New York City. This is a view across the Hudson River to office buildings in Jersey City that have sprung up as Manhattan pricing has risen. I’m standing in Rockefeller Park at the west end of Chambers Street, the northern boundary of a series of spectacular parks that together form a strip of commercial development and public space that cradles the World Trade Center site. The cost and exclusivity of the office space behind me gave rise to the office space in front of me, across the river. I’m sure the view from across the river is as good or better.
While I was down in New Jersey in a house I spent time in as a young kid, I found a lot of visual reminders of stories long forgotten.
Seeing this pack of playing cards, in a pile of games in the sun room (right where it was when I was a kid) brought waves of feelings back to me.
Irving, who’s recent death brought me to his house, was a brilliant, warm, sloppy, floppy, funny, outrageous guy who was the exact opposite of my father who was also very smart (but never knew it in his lifetime) and a control freak (like yours truly). Today we would call Irving “a character” and as a kid he was a character I liked to be around, except when it came to these playing cards.
For me, the cards represent numerous games that Irving tried to teach me as a kid and which I could not get and so, could not play. Sometimes I’d run out of the sun room crying feeling so stupid that I didn’t get the simplest card games and Irving’s wife, Hope would march in and give him hell for making me cry. He never meant to and he never tried to intimidate anyone, let alone a little kid.
He and I would start a fire in their huge fireplace (no bigger than my current one but I was a little kid) and then, he’d put me in this copper kettle that held kindling which we called “the spinning kettle” and spin me around, then Irving, his daughter Julie, and I would retire to the sun room to paw through the games and see what we wanted to do next. I have no memory of what my father, mother, and his wife Hope were doing during this time; maybe cleaning up dinner dishes and talking while Irving hung with the kids.
The trip through the threshold from living room to sun room eventually, over about five years, turned into the beginning of a self consciousness nightmare for me as I knew it was leading to games, rules, and a level of abstraction that made me feel stupid and shut me down.
I can still hear Irving’s raspy voice yelling “Tally-Ho” through his pipe and drool, as he discovered the playing cards. Maybe, just maybe he looked at my sunken face and moved on to Tinkertoys, I’m not really sure.
Much later in my life (more recently) I’ve gotten over my fears of displaying slow processing, or seeming lack of intelligence to others although I still have my bad moments. Still, it was a huge step for me to collect and actually start enjoying puzzles (solo activities) and games with other people.
It’s fascinating to track what one part of your life: self-confidence and the right amount of self-consciousness can do to affect all the other parts of your life. Seeing the playing cards and having a wave of those old feelings wasn’t really bad at all, it was more like wanting to see a scary movie so you can watch yourself being scared. My homunculus is now secure enough to watch my old movies, less to figure myself out, more to just enjoy them as pieces of a larger life.
Irving Shapiro died a few days ago. His wife Hope, who is also now gone, introduced my parents. Some of my earliest memories are in their house, which I was in the other day paying my respects to their daughter Julie, my oldest family friend.
One of my most vivid memories of the house is an amalgam of many memories, the center of which is an old pool table in the basement which may have come with the house which Hope and Irving bought around the time I was born (1951).
The routine was, we’d have dinner with them and then after dinner, while the women did something else (I never saw that they did) Julie and I would follow the guys down to the basement and sit on the sidelines watching them play. This gender thing was the equivalent of men riding in the front seat, women in the back, or so it felt.
My father was a decent pool player although he never played except on this table during my entire lifetime. He undoubtedly did his share of hustling as a young man but he was not a showy player, preferring to tap lightly and walk away from the table as the ball he’d just called rolled slowly but surely into its chosen pocket. Irving played less carefully although he held his own against my dad. He enjoyed hearing the crack of hitting a ball hard, whether or not it went where it was supposed to.
These two styles: control and finesse and wild-man ball cracking pretty much describes these two guys and it’s both a metaphor and part of my sensory memory of what happened in this room.
There were a few years where the dampness of the basement started to take its toll on the pool table and my father, who was extremely “handy” helped Irving take the felt off, replace the slate underneath, and get the table working again so they could play.
By 1963 we had moved to California and they only played a few more times after that on a few of our trips east.
Because this house is really the only wormhole left to my early days, this was a significant visit and I spent the whole day visiting with Julie and others who, like me, had grown up with Hope and Irving, and this house, as an anchor point in their lives. I wanted to get a last soak of the feelings.
The basement’s dampness eventually overtook the table and time eventually overtook both my father and Irving and once the house is gone all that will be left will be a story. When I got upstairs and talked with other people paying their respects, I found that each of them had a story, many stories. That was comforting.