There are in our existence spots of time,
That with distinct pre-eminence retain
A renovating virtue, whence, depressed
By false opinion and contentious thought,
Or aught of heavier or more deadly weight,
In trivial occupations, and the round
Of ordinary intercourse, our minds
Are nourished and invisibly repaired;
A virtue, by which pleasure is enhanced,
That penetrates, enables us to mount,
When high, more high, and lifts us up when fallen.
This efficacious spirit chiefly lurks
Among those passages of life that give
Profoundest knowledge to what point, and how,
The mind is lord and master—outward sense
The obedient servant of her will. Such moments
Are scattered everywhere, taking their date
From our first childhood.
— William Wordsworth, The Prelude; Book Twelfth: Imagination and Taste, How Repaired and Restored
Music distills, packages, and holds emotion. — Roger W. Smith
So do precise memories. As Wordsworth well knew.
I am at freshman football practice. It is a beautiful New England Indian summer. The practices are long and exhausting.
I am probably too small to have gone out for football. We do leg lifts and other exercises on a hot, sweaty day. Drills against a blocking dummy. The freshman squad coach with a green cap, Mr. Strumski, is a heavy set guy.
Another kid, Gary W, says to me, “You think you’re a football player? What did you go out for football for?”
It’s my senior year. English class is first period. I pass the principal’s office on the way to class. I hear someone say to the principal, Mr. Alvino. “How are things going today, Mr. Alvino?” He answers, “I have all sorts of headaches. ______ of my teachers called in sick.”
I am always rushing not to be late for school. Our stately old house on Chapman Street, a prime address in the town, was built in the previous century. We have only a bathtub. I take a bath, gulp down my mother’s breakfast, and race to school through woods, a path leading to the football field, past which is the school–the best way to get there. My hair and clothes are always still wet.
I am at the Oak Crest Inn on Cape Cod. Summer 1964. My first job ever (other than paperboy). My title is Night Clerk. $35 a week plus room and board. I have to make rounds every hour with a watchclock on my shoulder and – in my capacity as night clerk — admit the occasional last minute guest. I have a weighty tome to read; there is usually not that much to do.
At eight a.m., my eleven hours shift is finished. I go to the dining room for breakfast. Leo, a crusty old guy, is the cook. He is always making dirty jokes with the waitresses. They are mostly college students. They have pert, saucy comebacks for him. They regard Leo (justly) as a dirty old man, but don’t mind him. One of the waitresses likes to do things like stick her finger in whipped cream and take a taste of it before delivering a strawberry shortcake to a table. All the waitresses are smart and witty. Leo is a short order cook. I am thankful for his breakfasts: greasy eggs with hash browns. His coffee is terrible.
Then I go up to a garret, a tiny space in the rooftop of the Oak Crest Inn, and crawl into bed, having placed LPs on the portable stereo my parents gave me as a high school graduation present. It is always classical: Beethoven piano sonatas, Schumann’s piano concerto, and Brahms’s Symphony No. 1. The music soothes me.
I can’t sleep that long. Wake up in midafternoon –- if not earlier — and head to the beach.
One evening, before my shift, among a gathering in the common room, Mrs. Allingham, a teacher and guest for the whole summer (making her permanent; the hotel is open only during summers) — she is given red carpet treatment, but is never demanding — asks me, could I please get her a cup of coffee.
I panic, There is a full coffee urn at hand, but what is one supposed to put in a coffee cup, how prepare it? I buttonhole another guest and ask them to please help me. Just put some milk and sugar in the cup, they tell me. It’s a relief to me to know.
It is a Monday morning, my first day of work at Columbia University. In the spring of 1973.
In those days, I always had difficulty being on time. I get there precisely at 9 a.m. The door to the Office of Admissions and Counseling, on the fourth floor of Lewisohn Hall, is locked. It is about 9:15 before anyone shows up. Someone arrives and unlocks the door. They seem completely unconcerned. My boss, the Assistant Dean, shows up a few minutes later. He says, something like “good, you’re here,” points out my desk, and goes into his office. He basically ignores me. I am left wondering, what am I supposed to be doing?
Susan S, the receptionist, is very good looking and voluptuous. She is always cheerful and friendly. Sunny disposition. The idiosyncrasies of the others in the office amuse her, but she doesn’t take anything too seriously.
Susan is married to a lawyer who is friendly and unassuming like her. She is pregnant. She invitees me and others to feel her stomach and her child (it turns out to be a girl) moving. Didi, the Financial Aid Officer’s secretary, often brings her daughter to work.
Margaretha, an academic advisor, looks like a Scandinavian movie star. She speaks with a heavy accent (she is Swedish), and Gerry, another advisor who never seems to be busy, can do a very good imitation of her.
The so called professional staff with any sort of title always affect importance.
Nobody dresses that well. Well, most don’t. My boss, the dean, does not look like a businessman, but he is always neat. Dean ______ is always having meltdowns as the result of constant demands from students. and superiors. He calls in sick only rarely, telling me he is “on my bed of pain”; he has a penchant for cliches. On lunch hours, he often goes for a swim in the Teachers College pool. I call it “hydrotherapy,” which amuses him. He lives in the Village, on West 16th Street (he commutes every day uptown on the No. 1 train) and loves the ballet.
It is 1978. I get off the Number 1 train at Times Square and almost sprint the few blocks crosstown to Madison Avenue and 40th Street 270 Madison Avenue to be exact.
I have been hired as a promotion copywriter by a scientific and technical publishing firm. We have to sign in on a timesheet in Eridania’s office. She somehow knows the head of the firm and has a good job as office manager.
Eridania is Puerto Rican. She has handsome features and a charming accent. She is nice and diligent but never seems to have that much to do. Eddie, as she is known, has her own office. So does Mary Ann L., who has connections through her father or husband that make her a pooh-bah. She lives near Sutton Place; her husband is a doctor. She only shows up when she feels like it. The firm is supposed to be publishing scientific and medical books, but she has started up a line of books on ballet. She affects to be arty. She can be hard to take.
There are six or seven desks in the room, which is on an upper floor which the firm occupies.
Inez is from Jamaica. She is Eddie’s secretary. She is very good natured and friendly and is always seeing the humor in things. Gail is someone or other’s secretary. She is loud mouthed — outspoken — says whatever come to mind. She has a sharp wit.
The firm has this supposedly great policy of giving us a half day on Fridays. Actually workdays begin at 8:30, somehow making it the case that we have a couple or more hours coming to us at the end of the week, so the workday ends at 1:30 on Friday. Some of us go to Central Park to play ball. We have joined a softball league. It was Ted’s idea. Ted sells advertising in our medical journals. He works in the same room. He is very handsome and is a good athlete. He just graduated from college. He is young, earnest, and diffident.
Ted’s father is a staff writer for Time magazine. Sometimes he comes to watch our games. We elect Ted team captain and manager.
Around 12 noon, Gail announces that she will get lunch for everyone at a deli on the avenue. She loves fulfilling this duty; takes everyone’s order. Comes back with a cardboard box filled with everything from pizza slices to club sandwiches.
l always order a grilled cheese. The food is never good.
The building has horrible ventilation, is a so called “sick building.” I get a terrible cold. Of course, one can’t open the windows.
People still smoked in those days, I have quit recently, but I occasionally bum a filter cigarette from my immediate superior, Gerry. This always annoys him. He doesn’t hide it, but he proffers a cigarette.
It is memories like these that reconstitute the past for me, bring it back as if it were today or yesterday. Bring the past back exactly as it was; and everything I was experiencing and felt then.
— posted by Roger W Smith