Dedicated to Ellen, the prototype, and to my wife, Julie, my real-life Samantha!
Looking back on it nearly one-half century later, what's left besides fragments of memory? The ride on the bus, a thirteen-year-old's Saturday adventure, the smell of pizza, hot dogs and knishes; the sound of music on Bronx streets; Ellen walking on my right as we came up to her building; and my asking her the question. More than memory fragments, though, is my gratitude to her these many decades later for sharing with me a most difficult moment.
eventh grade. First year at John Peter Tetard Junior High School 143, Bronx. 48 years ago. Almost seems like yesterday. Though I don't remember how Lana Glazer became my girlfriend in the Winter of '64, I surely do remember how the break-up came in the Spring of '65.
Lana and the other girls in our class were on the way up from gym, while we boys were on our way down from our lockers. While our gym teacher, Mr. McCarthy, stopped to chat with the girls’ gym teacher, Mrs. Herrman, our class was allowed to socialize (“but do so quietly...”, the universally teacher-uttered adverb which was followed by the students universally ignoring the qualifier). Lana and I slid off to a corner between two walls on the stairway landing while others buzzed nearby in small groups or pairs.
"Me and Ellen Sabow are going to meet up at my mom's store on Saturday morning", she nearly whispered with a sly smile. "We've invited Evan Wasserman to come along. I have to help my mom do a few things in the store, then we'll be free for the rest of the day to do whatever we want. It won't take long. I'm hoping you can come too."
In the instant that she asked, I didn't give the matter much thought and just quickly said, “Okay.”
Lana then asked me a trick question for which I wasn't prepared. "Will you miss me during gym period"?
I looked at her as if she had just asked me whether I would have a better career with the New York Yankees than Mickey Mantle! I felt my brow furrow, eyebrows arch, and face contort involuntarily as I stared at her with a look of surprise and disbelief.
"No!" I responded too rapidly. When her head bowed and lower lip began to show a pout, I realized that that wasn't the right answer. I was only 13. I was at a loss. I believed in telling the truth all of the time. How can you miss someone for an hour? Isn't missing someone reserved for a much longer period of time, like at least a summer? C'mon now! Also, how can a guy miss a girl while he is busy competing in sports? Doesn't make sense. However, as this line of reasoning obviously was deemed insensitive and incorrect, I had to switch gears, and fast!
"Well", I tentatively ventured, looking deeply into Lana's moistening brown eyes, "I mean, there's a whole lot to do in gym, like shooting basketballs, playing softball,and jumping over the high bar... And anyway", I more assuredly continued as I saw her face begin to look more hopeful, "I'll be seeing you again in an hour, so, that'll be nice!”
Lana sighed softly, wiped a bit of liquid from her eye, and smiled. Thus appeased, she rebounded with grace, despite wearing the hideous billowy green one-piece gym suit, standard issue, New York City Board of Education design, circa 1910. These uniforms had the effect of a fun-house mirror, instantly turning attractive girls into plain-Janes and less attractive ones into truncated garden gnomes. The boys’ uniform of white T-shirt and blue shorts didn't have such deleterious effects of shortening height and widening girth. At least I don't think so. To be sure, though, you'd have to ask a Tetard girl from the 60's.
Though it disturbed me that I had to expand on the truth in the above example of consoling Lana, Evan would have had no such qualms. Evan was a good boy by all external measures. He did well in school and seemed an industrious sort. Volunteered for the audio-visual squad. Worked a paper route delivering The New York Post after school. His appearance was pleasing. Height and weight within normal limits. Roundish face - the kind that adults could associate with a certain baby-fat innocence. Dimpled smile at the ready. Black hair swept across his forehead, mostly towards the side to keep the older generation happy, with only a mild slope forward, as a mere token nod to the Beatles and our youth culture.
Perhaps by now, you are picking up on the other side of Evan. The "Eddie Haskell" core within. Eddie was the ingratiating-to-grown-ups best friend of Wally in the “Leave it to Beaver” show; a real kiss-up who looked for personal advantage at every turn. Evan was the kind of guy who would make a big deal out of finding a nickel on the floor, holding it up to the teacher to turn it in, getting praise from the teacher and some classmates alike. Meanwhile, he'd also be the first to hear a quarter drop out of a guy's pocket and quickly step on it, wait for the guy to move on, and then pocket it for himself. He also excelled at picking out the other guy's weak spots to exploit them for his own benefit. He got me once by pantomiming my lack of handkerchief in gym period and needing to use my sleeve in an emergency. He poked fun at David Simpson, whose hair would perpetually stand on end and whose broken eyeglasses sported a Band-Aid over the bridge of his nose to hold them together. None of this was done in a laughing-with attitude, but rather with a laughing-at derision, designed to make himself look superior to onlooking peers.
Saturday morning, 9:30 AM, I waited for the number 20 bus, at the southeast corner of 225th Street and Broadway, which would take me to Lana's mom's hosiery store where I was to meet up with Lana, Evan and Ellen at 10 AM. The dark green and stainless steel, newly-issued Goliath hissed to a stop and I climbed aboard with a bounce in my step, provided courtesy of youth and my new high-top, white, Converse Chuck Taylor All-Star sneakers. I had been able to convince my parents to shell out the $7.99 plus tax for this authentic and respectable pair of athletic footwear, as opposed to the generic "skips" that were inflicted upon me throughout elementary school. Though I was reasonably sure that "money doesn't grow on trees" as my parents kept reminding me, and I knew that the answer to the question, “Who do you think you are? Rockefeller's son?” was no, I had persisted with a strong enough argument, so that I was able to come away with the funds required to purchase the treasured pair at Davega on Fordham Road. The sneakers sported a few remnants of foot prints: the spots and smudges on which a couple of school friends had initiated them. It was explained that the crushing of my toes and dirtying of my new sneakers was performed as a favor to me. It was done to ensure that the wearer of the new pair would not be mistakenly identified as a dandy, or an even more derogatory word in the vernacular of that time.
There were both side-facing and front-facing seats on the bus. Thus, you could have your choice as to whether you wanted to see where you were or where you were going. As the bus headed over the Major Deegan Expressway overpass and past Bailey Avenue, heading towards Heath Avenue, my thoughts drifted to Ellen. Quite tall and slim, with bouncy blond hair, she had that slightly hunched posture that came with the territory of towering over boys her own age. She was attractive in a non-flashy kind of way. Modest in dress, she embodied the prototypical nice, quiet girl. You could tell, though, that she had a more impish side to her personality when she flashed that dimpled, mischievous smile, activating the shine to her hazel eyes. In those moments, she sported an angelic glow.
Ellen reminded me of the Samantha Stevens character on the TV show Bewitched, as played by actress Elizabeth Montgomery. Due to Ellen's resemblance to Samantha, I began calling her "Sam" whenever I did see her, though these times were rare. She was coming out of a classroom one day as I was going in, each with our own friends around us. She stood with white blouse, heart-shaped locket falling below her graceful neck, and longish blond hair flowing down both shoulders. Something was on her mind.
"Why do you always call me ‘Sam’"?
"You know, 'Sam', like in Samantha on Bewitched!”
She smiled softly towards me, cradled her books in both arms, and went off to her next class. I smiled to myself, feeling good about the interaction, then slid into the second row seat nearest the window in Miss Dunne’s English class where I would go on to play “How many cars will pass by here in the space of one minute?”
I came to out of my Ellen reverie as the bus rumbled under the strain of climbing the steep Kingsbridge Road hill. I wondered if the invitation by Lana was connected to Ellen having designs on Evan. Was this to be an official double-date? Or did Evan somehow manage to corral Lana into making the arrangement, so that he could have an opportunity to impress Ellen - a try-out, so to speak?
The bus continued over the same route which I had taken to Hebrew School for the last three and a half years. Having been Bar-Mitzvahed two months ago, my Hebrew School days had come to an end. This premature religious instruction conclusion did not occur because of the end of a school year. It's just that playing ball with the guys took precedence. Not that I was a particularly eager student while going. The prior year, my attendance record showed my growing ambivalence. Under the Days Absent column of my report card, the second and third quarters showed 8 and 11, respectively. At the end of the year, l asked my teacher, "Excuse me, Mr. Sodden, but how come you didn't mark the fourth-quarter absences?”
"I can't count that high"! His deadpan response spoke volumes.
Almost atop the hill now, where the Continental Army engaged British troops in the War for Independence, coming up to Sedgwick Avenue, I thought of how lucky we were to be in on the second wave "British Invasion," the one that gave my generation a musically revitalized shot in the arm beginning last year. Herman's Hermit's pleasantly blew through my brain as the bus approached University Avenue: "Woke up this morning feeling fine, there's somethin' special on my mind..."
Bounding down the three steps and out the front door of the bus, I caught the light and trotted across the road. A chiming guitar sound, then a drum roll, then a beautiful harmony came out of a portable radio on the open window ledge of an apartment. "I think I'm gonna be sad, I think it's today yeah..." It was the newest song by The Beatles, “Ticket to Ride,” sounding a little different than their others, more edgy, but still, undoubtedly, them.
I burst into Lana's mom's store feeling good, ready to ask the others if they had heard it and what they thought of the song. But even before the noise from the bells tied to the door handle died down, I realized that the mood in the store was dour. Though I didn't walk in on an official job interview, Evan was being grilled by Lana's mom and aunt as if he had applied for a position close to their hearts, and they were giving it their all to see if he would be up for the challenge. They were both on the business side of the counter, while Evan stood in the customer position. His charming smile was stuck in the 'on' position, but the women still didn't seem impressed.
"So, what you're saying is," Lana's aunt summarized, "it's OK to be late with the girls, as long as you call first!”
He gave me a pressured half-smile, possibly looking for help. My eyebrow arched as if to communicate, "I have no idea - you're on your own.” Lana and Ellen were pretending to not be paying attention, pens and clipboards in their hands. I walked towards them, noticing the boxes upon which they gazed, having marked down their contents: “color: taupe, size: large, pairs:3; color: sandal foot, size: medium, pairs:6.”
I tried to engage the girls, asking about the Beatles song. No response. Time seemed suspended as their ears stayed attuned to the give-and-take going on up front. Their pens, clipboards, and attention didn't waver. I heard Evan doing his Boy Scout best to allay all concerns.
"No, ma'am, what I meant to say was that if some unforeseen situation developed..."
I walked towards Evan, noticing a film of beaded perspiration on his upper lip. As I had nothing to hide, nor reason to impress, I nodded hello towards the adults as I passed by, telling Evan I'd wait for everyone outside. I had other things to think about like, will the Knicks, with young Willis Reed, do better this year? Will the Rangers, with Rod Gilbert and Vic Hadfield gaining experience, be better? Will Tucker Fredrickson be available to the New York Giants next year- and, will he be able to help out in the backfield immediately? Are the Dave Clark Five really a threat to the Beatles' superiority? Doesn't seem possible. Mostly, though, I was hoping hard that the New York Yankees would soon make their move towards the top of the American League Standings. Currently, their record was a horrid 11 Won and 16 Lost. But I had faith, like every red-blooded New York boy, that the Yankees would reclaim their rightful place at the top of the standings. For hadn't they won the pennant in every year since my birth, except for two freakish exceptions in '54 and '59? And, after all, didn't they come within one game of winning the World Series last year?
Lana came out the door less than five minutes later, right after the refrain of The Supremes' Stop! In the Name of Love faded out from the portable radio of the older teen coming out of the nearby candy store. “Think it oh-oh-ver...think it oh-whoa-ver....Stop in the...baby, think it oh-oh-ver."
As the shop door was closing behind her, I heard Lana promising her mom she'd be home before dark. She skipped over to me to ask why I had left. Evan and Ellen came out a minute later. Evan then pulled me aside and angrily asked why I didn't help him while he was being grilled.
"What the hell, man; why didn't you help me out in there?"
"Hey, that's what you get for trying to be a brown-nose! And why were you trying so hard to impress Lana's relatives? It's not like they're Ellen's parents or anything!"
Evan paused, seeming to create something to say back to me. "Well, um, I wanted to, uh, make a good impression in general. You know how all moms can get together and talk".
I began to doubt this guy even further. The word 'shady' came to mind. That was all I could permit myself to think. I still hadn't gotten a clue yet that things weren't what they seemed.
The four of us huddled together on the street corner. Lana then made a bold suggestion: "Who's up for a game of spin-the-bottle"? Her lollipop-shaped face looked none-too-innocent as she made the declaration, disguised as a question. No one could back out, even though they had yet to declare themselves in. Up we went to her parents’ nearby apartment. Lana and I had kissed before. No big deal there. The only potentially embarrassing situation would be when the bottle pointed from me to Ellen or vice-versa; how was that to be handled? Had Lana set this up with Ellen beforehand? Was the game to be the center-ring spotlight for the try-out for Ellen and Evan as a couple? Evan looked incredibly happy. Lana looked impeccably prepared for whatever was to come. Ellen looked hesitant, as I saw one of her upper front teeth latch onto her lower lip. The elevator ride up five floors seemed to take forever as the excitement of expectation met the fear of dread.
I really didn't know about "getting to first, second, or third base" in the lingo of teen romance. And all I ever heard about "home" was from overhearing a group of tough older girls laughing about it, saying "just forget about any guy getting home without a ring on my finger!" I figured it had something to do with reaching increasing levels of erogenous zones, but only if I really had to think about it. And though all the guys my age would pretend to be active on some kind of level, the truth was that most, like me, would be happy with a kiss, maybe even a grope, but would really have preferred to think of the bases as those confined to the baseball diamond.
I needn't have worried about the extent of where spin-the-bottle may have led in terms of hoping and groping. However, I may have seriously underestimated its longer-term, end result. I spun the thick, light green, translucent Coke bottle. Its neck pointed to Ellen. There was a brief untangling of crossed legs and a reach across the bottle from the upper torsos. I know my most fervent hope (and I'm guessing it was Ellen's, too) was that we not knock each other off balance and come crashing down on each other, nor reel backwards too quickly in recoil, flinging ourselves backwards in separate embarrassed heaps. We survived it nicely, without incident. It was all anti-climactic anyway, wasn't it? Lana and I were going together. We sat close to each other 'round the bottle, as did Evan and Ellen on their side. The only thing left to be decided was whether or not Evan and Ellen would end up together. After awhile, we grew tired of playing the game that was known to be the infamous spreader of mononucleosis. We headed out of Lana's apartment, down the elevator and out of the lobby. We could do virtually anything that didn't require much money. We headed south on University Avenue.
Someone suggested going to the huge public library a very long walk to the south, well past Fordham Road toward Aqueduct Avenue. My maternal grandparents lived down that way, between Burnside Avenue and 180th Street on Harrison Avenue. It just so happened we were headed in that direction. This allowed me further "auto-pilot" freedom, not needing to pay careful attention to where I was headed. The territory was familiar; the sun was shining and a gentle breeze was blowing. It was perfect light-jacket weather. Great day to be out with your girlfriend.
We walked four-across for much of the trip. When we weren't walking all together, we'd pair up very naturally, in all three combinations at various times. Everything fit. Out from an open window of a passing bus came another song we all knew, straining out of a small transistor radio, but still loud enough for us to hear. We started to sing along, "The purpose of a man is to love a woman, and the purpose of a woman is to love a man, so, c'mon baby...."
Nothing was out of the ordinary. The walk was long, but enjoyable. I was walking with Ellen now. We had been talking about the two main radio stations of the time: 77-WABC and 57-WMCA, alternately referred to as “W-A-Beatles- C” and “The Good Guys.” Each teen would usually have his own favorite DJ and station, though in our circles Cousin Brucie usually came up with the biggest share of fans. Everything was fine; that is, until Ellen looked up ahead and brought to my attention that Evan and Lana were now blocks in front of us. That wasn't so surprising in and of itself, as Ellen and I probably slowed our pace as we delved deeply into the subjects of radio stations and cool vs. regular kids vs. the doofus/weirdo sub-strata of junior high society. But when Ellen kept pointing ahead toward them and became totally silent, I was forced to take a closer look. Far ahead, they were now stopped. My vision focused down to where they were holding hands! My stomach signaled trouble in the form of a knot. That tightness and the rubbery feeling in my legs fought with my brain which tried to tell me that it wasn’t so bad; my eyes must be coated with a film that distorts vision, or that it was probably an optical illusion. Surely, I was seeing something that wasn’t really there.
As we closed the distance between them and us, there was no room left for doubt. It became even clearer that they were now paired, leaning against each other with a body language that required no further interpretation. Somehow Lana had become Evan's girlfriend! What-the-hell...? Ellen and I froze in our tracks, some hundred feet in back of them. We were standing together, but feeling very much alone. It must have been some minutes before Evan and Lana doubled back towards us. They said something I didn't hear and then peeled off on their own across the very wide avenue. Ellen was speaking to me, but I couldn't hear anything clearly over the hard cutting edge of the Rolling Stones’ sound pounding through my emotional center: "Because I used to love her, but it's all over now!”
Though I knew I didn't love Lana, I must've liked her enough to be her boyfriend. I felt the plunge of loss, the sting of hurt, the wound of ego. Mostly, I wondered why it felt like I just got punched hard in the gut.
"Huh?" I must have dumbly said to Ellen. I think she had asked me something. More buzzing sound came my way. "What?" I inelegantly added, as I still couldn't absorb any incoming messages. We began to cross the avenue. She must have been guiding me, or, maybe I was holding unto her for moral support. It seemed like an eternity until we reached the other side. She again tried speaking to me. She was looking at me intently, those hazel eyes with sparkling golden brown flecks. I was still in shock, wondering if Lana had fallen for Evan during spin-the-bottle or if she had it set up before the day began. I wondered if the job inteview conducted by her mom and aunt was really for the position of being Lana's boyfriend. I wondered if Ellen was in on it, and, if so, why? When I returned Ellen's look, I saw that she, too, seemed hurt, very hurt. I think Lana may have duped us both, or rather, Lana and Evan had used me and Ellen for their own ends.
My gaze shifted slightly upwards as I tried to regain my composure. My vision drifted from the close up of Ellen's eyes to take in a wider-angle look. Ellen's jaw appeared both pretty and strong, outlined firmly against the library's darkening shades, as the sun began to sink ever-so-slowly. Her hair began blowing across her face, the wind kicking up harder now from the north. The color of her hair against the concrete shadows took on a hue of yellow pastel poster paint from elementary school. It was comforting. The picture of her strength and patience came further into focus as she tried again to get through to me. I began to snap out of it.
Ellen repeated, "They're going to take the bus back to her mom's store. Do you want to go with them, or walk?"
They? Them? They are a couple, I thought to myself. Still feeling nauseous from the symbolic punch to the solar plexus , the easiest thing would have been to get on the number 38 bus, get a free transfer to the number 20 bus, and have an easy two-bus trip home. But, instead, I surprised myself. I stood up straighter, and returned Ellen’s solemn gaze saying, "I'd rather walk."
Ellen and I set off to the north, walking for a long, long time. Yet it somehow seemed to pass quickly. We walked in silence - an understanding silence. Sometimes we walked tall, taking in the events of the city in front of us. Other times, we would slouch against the wind, as the temperature steadily dropped. We turned left together on Kingsbridge Avenue, where the day's journey had started. We didn't have to ask whether we wanted to take the other bus down the hill. It had already been decided, in our determined and comforting silence, that we were to walk the rest of the way home. Across the flat stretch westward toward the sharp downward incline of the hill, we traveled on. Moving amidst the traffic, sights, and sounds of that Saturday in The Bronx in May of 1965, I started to feel more of the spring in my step. I felt stronger in my Converse All-Stars. The smells from the pizza places and Kosher delicatessens came back to me in all their glorious vibrancy. With matched strides, we glided down the steep, steep hill, and the across the next flat stretch towards her apartment in Building 4 on Exterior Street of the Marble Hill Projects. I would then continue one long, angular block westward to my apartment in Building 1. I was okay. I glanced over at Ellen. She returned the look of concern with a gentle nod and knowing modest smile which told me she was also going to survive the disappointment as well.
When we got near her building, I asked, "Are you still glad we went?"
"Yes," she replied.
Telling the truth all the time needed to be tempered after all, but not in the way of trickery. For I wasn't sure at the time I responded if I was truly glad. I am completely sure of it now, though, these 48 years later. Painful as the day had been to the teen back then, I only now can fully realize just how special that walk home was. We had gone through the alone-ness of loss together. She had consoled me through her actions of resiliency; words being much less important than action. Magic...just like Samantha! While I would have lost Lana to Evan in any event, what I learned with Ellen's help was that I could survive such a tough loss.
Up to my house, no one home, I threw myself on the bed, flipped on the stereo, and was comforted as I drifted off to recover, listening, living, learning...
"Let me tell you ‘bout the birds and the bees and the flowers and the trees and the moon up above...and a thing called love..."