Chapter 17 – The Americanization of Siv
My third life began with a bang. A bang that resounded through the entire school community in the city of Malmö.
Alarm bells were ringing. Whispered news of the scandal spread from tilted head to tilted head in the faculty rooms. Were we ostracized, Allyn and I? Well, not quite, but nearly. The ‘sordid’ news was communicated from one scandal-loving assembly to another. Allyn P has fallen for the young woman who is doing her first year at the St. Petri lycée. A marriage is breaking up. A wife and three sons! A scandal like this had rarely been heard of in this moral city. Allyn had come over with his family to spend a year at my school in Malmö on a Fulbright scholarship. What happened was like lightning from a clear sky.
I was in love. We were in love. We knew perfectly well what we were doing, but nothing could make us say ‘No, this must not happen. Allyn has to go back to Syracuse, upstate New York, and pick up his job as a speech and drama teacher.’ Of course we had caused a crisis that was going to have consequences we could only vaguely imagine at this point. But it did happen.
I spent the summer working as an English teacher in Torquay, South Devon. I had taken a year’s paid leave of absence from my school to study English in the U.S. for a higher Swedish diploma. I saw the English professor and I learned that two courses were obligatory, the history of the English language and American literature. In Göteborg, where I had to go to get my permanent visa, they asked me where I was going to study. Not knowing anything about universities in N.Y. City I boldly said New York University. The man just said, You know that tuition is very expensive at NYU? I said I knew. I didn’t.
Of course I couldn’t be absolutely sure that all was going to work out like a balmy walk on the beach, but we did know perfectly well what we were getting ourselves into. I was leaving Sweden partly to get away from painful memories and my over-dependence on my sister Gun who was happy to see me go. I caught the plane from Copenhagen to Kennedy Airport in late August and it was actually my very first flight. The year was 1964.
Allyn had found a new job as an English teacher at Mamaroneck High School in Westchester, N.Y. right on Long Island Sound. He’d found a small apartment for us in an apartment complex called Harbour House (British spelling if you please!) and to begin with we expected anything but luxury. I would have been content to put up with an even more unconventional situation. The money I received from Sweden, 80% of my regular salary, was pennies in US $ and it took quite a few months before I got a job, but then just in time as my money from Sweden was about to run out.
Our apartment was sparsely furnished, mostly with furniture from Allyn’s old room in his mother’s house in Queens and it was enough for our immediate needs. It took forever for my furniture from Sweden to be delivered since a months-long dock strike in New York harbor held up my container. My wonderful dad and his wife, Elsa, had taken care of the packing and shipping.
But what a delight it was when we finally got some comfort added to the spare furnishings we started out with.
I got organized for my two classes I had to take to get a somewhat higher diploma in Sweden. We found that I could take American lit at Westchester Community College in White Plains, which suited me fine. I took the Hutchinson Parkway, a delightful old expressway from New Rochelle to White Plains, driving Allyn’s Ford Comet, a bigger car than I’d ever driven but fortunately with manual transmission. The ‘Hutch’ was bordered by beautiful trees that sparkled in autumn colors all the way to White Plains, a bit later in the fall. Our regular teacher got sick and had to be replaced by for ever changing substitutes, so the classes were so-so. The level of my co-students was fairly low and I guess that’s typical for a community college class. But the main thing for me was the reading list. I got to read writers I had never even heard of. I definitely got my introduction into the kind of American literature I was curious to find out about. Until then I had only read Hemingway, Steinbeck, Fitzgerald, Tennessee Williams, and very little else. Allyn too of course introduced me to Salinger, Edward Albee, Carson McCullers, wonderful Dorothy Parker and several writers who were not on my list, since my first semester course was about 19th – century literature. I got an A on the course and I was very pleased. I had also had to read a couple of books in all haste since we were supposed to have read them in high school. So, in between the required reading that was discussed in class, I had to hurry to read Moby Dick, the saga by Herman Melville of the doomed monomaniac, Captain Ahab, and the white whale, a masterpiece that would stay with me for the rest of my life. I read my first Mark Twain, Tom Sawyer, and The Scarlet Letter by Nathaniel Hawthorne. As I now remember, Hawthorne and Washington Irving were the two writers I appreciated most of the ones unknown to me before.
Mark Twain of course is a giant who stands out among all the other writers I got to know. On our reading list was Huckleberry Finn, which will for ever be one of my absolute favorite books. I even introduced it to a class many years later at l’Ecole Centrale in Paris to my student engineers. It was a daring experiment, but it worked. They didn’t finish it since they had to leave for a ‘stage‘ (training period) but they did appreciate it. I found it quite amazing how they actually managed to read the very special and ungrammatical style that 13-year-old Huck uses in this wonderful tale of the deep and natural friendship between a white boy and the black runaway slave, Jim.
I started the second semester which was going to be about 20th century literature. I got my reading list and I started out again going to White Plains once a week. However, at the beginning of the term, I saw an ad in the New York Times for a French tutor in Mount Vernon High School. I applied and I got the job immediately. As it turned out I went on teaching full-time in that school for two more years. The head of the language department doted on me and funnily enough, I was considered a native speaker of French since I came from Europe. I had already been a guest at several of the top Westchester high schools – Allyn’s excellent suggestion – and I had found to my great surprise that I was treated as somewhat of a scholar since I was European. The students were encouraged to ask me questions in French and they were quite enthusiastic. I was of course fluent in French and I had a good accent, so I guess the impression that I was more or less French held up. It has to be remembered that Westchester is a rich county where some of the very best schools in the United States are found.
As for my American literature course, I had to drop out. But no problem. I had my reading list and I ended up reading all the books on the list. It was in fact a very good first introduction to U.S. literature.
For the History of the English Language I found a course at the very prestigious Hunter College, which was far cheaper than NYU, that is way down in Greenwich Village around Washington Square. Hunter is also much easier to get to from Grand Central Station. I took the New Haven Railroad to the City to sign up for the course. It was a big thrill. Taking the train from New Rochelle, the same train my uncle Birger had taken every day when he and his family lived in Greenwich Connecticut and he worked in Manhattan. He took the subway from the Grand Central direct to the skyscraper where he worked, got out in the basement and took the elevator up to his office. I took the green line straight up to the 68 Street station on the upper East Side on Lexington Avenue. There is even an entrance to Hunter College from the subway station. I found the right room and I signed up for my class. There was one more thing I had to do in the afternoon, meeting with the professor, I believe, so I went to a coffee counter to get a snack. I ordered some tea and toast and the short-order cook looked at me and said ‘Purty’. I didn’t understand. Was this English? He looked Italian and his English was obviously not very good, and nor was my New Yorkan English. Later of course I realized that ‘purty’ was his way of giving me a compliment for my looks.
I then went for a walk towards Central Park, crossing Park and Madison Avenues, getting out on 5th Avenue and – Oh, my dream, there was Central Park. I was literally spellbound. This was more than a park. This was real nature, with huge rocky areas and lakes, people walking all over the vast lawns and the park crisscrossed by roads where anything could be seen, from horse drawn carriages (for tourists) to bikers and cars.
So once a week now I took the New Haven railroad to Grand Central and I remember reading Conrad’s Lord Jim on the very shaky train. That train has completely changed since then and is now quite comfortable. I do have to read Lord Jim again one day though, since I don’t believe I gave Lord Jim its due on that train where It was actually difficult to read at all.
Oh wonderful Grand Central Station, an entire town in itself. Small stores all over in the passages that take you from one part of the huge station to another, beauty and fitness centers, ice cream parlors, fix-it shops, anything you’d like to buy or service you might need, it’s all there. There was the little store where I found my jars of olives stuffed with anchovies, the only way I like them. Since those days I’ve never found them again.
In the center of the enormous central hall there is the eternal luxury car turning around on its moving platform. America, the beautiful. And its stuffy waiting rooms where half-sleeping tired-looking people look as it they are never going to move again. But this was long before the entire station was redone. I have never seen the renovated Grand Central Station, but it’s said to be a work of art.
My professor at Hunter College was a stuck-up and not overly intelligent man who first of all, when he heard I was Swedish, tried to tell me that the course was very difficult. I said that didn’t worry me and of course I had already signed up. I do believe that I most certainly had a better linguistic background than most of the other students. It was a graduate course, but I still don’t think the other students’ level of perfection in terms of language background could have been very impressive. I had taken four years of Latin plus three modern foreign languages for 5 – 7 years each, not to mention the fact that my very own language, or more exactly old Norse, is very often at the root of old English. I had also already learned quite a lot about sound shifts from Latin to French and from old German to other languages deriving from old German. I frankly think the man was lazy and didn’t want too many students in his class.
The professor spent half the semester, or such was my impression at the time, explaining the difference between a phoneme and a phonetic symbol, which seemed vastly exaggerated, not to say unnecessary. In fact, it seems to me now that he didn’t have very much to teach us and so resorted to taking up a lot of time with superfluous explanations. What I did like a lot, however, was sitting in the graduate library studying old English grammars. I guess I am a freak, because I really love studying the development of sounds and other time and geographical linguistic changes. There was no need to buy the books since I could just study them in the library.
Many years later I studied linguistics at the Université Lyon 3 for a postgraduate diploma called DEA, Diplôme d’Etudes Approfondies, which is usually the first step towards a Ph.D. (which I didn’t do). Once again I enjoyed, in one of our many subjects, called morpho-syntax, following the various changes, this time from Latin through other Romance languages to modern French.
My tutoring job at Mount Vernon High School was a sinecure. Parents had been complaining about an elderly teacher, Miss Quinlan, who was out sick more often that she was in school teaching. At this time she had a substitute teacher. As it turned out when Miss Quinlan was back the next school year, her problem was not just her health. When she spoke to me in French, which she often insisted on doing, I could barely understand what she was saying because of her very thick American accent. It could be quite embarrassing.
My job was to bring small groups of motivated students up to the level required for the Regents exam. I used my standard technique of asking questions and, hopefully, receiving answers. I taught basic grammar and the students were a delight. One time, Mrs Redka, my boss, came into my little class in a cubicle next to the school library and after listening a while she asked the students if they felt they were improving their levels. I still remember the girl who spoke up the first and said she had the impression she was finally learning some French.
The town of Mount Vernon was said in those day to be made up of equal parts of Jews, Italians and Blacks, obviously living in different areas of the city, but I only ever had a black student once in my French classes, and he was from Haiti. His name was Hervé, one of the very few names I still remember. He spoke French the way Haitians do, kind of pidgin French, and Mrs Redka had decided that he needed to start in a beginner class. And he did. Apart from this exception my students were mostly Jewish but also a mixture of other white ethnic groups, probably mostly Italian. I was new to this racial way of thinking and I found it a bit disconcerting how a student’s ethnic background took on such importance when talking about them and the way the students were treated.
I made friends right away in the teachers’ lunch room, where the Home Economics students served us simple things à la carte and we paid a low price. Especially one young woman, a history teacher, a year or two younger than I became a very precious friend in a very short time. She lived in the City and it was thanks to Bo that I got introduced into a way of living in Jewish New York City which was an eye opener for me. I still today often say ‘As Bo would say’ or ‘an expression that Bo introduced me to’. I asked her once what Bo was short for. She said ‘nothing’. She didn’t want to admit that her name was actually Bodonna. I found out anyway somehow.
Bo’s father was a first generation Russian immigrant and their last name Kass had clearly been abridged by the functionaries on Ellis Island. Her father had miraculously made his way in life and become a lawyer. I was invited to their house in Mount Vernon for Easter with other friends, all of them well-to-do Jews.
That very spring I had to buy myself a little Volkswagen beetle and I was very happy with it. I had already had one for a short time in Sweden. It cost me about $3 – 4 to have the tank filled. Bo drove a big Buick that her father clearly paid the insurance for and I believe it was legally his car. She shared a two-room apartment on 64th Street on what’s called the upper East Side of Manhattan with a roommate who was often away. Very practical for me.
Also, whenever Allyn went to Syracuse to see his sons, and that was pretty often, I would stay with Bo and she had lots of great ideas for interesting things to do in the big City.
I remember the first time I spent a night at Bo’s place, she got up before me in the morning, went out and came back with bagels and lox for breakfast. She was delighted to introduce me to Jewish customs and I was the appreciating learner. The salty lox tasted a bit odd to me for breakfast but this was exotic to me.
We once went to Philadelphia’s big art museum for an exhibit on Manet, not a favorite of mine but it was a nice outing. We went to a restaurant close by, or we had an early evening drink with a woman friend of hers in the cocktail lounge at the top of the 666 on Fifth Avenue, the Three Sixes. I remember as clearly as if it were today how we were talking about poverty and especially Blacks and poverty. Bo was not really a conservative and anything but a racist. By the way, she was the one who made the statement that opened a new world for me, the Swede from the country where racism is unknown because at that time there was just one so-called race. In fact, from that point of view Sweden was a backwoods country and the statement that the Jews are the ones who have hurt other Jews the most was totally new to me – Sephardic Jews looking down on Ashkenazi Jews, German versus Russian Jews. I have since heard the same statement from a German-Jewish colleague and friend who firmly held the same opinion. But the issue of Jewish identity and pecking order is actually far too complicated and obscure for me to get into on these pages.
Oh my enormous innocence! I had changed and become a convinced socialist by my colleagues at the vocational school where I worked for three years, and Allyn firmly shared my views on politics and racism. But nevertheless there remained inside me a huge pond of ignorance about the world. Bo said that Blacks are often so badly off because they are not making an effort to get out of the poverty-stricken life they were born into. Our very good friend Andy from Athens Georgia, the American in Paris, was a couple of decades later going to repeat just about the same statement which led us to a noisy argument in a Tunisian restaurant in Montmartre, where he and his young English wife Trudy lived.
Now, at the top of the Three Sixes, Bo gave us an example of a young black man who had been offered the opportunity to apply for a job by the social worker who managed his case. He didn’t show up for the interview. This happened a couple of times. When he was asked why, he said he didn’t have proper clothes to wear. He was supplied with proper clothes. He still didn’t show up the next time. Bo took this almost as proof or at least as a perfectly good example of how Blacks don’t want to accept help. She added – and this is an argument I’ve heard innumerable times by now – if my father who came over from Russia with nothing but the clothes he was wearing managed to make his way through law school, why can’t this black young man make a similar effort. I almost exploded. We didn’t become enemies but I strongly pointed out the enormous differences to Bo. I pointed out to her that her father had what almost all Jews have, an enormous pride in being a Jew. They don’t necessarily have to consider themselves as superior to us Caucasians, as it’s so stupidly called. They still have a deeply felt pride in their backgrounds, in their families and their history. Pride in oneself changes everything for any human being. Without that pride, what are you? A rag, a coincidence, a flotsam thrown up on the beach. I don’t know if Bo got my point and certainly not if I managed to convince her at all, but I added that she had been treating the story she had just told us about as if it were just theoretical. I said: Bo, we are talking about human beings. about reality, about life, the way it is and shouldn’t be. This is reality. It’s life right around the corner. What I believe had shocked me the most was that she seemed to be treating the whole argument as if it were a math problem, a statistical example.
I guess we finished our martinis and headed for the elevator to go on with our white lives.
There were extremely different evenings though, when everything was music and laughter. One evening we were sitting in Bo’s apartment not quite knowing what to do with ourselves. Allyn was in Syracuse for Easter with his sons. Later on we got a bigger apartment with a room for the boys and they came down to see us for holidays.
Bo’s apartment was on East 64th Street and close by on 2nd Avenue was a bar called Friday’s, a very ‘in’ hanging-out place for young bachelor men and women, a swinging singles’ bar as the saying went. Sawdust on the floor and a generally laid back and friendly ambiance. Bo knew lots of people around her age and single, the way she was. We had barely sat down to order drinks, when a couple of guys whom she knew joined us.
Well, to make a long story short, after a while there were quite a few guys around us and it was decided that we were going up to Harlem, to Smalls Paradise on 135th Street. That’s the club where Malcolm X was once a bartender – only that was twenty years earlier. We were now in 1965 and at that time Harlem wasn’t feared by Whites the way it got to be later. I was never one to be awed, but Smalls Paradise was still a very special place, something of an adventure. We danced on the not very big dance floor and we had drinks. I can’t remember having anything to eat that evening.
After a while some of us wandered over to the bar and we were standing there sipping on our drinks. Next to me was Roger. Oh yes. Roger. All I remember from that moment on was standing next to Roger and wishing we’d been alone in a secluded room. The feeling was very mutual. It is easy to sense when that’s the case and there was just no doubt. Sure we were at one of the most famous Black jazz clubs in the world, but what I remember was Roger standing very close to me. We talked and talked and talked. About what I have no idea.
However we all ended up in Roger’s apartment which he shared with a friend. New Yorkers always seem to have roommates. Rents are just too high for anything else. Roger was in business. In fact he was an orphan who had been adopted by an uncle and was more or less running the uncle’s business.
He was learning to paint and there was an easel in the living room with one of his unfinished paintings. Bo was actually doing just the same kind of thing, but there was no easel in her living room. I had accompanied her to her painting school once and I was not impressed by what she was doing. But painting as a hobby was very in, so it wasn’t just a coincidence that Roger too was into oil painting. We were talking and probably having one more drink, when Roger whispered in my ear “You will stay here tonight, won’t you?” An electric high-voltage tension went through my whole body. I looked at him seriously and said No. There were too many reasons why I just couldn’t face a thing like that. I don’t have to enumerate them all. But I was Bo’s guest and of course I was going to take a cab back with her to her place. She never knew about Roger and me. I’m not sure she had noticed anything about what had been going on. But there was also Allyn. We were not yet married, but what’s the difference? I was living with a man I thought I was in love with. I wasn’t going to give in to a whim like this no matter how physically attracted I was and making myself feel dirty afterwards. This couldn’t lead to anything. It would be like a one-night stand. No, not for me. There was absolutely no doubt in my mind.
But I could never forget about Roger. I discretely asked Bo much later, not even sure if she herself might have a crush on him, what had become of Roger. She told me a gentile girl had fallen head over heels in love with him and wouldn’t give up. She had converted to Judaism to be accepted by Roger’s aunt. But that wasn’t enough either. She was still not accepted and Roger might – just my own supposition – lose his uncle’s business if he married a gentile or someone his aunt did not approve of. That’s the last I ever heard of Roger.
Continued: Chapter 18 – My new country