My radiant, delusional mother, my two older brothers, and I lived in second-rate hotels and one-bedroom apartments in Manhattan from 1961, when I was five, until 1967. We’d sporadically get locked out of wherever we were staying for not keeping up with the rent, have our possessions confiscated, and spend the night sleeping in Central Park, or nursing hot chocolates in all-night coffee shops, or riding the subways back and forth to Coney Island. Once a week my mother kept me out of school to keep her company.
As bad as it was to change schools every year and live apart from other people, worst of all was summer.
Mornings in our stuffy room at the Wolcott Hotel on 31st street, I’d wait impatiently while my mother showered and worked on her “book,” a photo album she’d filled with 8 x 10s of Eleanor Roosevelt, Dag Hammarskjold, Golda Meir and other world leaders. In gold ink she hand-wrote their quotes about peace. Nothing ever came of Golden Quotations on the United Nations.
We’d finally get out into the air around 11 am, and have English muffins at Bickford’s on 32nd and Broadway, or the Woolworth’s luncheonette on West 34th Street. Every Monday, and usually Tuesday we traipsed across treeless midtown to the Eighth Avenue post office, hoping the child support check from my father had arrived at the general delivery window. If we were in luck, we cashed the check and headed to an air-conditioned movie theater. Inside, the blast of cold air meant I was safe for the moment, taken care of, free to forget everything and watch A Thousand Clowns, or The Unsinkable Molly Brown, or Topkapi. If the check hadn’t come, we’d wander to the United Nations so Mom could wangle more photos of diplomats from their secretaries. Or we’d escape the baking streets by browsing in bookstores. (“We didn’t hang out in bars,” my brother defends her, to this day. “We hung out in libraries.”) Nights we’d have vegetables at the Automat, or a baked potato (25 cents) and a piece of garlic bread (5 cents) at Tad’s Steaks. By the weekend, when the money had run out, my mother might have to sweet-talk a deli guy into giving us an egg salad sandwich. That was preferable to sweating in the hotel room, boiling rice and lentils on the hot plate.
The happiest time of my childhood was the three weeks I spent at Surprise Lake Camp in August 1964 when I was eight. I learned to dance the hora and to swim underwater with my eyes open. One evening at the outdoor Eddie Cantor Playhouse, a breeze coming off the lake, I sang in a musical about Hans Christian Andersen – I still remember the lyrics.
But back in Manhattan my mother missed me. So, the next two summers, while my brothers went back to camp, she kept me with her.
Both my brothers were on their own by the time I was ten. Without them, my mother and I moved more frequently and I went to school less and less. I became a ward of the state when I was eleven, and spent the next six years in placement: three years at the Pleasantville Cottage School, and three years at a group residence in Queens. Although I have since lived in Europe and Los Angeles, New York always sucks me back. Like my mother, I too am divorced and have been working on a book for years — but I augment my writing with a full-time job, and have provided my now teen-aged children with a stable home. Summers have been vastly different for them: camp in the Berkshires and Costa Rica, music, writing and science programs on college campuses, and their father or I have taken them to Paris, London, the Southwest and Nova Scotia.
For me, though, the hot summers in the city live on. Just a few minutes on a fetid, crowded subway platform, or wading through humidity so thick even my eyebrows frizz up, and I’m dragged back 40 years, desperate to flee to the country, the promised land. My friends know not to go into too much detail about their annual cozy family reunions in Nantucket, because I am the perennial Fresh Air Fund kid and I don’t want to hear about it.
Why didn’t I move — when the kids were too small to fiercely resist — to a nice town, and have a house with a yard? Maybe it’s the liveliness of New York, the quality of conversation with people when I walk my dog in Riverside Park, the serendipity of seeing friends or acquaintances every time I leave the house. Or maybe it’s just that I don’t have the force of will. Maybe I’m scared. If I’m going to be lonely, I’d rather be lonely with other people around.
That leaves me every year, when the snow is still on the ground, to start planning a summer trip, and every year my intense drive to get out of the city cramps my clarity. The Adirondacks? Vermont? I can’t decide. My boyfriend and I pore over travel books and travel websites. What if a B&B is shabby? Will I feel deprived? We make reservations and cancel them.
Once a week my boyfriend whisks me off to Montclair, and I am grateful to walk our dogs along leafy green streets, to fall asleep hearing the rustle of trees and birds, instead of waking up at 2:00 a.m. to clanking garbage trucks and the shrill brakes of city buses on Broadway. I try to have faith that we’ll get to the country, knowing that New York will be here, waiting for me.