In early August, before moving to New York, before my brother left for freshman orientation at Dartmouth, we held a special farewell family dinner for him. We had all seen Tony Richardson’s movie of Tom Jones—yes, even the 12-year-old me, who fell crashingly in love with Albert Finney—and my brother requested a Tom Jones banquet, such as that so lustily devoured by the hero and Mrs. Waters, the busty babe he rescued from a savage British officer. We would consume with abandon, eat with fingers, smear our T-shirts with grease, a thorough flouting of table manners, which no doubt delighted Bill, who requested barbecued spare ribs, French fries, and creamed peas with onions. Regrettably, at some juncture in the meal, giddy with beer, he stuffed a pea so far up his nose it could only be removed by my mother, using a pair of tweezers.
Later in the month, we moved to East 66th Street, with half the household goods and furniture, and without the dog, Gretchen, who was old and incontinent and had to be put down. We took the apple-faced Siamese cat, a smart and affectionate feline named Bubby. My father sold the Mercedes, and we rented a car to drive to Manhattan, where we would live for a few years without wheels.
And here is when I think the trouble with my brother may have started. The apartment had only two bedrooms, so a dining ell was walled off to accommodate him on visits home, a small space with no closets and barely room for a sofa-bed. His boy cave was gone, the beloved dog was gone….What must my parents have been thinking? Could they not afford three bedrooms? His visits home became less and less frequent, even after my parents moved a couple of years later to a larger apartment with a guest/TV room. Yet there seemed no overt animosity, perhaps because he was eager to explore the city; he even brought home the occasional girlfriend, who slept in one of the twin beds in my room.
My mother had determined I would not go to a New York City public school, even if I could have qualified for one of the more prestigious institutions like Stuyvesant. But it was too late in the year to make applications to the better private schools, like Spence, Brearley, and Dalton. And so I was sent to a place called the Rhodes School, which advertised in the back of The New York Times Sunday magazine and whose curriculum seemed designed for the children of more transient parents—actors, diplomats, politicians, and the like. It was housed in a landmark building on West 54th Street, just off Fifth, and served as the model for Holden Caulfield’s high school in Catcher in the Rye (if my mother knew this and saw the synchronicity with her book loan to Mrs. Fisher, she never mentioned it). Wikipedia now describes Rhodes, in Salinger’s portrayal, as “the school of last resort for ne’er-do-wells who were kicked out of other private schools.”
I was miserable from the start, miserable carrying my textbooks in a bowling bag, miserable taking two city buses to get to school, miserable at leaving my Allentown friends behind. My mother didn’t work that first year in the city, so I couldn’t describe myself as a latchkey kid. It would be a few years before I learned to love New York with a Woody Allen-like ferocity, but my first months were sheer unmitigated unhappiness.
On weekends, I circled real estate ads in the Times for houses in Mountain Lakes, hoping my parents would take the hint and get us out of Gotham. I was sick often that winter with sinus infections, requiring the services of an otolaryngologist named Dr. Belcher, whose clientele included Lee Radziwill. (Her receptionist once interrupted us to ask if she would take the “princess’s call”). The good doctor, a grizzled woman in her sixties with bright blue eyes, used a noisy shuddering contraption with tubes to suck the snot from deep within my nasal cavities. I do not believe she ever found any peas.
On the upside, even if I took many sick days, I was an excellent student. Even if a smarter boy in my English class corrected my pronunciation of “Yeats.” I became the valedictorian of my eighth-grade class and was handed a diploma in a ceremony at the Waldorf-Astoria. The school offered me a scholarship, which I remember insulted my parents.
The next fall I was off to new adventures at the Birch Wathen School, in the townhouse on East 71st Street that would much later be sold to the notorious Jeffrey Epstein for $10 million. Such are the people who almost cross your path in the fabled borough of Manhattan—Lee Radziwill, Epstein, even Woody Allen.
Slow-Cooker Barbecued Ribs
The ribs my mother made for Bill were most likely oven-baked or done on the grill out back. Since I couldn’t find baby back ribs in my local market, I present here a ridiculously easy recipe for country-style ribs (much meatier than back ribs) prepared in a slow cooker.
1 tsp garlic powder
1 tsp onion powder
½ tsp salt
Several grinds of black pepper
½ tsp chili powder, or to taste
1 four-pound package country-style ribs
1 cup prepared barbecue sauce
¼ cup Worcestershire sauce
¼ cup teriyaki sauce
¼ cup soy sauce
¼ cup orange juice
A few dashes of hot sauce (such as Frank’s or tabasco)
Mix together first five ingredients and rub this on one side of the ribs. Add the meat to the slow cooker.
Mix the rest of the ingredients in a medium-sized bowl and add to the slow cooker (liquid will not cover the ribs). Set the temperature to high and cook for four to five hours.
Put the rubs to one side and pour the sauce into a bowl. Let sit in fridge until a layer of fat rises to the top, which can be easily flaked off. Return ribs and sauce to the slow cooker and reheat.
Serve with plenty of napkins. Avoid wearing ruffled shirts or lace jabots.
Top: Pierre Bonnard, Dinner at Vollard’s Cellar, c. 1907