Authors: Paula Marantz Cohen
“Well, it must be nice not to worry about him, financially speaking at least,” noted Mel.
“I suppose you’re right,” reflected Flo, “but it’s hard to know what to worry about with Jonathan. He spends half his life playing video games. He says it’s the future of mass entertainment, and it’s where he plans to make his next investments. He may be right, but then again, as I told you, he’s not mature.“
“The world belongs to the immature,” observed Mel, “but counsel him to be careful. A bad investment can wipe you out. Fortunately, I haven’t had the kind of income that would lend itself to those problems. I’ve never wanted for anything, but rich I’m not—you don’t go into my line of work for the money.”
Flo nodded. “I admire you for that. Money seems to me to be a highly overrated commodity.”
“I agree,” said Mel, “but it’s always nice to have it. There’s an old Yiddish saying my grandfather used to tell me: ’With money in your pocket, you’re wise and you’re handsome—and you sing well, too.’ ”
“Well,” said Flo bluntly, “you seem to sing pretty well to me.”
HE NEXT DAY AFTER LUNCH,
Y PROPOSED CHEERFULLY,
do you say we keep this lively group going and play a hand or two?” Flo and Mel were among some six or seven people who had been at his table, most of whom seemed pleased enough to recess to the card room near the pool. Mel, however, hung back, clearly looking to Flo for his cue.
“Count me out,” she said briskly, “I don’t play.”
“You don’t play cards?” Mel seemed surprised.
“I’m afraid not. My husband did. It was the occupation he had in mind for his declining years.”
“I’m sorry,” said Mel.
“Don’t be. Cards are a leisurely game—something Eddie wasn’t. He liked to rush off to meetings, yell on the phone, and have four secretaries running around looking for the sheet of paper that he just put down. In my dreams, I still hear the phone ringing.”
“It sounds like a hectic life.”
“It was. Fortunately, I spent my working day in the library. It was my chance for peace and quiet. Our tastes in that respect were very different, but we got along.”
“I suppose you complemented each other.”
“Yes. He was the noisy lawyer; I was the mousy librarian.”
“All right, not mousy; say ‘cranky’ “
“I wouldn’t say that, either. I’d say ‘feisty.’ “
“That’s what Eddie used to say.” Flo’s voice grew wistful—for Flo.
“You must miss him terribly.”
“I do miss him,” said Flo, regaining her matter-of-fact tone, “but not terribly. I don’t miss anything terribly. I take life as it comes.”
“ ‘Life is a dream,’ as the Spanish philosopher said.”
“Oh, I think it’s real, but it’s a reality we get on loan, and we need to remember that. My Eddie had a good life. He did everything he ever wanted.”
“Except play enough cards,” noted Mel.
“Except play enough cards. But as I say, I don’t know that he would have wanted to play more.”
“You’re a wise woman.”
“I’m a realist.”
“Whatever you call yourself,” concluded Mel, “I like it. I’ll tell you what, I’ll play hooky from the card game, if you’ll let me walk you back to your condo.”
“I will,” agreed Flo, “but be prepared to get the once-over from everyone between here and pod nine. Walking along the road in Boca Festa is like strolling the grand boulevards in Paris in the nineteenth century. You’ll be seen and you’ll be talked about.”
“So much the better,” said Mel gallantly. “I can’t think of anyone I’d rather stroll the grand boulevards with than you.”
OWARD THE END OF THE WEEK,
EL IF HE WAS
interested in going to see the documentary about New York intellectuals being shown at the Jewish Y downtown. Flo was secretly pleased that May and Lila had begged off. The film was just the sort of thing she thought Mel would enjoy, and it would give them a chance to be alone away from the familiar scenery of Boca Festa.
She asked him when she saw him at breakfast that morning. He had taken to having all his meals at the club and had let drop that he was seriously considering a spacious two-bedroom in pod 9 of Eastgate, not far from Flo.
“They say it contains fascinating interview footage with Daniel Bell, Irving Howe, Irving Kristol, that whole City College crowd,” Flo explained of the documentary
‘I’d love to come,” said Mel. “I remember reading the review in
The New Yorker
and wanting to see it. I’m impressed that the film got here so fast. Sometimes I think that Boca may be a suburb of New York City. The restaurants are almost on a par, and you get the good movies right away It’s gratifying to know that, living here, I won’t feel culturally deprived.” Flo said nothing, but was pleased by the implication that Mel had decided to make the move.
When they arrived at the Y that night, the place was packed. Flo was reminded, as she often was, of the intellectual vitality
that characterized so many of the area’s residents. Even the uneducated ones, who had spent years doing back-breaking, quasi-menial work, managed to keep abreast of events and to entertain ideas. The number of film festivals and lecture series going on in Boca at any given time supported Mel’s observation that it was a far-flung borough of New York City. And if perchance there happened to be a Jewish theme or character involved in the entertainment, interest was likely to reach a fever pitch. Famous in this regard was the screening at a Boca theater some years back of
when the film broke midway through. The audience, many with walkers and some with oxygen tanks, had been so incensed by the disruption that a small riot had ensued and the police had to be called in to calm things down. Such passionate involvement was a hallmark of the Boca population. Flo felt, all things considered, proud to be associated with people capable of such enthusiasm, who were determined to remain culturally “in the swim” despite age and illness.
She and Mel had arrived at the Y on the late side and were among the last to get tickets. As they entered the auditorium and walked to the back of the room where a few empty seats remained, Flo saw Stan Jacobs, Norman Grafstein, and a woman seated near the aisle in one of the rows. She stopped to say hello, introducing Mel to Norman, who shook hands amiably. But when she turned to repeat the introduction to Stan Jacobs, he nodded without offering his hand. Mel, though uncomfortable with the situation, continued to stand by her side and maintain a smile.
“Stan dragged us here,” declared Norman. “Usually I like to stay in on Sunday night.” Flo noted that he spoke louder than usual, as though covering his embarrassment at not having asked May to come. “Stan insisted, though,” he continued, blusteringly, “so I dropped everything. He says the New York intellectuals are the Jewish founding fathers. They drew the map for—what is it?—cultural achievement in the second half of the
twentieth century.” He turned to Stan for verification on this, and Stan nodded stiffly.
“Oh, by the way,” Norman added, as though suddenly remembering, “this is Nina Ratner.” He gestured sheepishly to the woman next to him.
“Rivkin,” corrected the woman.
“My mistake, Rivkin,” said Norman. “Nina’s a friend of a friend,” he explained. “I take it May wasn’t up for this kind of thing.”
“No,” said Flo, “she was tired and wanted to spend the evening at home.”
“I understand completely.” Norman nodded. “I generally find documentaries to be very boring. Except that one they showed here a while back on Hank Greenberg. Now, that was first-rate. I could see that again.”
Flo, who had missed the documentary on Hank Greenberg, said that she had heard it praised by the men in Boca Festa, who always succumbed to a dreamy reverie in speaking about it. Hank Greenberg was every older Jewish man’s idol. Forget Bellow, forget Brandeis, forget even Einstein. If these men had a choice as to who, from among their people, they would most want to be, it would be Hank Greenberg every time.
“Flo, we better find our seats,” said Mel. It was clear that the program was about to begin. The master of ceremonies, an intense, dwarfish man who ruled special events at the Y with autocratic zeal, had scuttled to the front and was raising his hand for attention. He was now giving background on the New York intellectuals in a voice in which the accents of Brooklyn had been seamlessly blended with the intonations of an Oxford don.
“We have a special treat for you this evening,” expounded the man with relish. “This film will give you an inside look at what was going on at
during those turbulent years of intense creativity that we’ve all heard so much about. There was a lot of thinking going
on then, and a lot of fighting—two things, if I may say so, that we Jews do very well.” There was laughter and a general nodding of heads as the proper
tone was established.
“That Stan Jacobs is insufferable,” Mel whispered as they sat down.
“Do you know him? Is there a problem between you two?” asked Flo, genuinely eager to hear.
“Who knows? A rivalry, mostly in his head.” Mel paused. “When I was down here last, we knew people in common. He always seemed to resent my influence with them. He couldn’t stand having his word challenged.”
“I’ve seen that side of him,” acknowledged Flo.
“Although I have no proof,” continued Mel, “I suspect that he worked behind the scenes to deprive me of a plum job—a chaired position in journalism at Florida Atlantic that would have been a nice way to ease into retirement.”
“That’s horrible!” exclaimed Flo.
“Yes, it’s why I left the area a few years ago. I went right up to Washington and did some consulting for a PR firm there; put my nose to the grindstone, made some money for a rainy day. Then, a few months ago, I said to myself, ‘Enough! Now’s the rainy day I’m tired, worn out; I want sun; I want poolside. The hell with Stan Jacobs,’ I said to myself. ‘Boca isn’t all Stan Jacobs.’ “
“But Norman Grafstein’s such a sweet man; how could he be devoted to someone like that?”
“That’s the thing. Jacobs has a powerful personality. He can be quite charming when he wants to be and, to his credit, fiercely loyal to his friends, so long as they kowtow to him. I can’t say I know Norman Grafstein; he seems like a nice enough fellow. But some people, weak people, feel nattered that Jacobs gives them attention, and develop a kind of slavish devotion.”
“I knew he was arrogant, but I didn’t think he was that narcissistic!” exclaimed Flo.
“I can’t say I know what to call it,” said Mel. “I only know that he’s not a man I like to see, though he’s the one who has reason to dread the encounter. It’s
conscience that should suffer. It’s certainly not going to get in the way of my happiness.” He looked into Flo’s eyes for a moment and then, as if not wanting to expose his feelings too fully, turned abruptly to the screen, where the documentary had gotten under way.
Flo also turned to watch the film. Diana Trilling was talking about how she and Lionel had broken ranks with the New York intellectuals over Stalin. It was a topic that would normally have held her interest, but now she could only think of Mel’s appreciative look, and of what he had told her about Stan Jacobs’s malevolent plotting.
LO FELT IT WAS IMPERATIVE TO TELL
EL HAD SAID
about Stan. She had no wish to cast aspersions on Norman, but she thought the story had indirect bearing on him and thus was something May should know. She was further troubled, though she didn’t mention this to her friend, by Norman’s appearance at the Y with another woman. Albeit a casual date, it indicated to Flo that Norman was still playing the field.
“I can’t believe it,” said May when Flo told her Mel’s story May had developed a true liking for Stan and often conversed with him about gardening, a passion they shared.
“So what are you saying—Mel is lying?” demanded Flo.
“No,” said May, who liked Mel, too, “I think there’s probably been a misunderstanding and that each one has gotten the wrong impression about the other.”
“Oh, May,” said Flo with some exasperation, “you need to take mean lessons. You couldn’t see bad in a person if they rubbed your nose in it.”
May shrugged. In fact, she couldn’t begin to imagine how anyone she knew could be bad. “Bad” was what you saw in the movies; real people, if they weren’t good, were good enough. She put the best construction that she could on everyone’s behavior—or simply failed to notice if they treated her shabbily.
“Stop telling me to be nice,” Flo responded irritably when May urged her to take a kinder view of others. “It’s not in my nature. It’s one thing to appreciate you, another to be like you.
I can appreciate a good meal, but I can’t cook one—and if I can get you to do it for me, why should I?”
May told Flo that she was nicer than she thought (which was what nice people always said), and continued looking through her drawers for a good recipe for borscht. Flo had received an e-mail the day before from her great-niece Amy with the succinct demand, “Send recipe for borscht ASAP.” From anyone else, such a message would have seemed bizarre, but knowing her great-niece as she did—which is to say, knowing that she could as easily be competing in an Eastern European cooking class as trying to impress a Russian boyfriend—Flo simply went about fulfilling the request, assuming that she’d get the background in subsequent e-mails. She herself had never made borscht in her life, but tracking down information was her stock and trade, a fact that Amy had long understood and taken advantage of. In this case, May Newman was the obvious place to go for what was needed, and Flo now stood waiting while her friend riffled through a stack of possible recipes.
“Just pick one!” Flo ordered in exasperation while May considered the relative merits of this one and that one. “We’re not writing a dissertation here.”