“But he doesn’t need deodorant,” my father said.
“My love.” Mom sometimes used their term of endearment as punctuation. I was standing next to her. “My love. You don’t have to wash his shirts.” The kind of shirts worn by a husband and two sons and borne along New York City sidewalks in July and on subway platforms that were infernal practically year-round.
The next day I had deodorant, no doubt purchased by Dad at the Herald Square Korvette’s along with the store-brand toothpaste that never really foamed up in your mouth even if you wet your brush with hot water.
Though my parents were raised in somewhat different economic circumstances, each had respect for how money was spent and what was considered a necessity. Whether they had air conditioning or not during their youth was beside the point. (They didn’t.) What mattered now was whether it was more important than something else, like planning March vacation on the north fork of Long Island (which to this day seemed like one of their more budget-conscious choices for recreation with pre-teens). They didn’t spend money based on the assumption of either an ever-widening revenue pie, or the deceiving lull of a deepening debt pit. Both were born in the 1920s and remembered the Depression—my father in ‘21 and my mother in ‘25. He had to quit college during his junior year at Hamilton to support his family after his father died. His mother had died when he was nine and still an only child. His father re-married and the couple added two brothers and a sister. My mother grew up enjoying an opulent Rhode Island vista of East Greenwich Bay. Her father and mother both lived into their mid-80s. He retired at 45 as a successful car dealer and day trader; she played golf and had an electric putting machine in a living room covered by plum-colored carpet. The machine would spit the ball back out at you if you sunk it.
My father knew the hardships of the 1930s and my mother knew of them—they both lived through World War II and lost friends and family—and decades later each translated their respect for money into how they decided about air conditioning, deodorant, and undershirts. My father used to go to the Odd Lots store across from Grand Central Terminal and buy pickles or sardines by the case (which he would store under my brother’s and my beds) or pastel neckties or dress shirts by the three-pack, which he’d give my brother and me for Christmas as the “practical” present alongside the Action Jackson soldier dolls we wailed for just so we could later decapitate them during brilliant feats of bravery behind enemy lines or hold their heads over the kitchen stove burner to torture them as an interrogation technique. Death, for Action Jackson, always involved the head and neck.
My maternal grandfather, Poppa, was rich and frugal, and he seemed to wear the same khaki trousers every day I saw him during 18 years of summer vacations. The Chrysler Town & Country station wagon that heard me at six singing along with “I Wanna Hold Your Hand” on Poppa’s car radio was also the one that cradled me in the front seat nursing a hangover during college vacation. My mother learned from Poppa how to play competitive bridge and pick stocks, learning about odds and mercilessness and a poker face and how not to lose. She was a doting mother but gave no quarter during card playing. My father’s penny-pinching flowed from his becoming the family breadwinner at twenty: largely responsible for a stepmother and three siblings.
So a 1970s NYC heat wave descended upon our Upper East Side apartment, which seemed to happen more in my childhood memories of the city than it does now, it encountered a militia of appliances that was well past its time of honorable discharge. We never needed extension cords or multiple plugs. It was not surprising that the best my brother and I could hope for was floor and window fans (probably mustered at Odd Lots or Korvette’s for the 1975 equivalent of $9.95 each). We’d have one framed in the window over 96th Street and its loud crosstown traffic and one on the floor positioned to pull air from the bedroom into the hall. The idea was to create a 90-degree wind tunnel, which was better than a stagnant Turkish bath. Thick city air and the gas-metallic grind of revving Harleys at the red light were blown in at us while we slept sprawled in our white Fruit of the Looms on top of sheets that melted over the sides of our beds and into rippled pools on the carpet.
On a sticky Saturday afternoon, when my brother and I would watch Japanese monster movies on TV and sip Cokes from the deli downstairs, and when she was not reading the Times or playing solitaire, my mother would walk around the apartment in her panties and bra, carrying a vodka-and-tonic and smoking Virginia Slims. We thought this was normal. My father would stay in the kitchen, overhead light off, listening to “classical radio WQXR-FM” and its Texaco-sponsored opera program, slowly chopping carrots diagonally and placing them in a water-filled glass jelly jar. We’d eat them that night with his curry mayonnaise dip.
Neither his tasks nor her leisure needed take so as long as they did. But each lingered at them until dusk, when the sun would begin to drop behind the pre-war buildings across Madison Avenue and the shadow of a water tower would creep by inches from the living room down the hallway and toward our bedroom.
photos: No known copyright restrictions; Maidenform