P.S. 6 is located between 81st and 82nd Streets on the east side of Madison Avenue directly across from the Frank E. Campbell funeral home, mortuary to New York’s blue money crowd. I may have started at the school in fifth grade, or maybe it was sixth, I don’t know. I can’t remember years at a time of my early childhood.
The school sits square, brick, and bunker like, cupping a central yard, which I do remember as the exact spot Artie Cano knocked the wind out of me with one punch to the stomach after I said something he didn’t like. This, right in front of the willowy Michelle Jones, who from that moment on saw through me like I was a soap bubble.
Some days after school let out, I’d hustle to get invited to someone’s house close by so I could burn up some daylight before I had to head back to the tiny studio apartment I lived in with my nanny, Betsy. These little sojourns were made all the more fun if the friend’s Mom was home!
By that age, out of necessity, I had honed my people pleasing skills to a fine point and rare was the Mom I couldn’t beguile with some cute jokes or flattering banter. I was usually perceived as being charming and mature beyond my tender years.
Every once in a while, I’d hit the tri-fecta. This would comprise an invitation to a pretty girl’s house with a good Mom who would leave us alone for a while so I could try for a kiss or a feel, and then, on my way out the door, give me a big mushy hug and tell me what a nice boy I was. Rare, but when all the components lined up, the ultimate.
This afternoon had been spent at the beautiful Robin White’s house just up the block from school. No mom, in fact, a rather vigilant housekeeper on duty. But there were cookies, a little kissy face, a slapped away hand, then home. On the short walk, I mentally ticked off a wish list for the evening. Betsy would be in a good mood, dinner would actually happen, maybe there’d be a visit from my mother with a gift or a book, then a little reading, then bed.
But when I opened the front door into a dark, still room, I knew the evening wasn’t going to play out as hoped for. Right away that old familiar dread welled up in my stomach and I could feel my heart beating. No lights on in the afternoon almost always meant that Betsy was drunk and that meant the next few hours would require careful attention on my part to avoid calamity.
There was still a little light coming in from the street windows. Just enough to silhouette Betsy’s figure on the bed. I needed a little time to figure out what to do, so I quietly padded by her, pulled the dividing curtain closed behind me and sat down on the edge of my bed to think.
There were options. I could do absolutely nothing, stay quiet behind the curtain and read until I was tired enough to go to sleep. Most likely, Betsy would wake up some hours later, look in on me and just go back to bed. That was the simplest plan, but it would mean I wouldn’t get any supper. A second scenario was to try and wake her up gently. This entailed some risk because there were critical variables involved. The main problem was that I didn’t know how much she had drunk or how long she had been asleep. If she’d drunk a lot and had only been asleep for an hour or two, waking her up could be all kinds of dangerous. The third option was to try to heat up a can of something for myself without waking her up at all. I had tried this once and she arose almost immediately with unpleasant results.
I decided to take my chances on a gentle nudge to test the waters. I stood over her. In the dim light I could see her smudged lipstick and a flaccid exposed breast. This disturbing image, along with her intensely fetid smell nearly made me gag. I turned my head for a clear breath, turned back then gave her arm a firm push as I said, “Betsy.”
Again, a harder push this time, “Betsy.”
I leaned close over her ear. “Betsy, wake up, it’s me!”
Without any forewarning, her left arm swung up in an arc and caught me between my shoulder and neck startling me upright and reeling backwards.
That was when the phone rang.
Though still in shock from Betsy’s sudden wallop, my first thought was to pick up the phone as fast as I could so she wouldn’t come to.
“Hello?” I whispered quickly.
“Jimmy, It’s your mother.”
Trying now to control my breath. “Oh, hi.”
“Come over here when you finish your dinner, OK?”
“OK,” I wheezed.
“Are you all right?” she asked, using the interrogatory tone she used when she was suspicious, or beginning to be.
“Put Betsy on.”
“She’s in the bathroom.” I lied, “She said she had a tummy ache, so she’s in the bathroom.”
Oh oh, that didn’t sound right. But it got by her.
“All right, I’ll see you in a few.” She was onto another thought and hung up.
Betsy was still down as I hustled past her to the door. I said loudly, ”I’m going to Mom’s!” A groan from her as the door closed, a few quick steps and I was out and walking briskly towards 5th Avenue. My shoulder smarted a bit, but not badly. I had escaped relatively unscathed. This could have gone another way.
On the short walk, I tucked in my shirt and smoothed my hair in the window reflection of a parked car. Ready for presentation now, I buzzed the intercom at their building.
“Who is it?” inquired my mother in her extra special high-pitched singsong voice designed to sound capricious and whimsical.
“James who?” teasingly.
Come on, I thought.
“It’s James, your son,” I said, I didn’t want to play.
“I don’t know anyone named James.”
There might be some drinking going on here. She usually didn’t play more than one round of this game.
My next gambit was silence. She wouldn’t know what to do with that.
Wait a beat, then...“I’m here,” in a bored monotone.
The buzzer buzzed.
The elevator was tiny and slow. It opened directly in front of their door. A red lacquer half moon table against the wall presented silk roses in a sterling bowl underneath a big mirror in an ornate gold-leaf frame. A quick check of my hair and shirt, followed by the slightly harrowing thought that my pants had no hint of a crease, and I rapped the brass knocker twice, careful not to rap too loudly.
A moment and the door opened.
She wore a white terry robe with navy piping. Her makeup had been applied. Signature bright red lipstick on that famous mouth, matte porcelain skin, foot long eyelashes and hair smoothed back. At once casual and absolutely perfect. She was, after all, a professional.
“What’s with that shirt?” she said, turning away and walking toward the back of the apartment. Here we go, I thought. I let her take a few steps ahead so I wouldn’t have to respond, then followed her down the hall to their bedroom where she disappeared into her dressing room.
I was trying to figure out where to sit when the bathroom door opened and my stepfather emerged and strode past me and uttered, ”James.” in a somber baritone. “Hi,” I said, while mentally casting about for a spot in which to stay out of his way. He was a handsome man in a slim, close-cropped Perry Como sort of way. But his currency was his athletic build. Six feet tall with a thirty-inch waist, taut and wiry from near daily tennis, a can of Metrical for lunch and a sparrow-sized dinner, he had the perfect body for clothes. And he was well aware of it.
“What’s new James?” he asked the mirror while micro-coaxing a pewter colored, Meledandri silk tie into a perfectly sculpted Windsor knot centered between the collar points of a cream south sea island cotton shirt made just for him by Sulka.
“Yes sir.” Crap. I couldn’t ever get the “sir” thing.
The TV was on in the corner of the room. Davy Crockett with Fess Parker. No sound. I could turn my attention in that direction and maybe he would leave me alone. But a problem arose immediately. On the show, Indians were attacking. There were close-ups of howling war-painted savages, and tomahawks and carnage on horseback. For some reason, and out of nowhere, this scared the shit out of me. I didn’t know what was happening. I’d seen westerns before, but now I was almost in tears. I turned away from the TV and tried to breathe.
My stepfather, now dressed and looking far more fashionable than any Esquire magazine cover, called out to my mother, “Beau, are we ready? The car will be here in a minute.” He shot the cuffs of his shirt while looking critically at his three quarter reflection in the mirror. His bespoke suit, custom-stitched by a semi-retired Savile Row tailor using the absolute finest Super 120 worsted wool from Holland & Sherry in Scotland, purveyors to the Crown, was so perfectly cut that although it followed his form to the millimeter, it appeared as though the only place it actually touched his body was the top of his shoulders. Of course, the navy blue color of the fabric, so often misinterpreted, was spot on. It wouldn’t be much of a stretch to presume that the Duke of Windsor wore a garment cut from the very same bolt of cloth.
My mother stepped out of her dressing room, all five foot ten of her, in a slinky, multi-colored Emilio Pucci dress that had the same effect as a cherry bomb going off in the room. She didn’t look to him – at least this time – for approval. She knew she had it right. A quick dip into her jewelry case to accessorize and she was set.
I was still trying to avoid looking at the Indians on TV when my stepfather said. “All right, were off, let’s go James.”
The charged closeness of the three of us in that tiny elevator was, for me, and I imagine for them, almost unbearable. I scrambled out on the first floor and held the door open. As they passed me by, I misspoke tragically saying, “You look dignant.”
“That’s not a word,” he said, walking by me. But I knew it. Embarrassing.
A gleaming black Rolls-Royce Ghost idled quietly in front. Their chauffeur, Rosie, band box sharp in uniform, held the door.
“Good night James, be good,” said my mother as she ducked her head into the Connolly leather and Wilton wool interior of the limousine. He said nothing.
I said nothing.
I stood there as the car motored away, listening to the deep muffled thrum of its powerful engine and watching the twin jewels of its taillights as it rounded the corner and turned down 5th Avenue.
Then I walked back up the block hoping Betsy was still asleep.