Something to be said for anonymity

May 23, 2010 at 2:52 PM 5 comments

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On a chilly Sunday, I chanced upon Calvin and Ingrid Peterson, former workplace acquaintances borne along on Ninth Avenue in the theatre district crowd with a tow-headed boy of twelve or so at their side.

Calvin and Ingrid are research scientists I interviewed for a podcast I once produced. When they entered my office, they were delighted to see a sound mixer and carotid microphone in the middle of my desk. They had been interviewed much the same way in Kenya thirty-odd years ago when they were Peace Corps volunteers, and my set-up brought back fond memories. Even though our conversation was animated, neither Calvin nor Ingrid ever acknowledged me again, not in the hallways, not in the cafeteria, not in the exercise room. Once or twice, they left the building at the same moment I did, and I was able to eye them in the rear-view mirror of my car. They didn’t smile or speak to each other, so maybe our formal conversation just happened to ignite an ephemeral conversational side in both of them.

In the subway recently, I recognized another former colleague. Karen once managed a computer typesetting shop where I worked in the mid-1980s. She was a former detainee in a Japanese-American internment camp with a love of Woody Allen movies, the Whitney Museum and nouvelle cuisine. We shared a lot of the same cultural interests, but, as workplace friendships go, we ended up losing touch with each other. When I saw Karen on the #1 uptown IRT, she was doing a New York Times crossword puzzle. I decided that if she looked up, I would go say hi to her. But she never made eye contact with anybody around her. As the train neared 110th Street, Karen dropped the newspaper and mechanical pencil into her carry-all. The train pulled into the station and Karen disappeared through the turnstile.

My impulse had been to plant myself in front of the Petersons, and especially in front of Karen, to rekindle old relationships. I held back. Here’s why.

Too brainy, too blonde

In my late twenties, I was walking east on Central Park South to a continuing education class when I bumped into Jack Zelton. I knew Jack from a college eating club. He still had the same receding hairline and matchstick build — and the same crush on me. I hadn’t thought about Jack much since college. When he expressed interest this time, though, I decided to “be mature” and give him a chance.

I wasn’t head over heels in love with him, yet I considered him a serious candidate for marriage. Big mistake. You either adore somebody or you don’t. But time was passing and I thought the adult thing to do was compromise. And seeing Jack wasn’t so bad. We went to the movies. We had Sunday brunch at Upper West Side bistros. On New Year’s Eve, when he asked me where I would be a year from now, I told him I would be living in the Inwood section of Manhattan, finishing up my first novel. “I’m sorry to hear that,” he said.

“Do you want to know where I hope to be in a year from now?” he asked me. “I hope we’ll be married and planning to have our first child.”

My interest in Jack Zelton and his cultural tastes — spy thrillers by Robert Ludlum, “Maneater” by Daryl Hall and John Oates — spun out from mild boredom to gratitude. What happened next was lots of kissing on the street and some Hollywood-style twirling on Broadway. I was the star of my own madcap comedy. I had found a guy in New York City who had carried a torch for me since college and now wanted to marry me.

By Valentine’s Day, Jack was gone. You might say I had it coming because I was more in love with the idea of marriage than with Jack Zelton. But Jack didn’t end things because I didn’t love him enough. He had to stop seeing me, he said, because I was ugly. Yes, the same guy who chased me for four years in college, and then turned somersaults when I agreed to see him eight years after graduation, said he didn’t like my looks. “You’re fine for a man who likes blondes, but I really prefer dark women,” he explained.

Jack told me not to feel bad because I helped him see that he could be attracted to an “intellectual female,” at least for a short time. This was something he had not known before.

A couple of days after our break-up, I ran into Jack on a subway platform. How is it possible to run into the same person you knew in college two times in three months and never before or since? Jack touched my elbow with a great display of compassion and said, “Hey.” I walked away from him and pretended I hadn’t seen anybody at all.

Thanks for the memories. Really.

Sometimes you meet people because you happen to pass through a common stretch of road. Eventually, you come to a fork and you each go your own way. They don’t owe you a lifetime commitment and you don’t owe them anything either. Relationships that feel permanent in the moment simply run out of steam, and you just keep going.

On that Sunday when I ran into the Petersons, I was meeting my college roommate to see “Ragtime” at the Neil Simon Theatre. In the theater, I happened to sit next to an acquaintance from my old 236th Street apartment building whose granddaughter was friends with the little actress who plays Tateh’s daughter. “Would you like to meet her?” she asked me. I thanked her and declined the offer. Call me superstitious, but I have lost some appetite for reconnecting with people I once knew.

After the performance, my college roommate waited for a friend in front of the theater. By accident, I wandered into the cordoned off section of sidewalk reserved for the actors leaving by a side door. When I realized what I had done, I bolted back onto the anonymity of the street and made my way home to the beauty and importance of my own life.


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Entry filed under: Bookpod, college, Emotions, Love, Memory, New York City. Tags: , , , , .

Lost in Manhattan again Hey, BP, take a page from Apple’s book

5 Comments Add your own

  • 1. Urban Renaissance  |  May 24, 2010 at 8:28 AM

    You were too blonde for Jack Pankow? Di kallah iz tzu shein.

    This would be sad if you had really liked him. As it is, it’s just ridiculous.

    What Jack meant was: “You’re not blonde enough beneath the surface. That is, you’re not a dumb blonde. Here I was, chasing a pretty blonde because I thought I could easily outshine her intellectually, and then she turns out to be … no, I won’t say it. I’m smart. I read. I do read! It’s you; it’s not me. You’re just too blonde!”

    Amazing how many times I’ve had virtually the same experience, and I’m as brunette as can be!

    • 2. Barbara Finkelstein  |  May 24, 2010 at 9:41 AM

      I think too that for Jack, the pursuit was everything.

      As for my not being blonde enough “under the surface,” I remember Jack saying, “Do you know anybody who reads old-fashioned books? You know, Jane Austen and, what’s her name, Bronte?” I asked him who he read. He said Taylor Caldwell. I mean, really.

      By the way, Jack told me I looked fine from the back and the neck down. What I regret is giving this nincompoop a second thought.

      • 3. Urban Renaissance  |  May 24, 2010 at 9:55 AM

        Taylor Caldwell? Isn’t she synonymous with Reader’s Digest condensed novels? You could have profited, back in those days, from a little well-placed intellectual snobbery.

        “When it comes, it’s too late.” (A line from Doubt that I can’t get out of my mind.)

        Speaking of what we can’t get out of our minds:
        I too have collected the insults of scores of jerks. They stay in my head and pop up at annoying times, when I’m vulnerable and most need support. We can’t control what we think about.

      • 4. modestine  |  May 24, 2010 at 10:15 AM

        But you know, the real problem, I think, is to give other people the power to make you feel insecure. I don’t think I would let another Jack into my life again.

        I was the fool here. I mean, there was a reason I wasn’t interested in Jack in college. He struck me back then as a nebbish and a mental lightweight. If I hadn’t been so isolated, and so consumed with writing a novel, I wouldn’t have looked at him. He came along when he could do collateral damage.

  • 5. Urban Renaissance  |  May 24, 2010 at 10:24 AM

    (I can’t seem to reply to your latest reply, so this will just show up as an unindented comment.)

    I have let many Jack Pankows into my life. They were all a little different; I have had many different vulnerabilities; and for a smart person, I have been very stupid very often.

    And that is just in my romantic life, such as it has been. A place of employment can be just as bad as Jack Pankow and effect much more collateral damage when it decides the relationship is over. Even — especially — the places of employment we think of as “settling.”


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