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.

I Learned One Thing at Summer Camp

There are decisions you make when you’re in a good mood. This was one of them.

At the end of a triumphant first year of teaching 5th grade, I accepted a friend’s offer to work at a summer camp in the Berkshires. My boyfriend, Jeff, (who would in a couple of years become my husband) took a job there, too.

We dreamed of wholesome fun in the rolling countryside of Connecticut. We thought of it as a summer “off.” Rustic log cabins, fresh mountain air. Trust falls, color wars, and camaraderie up the whazoo.

Hindsight arrived about two hours into the first day of the campers’ arrival. Kids were being unloaded from their parent’s station wagons and everything got ahead of me and my trusty clipboard. Returning campers were hugging each other and — I thought — wary of the new staff. It was noisy. It was crowded. There was running and jumping everywhere. And who knew the Berkshires sun could be so blazing at 9 in the morning?

I sensed immediately that I had a big problem. It was called camp.

Here’s the thing. I had never been to camp. I had never even been at a camp. I had never been in charge of 13-year-old girls. I didn’t know that 13-year-olds bear no resemblance to the 11-year-olds in my class back in upstate New York who spent a whole year thinking I was mildly cool. I didn’t know that everything in a camp is about half a mile away from the next thing in a camp. Trails were dusty. Instead of a cabin, I slept in a platform tent. There were mice.

Whoever built this camp had the foresight to put the girls and boys sections as geographically inconvenient to each other as humanly possible. This kept adolescent campers from the dangers of proximity after dark.

But it also meant that the only time I got to see Jeff was at meals. We’d look at each other from our respective tables, across a cavernous room made noisy by camp songs, the lyrics of which I didn’t know. I never caught on to the ten minutes or so of rhythmic table slamming and chants that sailed back and forth after dinner every night about who had spirit. Clearly, spirit was not in my repertoire.

camp-dining-hall-action

Our day off was consumed by hours at the Laundromat trying to get the campfire smell out of my clothes and cataloging the new names I was being called behind my back by the girls in my section. Jeff, on the other hand, was having the time of his life. He’d found that afternoons at the waterfront trying to upend canoes were much more fun than being a graduate student back at Syracuse University. He loved all of it. A week in, he announced he wanted to come back the next year.

So the problem wasn’t camp after all, I decided. It was me.

I bailed out of the job after the first 4-week session, and I’m not sure I ever apologized to my friend about that, so I will now because I know she’s reading this: I put you in a bad spot leaving the way I did. I’m sorry. I’m all for being out of my comfort zone once in a while, but after four weeks as a camp counselor, I was out of my mind.

My supervisor insisted on putting my evaluation in writing even as I was packing my things and sobbing out of embarrassment and shame for not seeing the summer through. Her comment at the bottom of the page remains one of the truest sentences ever written about me: “Linda’s personality is not in sync with the intensity of the camp experience.”

I went home to my parents’ house on Long Island for a week. I went right to bed and stayed there for a day or two. Then I ate grilled cheese and watched television until I felt better about myself.

I kept rethinking the opaque wording of the evaluation. I was 23 and thought I knew myself. Not fitting in at camp was a failure. At least until I got tired of grilled cheese and watching I Love Lucy reruns and felt like my old self again.

Then I regrouped and went back to teaching in September. To anyone who asked how my summer had been, I would force a little laugh and say, “Well, now I know I’m not cut out for the camp life.”

In all the years since, I’ve realized that camp was only the first indication that I am not cut out for large groups of anything. I am fine at cocktail parties, but they are work for me. Volunteering for field trips when my kids were in school was an act of pure love. I will never know the joy of Black Friday that some people get all breathless about.

I’m a person who needs down time, and the older I get the more I seem to thrive on it. I’m a person who opens my front door at the end of the day, takes a deep breath, and loves the idea that I don’t have to talk to another person until the morning. Being alone for part of Wednesday is what fuels me for Thursday.

Thanks to camp, I was able to make two life decisions. I knew at my core that I would never become a member of a cult. They usually have to eat in dining halls, too. And I believe there may be chanting involved. Maybe about spirit and who has more of it.

I also figured out that my personality wouldn’t be in sync with the prison experience. So I’ve always tried to make sure that’s not an option.

So no surprise that you’ll never find me searching the Internet for a group of tortured souls in Colorado who have found bliss by eating radishes for breakfast and worshiping Zeus. I’ll continue to stay on the sunny side of the law, too.

If anyone wonders why, it’s because of what I learned. At 23. At camp.