. One night, the empty gnawing in my stomach after a bathroom trip was intolerable. Barefoot, I felt my way into the kitchen without turning on the light, opened the box of Social Tea biscuits my mother had left on the kitchen table as quietly as I could, and reluctantly put one between my lips.

But somehow I found the will to keep from biting into it, and after a while was able to put it back in the box, close the lid and drink more water before feeling my way along the wall back to my room. There I lay in the dark, listening to the tick tick tick of my bedside clock. Where had she hidden the European fig sandwich cookies? They had to be in the kitchen. Behind something, where they couldn’t be seen. And probably high up, not easy to get to. I really needed to know.

Returning again to the kitchen, I carefully lifted one of the chairs out from under the kitchen table, set it softly down in front of the grocery cabinet and climbed up to find out what was in the back of the top shelf. A very faint light that was almost no light came through the window from a street lamp around the corner, so that I could just make out oatmeal, sugar cubes, and bags of rice and coffee along the front of the top shelf. I took them all out, leaning over the back of the chair to set them on the counter. Now I could see the back row: baking soda, cornstarch, tapioca pudding, Jell-O, and – aha! – the package of cookies, unopened.

I had to do it. Had to.

Quietly I removed the whole box from its hiding place, arranged the coffee, sugar and rice so as to conceal the gap in the back row, replaced the kitchen chair under the table, tucked the box under my arm, felt my way back to my room, silently closed the door and took a deep breath. And now, quickly quickly, to bed again.

It would have been easier if she had already eaten one or two. Without prior experience in stealing crackers or cookies undetected from unopened boxes, I had to improvise. No thought now of the seven or eight pounds already lost with such difficulty or how I might feel tomorrow. There was only the box with me in the dark under the sheet, and my fingers carefully prying open the glued-together folds of paper at one end without tearing them, so as to make a paper sleeve, and sliding the sleeve from the cardboard box, and feeling for its opening, and reaching the first double cookie, and trembling as I brought it to my lips in the dark and tasted it. I chewed slowly and swallowed, and oh the pleasure of it. Then the cookie was gone. So I felt for another and then another and ate faster and was happy, and felt for more double cookies and ate them, and went on eating and eating, and then could it be there were no more left in the box?

I felt around in the paper cups. Empty. All of them. What to do now? I had to get the box out of my bed. That was the first thing. Best to return it to its original place, so that everything would look as it had when my mother reached up for the coffee and sugar in the morning.  I closed the empty paper sleeve, licked and pressed shut the folds at the end as best I could, slid it into its box and tiptoed the box into the kitchen again. Up behind the sugar, rice and coffee it went, very light with nothing in it. But it would probably look all right up there.

Back in bed for the fifth time that night, I made careful plans for next morning. I would have to buy a replacement box when I went out and smuggle it back into the apartment. Also I would have to double the length of my daily walk for the rest of the week at least, to make up for all those cookie calories. That solved, I had no trouble falling asleep.

Everything went like clockwork. I carried another package home from the A&P in a large straw handbag, and while my mother was in the bathtub after her housework had plenty of time to get it up into place at the back of the top shelf and dispose of the empty package in the incinerator at the end of the third floor hallway. And I walked so furiously and dieted so conscientiously that by the end of the week I had even lost another pound! So where was the harm if I did it all again a week later, when midnight hunger gnawed once more? None, apparently.

Wrong. What I had left out of my calculations was the possibility there would be no more packages of European fig sandwich cookies in the A&P when I turned up a second time to replace the box emptied the night before. I asked for the store manager. No, they didn’t stock those on a regular basis, he said. They were something new, which the company might or might not order again, but how about Fig Newtons? They always had Fig Newtons. Frightened, I rushed to “Alice’s – Delicacies from Around the World.” Double fig cookies in an oblong box were not anything from around the world the snooty saleslady in “Alice’s” had ever heard of.

Maybe my mother would forget about the cookies. I didn’t think so. She never forgot a thing. Or maybe she wouldn’t open the box till I was safely in school again. So as not to tempt me. Maybe, maybe. Days and then weeks passed, and she said nothing. Did she know? Did she not know? How could she not know? I lost more pounds. By the middle of August, the bathroom scale read 130. I had done it: I was fifteen pounds lighter than I’d been at the beginning of June! But there were still three weeks to go. Could I reach (and hold) 128 by the time I went back to school? Two more pounds in three weeks: why not? Now that would make the whole wretched summer worthwhile!

[To be continued…..]

LOSING FIFTEEN POUNDS: PART THREE

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[…continued from previous two posts.]

Back in Kew Gardens again after the Atlantic City fiasco, I settled into a weight-losing routine.  First, a breakfast of an orange followed by a cup of coffee with skim milk and saccharine. Then walking for at least an hour every morning, often more, from our apartment house down to the corner and then along Queens Boulevard to the Forest Hills subway stop. This was not so tedious a route as it had been when I used to walk it before I’d gone to college. In the intervening three years, several new specialty stores had come into being between the A&P, the kosher butcher, the non-kosher butcher, the one remaining dairy, the dry cleaner, the hardware store, and the bakery that sold mostly rolls, challah and poppy-seed Danish.

Now there were two more bakeries, with large windows full of trays of delicately iced cookies and lavishly decorated birthday and wedding cakes. There were also a Barton’s and a Barricini’s — candy stores displaying in their windows open boxes of dipped chocolates and a few larger boxes of interesting-looking little fruit cakes in paper cups. And four blocks after the Barricini’s, there was a place called “Alice’s –Delicacies from Around the World.”

The windows here generally featured enticing square tins of Peak Frean cookies, bags of cheese straws (what could they be?) and something called “fruit tarts” (how English!), as well as large tablets of Lindt and Tobler chocolate (colorfully packaged in sophisticated paper wrappings) that came in European flavors I hadn’t known existed — not just milk or “bittersweet” but also mocha, hazelnut, and at least three other kinds whose names I couldn’t read from the sidewalk. I would allow myself a breather in front of these windows, especially when the displays changed, but always made myself turn away and walk on after a few minutes, perspiring in the summer morning sun.

I also tried to give equal time to the “ladies’ sportswear” in the windows of the two new clothing stores along the way. Nothing I ever saw there looked really fashionable, but for at least a couple of blocks I could divert myself from the hot boredom of the walk by imagining a future me sufficiently slender to enter either of those stores and try something on without shame. At Forest Hills Boulevard, I almost always circled back towards home on Austin Street, which ran parallel to Queens Boulevard, and to fill out the hour (or more), went up and down the side streets, an area known as Forest Hills Gardens, past stately homes set far back from pavements.

I never saw another person on these streets, and only rarely a car. Perhaps everyone was away for the summer. These were what I thought of as mansions, and I wondered what sort of people lived in them and what it might be like to live in one myself. I couldn’t imagine. All I knew was here was another desirable world probably closed to me, even if I was a Sarah Lawrence girl, unless I could alter my appearance sufficiently to invite entry into its exclusive precincts.

Finally home and showered, I would read until lunch, a carefully measured repast consisting of a half-cup of cottage cheese, two Ry-Krisps and an apple, or four apricots, or two very small peaches, or some other fruit listed in the diet books as a hundred calories. I didn’t eat bananas, because one banana, a hundred calories right there, always left me wanting another. And I wasn’t sure how to count grapes (five calories a grape?), so I avoided them.

Without further agenda to occupy my days, I began to accompany my mother when she went out in the afternoons, just for something to do besides read. This seemed to please her. Her routine was invariable: every morning, housecleaning (“because the windows are open and everything gets dirty even if I just cleaned yesterday”); every afternoon, shopping at the A&P for dinner, with a stop on the way home at the newsstand on the corner for the World-Telegram and maybe a magazine; and – because she now had me with her, whatever protection that might provide from the dangers lurking outside after dark — sometimes a movie in the early evening.

At the A&P, under my supervision, she ordered round steak with all the fat trimmed away and put through the grinder just for us. She bought frozen string beans, frozen asparagus, frozen chopped broccoli – frozen was a godsend, she proclaimed, no more cleaning and cooking vegetables! She sometimes also bought a box of Social Tea biscuits, because she “had to have something sweet with her coffee after dinner.” This didn’t bother me because I didn’t especially like Social Tea biscuits. But one afternoon she hid away under her other purchases in the shopping cart a box of those new European-style cookies you could now buy even at the A&P. It was an oblong package of round scalloped butter cookies dusted with powdered sugar, sandwiched around a fig filling visible through a circle cut from the cookie forming the top of the sandwich.

Did she think I wouldn’t notice when the cashier rang everything up at the checkout counter?   “Just to have in the house in case,” she explained. In case of what? Company? She never had company. But how could I reproach her? She wasn’t on a diet. Nor did it occur to me to consider it an act of sabotage. She was my mother. The oblong package disappeared as soon as we got home. I opened all the grocery cabinets in the kitchen while she was in the bathroom and couldn’t see it anywhere.

She did try to help me. (Would a saboteur do that?) Although she had several times declared with conviction the regular whole milk yogurt in the store wouldn’t “hurt” me, she showed me how to make yogurt on top of the stove the way she had learned in Russia, so I could try to make it with skim milk. It took several days, and then turned out watery and very sour. But I ate it anyway, in measured portions, since it was only ninety calories for an eight-ounce glassful.

The summer dragged. This was the domestic life I had scorned, the life I’d gone away to college to escape, and here I was living it. I thought about my college don, who had also been my Shakespeare professor this past year; he had written a really appreciative final report based on my long “All’s Well That Ends Well” paper, calling it graceful criticism and telling me to publish it! He must really like me. We had been don and donnee for three years already, and he hadn’t suggested a change might be a good idea, as some other dons had done with friends of mine.

He was going to be on sabbatical the first term of next year, but would be back for the second and third terms.   Maybe when I was thin, he would see me in a new light. Not just brilliant. Irresistible too. True, he was married, but that hadn’t been an impediment to Amy’s exciting romance. He was about the same age as her professor-lover, too. Forty or forty-one. Wasn’t that when a man was most susceptible? Especially to a lovely twenty-year-old?

And he was taller than I was, with broad shoulders. What might it feel like for such a knowing man, a grown-up man, to put his arms around me (when there was less of me) and kiss me? Would it be with tender yearning? Or savage hunger? I wrote a hesitant little note thanking him for the report and wishing him a good sabbatical, making sure to print my home address legibly on the envelope.

I even telephoned Amy, who seemed glad to hear from me. She was having a dreary summer, too. She hadn’t heard from Him. It was too late to apply to the graduate program at Juilliard. She wasn’t practicing. And her parents didn’t like her just sitting around the living-room sofa thinking about Him. They said if she wasn’t going to continue her musical studies, she should get a job. She wished she could die. Except she wasn’t brave enough to kill herself. Also, He still might call. I said I would come in to Manhattan if she wanted to go to a movie. She said I was welcome to come over for a visit, but she didn’t think she could enjoy a movie the way she still felt. I told her I had lost nearly six pounds since Atlantic City. “Oh,” she exclaimed. “Did you want to?”  I said I’d call her back about the visit.

My don wrote I shouldn’t thank him for the report because I’d earned it. He wished me a good summer. He also said he was looking forward to hearing about what I’d been doing when he saw me again after Christmas break. I couldn’t find anything in this disappointingly brief reply that implied suppressed desire. It was because of my weight, I knew. Wouldn’t he be surprised when he saw me again after I reached goal! I didn’t quantify this goal in pounds. I would know when I reached it.

[To be continued….]

LOSING FIFTEEN POUNDS: PART ONE

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As I’ve mentioned before, I spent a major part of my adult life losing fifteen pounds. It wasn’t always the same fifteen pounds. But I did it over and over again, until I probably had lost nearly a cumulative thousand of them. And then when I was already collecting Social Security, which was many decades after the first loss (and re-gain), it began to seem a foolish preoccupation. If every year there was less and less life left to live, why spend so much of it agonizing about how much of me there was or wasn’t, when I could spend more of it actually living?

That was when I invaded my savings to join a non-pretentious, non-judgmental low-profile gym that cost quite a bit of money, which made it clearly counterproductive to comfort myself with chocolate cake when things didn’t go my way. As they used to say in the old country, we grow old too soon, and smart too late.

It began long before, of course, with the well-known “freshman fifteen.” Except in my case, I arrived at college an unnatural fifteen pounds down from the comfortably rounded weight I carried through high school. Once I learned I had won a full scholarship to a prestigious girls’ college my parents could never have afforded on their own, I went into serious training to take complete social advantage of this opportunity, guided by visions of the slender and narrow-boned models who appeared every year in the college issue of Mademoiselle magazine. I myself had peasant bones, but that didn’t keep me from limiting my daily nutritional intake to a spartan 750 calories divided between breakfast and dinner, with a vigorous hour’s walk during lunchtime to speed the fat-burning process.

I arrived on campus successful: I looked properly emaciated, with my hipbones jutting out in my narrow new college clothes. I was also starving, and soon began to eat back the lost pounds – aided by starchy college food, coke and candy machines in every dorm, and a disinclination to get drunk on disappointing dates, preferring food binges by myself in my room when life let me down. The first time the fifteen pounds came back, I panicked. What would my mother say when I got home? (It was she who had invested her household savings in my fashionable new college wardrobe, dreaming no doubt of potential wealthy son-in-laws.) In the three weeks before the end of the college year, I drank unsweetened tea, swallowed amphetamine-laced diet pills from the local drugstore, and savored only two thin slices of roast beef for dinner (250 calories?) until my new clothes fit again.

Coping mechanisms tend to be habit-forming. I also gained and lost a “sophomore fifteen” between September 1949 and June 1950 and gained them back during my junior year. That spring, alas, I had two major papers to write – one on “All’s Well That Ends Well” and the other on the minor novels of Dostoevsky; I needed nourishment right until the end. I came home in June 1951 without a summer job and with my skirt held together by safety pins.

My first college summer I had worked and had a serious boyfriend. The second summer I went to Europe on the money I’d saved to go to college and now didn’t need for that. But this third summer, the boyfriend was gone, my father was working in Texas, my mother was all alone in the apartment, it seemed too late to look for temporary work, and so I decided to make it my full-time job to get rid of those fifteen pounds for good.

It would be my last chance before I had to contend with “Real Life,” a last chance to have the glamorous college year I hadn’t had so far. I therefore embarked on training for this final year as seriously as I had trained for the first, except that then I hadn’t anticipated the possibility of eventual failure. Now, with several dietary defeats already under my belt (I speak metaphorically; the belt itself was in a drawer, pending a smaller waistline), I was not only determined but desperate. I had already learned my worst enemy was me.

[To be continued…..]

STICK SHIFT

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It seems the kind of car I drive gives my age away.  Not that I’m hiding my age. Certainly not on this blog.  And not that the car is so very old.  Actually it is, by some people’s standards, but lots of youngsters drive eleven-year old cars. So it’s not that.

What is it then? I recently learned what my car reveals about me from M., whom Bill discovered after we both decided he should not drive me to the Newark airport and then pick me up again at the other end of my recent trip to Tampa.  He tends to get lost outside of Princeton, GPS or no GPS. We also decided I should not drive myself because of the aggravation and cost of parking for all those days away and because Bill declared he would worry. [Isn’t that sweet?]

M. is a fit-as-a-fiddle former police officer,  probably in his early sixties, who has built a thriving business subsequent to retirement by driving people anywhere (including quite long distances) in their own cars for set fees far lower than those charged by commercial limousine services, plus $35 an hour waiting time (in the event he is taking you to a hospital or doctor’s appointment, or something like that).

His client base is now so large he has six other retired policemen working for him and his fees are as low as they are because he has no need to pay for vehicles, or insurance, or gas. Since the six other drivers are independent contractors for whom he acts as booking agent, he need pay no employer contribution to social security either.

M. got behind my wheel on September 1 and commented:  “A stick shift!  I haven’t driven one of these in a long long time.” Well, that made me feel like Methuselah.  Mind you, back in 2004 when I bought the car, I had specified that I did not  want an automatic transmission. Apparently no one does that anymore.

M. explained that people used to think you got better mileage per gallon with a stick shift but that was no longer true.  I have about twenty years on M. and recall that the stick shift was once preferred because you supposedly had better control of the car — and for all I know, you still do.   But I simply smiled and nodded.  Especially as M. hurried to assure me that I shouldn’t trade the car in because my stick shift was still working fine.

Well, I wasn’t going to. And I knew it was.  (Although all I said was, “That’s good to know.”)  The truth is when on occasion I’ve rented cars at airports, always with automatic transmissions because that’s all car rental places seem to have these days, my left foot doesn’t know what to do and taps the floor uselessly while the right one moves from gas to brake and back again, nervously expecting it’s about to strip the gears.

It all comes down to your past catching up with you.  I learned to drive in Los Angeles on a 1937 Plymouth coupe. It was fifteen years old by then, but no cars had been manufactured from 1942 through 1945, so many pre-war cars were still on the road. None of them had that new-fangled automatic transmission yet. Once I had my license, my father replaced the Plymouth, just as it was about to die, with a used 1946 Chevrolet allegedly driven by a little old lady in Pasadena who took it out of the garage only to go to church.  Whether or not that was true, the Chevy was in fine condition. And yes — the little old lady had driven a stick shift.

The Chevy lasted me a long time. It brought me back to New York, where it was followed by a used Studebaker belonging to my first husband, nine years older than I was, and then a snappy Volkswagen bug convertible belonging only to me, in which I found my second husband, two years older. The second marriage featured two more Volkswagens. [Given their respective ages, it goes without saying both husbands preferred stick shifts.]  By then, you might conclude about my selection of transmissions that you can’t teach an old dog new tricks.  My post-husband-pre-Bill period featured a stick-shift Nissan. Why not? My first serious boyfriend, one year older and then being recycled, drove a stick-shift Nissan of his own. [The Nissan service station was two blocks away.]  Now I have a 2004 stick-shift Honda. Wouldn’t you know? Bill, three years older, has a 2002 stick-shift Honda.

I have been reproached by many of the stick-shift men in my life (although not by Bill) for riding the clutch.  I must not ride it too much though because, as I’ve already told you, M. said my stick shift is still working fine. You might also be interested in knowing what M. said about my age — yes, I let it out, just to see what would happen — when he picked me up at Newark on September 4.  “Well, there’s 84. And then there’s 84.”

Tactful, wasn’t he? But who am I to argue with a cop, even a retired one?