Saturday, January 21, 2023

For A While, I Felt Like King Of The World

 

King of the World


The time that I might have been happiest was in fourth grade. I was in a public elementary school in West Philadelphia, where my mother had grown up, and we lived just two blocks from the Henry C. Lea Elementary School at 47th and Spruce. I forget who Henry C. Lea was, but I'm afraid to go back and google it, for fear that he will turn out to have been racist. But it didn't make any difference to me what he had been, or what the school was named. I know for sure that my mother had gone to the more felicitously named West Philly High, which was just around the corner, I think. My brother and sisters had all been born by then, and the six of us lived in a three story semi-detached house in a neighborhood that was influenced by the University of Pennsylvania, down at 34th and Spruce, where there was the University, a museum of anthropology called the University Museum, with large cases and smooth and polished concrete floors that we could slide on if we ran and had only our socks on, and where there was a big, round stadium, Franklin Field, where they had football games, which I saw when I was young once or twice, and where every spring they held the Penn Relays, a hugely important track and field event, which I had never gone to, but which I knew about because I read the Philadelphia Bulletin, our evening newspaper.

By fourth grade, I felt like being a senior, and so I felt like a king. Our school assemblies were from kindergarten to fourth grade; when you got to fifth grade, which I never did because that was when we switched to private school, you were thrown in with the sixth, seventh, and eighth graders – no junior high or middle schools then, just the upper section of elementary school – and you were at the bottom again. But in fourth grade, you were at the top. You had been there for five years, you knew the ropes, you knew the games in the big concrete school yard, games like flipping cards and our version of handball against the big, concrete wall that separated the school from the next-door osteopathic college, which I learned from my neurosurgeon father and homemaker mother to hold in some contempt, although I didn't quite know why. We also played running bases, catch, and maybe some touch football. We saw the older kids hanging around, like the Tjerian brothers, Johnny and Pat, Johnny looking like a thug in sixth grade. A mixed crowd, and we held our own.

There were three of us in our grade who were tight, the three musketeers, we called ourselves. Me; Arnold Bernstein, my best friend; and Irving Gerowitz, who told us one day that his family had changed their name to Gerwood, and he gave some sort of explanation that didn't include saying that the new name sounded less Jewish. We also included a fourth, lesser member, a smaller kid named Bruce Leanness, who was fast. I Just found out from my friend Bob that he was also Jewish, and his father was the soccer coach at Temple and is regarded as the Dean of American Collegiate Soccer Coaches. It was all a mixed but white neighborhood, and there were a bunch of neighborhood kids, like Frankie Collissey who lived across the street, who went to Catholic school, at St. Francis de Sales. Frankie told us that we learned for this life but they learned for the afterlife, as though you could believe that shit, but he apparently did. But at Lea School, we musketeers viewed ourselves as cream of the crop, the best athletes, I was probably the smartest in the class, and Arnold was great at math. His father drove a taxicab, and sometimes I would visit him and his little brother Stevie and his mother Faye at their apartment over on Chestnut Street around 48th Street. I was startled to see that it was small and they all lived there, and their father was asleep because he drove a cab at night.

By fourth grade, we had weathered the preliminaries. Fat and jolly and warm Mrs. Huggins for kindergarten. The more popular teacher (among the mothers, anyway) was Mrs. Tufts, who was thin and taller and gray haired, but I liked my teacher best, Mrs. Huggins. I don't think she actually hugged us, but I didn't miss the implication. Then the more angular Mrs. Anderson in probably second grade, who once went around the class and asked a question and someone was standing up and gave the right answer, but Mrs. Anderson challenged him or her, I think it was a girl, and she backed down, and then Mrs. Anderson admonished her, “Stick to your guns!” Wow! How I learned from that!

Later on in fourth grade it was Mrs. Ousey, whom we of course called Mrs. Lousy when she couldn't hear us – we were so clever – and my mother warned me not to say it, because sometime I might forget and say it when she could hear. When there was a parent teacher conference and my mom and dad met with her and she gushed about how smart I was, saying “Definitely college material!” my parents took it as a sign that they couldn't keep me there, if this was a low-bar school where it wasn't assumed that most everyone would go to college. The next year all four of us kids started going to Friends' Central school about 30 or 40 minutes away, out on City Line, along with some neighborhood friends, including Bob Levin, one class behind me, who is now my oldest friend, except for my brother and sisters. Bob remembers that “we didn't like each other,” but I reply to him, “Well, I liked you.”

Needless to say, at Henry C. Lea Elementary School, we were prepubescent. Now they talk about “hormones kicking in,” so prepubescent kids expect that, but I was blissfully and completely unaware of all that. Girls were there, and I liked some of them, even though they couldn't play sports. I was aware that the other kids were different, and I didn't quite know what to make of it. It just registered. John Lewis was thin and light haired and gentle, but mostly, he distinguished himself by being uncoordinated. He ran like a girl, you could say, and maybe we did say that. Couldn't throw. He wasn't manly, the way Arnold and Irving and I were, and Bruce. We were all about sports and manliness, although we were nice and kind and not mean. John was smart enough, but he didn't fit with us. He hung out more with the girls, like Patty, a fat girl who sat upright at her desk with her hands folded in front of her and her lips turned in a little – you know how you do that? Is there a word for that? It's not pursed, I think, pursed is like ready to kiss. But this is when you kind of suck your lips in so they don't show. Anyway, that's what Patty did. And there was Lenore Cooperstein who was smart and who was a little reserved and stern, and nice enough and once we went to a birthday party at her house and Arnold and I tortured her by pulling up her dress and laughing as she got mad at us. I told my mother and she told one of her friends and laughed at it, in a way that understood that this was what boys did. As the oldest kid in the family, everything I did was new for her.

But mostly, when it comes to the other kids in the class beyond the musketeers, there was Connie. Connie, with her blondish hair cut so that it came down around her face and stopped at her jaw line, whose hair was straight, who I thought was the prettiest girl anyone could possibly imagine. If there could be something called a girlfriend in those days, she was my girlfriend, although I can't recall a single thing we did together except stand up and look at each other straight on and smile. Except for one time. That time, we were all at our desks, and we had all been given Dixie Cups – ice cream in a cup, half chocolate and half vanilla, with a little wooden spoon. Ice cream! What could be better than ice cream! But, amazingly, Connie didn't want hers. Why didn't she? Who can imagine why, but she didn't. So she went up to the teacher, it might have been Mrs. Anderson, and said that she didn't want hers, so Mrs. Anderson announced to the class that Connie didn't want hers, and who did? Me!! Me!! It seemed like the whole class was raising their hands toward the front, straining with effort, shouting Me!! Me!! So Connie surveyed the class, and with the sweetest smile anyone has ever had, she walked down the aisle to the middle of the class where I was seated and she reached out and gave me the Dixie Cup. I said, Thanks a lot!!! We looked at each other and smiled. I still remember that smile. She kept her smile and went back to her seat and I ate the best Dixie Cup ice cream I have ever had. Truthfully, I can taste it now. Connie had some complicated last name, I think it was Greek, that I couldn't seem to remember. My God, she was beautiful.

But then, of course, we switched to private school. No more king, no more musketeers, no more class representative to the student council, no more assemblies where we were the oldest and most experienced. Out to Friends Central on City Line, which was beautiful and, to me, bucolic, with a big hill behind the school property, where they constructed Lankenau Hospital a few years later and we saw it go up, with orange steel girders on the green hill. There were some big trees on the Friends' Central property, some playing fields with grass, where we had mandatory sports after school, with uniforms and shoulder pads and spikes for football, and an old gym and a new gym, named after the Linton family, who owned a chain of modest restaurants (called “Linton's,” amazingly enough) that competed more or less with Horn and Hardart's, and whose kids were students there – David in my class, long and lanky and fair and introverted, fast when he got going with thin fists clenched, and soccer fields, and a big wide slide for the lower school kids to use at recess, and some parents who picked their kids up with woodie station wagons, and who my mother later assured me, were anti-Semitic. Some were, I'm sure, and the in-group in my class must have been somewhat, but overall, the biggest difference was that I was no longer king, and we didn't have the musketeers. I was still smart and athletic, but it was different. One time Dave Kirk, our football coach and our history or social studies teacher, took me aside, probably in 7th or 8th grade, and asked me, I forget the words, why was I uptight? I had everything, he said, I was smart and a good athlete, he probably said something about an outgoing personality and pretty good looks, so why did I have a chip on my shoulder? I wonder that to this day. I think that was the same class where he gently and amusedly told me while we were taking a test to stop giving answers to the girls. It must have been eighth grade. Some people come to a new situation and rise to the top, but I just didn't. I was among the smart kids, as always, Jon Gross thought he was smarter but I don't think he was, and I was definitely smarter than Barry Sharpless, who went on to win two Nobel Prizes at Scripps for chemistry, and no one was a better athlete. I played shortstop and was probably the best hitter. But Bob Hall was a good runner and well coordinated, and Bob Long was a good pitcher, so who knows. I had some friends, but no one like Arnold had been.

One time I excelled and was recognized for it, and was surprised. I did well in our public speaking class, and our teacher, Mr. Burgess, a very tall and thin man with close-cropped hair saw some talent, and stooped down in a crouch to ask me if I wanted to be in the high school senior play. I immediately said yes, and he was surprised I answered immediately, and was very pleased and stood up. My mother said that Mr. Burgess was wonderful, and I believe that to be true. The play was Our Town, and my part was Wally Webb, little brother of female lead Emily Webb, and my mother delivered me for many weekends out to rehearsal. I was part of the play, and treated like everybody's little brother, and Mr. Burgess taught us to say, “Break a leg!” I had one memorable line, delivered at the breakfast table when our mother told me to stop reading at the table, and I protested, “Aw, Ma, by 10 o'clock I have to know all about Canada!” That line was duly waited for and savored by every member of my family, all five having packed themselves in the car to see my one line, sitting proudly in the audience. I was in other plays later on, receiving impassioned applause as I exited the stage after declaiming the fate of my patient if he failed to follow my instructions in The Imaginary Invalid. If I had continued with that stage life, I truly believe I could have been a contender. But never a champ. And probably not really a contender. But what an experience it was, the stage.

I kept up with Arnold for a while, he would come to visit us for a week at our Long Beach Island, New Jersey beach house, but then it got too competitive and my father got angry at him for competing too hard with his son and he didn't come any more. A few years later my mother took my brother and me to Frank's Delicatessen on Spruce Street for lunch and Arnold was at a neighboring table with three or four friends and his brother Stevie was flitting around the edges, spied us, and excitedly told Arnold, look who's there, and Arnold sushed him away and didn't look up and we didn't acknowledge each other and that was that. Kind of a bad end, after all those years of close friendship. I still regret it.

So, I had friends in my class at Friends' Central and in other classes (including Brian De Palma who was a year ahead of me,) but no one like Connie, of course. Puberty had arrived, much to my confusion, since I was completely unprepared and no one was about to help me. My parents watched. My mother gave me two books to read, in one of which they misprinted “vagina” as “regina.” I asked my mother about it but she was mostly embarrassed. There were no sex-ed classes in those days. I had kind of a girl friend a year behind us, Carol Carr might have been her name, and my very blond classmate Steve Jess told me excitedly at some event or other, “She really has them!” Which meant breasts. Which was very confusing for me, since I hadn't much noticed. Was that desirable? Who wanted them? Steve was all excited about them, but I was mainly confused. I could see kissing, but that was about it. The only books I read were about sports and history. Then in 7th grade we had an infusion of new kids and one of them was Sally Couthy, who I think was southern, and who wore a flower in her hair, and who wore what I guess I would call flowered exuberant dresses, or sometimes tight ones, and who for some unknown reason took a liking to me. She was very exciting, but I was mostly scared, although I knew she was beautiful and, although I didn't know the word, sexy. We were at a party with girls and someone turned out the lights and there was squealing and I hid under a table, literally. It was a very confusing time.

It was a good thing that my father was a neurosurgeon, because those private school tuitions for four kids weren't easy, I'm sure. It speaks a lot to their values that my parents sprang for those tuitions, because they were careful about money, but spending it on the kids' education was top of the list. But finally, something must have snapped, because they had me apply to go to Central High in Philadelphia for 9th grade, where my father had gone and which was a top quality high school but where I didn't want to go, and then instead of going there, we moved to Wynnewood on the Main Line, named for Sir Thomas Wynn, physician to William Penn, and first speaker of the first Pennsylvania Assembly, or so spake the historical signpost. It was a little split level house in a development that was Jewish, just a few blocks down Montgomery Avenue from Ardmore Junior High and Lower Merion High School, which stood side by side. The schools were top quality, and I think the house cost maybe $35,000. There were four small bedrooms, and mine, at the end of the short hall, was tiny, enough room for a bed and they had Mr. Lopez, a carpenter, make built in shelves and drawers for clothes and a formica surface that would served as both top of the bureau and a desk, with fluorescent bulbs underneath the shelves that made for perfect lighting while I studied. My parents apologized for the small size, but I loved being down the hall and who needed space? I put up National Geographic maps on the wall on the theory if they were there I would gradually absorb all that geographic knowledge without working on it. My theory didn't work, but my sibs remember that “You loved maps.”

The year at Ardmore Junior High as a new kid was the way new schools are for kids, and they school had a tough time interpreting the report card from Friends' Central, that had O for outstanding for the academics but NI for needs improvement for behavior, so Ardmore averaged out the grades and put me not in 9R, the top section, or 9H, number two, but in 9S, third section down. Since I was a little bit ahead of the class in Latin and in math, coming from private school, and since there was no competition to speak of, academics was not a challenge for the year, and in fact the rumor got around that the new kid was smart – He reads Latin like it's English! And I made the football, the basketball, and the baseball teams, although I wasn't at the top the way I had been before. But some of the kids were bigger and more developed than I was.

And I had some balls. I insisted in speaking up in the football team meeting, making sure everyone knew I had been quarterback at Friends' Central, and I was a fierce tackler at linebacker that the coaches had to double team sometimes, but I didn't play much. Everyone and his brother went out for the basketball team, and Mr. Abrams, the coach, divided us into guards, forwards, and centers. I looked at the horde going to the guard side and decided, how will I ever be seen there? So despite my average height I went with the tall guys at forward. Mr. Abrams kind of gulped, but let it go. We worked out, ran the floor, and I got off a great shot in full flight as I flipped it in off the board from about 15 feet on the right side. When Mr. Abrams had seen enough and culled the lot, he said, OK, Shenkin, you can go with the guards now, and I was on the team.

It wasn't bad with my being with the average students for a year. I made friends, although not close ones, and I got to see what it was like. It was a mixed group. I remember Steve Wilson walking down the halls humming the first wave of rock and role music – maybe Tutti-Fruity. There were the Italian kids who made sure that they were the only ones who got to say Fungoo, because that was “their native language.” It was probably later on that one afternoon we were playing basketball just across the street from Ardmore Jr. High's black iron metal stake fence., at the house of the somewhat feckless Alan Greenough. It wasn't too late in the afternoon, but his father came out and said it was time for everyone to go home, and he would drive them. He asked me if I wanted a ride and I said I didn't need one, I'd walk, and then the car with all my friends in it passed me and they all waved. Later on, I found out that Greenough's father had just driven around the block and taken them all back to the house, and the object had been to get rid of the Jew. I felt pretty good when the company he was president of, the Pennsylvania Railroad, went bankrupt. To tell you the truth, it didn't bother me much. I knew I was better at everything than Greenough.

Lower Merion High was a fusion of Ardmore Junior High and Bala Cynwyd Junior High. There were a lot more Jewish kids from Bala Cynwyd, but by this time I was an Ardmore kid, where in the end, people had really been so nice to me, and where I had started to acquire lifelong friends – John Raezer, Bob “DiGi” DiGiovanni, Bill Birkhead, and even a guy named Charlie Newsom from Narberth, home of one of the premier Philadelphia basketball outdoor courts where Guy Rodgers and other pros were known to play, who told me not to give in to comments about my being Jewish, and took me to a Catholic club dance of some sort.

In English class I was with Loretta Siegel, who had fully developed breasts to the admiration of many but still to the ambivalence of me. Loretta would come over at the beginning of class and shake my hand, warmly, with feeling, and she would look into my eyes and say, Budd, don't ever change. It was the 9th or 10th grade equivalent of getting laid, but to me, it was pretty confusing. What was that all about? I wondered. My widowed paternal grandmother, Nana, got ahold of that information and grabbed it – she's Bernie Siegel's daughter, the great Philadelphia lawyer, Bernie Siegel! Like later on in college when I mentioned that one of the guys next door was Sam Saltonstall, a nice, quiet kid who mostly wanted to play the trumpet, and was probably burdened by the famous name. Nana said, stay close to him! Saltonstall!

But I digress. Lower Merion was, looking back on it, an oasis. Our group had a regular weekend poker games, now legendary, where we played the usual games, and famously, introduced by a visitor one time, one Bubble Liedman, Itsy-Bitsy With A Tiddle. Lynn Sherr, my close friend, wrote about it in her reminiscences, how the smartest kids were the best athletes and the most popular, all at once, she said. I don't know if that was true, but I couldn't have been happier and we are still good friends, so many of us, including Jon Gross, who had been my classmate at Friends' Central and had moved over to public school, like me. And we had the best high school class I every had, Special English, with Mrs. Hay, where we sat in a circle, maybe 18 or 20 of us, and read and discussed great literature in four areas, tragedy, freedom and responsibility, and two others – we struggle to remember them – and where Mrs. Hay cautioned us to be very careful using clichés, and where we wrote papers and we all read each others. There is a special part of heaven for Mrs. Hay.

We still have reunions for LM, and we still go. I don't know if we will anymore. After our 60th, they said we probably won't have anymore, but I said, hey, at our age, we shouldn't stick to every five years, time's awasting, we should move it up. So we did, DiGi taking the lead, and we had another one last year, but I couldn't go because my wife Ann was so sick. I was missed, they said, and I believe them.

At the reunions there were people we knew but weren't real close to, but that was great in itself. One of the great things about reunions is that they are an antidote to awkward unacknowledged goodbyes. But for the ones who don't come, the unacknowledgement remains. I did miss seeing some classmates. There was a bunch of kids who were kind of goof offs, or how could I explain it? Who weren't in our group, and I guess whose parents were lower middle class. We had our working class kids, from Manayunk, and our black kids from Ardmore, who still sting from the racism they encountered and which we didn't know what to do with in those pre Civil Rights times, and these other kids, like David Kirby and Hughie O'Neill, the motorcycle kids, had their own group. Maybe they'd go to college, they had parties and there was drinking, I heard. Not that we didn't drink, we did. There were no drugs in those days, that I knew about. These classmates don't come to the reunions. Others do, and I'm thrilled to see them. I introduced my wife Ann to a couple of them, telling Ann that Carol Arzio was the prettiest girl in the class, and Ann said, I can see why, and Vicky Casciatto, who now lives in Marin, and I said that everyone was jealous of her boyfriend and we all daydreamed about her, and she turned away a little, and blushed a little, and it seemed she was just super-pleased. Our friend, our really close friend Ricky Shryock doesn't come. His father ran a local hifi store, but his parents were divorced, and he ran from one to the other in his Kharmann Ghia, and he would stop by our house unannounced and would put a sandwich in our refrigerator and my mother would say, Ricky, you don't have to do that, I'll feed you, and he would go down to the basement with my brother Bobby and they would play cards and Rick would basically clean him out, and later on Rick had the distinction of marrying and divorcing one sister and then marrying the other sister, and the last job I heard he had was selling Snap-On Tools, but we all loved Ricky and he was such a great athlete, boy could he hit a baseball and he went to Lafayette College and I don't know if he graduated, but I think he hit .450 or so, but Rick had such character, he constructed a little golf course in his father's back yard where his Dad lived with Pat, his new wife, which Rick would play alone, and Rick moved back and forth between his mom in Narberth and his dad and Pat in Gladwyn, as I said. Ricky doesn't come to the reunions, although we all loved him so much.

Speaking of divorce, at the last reunion I went to I sat with Lynn and Angela Schrode a long time, and found out that Angela's days with us at LM were tortured, because her parents had a bitter divorce and she had to travel very far to come to school, and she was miserable, and I didn't know about it but Lynn did, because she explained it was Schrode and Sherr, so seating made them friends, and Angela became a professor of French literature at Sarah Lawrence, and just sitting and talking made that night just wonderful, we could hardly stop. I hadn't known, I think, that her mother had married Claude Rains, who Angela said was a difficult man.

And Hughie's girlfriend doesn't come. She was an extroverted girl, with a nice full chest, with kind of short, straight dark hair, who I thought was just so unobtainable and we ran in very different circles, she certainly seemed, as we say, much more advanced socially, and we didn't have any classes together, but I kind of looked at her, and sometimes, is it my imagination, or did she sometimes look at me? Maybe once or twice, maybe. Probably not. We never spoke. I sure wish she had come to some of our reunions. I'd like to see her again. Maybe she did, but I don't think so.

Her name was Connie Petropolis, I think.


Budd Shenkin

Tuesday, January 3, 2023