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When Bob Rowe first laid eyes on Mary Savage, he immediately began thinking of ways to improve her. It was 1950, and he was sitting in the cafeteria at St. John's University, in downtown Brooklyn. He watched her bounce across the room, nineteen years old, meeting and greeting like a ward heeler. She wasn't tall, but she moved with a big stride.
Good figure, he thought-maybe a little heavy in the hips. He decided the quilted skirt she was wearing was the problem. "That's got to go," he said to himself, and later recorded his thoughts in a journal.
A girl at Bob's table waved Mary over and Bob asked to be introduced. Her blue eyes, so tiny that they almost disappeared when she smiled, held the promise of mischief. As she stood there laughing and talking, he studied her for signs of ambivalence or anxiety but saw only a straightforward appreciation of life.
He had decided when he was eleven years old that he was going to move out of the social class to which he'd been born; his father had been an electrician for the Tastee Bread Company. Now he saw a girl who could help him with his plan. It didn't matter when he found out that Mary's family was even poorer than his. She didn't need money to be a good partner for him.
"Drive-that's what Mary was," he wrote. "Pure drive." He wasn't surprised to learn she'd been class president at St. Joseph's Commercial High School.
Mary Savage's mother, Laura, didn't want her daughter, her only child, to have anything to do with Bob Rowe. The Savages were so poor that they couldn't afford to fix the ceiling when it started falling in on them, piece by piece. Not many people were below them on the social scale, so Laura Savage used religion as her measuring stick. She looked down her nose at anyone who wasn't Catholic, and Bob was Lutheran. She addressed him, with neither irony nor affection, as "you Protestant bastard."
Bob and Mary maneuvered around the religion problem by having Jack O'Shaughnessy pick Mary up when she and Bob had a date. It was easy enough. Jack lived near Mary in Bay Ridge, and he would do almost anything for his fraternity brother-and closest friend-at St. John's. Jack would bring Mary to the DeKalb Avenue subway station and hand her off to Bob.
Mrs. Savage approved of Jack's Irish Catholicism, which made her approve of him. When Jack and Mary were about to leave, he'd tell a joke. "If we're not home by Tuesday, Mrs. Savage, call the police." She would laugh appreciatively and tell them to have a nice time. Or she'd shout out a ditty in her thick Irish brogue.
Work while it's work time
Play while it's play
'Tis the only way to be happy
The only way to be gay.
Jack thought Mary was an attractive girl-no Miss America, but attractive. That was amazing considering her mother's face. There was no nice way to put it. Mrs. Savage was homely. "Born in a cave in County Cork," Bob said, and Jack didn't disagree. He described Mary as "bubbly, a girl you could have fun with," when he fondly remembered the night the three of them had spent wandering along the beach at Coney Island. They'd done nothing more than laugh and talk and run on the beach, but staying out all night seemed daring in those days just after World War II. People were trying to settle down, and Irish Catholic girls from "nice" families didn't venture far from home after dark. No matter that home was barely one step up from a shanty-a crucifix on every wall, a roach for every crack in the floor. At dawn it was up to Jack to take Mary back and make peace with Mrs. Savage.
Jack suspected that eventually Bob would have to make peace with Mary's mother. He'd watched a series of girls try to get their hooks into Bob-the nautical metaphor was Jack's-but he figured that Mary was going to be the one to anchor him.
Jack would meet his future wife, Nellie, a nursing student at St. John's, through Mary, who worked as a secretary at the nursing school. Bob was best man at Jack and Nellie's wedding; Jack was best man at Bob and Mary's. The connection between the women would make it easier for Bob and Jack to keep their friendship going after they both married. Things would become harder when the children arrived.
Jack knew it wouldn't be accurate to say that he and Bob had grown up together, because both of them had already served in the army by the time they met. Without the GI Bill, neither of them could have afforded the tuition at St. John's. But Jack felt that in a crucial way they had grown up together. They'd shared an intellectual awakening, and that was a kind of coming-of-age for inquisitive young men from working-class families.
Bob constantly interrogated Jack about Catholicism. He was drawn to the religion's melodramatic flourishes and theological gamesmanship and would have liked to please Mary by converting, but he was skeptical. His mother was scornful of Catholics, maybe because his father had been born one. One night Bob and Jack were wandering around the streets of Brooklyn talking about the Catholic doctrine of transubstantiation. Jack explained that the priest, by saying words of consecration, converts the Eucharist wafer and wine into the body and blood of Christ. They stopped in front of a bakery window and Bob pointed to some buns. "You're going tell me the priest says the words Hoc est corpus meum corpus and then that bun is the body of Christ?"
"Yeah," said Jack. "He has the power, but it would be a horrendous sin, because he's not supposed to do it outside the mass."
He saw Bob file the information away. The guy never seemed to forget anything. Ask him about a potato, he'd give you a dissertation on the history of Ireland.
At the end of their first year at St. John's, they took summer jobs as orderlies on the midnight shift at Beth Israel Hospital in Manhattan. After classes, on their way to work, they'd go for some drinks in downtown Brooklyn and then walk across the Brooklyn Bridge into the city. Those were magical evenings, with the towers of the financial district looming like castles against the pollution-pink sky. They passed by the courthouses in Foley Square, quietly majestic in the after-hours calm. If it was early enough, they'd stop in Union Square, which in those days was New York's equivalent of Hyde Park Corner. The cold war was under way, so someone was always ranting about communism, pro or con. Bob would jump right in. He had an opinion about everything.
The nurses at Beth Israel called Bob "Red" and Jack "the Irish kid" and fed them Hungarian goulash in the middle of the night. In the morning, after their shift was over, Bob and Jack would steal a couple of scrub suits and stethoscopes and walk around the wards pretending to be doctors. Before going back to Brooklyn, they'd stop at a coffee shop and annoy the waitresses by ordering ice cream sodas while everyone else was having eggs and bagels and coffee.
Bob could do many things that Jack felt were out of his reach. The two of them were about the same height, five-foot-ten or so, but Bob was strapping while Jack was slight. Bob served in the army not once but twice-called up from the reserves and shipped to Korea for his second go-round. When he came out, he went back to school to become a lawyer, while Jack dropped out. Jack was hesitant; Bob was unafraid.
Jack saw Bob as an alchemist who could spin the dull gray of ordinary life into gold. Bob's father also had that gift. He was part Hawaiian, and the two of them, father and son, used to play the ukulele together. His father was as dark as Bob was fair. Bob took his looks from his mother, Mildred, whose family was Scandinavian. One night Jack and Bob were prowling around downtown Brooklyn and Jack found an old, cracked ukulele without strings. He bought it for three dollars. They took it to Bob's house. His father patched it up, put on new strings, and then managed to pull some pretty good music out of it.
In 1960, six years into their marriage, Bob and Mary moved to the Mill Basin peninsula and built their house on an empty sandlot on East Sixty-fourth Street. There was nothing between them and the water but other empty sandlots.
In the southeastern corner of Brooklyn, the smell of salt hung heavily in the air. This part of the Jamaica Bay tidal basin had been called Equandito-"broken lands"-by the local Canarsee Indians, who sold it in 1664 to white men, who kept its rural character intact for a couple of centuries. In all that time, the only industry worth mentioning was the sale of crabs, oysters, and clams. Then, in the early twentieth century,
there were various attempts at commercial development of the neighborhood, but these were stalled when long-promised railroads weren't built. Finally, after World War II, people began moving in. The first homes, built in the late 1940s and early 1950s, were brick bungalows, but by the time the Rowes arrived, sizable houses on lots measuring fifty by one hundred feet were replacing them. Mill Basin would become even more upscale, but it was already regarded as a very good place to live.
Bob was a lawyer-a claims investigator for Allstate Insurance-and a company man. But the dullness of his professional life and his pursuit of bourgeois comfort didn't limit his imagination or cramp his style. Bob Rowe was also a visionary, who saw himself as part of a noble lineage, risen out of the sea: a descendant of Vikings on his mother's side and Hawaiian warriors on his father's. After he and Mary moved to Mill Basin they bought a sailboat, which they kept by the side of the house. Bob named it King Kamehameha, to honor his father's ancestors.
Bob liked feeling connected to the benevolent dictator-king who ruled Hawaii from 1796 until 1819. Kamehameha was noted for his intelligence and character as well as his ferocity. During one of many battles he fought to become the first undisputed ruler of all the Hawaiian Islands, he led an attack against a small village. One of the village's defenders defiantlybroke a paddle over Kamehameha's head. Years later, remembering the man's bravery, Kamehameha enacted the Mamalahoe, "Law of the Splintered Paddle," whose purpose was to protect the weak from the strong. The law is included in Hawaii's constitution, Article IX, Section 10:
The law of the splintered paddle, mamalahoe kanawai, decreed by Kamehameha I-Let every elderly person, woman and child lie by the roadside in safety-shall be a unique and living symbol of the State's concern forsafety.
The State shall have the power to provide for the safety of the people from crimes against persons and property.
Within a few years, construction would overtake all the sandlots on Mill Basin, and Bob and Mary would no longer be able to see the water from their home.
Barbara and Murray Sapolsky moved to East Sixty-fourth Street one week after the Rowes, and soon there was a block full of young couples who had wanted bigger houses so that they could begin families. Until the children came along, however, they would think nothing of staying up until four in the morning at one house or the other. Saturday nights, they'd break out some beer and potato chips and just sit in someone's driveway and talk. Inevitably, a process of evaluation and comparison began. If their street had had a yearbook, Bob and Mary Rowe would have been designated the couple most likely to succeed.
"Everybody sort of envied them, their relationship-it was beautiful," Barbara Sapolsky said. "They both had strong personalities, and they were friendly. Bob could tell stories for hours, and you could howl when you heard the things he would tell you from his job. He was a very well-read person. He knew facts and things the average person would never think of."
His job at Allstate was to turn human mishap and tragedy into an actuarial calculation. His pleasure was to transform the calculations into stories. Bob told these gruesome tales as absurdist entertainments, horrifying and titillating yet reassuringly distant from placid Mill Basin.
There was the one about the fireman who battered his way through the wooden barrier in the "bedroom" window and then fell four floors to his death. The "bedroom" had in fact been an airshaft.
A metal-tipped pole fell out of a twelfth-story window in a Manhattan skyscraper and pierced the head of a nun walking below. A neurosurgeon had to trim the pole close to her skull so she could fit into the ambulance.
A musician driving off the Whitestone Bridge skidded onto a divider median. When he got out to survey the damage, he was hit by a car. He flew over a wall into high weeds eighteen feet away. A few hours later a policeman ticketed his car. A tow truck took it away. A construction worker discovered his body days later.
Mary didn't have Bob's education, but she had a sharp wit. She could hold her own with her husband, although Barbara Sapolsky thought Mary catered to him a little too much. Barbara, for example, would never have allowed Murray to go out and spend eighty dollars on a single book, the way Bob did-she didn't care how rare it was. Mary also catered to Bob's mother, who moved into the apartment downstairs. The houses had been built so they could be easily divided in two for rental income. Barbara's mother-in-law lived in her house, too.
Mildred Rowe had a wicked sense of humor, but she wasn't an easy woman. Mary confided to Barbara that Millie was the only person who criticized Bob, the older of her two sons, though he was her favorite. Millie seemed unimpressed even with Bob's diplomas. "So you're a lawyer," she said to him, the only one in the family who'd gone to college. "Why aren't you a judge?"
Chief among Bob's offenses, according to Millie, was his unwillingness to put his mother in front of his wife. Millie said she didn't like Mary because she was Catholic, but if religion hadn't been available, she would have found another reason. (Bob and Mary were married in a Catholic church, and Mildred attended the wedding.) Mary didn't like Millie, either, but she wouldn't think of confronting her, any more than she would have openly defied her own mother. She conformed to her description in The Parmentier, her high school yearbook: "capable, considerate, gracious."