HE WAS RICHLY STUNNED!

There was a knock on the door of a guestroom at the New Otani Hotel in the Kiocho district of Tokyo.  It was early 1971 and Mr. and Mrs. Bernard Olcott were relaxing on their first full day after arriving the day before from JFK.  Dad had just come back to the room.  He had gone downstairs to exchange $80 into yen, the local currency.

“Were you expecting anyone?”  Gloria whispered to Dad.  He shook his head and wandered over to the door.  He had brought Gloria with him to Japan as part of his 1971-72 world tour to roll out his new wife (number 4).  See my post THE BALLAD OF BERN AND GLORIA as to exactly how I had been informed of the new marriage.

There was another quick rapping on the door.  Dad hastened his pace and opened it to see a diminutive bespectacled middle aged woman, bowing profusely.  “Yes?”

She rattled away in Japanese, and with more bowing, gave him a receipt and 60 yen in coins (worth less than 50 cents).  Dad recognized her as the lady at the counter at the Bureau de Change, where he just been not more than 20 minutes ago. 

BALLAD OF BERN AND GLORIA

Remember that scene from “The Wizard of Oz” where, after the tornado, Dorothy gets out of her black and white bed, walks over to the front door, opens it to find the technicolor scene of Munchkin land?

Opening the Door

The moment when Dad and Gloria opened the door was kind of like that for me.  As Gloria walked in to say hi, it was very much a wild segue in my life from “On The Waterfront” to “Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band,” complete with sitars playing.  Today, I think of that door opening as the transition in my life from ancient to modern times.  All memories before, stained in sepia tones.  And everything afterwards, vibrating colors!  My modern era.  After all, I was 13 in 1971.  On with the show!

I have written earlier that I knew wife no. 2 best because she was my Mom.  Gloria and Rosemary, wives nos. 4 and 5, were modern era experiences for me and I got to know them both very well.  Graciela, at no. 3, was way before, owing to both the shortness of their marriage and to my tender years (though I got to know her better later on).  But wife no. 1 was always shrouded in mystery to me, until I finally met her on Dad’s 95th birthday.

SURPRISE!!!

It was early summer 1971.  School was out.  Time for my annual flight from Orlando to New York, uh, I mean New Jersey.  I rode the plane up North like a nice person (as usual).  Disembarked at the brand new terminal at Newark Airport.  Ran into my Dad’s arms.  We got into the car.  Everything normal.

“How was your flight?” Dad asked as he tried to merge into the right lane, some angry driver honking furiously.  I looked to my right to see a cobra-faced man spewing venom in the car next to me.  Reflexively, I turned my gaze away, out the front.  A flock of New Jersey state birds let loose and took to the skies.

“Great,” I lied.  Seventh grade had been a tough year at Trinity Prep School, my new school that year.  What exactly had been “great” was that it was summer vacation and it was over.  On the last day of class, everybody had tossed their books to Hoe Brown, the class beast, who manually tore up each one into several strips of paper.

“How are things with you?” I asked.

Dad grinned.

He ignored my question and said, “I have something to tell you.” He looked at me for a moment.  We had survived the merge okay and were headed northbound on the New Jersey Turnpike, toward the glistening swamps and after that Weehawken.

DUEL AND DEATH

Hamilton was said to have been popular with the womenfolk. Illustration by Roberto Parada

ALEXANDER HAMILTON’S NEMESIS

One such who had no love for Hamilton was another New Yorker named Aaron Burr who hailed from the opposing Democratic-Republican Party.  The two crossed swords numerous times such as a prior duel Burr fought with John Baker Church in 1799, who was married to Hamilton’s sister-in-law.   The duel ended peacefully with Church apologizing, and soon thereafter Burr sought Hamilton’s support in funding a water company.  Unfortunately, Burr baited-and-switched Hamilton in that the new venture turned out to be not a water company at all, but the Bank of the Manhattan Company (fore-runner of today’s JP Morgan Chase Bank).  Hamilton, who already had elite bankers in his pocket, did not want a new bank carrying the flag of his opponents.   He withdrew, crying foul.

HIS NAME WAS ALEXANDER HAMILTON

In 1970 Dad was happy with his relocation to Weehawken for tax and rent reasons.  As can be seen from the map above, his new home was less than 2 miles from the New York Athletic Club.

However, there was just one teensy little problem.  He literally could not get there from here.  Two miles away, true, is considered generally to be very close.  Assuming you can find your car keys, you can cover that distance in less than 5 minutes in most places in America.  Except from Weehawken to New York City during dining, drinking, and playing hours.

Dad tried, of course, to pop over to his old stomping grounds in Manhattan as usual.  And fatigued of it fairly quickly.  The traffic and parking turned out to be too much of a nightmare.  Thus, I imagine that Dad felt a little cut-off.  I am sure that he tried the Irish pub downstairs when he felt like “catting around” but found the local talent to be lacking.  He never went there with me or mentioned it to me, ever.

I CAN’T STOP MY LEG!

On Saturday night, November 15, 1975, I was a senior at Choate School.  Some buddies and I had signed out that weekend to go to Boston, ostensibly to look at colleges.  Which we did of course the next day.  But mainly it was a weekend to blow off some steam.  One of my pals, John Helmick, kept an illegal car near campus and so off we went off that afternoon driving north on I-91, joined by Neal Collyer and Tom Trimble.  CB Radio was in vogue and John impressed us all with his ability to talk to the truckers.  “This here is Orange Crate,” he drawled in his Des Moines accent, “how it be looking over your shoulder?”  Trucker-speak for “any highway patrol passing out speeding tickets around here?”

After settling in at our Copley Plaza Hotel, grabbing some pizza, and a six pack of beer procured, someone had the foresight to turn on the boob tube late that night.  To our amazement, we tuned in right at the beginning of Robert Klein’s legendary “I Can’t Stop My Leg” skit.  It was one of the first episodes of Saturday Night Live.  Playing a ridiculously amped-up blues musician, Klein’s gag was to bounce his leg up and down in an exaggerated way while singing “I Can’t Stop My Leg” repeatedly.  Without warning, the leg does stop in the middle of the performance.  “It stopped!” he shouts in put-on shock.  Only to start up again.

Here’s the only version of the skit available on YouTube; it’s filmed right from the monitor with a low-grade phone, but you get the idea:

GOODBYE 212, HELLO 201?

Dad turned right to head from Park Avenue (Weehawken) over to Boulevard East where he turned left.  Directly ahead was the Manhattan skyline, in full view from the Battery all the way past Morningside Heights.  The North Tower of the World Trade Center could be seen rising to the right.  “Look at that view!” he declared again.  It was magnificent.  The centerpiece was the Empire State Building stretching regally skywards.  Ordinary and old-looking row houses lined the other side of avenue.

We pulled up to 974 Boulevard East, with its Dutch Colonial roof, which is found in the center of the 1930s era picture above.  It was one of the very few buildings to be found on the east side of the Boulevard, which was usually only a sidewalk, the railing, the Palisade cliffs tumbling down to the river, and of course, the view.  From Boulevard East onwards to the west was a hodgepodge of gerrymandered towns, sort of like the ones on the north side of the Charles River from Boston.  With names like Guttenberg, West New York, and North Bergen, these communities had all of the grit of Cambridge but none of the charm (although today there is a lot of new construction).  By 1970, the trolley line, the railroad pier, and depot down the cliff were all gone, the pier destroyed in a fire perhaps 20 years earlier.  It was a dreary and derelict waterfront.  The rotten posts formed a large swath of dots in the inky water off the trashed riverfront below, missing here and there like bad teeth.

974 Boulevard East itself had three creaky levels.  There was an Irish pub restaurant on the first floor.  The second floor hosted the offices of Olcott International & Company, newly incorporated and busy paying patents renewals in 60 countries around the world.  And a small air-conditioned cocoon of a studio apartment at the penthouse, the third floor.  I called it the “Little Retreat.”  “Look at this commute,” Dad said as he demonstrated walking up and down the small staircase between the second and third floors.  We both looked out the window at the river, the skyline, and boats plying the Hudson.  It was a mesmerizing tableau.  Was it truly goodbye area code 212, and hello 201?