Authors: Paula Marantz Cohen
“Well,” said May, “I think he said he liked prune Danish and asked me if I did, too, so I agreed to be polite.”
“You see,” said Flo, “she doesn’t even want the Danish.”
“Not the point,” said Lila. “He thought of her. He was, in his way, considerate. So he’s proud of his children’s accomplishments. Is that a crime?”
“Only when we have to serve as the audience,” said Flo.
“It’s a woman’s lot to listen. If the men are more educated, they use fancier words and boast about fancier topics. But it’s all the same. They talk, we listen. That is, if they have the money and we don’t.”
“Well, I’d rather be on my own,” said Flo, “wouldn’t you, May?”
May, who had never thought to think comparatively this way, failed to respond, but Lila did.
“Well, I haven’t that luxury,” she declared. “If you’re not interested, May, give me his number—I am.”
NCE TAKEOFF FROM
IRPORT HAD BEEN
accomplished, Carol Newman set to work, a confined space thirty thousand feet above sea level being the ideal forum for her networking skills. Her operative strategy was to bump up against and ask questions of anyone within any proximity of her. Since she moved around a lot, this came to include the entire plane.
A man in a leather jacket with a large gold
around his neck assisted her in stowing her valise and, in the process, recounted how he owned a condominium with his wife in Boca Vista, only a few miles up the road from Boca Festa. Carol explained about her mother-in-law, recently widowed and alone, and the man clucked and thought he knew a nice widower, a little deaf but otherwise in good shape, who might love meeting May
A young woman trying to appease a cranky two-year-old was invited by Carol to share her Alison’s crayons. The two children were soon battling over a box of Chiclets as Carol and the mother discussed their respective mothers-in-law. The woman’s mother-in-law lived in Century Village but was looking around for something different. Perhaps she’d want to stop by and see May’s place? Carol would speak to her mother-in-law and arrange it.
Seven-year-old Adam, on his way to the bathroom, stepped on a man’s foot, and Carol insisted that he return, herself accompanying, to apologize. This led to a conversation and the discovery that Adam’s victim, a man in his eighties, lived in Palm
Beach—which meant he probably wasn’t Jewish and thus was of negligible interest. Carol didn’t pursue the conversation.
Alan had called his old high-school classmate Mark Grafstein and discovered that his friend’s father inhabited the fashionable Broken Arrow Club. Carol was impressed. Only the biggest
—Park Avenue dermatologists and real-estate moguls—could afford to live there.
“What I wouldn’t give to have your mother settled in Broken Arrow,” Carol declared, her determination now greatly intensified.
Carol, it must be emphasized, was not mercenary in any conventional sense. Although she could appreciate a Gucci handbag as well as the next woman, things in themselves did not interest her so much as what they stood for. Above all, she relished a challenge and was always prepared to direct her considerable energy and cunning to meet it.
It had been arranged that when Alan came down on the weekend, they would pay their respects to Norman Grafstein at his club. Carol was not entirely sure how she would proceed from there, but she had a talent for improvisation and enjoyed working under pressure. By the time she and the children landed in West Palm Beach, she had amassed a slew of names from her encounters on the plane that she could add to the contacts her Jersey friends had given her. She hoped to organize something—a little brunch, perhaps, on the Sunday they were scheduled to return home—in which Norman Grafstein, if everything went according to plan, would be present among a bevy of other prospects. With any luck, her mother-in-law would soon be launched on an exciting and productive social life. Luck, as Carol knew, was a euphemism for rigorous calculation, unswerving vigilance, and continual, relentless nagging. The combination had always worked for her in the past; there was no reason to doubt it would do so again.
AY WAS WAITING FOR HER DAUGHTER-IN-LAW AND
grandchildren by the luggage pickup. As always, retrieving the valises and loading them on the carts took considerable time. Though only down for a week, Carol had not stinted in the packing department. The children had been well provided with games and toys and an assortment of coordinated outfits, complete with vests and cloche hats, that the designers might have concocted with the express purpose of making small children feel uncomfortable. Carol was one of the few mothers capable of actually getting her children to wear them, her talent for bribery and threat being more advanced than that of her peers.
She had also brought two large suitcases of her own that contained a wide range of clothing calibrated to small variations in the weather. A hot, moderately humid day and a hot, very humid day were two different things with entirely different wardrobe specifications. She had also bought her mother-in-law two cute outfits that she was hoping to bully her into wearing. May tended to gravitate to the same off-white pantsuit, and Carol was determined to get her into something more glamorous.
“You see,” Carol declared as she greeted her mother-in-law, “look at all the work I’ve done for you—a whole padful of names. We’re going to have a party! Get you into the swing.”
“Carol, dear, relax. Stop with the parties. Let me enjoy the children.” May tried to sound forceful, but knew she was no match for her daughter-in-law. She had recently had a nightmare in which a large predatory bird, scarily possessed of Carol’s face,
had descended from the skies and plucked her up in its very long and apparently very strong talons, carrying her to the top of a tall tree. There had been a vague prospect of painful and embarrassing operations to follow, but May had awakened with a start before they could begin. The dream had probably been inspired by her visit to a spa a few months back—part of a birthday gift that Carol had arranged long-distance through her emissaries. May had been placed on a treadmill for half an hour and had had to be rescued by a young man with an earring. Her poor flaccid muscles, used to nothing more than the short walk from her apartment to the clubhouse, had been thrown into a panic at the prospect of moving briskly for a sustained period on a rolling piece of rubber. The “day of beauty,” as it was called, had included an application of acrylic nails, which Flo had helped her to remove the next day, and a deep-tissue massage that had given her aches and pains that lasted a week. Like her son, May was both in awe of Carol and afraid of her, a combination that allowed her daughter-in-law’s particular brand of bullying to proceed.
“I don’t know …” began May tentatively.
“Mom, just leave everything to me. Why do you think I’m here? For my health? I need a Florida vacation like I need a hole in the head. Adam, get over here this minute. Stop kicking Alison, and take the gum out of your mouth—how many pieces are you chewing, anyway? Tie your shoelaces and hold your grandmother’s hand.” May clutched her grandson’s hand for dear life.
“How big is your counter space?” asked Carol as she maneuvered in front of a group of businessmen waiting for a taxi and snatched it away from them with a curt, “My mother-in-law has phlebitis.”
“We’ll go informal,” she continued. “Sloppy Joes. Or maybe bagels and lox. Sunday brunch or Saturday afternoon. Brunch is better. No one has anything to do Sunday and it breaks up the
day. You take me to the best deli around and we’ll choose together what to serve.”
Carol exuded the authority of a general taking stock of troops and artillery before an important battle. It would be hopeless, May realized, to try to resist. She let herself be pushed into the pilfered taxi and sat docilely while her grandchildren fought beside her. For the next week Carol would be taking over her home and her life, and she might as well sit back and accept it.
OCA’S RETIREMENT CLUBS CONFORM TO A DEFINITE SOCIAL
hierarchy. At the top are the elite residences like Broken Arrow, whose impressively landscaped grounds are hidden behind clipped shrubbery, where a golf membership costs in the tens of thousands of dollars, and where the waiters are never seen without their white gloves and special shoes resembling spats. At the bottom are the more austere, no-frills residences where a large pool and a cavernous card room constitute the major amenities. In between lie a plentiful array of graded facilities, their position in the hierarchy as carefully noted by the local population as the Great Chain of Being by medieval scholars or the circles of hell by the readers of Dante. May Newman, for example, occupied a club somewhere slightly above center—neither ritzy nor shabby, in Boca parlance.
Yet although the hierarchy exists and is scrupulously noted by all residents, there are also extensive linkages among the various levels. In Boca, the degree of separation between any two individuals, instead of holding to the conventional six transitional bodies, never exceeds two, and generally involves only one. As a result, the possibilities for the development of relationships are enormous, as two people sitting next to each other at a restaurant, in a movie theater, or poolside wall, in striking up conversation, soon discover that they belonged to the same synagogue in Edison, New Jersey, or enjoyed the rye bread at the same bakery in Jersey City.
There are also the secondary linkages provided through children
and grandchildren up north. An unofficial matchmaking operation of grandchildren and divorced children is one of the major industries of Boca Raton—and the number of disastrous blind dates that have resulted from Mrs. Schwartz telling Mrs. Levine about her darling nephew with a degree in theater arts has filled countless therapy sessions on New York’s Upper West Side.
The subtleties and intricacies of the West Boca landscape were of extraordinary interest to Carol Newman. She loved meeting new people and was tireless in excavating their lives, mining for the ore of some shared association. Standing next to a middle-aged woman in orange capri pants with a gold and turquoise belt at the Clinique counter of the Saks in Town Center, she moved quickly to establish a connection.
“I love the belt,” she said. “I saw one like it in Chico’s when I was in Cherry Hill last month. Seeing it on you, I should have bought it.”
“You think so?” said the woman. “I wasn’t sure. Maybe the gold looks a little cheap.”
“Not at all,” said Carol. “You were right to buy it. And you couldn’t beat the price.”
“That’s true,” said the woman. “You look familiar. You’re from Cherry Hill?”
“No, North Jersey, Morristown; I grew up in Bayonne. My husband’s from South Orange.”
“I’m from Long Island,” said the woman, “my husband, too.” She seemed disappointed. “But he went out with a girl from Bayonne, if I recall. A Robin Fleishman.”
“Robin Fleishman!” screamed Carol. “I went to summer camp with Robin Fleishman.”
“You did? Phil said she was a bitch.”
“She was!” exclaimed Carol happily.
And so a connection was established and cultivated from there.
Now, as Carol pulled into the parking lot of Mizner Center, the site of Boca’s premier boutiques, she surveyed the pink expanse of upscale consumerism as though it were a vast canvas awaiting the imprint of her creative vision. She was fired with the energy of the artist and the questing pilgrim: She would find May New man a husband or
AROL HAD DROPPED
AY AND THE CHILDREN OFF AT A
film and had come to Mizner to browse. The party she had planned would bring new people into May’s ken who were likely to troll for signs of her position in the elaborate pecking order of Boca society. Carol was determined that her mother-in-law’s apartment should make a good presentation, and this meant some emergency sprucing up. To this end, she was seeking the shopper’s muse.
Shopping in Boca is an activity that falls somewhere between a vocation and a sacred rite. Everyone shops regularly; everyone is a good shopper. This means that the merchandise is copious and, on the whole, reasonable—except, that is, in the area of art and crafts, where notions of value, which Boca women hold to assiduously when it comes to clothing and kitchen appliances, go out the window.
Art objects in West Boca consist, primarily, of distorted-looking pottery in earth hues and large abstract paintings in bright colors—both inspired by installations at the Met and the Modern in the late 1960s, the period when Boca residents first began to see profits from the family business and move to the suburbs. Visits to these museums then became the professed reason for excursions back into the city, though the real reason was the chance to proceed afterward to Peter Luger’s in Brooklyn for a good steak or Sammy’s Roumanian on the Lower East Side, where one could gorge on twenty-ounce veal chops and
with chicken fat on mashed potatoes.
The Boca esthetic is also shaped by the floating apparitional figures and pastel washes associated with the most Jewish of modern artists, Marc Chagall. Everyone in Boca has a signed Chagall print in a place of honor in the living room, and the population is forever trekking off to see special Chagall exhibitions in museums up and down the East Coast.
Finally, there is the importance of the color turquoise as the keynote in Boca-favored artwork, especially for the larger pieces showcased in synagogues and community centers. This color is believed to be evocative of Israel.
Paintings with turquoise accents and Chagallesque thematic motifs are everywhere displayed (alongside ochre earthenware) in white-and-chrome-decorated shops throughout Boca, and are continually snapped up at astronomical prices.
Irving and May Newman had never acquired the taste for Boca art favored by their contemporaries. They had furnished their condominium with objects from their South Orange home and left the walls bare, except for a few modestly framed family photographs over the dining-room table and a more ornate Bachrach photo of the whole family—a kind of
grotesquerie—set flush over the sofa. Carol had been struck by the unprepossessing effect when she first laid eyes on the place.