"Whenever I go into a restaurant, I order both a chicken and an egg to see which comes first"

Friday, March 2, 2012

Gin Fizzes On The Verandah

“Disgusting”, my mother said.  “They’re drinkers”, referring to Clarks whose trash bins overflowed with gin and vodka bottles.  “They’re all drinkers”, she added, referring to the WASPs of the West End of New Brighton. 

She was right. If you walked down Madison Street before the sanitation trucks came, you would see an amazing number of Gilbey’s, Bombay Sapphire, Smirnoff, vermouth, sherry, and French wine bottles.  I never saw the Clarks or any one else of the 400 Families publically drunk; but by comparison to our house where no alcohol was consumed, their consumption was prodigious.  We didn’t drink because of any religious reason.  My father had such a violent reaction to his first drunk – he puked all over the back of his date at the Penn-Cornell game – and had such a delicate metabolism anyway, that he stayed away from the stuff and my mother followed. 

In the years after my childhood in New Brighton and my exposure to the transplanted English traditions of the West End,  I came to appreciate the English chota peg on the verandah of the bungalow, or martinis from a silver martini set, carried in an old leather case, drunk at picnics in the country in lawn chairs, very rumpled and tweedy jackets, fluty women’s voices, tea sandwiches, the horses cooling after the hunt.  The British made drinking civilized, all those gin fizzes at clubs in Malaya, India, Ceylon  – all East of Suez – or in the gardens of teak and brass hotels like the Raffles, the Oriental , The Galle Face.  I could easily imagine my tweedy and rumpled neighbors drinking martinis on the back deck watching the last golfers finish their rounds, chatting idly and cheerily.  The English were indeed civilized, all for tradition, practiced routine, dressing for the occasion, conversation in moderation and about dogs or the hunt, or in our case about the Vineyard or the trip to Burgundy.

Stereotypes serve a purpose – they give at least some foundation for reality.  Who cared that my father was a doctor, that we lived in a white frame house, and drove an expensive car?  The house was garishly overbuilt – a Georgian monstrosity with ostentatious Grecian pillars; nothing was understated about the house, the flowering shrubbery, or the long driveway.  It hadn’t been in the family since 1760, was a behemoth compared to the modest New England white frame houses our neighbors lived in, and it sat on too many acres of land with too much lawn.  It was exactly what you would expect from some Mafia boss who moved from Little Italy to show off.

The car was a Cadillac.  A Cadillac, mind you; not the beat up old woodies that crunched up short gravel driveways, that smelled of big dog and refinished antiques, and that fit in with the slightly sagging screen porches overlooking the 14th green.  The Cadillac was a guinea wagon, ten feet long, all fins and protuberances, garish color even in the days when black still was what Detroit preferred. It oozed new money and the wasteful spending of it.  Since my parents were successful at expunging much of the guinea in me (Country Day School, Lefferts Preparatory School, Yale University) despite their own clinging to Cadillac, Georgian house, and ornate parlor, I begged them to please get a Mercedes or at least downsize to a one-tone Ford.  My father never gave in.  Cadillac it was, traded in every two years like clockwork.  I dreaded the day when my father eased it into the driveway, polished to a high sheen, sunlight glinting off the acres of front chrome.  Of course he left it out until evening to show it off for four or five painful, embarrassing hours. 

So, given that foundation, of course the neighbors just assumed that when my father got out of his guinea boat and went inside his guinea house, he stripped off his hat, tie, and jacket, slipped on his wife-beater, sat at the dinner (supper) table at exactly five o’clock, hunched down over the spaghetti and meatballs his wife had stirred all day, and started shoveling it in, sucking up the stray pasta strands that had escaped his twirling, and swigging rotgut Chianti.  He ate alone, with his wife and children patiently waiting for the master to belch and be finished.

My parents never realized the huge gulf that existed between them and the West End – never realized that the house, the car, the profession of which they were so proud were to the West Enders just emblems of overstated, bourgeois, pushy immigrants.  My father applied for membership at the Country Club and was blackballed.  My parents had nothing at all in common with the independently wealthy sons and daughters of the scions of industry who did drank icy martinis, summered in the Vineyard, prepared papers on archeology and Faulkner to deliver to themselves in informal think groups, dressed down, and were never, ever ruffled.

It took two generations to become an American in those days, perhaps even now.  My parents, the first generation to see that white picket fences might be a reality, moved far from Wooster Square and did their best to expunge any traces of Italy from the household.  They unknowingly kept a few New-Old World emblems like the Cadillac, but trained me, the first real American in the family, to act like a West Ender. It worked.  How could almost fifteen years of a WASP education fail?  I studied with them, ate with them, and dressed like them.  I, however, never summered with them.  In the one concession to the New-Old World insisted on by my father, I worked in the dusty basement of Nishan’s Pharmacy where I cleaned vials of 19th century balms and remedies and sniffed chloroform for kicks; and shagged patients from C-2 to Surgery; from Surgery to Intensive Care; from Intensive Care to Morgue.  I didn’t summer in either Nantucket, the Vineyard, or Marblehead; wouldn’t have gotten in had I tried, just like the Long Meadow Country Club.

The journey to full membership in the club was not without its pitfalls.  I rebelled in college, needed to get back to my Italian roots, and ventured across the tracks to date Mary Fiorentino, whose father actually did wear wife-beaters, whose mother did stir the spaghetti sauce all day, and yelled and screamed at her little brothers and sisters. I reveled in it, loved every minute.  Mary was dark and wiry – what did I need those blond, blue-eyed innocents for?  We fucked in my dorm room, at the Taft Hotel, and on the golf course.  I loved her wiry poontang and garlicky hair.

My parents, fearing the worst, the unraveling of their best-laid plans, my dropping back into the Neapolitan sinkhole which they had left, were understandably appalled, and they did everything they could to break up the relationship – a trip across the United States, one to Europe, an offer to transfer to Stanford.  Nothing worked until on my own I began noticing the hairy moles on her back, paid attention to her worrisome comments about how “Now we are married” since we’ve fucked.  Eating dinner at her house was like feeding time at the zoo.  She was small, colored, and a pain.  Gone was the cute little bow of a mouth, the perky smile, the sultry complexion.  What was I thinking?

So I veered back to the norm, dated Sarah Farnsworth whose father ran a multi-national corporation in Chicago.  Sarah was fair, lovely, loving, and cultured.  I luxuriated in her silken hair, her sweet breath, the light scent of lilac in her hair, her full breasts and lips.

I must have been more conflicted about my origins that I thought, because I veered right back again.  Annie Calini was an Italian I met at the Newark Housing Authority where I worked after graduate school.  She lived in Bay Ridge, the most Italian of all neighborhoods in New York. She was divorced, had two kids, and lived in the projects.  I loved walking through the steel door to the cement staircase leading up to her apartment and hearing in clang shut behind me.  I loved the thousand smells of the hundred Mary Fiorentinos cooking bracciole and sausage and peppers.  I loved the way Annie dressed – tight, black, short skirt, high heels, lots of makeup, and a bouffant hairdo.  In the summer when the bedroom window was open, I could hear yelling and screaming  families down the ten floors of the airshaft. I again loved the wiry poontang hair, the moles, the faint mustache, but this time long legs wrapped around me.

And back and forth I don’t know how many times until I finally settled back to my real roots – the engineered WASP ones, not the guinea ones – and gave in to muted tones, blue-eyed women, old cars, and books.

India, the British, and martinis had a role to play in my final return.  I am sure my New Brighton upbringing, despite the aberrations and falling off the falaise had the most to do with it, but the last remnants of the British Raj – the dak bungalows, circuit houses, Regency homes, clubs, hotels and icy, crystalline martinis did their part.  I am told that British India was far more British than back in England; it was far more exaggerated in its class distinctions, rock-ribbed traditions, and pukka bearing than anything at home.  The community was also smaller and more self contained, so one knew who worked in the Civil Service, the railroads, the police, or the army. 

One of the great advantages of being a world traveller, and better still, an expatriate is that you can exist outside of culture but pick and choose from within it.  I wore a kurta with silver studs and a mizrab on my little finger like my Indian guru who taught me sitar.  I kept the fingernail on my left pinkie long, trimmed, but uncut, necessary for strumming the sympathetic strings of the instrument but emblematic of my status as a music student.  I also stayed in the best circuit houses – the night halt residences for the Governor or the Collector when they went on tour.  In the best Anglo-Indian style they were simple but elegant – teak, mahogany, brass, and silver; white-liveried servants, bed tea, a full meal of English food followed by curry, comfortable down pillows and mattresses under tall canopies and mosquito netting. 

When the Collector – the most important British civil servant in the District – or the Governor of the Province went on tour, it was an event.  The retinue of servants, bearers, retainers, professional associates, accountants, bookkeepers, translators, scribes, military and police escort was impressive; and when the British left India in 1947, they left these hallmarks of the Raj.  In 1968 when I arrived in India, there were still many Indians who lamented the departure of the British, their more or less benign rule, and the efficiency, more or less, of the institutions they left behind.  The Circuit Houses were still there and well-maintained, but the new, democratic Collectors were of a different breed altogether who rather stayed in the office than go on tours which had been stripped of their regal trappings and were more than anything, rutted and mosquito-ridden affairs.

Someone once said that the Englishness revered in the novels of P.G. Wodehouse never really existed; but that it did in India. Whatever it was, I loved it all.  The chirp of the irrigation pump in the nearby village, the sound of bells on the cows coming home in the evening, the cool evenings after the brutal summer days, and the gin fizzes on the verandah.

Not that my Englishness or WASP-ness needed any consolidation, but after staying in over 100 restored ante-bellum homes in the South, there was no turning back.  These houses, restored to historical specifications and appointed with furniture and furnishings of the period to earn a Historical Heritage appellation, were not strictly English.  The Southern settlers and plantation owners, however, did come from a genteel English tradition unlike the flinty Puritans who settled New England; and these houses were, at heart, English.  I reprised my India experience when I sat on the verandah, overlooking the spacious lawn, the live oaks, the long, tree-lined drives.  The drinks were different, mint juleps instead of gin fizzes, but the feeling was the same – an idle, pleasant time in simple but elegant surroundings.

My mother would be happy with how I ended up.  The pattern she cut out from her image of American English society was not so far from reality.  She knew that there were a few stitches that if knit right would compensate for any minor errors – Marland Country Day, Lefferts, and Yale among them. She shut her eyes at any mention of Mary Fiorentino and I never told her about Annie Calini and the Brooklyn projects; nor bothered to mention gin fizzes on the verandah or silver martini sets.  None of the little details mannered.  I had finally, conclusively, after sixty years, arrived.

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