The Garden Cottage

largeNew York City children grow up cautious. Maybe an extra chemical in the air they breathe has altered their DNA; maybe skepticism is dripped into the water supply. Regardless, they expect the worst from every situation.

Jamie and I were both born in New York, the City of Many Locks. Even though I remember the New York in the 1960s and ‘70s – and even the ‘80s – as a lot safer than it seems now, it wasn’t a place where you slept with the front door unlatched. Having windows open in the summer was a requirement, true, but then no one ever expected Spiderman to climb the brick walls, enter the flat, and clear out its valuables. So we lived in our Upper West Side apartment with an open-windowed view of Central Park and Tuxedo’s dirty paw prints on the wall under the wide, dusty sills. According to Dr. Frank Field, this particular summer was one of the hottest on record, so the windows were never closed and the paw prints multiplied.

Jamie’s family had close friends who owned an original land grant farm in Cape Cod, bestowed by George III. He had worked on it for many of his adolescent summers, remembering those days fondly with their temperate days and cool nights. Since I hadn’t seen Massachusetts since age nine and Jamie was certain it would be cooler on the Cape, we thought it would be fun to drive up for a long weekend to escape the July heat.   We arranged for a friend to look after Tux and reserved a room at The Fernbrook Inn, a gorgeous Victorian bed and breakfast in Centerville.

The snag came two days before we planned to leave. We had gone out to dinner and upon exiting the Mitali West Indian restaurant on Bleecker Street in Greenwich Village discovered that Jamie’s baby blue Mercedes E class had a new paint job – a thick stripe of Metropolitan Blue running along the entire driver’s side, almost as an accent on top of the assorted scratches and the crushing indentation from tail light to head light. Although he didn’t shriek the profanities I expected him to, it was obvious that he wasn’t happy with the NYPD’s poor driving skills. But what to do about the trip? Should we cancel?

We considered the problem the rest of that night and the next morning. Neither of us wanted to postpone; NYC in July is a tourist-stuffed and aroma-infested city-sauna. A weekend away was tempting, but how would we get there?

Just after lunch, Jamie phoned me at my office with the solution; his business partner, Danny, had recently sold his house in Tuscany and had had the furnishings shipped home and among them was a BMW sedan. We were going to borrow it for the weekend.

He arrived home a few hours later looking disconcerted. I asked what was wrong. It turned out that there are different models of BMWs available in Europe than in the US. Danny had the newest, snazziest model BMW sedan; all of its controls were voice-activated.   It was the early 1990s and I had never before heard of this.

“You mean you talk to it?”


“Wow, that’s cool.” He frowned slightly. “It’s not cool?”

Jamie scratched his chin. “Oh, it’s cool, all right. What’s even cooler is that it talks back.”

“No! Really?”

“Yeah. In Italian.”

“In Italian? You don’t speak Italian,“ I observed.

“No, but Danny does and it’s his car,” he answered.

“Ohhhhhhhhh.” The complication was beginning to sink in. Fluent-in-Italian Danny wasn’t accompanying us. “Do you think we need to speak Italian? I mean, can’t we just fill up the gas tank often and presume that it’s all right?”

Jamie nodded. “We’ll have to. It’s either that or stay home and neither is us wants to do that.”

He was right – neither of us did want that. So the next morning we loaded the car and set off for Cape Cod listening to a new best seller in the CD player. The car had a lot to say but neither of us understood it so we just turned the book louder.

We arrived in early afternoon. The inn was even more beautiful than we had imagined; a Victorian house with a wide, airy porch and spectacular gardens created by Frederick Law Olmstead.  We learned from Brian, one of the owners, that while a sea captain had built it, its owners had also included Dr. Herbert Kalmus, the inventor of Technicolor. Francis Cardinal Spellman, Walt Disney, Gloria Swanson, and several American presidents had vacationed there.

As Brian showed us around, we noticed that it wasn’t very cool; in fact it was nearly as hot as Manhattan. Jamie mentioned that he had spent his adolescent summers on the Cape and it had always had great sleeping weather, cool with a light breeze. Brian nodded. “Usually,” he agreed, “but this has been the hottest summer in seventy-five years.” Jamie and I exchanged glances. “At least there’s an ocean,” I mumbled.

Brian introduced us to his partner, Sal, who had taken our bags to the Garden Cottage. We followed Sal along the pea gravel path to a tiny studio nestled within the embrace of century old trees. It was lovely – with high ceilings, a queen-sized bed, its own bathroom, and airy porch.

“It was a little stuffy in here so I have opened all of the windows for you,” Sal said, opening, then resting, the screen door against his shoulder as he handed Jamie the key to the thick oak door as he turned to leave. “You might want to leave them open. It’s been a scorcher of a summer.”

I pulled a sweatshirt from the beach bag. “Well, I guess I won’t be needing this.”

Jamie shrugged and dug in the suitcase for our swimsuits. Perhaps there would be a cooling breeze at the beach.

Later, after roasting on the beach all afternoon, we returned to the cottage to shower and find a place to eat dinner. As Jamie opened the thick door a blast of heat attacked us like from a furnace in a steel mill.

“Holy cow, it’s still like an oven in here,” I said as I dropped the beach bag.

“We’ll leave the door open when we go out for dinner,” Jamie said turning to enter the bathroom.

“We can’t!” I exclaimed, appalled.

He turned, surprised. “Why not?”

“It’s not safe. It’s like asking someone to rob us.”

“Don’t be silly. We are twenty feet from the main house in a private garden in Centerville, Massachusetts, not pitching a tent in Central Park. And we don’t have anything valuable with us anyway.” I wasn’t convinced, so when he left to put gas in the chatty Italian car, I snapped the door locked and moseyed along the path to meet him in front of the house.

It was nearly midnight when we pulled into the inn’s driveway after dinner but it felt as hot as midday in Studio City. The same blast of hot air met us as I opened the cottage door. “I thought we were going to leave the door open,” Jamie said as we entered.

“You went for gas and I forgot,” I lied. Did he think I was nuts?

“Well, we can leave it open now,” he said pulling back the white sheets and reaching for the remote control.

“You mean all night?” I squeaked.

“Sure, why not?”

“Uh, burglars, rapists, murderers, the usual suspects,” I replied snarkily.

Jamie stared. “What are you talking about? You aren’t in New York; you are in Cape Cod. It’s very safe. It’s also incredibly hot, so, please, please do not close that door. Just lock the screen door.”

Reluctantly, I agreed and crossed the room to the door. I looked at the screen door. No lock marred its smooth painted wood surface. I turned. “There is no lock,” I said.

“Sure there is; I can see it from here.”

“You mean this? This little hook and eye?” I swung the curved metal latch with my index finger. “Tux could break this.”

“What were you expecting? The door’s too thin for a Medeco dead bolt.”

“So? They have never heard of chain locks up here?”

“It’s a low crime area.”

“Humph. No place is low crime if doors are left open and everyone’s vying to be robbed. The burglars’ only dilemma is where to hit tonight.”

“Will you please stop acting like you are vacationing on Fordham Road? They don’t need security gates and dead bolts here.”

“Yeah, well.” I remain unconvinced. I wasn’t a native New Yorker for nothing.

“Yeah, well, I’m going to sleep.” Jamie rolled over and within seconds he was snoring like an asthmatic walrus.

Miffed, I sat on the bed and stared idly at a rerun of Mystery! on PBS. A crime show, great. Jeremy Brett as Sherlock Holmes was solving the mystery of the naval treaty stolen from a Foreign Office clerk. Hmm. Stolen. See? From a place that was properly locked at night; that treaty wasn’t left on a flat surface in an unsecured garden shed in a heat-ravaged coastal town just waiting to be pilfered. I gazed at Jamie sleeping and wanted to poke him awake.

I watched TV the entire night, growing more fearful with every noise I heard. Every call of a night bird became the communication of burglary accomplices. Every padding of paws under the window became a rapist in crepe-soled shoes seeking a victim. Every crunch of gravel was a car thief choosing his prey. Eventually, I nodded off, just as the ink-blue sky began its fade to grey.

Early-rising Jamie awoke with the summer sun, leaping from bed just as the robins began their dawn serenade. Grumbling I pulled the covers over my head.   “Come on,” he prodded. “Let’s go see what Sal is making for breakfast.”

“Can’t we see what Sal is making for lunch?” I grumbled.

“No lunch. B & B, you know.”

I peered out over the scalloped edge of the sheet. Jamie frowned. “What is wrong with you? Your eyes are all bloodshot. You look like you just got in after one of your grad school pub crawls.”

I scowled. I hadn’t crawled the pubs all that much at Trinity, Oxford as I completed my Masters degree; Jamie just thought I had based on who my friends and classmates were. Self-righteousness swelled within me. After all, I had stayed awake all night guarding our safety, while he slept completely unawares, snoring like a grizzly bear with post-nasal drip, and if I had felt better I would have told him so.

Truthfully, I felt like a wrung-out dishrag. Jamie could see that. He brought me a brimming mug of coffee from the dining room and held it under my nose. Eventually the scent of what my grandfather called “the hot, black elixir of life” revived me and I made it to the breakfast table where all of the other guests sat chatting brightly. No one else appeared concerned about Centerville’s propensity for nocturnal crime. Frankly, I was too tired to care about it anymore, as well. I spent the entire day dozing on the beach.When we returned to the garden cottage from dinner that night, I decided that while the hook and eye might be – was – flimsy, Brian and Sal had owned this place for years and had never had a break in; that had to count for something. I flipped the latch and got into bed. Que sera sera, as Doris Day so often sang. I imagined I’d be alive and intact in the morning. And if I was, I planned to find a Borders books; I still needed to buy an Italian-English dictionary to figure out what the car was trying to tell us before we drove back to New York.

Rated G

IMG_7983One Saturday night in August 1973, my mom and dad joined Aunt Fay and Uncle Nick on a double date to Hathaway’s drive in movie theatre in North Hoosick to see the popular gangster film The Godfather.   Because they returned late, everyone was in bed, forcing them to share their thoughts about the movie the next morning. My father raved. It was brilliant, so complex and evocative of its time and place. My mom agreed; the story and characters were so realistic yet the dialogue was so full of poetry. Listening closely to the film review, my grandfather nodded thoughtfully.

My parents returned to the city later that day, leaving me upstate. The next Wednesday evening after dinner, my grandfather turned to my grandmother.

“Hey, Ruthie, let’s pack up the Peanut here and go see that movie the kids were raving about. You know, the gangster film.”

My grandmother looked up from her crocheting, frowning, and nodded slightly, yet pointedly, at me, Peanut (so nicknamed because I am the youngest grandchild), lounging on the sofa. “I don’t know. I talked to Fay about it and they say” –  here she stage-whispered “the word ‘fuck’ in that movie.”

My grandfather raised his left arm as if to push away her concern. “Peanut has heard it before. She just heard it from you. Come on, let’s go.”

Grabbing sweaters we set off in my grandfather’s maroon Delta 88 the few miles to the theatre. It was dusk by the time we made the left turn by Delaney’s Hotel, and we could see that the line at Hathaway’s was so long cars were pulled over onto the side of the road, trying not to block the entrance to the gas station or Tate’s Diner as they inched forward to the box office; by the time we reached the ticket booth, The Godfather tickets had all sold out, leaving us with a Faye Dunaway and George C. Scott film about a woman oil wildcatter called Oklahoma Crude. My grandfather sighed with disappointment and turned to my grandmother. “Well?”

“We’re here now, Kenneth, no point in going home. We’ll just watch the George C. Scott movie and see the gangster show another time. I like George C. Scott. Remember how good he was in that Patton?” Her tone made me think she was placating him because, however much she had or had not enjoyed Patton, she was pretty happy that The Godfather was off the menu; she had no intention of taking her younger son’s youngest child to a movie in which dirty language was bandied about.

“All right. But we are seeing the gangster show next week,” my grandfather grumbled, handing the money to the teenage girl in the booth.

We followed the other cars into the rutted field and berthed in our allotted space. As my grandfather adjusted the silvery speaker on the driver’s side window I went to the concession stand for popcorn and soda. Returning, laden, I plopped in the middle of the back seat and leaned forward between the armrests to listen to the piped in music until the graying sky had turned a bluish-ebony and the movie could begin.

I don’t actually remember much of the film. I just know that it was going along pretty well until Faye Dunaway’s character had to explain to someone about why she felt no need of a man to help her hold onto her oil-rich land while the big oil companies plotted and schemed to steal it from her. She didn’t want a man, she announced. She was prepared to do everything a man could do in the oil fields and beyond; in fact, she concluded, “if I had a dick I could fuck myself, too!”

My grandmother gasped, then shrieked. She spun in her car seat faster than I had ever seen her move and before I realized what had happened she clamped both hands on either side of my head with a viselike grip, squeezing my brain to near pulp as she covered my ears. “Kenneth!” she howled. “That word! There’s that word!” My grandfather stared at her wordlessly for a minute, and then said softly, “Ruthie, let go of the kid.”

When she finally released my head, I reached up and tentatively tried to separate my earflaps from where they had been all but embedded in my skull. My poor grandmother. She had so liked George C. Scott that she completely forgot the salty language he had used as General Patton and, having never seen Bonnie and Clyde, had no idea who Faye Dunaway was. She was quiet for the rest of the night.

We never saw The Godfather that summer. In fact, I didn’t see it until it was released on VHS, at which point, I realized that the dialogue contains very little swearing and no character ever uttered the dreaded “fuck” at all. I don’t know whether my grandfather ever got the chance to see it, as he died before home video technology was available.

I think of my grandparents every time that movie comes on TV.  Last summer, seeing it on a pay channel, I commented idly about how it always reminded me of upstate New York and my grandparents.  This puzzled my father and I realized that my grandparents had never told the story, so I did.  In the telling it occurred to me that it says everything there is to say about my grandmother – to me, at least.  Her finer instincts to protect me were so strong, she never realized the insidiousness of the Trojan horse George C. Scott movie.  Evidently, if she really wanted to keep my adolescence rated G, she should have listened to my grandfather and taken me to the gangster film.