On the road to New York City

Philadelphia, my home town, seemed incompatible when I returned to it in 1958, after a three-year idyll in Europe. Some of the American and English friends I had made in Italy were now in New York City. I visited them there, I liked what I saw, I joined them. I found a job at Pan American Airways, in Queen’s Plaza, Long Island. I rented an apartment in Brooklyn which I furnished with second-hand furniture from the Salvation Army: a table, two chairs, a chest of drawers. A mattress on the floor. An old floor lamp from my parent’s home. The neighborhood was run-down but not dangerous. I could park my 1951 Dodge sedan on the street because it was of small interest to thieves. Every three or four weeks I drove it to Philadelphia to look in on my elderly parents and to enjoy some home cooking. Two of my New York City friends, Sid Gecker and Joe Greene, also had parents in the Philadelphia area. We joined forces for the trip home.

We kept travel expenses low by avoiding toll roads. I charged Joe and Sid a dollar seventy-five cents each but only if they did the driving. I rode in the back seat. We’d leave Manhattan on a Friday evening or a Saturday morning, to return late Sunday afternoon. First we’d drop Sid off at his father’s dry cleaning shop on Sixth and Pine Streets. His parents lived behind and above the shop. Then I’d take Joe to the 30th Street train station where he would pick up a local train to the suburbs.

Joe was an intern at the Bank of America, in training for a post in Asia. He had done his military service in Japan, he knew Russian, and some Japanese. He was pursuing Asian Area Studies at New York University. He wasn’t yet earning much, but by living monkishly – is peanut butter monkish? – he was able to keep up his wardrobe, managing always to look like a young international banker.

I was derailed. My stay in Europe had provided me only with a modicum of unmarketable charm. At Pan American, I serviced flight reservations on the phone, a dead end job. I briefly, uneasily, dated a smoldering nineteen year-old clerk typist who worked in the secretarial pool. She always carried a joint or two hidden in a seam of her sweater. She dumped me for a young jazz drummer from Bridgeport, Connecticut who had come to work at Pan Am. I had introduced them! He was no stranger to marijuana.

Sid had dropped out of a graduate program at the University of Pennsylvania. As a teaching assistant there he had completed all the requirements but the thesis, for a PhD in English literature. Now, his goal in New York was to break into the production side of the television business. Meanwhile, he too was working at Pan American. Sid would arrive at his parent’s house with a bag full of clothes needing to be cleaned and pressed. He also returned the empty food containers that had held the treats his mother supplied on earlier trips. One Sunday I arrived early while Sid was still upstairs packing. His mother unburdened herself to me.

“Charlie, what is Sid doing in New York? He has no business there. He’s a professional man. He’s a professor.” Sid’s sister was married to a professional man. Sid, coming down the stairs, overheard his mother.

“Don’t talk to him, Mom. He’s doing the same thing I am in New York.”

“I knew it, I knew it!” You’re just like Sid. You hate money too.”

One weekend, Sid, remaining in New York, asked me to collect some some stuff from his mother’s house. On Saturday morning, in Philadelphia, I called Mrs Gecker to ask if I might stop by on Sunday to pick up whatever she’d be sending to Sid. Silence. More silence.

“Mrs Gecker, this is Charlie.”

“Who’s Charlie?

“Sid’s friend, Charlie.”

“Who’s Sid?”

“Mrs Gecker! Sid, your son!”

“I don’t have a son.” She hung up.

Mrs. Gecker phoned that evening, asking me to stop by next day to pick up some things she had prepared for Sid.

Joe called to ask if we might give his friend a ride back to Manhattan? On Sunday I collected him at the 30th Street station whence we drove to an address in West Philadelphia. Joe went to the house and he returned with Margie Ridge. I had emerged from the car to be introduced, to offer her my hand. “That’s nice,” she thought.

I was wearing a beret and my old Air Force coat, threadbare at the button holes. Margie wore pearls, a sweater, a pleated skirt. She offered to pay her share, but I refused her money: “occasional female passengers need not pay.” She protested, I insisted. “How gallant,” she thought.

In those days, in the Dodge sedan, the trip from Philadelphia to New York City took two and a half hours: across the Ben Franklin Bridge, up Route 130, up Route One, through the Lincoln Tunnel, into Manhattan. We chattered gaily en route. It was like an impromptu party, three young people who were discovering New York City. No, Margie knew it well. She had been there four years; she wore her knowledge lightly. I looked out to see that we were already approaching the Tunnel. Fortunately, in three weeks time, Margie joined us again for a round trip. She insisted upon paying and I relented. I led her into the back seat.

Inside a space capsule speeding high above the earth, the astronauts tend to float, to drift apart, unless they are tied down. Gravity was stronger in the back seat of the Dodge sedan returning to New York City. Margie and I bent our heads closer as we spoke, seamlessly picking up the thread of last Friday night’s discussion.

We confessed to preferring Philadelphia to New York City. We liked West Philadelphia’s tree-lined streets, the houses set back from the curb, their long, narrow, adjoining backyards still in those days rich in bird life. We traded stories about the farmer’s market in the Reading Terminal: “God!, Bassett’s Ice Cream!” Margie loved the countryside around Ludwig’s Corner, in Chester County, Pennsylvania, where her family used to own a little farmhouse. Dogwoods, daffodils. You must see it! We seemed to read each other’s thoughts – surprising, engaging, delighting. A unspoken agenda came creeping in, counterpoint to the banter in the car. Her hand rested on the car seat. I tapped it with my finger to emphasize a remark.

“You’re kidding!,” she replied in playful dissent, dismissively flicking my shoulder with the heel of her hand. The miles flew by.

“Nevertheless….” I tapped her knee to make my point.

“Yes, perhaps, put that way….”

The New Jersey landscape shuttered by. Talk idled. The car leaned into a curve; our shoulders met. The road straightened, the G-forces released us, but we didn’t draw apart: a thrilling secret entente. Her hand fell into mine. We were in love. I didn’t know it (Why was I so happy?). She knew.

The car turned onto 31st Street. Margie exchanged goodnights equably with all.  I squeezed her hand and she squeezed mine, but we gave no outward sign.  She climbed out of the car and walked toward the door of No. 214.

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Ludwig’s Corner

Black Horse Road, Ludwig’s Corner, Chester County, Pennsylvania

Margie’s mother bought the house in the last months of World War II. She had told her brother, Bob Headley, a realtor who specialized in country properties, that she was determined to have a farm house in spite of her modest savings. He showed her a 1790’s tenant house built of native stone, The roof was half collapsed, the windows were rotted out and It lacked electricity and plumbing. The well was clogged and the house had enjoyed the tenancy of raccoons. It was in Chester Springs, PA. on a dirt road about two miles long, flanked on one side by woods climbing the hill which rose behind the house, on the other side of the road, a view of farms and an orchard in disrepair. There was a field graced by cows.

I must have it.” said Helen Headley Ridge.

Yes,” sighed her husband Roy, “We must have it.”

Roy was a civil engineer, a building inspector who knew how much work would be needed. Fortunately these tenant houses were small; it was like fixing a giant doll’s house. Once the roof was up, Margie and her parents camped out in the house on weekends. They brought cots and picnic foods from their apartment in Philadelphia, about fifty miles away. They discovered how cold an unheated building could be. There was a fireplace but the chimney needed work. The floors were filthy but sound, original wide oak plank which they scraped and scoured. Margie’s father hired local artisans to replace the windows and the wood trim throughout the house.

Let’s widen the window in the front room,” said Helen Ridge, “and build-in a window seat.” Roy Ridge pointed out the 18-inch stone walls.

Can it be done? she asked.

Yes.” he sighed. With enough dynamite he could dig another Panama Canal. Shortly, a man showed up carrying a sledgehammer and an armful of steel chisels.

The Ridges worked very hard and they loved it. As the weather softened, Helen spent more time outdoors, planning her garden, which was to consist solely of flowering shrubs and trees. The garden was the main reason for buying the property. She cut a small lawn around the house and she rough-cleared the remaining two or three acres. She was a woman in a hurry. She bought a surplus military flame-thrower and she turned it on the rough-cleared land, setting the entire field aflame. The fire engines came running.

They were blessed with neighbors who gave good advice and an occasional dinner invitation. The Shumans were close in age to Helen and Roy and they had a son, Paul who was five years older than Margie. Shari and Perrin Smith lived at the far end of the road. The were in their late thirties.

Once the electricity was connected and the plumbing installed, they moved in full time, beginning a 15 year idyll. Margie and Shari Smith grew close. Shari was the sister Margie never had. They swam in the pond Perrin had bulldozed out in a small field. The trick was to keep swimming and not touch down in the mud. In winter they skated on its frozen surface, gingerly, because of the frozen debris. Perrin would go off to work in the city, and Margie and Shari talked and talked. Shari called Margie “Muhjee’, a caricature of how Perrin, a Texan, pronounced Margie. Margie’s mother thought Shari was a busybody. Margie disagreed. Then Harry Keasby entered Margie’s life.

Harry Keasby was an American Impressionist artist, active in England before 1914. He was gassed in World War One, and after the war, he had returned to the USA for good. He bought a farmhouse in Chester county not far from Black Horse Road. He had a private income, not large, but sufficient unto a modest country gentlemen. It wasn’t clear which would fail first, his health or his income. He built himself a studio but seldom used it. He bought a horse and he boarded two or three horses to help pay stable expenses. Bob Headley, who had sold him the farm, befriended the lonely old bachelor and he introduced him to the Ridges.

Harry loved to sit on the porch with them after dinner, looking out over the fields. In good weather, he arrived on horseback. He invited Margie to ride Butterball whenever she liked. Margie was transfixed with joy. A teenage girl and her horse. She groomed it until it glistened. She and Paul Shuman took thirty mile rides, exploring half-hidden valleys where they felt like pioneers.

Margie bought a hard hat and started jumping steeple chase. I have a photo of her in full regalia; derby, velvet jacket, boots, on Butterball, sailing over a gate with style. Her aunt, the author Betty Cavanna, wrote a novel called Spurs for Susanna. Susanna is Margie, lightly rouged. Margie and Betty Cavanna spoke frequently during the writing of the book. Betty dedicated the book to Margie: “To my Niece Marguerite who helped get us over that fence.” Below the printed dedication, in her own hand, Betty wrote, “And who really, practically, wrote the book.” Margie left for college in the fall, and it was weeks before she and Paul were back in saddle. They headed to a favorite trail but they found it blocked. The valley was being drowned to make a reservoir. Fast forward to seismic changes.

Margie’s father died. Harry Keasby died, and his creditors gobbled up the farm and the horses. Margie graduated and took a job at Lippincott Publisher’s, at first in their Philadelphia office and then in New York City. Her mother was lonely but stayed put. The house was snug, she had her garden, and the neighbors looked in on her occasionally. Then a bad snow storm came and it shook her confidence.

Black Horse Road was blocked with snow and her electrical wires went down. No wires, no water, because the water pump was electric. No electricity, no heat. No phone. Huna collected snow from a window sill and she melted it in the fireplace to make tea and broth. She brought a cot down to the fireplace and she slept there for two days. The snowplow came through on the third day with Shari Smith in its wake, bearing food and drink. In the fall, Huna put the house up for sale and she moved into an apartment in suburban Wynnewood, PA. Margie was heartbroken; so was I. But we were in love. Someday we’d have our own house in the country.

Margie and I were engaged to be married late that fall. We drove out to Chester Springs to see the house for the last time, and to visit Shari Smith. Margie wanted to squeeze the years into a ball, like a talisman. We turned onto Black Horse Road, at Shari’s end of the road. Shari’s car was not in her driveway so we continued on to Margie’s house. We parked in the driveway and we entered by the front door.

The house seemed cramped and forlorn, with dust balls, leaves, and scraps of paper scattered over the floor. It needed fresh paint. A few old furnishings, odds and ends, had been left behind: an old freezer with its door ajar, an off-kilter kitchen chair, a dented waste paper basket, a fly-swatter. Bleak. The home Margie loved had disappeared. We heard the crunch of tires on the driveway outside, and shortly:

“Muhjee!” We walked to the front door and Margie stepped out. She closed the door behind her and she walked away without looking back. Shari approached with out-stretched arms.