The Glass Partition

by

10/29/2001

E 86th St & East End Ave, New York, NY 10028

Neighborhood: Upper East Side

My cousins grew up in New York. I met them once in California, where I lived until I was seven. But when we moved to a Oxen Hill, suburb of Washington, DC, we began regular visits. This was in the late sixties. Thanksgiving in Manhattan followed by Christmas in Oxen Hill, or vice versa. My aunt and uncle rented or owned a summer home in Maine, on an island called Islesboro, in Penobscot Bay. My family would spend a few weeks each summer trying to figure out sailing and tennis and the very wealthy people who seemed to fit in perfectly in those settings.

Summers in Maine aside, my memories of my cousins are shaped more by my visits to their Manhattan co-op than by their visits to our suburban colonial. They, after all, were exotic. I knew the burbs, the sand hills behind the house, the local schools. But a home inside a tall building, and a park set in an urban area — those were strange and new discoveries.

My cousins seemed ever so worldly, knowing the ins and outs of urban life. When to walk, when not to walk. What streets and neighborhoods to avoid and whisper about with a mixture of fear and reverence.

I remember very few details. But the overall image is clear. An 8-10 room apartment. Using an incinerator for garbage. I’d make up reasons to take out the garbage just to open the incinerator door and feel the rush of heat from the basement several levels below.

Lots of noise. Dinner with 7 relatives plus 5 others in my own family, plus the inevitable guest or two. Hard to be heard when you wanted more potatoes.

And segregation. No, not racial segregation. We were all comfortably middle-class white. Age segregation. The Bigs. And the Littles. I was one of three or four littles. My next oldest sister (actually my youngest sister, 22 months my elder), myself, and our youngest two cousins, one just younger than myself, the other 2 years younger. We sat at a card table by ourselves, sometimes within direct line of site to the main table, sometimes not. I can still remember the intense jealousy and acute sense of unfairness when one year my sister got to sit “with the Bigs”.

In fairness, this segregation had nothing to do with Manhattan. But to a 7-year old — or even a 12-year old — the association was etched forever because holidays on the turf of or with Manhattanites meant I was a Little.

On the positive side, I also remember the limousine ride up and down Fifth Avenue. For no other purpose than to ride in a limo and take in the shops with their holiday decorations. Such extravagence. Yes, Manhattan was certainly the province of the rich. Something I would never quite comprehend. Something much larger than myself. A limousine, with power window partitioning the driver’s seat from the back. That was living in Manhattan.

Years later, when I worked in midtown for a stretch, somehow it seemed less glamorous, smaller. Of course, I never got to ride in a limousine up and down Fifth Avenue in those working days, so maybe that’s why.

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