The Scientists

A Family Romance

Marco Roth

Farrar, Straus and Giroux

1
 

The couch where my father died was also the couch where he taught me to read. I might as well start there: my alphas and his omega joined by a piece of furniture. It was a white sofa bed, pushed up against a wall the color of late summer nights. The room was supposed to be the apartment’s dining room, but served more as my father’s library. Sitting on the couch you faced two twelve-foot-tall bookcases, crammed to the top, with a third just like them on the right. The books both beckoned and frightened. Some of them were forbidden, placed high up on the top tier, after my mother once caught me leafing through a three-volume German history of the Second World War and its trove of Nazi photographs: glorious flamethrowers, the parade of tanks, the piles of corpses like so many broken dolls. Other books I didn’t want to see at all. The cover of something called Freddy’s Book showed a horned, hairy, and goat-footed man, hanging in a thicket of thorns.
“’Tis the eye of childhood that fears the painted devil,” my father quoted at me, when I asked him to move it or turn the spine around. So the book stayed there, an object of dread, to admonish and terrify me until I grew brave enough to take it and read. It turned out to be a fairy tale about a misshapen but very human monster, a sort of Frankenstein’s creature, who learned, in the somewhat happy end, to live with his deformities.
It wasn’t a completely comfortable couch. The raised stitches on the cushion covers and armrests made it look hand-knit, but they left lines on bare flesh. I used to pick at the knots of fabric whenever bored or anxious during our weekend lessons. “Don’t destroy it,” my father said. English came first. The primer of choice, or at least the one I remember first actually being able to read, was called Nobody Listens to Andrew. The illustrations were Dick-and-Jane-like, a crew-cut boy in knickerbockers, girls in frocks with bows and neatly parted hair. The story, however, was not. Because nobody did listen to Andrew. He was just a boy with a busy family, a father who read the newspaper and smoked a pipe, older siblings, and in the end, maybe, Andrew ran away for an afternoon, or hid out in the treehouse in the backyard, or perhaps there was a bear lurking and he tried to warn everyone, but no one listened, turning it into an inverted version of the boy who cried wolf, a parable for a more responsive generation of parents. I never knew where my father found the book or why he’d picked it out. It didn’t make much sense to me. I was an only child and everyone seemed to be listening to me all the time.
These first lessons were followed quickly by French, the seventeenth-century fabulist La Fontaine, “La Cigale ayant chanté tout l’été,” we read together. Then I’d recite the tale of the ant and the grasshopper back at him, four lines at a time. That was classical education: “Repetition is the mother of memory,” my father quoted again, as I stumbled over the lines at first. I kept up, eager to please, waiting to catch him in a secret smile of approval. Repetition may have been the mother, but my memory had a very visible father. Sometimes I was attentive, other times, leaning back, I’d run an imaginary rat through the maze of interconnected honeycomb moldings on the ceiling. Staring down, I’d idly trace the arabesques of the Persian rug with my toe.
When my wandering attention finally convinced him no further progress was possible, my father released me to entertain myself. I skipped off across the dining room along the carpet’s red rhomboid medallions, making myself go back to the beginning if I missed a step, then jumped from peacock to antelope along the hallway’s animal carpet until I reached the open arch leading to the enormous rectangle my parents called “the living room,” although we really used it as a music room. It was barely furnished: a small seating area with a couch and glass coffee table at one end and the piano and stereo system at the other. The far wall was a bank of six windows looking out onto Central Park.
Weekend afternoons, two or three times a year, the room filled with a group of Chinese, Chileans, Poles, Italians, the random Yugoslav, and Jews from New York’s five boroughs, my father’s favored colleagues from the hematology and epidemiology divisions of various New York hospitals. I was put in charge of opening our front door to the arriving guests, who included elderly couples with Middle European accents from around the neighborhood, the shaggy poet who lived in the apartment across the hall, my mother’s musician friends. They sat on the rented chairs I’d sometimes help unfold and listen to a string quartet run through the program they would play at Lincoln Center the following week, or a recital of a Schubert song cycle, or, once, a brass quintet my father had discovered busking outside in the park. Their trumpets shook the windows and left our ears ringing.
I looked for my mother’s curls bobbing up behind the pianist’s shoulder as she turned pages, then I searched the rows, trying to catch a cue as to how the music was going by reading the faces around me. If someone met my stare, I’d shyly switch to where my father sat on the edge of a black armchair, trying to meet his eyes, gray behind his oversized black-framed glasses. He hunched forward, his chin cupped in his palm during particularly complicated passages, the lines on his broad forehead creasing, his broad lips pulsing gently, as if he were keeping himself from humming along. He was overweight in those days, a pudge of stomach visible when I caught sight of him in profile as he greeted guests, his upper arms rolled with what I now recognize as fat instead of muscle. I no doubt thought of him as bigger than he actually was. Although a couple of inches shorter than his father’s six feet two, when he stood up at the end of the concert to thank the musicians and invite everyone for hors d’oeuvres he seemed, for that moment, to command the room. The rare moment when he stood next to my mother at the end of the evening, in the entrance foyer, as they saw our guests to the door, he seemed even taller. The top of her head barely reached his shoulder.
When no one was around, the living room was a lost continent, an America I could enter only by swimming across an expanse of open parquet until I’d reached a small kilim at the center. In quieter moods, I would lie on one of the rugs reading D’Aulaire’s books of Greek and Norse myths or, absurdly—as it seems now—the Signet Classics editions of Shakespeare’s history plays my father gave me after he’d taken me to see Laurence Olivier’s Henry V at the old Thalia movie theater on Ninety-fifth Street. The seats at the Thalia sloped upward, the front row higher than the back row, in a way that forced your eyes to the top of the screen. I remember the battle scenes, the knights hoisted onto their horses by cranes, the whooshing flights of English arrows, and not much else. I cannot now tell what possible good it did me to lie there, warmed by the sun streaming over the trees, reading Shakespeare uncomprehendingly, making sure to ignore the notes. I lingered over the mysterious list called “Dramatis Personae.” When I got further, I read mostly for the plot. I had perverse rooting interests, an odd sympathy for the murderous Richard III. Iambic pentameters did not come flowing out of my mouth. I was about eight or nine.
I’d lie on the carpet underneath my mother’s Steinway B. It was a warm place. If my mother came in to play a Scarlatti sonata, for instance, or the accompaniment for a Schubert song, I’d listen while feeling the vibrations of chords and the thump of pedals push through me. Cadences and phrases flowed and mingled somehow with the patterns of the carpets. My father had brought most of them back from Iran and Lebanon when he’d traveled there in the early 1960s, but I ignored their provenance. They were as eternal to me as meadows, and they were my meadows. Peacefully, I’d continue to draw out, in the weavings, what I was sure must be the music I couldn’t yet read, according to some secret law of association now beyond recall.
My father wandered through and sat on a sofa at the opposite end of the room underneath a giant oak-framed mirror that doubled the space. I’d watch him and my mother’s reflection as she managed her small hands and petite frame around the keyboard’s widest intervals with only the rarest flaw. “She plays beautifully, your mother,” he’d say to me, rarely complimenting her directly. This way of mediating kindness through me confirmed my sense that I was the center of our family life. Of course he could simply have been performing an object lesson in kindness, telling me how much my mother needed to be praised. She did need to be praised and she did play beautifully, although no longer professionally, and then no longer even semiprofessionally, and then, gradually, hardly at all.
Who was to say if all this was good or bad? I was the definition of “precocious,” which probably pleased my parents, but nobody feels precocious at that age. The mixed shame and pride of standing out only comes later. When I learned to recite “The Crow and the Fox,” in French, or repeated a joke in a Yiddish accent to family guests, or sat straight, with my hands folded at concerts, in imitation of the grown-ups I observed around me, it was because I could do these things, make a game out of them. I also knew my father would be ashamed of me if I didn’t do them. I grew used to an imperfect understanding, a shadow of meaning that fell across the pages as I turned them, incomprehensible directions, a sense of an always wider world simultaneously close to my grasp and beyond it.
I hid myself in the front hall closet, closed my eyes, and pushed against the coats, going deeper, reenacting the beginning of The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe, waiting for the moment when the hangers became tree branches and my mother’s inherited furs became talking versions of the creatures they once were, live to the touch. I discovered I could give myself the illusion of a greater distance than was there by closing my eyes and reaching out into the darkness, expecting to brush the wall and thrilled when I didn’t.
Other gaps frightened me: between the “train and the platform,” as the subway conductors announced, also between the elevator and the landing. Our building’s was an old elevator and didn’t always stop perfectly, leaving a step up or step down and a glimpse into the shaft’s void. I dreamed often of a world between the floors. Riding alone, I’d be let out somewhere that was like our hallway but not our hallway, the walls a darker shade. The people inside were not my parents. They were like them but older, and they kept cats, which we didn’t, because they made the apartment smell like pee. “I live on the fourth floor,” I’d say. “But where’s that?” they’d say. Oh, I must be on the other side of the building, I thought. My mother was always talking about people on the “other side”—the building was in fact divided into North and South sides, joined by the common back stairway and landings where we left our garbage for the maintenance staff to carry down in the freight elevator they sometimes let me operate—so I guessed this was what she meant. The strangers would then let me out onto the back stairs, which turned into a narrow crawl space, the light growing dimmer behind me as I pushed on in the dark.
My mother remembers my childhood as a happy time. We were each of us alone together without rivalry or loneliness, restlessness or fear. The apartment was our temple: like the old Penn Station and the Metropolitan Museum of Art, but scaled down for domestic life. The architects had balanced openness and views over the park with cloistered spaces like my parents’ upstairs bedroom and the kitchen, once reserved for servants, where the three of us clustered to eat at one end of a thick-grained table meant to seat eight. Under the high ceilings, even the heaviest pieces of mahogany furniture had only a friendly solidity to them, as if planted rather than placed.
My parents bought the apartment at the 88 Central Park West co-op in 1969 for $135,000. The Upper West Side then was an up-and-coming neighborhood, still considered edgy and derelict in places. Lincoln Center had recently been completed. Along Sixty-ninth street, musicians and teachers in cheap brownstone tenement apartments shared stoops with working-class Irish and Puerto Ricans who’d moved on up from Hell’s Kitchen. The doormen lived a couple of blocks away, as did the cabdrivers; their parked, off-duty hacks punctuated the drab side streets with cheerful yellows. We met their children in a playground made of concrete-and-wood copies of ancient structures: a ziggurat boasting a slide, a Greek amphitheater for a sprinkler, a sandbox contained within the concentric rings of a Saxon hill fort. For the first few years, my parents’ fellow co-op board members included a painter, a well-known poet and professor, a theater actress, a few doctors and lawyers, and several elderly and well-off Jewish refugees who had managed to escape Europe in the 1930s.
Maybe it was the early bourgeois bohemian character of the building or the fact that my father then earned only a modest researcher’s salary at the Bronx public hospital where he also taught medical students, and had spent a fair amount of the money he’d inherited on his mother’s death to buy the apartment—or simply that he’d grown up on the then-fashionable East Side, on Park Avenue—“The most boring street in the world,” he called it—but, for some reason, he insisted we were “middle class.” This phrase echoed through my childhood. It explained why we did not own a country house in the Berkshires or the Hamptons, like my friends’ parents. It explained why my parents voted Democrat, why my father drove four-door Japanese compact cars, and why, instead of shopping for his suits at Saks or having them custom-made, he bought them, ill-fitting as they were, at Syms. It explained many things and also nothing at all, although it crucially shaped my sense of social justice. If “middle class” meant large apartments on Central Park West, then there was no reason why such housing shouldn’t be available to most of us, in a truly egalitarian society. It was only logical.
For my father, the phrase invoked an acceptance of one’s limitations as much as anything else. We were, according to him, a family of average height, average means, average talents distributed evenly, and average ambition. He said this one day shortly after I brought home my first low math grade, when I was twelve. I thought I heard a false note in this determined paean to mediocrity. Even earlier, I’d understood there were people my father called “Philistines”: people who didn’t listen to classical music, who watched sports on television, like my mother’s father, people who were ignorant of world history like my father’s sister, and who didn’t care for art or literature like my mother’s brother, an engineer; there were those who “preferred Coca-Cola to champagne,” as my father wistfully said when Reagan beat Mondale (quoting Adlai Stevenson when he lost to Eisenhower). I’d seen actual, historical Philistines in my illustrated history of the Jews, “sea peoples,” the book mysteriously called them, with beards, cruel faces, and spears, who worshipped fish-shaped gods like the one in my coloring book from the Metropolitan Museum of Art. I knew these people were the historical enemies of the Jews, that I was a Jew of some kind, though not the synagogue-going kind, or the Zionist kind, either; that although the Philistines outnumbered the Jews, the Jews still sometimes defeated them, as David defeated Goliath, and as Samson had, with the jawbone of the ass. It seemed then that my father meant me to be one of these Jewish heroes with unruly, curly hair like Samson’s, to resist these invaders who’d brought him such grief.
Besides the Philistines, there were people my father denounced passionately as hypocrites. There were a lot of those: people who cared about school only for status or money; people who went to synagogue to show off their clothes, their daughters; people who talked about justice but wanted power or money or status, also called lawyers, like our distant cousin, Roy Cohn, the head lawyer for Joseph McCarthy’s House Un-American Activities Committee in the 1950s. I knew a few other things about our family, things he’d begun to tell me—not directly, not exactly. They were legends, like the stories in the Bible, as remote from our lives as Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob.
There had been a poor man, once upon a time, Moses Philips, my great, great grandfather, selling bits of cloth from a pushcart on the Lower East Side. The poor man was a clever man, an industrious man, and his pushcart begat several pushcarts which begat a company that supplied material for shirts and so begat in its turn a company that made shirts my father never wore, Philips Van Heusen. The man had a son who took over the business. He moved from the Lower East Side to the upper reaches of Park Avenue, and that son sired a son of his own to take over the business, and also, as in a fairy tale, three daughters. The eldest married the heir to a paper company, the middle daughter married a banker, and the youngest married for love, a tall young lawyer, a sturdy swimmer and athlete born in the eastern reaches of the Austro-Hungarian Empire. Unfortunately, my grandfather was no hero or charming prince; he was a Grimms-tale schemer, marrying for money. They had two children, my father the younger by four years.
He had been sent to private schools he didn’t like and summer camps he hated. Boy Scouts were children dressed like fools led by fools dressed like children. A gentleman was a man with an expensive tie. A cousin of his was sent to military school for fighting a bully who’d been beating up my father. I’d learned that their world, both our world and not our world, the world he escaped from, was full of phonies, vulgarians, and frauds. Those people were not “middle class.” My very name, European, ending in a vowel, my father once explained, was intended to be a symbolic break with those people who’d tried so hard to make my father “a real American.” He’d been a junior to his father’s senior, named after him while he was still alive, a deliberate affront to Jewish custom. This act of base assimilation, my father complained, robbed him of his identity before he’d even had one.
This, my father told me emphatically, was not to be my fate. According to my mother, he used to hold me aloft when I was a baby and say, “You are a person.” He would say this to me later, too, although with various inflections. It was such an obvious statement, I was totally mystified by it. What else could I be? I was an only child of the “Free to Be You and Me” generation—despite my parents’ distrust of popular music, we actually owned the record, the one where Mel Brooks is the voice of a baby girl who thinks she’s a boy, William finally gets a doll, and fussy princesses get devoured by cannibals (“‘Ladies first,’ she said, and so she was, and mighty tasty too.”).
“Free to Be” was an odd mantra for my childhood, especially because there were so many kinds of people my father obviously disapproved of. According to him, he’d basically given up on his own family when he was thirteen, reinventing himself as a changeling. He first did this through religion, plunging into his bar mitzvah studies. He’d briefly turned Orthodox and learned Yiddish, in 1952, well before the Yiddish revival movement became part of a more distant generation’s nostalgia for lost roots. He spoke it largely to provoke his family, who had left behind both their language and sincere religious observance as remnants of the old country, reminders of the poverty and oppression they had escaped as though fleeing Egypt.
By rebelling through a resuscitation of history and discarded traditions, rather than by embracing the emerging counterculture of drugs and jazz—perhaps because this rebellion happened so early in his youth, before he had complete freedom of the New York streets—my father also, unintentionally, brought himself into conflict with what would become the dominant trends of American counterculture. The ordinary symbols of American rebelliousness were anathema to him. When the rhythms of the weekend drum circles in Central Park pulsed through our windows, my father declared it was “jungle music” for “shvartsers, rock and roll was so much screaming or “geschrei-ing,” even the avant-garde, contemporary classical music my mother began to take an interest in was only fraudulent noise.
As part of my middle-class childhood, my parents sent me to a half-French, half-English school, just across Central Park from us, on Sixty-second Street off Fifth Avenue. The Fleming School, despite its fancy location, was actually a daring experiment for its time and place, and middle class in exactly the way my father used the term. It was a small school—no more than two hundred children in kindergarten through eighth grade—overshadowed both by the Lycée Français, an official outpost of the French state educational system, and the richer and more pedigreed New York private primary schools, like the Ethical Culture School, where my father had been sent as a child. Ethical Culture had since moved within four blocks of our apartment, but he refused to send me, just as he refused to send me to Hebrew school, or summer sports camps, as had been done to him. I was going to be my own person.

 
Copyright © 2012 by Marco Roth