Sunday, May 10, 2009


[The College stories start here.]

There were communists around in those days. College days.

Previously I might have left the impression that I worked only in Burgess-Carpenter and Classics Library, but BCC had an outpost two floors down, a little place we liked to call Philosophy Library. That was its name. That's why we called it that. It said it on the door.

Philo needed only one person at a time, but we on the BCC student staff would cover it for breaks and vacations, and eventually I had regular assigned shifts down there. There wasn't anybody to talk to except to try to kibitz with the Philosophy grad students when they took reading breaks and stood around outside the reading room door. Because of this, for a time I knew someone who could tell you what Hegel would say about just about anything that could happen. Listen, I waited for a chance when that would be handy, but it never came.

This is a roundabout way of saying how I met James, the communist student, who worked mainly in Philo. He might have been
involved in the biographical research on Carpenter and Classics, now that I think of it. One of his concerns was that anyone who knew him might end up blackballed once a background check revealed a connection to him. At this date I no longer recall specifically what activities he was involved in, and maybe he never told me. He was a nice quiet guy. I guess those are the ones that blow things up. No, I don't think that happened. He was from Maine, and that's almost like being Canadian.

Some old communist from the 1930s had an incredibly well located apartment right across the street from campus on 114th St, and rather than live in it, he rented the three bedrooms to students. When I met her, Mary was one of them. The other two students, a year ahead of us, had the same name, and had worked out that one would be Dave and the other one David, so that they'd know which one you were addressing. The apartment had a great phone number: 222-2223. (But please don't call it. The people who have it now don't want to know about this.)

As we all knew, Mary was secretly in love with Dave, but this did not seem to mean much to him. I think he was secretly in love with somebody else, but Dave left so little an impression on me that I'm afraid I just don't remember much about him aside from him being pretty good looking. If I was a girl I would say he was handsome. But I'm not, so I'm going to go with Mary's judgement on this one.

David meanwhile spent much of his time being sore that people didn't like him because he was Jewish. I never told him that probably the truth was that they didn't like him because of his argumentative personality. I figured this would not have made him feel better, and he was maybe better off with his own interpretation.

As the school year drew to a close I was mentioning to people that I was wondering where to live when the dorm closed. Although we had by now accepted each other's existence as an inescapable fact, I did not expect it when Mary asked me if I'd like to live in her room for the
summer. Excuse me? What? Ha, I made her blush. She meant she was going home to the parents, and they wanted somebody to cover her third of rent. Apparently I had fooled Dave and David into believing I was not much crazier than they were.

So that summer I lived with the communists.

I have to mention the people in the apartment next door. They were an indefinite number of girls who seemed to wear as little as possible. We believed that they hung around the apartment wearing just flimsy long shirts. We gained nothing from it though. Dave probably didn't care, David probably assumed they would not like him because he was Jewish, and I probably was not yet the suave young man that I would later... oh let's face it, they scared us.

The only one who'd ventured in there was Mary. One time the communists had been locked out, and Mary had been allowed into the girls' apartment so that she could climb out their window and walk along a ledge to get to the adjacent open window in the communist apartment. The ledge was no more than three inches wide, and this was the fifth floor. Dave and David insisted to me that this really happened. If so it has to be the craziest thing Mary did. That I know of.

It was really a two-bedroom. Her room, now temporarily mine, was the living room. It had a pair of glass-panelled doors, with the glass painted over, and they closed completely, so it could be a bedroom. Being the living room, it was a good size, with large windows looking out toward campus. The only common space left was the kitchen and bathroom.

Dave and David seemed to keep busy. What did they do for money? It beats me. What an incurious person I could be. Maybe I knew once. I must have eaten with them sometimes but nothing about that sticks in my mind. I don't think we had a television. David liked to sit there commenting on stories in the New York Times and that was usually good to listen to. Even when he was outraged at the latest thing the government was doing there was something comical about his delivery.

I knew from Mary that the price of living in the communist apartment included doing things from time to time to help the oppressed peoples. Or at least doing things to publicize talks the movement gave about helping the oppressed peoples. The devious bastards said nothing to me about this, and Mary thought that they might let it go since I would only be there temporarily till she got back in September.

But enough about Mary. She was gone for three blessed months and I found inner peace or something that would pass for it.

One day I came back from work to find Dave and David pondering the state of things at the kitchen table. They needed scissors. Did I happen to have scissors? No, of course not. When you live in dorms or shared apartments, you don't have things like scissors. Not when you can borrow them from your friends when you need them.

They had looked all over and couldn't find scissors. They got up and
looked in their rooms again, and then opened the kitchen drawers too. No joy. They looked frustrated, the poor guys. It was a warm summer evening, and there they were sitting in a little kitchen without scissors.

Then I got it. It was a communist trick. I was supposed to volunteer
to go get scissors. See, if they could subtly guide me in that direction, so I'd feel like it was my own idea to go get them, it would get me in a frame of mind where I was part of their scheme, whatever it was, and I could be sucked into helping them out with the rest of it. Right. This is how they get recruits. What caused their obvious frustration was that I was so slow to take the bait. It made me wonder how long they could keep at it.

I happened to notice that they had something taped to the refrigerator
that had obviously been cut out with scissors. I showed them. They must have scissors, because one of them did this. Yes, of course they had scissors, but they were lost. They couldn't find them. And now they needed scissors. They got up and looked again in the same places.

After a while it started getting old. "I'm going to go to Woolworth's and buy scissors." "Oh, you don't have to." But I did have to. I had to get out of there. Any excuse.

Along the way I stopped and looked in the window of Janoff's store on Broadway. Old man Janoff still ran it then. It was a cluttered old store that dealt with typewriter sales and repair but also art and writing supplies. I've always liked cluttered stores like that. If you can describe what you want to the owner, he'll show you some corner where they not only have it but have several kinds of it. He had the best selection of pens and paper in the neighborhood. I was thinking of replacing one of my Rapidograph pens that was clogged up, so I almost went in. But I was on a mission. After giving it a few moments' thought I moved along.

We liked Woolworth's. I'd gone there with Mary sometimes. I have to explain that with our counterculture values, we hated large soulless corporations and the money-grubbing they stood for. So liking Woolworth's is worth remarking upon. But the store was full of useful stuff, and at good prices. You felt like you were getting a fair deal there. If the oppressed peoples had run their own stores, they'd be pretty much like Woolworth's.

Anyone who patronized our local Woolworth emporium at 109th and Broadway will remember one peculiarity of the building. The back left quarter of the store sloped downhill to the corner. If you didn't see it, your inner ear would alert you that something was off balance as you walked back there. The store shelves sloped down with it, but the ceiling was level.
It was inexplicable why the floor tilted. The building rested on solid Manhattan bedrock. It had to have been built that way originally. When Woolworth's went out of business the building was renovated to death and some spoilsport changed the floor to the ordinary level style that you can find anywhere.

I went in and started looking around. Down in the back— literally
down in the back— I watched the parakeets in the pets section. Then I remembered I'd been wanting to get a new cup, so I looked at what they had and selected one. I looked at some of the home furnishings but I decided not to add anything to my temporary quarters. Next aisle: did I need socks? I guess not. Then there were those pesky scissors. I saw they had the blunt ones for little kids, and maybe I would get a pair of those and say that that was all I could find. But that would be a lie. I took a normal pair. I paid for the cup and scissors up front.

I decided to walk back in the shade of the trees on Riverside Drive. I paused to watch the little kids playing in the tot lots, their parents watching them. I'm sure I did not think that on some day that lay ahead one of those dads would be me and one of those kids would be mine. In fact I am sure I imagined myself for a few minutes as one of the kids on the swings and climbing bars, not one of the old people. But you can't go back.

I walked
up the edge of the park to 116th, looking at the trees and feeling the summer air. You don't want to go too fast when it's warm out. Then it was up the hill and through the campus grounds, with the college kids lying in the grass or tossing disks, and lastly around to 114th St.

I walked in to the dark empty apartment, left the scissors on the
kitchen table, and went into my room to read a book.

Dave and David didn't try to get me to do anything else. There was an
odd moment late in the summer when they told me I would have to move because Mary was coming back. As if this had not always been the plan. It was fine with me though. I had a dorm room lined up.

[The next College story is Parents.]

Next time: Parents.



    also you found a way around the lack of communist manifesto!

  2. Socialist teas, if you could see the rest of the box.