Monday, May 4, 2009

“Not until we are lost do we begin to understand ourselves.” Henry David Thoreau


I lost my ring, the one that I have worn for over forty years. It’s a silver band inlaid with eight turquoise tiles given to me by a man I knew when I was in my senior year of high school. He was a self-described Zuñi Indian. His name was Ralph and the ring had been passed down to him from his grandfather, also Zuñi. It was 1964 or thereabouts. I was feeling lost and very unhappy in Hartford, Connecticut. Well, condemned more like, to hinterland hell.

My father’s antique restoration business on East 34th Street in Manhattan had failed—such as it was—and the rest of us were spirited away from our lives in New York and followed him to Hartford. My sister thrived better than I because she hated the public high school she attended just across the cul de sac from the housing project where we lived in Astoria, Queens. I was devastated. The school I left was the High School of Art & Design on Second Avenue in Manhattan. I was going to be an artist!

Adding to the naïve pride of attending a specialized public high school like mine for three years was the thrill of celebrity sightings as I cut across the main floor of Bloomingdale’s, the ‘like-no-other-store-in-the-world’ store on Lexington Avenue. I was headed to the subway at the end of a school day, on my way back to Astoria. I recall seeing teen idol Troy Donahue—another native New Yorker and then in the cast of a popular TV series called Hawaiian Eye. Rumor has it that, when he was down on his luck, he spent a summer in Central Park…in a cardboard box! So, when the Mister chides me over my own bleak expectations, I counter with: “But it was good enough for Troy Donahue!” But more often, propped prettily on a stool at the cosmetics counter there was Marilyn Monroe, attended to by less glamorous women in pastel-colored smocks. They resembled a giggling clique of girlfriends, rather than clerks serving a famous customer. If I joined my old school chum Dennis for some nearby expedition after class then we would venture into swanky neighborhoods like Turtle Bay and Sutton Place. Often boasting of his ‘friendship’ with the eminent actress Katherine Hepburn was just as often met with skepticism until one autumn day I found myself alongside him when we scooted past the grande dame as she was sweeping the sidewalk of leaves in front of her brownstone on East 49th Street! “Hiya Kate,” he cheered and she nodded her exquisite head and intoned imperiously: “Dennis.” My classmate might today be considered a stalker. Then, he was a fan.

Senior year landed me in alien territory where school friendships had been forged for years before my arrival and the ones I had cherished in Manhattan were drifting behind me. I did find a few friendly and like-minds among the senior year class of art students in Hartford Public High School—okay, three—but being a New Yorker was a joke, always up for grabs. Sometimes it never got past the hilarious reaction to my New York accent. Coming from an integrated school in Manhattan, I was unhappily startled on my first day at Hartford to encounter busing—hundreds of African American kids bussed from outside the immediate neighborhood—omen of an uneasy atmosphere in the classrooms. In Manhattan we kids rode public transportation together, Black, White, Asian, Hispanic.

I found an after school job on Main Street at the now defunct Sage-Allen flagship department store. I felt like a character in a novel by Sinclair Lewis. Would I be the one to broaden the narrow-minded bigotry I perceived among a lot of my new classmates? I ended up going alone to a Ray Charles concert at The Bushnell auditorium on Capitol Avenue unable to find a pal to go with me; the only white schoolgirl that I could see in an enthusiastic audience of fans. At the close of a performance that I shall never forget I exited to the lobby where my father’s anxious face awaited me and which turned into a grin when he saw I was in a friendly crowd who warmly waved me on.

Ralph, much older than I, and a stock “boy”, befriended me at the store. We struck up a friendship as only lonely people do, when age, gender, economics, and appearances matter not a wit. Moaning about my fate must have seemed rather self-indulgent to him. I was a smart girl, not unattractive in a working-class-mongrel-mix-kind of way and was actually relieved to have left the jealously steady boyfriend behind in Astoria. Ralph was an older, bespectacled single man, never married and living with his mother who was nearly blind. He knew I was a book lover. He asked if I might want to read to his mother when I had the time. I had the time and I did. One of Ralph’s favorite artists was the German artist Käthe Kollwitz and I turned the pages of the art book, describing her drawings and lithographs to Ralph’s mother, discovering for myself a new passion for an artist I was not yet familiar with.

Perhaps it was when I was leaving Hartford at eighteen and returning to Manhattan on my own that he gave me the ring. He had no one to whom he could pass it along and he wanted me to have it. It would protect me. It had spiritual power. I slipped it on and barring the one time I had to remove it for surgery many, many years later, it never left my ring finger. After surgery it was relegated to the pinkie finger, where it remained. And it must have had a kind of protective energy because sometimes I shudder at the situations I found myself in as a rather much wilder young woman. There were low points to navigate. The ring flashed from my grip on the steering wheel of a little orange Beetle named Clementine as I made may way across the country accompanied by the car’s owner, Betty Jo, who was also on her personal journey of discovery. She would jettison her heterosexuality and I would shed the mantle of an oppressive first marriage, the principle characters woefully miscast. The unanticipated rush of freedom after that marriage ended catapulted me into trying everything—and I mean everything.

Last August The Mister and I drove out to Montauk for a few days, throwing caution to the wind and braving the summer crowds. Until then, we only went to the little fishing village at the tip of Long Island in the off-season—early spring, fall, and dead of winter—when the atmosphere was low-key, even desolate in the shivery weather. But we had been hampered financially from taking trips out there for some time and when we could go again we did. Bugger the crowds.

Within a few hours we were on the beach and I noticed my ring was gone. How had it slipped off my finger without my knowledge? We pawed through bags, turning them out and found nothing. The motel room was scrupulously searched. Drawers pulled out, and then the bags were searched again. Helpfully, The Mister suggested I might have left it at home. I felt a strange sensation, as if I had not actually lost the ring but that it had been spirited from me. My dear old friend Neil came to mind. He and I had met many years ago at a party on the upper east side of Manhattan around 1979, I think. He had been visiting from Santa Fe, New Mexico. A pony-tailed, sun scorched hippy, he was well versed in Native American culture. He spotted my ring, knew exactly its origins and we struck up a conversation that developed into a voluminous letter-writing friendship, before the advent of e-mail curtailed story telling written in longhand or pounded from a typewriter for a Luddite like my friend. He’d told me some time ago in a telephone conversation—the occasion of which became more rare—that he had a skin cancer. He didn’t hold out a lot of hope and he was getting his affairs in order. He didn’t want to live in a world of Bush & Co., anyway, so there it was. I reasoned for The Mister that as we were in an area layered with Native American history that perhaps it was a sign. He still held out for the ring-left-at-home supposition.

Back home the ring was nowhere to be found. Downloaded photographs revealed me mugging for the camera in the Sayville Modern diner (that dates back to the 1930s) where we regularly stopped for breakfast en route to Montauk. There it was, a band of silver and marbled turquoise on my crooked left pinkie—my hand lifting a forkful of pancake to be devoured. I vowed to call Neil. The last letters I had written to him had gone unanswered. Phone messages were not returned. I called and discovered he no longer had an answering machine. I sent him a postcard imploring him to tell me how he was, what was going on in his life. The answer we got via a kind hearted close friend of Neil’s was not unexpected. I knew then that like my old friend in Santa Fe, my ring was gone.

Losing friends to death happens. Sometimes a friend is lost from misunderstanding, and angry recrimination follows. Years will go by and something will make me remember the good things about the friendship. I’ll inspect a crowded bookcase because I know in some book or another I have secreted a poem written by that friend for me, something that gave me great pleasure. And when I find it, the phone rings and there is my lost friend, found on the other end of the line. These things happen to me. That friend returns for a while until the wheel of friendship sticks in a rut again, throwing one of us from the cart. Some friendships may be meant to be lost, ploughed into the earth below my feet, where the lessons learned from them can fertilize healthier friendships.


zbelnu said...

TRoy Donahue, here in Spain I used to watch it and dream with him... Sandy?
I just lost a beautiful old thai silver necklace, but I have some little hopes...
and a hormonal melancholia today

Druidhead said...

Troy Donahue: The Mister never heard of him. Must be an age thing. And you will find your necklace. After all, my ring came back to me in Leicester, of all places!! And I am wearing it now.