The last time I was measured at the doctor’s office, the young woman doing the measuring said, “5 foot 9.” I told her that couldn’t be right. I’d been 5’10” since before the Beatles played Shea Stadium. She tried again. Then she gave a little nod that meant she was right the first time. She absently said something like, “This happens to women a lot.”
I never thought I’d say this, but I miss that inch.
I never thought I’d say it because for most of my life I had inches to spare, inches I would have happily given away to girls who moaned about being short. I never thought I’d say it because for most of my young life, I felt too “big” standing next to most people.
At 14, I thought that if I slouched, I could take inches off my height by inserting a curve in my spine that no one would notice. Once I got the hang of it, my parents kept flicking me between my shoulder blades every time I walked by, and saying annoying things like, “Stand up straight.” So I got in most of my slouching at school.
I didn’t go for the usual style of slouching, where you just cave in the upper part of your body and spend the day looking down at your feet. Mine was more of a clever maneuver in which my knees were also called into action. I got so good at it that I probably would have continued on through college if it hadn’t been for the governor of New York.
I was waiting tables at the Boardwalk Restaurant at Jones Beach the summer before college, 1968. I was still taller than most people, but when called into action, my spine could do some amazing feats of containment. I was sure that through optical illusion alone, I was fooling everyone.
One morning the manager excitedly called the waitresses together and said that Nelson Rockefeller, who was then governor, would be visiting the next day for a press event. Since it would also be his birthday, the governor’s people had asked that a cake be rolled out as a “surprise.”
“I need two girls to push the cake out and stand on either side of the governor as we sing ‘Happy Birthday,’” the manager said. He scanned the room full of young waitresses. “Okay . . . Karen and . . . Linda.”
I was thrilled. My mother wondered if I’d be on the front page of the newspaper. I rehearsed my smile. And in an act of teenage overkill, before I went to sleep that night I actually practiced the words to “Happy Birthday” so I wouldn’t mess it up in case television cameras were focused on me.
The next day, a few of Rockefeller’s people arrived just ahead of him. They checked out the table formations, the stage, and us. As Karen and I practiced rolling out the cake cart, one of them pointed at me and said something to the man next to him. The other man nodded.
The manager walked over. I could tell it was bad news. “Uh, really sorry about this,” he said to me, “but you can’t be on the stage after all. Turns out the governor doesn’t like to be photographed with people who are taller than he is.”
My first reaction was to argue that although I was, indeed, 5’10”, the clever way I rearranged my skeleton made it seem like I was only 5’6”. But everyone was now in a rush with the last-minute change, so I didn’t. I left the stage and watched 5’2” Esther Kaufmann from Wantagh take my spot.
The governor was a smiley man, shaking hands deftly as he moved to the stage and saying something I couldn’t hear to the reporters, who laughed politely. He did a credible job of acting surprised when the cake got rolled out, and I could see that Esther was flush with her good fortune.
Annoyed, I thought, “Well good for you, short people.” But then, my epiphany hit me as I watched the governor towering over his cake pushers.
Suddenly, my spine straightened, and my shoulders relaxed. And it was the last time I ever thought about being anything less than 5’10”. I would have belted out “Happy Birthday” like nobody’s business if given the chance that day, but I figured out something bigger. I was going to stop pretending I wasn’t tall. And I hoped the governor would stop pretending he was.
I can only report that I stuck to my plan. Which is why I miss that inch.