Karl walked into the dining room of the Knightsbridge hotel. He was not alone. A woman with a striking crown of curly red hair was with him. The din of conversation lowered a decibel as the room looked up from its smoked salmon and warm bread. There in a far corner, by the window, sat Vidal Sassoon. In front of him was a large glass of freshly squeezed orange juice.
Vidal was short, dark, and taut, a wound spring. Sun-tanned, he was the way men get when they stay in shape long passed the age they’re supposed to let go.
No fat around the middle. Muscled without being muscular. He was, at 70 something, what other men describe as well put together. Attractive to the opposite sex after 3 wives (and he knew it). He had expressive hands, like a conductor or a sculptor. And he was intense. An intensity that was, at this point, on the lookout for something new to be intense about.
Sassoon had left his challenges and triumphs behind.
The years in the orphanage when his mother could not afford to keep him and his brother. The 1948 Israeli war for independence where, after years of fascist Jew-baiting in the east end, he had gone to fight. The slow climb up the hairdresser’s assistants ladder.
And then the Bond Street salon, fashionable women lining the stairs to his door, the articles in Queen and Nova, the television coverage (a BRITISH success story) the cuts that made him famous worldwide, like the Asymmetric-Geometric, the first bob with sex appeal which put him on the map and freed women to go from work to dinner with just a comb (just wash and go).
And finally the chain of salons across two continents.
He treated women’s hair, which he described as fabric, seriously.
Now, years later, having sold his name to what was to become the uber corporate Procter and Gamble, all he had was his Brand to look out for and keep overly corporate hands off of.
He was very famous, very rich and very bored. But not old.
But she, the red head across the table, interested him. Or rather her hair did. Deliberately he leaned across and put his hands slowly through her curls, and smiled as the red hair sprang back. “Good. Very good”. For a moment I thought he was going to bury his face in it.
“Vidal, this is Jean. She is dying to meet you.”
“So pleased you came along. Vidal said, hands still exploring her hair, “ Do you want a job?”
“I have a job. I am your art director at the agency. I want an interview.”
“Have some fresh orange juice,” he said, pushing the glass across the table.
She sipped and looked up, pleased.
‘That’s because it’s fresh. If juice is squeezed more than 20 minutes ago, I don’t drink it.”
Meanwhile Kurt wished he was at another table. Or another restaurant. Or back in The Complete Gent, cutting men’s hair. He liked Vidal. The man had made his mark. But this public love-making made him squirm. Now what? It was like looking at himself in the mirror and asking the question.
So what’s next?
But the mirror kept shtum.
Vidal and Jean got up to leave. Both were smiling. She had her portfolio of concept ads to show him. I guess you got your interview, Kurt thought, as they walked out the door.
In it took him to the outskirts of Moscow, on to St Petersberg, Poland, Czechoslovakia, he toured the low countries, and finally, France. His war tour was just about over.
In Normandy, just outside Sainte-Mere-Eglise, the American Army took over his travel arrangements.
Karl, along with thousands of other German tourists, were taken across the ocean to Vermont. There they built roads, repaired bridges and cleared forests (today we call that that infrastructure). The pay was not good. In fact, it was nonexistent. No bother. They came with low expectations. They weren’t seeking a better life. Life would do. They were prisoners of war. The New England winters didn’t bother them. They remembered all too well the draft from Siberia. It was a good deal. The Americans got free labour. The tourists got three meals a day and the chance to learn English. They also escaped the chaos and rubble that was Western Europe. When their war was finally over (1950) some went back to what was left of the Fatherland but more than a few preferred life without bomb craters and rationing and the chance meeting of fellow comrades on the street. They chose to stay put. Slowly they were absorbed in this new freedom. Eventually Karl was discharged, abandoned really, in New York City. The first thing he did was to take the subway to the Bowery where the second hand shops sold everything from kitchen stuff to barber’s scissors and acquired a pair of professional barbers’ scissors. He began to practice his old vocation. It was the early 50s everyone wanted sprucing up. Everyone needed a haircut. Karl was in business.
In the Bronx, in a small store-front on McClellan Avenue, just east of the Grand Concourse, Karl put out his shingle, or in his case, a sign in the window. It was not a busy street but “Karl The Barber” was one man and two chairs. He didn’t need many customers.
Although he spoke with a heavy accent, he was not mocked by the locals. With a few exceptions. Small kids taunted and teased outside his window. They made the Nazi salute and with their index finger a mustache, then tore down the street passed the candy store laughing with delicious terror. When he burst out in his white smock, razor in raised hand and yelling loudly in German. That’s how he got his nickname in the neighbourhood, The Mad Barber. But grownups left him alone. Who in that neighborhood did not speak with Eastern Europe, Germany or Russia on their lips? Everyone had a past they wanted to keep there. Everyone had been kicked from pillar to post by events. And everyone had an ambition of one kind or another. Ambitions, yes. Pretensions, no. Initially, Karl’s ambition was to be left alone and have enough to eat. His time in the war had left him with a hunger which even with extra helpings would not go away. Long kosher salamis hung from the ceiling in his room, hardening by the day. His body stayed thin. The same with cold. A storm hit the city and left 2 feet of snow in front of the building. An arctic wind followed and turned the snow into a block of ice which the city soon made black. Karl’s building at least had steam heat. He took over a spare room in the basement, between the storage room filled with bikes and baby carriages and the large black boiler that turned the residents’ garbage into cans of ash which the city collected every 2 weeks. It was a dark, a quiet place, a safe place to collect thoughts
Karl practiced English by listening to baseball. Baseball games on radio were his tutorials. He listened to Red Barber describe how the Yankees won. He started to read. First the sports pages of the New York Post. Then novels were his favorite (he had seen enough history not to want to read about it.). One day a man came in while he was deep in a book about Brooklyn, where the tree grows. You know the one. They talked while Karl snipped. The man, an ex-Marine, liked his haircut and liked Karl.
“You’re buried here. Manhattan is where rich people walk their expensive dogs, a cup of coffee can set you back a buck and reputations are made.”
“Why do I need a reputation?”
“To build up your business. Have you no ambition?”
“In my experience getting noticed gets you into trouble. No?”
They left it for the moment. But the next time the man came in for a haircut he had a proposition.
“Look, you’re a talented guy and (I bet) not afraid of working. Let’s put that graft to better use than here. Come and work for me. Take a chance, what’s to lose?”
“What would I do? All I know is cutting hair.”
“Look, a haircut can be $1.25 or $10:00. Same cut, same hair. On the East Side men spend a fortune grooming themselves. I believe you could be in the middle that.”
That was the beginning of the The Complete Gent, a busines concept that caught the imagination of men who were following their wives into better clothes. Name clothes.
Maybe not Chanel or Dior, but Cardin and Geoffrey Bean. They needed to look good.
Karl liked the name, The Complete Gent. A promise, a statement of fact. Nothing phony or European about it except for his accent and the occasional “Scheisse!”under his breath when he clipped more than hair, and apologized profusely.
Complete Gent started with grooming, and grooming started with a haircut. Men would come in, unbutton the top of their shirts, take off their shoes and relax. Karl had the ability to make them forget the office, the meetings, the bad news phone calls, the desiderata of life. Hot towels, soothing fingers on their temples, Dave Brubeck on the speakers. No news channels, no hectoring commercials, no world outside.
Karl and his mentor opened first one shop and then another. Each had the peace and solemnity of some place special. None had more than 2 chairs. Personal and service were unspoken watch words. They followed their concept with a line of products that followed the men home. Shampoo, scalp rubs, conditioners and skin balms. Each priced 50%/100% more than the men ever intended spending on themselves. Packaging was confident, plain, masculine, inviting indulgence. Hand addressed packages arrived at Christmas and customers’ birthdays with that understated wrapping paper. Each was signed by Karl and his (now) partner. New employees were trained by Karl.
By year two, they were in the money. And Karl was out of the Bronx. In year three they were targeted by the big names in male grooming. Gillette, Old Spice, and Procter and Gamble came calling. But the partners felt most at home with an Italian brand backed by the designer Giorgio Armani. Two trips to Italy and ten years after the war ended the deal was done.
Now Karl could pack his bags and travel, and see the rest of the world.
It’s been more than a year. As I turned the corner from Wardour into Old Compton I suddenly paniced: is it still there? Or has it gone with the Covid. Now that would be serious to us survivors. I. Camisa gone? The awning, the bicycle in front with the large delivery basket gone? Fresh pastas gone? Trays of tagliatelle, prosciutto stuffed ravioli gone? Those small anchovy packed olives, no more? The wall of dried pastas of all shapes and sizes, bags of caranoli rice, and the window of giant slabs of parmesano reggiano, replaced in the supermarkets by prepackaged triangles of who-knows-what. A tiny corner of what makes Soho, Soho and London London. More than a neighborhood but a key respository of weekend and holiday memories of family around the table, memories taken away. Prociuttto, cut skin thin, mortadella, fat sausages hanging from the ceiling (black pepper, fenobchio) no more? All that makes serving labor intensive and waiting long. All that differentiates it from supermarkets and pre-wrapped and impersonal “customer service”. There is no hurry, just hunger and the anxiety of wishes being fulfilled. But wait, there it is, the awning, the floor that would be saw-dusted in busy times. And no line! Behind the counter, Madame. Still in charge not just of the shop but of me, her customers and fulfilling a 50 year tradition. ( I have been a pilgrim there since 1966.0 Gruff, unsmiling but all forgiven, all OK. She recognized me. Civilization is saved for now. No speech of welcome in voice-raised Italian, but enough acknowledgement to prove to me Soho is still Soho. No more Lucien and Francis, but there is till Camisa. Bonjourno!
Rarely have I been able to. Participating in a conversation, impossible. With no choice I have learned to listen. But overall this has been frustrating. I can’t answer the phone. I can’t whisper to my wife in bed or shout at a dog, tail wagging and wandering into traffic. Every day I stand in front of a mirror as instructed and dig for my “voice”, which when working is a bull frog in the night, but is mostly the sound of escaping breath.
Buying a loaf of bread is a challenge to both buyer and seller. Especially if there are many varieties of bread on the shelves. I would not want to be behind me, waiting to be served.
I do converse, or try to, without words, like getting into a taxi in Rome. Lots of hands gestures, pointing, etc. Actually it’s remarkable how much basic stuff can get done wordlessly, especially with familiar and sympathetic sales people. I cultivate them. The butchers down the road at HG Walter I consider family. I am sure they consider me part of the neighbourhood. But not perhaps who they want to get too familiar with.
Recently, Daniel, who I hadn’t seen in a while, presented me with a magnificent t pork chop. Good man.
The larenjectomy was on March 6th last year. For some reason I was under the impression, or gave myself the impression, it was not going to be a major deal. I have no idea why I. Repression? Denial? Laziness no doubt. Wasn’t cancer for major organs? But what’s major if not your voice box? Knowing what I know now I’d have come out of the drug induced unconsciousness and stopped the scalpel in Mr Awad’s skilled hand and taken my chances with the cancer option. Sure, the cancer could come back, as it often does…but who knows. As a kid growing up I lived in fear of cancer. The word itself had malevolent power. It had taken our mother, but no-one told us kids what was going on. The word was not mentioned in our presence.
To us it was more than a disease, it was a mystery, a nightmare, and symptomatic of both our ignorance and impotence. It was a sentence of death.
But now I was silently angry, and anger, you’ll be glad to know, chases fear into a corner. But as someone whose career and persona depended on being articulate, someone who could hold a room as my father could, extempore, someone who voice was his VOICE, this last year has been excruciating: a slow death of personality. I have shrunk, I have become and smaller, in all ways. I believe, however, that if I can reclaim my voice I can reclaim myself. So if you see me standing in front of a mirror croaking like Froggie the Gremlin of Buster Brown fame, be encouraging.
, 70 Years ago Times Square was the scariest place on Earth.
The movie theater was full of people and anticipation. It was still only matinee time as dusk settled on 44th Street. It felt night time. I have re-run the movie in my head scores of times. I remember it clearly. The flying saucer circles and lands in a park in Washington DC. People run, leaving picnics behind. Suddenly a metallic door appears in the side of the seamless ship and slides open. Out walks tall, elegant and soft spoken Michael Rennie. He seems dressed in Aluminum and is masked. He pulls a strange device from his suit.
It springs open.
People in the audience gasp. The army has arrived and a soldier, just as nervy as the audience, fires a round from his WWII rifle and wings Rennnie. He goes to ground, clutching his shoulder.
Now a giant metallic robot appears in the doorway, his face masked by a metal plate that slides up revealing a pulsating light. We later learn his name is Gort and although he never speaks he will be remembered for one of the most memorable lines in the movies:
“Klaatu Barada Nicto!”
Inside where his mouth would have been is a ray gun or laser. It pulses. When it speaks members of the army dematerialize. Rifles dissolve in their hands
At that point I stood up in the now silent theater.
I grabbed my father’s arm and said, in a calm, loud voice: “We’re going!” My six year old brain told me it was time.
It was definitely time. ”The Day The Earth Stood Still. and come to Times Square. New York and I needed to be somewhere else.
At some point in the following 70 years I realized DC was a red herring, there as the movie’s location to involve the government and max up incipient paranoia, in this case fear of “the other”. All the characters were clearly New Yorkers (come on, what else could Sam Jaffee be?) Only Michael; Rennie didn’t fit, but hey, he was an alien probably a Brit.
The ending of th film is tame. Klaatu and Gort, his robot galactic policeman, take off for the heavens. This planet is no place for them. Which poses a question.
I was very taken with a friend’s description of herself as her own archivist.
Of course we are all biographers, color commentators and play-by-play announcers of our own lives. We aren’t Mel Allens or Harry Carays, and don’t go to the studio or sit in a box at the top of the stands. We broadcast (or narrowcast) from unconscious to conscious, and back again. Suddenly I find myself approaching the endgame. Not the biological inevitability but the messy and increasingly medical mud slide towards it. The bitty surrender of autonomy. I am not happy approaching the bottom of my 8th or top of the 9th. I have never given a thought to my last at bat.
In Charing Cross during a pretty tough night I thought, is this going to be it? Death making an appointment? Will I wake up (if I ever get to sleep?) Suddenly I was not in charge of my own narrative. I never felt so mortal. What a little cancer can do even, I am told, when there is no more cancer. The “major” surgery rocked me and continues to bully me into the age of feeble. I’m still in its thrall. I knew the surgery was a bad idea, but so reasonable. You want to live? 9 days afterwards I left the hospital, went home) and fell into bed and the arms of a three-week virus. I would fall asleep through the day and then around 9, and wake up at 11 in the morning. No doctors (they were loathe to bring unwanted guests from the hospital, so no “diagnosis”, but I was obvious. Couldn’t taste anything, couldn’t smell, didn’t like the taste of coffee! I was far too busy being tired. Sex, which had had always been ready for my call, wouldn’t answer. By this time Coronavirus had infiltrated and overwhelmed the hospital. It was everywhere, in fact, in mind and rumor. The cancer, yesterday’s big news, faded into yesterday’s news. It retired in the face of the virus. As did the plan for follow-up radiation. And the plan for more immuno therapy. It was declared much less scary and much less intrusive than first thought.
Abruptly, the meds declared a T2 instead of a T4. No cartilage intrusion.
Much hi-fiving amongst the doctors but surgery was already a fact and had consequences; I wanted to know if I could have avoided the knife. I don’t believe they understand it’s that big a deal: being mute, the hole in your neck leading directly to lungs and daring you to have a shower. I felt trespassed, transgressed. Made vulnerable. I felt taken advantage of. But there’s no use going on about it. The only thing to do is to stop shuffling around and work back into the best shape possible, These late innings will not last. Must be ready for my last at bat. Meanwhile we have been in lockdown, self-isolating for 12 weeks and more to come. Luckily the house is spacious and has lots of good chairs which Penelope does her best to shame me out of. A friend sent a compilation of AJ Liebling from the New Yorker. I had read the gluttony in Paris piece (Between Meals) and thought it and he wonderful. His boxing essay (The Sweet Science) carried me back to the old Garden on 8th Avenue and Sugar Ray, Kid Gavilan and Rocky Marciano. Now making my way through Southern politics. The Earl of New Orleans is a portrait of Earl Long, an even more fascinating figure than his older brother, Huey, and why the South is the way it is. Liebling is so full of insights and stunning phrases and human observations.
I interviewed at Leo Burnett London in the Spring of 1973. Prior to that I worked at 2 small agencies, one American, one Olde English. While getting my MA from the University of Sussex I wrote a freelance ad for Blackburn Advertising (later Blackburn-Daily). They paid me £35 for the ad which appeared on the back page of Variety, the show business newspaper. I thought, this is the business for me. When I graduated they offered me a job. I wish I had saved the ad.
Bill Blackburn wanted to be the new Bill Bernbach but he was shy and couldn’t make his mind up. He interviewed most of the major creatives in London and hired none of them. My first TV was directed by Alan Parker and Paul Windsor who had just left CDP. I could not understand why the writer looked in the camera and talked all the time. We casted a doe-eyed Harold Innocent, opera singer and actor who dead-panned the role of the dumb dad who made up the liquid breakfast drink while his kid just picked up the carton, poured and walked off. Simple, direct.
Then I went to little known Stuart Advertising in Holborn where we tripped a woman carrying a paraffin heater down the stairs for the London Fire Brigade. Why was she carrying a lit paraffin heater? Apparently people did.
So for me the Burnett job was entry to the big time. I asked people who did the good work there, which creative group to look out for. Ronnie Bond’s name was mentioned as was Chris Holland’s. Richard Asadurian got a nod.
I was offered a job by Bryan Oakes. Bryan was no threat to Bill Bernbach. He approved of work he thought the client would approve. Much later, in Chicago, I met his soul brother. *
Meanwhile Carl Hixon, a transplanted creative legend from Chicago, transfixed most of the London department with his larger than life stories of Leo, words like nifty and concepts like the brick out of place. But Carl knew an idea when he saw one, or when he didn’t.
Dan Parfitt and I had gone to LA to shoot the launch of Cadbury’s Caramel. The idea was for Mr Laurel and Mr Hardy to meet for the first time in a casting office. When their names were called they bumped into each other at the door. After you. No, after you. Super theme: “Cadbury and Caramel. Some things were just meant for each other”. In LA Lee Lacey’s cast was so good we got smitten with the characters and forgot the idea was not Laurel and Hardy but Laurel and Hardy getting together. As Carl asked us after the screening in Cinema 2: “Where’s the idea.”
Leo press was mediocre until Mike Brant arrived, but its TV reel was one of the top five agency reels in town. It did standout work for Cadbury and McEwans and I soon found out who “it” was. The only thing Doug Buntrock liked more than beer advertising was beer. He was good at both. A workaholic/alcoholic in his faded blue denim uniform, he was not alone.
Everyone at 48 St Martins Lane liked a pint or three. Barry Fox, an excellent writer, sharp wit and hopeless Fulham supporter, partnered on and off with Dougie. Barry was at his desk by 7:30 and did a day’s work by 11AM, turning out smart headline after smart headline. Doug turned most down because he hadn’t written them. At 11 The Green Man opened. Bob Stanners and Norman Icke joined Barry and Doug. Ken Mullen and later Bob Byrne would follow. Alec Ovens, a tall Scot who unaccountably did not drink, was the senior producer. Doug Huxtable ran the department under Gareth Bogarde with an ex-army discipline. Felicity Latimer greeted clients in 2ndfloor reception looking like Margaret Thatcher’s double. But her heart as well as her politics were Labour. The agency was headed by Gordon Barrett. Only in his early thirties he seemed a decade older. A kind man but like many account people from an earlier generation Gordon was interested in clients not ads. He was not excited by them. And this was a most exciting time in London with CDP posting one 48 sheet knockout after another, BMP started it series of bear campaigns by John Webster, while David Abbott accounted for the more literary and intelligently written end of the business with his Economist and Volvo campaigns.
In any account of St Martins Lane in the 70s Anne Vigus and her late husband, Henry McQueen, must be mentioned. Neither was part of the creative world, but both were a core part of the of the place and time. Henry was a wonderful colleague and companion and entirely reliable. The agency driver, it was his smiling face you wanted to see at Heathrow late on a Friday after escaping a week of flights, hotel and meetings. Anne ran Travel, the best managed and most reliable department in the agency. She rescued me and many creatives from bad seats, bad rooms and fates worse than death (e.g., being stuck on a Friday night in Brussels). She moved from St Martins Lane to Chelsea to the End of the Known World behind the Tesco on the Cromwell Road. Now she resides in The Burnett/Saatchi shared building in Chancery Lane. Still the glue of the place, still rescuing travelers who need to get somewhere or out of somewhere, beside doing other jobs for the latest new management. We’re gone, they’ll be gone, but Anne remains.
For some reason Gordon asked me to a Christmas lunch with senior clients.
In a rather stuffy Rules-like wannabe, we sat around a large table drinking gin-and-tonics and making self-congratulatory remarks fully of the Christmas spirit. When the waiter rolled in the trolley with an enormous roast beef hands went up asking for extra fat. I knew I wasn’t in Kansas any more. Or the Bronx.
Then a human tornado hit St Martins Lane. Bob Barocci arrived, presumably to inject some energy, or perhaps to get him out of Chicago. Barocci’s strategy, conscious or otherwise, was to terrify the creatively unambitious account people until they were more afraid of him than they were of their clients. It worked. They didn’t understand that if someone pushed you, you pushed back.
Many who probably should not have been in a rapidly changing business emigrated out. Baroccis’s aggression was easy to dislike, here and in Chicago, where traditionalists were many.
The 70s ended for me in 1984. I had refused a couple of invitations to move to Chicago. But after watching an attractive young woman with no experience hired as a creative director behind the closed door of her first interview with MD/CD/Chairman Dennis Barham, I thought better of it. Perhaps the Midwest, though frigid, was more promising.
*Peter Husting ran the Procter & Gamble business. On a group outing to the Southside to watch the White Sox just after I arrived he pulled me aside. P&G were in a funk about one of our brands. The agency had had several attempts to find a solution. His advice was simple: “Go to Cincinnati and don’t come back until they’re happy”.
Memories of mine go back to a time when my mother died of cancer after a 2 year—the usual 2 –year punishment period God or the Great God Cancer seems to require. When Ida was ill and dying the fault lines between the two sides of the family, hers and Chaim’s, were revealed. Not to me, I was too young to understand. But over the years my father communicated his attitude to some of the others pretty clearly. He was bad at hiding things like that. I suspect that long before, when he first arrived on the scene from Poland, this close knit family of 2 brothers and 3 sisters put up defenses. There is a picture of all of them sitting together on a couch and in front of it for a photograph: father, mother, Ida, Aunt Sara, Aunt Lilly, Lilly’s husband George, Uncle Dave, Aunt Fran, Uncle Jack and Aunt Rose all together in the center looking at the camera, with my father sitting in a chair off to one side, immersed in the New York Times. So when we no longer visited Aunt Lilly and I felt uncomfortable going to stay with Uncle Jack and Aunt Rose, I got the message. What I didn’t get was the sense that a Great Crime had been committed and my father was the criminal.
There was no doubt in my mind (now) that Chaim was initially resented by the family. The problem was he was both needed and resented. There were many reasons to resent him. He was smart, really smart. He was charismatic and successful (not in terms of money or business, but influence. People came to him for impartiality and advice, valuable commodities in the rough and tumble garment business. And they came for who he knew, even more valuable. A natural and confident speaker with a sense of humor; even in his Yiddish accented English, he could hold a room. In Poland he had been an organizer from an early age. A militant, he roused crowds and had a certain fame. Women liked him as well as men. Because he had influence people came to him to find jobs too. As did the family. He was a fixer. So he fixed them up. With hard to get tickets to shows, basketball games too as well as jobs. He loved that. He made connections. Problems happened when the jobs did not live up to expectations.
Then they became his fault.
The Great Crime, never stated, always implied, and him impugned, was an affair with, as far as I can piece together, one of the sisters, or the wife of one of the brothers. When did this happen? Before Ida was ill? When she was ill and dying? Over the years the whispered conspiracy was mainly kept alive by Aunt Fran with Uncle Dave an unwilling (I suspect) co-conspirator.
Hence a poisonous silence, and with it hostility, hostility inevitably bequeathed to the next generation, my cousins.
How could they avoid it. Chaim was the bogeyman.
Of course this is ridiculous. But families are. Whatever is supposed to have happened happened 70 years ago. One is tempted to say, to Fran especially, the keeper of the bitter flame, it’s time: get over it. Actually one can’t say that to Dave because he died last year at 91. And one can’t say it to Fran, who is 90 and in the Hebrew Home For the Aged in Riverdale, ironically two blocks from where I did most of my of my growing up.
Ida died in November, 1980. Chaim died a month and a half after Ida, an indication of how connected and interdependent they had become. So I am left alone to defend him, but from whom? I resent it, and I resent them, the whole family, which means their memory. I no longer care if they are blood relations. But meanwhile something’s happened which may give some credence to the Great Crime.
One of the ubiquitously marketed DNA products recently revealed a half sister. Her parents were good friends of my father’s. I remember them well. She was born in the early ‘50s, around the time or just before my father married his second Ida, the woman we considered our mother. We had dinner with my new sister and according to her they were all good friends: Ida, Chaim and her parents. They double-dated, went to restaurants and shows, exchanged dinners in each others apartments.
So was my father someone I knew? Did he, the object of sympathy of all those women who surrounded him, seek out solace in that terrible time when he was left with 2 small children, no wife and no job?
Whatever. It seems they’ll never tell me the Great Secret and for me it’s too late. I don’t want to know.
There is a post script. After our mother’s death Marcia and I were shunted from place to place while Chaim tried to figure out how to keep us together and go to work in a new job. We went first to his sister, Aunt Rachel which we hated. Rachel felt incredibly old, 19thCentury, and foreign (she spoke with a Scottish accent having spent decades in Glasgow on way from Poland to the Bronx). But now I realize she must have been in her 50s, perhaps 60. Later we were put in the care of Dorothy, who one day took us to Harlem to us visit her family. Everyone was black and I thought she was going to leave us there. The next year Chaim married the second Ida. Years later Ida told me she believed (and I believe) he did not marry her because of love—that or some kind of affection may have come later—but to look after us. (The opposite of the evil stepmother, Marcia summed her up perfectly: “She was a beautiful soul and we were lucky to have her.”) The rumor was that after the first Ida died some of the family had tried to adopt us. Who, I don’t know. I am sure that would have been for the best of reasons but I am also sure he would not have taken it that way. Taking his kids away? Chaim would have hated the idea. He would have been unforgiving and unforgetting.
And Chaim, like Aunt Fran, would never let go an injury.
Suddenly a screen appeared blocking my page and would not go away. I searched Applications and threw things out. I dragged things to the trash. They reappeared. Force Quit didn’t force anything to quit. The intruder would not die.
The screen offered to clean my computer and make it run so much more efficiently. Finally I did what I know I shouldn’t do: I made contact with them. I found a phone number and called.
The voice at the other end was foreign but not specific, and not the least apologetic. I was angry, he was calm, reasonable even. Why was I upset. My computer showed problems and he could fix them. It was simple. I should just run the program. It would take no time. I told him to transfer me to his legal counsel but I am not sure he knew what that meant. We were at a stand-off. He had my computer and wasn’t going to give it up. He had put my life on hold. He wasn’t the least intimidated by being caught. It/I was kidnapped. So I got on a plane and flew to Singapore (where I had reason to believe he was calling from), and showed up at his door. I knocked and when it opened it revealed a wall of computers with people hunched over the keyboards. I had brought my 34 ounce Hillerich and Bradsby Louisville Slugger, made of Northern White Ash. I’ve had it since the 6th grade, when it was too heavy to really swing. It wasn’t now. So I swung. I swung with everything I had, like Mickey Mantle used to, batting right-handed, stepping into the pitch each time. Screens exploded, sparks flew, people screamed, people ran.
When I was done I said, “You want to clean computers? Start with yours.” I handed him a broom.
The Merchant Mariner’s ID issued by the US Coast Guard arrived by mail just after my 18th birthday.
As good as a passport, it came like a driver’s license, the black-and-white subway booth picture with its unshaven, unsmiling, face framed by a dark roll-neck sweater preserved in plastic.
I stared down whatever was out there. I was Joseph Conrad, I was O’Neill’s Bound East For Cardiff. I was tough. I was ready.
I hoped I looked it anyway.
A few days later I put on my second-hand US Navy pea jacket, $15 from Army-Navy on Orchard Street on the lower east side. (This was when Orchard Street stores spilled half their wares onto the sidewalk.)
The jacket’s original owner’s name and rank was inked on the inside chest pocket. I felt with that jacket I put on a piece of his experience, borrowed some authenticity and power, like guys who lace up their Air Jordans before a basketball game.
His credentials would be my credentials.
In the privacy of my Bronx bedroom I did a final inspection. I adjusted my dark wool watch cap so it skewed slightly to one side Pulling my collar up, I adjusted my Ray-Bans. A mysterious and slightly intimidating look.
I opened the door, went down the elevator and took the #11 bus to the A Train on 207th and Dyckman Street.
50 minutes later I was walking through deepest Brooklyn.
This Brooklyn wasn’t cutesy. It was not something you named your kid or dog after. It was not where you strolled on a Saturday morning seeking the perfect macchiato.
Not yet was it the option for West Village people escaping rents and real estate prices that had become fit for the very rich or the lucky few who had clung to rent control.
This Brooklyn was beat up: undistinguished clapboard houses that seemed to sag from the weight of the hundreds of electric and telephone lines that ran overhead. Tram tracks ran down the streets. The only espresso machines were in dark Italian bars where all food came oozing tomato sauce, delivered to tables on which bottles of red pepper flakes and grated cheese stood ready.
This was working class Brooklyn, Walt Whitman’s Brooklyn. People walked slowly with shoulders that sagged like their roofs, lugging their groceries and toddlers. They stood under shop fronts waiting for the rain to stop. That Brooklyn. A Brooklyn that remembered the noise from Ebbets Field and would never forget or forgive the slight of the Dodgers’ departure.
The Seafarer’s International Union headquarters and training center was a large multi-story that suddenly appeared down a non-descript street. Inside was a classless society, as long as you were working class.
Everyone wore old leather jackets, baseball caps, overalls or beat up jeans. There were mostly men: mostly white, mostly older. Big guys, bigger guys and bigger bigger guys. Or so it seemed to me.
Woody Guthrie could have wandered through or sat strumming, at home and unnoticed. Perhaps he did. I’ve seen pictures of him playing his guitar in McSorely’s, an old bar in Manhattan.
At the front of a large auditorium a small crowd of interested parties gathered.
Every once in a while someone called out ships and crews from the stage. Nobody else paid much attention. At the union hall, it seemed, you could get hired or you could hangout. It was a job center and social club. People listened with one ear.
Clutching my union card in my pocket I sat on one of the long benches in the back and tried to look bored, like I’d done this before. Oh you bet: many, many times.
Eventually another ship’s crew was called.
“SS Bradford Island. Coastwise. Oil. East and Gulf, 4-6 weeks. Wiper, Oiler, 3rdEngineer, Cook’s Mate…”
I raised my hand.
A few days later, with a duffel bag on shoulder and a 4-day stubble, I marched up the narrow steps and stepped on board, trying to channel Marlon Brando.
Launched in 1945 in Portland, Oregon, the ship was a T-2 tanker. Rated at 10,000 tons gross tonnage. (Current super tankers weigh in at 275,000+ tons). It was one of over 2700 cargo ships made with standardized, pre-fabricated parts from all over the US in the effort to win the war.
The Nazis had their Wermacht, Lufwaffe and Wolf’s Packs, but we had the assembly line. And Detroit. Detroit won the war.
FDR said it was ‘the arsenal of democracy’. He was right.
When Detroit turned its attention to war it turned out tanks, planes and ships like nobody’s business. It produced ships exactly the way it produced cars: by the thousands: faster than the U-Boats could sink them.
3000 miles away the Allies stayed in fuel and Britain stayed afloat.
American energy and know-how produced these ships. FDR made Henry J. Kaiser production czar and he applied the same principles to building ships as he had to building his cars and jeeps.
He built them fast. Some in weeks or a few months.
One went from the drawing board to the water in under 4 days.
Now, a decade and a half later the Bradford Island sailed under the Cities Service Oil Company banner. She was looking her age. She appeared to my seaman’s eye, at least, ungainly. Too long and too narrow, with superstructures in the middle and at the back, she looked like she might snap in heavy weather.
She was high in the water. I learned later that being high in the water was a sign of an empty tanker. An empty tanker is a floating bomb. It’s filled with highly volatile fumes from past loads. Nobody smoked on an empty tanker. We were careful about open flames and making sparks.
Loaded, a tanker is low in the water and relatively safe.
The Bradford Island was held together by the know-how and constant attention of the 3 engineers—the Chief, the First and the Second Engineer: all white southern men, all tall and rangy, all pretty silent. And they all knew what they were doing. I worked along side the Second Engineer. I never knew his name. He was called “Second” by me and everyone else.
These engineers had never been to a gym, had never “worked out”. They had no bulging muscles. But they were hard, as hard as any tough guy I knew. Work was their workout. They could fix things with their hands. They seemed to be able to repair anything mechanical and anything they couldn’t repair they made. They understood machines.
Like the rest of us they worked 12-14 hours in the heat of summer. It was often 110F and above in the engine room.
The rest of the crew were Mexican and they spoke Spanish. Most were brown, short, loud and stocky. Wide. They had muscles made for t-shirts. They were a different race. Where the southerners talked quietly if at all, the Mexicans never stopped. The southerners hardly smiled. The Mexicans smiled and joked all the time. They were jolly. They too worked like demons. They never complained about the work or the heat or the hours. They enjoyed their own company and their well-paying jobs: union wages, and plenty of over-time, time-and-a-half, and double overtime to keep the old ship going.
They also liked, I thought, the freedom of being at sea: out of sight of land and out of reach of society. They had, briefly, escaped to their own world, a world they ran.
I was the odd one: the kid with a high school diploma and college on the horizon. I was amazed they didn’t give me a hard time. But after initial inspections they saw that I worked and kept my head down. So they accepted me.
In other words, they didn’t throw me overboard.
We stopped in Wilmington, North Carolina and I saw the first of many refineries from the business end. Endless lights, a jungle of superstructures and pipes belching flames. The smell became part of my clothing. After a while I didn’t notice.
When we turned west past the Dry Tortugas and into the Gulf the sea changed; it became completely docile, a lake on tranquilizers. There was no wind, no waves. There was no movement except for the path the ship cut through the water.
At night the Gulf seemed like glass: a perfect mirror for the stars. We spent airless and mostly sleepless nights in hammocks on deck, hoping for a breeze and that the horn on the smokestack didn’t suddenly blow. It did.
On the ship nothing mattered but how hard and well you worked. Get the job done, don’t let anyone down.
I had signed on a Wiper, the lowest rung on the engine room ladder. It was a misnomer. My job was not to wipe machinery but to chip away the rust and the ancient layers of paint on everything you could see with a hammer and chisel. And then re-paint the bare metal with Red Lead. Red Lead was a rust-inhibiting paint. It was also health-inhibiting, noxious, toxic. In the hot claustrophobia of the engine room the fumes had nowhere to go but up your nose.
Rust was everywhere. From 8 to 8 every day, rust was me. I banged away at it and the sound reverberated around the hull and back again, a percussive rhythm with the deep hum of the turning drive shaft in the background. It was hot, repetitive work as well as noisy and not a little dangerous. I could have refused the overtime but I would have been the odd man out. I had no intention of being the odd man out.
Day by day the crew got richer and richer, on paper. There was no place to spend their increasing wealth. No Amazon to surf. No online porn. Some waited for the first port of call, sometimes the first bar, sometimes the first woman, to become broke again. Most had arranged for some money to be held back for their families so they couldn’t blow it all.
Work, eat, sleep; there was not much else to do. At the end of the day you climbed into your bunk and collapsed.
Alcohol was taboo. Strictly not allowed on board.
In Port St Joe, Florida, I watched a crewman struggle up the ladder dragging an enormous suitcase. Near the top it popped open and dozens of bottles of beer shattered onto the dock and into the water.
The small mess where everyone ate together was open 24 hours. The meals were gut-filling. Steak and eggs, beef and potatoes. All you could eat. Appetites were big, calories needed replacing.
The refrigerator was always full of cheese and cold cuts. You helped yourself. There were large jars of hot peppers with their owner’s name taped on, prepared by mothers and wives, which they delved into, even at breakfast. I tried one, once.
One of my jobs was to haul buckets of old engine oil on deck and toss the contents off the fantail. The first time I did this a small crowd gathered to watch.
I launched it into the air and was immediately covered in engine oil to much laughter. Someone threw me a rag. After that, wet finger in air, I checked the wind direction several times before even spitting.
Even though we were coastwise the ship was sometimes out of sight of land and other ships too. Seagulls always and dolphins kept us company, the seagulls for scraps off the fantail, the dolphins for fun off the bow or in the ship’s wake.
At sea the Mexicans felt out of reach and free. A spirit of anarchy seeped in. Their constant refrain when anything or anyone annoyed them was: “over the side”.
And stuff did go over, from garbage to old chairs to the rare dish they didn’t like. But no people, to my knowledge.
The sea was therapy, their outlet: both emotional and real. I’ve sometimes thought that it would be a good thing to have in life: an instant disposal for whatever bothers you. Toss away your problems and annoyances.
It took me a while to figure out when and if they were serious. Because if something did go over the side, that was it. The ship couldn’t stop. The image of the ship disappearing in the distance stuck in my head. I stared at the churning water quickly disappearing behind us.
The single screw was turned by a huge shaft at the very bottom of the engine room. It revolved hypnotically. I used to wonder how long would take to stop turning if someone (like me) became caught in it down there. Calling for help was useless: nothing could be heard over that din. You didn’t need years at sea to know that keeping your hands, feet and clothing to yourself was a good idea around the shaft.
I filed this thought right behind keeping my mouth shut until you know what you’re talking about as the best advice on a ship. Another piece I received gratis while waiting to toss another bucket of oil into the receding ocean as I stood idly whistling “Do not Forsake Me Oh My Darling”.
Miguel, the older Mexican who had happily offered me one of his mother’s peppers (and sat back to enjoy my first bite) sidled up.
“Listen Tex, only two people whistle on a ship, the bosun and the cocksucker. And you’re not the bosun.”
It was a joke, but I never whistled again.
We hit all the high spots along the east and gulf coasts, discharging and charging cargo in Wilmington, North Carolina, Port St Joe, Florida, Mobile, Alabama, Port Arthur Texas (janis Joplin’s home town, and I could see why she left), New Orleans.
Of course I never really got to see any of these places. I saw refineries at midnight and, with any luck, air conditioned bars with their cold beers and local ladies. We all rushed down the gangplank given a couple of hours in port.
The refineries were mini-cities, worlds to themselves.
We’d arrive at night. On moonless ones the stars would be matched by thousands of twinkling lights from the refinery. We’d pick up the pilot and slowly make our way up the dark channel, sometimes docking hours later. The heat, humidity and chemicals smell grew stronger.
When we got back to New Orleans, I packed my duffel.
I had had enough, not of the ship and the crew but of the monotonous hard work. Red Lead can drain the romance of the sea. I wanted an egg cream.
I signed off. A pocketful of cash in hand, I spent a few days walking around looking for life. Finding what there was, I bought a Greyhound ticket for the 28 hour trip to New York.
The bus took us into a different and uglier world.
The gas stations and road stops had two water fountains, one for “Whites Only” and one for “Blacks”. The same for the toilets. Some “blacks” on the coach, unwilling to go in these stops, asked if I would bring out sandwiches or ice cream for them.
On the ship there was always the equality of hard work. Here skin color defined everything.
Finally, the bus rose up out of the Lincoln Tunnel and we were back in New York. The City.
The next summer I boarded a WWII era Liberty ship, the Andrew Jackson, from the port of Newark and crossed the Atlantic. After 12 rocky days at 11 knots we docked in Southampton. Le Havre, Rotterdam and Bremerhaven followed, in what order I forget.It was the end of my time at sea.