Books have always held an important place in my life. Not just reading them but owning them. I wouldn’t call my father an intellectual but I would call him bookish. My grandfather had a library and so did my dad. So do my aunts and uncles.
After my old man died, my brother and sister and I were faced with the daunting task of what to do with his library. My syblings took a few books but weren’t really interested in them. I felt a great responsibility to make sure that they would have a good home, even if most of them were donated to the local library.
It’s tempting to look at someone’s library as autobiography. You could certainly tell something about my old man by what books he had–he loved mystery novels, for example. On the other hand, he just didn’t throw things, especially books, away. So there were books that he had gotten as gifts that said nothing about him or his taste. It just said that he didn’t believe in tossing them away. And there were others that I knew he hadn’t cracked open in more than thirty years.
Still, his library still gave him comfort and a definition of sorts. I ended up taking just a few dozen for myself, most of them for sentimental reasons–his first edition copies of “The Boys of Summer” and “No Cheering in the Press Box,” Leo Rosten’s “Joys of Yiddish.” His books, which I had memorized and adored for so many years had actually become a burden.
But if someone’s library paints a misleading or limited portrait, there is still room for autobiography. Because there are little reminders inside the books for us to discover…
Last night, I was in bed and I picked up my dad’s copy of E.B. White’s book of essays. The book has been on my night table for a year and every time I try to get into it, I just can’t. I feel as if I am supposed to adore White considering how much I like clean, vigorous writing. So I decided to give it another go when a postcard fell out from the middle of the book.
It was a board of elections registration card from 1983 addressed to the first woman my dad dated seriously after my mom kicked him out of the house. I hadn’t thought about Kaye in a long time but lying in bed, a flood of memories came back to me.
She was roughly my dad’s age and had a bob of silver hair and wore big glasses. She had long, thin fingers and smoked More cigarettes, slim and brown. Kaye lived on 81st street just down the block from my grandparent’s apartment. She had some money though I don’t remember what she did for a living. Was she in publishing?
What I do recall is that she was sweet and gentle with us. She gave me a frank talk about sex one day, described what an orgasm was. She wasn’t provocative or clinical, but somewhere inbetween, and she left me feeling that an orgasm would be a terrific thing to have. On a shelf in her bedroom was an over-sized video cassette box for “The Devil in Ms. Jones.” I was a snoop in those days but for some reason I never had the nerve, or perhaps the opportunity, to sneak a look at it.
Kaye also had “Young Frankenstein” and my brother, sister and I watched that over and over. I remember watching Eddie Murphy’s “Delirious” there often too. But our greatest discovery at her place was George Carlin’s record “FM/AM.” I’ll always remember Kaye for turning us on to him.
For a brief time, my dad lived with her, and almost certainly took advantage of her, at least financially. But he was still battling the bottle and I don’t think they lasted more than a year-and-a-half before she kicked him out and ended it.
I was twelve when they dated. At that time I wanted nothing more in life than the chance to go see “The Rocky Horror Picture Show,” the famous midnight movie. I had the soundtrack, both from the film and the play. But my mom wasn’t about to let me go out in the middle of the night to watch transvestites sing. I was nothing if not persistant. I pleaded, carried on. Eventually, Kaye agreed to take me and my friend Mike to see it one Saturday night. I don’t remember why, if it was a secret from my mom or what.
We saw it at the old New Yorker theater on 88th street and Broadway. There was no floor show but they did show two animated shorts:
Bambi vs. Godzilla
and Lenny Bruce’s Thank You Mask Man.
Then, the moment we had been waiting for. Mike and I were not disappointed. Kaye was horrified. She wanted to leave after twenty minutes but we weren’t having it and to her credit she put up with us and the movie and we stayed for the entire show.
I never saw her again after she split with dad. The old man said that she had gotten into “Dyanetics” and was a kook. But I’ll always remember her as a nice lady who introduced us to some adult pleasures with enthusiasm and sensitivity.
And I’ve got her voting registration card to prove it.