Above from left, Dad, Addie, Uncle Ritchie, Me, and Gloria in the late 1970s.
1979 and 1980 were seminal years. I was a senior in college and it was time to contemplate a career. Of course, I had no idea what it was I wanted to do. My roommate Dan, on the other hand, was feverishly interviewing at Goldman Sachs and other Wall Street firms. He ultimately scored a great job and is now in charge of some place like Europe. But for me, all I knew is that I wanted “something international” but was undecided between the public service arena (like the Foreign Service or the United Nations) or international business (I would land my dream internship at United Nations within 2 years to try it out). My Dad had made many off-handed remarks to people over the years that I was to join him at Olcott International and “take it over.” I think I was 6 the first time he said that to someone in my presence. So I had grown up with this as a possible notion. But now at 21 years of age, I was suddenly ambivalent. There was something peculiar about Dad.
Over the last few years, things had changed between my Dad and his 4th wife Gloria. When I first met Gloria in 1971, I was 13. I was hardly mature but I could tell that they seemed to be happy together and the Olcott household was a cheerful one. Gloria was funny, with it, traveled with Dad to Brazil and Japan, and even wrote me a poem for my 14th birthday, dedicated to me as the “stalwart lad.” On top of that, they left me a stash of Playboys in my bedroom, though Gloria removed certain issues she felt were too racy. It certainly seemed that just maybe Dad had turned a corner from 3 failed marriages and that the future was going to be more stable. Hope had sprung eternal. After all, Hope was Gloria’s middle name.
But by late Fall 1979, things had changed. It was Thanksgiving vacation in the Shinnecock Hills, Long Island house and she had complaints. She also didn’t look as healthy and rosy, as previously. And what she now had to say about Dad was deeply disturbing. I wasn’t sure what to make out of it. For starters, she told me how a few weeks ago she was ill with the common cold. She was freezing in the house but Dad kept going through all the rooms, turning off the baseboard heating. She would turn the heat back on only to see him come back in and turn them off again angrily. It didn’t sound very gracious and I asked her if she was sure. It was hard for me to believe that Dad would purposefully leave the heat off for his young sick wife. To prove her point, she dropped a bombshell: he had John the handyman drill a hole in the electric meter glass and jam a stick through the glass onto the platter. The “zinger” as she called it, prevented the platter from spinning and recording electricity usage for billing.
It struck me as crazy talk. Dad was a successful businessman, there was no need for Mickey Mouse stuff like this, I argued. But Gloria was adamant – she told me to go look for myself. So the next day, when no one was around, I slipped outside to examine the meter. At first glance, everything looked perfectly fine. Instantly, I smiled and felt relieved. It was crazy talk. Smugly, I took a closer look and noticed that the bottom half of the glass cover had been slathered with grey paint stain, the kind used on wooden houses. Maybe John the handyman had been too sloppy with the paint. Wouldn’t have been the first time. But then I noticed something on the underside. There was a small hole drilled into the glass, covered with scotch tape which was purposefully painted with house stain. The whole effect was brilliant and very hard to notice unless you knew what you were looking for. At the bottom of the glass cover was a security tag with a stern legal admonition against tampering, including prison time. I was stunned.
I kept an eye on the meter from then on. For years. And sure enough, at times, I did see that the tape was pulled back and a stick inserted to stop the platter from spinning.
Gloria was right, and I sheepishly told her so later. I had no idea what to do. Dad never mentioned this to me and I certainly did not feel comfortable bringing this up with him. I had no way to explain or rationalize it so I just tried to NOT THINK ABOUT IT. After all, I was basking in his bounty with a primo education in Boston and Paris (for summer school, three times!), a hero’s welcome home for school breaks, and maybe an option to tell him one day that I wanted to join Olcott International. It was, in other words, not unknown to me that I had a privileged place in a prosperous family. I was even called “The Prince” by Addie (Gloria’s Mom). She meant it endearingly, and was quick to add that “Bernardo” was The King. Dad never referred to me as The Prince, but he would repeat the name “Bernardo” in a ridiculous baritone Italian accent.
I reflected on the good times in their marriage, only a few years ago. How was it that things had gotten so bad? Deep down I realized that if things could go south for Gloria, maybe the same could happen to me. Besides, their marriage was none of my business. Over the last year, Addie had become a permanent fixture in the household to support Gloria and to try fix things. Obviously, it wasn’t working so well. Dad had already been divorced 3 times – which was a lot (a 4th marriage was kind of a joke) – was he doomed to go through another one? I knew well enough that getting involved in disputes between Gloria and Dad was neither going to be effective or in my interest.
Even if I wanted to, how would I start the conversation? Like the scary part of a hiking trail on a high mountain pass with precipitous drops on both sides, if you don’t know what else to do, you stick your goat hoof exactly in the middle of the path. Proceed slowly. It’s a long way down either side into the abyss. Time changes everything, the trail will be different ahead. Maybe in the future I will be in a more secure position where I could address it effectively, as an established, secure, and valued family insider. I didn’t know it then, but that wish turned out to be a very vain hope. At the time though, I put it out of my mind as best I could, even though the zinger was indelibly stuck into my rotating consciousness.
Next Week: Part 2: Free Parking
Copyright © 2015 by James B. Olcott