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.”
“Sid’s friend, Charlie.”
“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.