Chapter 4, Part I … For the Honor of Truth
Moses Brown School
250 Lloyd Avenue
Providence, Rhode Island
For the Honor of Truth
[from my never-to-be published memoir Extra-Ordinary.]
My mother, attended by my Uncle Arthur, gave birth to me in Milton, Massachusetts on February 9, 1948.
That day is not a national holiday,
My first home was the Charlesgate East Apartments in Boston’s Back Bay, almost within the shadow of Fenway Park. Whenever I take in a Red Sox game, I always look to see if there is a commemorative plaque.
Nothing. Maybe after this memoir …
The landlord there was Phil Bronstein and he became a lifelong family friend of my parents. Here’s one of his poems:
Limpoma, you remain so close to me,
Move with me when I speak;
Your softness clinging to my face
As you lie against my cheek.
Limpoma, you’re a part of me
Better than a wife;
Nothing can separate us now
Except a surgeon’s knife.
If you look up “limpoma,” you’ll realize that this poem has a substantial “ick” factor. Phil was more of a larger-than-life character than a wordsmith. He drove a convertible that was fitted with a special horn that could blare forth with the Dixie rebel call, Aah-ooo-ga, or the chimes of a Good Humor Truck.
When Phil came to visit at Post Island, all the kids knew he was there. He’s the only person I knew who could keep my father in hysterics, mostly with the accounts of the elaborate lengths to which he and his regular poker-playing buddies would go to play a joke on each other.
One guy shows up with a new hat that he is particularly vain about. Phil goes out and buys two identical hats, one a size larger and one a size smaller. Each subsequent week the hat is changed, the wearer baffled by the sudden changes in fit.
Another guy buys a new car and makes the mistake of bragging about its great mileage. Light bulb! For the next few weeks, Phil surreptitiously adds a gallon of gas to the man’s gas tank each night. The mileage claims and the boasting grow proportionately. Then, Phil begins siphoning a gallon each night. Mileage plunges, and the boasting turns to sour anxiety.
Phil wears a new suit to the weekly poker game. “Nice suit!” one of the buddies says. “How much did that set you back.” Light bulb. “Only fifty bucks,” says Phil.
“Fifty bucks! That’s incredible. Can you set me up with your tailor?”
“Sure,” responds Phil, “but I have to warn you, he’s a little … eccentric.”
“A suit like that for fifty bucks? I don’t care how eccentric he is.” The hook is set. Ah-ooo-gah!
From Charlesgate East we moved to Albany, NY, as my father, a manager with the American Red Cross, was transferred. Two memories. We got our first television set, and the one thing that could get me to bolt out of my crib at night was the commercial for the Mohawk Carpets. Indian tom-tom … dum-dum-dum-dum … “car-pets from the looms of Mohawk.”
By this time I was on the couch, seated next to my Dad. My mother would try to put me back to bed, but he seemed glad to have me there. Usually he would get me a glass of ginger ale and let me sit with him for a while.
My sister, Jan, was three years older. She was having some friends over for a birthday party. As the prototypical younger brother, I was prepared to show off and to do anything possible to attract attention. “Don’t bother,” she warned me. “We’re just going to ignore you. I don’t care what you do. You can stand on the table and wiggle your penis, and we’ll just ignore you.”
Jan’s the one responsible for my nickname “Step.” She was the first born, and quite precocious, already learning to spell by the time they brought me home from Milton Hospital. My mother taught her that new baby brother’s name “Stephen” was a combination of two shorter words, “Step” and “hen.” I’m glad it was Step that stuck. (Of course, at Post Island where the requisite “y” or “ie” was added to every name, I became “Steppy.”)
After two years in Albany my father was transferred to the Red Cross’s national headquarters in Alexandria, Virginia where we moved into a complex of apartments called Belle View. This was classic suburbia of the 1950s. When out of town relatives visited we would dutifully tour them around to the various Washington monuments and nearby Mount Vernon.
Because the apartment buildings all looked the same, it was quite easy to become disoriented, so my parents made sure that I knew our exact address. Our first apartment was “Ten-oh-four Potomac Avenue.” (I’ve checked … there’s no plaque there, either. There should be, because not long after we moved out, a young man moved in who was a rookie third baseman for the Washington Senators. His name was Harmon Killebrew, and I have a signed baseball to prove it.)
We lived in Alexandria for eight years. Our lives were exceptionally white, middle class, and average, establishing the tone for my life. Time has been kind to both Charlesgate East and Belle View, and as I Google them these days, I am struck by the fact that I could never afford to rent these apartments today, whereas in the 50s they were quite affordable, even for a middle manager in a non-profit organization.
We bought our first home in a nearby development in 1958 and lived there only a couple of months until my father was promoted to a new position as manager of the Rhode Island chapter of the American Red Cross. This brought us much closer to family and the beloved cottage at Post Island, and I was all for the move, an enthusiasm not shared by my sister, who was firmly established with her friends at nearby Groveton High.
We moved in the middle of the school year (5th grade for me, 7th for my sister). After a few months in suburban Barrington, RI we moved again, this time to the East Side of Providence. A more significant change, a game-changer, was that my mother got a part-time job as a gym teacher at Lincoln School, an independent, all-girls Quaker School. Her meager pay was the basis of a longstanding joke between my parents, but carried the benefit that her offspring could attend Lincoln, or the corresponding boys affiliate, Moses Brown, tuition free.
A Perfect Windsor
The summer preceding my entrance to Moses Brown was one of strongly mixed emotions. On the positive side there was Post Island, where I spent a carefree summer, ensconced in cousins and my pack of friends, a group that included Ricky Reyenger, Bobby Pierson, Dennis Coughlin, Brian Coughlin, Bobby Thomas, Dicky Rizzotti, Kevin Kelly, Bobby Tropiano, Billy Mahar, and David Lewis. My parents turned me loose on the Fourth of July and expected me back by Labor Day. The entire time was spent barefoot, and in the same bathing suit. There were family dinners on Saturday night–franks and beans, brown bread, fish chowder, steamed clams, corn on the cob, watermelon, strawberry shortcake. Besides those potluck dinners, I think I survived on Fluffernutters:
Rickey Reyenger once ate seven of these … as a snack.
The garage at the cottage had been renovated as an extra bedroom and now served as a clubhouse for me an my friends. We could stay up as late as we wanted and sleep until the tide was in. The only negative, besides the Red Sox’s customary second division season, was the ticking clock, counting the days until school and … Moses Brown. I don’t remember talking much about it. I’m sure my parents were more concerned about my sister’s more awkward transition. But this would be different. This was a school for the rich and privileged, for the swells. Average, even extra-ordinary kids need not apply!
The world of Moses Brown was one of hard surfaces and few words. It was mandatory to wear sport coats and ties. I didn’t own a jacket or know how to tie a tie, but my mother got me properly assembled and out the door on that first day. My teacher, Mrs. Cullen, referred to me as “the new boy,” as she did with the other students new to the class. She persisted in this for the entire year. Relief came in the period for “gym,” when we got outside to race around on the banked wooden track. That part was fun.
You can bet that I practiced this a lot when I got home.
I had forgotten how to tie my tie! Moments before, pounding around the wooden track, I had a fleeting moment of thinking I could hold my own. Now, as I watched my noisy, familiar, confident classmates get dressed and head back to the classroom, I realized “I am not one of you.” I was panicked and humiliated, terrified of returning to the classroom with an untied tie. I might as well have pooped my pants.
My sense of impending terror was palpable enough to show, and a classmate named Curtis Mays asked if anything was wrong. I sheepishly told him about my tie. Hey, no big deal, he said, taking my tie, putting it around his own neck, and quickly tying a perfect Windsor, then loosening it so that he could slip the loop over his head. “Sometimes I don’t even untie mine. I just slip it on and off like this.”
Curt left Moses Brown for another school a few years later, so I lost track of him, but I hope he knows that somewhere he is enshrined in the Pantheon of Small Kindnesses.
[update: Curt and I are now Facebook friends! SB SM]
A Jewish Quaker from Providence
After surviving the trauma of the tie, the rest of Moses Brown was smooth sailing. That is, of course, both a cliche and an exaggeration, but not by much. There was some social stratification. One of the conditions of my scholarship was that I was expected to perform some light work. Over the years this entailed cleaning the wood shop, bussing tables in the dining hall, and later running the school book shop, but I never minded, nor did I feel that it marked me as less than an equal with any of my classmates.
Of greater significance was the intellectual stratification that took place within the class. Starting in 7th grade there was always a group that was deemed “advance,” or “accelerated,” or ‘honors,” and I was part of it. These were the classmates I spent the most time with and the ones who became my closest friends.
They were all Jewish.
Organized religion has not played a major role in my life, happily so. My father grew up in a strongly Catholic family. One brother is a priest, a sister is a nun. He was ex-communicated, however, for marrying a Protestant. His brothers and sisters lived mostly in the greater Boston area, but he had virtually no contact with them, a fact that struck me as the height of absurdity.
My mother did want to underscore the fact that we were not being raised as good Catholics and compensated by being zealously non-denominational in the religious training she provided. She dragged us to a baffling succession of churches–Congregational, Episcopalian, Lutheran, Unitarian, Catholic–until we were completely confused. None of it stuck.
Meanwhile, as I was being exposed to my mother’s mishmash of organized religions, the consistencies in my spiritual life were the quiet stoicism of the Quakers at Moses Brown and the Jewish cultures as manifest in the homes of my friends. All of these elements came into focus when I gave Alan Hassenfeld a fishing net for Christmas.
Grotto Avenue in Providence is a short street that spans a wide range of cultural and socio-economic statuses. The Morris family lived in a wood frame duplex at #81, perfectly comfortable and respectable, but utterly bereft of pretension or ostentation. Less than half a mile away, the Hassenfelds lived in a low-slung, contemporary tucked away in a little cul-de-sac called Woodlawn Terrace.
For someone whose living standards were defined by the cottage that my grandfather built on Post Island, the Hassenfeld’s house was magnificent. They had a full-time maid and a full-time chauffeur, George. Alan’s mother was suitably elegant, a jewel within a setting of modern art. His father, Merrill, seemed a little remote, but that was understandable, since he had a big job, being one of the brothers in charge of the family business, Hasbro Toys (HASsenfeld BROthers). Hasbro, makers of Mr. Potato Head, and Sunset Pencils, was a big deal in Rhode Island.
Luckily, none of the differences between our circumstances mattered much to Alan or me. We were kids, much more concerned about common ground than things like status, power, or religion. (Although I do admit to being envious of the Hassenfeld’s color TV, the first I had ever seen.)
Alan was a polite, kind, and gentle without even a whiff of privilege or arrogance. One of our common interests was fishing, a sport we approached from slightly different vantages. I shared my fishing magazines with him and told him of my exploits in Quincy Bay, catching trophies of flounder and mackerel. He, in turn shared his fishing stories, including the one of the five foot, stuffed and mounted marlin that hung over the bed in his bedroom. He caught it while on vacation in the Florida Keys, all by himself, he assured me.
That any person, let alone a kid, could catch such a fish struck me as wondrous, but there was the proof on his bedroom wall.
Alan’s friends became my friends. Before too long I was playing basketball at the Jewish Community Center and wondering why my family did not find it necessary to send me to weekly Hebrew lessons. I wanted a Bar Mitzvah, too!
On the day before Christmas, Alan was at my house for the afternoon. We were just horsing around, doing whatever we used to do. The doorbell rang, and it was George the chauffeur, coming to pick up Alan. Just before he left, I pulled a package that I had placed with the others under the tree. “This is for you,” I said. “Merry Christmas.” I had picked it out and wrapped it by myself, but it was hard to camouflage that it was a fishing net. Still, it was a gift that I was proud of.
I could tell I caught him by surprise, but that was ok. I wasn’t expecting him to have a present for me. It just was something I wanted to give him. He thanked me politely and went home. This was the rare selfless moment in a life that has been much too self-centered and selfish.
This should be the end of the story, but it’s not. That evening, after dinner, the doorbell rang. It was George. Light snow was falling, just as it should on Christmas Eve. George, a black man who wore a snappy uniform, looked very much like Santa Claus as he handed several elaborately-wrapped boxes of Hasbro’s finest. “Merry Christmas,” he said heartily. Now it was my turn to be surprised as he hopped back into the sleigh and headed off into the night, back to the North Pole of Woodlawn Terrace.
[Part II will be tomorrow’s Silverback Digest post. SB SM]