#24 The New Venture: Part I

In #19 The Big Shift I made the huge and what appears instantaneous decision to leave a great job, with no plan. No, it’s exactly what I did. The corporate memo that came out said I would be “pursuing other interests.” What were those interests? I wanted a year off, maybe.

I had folders about tramp steamers and brochures for around the world trips on the QEII: something to imagine during the 15 hours a week on the train rides to and from Connecticut. Earlier that year, 1983, I had considered buying a little cottage in England. Instead of such long distance eccentricity, I decided to finish my pilot’s license, go back to piano lessons and find a French class. Mostly I wanted to sleep.

I did go back to flying lessons and I looked at a print franchise to buy. But within a few weeks I was directionless.

I visited friends of my parents in Pennsylvania: the same friends I stayed with when I moved to Manhattan 12 years earlier. They were retired and considering the risk of opening a restaurant. I saw my role: help them research to make an informed decision.

We visited the state liquor license board. We studied business plans at the library. We met with retired business people. As a possible home for a new restaurant, we looked at one historic building after another in that Pennsylvania downtown city. We climbed over rotting wood and steered around pigeon poop because these once majestic buildings had become pigeon hotels. I now had a purpose, a project. I drove back and forth between Pennsylvania and Connecticut for a couple of months.

We met two young men starting out in the historic rehab business who wanted to find my friends a building, and then do the construction. Fortunately the restaurant notion was discarded. Instead, I invested some of my money in the two young men. It felt right to contribute to a community and save old buildings.

I wanted to be in Pennsylvania to guard my investment. I put my Connecticut house on the market and bought a beautiful restored townhouse in Pennsylvania: the equivalent of an unaffordable brownstone in Manhattan at a tiny fraction of the price. Nearly overnight I was in the construction and historic rehab business, something about which I knew nothing. I was 36, committing myself to a new city and two strangers who were barely out of school. They had no life savings to lose, except mine. I had spent the better part of months helping my friends research whether they should start a business. How much thought and research had I given to make my decision? NONE!

I was energized about the move and to me it made philosophical sense. The two young guys could keep me open and learning. They wouldn’t have old notions about women in business. And I would add business experience and formality.

I was so wrong. Even the word wrong looks wrong. I should have taken my life savings, put it in a box at the city limits and then drive away. But I didn’t do that. With my fortitude and determination, it took me over three years to lose nearly everything. I drifted into that partnership with about the same exquisite stupidity I had done with the men in my life.

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#23 A Simple Ride to School

Since my father was a teacher in my High School, I rode with him in his big navy Buick. He insisted on running the engine to warm it, so if I was lucky I’d get into it already toasty. I walked home in the afternoons, which was fine since it was all down hill.

I’ve written before, but can’t do it enough, about not being a morning person. It probably tops my list of personal characteristics. Every school morning when my mother hollered up the stairs that it was time to get going, I’d try to throw my voice across the room as if I’d been standing there ready for hours. With one bathroom in the house I don’t recall morning showers. I do remember trying to stay in bed as long as possible. I put out my clothes the night before, so to the second, it was a masterful plan. In the winter I stood over the heat register warming my shoes and clothes. I never had breakfast since I had no appetite in the morning. Forget calories or protein. I craved sleep.

One morning I had a terrible time getting up and ready, so my father left without me. And that was a game of chicken no one should ever play. It meant Alice, my mother, would have to drive me, and school was not on her way to work. Nothing was more than five or ten minutes away, but it was in the opposite direction.

I reluctantly stumbled downstairs where her voice extracted the last bit of sleepiness. Though never chatty in the morning, I’d have to be a passive passenger without further elevating her pitch. My first class was in the front of the school and it was so dark out, I could see everyone already in the room. She pulled the family Volkswagen in front. My hand was on the door latch, but she wasn’t finished screeching about what a terrible ungrateful lazy daughter I was. Her anger escalated and there it was. The slap! A good solid slap. I don’t know how the hell she got enough extension or leverage in that little car, but she got me to turn her way for the smack, and the sting.

Slaps in film or on stage get my attention. Hard to capture the shock of a real slap. The toughest stunt artists are pathetic compared to my experience. In film they try to cut to the reaction so holding back or lack of contact won’t show. The real shock of a slap turns your head, sometimes clobbers an ear.

I got out of the car without knowing if my classmates saw. Though the school wasn’t quite street level and there were a few steps up, we were right there. I know I didn’t cry. I walked into the building, into my classroom and I took a seat for an education.

As always nothing was ever said. I’ve wondered what would have happened if I had had the nerve to slap her back. But I never did. He had plenty of temper to tip toe around, but in all those years, my father never saw her slap me. I’ll never know what he knew.

I’m pretty sure I was never late again.


#22 Cute As a Puppy

When scanning my “stupid” list for the next subject, details of So I Bought Him a Humidifier get shoved aside. Not yet, not yet.  But little stories do percolate up from that time.

There we were, about 1979 or 1980, living in my house in Connecticut, commuting together, and creating weekend activities for his three children. We were at the apartment of one of his business partners one week night. I left to use the powder room because I couldn’t keep up with that level of drinking. I was hot and tired and we still had a long drive home.

No matter how nice any New York apartment is, the powder room is basically in the living room. I turned on the ceiling fan both to disguise any sound I might make, and to muffle the sound of what was becoming a party that I wasn’t attending. That’s when I heard the voice of the man in my life.

Over the fan and through the door, I heard him yell, “Honey, can we take Biff?” I thought I heard what I heard, but yelled back, “What?” I couldn’t reach to turn off the fan switch. So I rushed, flushed, did a quick rinse and tap tap on a towel. I grabbed at the door to re-enter that noisey smokey room to repeat my question.

We had met the puppy Biff the same day our friend got him from the breeder.  Biff’s tiny brown and white body tottered across my living room to the warmth of the fire and he did what puppies do. He fell asleep at my feet. What a fun visit. Bye bye. Cute to see you. Don’t have to feed you.

But by the time I got to the other side of the powder room door that night, we were already the owners of an English Pointer. The commitment was made by the man who looked into my eyes and reminded me that he had never had a dog as a boy. And that his three children had never had a dog: the children who were not yet fond of me.

Would I have the spine to say no in front of his business partners and friends? Of course not. I listened as they agreed on a time to pick up the puppy, now farmed out to a kennel, because our friend wasn’t hunting that year. And Manhattan was no place for a hunting dog. “NEITHER IS MY HOUSE,” I screamed inside my head.

Within days we found the kennel and they brought out Biff, now about eight months old. Nice dog but where’s Biff? He weighed at least 60 pounds and had the run of the place. He was beautiful and completely untrained. We paid the kennel his ransom. They didn’t even throw in a leash.

Trying to embrace all this I had envisioned adorable Biff on my lap for the drive north. Instead Biff allowed me get into the back seat with him. His size already had me intimidated. If he had wanted to drive, it would have been fine with me.

We got to my house, the one without the fence. Where would we put him for the 10-12 hours we were away each day? And even though we had a fence guy coming, I had bonded with Biff on the drive home. I knew he’d find a way over, under or around the as yet non-existent fence. What if it rained? What about lightening?

We got child gates and closed off the kitchen. For now, Biff would have the kitchen and basement where we put down plenty of paper and I tried to locate the contractor to hurry with the fence. Right.

The first night we came home, Biff had dragged fireplace logs up from the basement and chewed them. He also chewed and spit out the kitchen stools. At last the fence was in place, but it was put up good side in so that had to be changed. And I was still completely insecure about leaving him out during the day. The yard was good for the children to play with him except, never having had a dog, they were terrified.  And their mother had severe allergies so I washed every article of clothes before they returned every weekend.

Biff never left my side. He was beautiful and lovable. His nose was always at the back of my knees and a couple of times I almost fell back over him down the stairs. He took over the bed. He took over the house.

Then one night we came home to a kitchen where he had knocked a spice rack off the wall, chewing the tins, spices everywhere. A meat platter propped behind the stovetop was completely charred because somehow Biff had slapped the back burner on high. I pictured a spark burning down the house and then the neighborhood.

A friend called a wonderful family she knew with four acres of beachfront in Greenwich, Connecticut. I was home alone when they came to meet and fall instantly in love with Biff. They drove away with a happy dog in their station wagon.

I knew I’d be despised, but at last I did the right thing. I cried.