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A New Yorker's Stories

by

Philip Gould


GOOD-BYE TO A FRIEND

I just learned that my old classmate, David Zeibel, had died. I was told that he had been unwell for several years, reduced to getting around with a walker, and then succumbing. The news was disturbing because I always had in mind to call him and to propose a meeting. Knowing that such a call was now useless left me in an awful state.

I remember David very well from our three years at Music and Art. We were both art students, often working in the same art studio. He was a wiz of a painter, producing very impressive canvases as though effortlessly. In fact whatever he attempted, he did so with ease and grace. After painting I think he loved sports and basketball in particular. He had the build for sports, not gangly like many adolescents, but of medium height David was compact and solid. He exuded health and confidence.

I trekked a number of times up to his home in the Bronx on Allerton Avenue, near the Bronx Botanical Gardens. I met his mother and his brother, his friends and his girlfriend Leah who he eventually married. David’s mother was a courageous woman for she was working and raising her two sons by herself. She was strong and confident about the future.

The class of 1940 was proud about being the first full class at the school. We knew full well how lucky we were to be charter members of the experiment in education of specialized schools. We had seen and heard Mayor Fiorello La Guardia address the whole school in the auditorium when he declared his pride in giving birth to his baby: The High School of Music and Art. We were so privileged to have great teachers, mostly not much older than the students. We were never treated with condescension. The place was too small for that. We could talk to our teachers.

I was thrilled to be in the company of so many talented people. And no one found the long hours of our school day a problem. Like David I lived in the Bronx also so we made the ascent and descent of St. Nicholas Park on 135th Street to and from Convent Avenue every day.

Those were fateful days. World War II would begin within a year and a half of our graduation. Everyone moved in different directions. I heard that David was involved in coaching, mostly basketball. And later his interests led him to the game of golf. I always thought that he could have made a career as an artist. He certainly demonstrated great promise in that area. But I knew that whatever professional path David took he would excel in it and above all he would always be surrounded by family and friends that loved him. (9/27/06)


MISERY LOVES COMPANY

I was on my way down Broadway to my local senior center for lunch when I bumped into a friend from the center: Gertty. She was accompanied by another woman who was promptly introduced to me. Yvonne was a visitor from France. Both ladies were on their way to MoMA. They were looking for a place to have lunch. I suggested the senior center which was only a few blocks away, and after a moment’s hesitation they agreed to join me. So off we went.

Yvonne was from Alsace-Lorraine not far from Strasbourg. Well, I’ve been to Strasbourg and remembered the early astronomic clock tower in the transept of the Cathedral, the mention of which set Yvonne at ease, as though she had found an old relative. When I said my wife was born in Strasbourg that did it. We were, indeed, lanzmen. As we ate our lunches, Yvonne took the time to show me a picture of her husband and children accessible in her ipod. I almost never show photos of my family members but I felt the need to respond to Yvonne’s initiative. So I pulled out two old photos of my wife from my wallet. I had to tell Yvonne that my wife had died a year and half ago and that I have still not gotten over the loss. Tears started to roll down Yvonne’s face. I was a little startled to have provoked this reaction and at that moment we both sort of hunkered down a little and leaned toward each other. Yvonne then confided that her husband had recently asked her for a divorce and that he had actually gone off to Poland or some other eastern European country to visit his new paramour. Yvonne told me she was married for twenty-eight years and that there were two grown children in the family. I found out both husband and wife were doctors with ongoing successful professional careers. What looked like an ideal family was in tatters. Yvonne was now streaming tears and dubbing her cheeks with a Kleenex paper napkin. I was tearful myself. Here were two people, strangers a few moments ago, and now exchanging intimate and personal experiences. It was something like a confessional. Yvonne then told me her heart was breaking for four months when her husband returned and begged her to forgive him and to accept another try at restoring their marriage.

All this time we were speaking in French which made our conversation all the more private, a sort of tête-à-tête in the semi-public dining room. We were both exhausted, played out, expiated in a way, and relieved. We had wells of sympathy for each other and felt much comfort in the way we could relate to each other.

Gertty and Yvonne took off for the Museum of Modern Art, a worthy distraction from the heart-wrenching conversation at lunch. (1/5/09)


THE MOST FORGETTABLE PERSON

His name was Zak. He was an academic, like me. We met at a university where we were both teaching. We were both at the beginning of a career trajectory. Zak’s field was linguistics. He had earned his standing in a traditional way by recording the language of a West Coast Indian tribe that was reduced to just a few members; the language was facing extinction. But linguistics was a declining academic discipline. Zak lost his teaching post when the university stopped offering linguistics which had been, in any case, an appendage of the anthropology department. Zak thought he smelled a conspiracy: some members of his department betrayed him, so he thought, just to preserve their place. He lost a lot of trust in fellow scholars in the wake of that episode.

Zak had other unfortunate experiences. For one, his wife left him, divorced him and remarried shortly afterward to another academic which didn’t lessen the blow.

Zak had two daughters, a source of much pride and pleasure. As the girls grew into young womanhood they became progressively less enamored of their father and gradually saw less and less of him. They had actually grown disdainful and declared that their father would have to earn their respect.

Zak had a number of girlfriends following his divorce. He boasted about these affairs as though his lady friends thought he was the last ideal man standing, a notion that was difficult to connect with the fact that Zak was portly and partly bald. Of course there is no way to explain taste. The final rejection came when the last female he was living with in New Jersey sent him packing. I had the thankless job of retrieving his mattress, loading it on the top of my station wagon, and transporting it to Zak’s apartment in New York. I discovered sometime later that Zak was sleeping, in fact, in the basement of the house on the other side of the Hudson River. Just what the arrangement was remained a mystery. His summary expulsion, however, was beyond doubt.

Zak had difficult relations not only with women but with men as well. Zak was an engaging fellow, to be sure. He had a wealth of information at his fingertips and a dogged determination to find just the right word to describe the object or objects of his discourse. He loved to hold the attention of his audience as his stories unfolded. He was, after all, a linguist and a well-educated man.

He had a long-standing friend on the West Coast. They had mutual interests in gourmet food and gambling by way of poker. I had the pleasure of meeting this gentleman and was honored to partake a specially prepared dish of pasta. I thought he was a reasonable man. The last time Zak and his California gambling friend met they ended the encounter in the street shouting at each other. Their respective ire’s were so intense they ignored the public setting.

I thought it was my obligation to honor any reasonable request of Zak. I mention this by way of introducing an episode in our relationship. He asked me to buy a certain paperback book, to deliver it to another friend in California the next time I traveled to California. At the time, I visited California summers to give a summer school class at the University of California in Berkeley. I found Zak’s friend and delivered the book in question. After my return to New York Zak seemed to forget his request and when I mentioned the money I laid out to buy the book, he appeared to be put out and in a gesture of derision stuffed a bill in my handkerchief jacket pocket. So much for doing a favor for a friend.

Some time later, I had the opportunity to invite an Indian diplomat to visit my home. I invited Zak as well to help make the occasion as auspicious as possible. In the midst of this gathering Zak posed a question to me that was entirely out of the spirit of the gathering. He asked me to describe his girlfriend, the one who shooed him out. As an act of politeness, I started to respond to my friend’s query. I described her; to begin with, as an Asian which threw my friend into a rage and in an angry loud voice he began a diatribe on how vile I was to think of people in ethnic terms, and how I spoke without thinking. The reception for my Indian visitor was crumbling under Zak’s assault. I did my best to shut him up but the damage was done. So much for social grace.

The final skiff came at a dinner Zak prepared for me and my wife. Zak put much store in his cooking and looked for the proper appreciation from the friends who shared his gourmet talents. He ladled out a tiny portion of soup that was to be the first course of a long dinner. The soup did smell wonderful and I asked for more than a little ladle full. His rejoinder was to first taste the soup and if I found it to my liking he would give me more. He was milking the dinner: holding the full portion of soup as hostage until he got the expression of delight he was looking for. I thought that was the way to tempt children to eat but not a methodology for adults. I protested claiming the privileges of the guest but Zak insisted that he enjoyed the privilege of the host to decide how everyone was going to eat.

I am not sure if my account gives a fair reading of the episode but I made a fast decision that dinner at Zak’s was not worth it if I had to subscribe to his dictates. I got up, picked up my things, and left followed by my wife, who was so looking forward to this dinner but dutifully submitted to her husband’s pout. This was the second time our meetings ended in a shouting match. I thought to myself: enough. This is one relationship I can forget.

Postscript: Zak died three weeks ago. Only the Medicare male home care attendant was present. (9/20/08)


MULTI-TASKING

My dear Nadia,

I think you’d find the day I had yesterday typical of my New York days. Cyrus, our grandson, was up early for breakfast. I got a surprise call from Laurent, our Parisian friend, who just arrived in New York. I, of course, invited him immediately for lunch. This was Cyrus’ day to be on his own, to explore the City. Laurent was late but arrived just in time for us to go out to the senior citizen center on 107th Street. I forgot about the end of the month celebration there, so we fell into a festive occasion in addition to lunch. We had to escape by the back door so as not to look too conspicuous while the formalities of the center were dragging on. We got out and walked up Broadway to Nussbaum and Wu for coffee and dessert, sitting on the outside while the last rays of sunlight kept us warm enough. Imagine, this was the first time I used the outdoor café. We walked back to the apartment just to leave the lunch milk at home and then we left again to meet Angela at MoMA. I promised to get them tickets for the Seurat drawing show (which is the best show in town). The lobby of MoMA was more crowded than ever, unbelievably so. I suppose it was a lousy day for a museum visit but we didn’t have the luxury of waiting. So I gave them each a ticket, introduced them: one a film producer and director, and the other a film historian. I thought they would hit it off. And off I went in search, of all things, of a Chinese horn cup.* Fred made a desperate call for such a thing, I’m sure as a way to help his dying baby boy. I am so distressed by his situation I would do just about anything to help. I took the Fifth Avenue bus downtown but, it was unbelievable, the crowds of Fifth Avenue were denser than ever in my experience. Holiday masses filling the street with barely a space to move in. I have never seen the City so full of people. Really frightening.

I made my way to the 25th Street antique center but my friend’s shop was closed. I made my rounds, nevertheless and met Dibassy in the basement who got me interested in a headrest from Ethiopia which I bought…a very elegant one. Now I had just enough time to shoot down town to Greenwich Village to make an appearance at Irving Krisburg’s annual reception in his and his wife’s snazzy apartment on Washington Square West. As usual a splendid affair with excellent hors d’oeuvres and drinks. I stayed just a short while and then made my way back home where Cyrus was planning our supper. And so ended another day full of movement, of contacts and of ever so different initiatives.

*According to Chinese folklore drinking from a rhinoceros horn cup confers magical curative powers. (12/29/07)


A FRIEND’S FRIEND

Diana called me Friday night just after she arrived in New York. We made a “date” to meet the next day, Saturday, at twelve o’clock at my senior center on 43rd Street for lunch. That was how our day began. Diana was recommended to me by a friend we share. My European friend is a person I much admire and respect and any one she refers to me must be someone I should treat with equal attention. So, after our one-dollar lunch, I proposed that Diana join me in my usual Saturday afternoon peregrinations about town. She agreed. Off we went to the 25th Street flea market district. The three-storied garage on 25th Street between Sixth and Seventh Avenues gives its lower two floors over to a sea of flea market vendors. You can find African, Chinese, Tibetan, Middle Eastern artifacts as well as clothing, old tools, books, new and old, and much more. It is fun just to walk through the space. On the second level I bought a single lace doily about twelve inches in diameter, and gave it to Diana; she had a memento of a New York flea market.

We crossed Sixth Avenue to visit the outdoor flea market and there I found and bought three African woven baskets, woven in raffia and rattan. The baskets are light but Diana insisted on helping me carry them. Then we took the 23rd Street crosstown bus to Tenth Avenue for what I thought would be a special surprise: the exhibition of Picasso’s late paintings at the Gagosian Gallery on 21st Street. When we got there we found people had lined up on the sidewalk, two abreast, for fifty feet, waiting for a chance to get in. This show has been well received by the press and people respond. My Danish friend and I walked up to the guard at the door, I showed my UNESCO card, and we were let in. Diana viewed the show while I sat in the little dark room to watch the slide projections of Picasso’s late paintings. When I got up Diana was at the exit door ready to leave; she didn’t linger long over the Picasso paintings. We walked up to 25th Street to visit another gallery where the proprietor is an old friend and where the artist currently on view was sitting in the back room; he was a fellow student in Hans Hofmann’s school back in 1947. We had a round of introductions and congratulatory comments before parting. We ended our afternoon together at a Punjabi restaurant on Tenth Avenue, frequented mostly by South Asian taxi drivers. I ordered two Marsala teas, Indian style. I was quite sure Diana had never tasted the drink before. The restaurant was nearly empty at four-thirty in the afternoon. We took our time over the tea and talked easily in the quiet space before boarding the bus that took us both back to our separate domiciles. (5/18/09)


TWO EXTRAORDINARY TELEPHONE CALLS

An extraordinary thing happened this afternoon in both time and place. I had my customary lunch at a neighborhood senior citizen center and walked home at a leisurely pace, stopping at one or two coffee shops to see if someone had left today’s Times at a table. I actually picked up two sections of the paper and then went on to the local framer to pick up the eight color drawings by my late wife; they were masked and mounted and looked stunning framed, as it were. By the time I reached home the afternoon had progressed so I had only fifteen minutes to rest before heading out again.

I didn’t get much rest because in that brief span of time I received two telephone calls, about a minute apart, from Africa. One was from Yaya, calling from Togo, to tell me in a very excited way that he had several objects he was about to send to me and he was sure I would be more than pleased with his selection. African dealers often wax ecstatic about their wares; sight unseen. I tend to keep my reservations. I met Yaya two years ago on his first trip to the States. He arrived with no money in his pockets and a very sore tooth. I thought he was hopelessly naïve and needy to come to New York in such a state. I understood that he was the son of a chief in his homeland and was probably spoiled rotten. Still, my impulse was to help him. I suggested he look for ambusol in a nearby pharmacy for the toothache which he did and I learned later that he was temporarily relieved of pain. I also gave him money in advance of merchandise he expected in the mail. Things worked out. He eventually saw a dentist and later still I got some artifacts for my collection. On his second visit to New York a few months later he ended his time here again broke. I was loathe to give him money again just when he was about to leave the country. We struck a deal: he left an African object with me as security, security because he thought it was worth much more than the advance I was prepared to “lend” him. That was at least a year ago and today’s call from Togo was the first word from him since that deal was made. I am, of course, curious about the objects he said he would send to me but I am also not a little skeptical about long distance promises.

On the heels of this call, the phone rang again, this time from Niger. Niger is a landlocked country of West Africa most of which is part of the Sahara Desert and extremely poor, although now I hear rumors of oil being discovered under the dunes. Oumarou was on the line calling for the first time since the return to his native country not very long ago. He was one of my constant dealer-friends. We have known each other for at least fifteen years. We developed a sort of symbiotic relationship. He got to know my taste and my interests in African art and often acted as a go-between with other dealers, that is to say, he would select works from these merchants fully confident that I would be satisfied with his selection, and for a small mark up present the works to me. I was spared, in effect, the haggling that is expected in all transactions between African dealers. I understand that such back and forth negotiations between Africans can last three or four days. Oumarou’s health was not good. He suffered from a systemic disorder that required injections three or four times a week. He was often weak and out of commission. His health was a serious obstacle for his work since he could not always make the necessary rounds to keep up with the incoming merchandise. In the last weeks before his definitive departure for home in Niger he was at a loss for paying the rent on his single room apartment. When I gave him a check he invariably asked to leave the payee open; I’m sure the check went directly to his landlord. His situation was untenable and he decided to return home. His departure was a loss for me for we had many, many long hours of conversation. In the beginning, these talks were about stratagems for keeping the prices down for me and high for him. We were both apt at that game. For the last two years, I think he no longer had the strength to slug through the process. He then proposed, quite candidly, that I name my price. If my figure was fair enough or close enough to his expectations the deal was made. The arrangement was working. Then we had time to talk about other things, about matters of health, about our families, about the state of the world. I should note that our conversations were in French. Oumarou was educated under the French system and he had the bacheloriate or the equivalent of the bac. I was always eager to match wits with him and to challenge my French language skills. His call this afternoon was a surprise, the second of two surprises in a matter of minutes. I felt great, knowing my African friends were thinking of me and wishing to continue our connections. (6/24/09)


I REMEMBER MAY KRAMER PHELOSOF WHEN

Quite a long time ago a “gang” of kids, or, I should say, a gang of adolescent kids used to hang out after school in a little park in the neighborhood that was far from affluent; everyone was struggling through the depression. But as kids we had our camaraderie to cheer us up day by day. We made some very solid friendships that lasted a lifetime, and my friendship with May was one like that. May and I met frequently in the park and sometimes on the elevated subway line that took us to school and back every day. May was bright, saucy, and fun to talk to. This was especially true when the subject of Ben Phelosof came up. May was determined, early on, to marry Ben. I could not have agreed more. I knew them both pretty well. Ben was like a mentor to me, just a little older, but infinitely wiser and we had many long conversations as I walked him home in the evening and then he would walk me home in turn. May recognized Ben’s virtues as I did and since she was disposed to a life of the mind, (she was, after all, an early winner of the Phi Beta Kappa key at Hunter College), her attraction to Ben was entirely understandable. The issue was how to get Ben to return her acknowledgement. May and I strategized from time to time on how she could win Ben over. And I remember how she would lift her face, with engaging eyes and a wry smile at one suggestion or another; she was thinking all the time. Whatever she thought up must’ve worked because May and Ben got married and shared a long life together. I did say May was intelligent and determined.

I was happy for the both of them and we kept our friendship going over the years. From the time of the War, I am referring to the Big War, and afterwards, wherever I traveled I sent little souvenirs back, which I was gratified to see, years later, were still decorating their home in Rochester.

Out of that modest neighborhood in central Bronx, the guys and gals of our after-school gang became parents and grandparents, lawyers, professors, firemen, community leaders and loyal friends. I’m glad I knew May; she was my friend, for we shared a precious meeting of mind and sentiment, which made each of us better for it.


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