“You got a boyfriend?”

Auburn is not just any city in central New York, and I found that out on my first day of student teaching. There is a maximum-security prison right in the middle of town. It was built in 1812 and takes up square city blocks, its walls and guard towers made of forbidding gray stone. When it rains, huge black splotches appear on the walls, making it look even more ominous. Auburn Correctional Facility is famous for being the site of the first electrocution in the United States, which, I thought, might be hard to get behind in the hometown pride department. But the prison comes up a lot in conversations.

A bell rang and the kids swarmed in and took their seats. They stared at me as Mr. Donatelli went through a solemn introduction of their new student teacher, making me sound like I had lots of reform school experience. One of the kids thought Miss DeMers sounded like Mr. Mers and blurted out, “You a man or a woman?” and his audience erupted in laughter, because for all the things I was not in 1973, a man would have been at the top of the list even to the most casual observer. Mr. Donatelli quickly showed me the way this was handled in his world.

After lunch, one of the boys feigned a question he already knew the answer to, and took advantage of having me all to himself as we stood in the back of the classroom. After I gave him a much too-long answer to whatever his fake question was, he scanned my body up and down and his gaze lingered at my breasts.

“You got a boyfriend?”

I don’t remember what I said, but I’ll bet money it had the word appropriate tucked into it.

He backed down, like all of a sudden he remembered he was ten and not his 13 year-old brother, who was most certainly getting some. Mr. Donatelli gave me a thumbs up from across the room.

When I got to school for my second day, Mr. Donatelli was already in the classroom.

“Well, you’re on your own! You know where I am if you need me, but I don’t think you will.” And he whistled as he walked to the faculty lounge with the newspaper under his arm.

We never knew when, but one day a week Mrs. Ambrose, the student-teacher supervisor from Cortland, would show up for a surprise observation. Never knowing when she’d pop up, Mr. Donatelli and I had a scheduled sit-down every Monday morning before the first bell.

He’d start by saying, “So how was your weekend?”

Since I was spending weekends back in Cortland cozied up with my boyfriend, doing things I knew Mr. Donatelli had never dreamed of, I usually went with, “Great! How was yours?”

His wife cooked Italian on weekends, and he took his dogs for long walks, so pasta and the weather usually headlined his recaps. Then we’d get down to a review of the previous week, and by that I mean he would say, “So how did things go last week?” and I’d assure him Piaget couldn’t have done a better job.

He’d say, “Alrighty, then!” and give me his sweet, toothy grin. And then I’d wait for Mrs. Ambrose to appear out of nowhere. Sometimes, if the gym teacher was holding his class outside and he’d see her car pull up, he’d send a kid running up to my classroom ahead of her with a note: “Eagle has landed.”

Most times, though, Mrs. Ambrose would just appear. She was forty years into her job, without a hair out of place and a purse to match every pair of shoes she owned. After she sat down in the back and smoothed out her skirt, she would rip a piece of paper out of her notebook and fold it in half with (+) on one side and (–) on the other. And for twenty minutes she’d watch your every move and take copious notes. You tried not to notice if she was writing on the left or right side of the page.

Afterwards Mr. Donatelli would pop back into the room to give Mrs. Ambrose time to critique me in private. He seemed to show off a little as he strode in with, “Hi, boys and girls!” Maybe he wanted to stay on her good side so he’d continue to get a stream of student teachers. Maybe he was just happy to see the kids after another week of seclusion in the faculty lounge.

I’d thank her for the feedback, although at least half of the time I thought she was sadly out of touch when it came to the pulse of young children, of which I was now an expert. These sessions tended to end abruptly, like she had to get extra time in with poor Patsy Rossi, who lately was breaking into hives as the first bell rang. But then one day she paused.

“There’s one more thing, Linda. I just found out about an opening for September. Fifth grade. It’s in Skaneateles, right down the road. I’ve arranged for you to interview on Monday. I told the principal there you’re my strongest candidate, so don’t let me down.”

I had the job a week later. And just like that my bravado evaporated.

 

[Next Thursday: A Teacher’s Regrets in Skaneateles, NY]

My Parents Called 1970 “Ugh, That Year”

The last date I had was a set up. According to our mutual friend, who arranged it, we were a perfect match.

The first thing I notice about my date is how seriously he takes his martini. His order comes with three instructions, and he warns the waiter he’ll be able to tell if any one of them hasn’t been followed. Why would anyone take liquor so seriously? (thought the woman who drinks wine out of a box). Or — to put it another way — this may be yet another man who won’t get me one bit.

He says, “I’ve just moved back to Baltimore after many years in Manhattan.”

I say, quietly, “I lived in Manhattan once, in the early 70s.”

“Oh?” I can tell I’ve interrupted his flow because his response is a bit snappy. Did I mention his ancestors may have traveled over on the Mayflower? Our first six minutes together have led me to this theory. “Where?” he asks but I can tell he’s just being polite.

“Upper West Side. “The Apthorp.”

“Really?” he perks up. He starts throwing out names — one of them famous — of people he knew at The Apthorp. He tells me he went to a few parties there. He orders another drink.

* * *

When Paul Goldberg said, “Wait!” on that sidewalk in Cortland NY, I turned back. And then I walked right into his life. By the evening he was making me tea and we were spilling our secrets.

His plan had been to go to Berkeley, where he felt he could do the most good. After two days of being together, we realized we couldn’t be apart. But there was a pragmatism to our love, too. We sensed my oh-so-new conversion to left-wing politics wasn’t ready for a cross-country move quite yet.

Over toast with grape jelly on our fifth morning together, we decided to relocate to Manhattan — where he’d grown up and his mother still lived. We’d stay with her until we found our own place.

My parents always referred to 1970 as “Ugh, that year.” I didn’t see their point until about 1980. One minute I was the usual college coed, asking for money and fibbing about grades, boys, and how I spent my time. Suddenly I was lecturing them about Huey Newton and male chauvinism. I called them to announce — with gravitas leaking from every pore of my body — my intention to leave school and move in with Paul.

Here’s where they landed: “Just understand you won’t be welcome home for Thanksgiving. Or Christmas.” After that my parents and I went to our respective corners and had a series of miserable conversations that went nowhere.

And soon after that, Paul and I emerged from the subway station at 79th and Broadway, and I took a look at my new home.

The Apthorp is an Italian Renaissance Revival beauty, taking up a whole city block. It comes with iron gates and limestone sculpture and a courtyard rimmed with trees and lamp posts. The men who stood guard at the entrance called Paul by name. The grandness of the place got more in focus the closer we got to his mother’s apartment. The elevator operator in a uniform. Fresh flowers. If I’d been paying more attention in Psychology class, I wouldn’t have been at all surprised that this grandeur spawned Paul Goldberg, Leader of the Revolution.

I kept rubbing my sweaty hands on my skirt as he opened the door for us, sure Paul’s mother was the kind of woman who shook hands when she met you. I was pretty sure she wasn’t a hugger. But maybe she was.

We waited. It seemed a while before she walked into the living room.

“And is this Linda?” She said my name as though she wasn’t sure she had it right. Pretty quickly I knew there would be no need for dry hands. I was not what she was expecting.

“I see you’ll be staying with us,” she said as she looked down at my luggage. “Perhaps my son might have let me in on the secret.”

And that was my welcome to the storied Apthorp building. This signaled the start of my attempt to climb into the bosom of Paul’s family since I was pretty sure mine would never talk to me again.

As I slept that night, ambulances careened up and down Broadway and woke me. I jumped every time. Paul told me I’d get used to it.

The Girl Formerly Known as “Brillo Head”

To understand how surprised I was on my first day of college,

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you needed to know me at 13.

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A lot went on in those five years between 8th grade and my first day as a college freshman. Maybe ours was the last generation to have suffered through so much awkwardness in one lifetime. These days, girls at 13 are adorable. Maybe it’s hormones in the meat or global warming. Whatever it is, I’m happy for them.

All I know is that it took me a long time to climb out of a space where neighborhood boys no longer saw me coming and began collaborating on what name they would shout out. By my 16th birthday, my public humiliation phase seemed to be waning.  I felt I had a future as someone’s girlfriend, but most of that was wishful thinking.

In summer 1967, my mother and I were doing college tours. We were on a country road in upstate New York. We had left one state school (Oneonta) and were on our way to the next (Cortland). The radio reception was pitiful, but I kept trying, my hand on the dial. All of a sudden, there was Jim Morrison singing, “You know that it would be untrue . . . you know that I would be a liar.”

This was a little racy for my mother, and I knew it. I thought of changing the station. But I figured her mind would be elsewhere and she’d be tuned out long before Jim wanted me to light his fire.

No such luck. She was listening, and the lyrics jolted her.

She attempted an impromptu talk, the kind where I tried to get the car seat to absorb my body and pretend this wasn’t happening. What she came up with surprised me though. It was much different than her lecture after the “Your Changing Body” movie in 6th grade. That talk had zeroed in on what was about to happen to parts of my body I hadn’t yet located.

This one was oddly vague.

Boys could certainly be a problem, she told me, but she didn’t think they would be a problem for me. My mother hadn’t yet noticed that I was no longer standing in the shadows at dances. She was still bracing for some mean boys to call me names connected to smelly zoo animals. Or — their perennial favorite — “Brillo Head.”

And even though my hair was now blonde and shiny, and no one had called me ugly for a long time, I wondered if she was right.

Freshman move-in day at Cortland State –September, 1968 — was sunny and warm, with no inkling that in six weeks it would be snowing. Football and soccer players were given the day off from practice to help freshman girls move in. They were a swarm of handsome, affable types, dressed in jackets and ties.

“Please, let me take that box for you!” His name was Jack. He was talking to my mother.

“Oh, that’s so sweet!” She giggled. Really. My mother giggled. We were getting on the elevator in Alger Hall when he told us he played soccer. By the time we got up to my floor, she was saying, “Oh, you’re a goalie!” There were several trips up and down, during which Jack never let my mother carry anything heavier than a bottle of shampoo.

When we were finished, my father pulled a dollar from his wallet. “Oh, no sir. Thanks, but not necessary!”

Then he turned his attention to me. “You should come to our first game on Saturday. It’s at two. I’ll look for you.”

My parents — off to the side and listening intently — beamed.

Jack shook my father’s hand. My parents looked over at me, as if to say, Well, isn’t he a fine young man. He would never do any of the things we didn’t think it necessary to tell you about because, well, we weren’t prepared for this particular moment.

Their little Brillo Head had finally made it. They weren’t worried. Not one bit.

When Surf Was Up on Long Island

High school Study Hall. Is there such a thing anymore? I’m guessing no, but I feel too outmoded to ask anyone. The other day I was talking to my college-aged niece, who asked for advice on a paper she was writing. I suggested she look at the microfiche files in the library. Her head tilted. I could see by her baffled look I had — once again — forgotten what century we’re in. I’d rather not feel that way twice in one month.

So for those of you who may have missed it, Study Hall was a period built into your schedule when you were supposed to crack open those books and get to it. As far as I could ever see, it was split right down gender lines. For boys, it was a chance to put their heads down on the cafeteria table and close their eyes until the teacher patrolling the room poked their backs and said, “Sit up straight!” Girls were better at using the time wisely. We spent a solid 45 minutes passing notes. And again, for those of you who may have been born after Richard Nixon resigned, passing notes was texting with paper. Slower but with better spelling.

And if you don’t know who Nixon was, I can’t help you.

Brenda and I sat across from each other, experts at writing quickly, then folding the sheet of notebook paper into a tight white triangle. When the teacher was looking the other way, we flicked the note across the table. As I recall, there was always a lot of punctuation involved in our notes. And lots of P.S. messages at the bottom.

In Study Hall one afternoon, Brenda shot me the first note of the period, and it came with exciting news: “Richie Valenti asked me out!!!” We didn’t know much about Richie Valenti, but the sketchy facts we did have were exciting. He lived on the water in the section of Massapequa called Bar Harbor, where all the cool rich kids lived. And he was a surfer, hence three exclamation points. Hyperbole was required with surfers.

Richie Valenti had all of the surfer prerequisites, while most boys had two or three. He owned his own board. He had a wardrobe of madras and sandals. He was blond and he drove a Mustang convertible.

Looking back, I think the part about actually balancing on a giant piece of fiberglass in the ocean might have been optional. Maybe surfing on Long Island was the beginning of my generation being all full of ourselves and trying to educate our dowdy parents with a universal truth we had discovered: Appearance is everything.

Gilgo Beach Inn

Since I didn’t have boyfriends of my own back then, I made it my business to take Brenda’s very seriously. Lucky for me, Richie invited Brenda to Gilgo Beach often to watch him surf, but her mother insisted I go along, too, because there were bikinis involved, and it made her nervous. The ocean still made me a little nervous, too. As a teenager, I went back to barely attempted standing in the ocean beyond my ankles. I was fearful what I’d witnessed happen to Susie Patterson’s bikini top in the rough waves would happen to me, and then I would have to move to a different state.

This much I will say for Richie’s timing. It was impeccable. Every single time, just as we arrived, he would manage to be wet and running out of the surf. He’d stick his board in the sand, slightly out of breath as if he’d just finished conquering the Bonzai Pipeline. Then he’d take a long time to shake the salt water out of his long blond hair. For the entire summer, we never actually saw him do more than that. But our adoration never faltered.

I’ve always hoped he found his way into advertising.

Why I Don’t Throw Away My Parents’ Letters

When my parents were in their 70s, they downsized and decided on a sensible condominium. That meant leaving the house on Hamilton Avenue, in Massapequa, where I had grown up. They began getting rid of stuff, and my mother made it clear that I should make room in my car on my next visit to take some things back to Baltimore.

When I got to their house, five boxes with my name on them were stacked by the front door, my mother’s subtle way of saying, “Please get this crap out of here.”

Two contained books I didn’t read in college. Two more held clothes that might come in handy for a Halloween costume somewhere down the line, if I could ever fit into them, which would never happen. The last was a shoebox labeled, Linda’s Letters from College.

The box with the letters was unexpected. I didn’t know my mother had kept them, and knowing what they said, I wished she hadn’t. I considered just throwing the box away, unopened, knowing how embarrassed I’d be if I read them. Then I thought, “She saved them for 30 years.” So when I was back in Baltimore and alone, I opened each letter as if a hairy spider might jump out at me. They were every bit as bad as I remembered.

I can see I wrote every week of freshman year. I don’t know what got me the most — that I come from an era where people actually wrote letters, or that these innocent little envelopes contained such didactic drivel. Apparently, I had figured out everything by second semester away at a state college, and I felt the need to share.

I want to say it’s the letters from sophomore year in 1970 make me wince, but it’s worse than that. I’m ashamed of them. I was taking Sociology 101 that spring, which made me an expert on Vietnam, racial tension, and poverty. I had an epiphany in that class about my upbringing and, in those letters, hit my parents over the head with it, with lengthy paragraphs outlining their many mistakes.

They had given me a middle class childhood that I would now have to crawl out of because — really — there were few conditions worse than being middle class. Even I (who was practically a sociologist at that point) couldn’t think of anything worse. I lectured them on how they had bought into “the system.” They were materialistic. They didn’t understand oppression in America. If I had to label the tone I adopted, “How dare you!” would probably do it.

In 1950, ever the planners, my parents moved into our home a few months before I was born. Our neighborhood was just-planted maple trees, loose gravel on the road, and no sidewalks.

Most of the streets within a mile radius were named for American states and cities. But by the time they got to my street, Canada was suddenly involved with the street names Toronto, Ontario, and my street, Hamilton. I walked nine blocks to school, passing streets with names like New Hampshire, Boston, Pittsburgh, and Massachusetts, which gave me time to think about how the street-naming process should have been more organized. I wanted a street name that was American. I didn’t think it was too much to ask, considering the times and my patriotic heart. I took some solace in the fact that I didn’t live on the next street over from mine — Jerusalem — because I had no idea where Jerusalem was.

My parents wanted a house with a basement, not one built on a concrete slab, so Levittown was out. Ours was a two-bedroom Cape Cod with one bathroom. These houses also came with a garage, an unfinished basement, and an attic that, sooner or later, almost everyone would expand with a dormer for more bedrooms. Even when our parents looked at the tiny boxes these homes were, they were imagining the future.

The basement space came in handy for the rec room. I used to see ads in the Saturday Evening Post of families gathered around their ping pong tables, with trays of food behind them on a built-in bar. The lighting was always soft, and those rec rooms had carpeting. Some even had a fireplace and a piano with a dozen or so people arm in arm, belting out a tune.

Our rec room had trouble keeping up. It was at the bottom of our wooden stairs with those brown rubber pads on them so you wouldn’t trip. It had one tiny casement window, knotty-pine paneling that went halfway up the wall, and a linoleum floor in a pattern that looked like an accident of some kind. In the summer I’d make believe it was air-conditioned when we watched TV down there. In the winter you needed a blanket over you. My parents talked about mildew a lot. But at least our house didn’t sit on a slab.

My father signed up for the GI Bill and began college classes at night after his workday at Grumman was over. For twelve years, he commuted to Hofstra two evenings a week. The other three nights my mother worked the evening shift as a nurse at Brunswick Hospital, in neighboring Amityville. Those nights my father studied while taking care of me, and later, my two brothers. On the weekends they cleaned house, food shopped, and cleared the decks for the week ahead.

In the summers we took a vacation, but my father, a history buff and reader, was always partial to places like Gettysburg or Fort Ticonderoga, so even then I wasn’t having as much fun as other kids. Holidays involved the same cast of characters my whole life — aunts, uncles, cousins, and neighbors. Food, fun, and lots of noise. Imagine my angst.

That was the life I was up against when I took stock in 1970. Years and years later, I got over the embarrassing situation my parents had put me in, and began carving out — imagine this — a middle class life for my own kids. The only differences were that I worked half as hard and talked about it twice as much as Jean and Ed DeMers did.

When do you get far enough away from your childhood to really see it for what it was? Maybe when you get your first job and that alarm clock isn’t your friend, and it dawns on you that your dad did this every single morning while you were asleep in your cozy bed.

Maybe the moment you see your first baby. And that overwhelming love takes you by surprise. And only then do you understand how your parents felt the day they met you.

I think my mother knew exactly what she was doing when she handed me that box of letters. It was as if she was saying, “Someday you’ll see.”

And I kept them all. And I do.

Feeling my Age at Panera

Whenever I eat alone in a restaurant, I bring a little notebook and jot down what I’m thinking. It helps me feel less awkward, as if people might be wondering why I don’t have a lunch partner. Sometimes I write down bits and pieces of what I’m overhearing, conversation I may use later in something I’m writing.

I read an Anne Tyler interview once where she said she takes her notebook everywhere and writes down what she hears around her — dialogue, inflection, words that lead with the famous Baltimore accent. So when I pull out the little notebook, I just pretend to be her. I’m always hoping someone will mistake me for her, too, like they’re thinking: Hmmm, maybe she grew her bangs out. Hmmm, she looks a little heavier than she did on her last book jacket, but — you know — that happens. As far as I can tell, no one has been fooled yet.

I had my notebook out one day last fall when a group of high school kids walked into a sandwich place in my neighborhood. They took three tables and slid them together and, as their first official act, plopped down their phones. Their talk kept getting interrupted by different customized ring tones and scores of texts going back and forth with other kids who weren’t at the table.

It felt exhausting to me, not being able to understand all of what was going on. And I’d had this exact feeling when I was a kid. Instead of technology, though, it was Italian that did me in.

Our neighbors across the street were first generation immigrants from Milan. Their niece, who was my age and bilingual, would come to visit from Brooklyn with her Italian-speaking parents. One summer she and I got to be friends and I was invited across the street often, where she acted as my interpreter.

In my mind, her extended family ate a lot, more often than my family did, it seemed. Maybe the dinners were just longer and louder. Conversations constantly switched from English to Italian and back again without warning, sometimes in the same sentence. My friend never lost a word of whatever the topic was, and I was jealous of that. I found getting half of any story frustrating.

One day I said to her, as if this would be no big deal, “I want you to teach me Italian.”

“Oh, it’s easy,” she said. “If you just try really hard, you’ll be able to understand everything my parents say. Just listen to e-v-e-r-y word.That’s what I do.”I know she wasn’t purposely steering me wrong, that in her mind that’s what she’d done since she learned to talk.

I, of course, continued to be exasperated that I’d get to the end of a story and suddenly the medium would change on me and I’d be lost. I must say that what these high school students were doing at the next table wasn’t exactly a walk in the park for old people like me either. A lot of questions seemed to go unanswered as their heads bobbed up and down from their phones, and their thumbs were in constant motion. They wore earbuds and went from listening to talking to reading without warning.

What really caught my attention, though, was when they started talking about the John F. Kennedy assassination. The 50th anniversary was coming up, and I’m sure there were hashtags involved, whatever the hell that means. For all their advanced technology, though, their facts were sketchy, and one of them — who kept showing his hand with words like Los Angeles and killed in the hotel kitchen — was talking about the other Kennedy assassination.

For a minute, I thought about gently leaning over into their space and setting the record straight, perhaps the old school teacher in me. I realized, though, that if I started talking in an I was there tone, they would look at me as if I’d been front row at Ford’s Theatre, too.Because when I did the math, I realized that, chronologically, they’re about as far from Kennedy’s death as I was from the McKinley assassination (about which I know nothing). I wisely stayed silent.

It’s easy to keep quiet when you realize that you came of age watching a black and white TV, and the kids at the next table have a good chance of somehow confusing that with Morse Code. Or Mamie Eisenhower with Mary Todd Lincoln. Or any number of mix-ups that would make you feel #old.

[Up on Thursday: “11/22/63 at Parkside Junior High School”]