There it was on my Twitter feed – what a word, “feed”!, like when little Lola looks at her grandfather and with exquisite economy of words, opens her mouth and points her finger down the gorge and says, “feed!” – a picture from 1994, of Spielberg, Scorsese, Coppola, Lucas, and Brian DePalma, all of whom had ascended to movie immortality in the 70's, drinking after dinner at Lucas's 50th, big smiles, white tablecloth, hair still dark although some beards white, the immortals. What would they do next? We know, because it's now the 20-teens, and the future has been written, and we know that they never really descended, they just moved on and in Spielberg's case even further up, and it's still hard to say they weren't the best.
But what I know and others don't, probably, even Brian himself, is what happened before, and where another fork in the road ended up. Because I am just one year younger than he is and for four years we went to the same school, Friends Central School, just outside of Philadelphia, a Quaker school that still had some Quakers but they were a minority in their own school. We were Jews, of course, (not Brian, but the rest of us) from West Philadelphia, I was on 47th just off of Osage, Bob was at 46th between Osage and Pine, and Stuart was on Osage between 46th and 47th. Our parents knew each other, so we knew each other, and somehow all three families, and Billy Loesher's family from 46th and Osage, too, all had found FCS and had abandoned the inadequate local Henry C. Lea Elementary School.
We commuted together in a dark green station wagon supplied by the school, with a driver who came by and picked us up at our houses and took us the 45 minutes or so over city streets, out Walnut to 63rd and then North past J. McCullough, Undertaker and various other landmarks that we imbibed daily as we drank in the parts of the city we would never see otherwise – well, maybe Bob would, but I wouldn't – and it was Bob (then called Robert), the four of us Shenkin's, and Stuart Egnal. And a few others. I must be misremembering, because how could such a crew fit into that dark green station wagon, I wonder?
Stuart was a year ahead of me, and I was a year ahead of Bob. Stuart was bigger than I was by a little, his father and mother being a little bit bigger than my parents. Mike Egnal was tall and lanky, a lawyer, and in the summer he ruled a public tennis court down in Beach Haven, NJ, saying who would play when. My father envied his dominance somewhat, I think, as he did the social savoir faire of lawyers who, when a situation arose, somehow knew how to take charge, while my father's dominance was confined to the hospital, where his prestige as a neurosurgeon conferred the rights that Mike seemed just to assume on the tennis court. Mike's wife, Stuart's mother Sylvia, had a similar physique to Mike's, above average height, wide shoulders, and more respectful and non-intrusive than most of the Jewish women I knew and would come to know. I came to understand that she had eyes on me for her daughter Betty Ellen, a couple of years older than me and later on at Radcliffe when I got to Harvard, but I didn't see her there, although I think Sylvia wanted me to look her up and Betty was receptive (maybe obediently) but she had her own life and I think she wound up in London, like my youngest sister, Emily, and I think she was in art history. I'm not completely sure she was in art history, but I think she was, but I'm positive she wound up in London. Come to think of it, I think Sylvia painted.
When you finished 6th grade at FCS you moved across the roundabout at the end of the driveway to the Upper School, which was to my eyes a Victorian sort of building, with towers, wood floors, and narrow or medium sized hallways, and classrooms with warm lights and windows that looked out on trees and greenery that you wouldn't see around West Philadelphia. Sunlight and green trees and grass and bushes and little swales filled me up with something, a feeling of being saved, a feeling of luck, a feeling of being taken care of by my parents, a feeling of luck, and a feeling of being somehow out of their element and therefore a little out of mine, too, but accepted by these Quaker step-parents who were patient with me, even with my high-spirits, and some even liked me, like Mr. Burgess. Everyone had to play sports, and even if my parents weren't as big as his, and even if I was a little smaller than he was, I still thought, I knew, that I was a better athlete than Stuart. He was OK, but I was better. And even if Betty Ellen was smart, which I didn't know at the time, I knew that Stuart wasn't that smart. How do these genes sort themselves out, I wonder? It's a puzzle, even if we know 99.9% of our genes are identical, that .1% is pretty powerful, and I don't think it's just environment. Or maybe it's just the differences we concentrate on. I don't know.
Stuart hung around with Brian; they were in 8th grade when I was in 7th in the Upper School, just getting used to the Victorian architecture instead of the less elevated functional architecture of the Lower School, where Miss Reagan would still take a half-hour now and then to read a book to us all in class – can you get that, reading a book collectively to 6th graders? I'm sure that doesn't happen anymore – and I remember she read to us about Chaim Solomon, who was depicted as the brains behind the financier Robert Morris, who funded the American Revolution. Was there a reason they picked that book, were they nipping at anti-Semitism in a school populated by a significant number of suburban gentiles who chose private school over the quite acceptable suburban public schools, the gentrified business people of the Main Line? Or in the case of Brian De Palma, the son of business but of a physician my father knew, whom my father thought he outranked even though he was Jewish, because after all my Dad was a neurosurgeon, and one who had excelled as a resident at Penn, indeed, had been legendary (if abrasive). Tony De Palma was an orthopedist at Jefferson, and when Brian's name came up, my Dad recalled that yes, he knew his father. Doctors tended all to know one another in those days, I think, there were so many fewer, and orthopods and neurosurgeons were sometimes rivals.
As I carefully roamed the narrow hallways and back stairs with windows to the natural world of the Upper School, since I was in 7th grade and then 8th grade – my last year at FCS, since we moved to Lower Merion over the summer and I switched to Ardmore Junior High and then Lower Merion High – I was conscious of myself the way an early teen is, for the first time, although I didn't notice that I had grown a new part of my brain that seemed to observe me. Those are the years of your life that you turn into different streets of life, not necessarily mean streets, especially in the suburbs, when girls stop being just an annoyance, when you can do the harder math pretty easily, when your shots start falling into the basket more readily. These are the years that a parent wants you to be around good influences, caring people, and nice kids, to be able to see trees and bushes and the sky around you and to smell the spring and trample on the turf. Those are the years when you find out more about what you're good at and what you like, and where you continue to find out where you stack up.
I was lucky. I was good at things. I was good at math and science and reasoning and I read on my own, although I don't think I was much of a writer. And I was the best basketball player in my grade and I played shortstop and I hit well, and I even was good at football where I ran the ball and intercepted well on defense and could field a punt surely. Stuart was a year ahead, with Brian, and even though his father was a lawyer and his mother intelligent and his sister would be going to Radcliffe, Stuart just wasn't that smart. I guess we were rivals, but I'm competitive, so I guess we competed, at least in my mind, I guess predominantly in my mind, reflecting my father's mind which always seemed to have a tennis ranking system in place, with intelligence as traditionally conceived the means of ranking, and with intelligence mediated by grades. I got good grades for achievement and lesser grades for behavior. I imagine the parents talked about their kids' grades and struggles and achievements, and compared and competed and worried (what anguish that could be), and hoped. Hoped the way Coppola's Brando wanted Michael to pass into the ranks of the pezzonovante, a Senator or Governor or something like Kennedy, I would think. Years later, when I decided to be a pediatrician and not a hotshot academic or something in government, my mother observed that I had chosen “a little life.” My Mom had a way with the cutting bon mot, concise, hurtful, she thought realistic. I don't think Sylvia indulged in that, but who knows outside the family?
My Mom sat me down one day and told me I was smart enough that I could be anything I wanted, except maybe a mechanic or someone who put things together. I objected that I could be a mechanic if I wanted, and her desired positive insight and support turned into a stalemate. I guess she wanted me to put an eye on the prize as I wandered, and it was true, I wasn't good at choosing, never was, and not helped by her who kept choosing for me, maybe trying to help, but maybe just impatient with me, when she chose rapidly and decisively and I could hardly figure out later on which brand of shaving cream to settle on down at Ricklin's Hardware in Narberth. They say that sometimes in a family temperaments are mismatched, and that's what I've settled on for my diagnosis.
I wonder what Sylvia would say to Stuart. His default would be to be a lawyer like Mike, and like his younger brother Johnny would be, but Stuart wouldn't have been up to it. He was spirited, though. I remember walking through the Upper School hallway and coming upon Stuart and Brian, just outside the door to one of the classrooms and beside an exit to the second floor stairs, with driveway below and trees and sloping field out the back, towards where now the Lankenau Hospital has filled in the entire landscape, which we saw arising just at that time with orange girders looming above the football field, and there they were, the two of them, spirited. They had bent down in half deep knee bends so their thighs stuck out in front of them, and in unison they were clapping their hands together then hitting their thighs and doing a drumming beat and they were chanting, I remember so clearly, something I had never heard before, “It's a treat to beat your meat on the Mississippi mud, it's a treat to beat your meat on the Mississippi mud,” with naughty smiles as their classmates walked out of the room and onto another class. Their voices had changed and the chant was low-pitched. This is my memory of them, two friends with a common spirit.
The last time I saw Stuart was outside the American Express office in Paris, as we picked up mail in the summer of 1962 on vacation, just running into each other. I was with my brother, about to pick up a blue Volkswagen bug and drive it down to Greece and back to Amsterdam and send it home so Bobby could drive it to the University of Michigan where he would be a sophomore. Stuart was there with other friends, and he told us with excitement and expectation and a little bit of wonder that he was there and doing that, that they were going to Spain. Spain was ruled by Franco, and cautious as I was, inherited from my parents' McCarthy days experience, I wouldn't for a minute think of going there. We took off for Italy instead, untutored in the world, driving a lot, and getting homesick maybe, meeting some girls, not knowing how to have too good a time, maybe, I'm not sure. But Stuart was headed to Spain.
And Stuart had decided to be an artist. An artist? Who decided to be an artist? Who knew he could draw? Could he draw, or paint? Who knew? Who did that? Who didn't become a doctor or a lawyer? The way Russians and Indians become engineers. Stuart an artist? But yeah, Sylvia painted, I'm sure she did.
I actually still have a painting that Stuart did, I think, maybe somewhere, or maybe just in my mind. It was a pottery vase, yellow, with a plain medium blue background, maybe it was OK, or good, or who knows, it wasn't Picasso, but it sure wasn't something that I could have done, either. A 36 inch tall picture, maybe. But after that meeting at the Paris American Express, the next time I saw the Egnal family was a few years later, when they were supposed to be sitting shiva after Stuart died of thyroid cancer. He must have been in his twenties, and my parents pushed me in through the front door of their house without knocking, because as far as they knew that's what the tradition was, and because my mother said “Stuart was Buddy's friend,” and because I always seemed to be pushed forward, and we saw the Egnal family à table, just the four of them then, and they looked up surprisedly and didn't know what to make of the intrusion at first, and then Sylvia looked up from her end of the table that was facing me, and said, “Buddy!” and came over and was emotional and welcoming and I wondered if I had been closer to them and to Stuart than I knew. Johnny had visited Stuart everyday he was in the hospital, out at Temple I think I remember, and been a good brother to the end, somewhat to my wonder because I just remembered him as a kind of clutzy younger brother. What does one say when a child dies, even if he had struggled there were still hopes and love and what do you do? You just lean on yourself and others and even if you're not religious you lean a bit on God, I think, and hope there's something in the world or beyond it, something somewhere.
But there was Brian, so much like Stuart in my memory, with Marty and George and Francis and Stephen – but no Stuart, and of course even absent the cancer, there would have been no Stuart in that picture, of course. It's only in my mind.
The last time I saw Sylvia was at someone's funeral, maybe my Dad's, I don't know. She was still living at their house on Osage, by herself, Mike having died many years ago after years of debility, and she seemed a little smaller but still somewhat rangy, still driving herself, at the age of 96. Amazed at herself. I wonder if she liked Brian's pictures? I wonder if she saw them.