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New York in the '50s
By Dan Wakefield
OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIACopyright © 1992 Dan Wakefield
All rights reserved.
To Grand Central Station
The only way to go to New York from the rest of the country in 1952 was by train — I mean the only romantic, "literary" way. It was possible to fly, of course, but that was considered expensive and elite, even a little dangerous. My parents and I were the first on our block to travel by plane when we went to the New York World's Fair in 1939, and the neighbors all came to the airport to see us off, one of them warning my mother not to wear her good hat on the flight for fear "it might blow off up there." You could drive or hitchhike or take a bus, but all that seemed grubby and déclassé compared to going on the train, which popular songs, like "Blues in the Night," and poets and novelists from Walt Whitman to Thomas Wolfe had immortalized, invoking the whistle of the locomotive sounding in the dark as a signal of love, loss, and longing ("hear that lonesome whistle, whooee"), the pitch of our deepest hopes and dreams. The trains we took to New York are part of the dreams of my generation, a shared symbol of collective memory.
The train took you straight to the city's heart, to Penn Station or, better still, to the legendary Grand Central Station, whose name was the title of a radio drama I listened to faithfully on Saturday mornings in my family's kitchen. My friends and I were enthralled by the drama that began with the sounds of whistles, chugs, and escaping steam of the mighty trains that crossed the land, as the deep voice of the announcer intoned each week these thrilling words:
As a bullet seeks its target, shining rails in every part of our great country are aimed at Grand Central Station, heart of the nation's greatest city. Drawn by the magnetic force, the fantastic metropolis, day and night great trains rush toward the Hudson River, sweep down its eastern bank for 140 miles, flash briefly past the long red row of tenement houses south of the 125th Street, dive with a roar into the two-and-a-half-mile tunnel which burrows beneath the glitter and swank of Park Avenue and then ... [sound effects call for ESCAPING STEAM FROM LOCOMOTIVE] Grand Central Station ... crossroads of a million private lives.
Whose blood could fail to be stirred by the prospect of such a journey? Betty Bartelme, who became a book editor and now teaches a course in the history of publishing at Hofstra College, listened to "Grand Central Station" when she grew up in Iowa, and she thought of the program — as if she were living out one of its episodes — when she took a train called the Pacemaker to New York from Chicago. She had just graduated from St. Catherine's College in St. Paul, Minnesota, when she "went to New York to visit a friend and never came back."
Grand Central also conjured up for Betty and me and our contemporaries the movie scenes of those classic meetings of soldiers come home or about to embark, in either case embracing beneath the great clock the girl of their dreams, the fur-coated fantasy of glamour and love whose heart was worth fighting and dying to win. It just wouldn't be the same at the Port Authority Bus Terminal.
The train stations of America's cities were not simply points of arrival and departure, loading docks for people and baggage, but awesome, vast cathedrals for the continent-crossing railways that first connected us into one country. Union Station in Indianapolis was the most impressive building in the city, its stained glass windows and high domed ceiling providing the closest thing we had to Chartres. Travel was serious, mysterious, and fun, and the boarding of a train was an act, a decision, not to be taken lightly, for it might well be the turning point of a life, just as it was in so many books and movies.
The trains themselves were nineteenth-century symbols of power, still potent because they were part of the stories we were raised on, part of the powerful sights and sounds of childhood. The Monon Railroad, which ran past the end of my backyard and on to Chicago, told the time for the whole neighborhood, the whistle of the 5:15 calling kids home for supper. Sometimes we put pennies on the track and collected them afterward as souvenirs, symbols of the power of the passing train.
David Amram put pennies on the track of the train whose station was only a mile from the farm he grew up on in Feasterville, Pennsylvania. He dreamed of someday taking his trumpet and going to New York on that train to play in a band; he would realize his dream as a jazz musician, composer, and conductor, playing with Charlie Mingus and later with his own groups. "It was a silver train called the Crusader," David remembers, "and it had a steam engine. I took it to New York in 1955."
The great cross-country trains had names, like proud ships, which added to the aura of adventure, the importance the traveler felt in making the journey. One I sometimes took to New York from Indianapolis was called the Spirit of St. Louis. That name reminded the passengers that, like Lindy crossing the Atlantic to Paris, we were part of a heritage of seekers, explorers, pioneers, taking a risk to move on, leave home, try the unknown.
The friends of my generation who came to New York still remember the names of the trains that took them, as well as the adventure of the journey. Meg Greenfield came from Seattle on the Empire Builder. She remembers how "the trains to college were full of all the kids from Seattle or Portland going to eastern schools. I also went sometimes on a train called the City of Portland. It was like a rolling party and marvelous fun — I mean, it was fun for us. It couldn't have been much fun for the other passengers."
When I went away to college at Columbia, my mother and father saw me off at Union Station with hugs and tears and promises to write, as if I were a soldier going to the front. In a way, that's how I felt, eager for action but a little afraid. Then I was greeted by a wonderful surprise: Mr. and Mrs. Evans Woollen were going to New York City on the same train.
I took this as confirmation of my fate, the best omen possible. They were not just the parents of my first high school girlfriend, Kithy Woollen, but also personages in their own right. Mr. Woollen was president of the Fletcher Trust bank in Indianapolis and a distinguished alumnus of Yale who always wore a three-piece suit with a gold watch chain across his vest, the symbol of solid, old-fashioned success and stability. I was awed and somewhat intimidated by him, but his wife, Lydia, was one of my favorite adults, a woman of charm and sharp wit, a kind of midwestern Katharine Hepburn, more soft and slow in speaking but possessing the same intensity of gaze. When I came to see her daughter, she would engage me in conversations about books I was reading and tell me of authors she admired, treating me as if my opinions were worthy of attention.
When they saw me on the train to New York, the Woollens invited me to dinner with them. The old cross-country trains boasted a dining car with a first-class menu and tables with linen cloths and polished silverware gleaming under lamplight, presided over by a staff of attentive colored (as they were called with respect then) waiters who served drinks and meals with a skill unmatched in the finest restaurants. There was also a club car with comfortable lounge chairs and cocktail tables for having a drink and a smoke and perhaps meeting a fellow passenger (that one, the mysterious blonde just lighting up a cigarette, who looks a bit like Ingrid Bergman in Casablanca), or reading a book and sipping a beer, as you watched the landscape and the past slip painlessly by through the window.
Leslie Katz, an author and the publisher of the Eakins Press, remembers the dining car of a B & O train called the Royal Blue, which he took the first time he went to New York from Baltimore: "They served the food on ceramic plates with pictures of railroad trains on them. I took that train at Christmas, and when you approached the Susquehanna, the conductor turned out the lights in the car and said, 'Now you can see the B & O Christmas tree.' And just then you passed this tree with colored lights."
When the maître d' grandly seated me and the Woollens at a table in the dining car and gave us menus to study, I tried to find a modest-priced meal among what seemed such luxurious choices, but before I could make a selection, Mr. Woollen announced in a tone of finality (he tended to speak in ultimatums): "Dan, you'll have the steak." I'm sure he knew I never would have ordered the most expensive dinner myself, but he wanted me to have it, I think, for sustenance and celebration on the eve of my new college career.
Mrs. Woollen asked me slyly, "Are you still WCTU or will you have a cocktail?" She knew I'd abstained throughout high school, and so made the joking reference to the Women's Christian Temperance Union, one of the "dry" lobbies for Prohibition that was now as outdated as raccoon coats, flapper styles, and other relics of the twenties. Proud to show I'd become a man of the world, I denied any allegiance to the WCTU and ordered a whiskey sour, sipping it with casual aplomb while Mr. and Mrs. Woollen enjoyed their own — a whiskey sour was the drink to have.
The Woollens toasted my going off to Columbia, which made me feel proud and relieved. I considered them the most sophisticated people I knew in Indianapolis, and their endorsement offset the recent lecture from my mother's cousins, Aunt Mary and Uncle Clayton, who had been summoned to warn me of the perils a young man faced going east to school. Such a questionable escapade was deemed especially dangerous at the liberal ("pinko" was the less polite designation) stronghold of Columbia, in alien New York City, particularly at this menacing time in history when our way of life was being threatened by godless communism, as Senator Joseph McCarthy and his followers were telling us all the time by exposing citizens they charged with being Reds in our very midst.
Aunt Mary Ridge was a member of the Indianapolis school board, and so was attuned to the ways in which the minds and values of youth could be insidiously corrupted. Her pince-nez hung on a ribbon around her neck and lay over her ample bosom as she sat in our kitchen in silent support of tiny, gray Uncle Clayton, who quivered with age and emotion as he told me to "always remember what you learned in Sunday school, Danny, and the things your mother and father taught you, and don't be taken in by professors with funny ideas who don't believe in God, no matter how smart they are." I squirmed in discomfort, knowing these good people loved me and wanted to protect me, but wishing they would trust me and treat me like an adult.
That's how the Woollens were treating me at dinner on the train to New York.
We spoke of grand, sophisticated subjects, like the Broadway shows the Woollens were going to see on their trip. They had tickets for Henry Fonda in Point of No Return, a drama based on one of the novels by John P. Marquand about a burning issue of the day, the compromises of businessmen for their work. The Woollens would see other plays and musicals as well, but it was difficult to choose from the riches of a Broadway theater that also offered, in January 1952, Julie Harris in I Am a Camera, José Ferrer in The Shrike, Hume Cronin and Jessica Tandy in The Four Poster, Katherine Cornell in The Constant Wife, Audrey Hepburn in Gigi, Celeste Holm in Anna Christie, Barbara Bel Geddes in The Moon Is Blue, Uta Hagen in Saint Joan, and Laurence Olivier and Vivian Leigh in Caesar and Cleopatra. That did not even count the musicals, which included Gertrude Lawrence in The King and I, Phil Silvers in Top Banana, and Bert Lahr in Two on the Aisle.
As we discussed such exciting choices — ones I'd be able to make for myself by getting standing-room tickets while I was a student — I had the glorious feeling I was living a scene out of one of the novels of F. Scott Fitzgerald, my favorite author. The Woollens were the only people I knew in Indianapolis who might be in a Fitzgerald scene. Their oldest son, Evans Jr. (known as Chub), was following in Mr. Woollen's footsteps at Yale, and Kithy was already destined for Radcliffe. It was Mrs. Woollen who first recommended to me The Far Side of Paradise, the biography by Arthur Mizener that began the Fitzgerald revival of the fifties.
Sometimes fiction endorses and reaffirms experience, as it did then in the dining car with the Woollens. I knew I was feeling the kind of emotion described in Gatsby when Nick Carraway recalls with nostalgia going home from New York on the train in college at Christmastime:
When we pulled out into the winter night and the real snow, our snow, began to stretch out beside us and twinkle against the windows, and the dim lights of small Wisconsin stations moved by, a sharp wild brace came suddenly into the air. We drew in deep breaths of it as we walked back from dinner through the cold vestibules, unutterably aware of our identity with this country for one strange hour, before we melted indistinguishably into it again.
That's my Middle West — not the wheat or the prairies or the lost Swede towns, but the thrilling returning trains of my youth.
Now I was riding on one of those mythical trains, and as I "walked back from dinner through the cold vestibules," I realized I was on the journey because of two teachers, one of whom I had not yet met.
A young English instructor at Indiana University named Rexmond Cochrane had taken me under his wing, encouraged my writing, even urged me to enlarge my education by continuing it in some other part of the country, so I could learn what the world was like away from the familiar turf on which I'd grown up. Perhaps he instinctively knew that was what I wanted to hear, for I felt like an exile in Indiana, having retreated there in shame after starting out at Northwestern University, just outside Chicago in Evanston, and then running back home after being rejected across the board during fraternity rush week.
Fraternities were the stamp of approval for young men growing up in the Midwest in the fifties, and seemed a matter of life-shaping significance, as important to many people I knew as the choice of a college. I immediately understood how crucial it was for Scott Fitzgerald and his autobiographical hero Amory Blaine, in This Side of Paradise, to get into the right eating club at Princeton (I translated the Cottage Club as Princeton's version of Sigma Chi).
My fraternity rejection probably seared more deeply because I took it as judgment of my awful case of adolescent acne. It seemed a silent way for the world of beautiful people to which I aspired — the winners and leaders, prom queens and team captains — to give me the message affirming my own worst fears: you're ugly, no good, not wanted.
Back home again in Indiana, I pledged the Kappa Sigma fraternity at Bloomington, where I was known to friends and their older brothers and accepted in spite of my blemished face. But it only made me feel guilty for joining a system that I knew from my own painful experience hurt the people it rejected, made them feel like outcasts, ashamed and unwanted. On top of suffering the stupid physical punishment of hazing (beaten with polished wooden paddles by upperclassmen until bruised black-and-blue) and the inane indignities of Hell Week, I felt like a phony. I spent more time reading, especially novels, perhaps as a way of escaping the world I thought I had wanted but now found uncomfortable and silly. I was ripe for Rex Cochrane's encouragement to move on.
Tea with Mr. Cochrane and his welcoming wife at their graduate student apartment stoked my growing excitement about books as I saw their own love of them. It was a love expressed not only in the abundance of volumes that lined the walls and grew in piles on tables and desks, or the way the Cochranes spoke about books and the stories and ideas in them, but also in how they handled them, with a kind of familiar affection that I'd seen before in the way good basketball players picked up and held a basketball. This was the opposite of the attitude toward books of some of my fraternity brothers — like Brick, the jock who had plucked a novel out of my arm once, held it up like a dirty sock, and said, "You really like that stuff, don't you?"
Mr. Cochrane loaned me his own precious underlined, annotated copy of one of his favorite books, Sherwood Anderson's A Story Teller's Story, and I felt I'd been given a trust, the temporary guardianship of a sacred text that was no mere relic but a tangible source of knowledge and power. No wonder the essay I read that semester that struck me so deeply it changed the course of my life, catapulting me on to Columbia, was called "Education by Books."
Excerpted from New York in the '50s by Dan Wakefield. Copyright © 1992 Dan Wakefield. Excerpted by permission of OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIA.
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