Culture Clash on the Streets of New York
October 12, 2011 - 12:59 pm
Long before Occupy Wall Street, New York has been known for its rather strident culture wars.
I grew up in a very happy household, or so I thought. Apparently my parents were able to make it appear to be so for my sake.
But even at its happiest, there is no doubt that our home was a battle of cultures. My mother came from an upper-middle class background, interrupted when she was about 16 by her father’s death and resulting loss of his income, followed almost immediately by the depression. But she had been brought up with a full time maid, and had always been taught about and been interested in Culture, with a capital C. As a young adult she studied modern dance, and went to museums and concerts.
My father’s family didn’t suffer during the Great Depression. Their finances were already depressed, thankyouverymuch. My paternal grandfather was a failed rabbinical student, skeptic, philosopher, poet who operated a series of failed grocery stores when my father was growing up. My father would tell me that he would occasionally come home from school to an empty apartment, from which he parents had fled right before the sheriff served eviction papers. By the time the depression hit with full force my father was in college on a football scholarship, earning extra money playing poker with the students who were not on scholarship.
My father excelled in college football, being named an All American and playing in the East-West Shrine Game. After college he went on to play professional football for two seasons, at a time when playing football did not offer a living wage, never the less the riches it offers today. And since by all reports he was “ineffective” as a professional player, he hedged his bets by going to law school. But he never lost his college football star bravado or big man on campus appeal to women. By the time he met my mother he had been married and divorced twice and was living with a third woman in her very luxurious suite in the DelMonico Hotel on Park Avenue.
My mother, at that same time was still taking her dancing lessons, still going to concerns, working hard as a wage and hour investigator for the US Labor Department, and seemingly destined to remain single at the ripe age of 35.
My parents met when my mother was investigating one of my father’s clients. A scumbag client to hear my mother tell the story, a label about which my father didn’t quite disagree. My father, in spite of living with another woman, hit on my mother and was persistent enough that after a short courtship he asked my mother to marry him. I believe his biological clock was ticking and his then current girl friend was not the child-bearing type. My mother was cultured, attractive and had family that embraced him.
My mother scoffed at his proposal and said “how can you possibly ask me to marry you, when you are living with another woman?” He asked for two weeks and re-proposed after he had moved out and gotten his own apartment.
My grandmother admits to having threatened the Rabbi who was to perform the wedding. Apparently the Rabbi insisted on talking to the couple prior to the ceremony, and grandma was afraid that any discussion might give my mother cause to back out. My grandmother pulled the Rabbi aside and told him, under threat of grievous bodily harm, to “Get on with it!.”
And my grandmother genuinely loved my father, thinking that his assertive, devil-may-care attitude might be a good foil for my mother’s more taciturn personality.
My father was more than capable of making up for his humble beginnings. He was bright, now an attorney and fit in well with the other parents of gifted children at Hunter College Elementary School, where I was sent as a wee urchin. Being an ex-football player made him stand out in a world of social workers, teachers, doctors and accountants. Socially and economically he could fit in.
But the clash was still there, under the surface. Wage and hour investigator / business attorney; modern dance / football; Chopin / Gilbert & Sullivan; and the big clash, the happy go lucky optimist who taught me, “you can always play your violin on another corner” against the depressive pessimist.
It’s no wonder my father called my mother “Mrs. Doom and Gloom” and my mother called my father (and later me) “The Happy Moron.”
My father eventually became a Republican and voted for Nixon in the 1968 election. My mother died in 2003 at the age of 92, still a life-long Democrat. To paraphrase the title of Harry Stein’s 2009 book on his own coming to terms with the culture wars, I’m sure she looked back on many occasions and thought, “I can’t believe I was sitting next to a Republican.”