Who’s New At Midden Lees


Isaac N. and Willa (nee Groundel) Astral are settling nicely into Apartment 13 of Courtyard 78.  Isaac – call me Zack – was, is, an astronomer whose career took him and Willa to observatories all over the world. This afternoon they are sitting in a corner of their retirement community’s sun filled lounge, with Liza Poulder, a reporter from the Midden Lees Newsletter. Lisa is interviewing them for her monthly column “Who’s New at Midden Lees”. Tall windows frame a vista of sweeping lawns studded with inviting pockets of trees and shrubbery.

“Ask him what his middle initial stands for.” says Willa impishly.

“Yes,” sighs Isaac. “It stands for Newton. My father was a high school physics teacher.”

The University of Arizona, with its 36-inch diameter Newtonian reflecting telescope and its cloudless skies, had granted Zack his first degree. Willa (she uses Willa Groundel professionally) was, is, a political activist. She was elected president, the first female ever, of the Trotsky Club in her senior year at Wayne State University in Detroit. Her father was a welder and shop steward at the General Motors plant in Flint, Michigan.

Zack and Willa met in New York City when they were twenty-one years old. He was attending the annual meeting of the American Astronomer’s Society. These meetings provide platforms for senior members to present scholarly papers, but for recent graduates like Zack, they served chiefly as a clearinghouse for jobs and graduate school openings. Willa was in New York City leading a group of young protesters who were picketing the Society’s meeting. She carried a placard which read “Observe people, not the stars”

As she approached the hotel’s marquee she had pivoted smartly, her sign almost striking Zack’s face as he exited the hotel. “Oh, I’m sorry,” she had said, apologizing profusely. “No harm done,” he had replied. Zack, whose head was usually in the stars, had had the wit to invite this cute little protester to join him for lunch in a hamburger joint across the street.

“Feed the starving misses!” he chuckled as he gazed at Willa nestled beside him on the love seat. Willa snorted fondly.

By the close of the weekend meeting, Zack had landed his first job, at Berkeley. A few months later he had a wife, and Willa, a husband. “I chose Berkeley, partly because of Willa’s interests,” Zack said. Those were heady times at Berkeley: Angela Davis, Herbert Marcuse, Mario Savio, student protests, campus take-overs. teargas, etc..

As a T.A. in the PhD program, Zack found himself overworked and discouraged; he realized he was not cut out for academia. But he was fascinated by the equipment, by the nuts and bolts aspect of observatories, how the telescopes glide so effortlessly into place like elegant giraffes, rising regally toward the overhead dome, with the soothing, rumbling emanations of large ruminants.

“However, the equipment is very delicate,” said Zack. “It requires a great deal of maintenance. I earned a reputation as a trouble shooter. I had the touch of a safecracker.”

“You certainly cracked my code in a hurry,” said Willa. “Oh, I’m sorry Lisa.” Their son Warren had been born five months after the wedding.

“No need to apologize,” Lisa replied. “At Midden Lees, only smoking is prohibited. And the jumbling of recyclables.”

Zack switched to the School of Engineering Technologies and by year’s end, he had landed a job at the W.M. Keck Observatory on Moana Kea, in Hawaii. “I wasn’t in charge but I had plenty to do: the telescope is eight stories tall. Sometimes I didn’t get down the mountain for two days at a time.” Willa didn’t mind at first. She had her hands full with the new baby, but once the care of the baby became less demanding, Willa was bored

“I was the only socialist on the mountain. Most people were happy as clams. After all, it was Hawaii.”

When Zack’s contract expired, he accepted an appointment at his alma mater, the University of Arizona. Willa found a house in a working class neighborhood in Tucson. She threw herself into political activism. “I organized literacy classes, job fairs, street parties. Our daughter Hillary was born.” She loved her life but their car was stolen three times. When they recovered it the last time, it had been repainted like a Christmas pinata. After their house was burglarized a second time, they realized it was time to go.

“How was it you chose Midden Lees? You have lived in such, uh, fascinating places?”

“For once we did our homework. We narrowed our choices down to two, and we chose the Lees because it was closer to our daughter.”

“Where does she live?

“She lives in Halifax.”

“Halifax, Newfoundland?”

“Yes,” Willa explained with a laugh. “Our son lives in the Amazonian rain forest of Brazil. He’s a cultural anthropologist.”

“Oh my. Yes. Oh well. What was the most interesting posting you ever had?”

“That’s easy,” said Zack. “The Ronald Reagan Satellite Tracking Site on Kwajalein Island in the South Pacific. We tracked the flight of anything put into orbit from anywhere in the world, by anybody, friend or foe. Fascinating work! That’s all I can say. You’ll understand why, I’m sure. Otherwise, Kwajalein is a fairly dull place, a flat, sun-beaten island with low lying, barracks-type buildings,”

“That must have tough on you wives, Willa.

“Yes, sometimes, but we had the beach and a great swimming pool. Then I organized a flying club. I found an old Piper Cub that had been thrown into the dump with the abandoned autos, broken down runway graders, fridges, microwave ovens, vacuum cleaners. I talked one of the Air Force pilots into giving us flying lessons. He didn’t have an instructor’s license, but hey, we were a long way from the FAA. It’s a great area for flying you know, no rain and plenty of sunshine. There was only one constraint.”

“What was that?”

“Kwajalein disappears on the horizon if you fly too far away from it, it’s so flat.. Our rule was to never to fly any farther than three miles away from the island, depending on your altitude, of course. Left turn, left turn, left turn, left turn. If you turned right, towards the ocean, you were lost forever.”

A flying club! What a wonderful legacy.”

“No, unfortunately, it’s gone. Betsy Hutch, a lovely woman, well, Betsy started to behave oddly. She stopped coming to the pool. We should have guessed something was wrong. One day Betsy took the plane up and she turned right.”

“I, aah, uh. I’m afraid you’ll think the Lees a dull place.”

“Not at all,” said Zack. “Last Tuesday I found a Geosafari Omega Reflector telescope in the thrift shop downstairs, just like the one I had as a kid. In great shape. Star-gazing will be fun again!”

“That’s wonderful, said Lisa. “Alice Logan, our Activities Coordinator, can help you set up a club.”

“Not yet,” said Willa. “First he’s got to put a dome through the ceiling of our apartment.”

“Goodness, have you spoken to Buildings and Maintenance about it?”

“That won’t be necessary. It’s only a four-foot hole and I’ve got a great idea. You know those transparent plastic food containers in the Coffee Shop? The ones shaped like a pie wedge, with a hinged lid that opens like a clam? With two hundred of those I’ll build a geodesic half dome that will be strong and light. Of course, I’ll leave a few lids unglued to poke the telescope through.”

“What’s on your radar screen, Willa?” asked Lisa, with some alarm.

“I’m still unpacking my books and political literature. Then I’ll look around.”

“There’s plenty here to keep you busy. The Great Decisions program, the AAUW meetings, the League of Women’s Voters.”

“The usual suspects,” Willa said wryly.

“Well now, Zack, Willa,” said Lisa. “This has been fun. Our little talk today will certainly liven up the next issue of ‘News and Newcomers.’  I’ll walk out with you. It’s such a nice day.” They rose and moved toward the french doors. “Why there’s Rebecca Spade! You must meet her!”

Rebecca was gaunt and elegant, stark white hair, crisp pageboy (Smith College? 1942, 43?). She wore a cashmere sweater; a string of pearls yellowed with age; a worsted woolen skirt with an adorable mini-pleated gusset placed artfully off center, which – when she had had hips – swayed open as she walked, like the undulating bellows of a hand-held concertina.

“Oh, that cunning little seamstress in the vicolo just off Via Tornabuoni! the one Gianfranco told me about. I should have ordered five of everything. Caro, amorevole Gianfranco! Beautiful, beautiful Gianfranco! How did I survive that senior year back amongst those chattering teenagers? Northampton, ugh. I should have gone to Radcliffe.” A six button, double-breasted camelhair coat with a belt in the back hangs in Rebecca’s closet. Rebecca loves to run her fingers over the plump cloth, avoiding the lower edge of the sleeves where the nap is worn down to stubble, down to the woof and warp,

“Rebecca dear, I’d like you to meet Isaac and Willa Astral.”

“So pleased to meet you” said Zack. “Isn’t it a lovely day, a great day to be alive .” The sun was streaming through the windows.

Rebecca looked down her long nose. She disdained his outstretched hand: “Wait until you’re ninety three!” She strode past them, toward a coffee table which was strewn with magazines. Was that an Orvis catalog glinting amongst them?

“Rebecca’s really fun once you get to know her,” said Lisa brightly.

They walked across the lounge which was furnished with antiques, many of the pieces donated by former residents. Willa noticed a pretty woman, exquisitely dressed – Lord and Taylor’s? – sitting at a large Jacobin table. She was staring blankly at the puzzle pieces scattered across the table’s top. Her aura of bluish grey hair was incandescent, caught in a shaft of afternoon sunlight.

“She looks so sad,” Willa whispered.

“Betsy Cosmer. She’s going to be ninety soon. She just can’t seem to deal with it.”

Lisa saw George Dallas by the door, sitting at one of the many computers that dot the campus. George, at 101 years of age, is the Lees’s oldest male resident, still hale enough to play three holes on the abbreviated golf course. He’s never without his putter. He leans upon it like a cane occasionally, and when animated, he slaps his thigh with it, like a testy cavalry man flaunting his quirt on Bond Street. Lisa puts herself between the Astrals and George’s back as they pass his seated figure. George’s eyes are glued to the computer screen. Lisa glances over his shoulder: hardcore porn.

As Lisa and the Astrals reach the corridor , an electric scooter stops abruptlyat the door to let them pass.

“Rootzy!” Lisa sang out gleefully. “Isaac, Willa, this is Ruzzica Altinerese.” Rootzy is slouched down in her bucket seat, the stems of her sun glasses stuck rakishly into her windblown hair. She is ninety-four. “Rootzy, this is Willa and Isaac Astral. They’re new to the campus.” Rootzy extends her gauntleted hand.

“So good to see you again,” Lisa said. “How have you been?”

“I’m fine,” said Rootzy, “except for this damned nose of mine. The cool weather makes it drip.” She swiped at it with a fistful of kleenex.

The devoted owner of a Schnauzer puppy, Lisa said reassuringly, “Rootzy, just remember, a dog with with a wet, cool nose is a healthy dog.” Lisa smiled, rather pleased with herself.

“I’d rather be a hot bitch!” said Rootzy, gunning her motor and whirring off.

“Rootzy, you are so-o-o cute,” Lisa shouted after her, through clenched teeth.

They step out into the sunlit plaza which, to Lisa’s relief, is free of residents.. Several walkways branch off toward the Courtyards. Across the plaza you could see the woods that surround the campus. Beyond the woods the campus is girdled by three intersecting superhighways. The highway traffic emits a muffled, menacing roar. “Do you know your way home from here?” Lisa asked.

“Just barely,” said Willa. “It’s so confusing. So many interconnected courtyards, so many arcades, paths, cul de sacs.”

“It’s really quite easy,” said Lisa. “The key to it all is the ring road. Except for one dogleg, it circles the campus. Get into the right hand lane and you can’t go wrong. Keep looking left and you’ll see the parking lots strung out like beads on a necklace, marked A B C D F G H. They lead to their respective interior courtyards. To your right are the surrounding woods. Just keep going left. Never, never turn right.”


Haircut, With Passion

Picture a naked eighty-five year old man, standing in the merciless glare of six large light bulbs lined along the top of a bathroom mirror that covers the entire wall behind the sink and the vanity top.  My left hip leans against the edge of the vanity and I look askance into a hand mirror held in my left hand, at the image cast into it by the wall mirror, of the side and back of my head.  I hold a tethered, electric hair-clipper in my right hand.  The clipper’s cutting edge is protected by a little plastic bumper, like the cow catcher on the prow of a 19th century transcontinental steam engine.  I have just successfully trimmed the hair on the back of of my neck and head.  Now, by contorting my right arm and wrist, the cutting edge of the clipper enters terra incognito, a blind spot amenable only to an act of faith.  Get on with it!  Who gives a damn about the hair behind your ear.  Done!  I drop to my knees and with the flat of both hands, I sweep the tile floor, reaping the hair clipper’s pitiable harvest, a shallow handful of hair which I drop into the waste basket.  I rise, turn and step into the shower.

I have just saved twenty-five dollars, which is what they charged in the barbershops I frequented four years ago in South Philadelphia.  I give myself eight haircuts a year:  that’s $200.00 saved, not bad.  Multiplied by four years gives me $800.00, enough for a cruise to Bermuda.  I paid $28.75 for the clippers and it costs pennies to operate.  But this is not why I cut my own hair.  Barbershops have become inhospitable places for someone of my age and disposition.  Even the smallest barber shops may have two televisions.  The one in the front of the shop is locked into Fox News.  The bigger screen in the back of the shop offers non-stop sports games or incessant talk shows about sports.  The clientele, which used to be knee-jerk Democratic, is now mad-dog Republican.  So I do my Kabuki dance of the mirrors.

Mario Tarquinio arrived from Italy to work in Ralph’s barbershop when we were both seventeen years old.  In Italy he had begun at thirteen, sweeping up and running errands.  By fifteen he was cutting hair.  At seventeen he was in Ralph’s shop, cutting my hair every five or six weeks until I was drafted at age twenty-two.  He knew my head better than his own.  By the time I got out of the military, Mario had his own shop and  was married to a girl he brought back from Italy.  He, his wife, his baby son and his mother lived in the apartment above the shop.  Mario loved me, a college guy who accepted him on equal terms. In Italy. some of his customers cut him cold when they passed on the street.  He bristled when he told that story and he told it frequently.  We fed into each other’s half-baked anarchical leanings, nonsense that we discussed half in English, half Italian.  We were utopians, not bomb-throwers.  When other customers entered the shop, Mario would load his old record player with the same four or five scratchy long plays:  collections of arias from Italian operas.  Mario’s favorite was Verdi’s “I Vespri Siciliani” which is about the Sicilian insurrection, in 1228, against their French oppressors.  His favorite scene was when the Sicilian rioters break into the monastery and they drag out the friars who are ordered to pronounce the Italian word, “ciciri”.  French language speakers find it difficult if not impossible to  pronounce that word accurately.  Anyone who failed the test was killed.  Whenever I entered the shop I would greet him, defiantly: “ciciri”.  “Avanti”, he would answer.

Mario was about five feet tall, stocky but not muscular.  He had strong hands and fingers.  His front teeth were short, thin-bladed and separated, like a small child’s.  He spoke rapidly, almost incoherently when excited.  When he made a telling point, in a story or in an argument, he would rise on his toes stretching to his full height, lifting his arms to chest level, like an orchestra conductor’s pianissimo.  He would arch an eyebrow.  Case closed!  We were not close friends even though I had known him for thirty-five years.  We saw each other only during my haircuts.  On those occasions we played the same variations on a few themes:  our families, politics, priests (up went an eyebrow.)  I never met or saw his mother, saw only glimpses of his wife and I never met his son, an only child.  We shared a second language, Italian, and we reveled in its allusions, a shorthand that set us apart, a small victory over the sameness of things.  But nothing stays the same.  South Philadelphia had changed, was changing.

“All you guys moving out!” he railed.  I drove forty-two miles roundtrip for my haircuts and to visit my parents.  I left my cleanly swept, tree-lined suburban outpost for two or three hours.  The ride accentuated my awareness of the old neighborhood’s decline. The streets and sidewalks were littered, unthinkable in our youth, when our parents and siblings swept the sidewalk every day and scrubbed the front stoop as if it was made of white marble. Depending on the hour and the season, the steps were pleasantly warm or pleasantly cool. In the evening people would sit on those steps to chat.  Rocky Di Carlo was a trolley car conductor whose route passed his mother-in-law’s house.  My parents lived next door.  When passing, if he saw his wife sitting with her mother, Rocky would stop the fully occupied trolley in mid-block, run out and kiss his wife.  “Aren’t they a handsome pair?”  Mrs Ianuzzi asked my mother.  “Yes” answered my mother, who had sons only, “Yes, but Rocky is better looking.”  Not the end of a friendship because they knew each other intimately.   Mrs Ianuzzi weighed four hundred pounds and my mother, a dressmaker, made her tent-like dresses.  But that generation was dying off.  To make ends meet, many who remained rented out rooms or turned their second floors into small apartments, introducing more transients into the neighborhoods.  More transients, more trash in the streets. The corner deli which used to advertise fresh ricotta on Tuesdays, Thursdays and Saturdays, now advertises Vietnamese hoagies.  Filipinos and Vietnamese began buying up the houses.  These are Catholics who send their kids to the Catholic schools, and who attend the big, half empty, pseudo-Baroque church,  In Springfield, a nearby white suburb, the Catholic church has a billboard sign in the parking lot:  “on Saturday evening, there are ten priests on duty to hear confession.”  The ironbound facts of demographics.

In the end Mario scarcely noticed the littered streets because he was hammered by tragedy.  His son married “out”, an Americana from Virginia, not a tragedy but a blow. The bride was mystified by Mario’s elliptical discourse.  She could not connect with a mother-in-law who still thought in Italian and a grandmother-in-law who spoke no English.  The young couple moved to Norfolk, Virginia, another blow.  Several years later, Mario’s mother slipped into Alzheimer’s.  Then, cruelly, Mario’s wife was diagnosed with early onset Alzheimer’s.  Mario tried to cope by himself, at home  with the occasional help of a  nurse and health aides.  It took its toll.  The shop became slovenly, and so did Mario.  He grew quick to anger.  His clientele disappeared and his hours became erratic.  I arrived for a haircut and found the shop closed.  I returned a week later and found the shades drawn on the doors.  I asked a woman sitting on her front steps next door what she knew about Mario.  She said he had had a nervous breakdown and that they had taken all three of them away.  “Where?”  She didn’t know.

How quickly John Doe disappears from the human record!  His house is sold (if he owns one.)  Tax records are expunged on schedule.  His children move to another state.  He writes few or no letters during his life.  His customers find another barber. The lady next door moves out or she dies.  Mario has vanished.