Monday, June 14, 1999
I wouldn’t have dragged Tom into New York—again, because this wasn’t the city tour—but I had to meet my great-aunt Phyllis. And I mean meet: I’d never seen her before.
On my dad’s side, my grandfather was one of nine kids. But he was the only one who managed to goose that litter to a third generation, and even he barely made it. “What happened?” I’d once asked my father. Who’d kind of shrugged.
Politely, it seems. Turns out my granddad and his brothers were largely a racetrack-going crowd. Their sisters all married, but—maybe knowing the family history—mainly refused to breed.
That history’s lost now. Most of these people were dead before I was ten. Except for one great-uncle, the supposed black sheep, who escaped to Ohio. That was Phyllis’s husband.
Dad never met him. I never had either, though I went to college in Ohio, and just after graduation worked less than an hour from where my great-uncle lived. But I figured he had to be really old by then, with probably no interest in someone as young as I was. Besides, if he’d managed to live without our family most of his life, it seemed best to let the guy die in peace.
Then came the Internet. My brother Mike, trolling for my phone number one afternoon, later called to say, “This is weird. Did you know someone with our last name lives in Dayton?”
We have an odd last name. I used to tell friends, “Look in the New York phone book, and call anyone with my name. They’re immediate family.”
“Is her first name Phyllis?” I asked my brother.
“How’d you know?”
“She’s Uncle Irv’s wife.”
“Grampa Murray’s brother.”
The problem with my grandfathers was they all died before Mike was born. I say all, because there were three. And three grandmothers—it’s complicated. And my brother knew little about any of them simply because he’d been too young. I quickly tracked Mike though three generations, adding that if my grandfather’s older brother’s wife was still alive, she was probably beyond hearing.
“Then you don’t think I should call?”
“Sure,” I sighed. “Go ahead.”
He didn’t, possibly because I’d added the reason my dad had never contacted his uncle either: he didn’t want to seem to be money grubbing. The black sheep had turned into a corporate president.
But my sister’s sometimes fearless. She called Phyllis.
“We had a very nice talk,” she reported. “But she knows almost nothing about the family. In fact, she wants to hear what you know.”
So I called Phyllis. Who turned out to be Irv’s second wife—and “much younger” I was led to believe, though we tactfully never discussed numbers. She also had a business that brought her to New York, monthly.
I told her I’d be in the city in mid-June. A coincidence—so would she. So we arranged to meet.
Since she was staying with another relative—the near-senile wife of the late and only son of one of my actual great-aunts—we decided to meet in a restaurant. Lindy’s. Once favorite of the racetrack crowd.
“Is that still around?” I asked.
Only not where I thought. And not as it once had been. There were just several smaller branches.
We got to the right one, at the right time, but Phyllis wasn’t there. And since women of her generation are always punctual, and guys of mine rarely are, I went tearing off to the second branch, ten blocks away.
I walk fast. Tom doesn’t. New York is crowded. Tom’s polite. I didn’t want to miss Phyllis, but had to keep turning back to make sure I didn’t lose Tom.
Only she wasn’t at the second branch either. And folks there thought there might be a third—“Near 46th Street.”
Well, no. There had been a third, but it was actually the first, moved to a second location. We rushed back there, and sure enough, sitting in the front booth just as she’d promised, was Phyllis.
“Sorry,” she apologized. “It was such a beautiful day I decided to walk.”
From 57th Street? At clearly eighty? Wow.
She looked terrific: thin, in a black designer suit and heels, with still-dark hair. Like Barbara Stanwyck, or one of those other movie dames.
We moved to a back booth. “More private,” she whispered. Then she talked. And I listened, something my friends never believe I do. And she smoked. And drank coffee.
“You must think I’m a terrible gossip,” she interrupted herself at one point. “Just going on and on.”
I liked the on-and on-part. She filled in several gaps. True, as she’d told my sister, she really didn’t know much about our family—“Irv never talked much about them,”—but she did tell me one funny thing: our hard-to-pronounce last name (which if you can spell it, immediately makes you a member of the family) had been shortened—to make it simpler.
What could it possibly have been?
After breakfast, Tom and I walked Phyllis around the corner, to where she was buying for the high-end women’s clothes store she owned. Before he died, Irv had asked Phyllis what she most wanted. “We were sitting in Twenty-One at the time,” she mentioned—discreetly indicating, as I hadn’t doubted, that they’d lived well—“and I thought for a moment. Finally, I told him a store. And he set me up.”
My great-uncle had, unfortunately, been dead for ten years. And he’d been my granddad’s youngest brother, which I hadn’t known. That, and the fact he’d lived more carefully, explained why he’d lasted so much longer.
There’d been one other difference: “You can’t really be part of Irv’s family,” was one of the last things Phyllis told me, staring way up. “You’re so tall!”
The city was also tall, and as long as we were there, it made sense to show Tom some of the sights. I’d already explained Penn Station to him as we’d come off the train, as well as the several Madison Square Gardens. We’d rushed through Times Square in search of Phyllis, then had slowed to check out the New 42nd Street.
“This looks better?” Tom asked.
“It will. Give it time.”
It sure looked different.
Next, we wandered to Bryant Park. “This was the city reservoir in the 1800’s,” I indicated. “That’s why the whole block was available to build the library.”
“‘Round 1900. I’d have to check.”
The main reading room had just been restored. But I had nothing to compare it to, having never been there.
“There’s lots of places in the city I haven’t seen. Like the Empire State Building. I just never made it.”
I’d been to the museums though. And the zoos. The Statue Of Liberty. Big feet and all, I’d climbed those tiny triangular steps twice. But growing up, my favorite place had been the The New York Historical Society—when it still had horse-drawn fire engines.
The reading room of the public library was as impressive as expected, and across the marble hall was a smaller gallery, hung with period paintings. L.A. has a parallel series, though photos, showing how quickly—in only eighty years—we’ve wrecked even parts of the city that had once been desert. Of course, New York’s industrialization took three-hundred years, and no one would have wanted it to stall at the point where even the idea of Central Park was a joke—because most of Manhattan was still rural. But it sure had been pretty.
After that, we walked Park Avenue to Grand Central, me explaining that the broad street, divided by colorful flowerbeds, wasn’t some well-thought-out landscaper’s idea. “The road hides underground train tracks for a couple of miles.”
“It can’t all be commercial,” Tom insisted.
But Grand Central was amazing. “You see that little patch?” I said, pointing at the ceiling.
“That grey square?”
“It all used to be that color.”
Now the ceiling was sky, with stars and constellations. And even if corporate ugliness lurked above, down here was beautiful.
We had drinks with friends, on a balcony overlooking all the marble. And, okay, one drink cost more than my monthly rent, and the waiter kept telepathically ordering us to Leave! But for a while it was fun, pretending to be a New Yorker.