The hip hooray and bally hoo,
The lullaby of Broadway.
The rumble of the subway train,
The rattle of the taxis.
The daffodills who entertain
At Angelo’s and Maxie’s.
–From the song, Lullaby of Broadway by Harry Warren and Al Dubin
They say the teen years can be the most trying of times. We falter, we plow ahead. We push, we dare. We make mistakes and presumably learn from them. Some of us handle the awkwardness of transitioning from childhood to adulthood a whole lot better than others. Some of us come out the other end with flying colors, embracing the change it brings to our lives.
Not me. Having to face adulthood is what I dreaded most. I wasn’t ready and doubted I’d ever be. Young people aren’t supposed to worry about getting old or the passage of time. But, I did. On the eve of 1970, while revelers were partying and rattling their noisemakers in Times Square, I sat in my room and cried, lamenting the end of a decade that, to me, represented my youth. It was as if the new decade was quashing what was left of my childhood, snuffing out the free spirit inside. Peter Pan didn’t want to grow up and neither did I. My mother put her arms around me, not really understanding why I felt so bad.
Well, my friends seemed oblivious, too, eager as they were to get their driver’s licenses, and get on with their plans for college. So I tried not to think too much about the future, nor how junior year would be ending soon, and I would need to find a job for the summer. Whether I liked it or not, the pressures of adulthood were creeping in.
My feelings for James continued to run the gamut. One minute I couldn’t imagine life without him. The next, I’d flat out ignore him, feeling the shame of being a year older than him burn my cheeks. I could kiss him and spurn him in the space of a minute. And always, he waited. No matter what I did, he stood by patiently. I knew he deserved better, but I couldn’t bring myself to be any other way. Yet, I worried what would happen to us once school let out.
Max proved to be a fresh dose of reality. When the day of our planned trip to the city arrived, he showed up to pick me up with his usual panache.
“Miss Thing! I’ve seen hyenas in heat that look better than you!”
It was 8:30, Saturday morning. Crack of dawn if you ask me, but he insisted we get an early start.
I was at Liza’s, where I’d spent the night. Max, dressed in a flaming red ascot and a silk smoking jacket, was looking rather cavalier as he assessed my “I just fell out of bed appearance”—gray circles under my eyes, and my black ringlet curls were all frizzed out. Having gone into panic mode, they looked more like a mound of Brillo pads that had been pinned to the top of my head.
“This simply won’t do!” He said fretfully, plopping down a valise he’d brought along with him. “Now, where can we go to doll you up?”
I was curious as to what he had in mind, but also dreading it. Still, I pointed to the parlor to the left of the entryway of Liza’s Victorian home.
Yanking my arm, he grabbed his valise and pulled me into the small, cozy room with over-stuffed chairs and an upright piano. Motioning me to sit down, he flicked his suitcase open and began pulling out an assortment of garments, circa 1940s, as well as cosmetics, a hairbrush and hairspray, and a container of bobby pins. For the next 30 minutes, he did my hair as best he could, working feverishly to stick pins in all sorts of ways, until, miraculously, my hair looked quite fashionable–had I been Joan Crawford in Mildred Pierce, that is. Then, he handed me a violet-colored dress to wear. All I needed were a pair of arched eyebrows and a smear of red lipstick to complete the Mildred Pierce look.
When he was finished and pleased with the results, we hastily rushed off to make the 9:23 train to Penn Station, New York. I was consciously aware of the looks we got as we boarded the train. Taking our seats, Max began to tell me what he planned for the day, how many shops we’d be visiting, and where we’d be having lunch.
“There’s a whole world beyond school, Miss Thing,” he’d say, “and you need to see it!”
I rolled my eyes, once again feeling like I was the only one not ready to move outside my comfort zone of school and riding my bike around the island. I imagined it was easier for Max, as he’d be graduating soon and seemed eager to move to the city. Maybe I’d feel better when it was my turn, and, like him, I’d find myself hankering to leave home.
As I gazed out the window, watching the scenery whiz by, I knew one thing to be certain. Sitting next to Max on the train, he in his ascot, eyeliner and mascara, and me, donning a vintage dress, it occurred to me we were nothing more than a pair of misfits.
Max must’ve known what I was thinking because he smiled and blew me a kiss.
“Now, about your love life,” he said exuberantly. “Tell me, is there something going on between you and James, or are you still dating that insipid George?”
Nothing like cutting to the chase. Max never ceased to leave me dumbfounded. He had his arrows and knew exactly where to sling them. Perhaps he sensed the angst his question gave me, for his face was filled with consternation.
“You’re not going to the prom with George!” I wasn’t sure if that was a command or a plea.
“Well, I’ve heard George mention it this week in the cafeteria, but I assumed he was lying. You wouldn’t waste your time.”
“He asked me weeks ago. I said yes. It’d be rude to back out now.”
“It would be crazy not to! Tell him you’ve come down with the flu–or, better yet, the clap. That boy is as bland as tapioca pudding, and furthermore, he doesn’t appreciate you. Not like James.”
I winced. “What do you know about James? You only met him once!”
“Don’t think I missed the looks between the two of you, Miss Thing. That boy’s pining for you like nobody’s business, and if you don’t snap him up, I will, because he’s drop-dead gorgeous!”
The idea of Max finding James attractive made me uncomfortable and I was suddenly overcome with a fierce desire to protect James.
“I like James,” I said flatly. “Only it’s complicated, which is why I haven’t told anyone.”
“Why’s it complicated?”
“Because he’s a sophomore and I’m a junior. That’s why.”
Max looked at me incredulously and then laughed. “That’s your reason? I thought you were going to say he has cancer and only weeks to live. Darling, don’t let that stop you. Show him off! Walk arm in arm with him at school and watch all the other girls be insanely jealous. I know I am.”
“You don’t think I’d be ridiculed?”
“Honestly, do you know how many times I’ve been the source of ridicule? Has that ever bothered me? Sometimes, maybe, but you just deal. Each of us has something to hide. The question is, are you willing to own up to it or are you going to let it eat you up?”
As the train reached Penn Station, passengers began to gather their belongings and move towards the doors. As Max and I followed suit, he gave a wink.
“Choose wisely, Love. James is hot and adores you,” he said, adding salaciously, “You’ve no idea what I’d do to him if he were mine!”
I cringed at the thought, wishing Max wouldn’t be so forthcoming, but I knew he had a point. Yet, was I willing to heed his advice?
Once on the platform, he took my hand, and guided me through the throng of travelers. Two misfits were we, trying hard not to melt into the crowd. Only one of us was succeeding.
Missed an installment? Catch up by visiting the page, Lightning in a Jar: High School Years.