This is the third installment of my memoir: “The Imperfect Logic of the Heart.”(Two Chapters and a Prologue) The book is available on Amazon. I am reprinting it here chapter by chapter.
When you get to be my age you watch your body slowly fall apart. In my sixties I replaced both cataract clouded lenses, stitched up the back of my eye that had collapsed with a scleral buckle and bought my first pair of orthotics. Now in my seventies I am looking forward to buying a new knee and possibly if I can afford it new teeth. All this decay happened slowly.
Puberty, on the other hand struck like lightning. One day you’re reading Batman and the next you’re peeking at Playboy. A shocking emission from my enhanced penis happened at the same time that I grew four inches in height, developed a minus eight refractive error and a raging case of acne. If these extreme alterations in my physical self were not disturbing enough, my mother’s announcement that I would be starting a new junior high school, in a new neighborhood, away from all my friends, sent my already-raging hormonal imbalance into overdrive.
I certainly was not going to win over new friends with my grotesque new physical self and Shaker Heights, my new neighborhood, was horrifying. Only rich people lived there.
Shaker Heights was conceived in the early 1900’s by the Van Sweringen Brothers (Oris and Mantis), railroad billionaires. Their idea was to plan a community where both the design of the houses and the type of people allowed to live there would be strictly controlled. These restrictions were put in place in order to maintain Shaker’s “spatial and social distinctiveness” and contrast with the big city life in downtown Cleveland. In other words, only rich people need apply and hopefully only highly educated white rich people.
Lyman Boulevard, was the site of our new home, the last street in Shaker on its far east side, the furthest away from Shaker Heights High School. Construction would be finished the summer before school was to start. We were not rich. Dad’s jewelry trips did not suddenly get lucrative. Actually his small jewelry store customers were all going broke as the malls and chain stores eclipsed their fading business with larger inventories and better prices. My dad was also going broke. My mother was not. The land and money for the new house came from my grandfather Deutsch. Some of the cash was money my mother had saved, but the land was bought years before by my grandfather. Actually my dad was now in the property management business, managing a building in downtown Cleveland owned by his attorney.
There was a new crisis with my brother. My mother was at war with the high school dean who decided at the last minute that Larry needed to go to summer school if he was to get a high school diploma. Larry thought he was graduating with his class but apparently his frequent absenteeism had caught up with him and what had been a D now had morphed into an F. Apparently some sort of compromise had been reached, which was fortunate because my parents were planning to send Larry to Wooster Junior College in Wooster Mass where he could get tuned up to go to a “real college.” Shaker was probably happy to get rid of Larry.
Years later, I told my Mother a story about the dean she hated who had bullied all the kids, some of the teachers, and even some of the parents. One of our teachers at Shaker, who worked there while the dean was in full abuse, also worked as a travel guide in the summers. Returning from one of his trips he sat next to an amusing man on his flight who made Liberace look like John Wayne. In a casual conversation he asked our teacher friend what he did. Our friend responded that he was a teacher at Shaker Heights High School. The very gay seat mate responded:
“Oh my god. My boyfriend is the dean there.”
That information was the weapon our friend used during his teaching career to escape the bully dean.
“Hey, I met a friend of yours on a long plane ride.”
Larry never stayed at Wooster for more than a few days. A long story can be abridged by fast forwarding to the end when my mom discovered that Larry had pulled a Camp Conestoga. After saying a goodbye to my parents, Larry bolted and made his way to Ohio State in Columbus where he stayed with a friend and worked in a deli. Mail from my parents to Wooster was being forwarded to Larry so it took a little time to discover that Larry had never gone to a single class at Wooster. This was going to be a hard one for me to balance out. You had better behave in Shaker. Be an extra good boy.
To help ease my transition and hopefully introduce me to some future Shaker friends my mother enrolled me in the Florence Shapiro Dancing School. Florence and her spinster sister Hattie would have named it the “Shaker Finishing School” if they could have gotten away with it. There was a little bit of dance instruction and a lot of pomp and circumstance for the fancy Shaker Jewish community. Everyone entered the ballroom as couples, arranged by height, with the girls wearing white gloves and the boys their new suits. None of the popular dances were taught. The classics were in control: the waltz, the tango, the box step to the music of Hattie at the piano. Definitely no mambo or cha cha.
Florence knew about my dancing reputation and made sure I followed the routine. By the time I started Florence Shapiro I was kind of a seasoned professional. mambo and cha cha were the rage among the adults that took dance lessons from Carlos and Kay or Tony and Yolanda. My parents had arranged private lessons with their friends in our basement on Groveland. I had learned the steps when I was a little boy watching from the basement steps while my parents’ friends were taught. Sometimes I was allowed to participate when the teachers would say in frustration “look, even Richie can do this…it’s not hard.”
A few years later I had taken more lessons from Carlos and Kay and was part of their advanced class that on occasion performed at the Bar Mitzvahs and country clubs in the area. There were also weekend and temple dances. I was such a frequent winner in these contests that eventually I was not allowed to enter. People knew me as the guy who danced. That was all they knew but it was my ticket to a few new friends at Shaker.
At Florence’s famous costume party, I came dressed as a girl. Not an unusual thing to do back in the early sixties before the LGBT community. Florence asked me to get my mother.
“Dear, you can’t be here without a costume.”
I quickly straightened her out. Another one of those Florence Shapiro events, the Hayride, introduced me to my junior high, high school and beyond, girlfriend and future mother of my children. The famous Dr. Jac Geller’s middle child Betsy.
Construction had not been completed on the new junior high school I was to attend in seventh grade, so the school district arranged for half-day classes at the old junior high until the new facility was finished. My half day was in the afternoon so our mornings were free. Those mornings became ice skating events with most of my new junior high class. My English teacher’s new husband owned the rink. Lots of fun but little learning taking place.
In a blink of an eye junior high school sped into senior high school as my confidence and respect for my intelligence eroded year by year. There were several factors at work beyond the normal distress my peers faced on the way to adulthood.
There was Betsy.
There was Larry.
There was Latin.
There was the Ivy League.
If I had some recognition as “the dancer” I ultimately became known as Betsy’s boyfriend. A Jewish cheerleader was an oxymoron. Yet Betsy was Byron and then Shaker’s cheerleader and we were attached at the hip. This relationship was a mystery to most who considered me clearly unworthy of the beautiful Miss Personality. But like most complicated relationships there was more to it than first appearances. I had a confusing set of unresolved issues in my family dynamic and Betsy had her own.
If I couldn’t resolve mine at home, somehow in my youthful ignorance I thought I would be more effective with Betsy’s own entanglements. Hers were classic. She was the middle child who got all the attention from everyone but her mother, who seemed to be compensating to bolster the fortunes of her less blessed sisters. She got little from her father, who had delegated raising the girls to his wife while he hid in the hospital, an environment he understood far better than his home. My role was simple. Shut up and listen. We became “relationship addicted.” Something I never fully understood until many years later when I first learned about codependency.
Larry’s situation at home became even more complicated by his illness. In the short time following his aborted college experience Larry had found employment and a wife. His few week marriage ended in an annulment following his serious colitis condition that almost killed him. My first airplane ride was to fly to Cincinnati where he was living and drive his car home while he recovered. Larry moved back into our new house and started to recover by gaining a little weight. He had been reduced to the size of an Auschwitz survivor. Our diet at home now included those foods prescribed for him by his doctor who we would later discover was incompetent. We ate a lot of calves liver and drank an enormous amount of ice tea.
If I was an all A student during my primary grades, those former skills seemed to have eluded me in my new schools. Part of the problem started early on when I lost the ability to listen in class. This was not the result of normal distractions that accompany a teenager but a more extreme condition. I literally saw lips moving and nothing coming out. My hearing was fine but the words made no sense and if I was to learn anything it would have to be at home from a book. There might be a name for this condition but the resolution of the problem did not fully occur until college. Even when I went to the movies I was unable to follow the story. Strange.
I was a hopeless Latin student, although today I love to recite from memory the first few lines of Virgil’s Aeneid:
virumque cano, Troiae qui primus ab oris
Italiam, fato profugus, Laviniaque venit
litora, multum ille et terris iactatus et alto
vi superum saevae memorem Iunonis ob iram;
multa quoque et bello passus, dum conderet urbem, 5
inferretque deos Latio, genus unde Latinum,
Albanique patres, atque altae moenia Romae
Arms I sing and the man who first from the coasts of Troy, exiled by fate, came to Italy and Lavinian shores; much buffeted on sea and land by violence from above, through cruel Juno’s unforgiving wrath, and much enduring in war also, till he should build a city and bring his gods to Latium; whence came the Latin race, the lords of Alba, and the walls of lofty Rome.
My Dad encouraged me to take Latin, assuring me that it would help in developing my English vocabulary. If you took it in 9th grade you had to continue in 10th. And I was advised that you needed three years of a language to get into a decent college, so you took it in 11th as well. From the beginning, I never got Latin and my lack of ability continued to escalate until I was hopelessly behind. In my third year with the wonderful Mr. Strater, I watched my genius classmates play with the Latin sections creating modern translations in iambic pentameter worthy of new classic offerings while I stared at the Latin page and feared being called on once again to embarrass myself in front of the class.
Strater loved to stretch a rubber band around his forehead and play with it while you watched in apprehension of it snapping. But it never did. He called me into his office after class towards the end of the semester.
“Doctor Schwachter, you are failing my class! But I have failed you as well. I have checked your records and actually talked to your other teachers and I know you have the ability to get an A and yet you are falling close to the fearful F. What has happened here is a failure on both our parts. We should have offered succor earlier. Special help, extra help, extraordinary help to prop you up. But now doctor, I fear it is too late so I am offering you a life raft, an alternative to failure. As of this day you are to become the Virgil scholar of our class. You will know everything about the Aeneid and everything about Virgil. I will only call on you in class with reference to these subjects. I will never ask you to translate. If you can perform these functions satisfactorily as our Virgil scholar you will pass this class. I cannot, however, assure you of much more than a D. But then you will understand. Yes, doctor? Okay doctor Schwachter?”
I fared much better in my other classes and had a good but lopsided result on my SAT’s. Extremely good on the English part, not as good on the math. My grandmother’s insistence that the dictionary be frequently consulted had worked its magic on my vocabulary.
My class was filled with brilliant children. Obviously Shaker parents offered a great gene pool but by any standard the class was extraordinary. If I was uncertain then, the years have confirmed my assessment by producing extraordinary professional people. Everyone in our class went to college and of course the Ivy League was a big deal then as now. For some reason my high school guidance counselor thought Colgate, a lesser Ivy League school would be a good fit.
I had labored hard and long on Shaker’s swim team never achieving a school letter. My breast stroke skills were quite good but not better than the number one and two in the state who were also on Shaker’s team. I was in the top ten in the state but not good enough to start for Shaker. That was unlucky but swimming was a sport I enjoyed. One of the few you could “play” if you were extremely nearsighted. Contact lenses were not around yet. You didn’t need to see much in the pool. And as long as I was on the swim team I didn’t have to take gym.
My guidance teacher must have thought of Colgate because he knew they liked swimmers. I visited Colgate with a friend who ultimately enrolled there and swam on the team. I hated every moment of my visit to Colgate in Hamilton, New York including the Nazi children who were on the swim team. One of these charming children later knocked out the front teeth of one of my oldest friends who left that school and transferred to Ohio State.
Still in the hunt for a college, my dad and I went on a road trip to Chicago to see Northwestern. The vibe was not there for me (the city frankly scared me) so I asked my dad if we could go another few hours north to Madison. One of my Roosevelt counselors was a student there and loved it.
Wisconsin in the summer is particularly beautiful. I had one look at Lake Mendota and knew this would be my college. We checked into the Edgewater Hotel on the lake and ended up having dinner the first night with a woman and her son from Milwaukee who were checking things out. My dad and the extremely attractive woman seemed to be enjoying a harmless flirtation while I talked to my new friend Jeffrey from Milwaukee. Over 50 years later Jeffrey and I are still friends. His mother and my father both suffered the same unfortunate Alzheimer end.
As high school graduation marked a thankful goodbye to Shaker, I wondered whether this was a forever goodbye to Betsy who had one more year at Shaker until she would have to choose a college. Would we survive apart?
Before I left we had one glorious summer as counselors at adjacent camps without supervision and with my new Volkswagen to take us to private hideaways on off days. It would be hard to say goodbye.