Cinema Journal 44.4 (2005) 100-104
As I try now to draw back the curtains from the windows of our apartment on the third floor, facing tall buildings on West 86th Street in Manhattan, the drapes are heavy and the pulley strings wobble a bit under the weight. I'm trying to look back again through those windows. It's the fifties. I'm the middle child in my family of five. In the world outside, the mood is dark—fear of witch-hunts, communists, stool pigeons, and liars—McCarthy having stirred up a fever of patriotic terrorism.
Inside our apartment, a furnished rental, there was dust, especially visible when a sunbeam tried to sneak in past the drapes. The curtain fabric, a maroon and beige floral print, which for some odd reason I vividly remember, was very formal and from another era, at odds with the plaid couch and the green shag rug in the living room. The rooms had walls the color of earth and grass without sunlight. The kitchen, tucked in the back down a long narrow pantry, faced the air shaft, where pigeons cooed or flew in and left droppings and feathers as we battled them out again. Maids cooked and slept and came and went in quick succession. The apartment smelled of their cooking, of grease and unfamiliar flavors of Hispanic or southern fried food that we disliked as much as the stranger who lived with us as "help."
Our parents never told us why we had to move here from our house near the river in Norwich, Vermont, also a rental, or why we'd moved to that house from a farm in Flemington, New Jersey, another rental, where we withstood the blizzard of '47 and where my brother, Bill, age one then, learned to toddle on the dirt road as it turned to spring mud. We'd started out in Los Angeles and left all our stuff behind. Each move just happened, no questions, no answers, though the truth, revealed much later, was that we were fleeing L.A. because my father, a screenwriter, was blacklisted and no longer employable by Disney, where he'd worked, or by the movie industry anywhere.
From that New York apartment, though, my father left for work each morning, or so it seemed. He had an in with friends at a place called TransFilm, where, anonymously or under some alias, he made commercial documentaries, animated ones. He dressed for the job—a jacket and tie, a V-necked sweater, tan or red. He wore hats, even a fedora, and he smoked a pipe, which I cleaned for him for five cents apiece on Saturdays while he worked at his desk at home and had the radio tuned to the Texaco opera from the Met. In my room, the sound of the opera would make me cry. I heard it as something melancholy that signaled my father was busy, otherwise absorbed. I hated opera. It took years to get over that.
My father was seldom home. Maybe he was working hard on scripts, but often he was at the Tip Toe Inn on Broadway and 86th Street at the bar. He'd meet my mother there for martinis. They both drank, and my memories of those blacklist years are deeply colored by alcohol. My mother, in particular, was overwhelmed by depression and booze. Her eyes would turn a kind of liquid blue, so I always feared coming home from school and encountering that look. If I saw it, I'd hide in the hall closet and call my best friend, Betsy. I hid in the closet a lot. And I often slept in the bathtub, too, with pillows and blankets and the door locked, to be safe. If I slept in bed, I'd check under it first for demons and say a prayer, kneeling, out of superstition, not sure if there was a god but just in case.
On one of those afternoons, I came home from school to find my mother lying on the bathroom floor with a bottle of vodka seemingly flung into the corner near the sink...