What Do You Do On Sundays
First a fever. I couldn’t put my chin on my chest, and my master-diagnostician father diagnosed it as polio and the next thing I remember was that I was in the hospital in a white hospital gown tied in back, still a human furnace, and I couldn’t walk and they were putting me up on an operating table and there was this doctor standing there with an enormous hypodermic syringe in his hand. My father there too. And the other doctor told him, “You realize, Doctor Fox, that we’ve only done experiments on monkeys so far. No humans. There is a possibility that the injection could kill the boy.”
“I understand,” my father said fatalistically ” But I’d rather have him dead than crippled.”
And that was it. In went the syringe. Right into my spinal column, prying it apart, the most excruciating pain I’d ever felt. Crucifixtion couldn’t have been any worse. The pain was at the very core and center of my whole being. It was like someone taking a sledgehammer and banging me at the base of my spine. Then it was over.
“OK, let’s see what happens.”
And I was taken back to my room. I don’t know how long I was in the hospital. Weeks. Months. Who knows. I remember the toys, though. They bought me log cabins and toy soldiers. Tons of them. And when it was time for me to leave the hospital I remember my wanting to take the logs and soldiers with me and being told, “No, no, they have to stay here, and be destroyed. They may be filled with the polio bugs. You don’t want anyone else to get contaminated or you don’t want to re-contaminate yourself….”
And I was taken back to the apartment on 756 East 82nd Street and put in my little bed in the corner of my parents’ room. When I got back from the hospital I still couldn’t walk. The serum had “worked,” I guess, but I was still paralyzed, and that state of paralysis kind of gave the tone and direction to my whole childhood and, if I’m honest with myself, my whole later life.
They brought in a nurse-therapist who used to put me into almost-scalding baths and would sit on the edge of the tub and massage my legs. Then, slowly, I was forced to walk again, first with her help, then with the help of a walker, and gradually I was able to walk alone.
I was cured, but the memory of the paralysis hung forever over my whole childhood. Downstairs next to the barber shop there was a dance-studio. The usual Studio de Danse, as if if you say it in French it makes it more valid and believable.
I was enrolled in the tap-dancing class, and got used to being surrounded by girls in pink tights. The ballet-tap studio was a home away from home for me, and it wasn’t by accident that years later I would spend endless hours backstage at the Civic Opera House watching visiting ballet companies (and the Chicago Civic Ballet) practicing.
I started taking violin too. My violin teacher, P. Marinus Paulson, at the Curttiss Music School, had studied in Europe, and never looked like anything normal in Chicago with his enormous wide-brimmed fedoras, capes(!) and spats (!). Yes, spats. Do you know what spats are? They’re little things you wear over your shoes. Black shoes. Grey spats. They button up the sides. He always carried a gold-tipped walking stick too. A very flambouyant figure in mainly work-a-day, working-man Chicago. It was all overalls and coveralls, caps and grey overcoats. Grim and grit. And there’d be P. Marinus Paulson strolling along like an escapee from nineteenth century Paris.
He was a great violin teacher, though. He’d place my finger on the string and point to a note on the page. “This finger here is this note here.” So I can still pick up a violin sixty years later and put a score in front of me and I’ll play it. Not like the nuns over at St. Francis de Paula school who taught me piano.
“All the lines in the treble are All Good Boys Do Fine, AGBDF, and the spaces are FACE….face…..”
So I never associated my fingers with the notes, just the notes with FACE and ALL GOOD BOYS DO FINE. So you put a piano score in front of me and I still have to go through a kind of “translation” from the note on the page to a letter and then find the letter-note on the piano.
P. Marinus Paulson and St. Francis de Paulo. Funny little coincidences.
Dr. Paulson also taught me composition, and even with the F-A-C-E and A-G-B-D-F system sitting on my shoulder like a vulture, I managed to write a piano concerto at age ten….about the same time that my mother found out about Madame Zerlina Muhlman Metzger and the All Children’s Grand Opera.
She was Jewish. Of course, she’d have to be Jewish, wouldn’t she! An escapee from Hitler’s Vienna. Always wore the same kind of practical, clumpy black shoes my grandmother wore. The same kind of long, housedressy kind of dress, her hair long, grey, braided and then tied in a circle up on top of her head.
Classes up on the north side. Every Thursday, I think it was. Tuesday or Thursday. All the nerdiest, artsiest kids/almost adults that ever were. Sheldon Patinkin.Nancy Sterling. From Senn High School. A whole crowd of faces I can still see (who was that red head with the green lipstick and green. All these legs and eyes and budding breasts…and brains….daring…. Louis Altiss, who I forever had a crush on. When I was twelve and my voice had just changed Madame Metzger staged a production of Mozart’s The Magic Flute. Put on at the auditorium on the 7th floor of the Fine Arts Building in Chicago. And guess who got chosen to play the role of Sarastro, the High Priest? Me. And Louise was a brilliant coloratura Queen of the Night. High Priest and Queen of the Night. I didn’t know anything about sex. My God, I’d been sent to (radically Irish) Catholic schools from day one, and there was always lots of talk about sex – just to put it down, banish it, rub it out, erase it forever. But I was still in love with Louise. I wonder what ever happened to her?
Every Thursday I’d take the “L” up to the north side and we’d have our class. Everything in the original languages. Like Beethoven’s “Ich Liebe Dich:” Ich liebe dich, wie du liebst mich…..”I love you, as you love me……”
Debussy, Ravel, Mozart, Verdi…..French, Italian, so what…? I’d get there a little early and start messing around on the piano. I’d learned how to improvise, invent, create. P. Marinus Paulson had opened up the keyboard for me, taught me all about fifths and thirds, diminished and augmented chords, I’d look at a keyboard and it would all be “arranged” for me in terms of octaves and fifths and sevenths and thirds, and let’s try a little drumming in the bass, a nice lively melody in the treble.
Sheldon Patinkin would demand equal time at the piano. “Don’t hog it, come on!”
And he’d sit down and start doing crashing chords and arpeggios, invent his own inventions, then get up and give the piano bench back to me. So I’d sit down and try to outcrash and outbang him. Mrs. Metzger would come in….”Was ist los? Zu viel lärm! What’s wrong? Too much noise.”
And class would begin. We did Elijah. I was just in the chorus then. A cute little soprano with longish hair always carefully washed and combed and brushed by my mother. Then The Magic Flute. My big moment. And when the Metropolitan Opera came to Chicago on tour they didn’t bring a gang of kids with them for the childrens’ choruses in, say, Boris Godunov or Carmen, so we sang the children’s chorsus.
It was crazy. When we did Carmen the first time I must have been about ten. I was supposed to be a little boy in the chorus. My mother made a costume for me. All shiney silk, pants, shirt, a little jacket and cap. She loved to sew. Flesh-colored tights under my pants. It was Fall. A little chilly. Lots of makeup on, lipstick, eye liner, mascara. I almost said “I’m supposed to be a little boy, not a little girl” but it wouldn’t have done any good anyhow. She used to always put her stockings on me when it was cold in the apartment in the middle of the winter. To keep my legs warm. “Your poor little legs…..”
Then, all costumed for Carmen instead of having my father take a little break from office hours and drive me downtown, I just walked from Cottage Grove over to the Illinois Central train on 82nd Street and took the train downtown, walked from the Randolph Street station over to the Civic Opera House on Wacker Drive. So I kind of got used to walking around as a little girl-boy in full regalia. Used to the feel of tights/stockings on my legs. Used to liptstick and mascara.
Down to the Civic Opera house. They knew me at the stage door by then. Just walk in. No problem. There was a Mr. Mickel who was in charge of “extras,” and he took a fancy to me and got me all kinds of other little jobs that had nothing to do with Madame Metzger. Like one time the Chicago Civic Ballet was putting on a production of The Nutcracker and they needed someone to ferry the boat into fairyland. Of course I was picked to stand at the prow of the boat with a big pole in my hand, pretending that I was poling the boat into fairyland as it was pulled across the stage by hidden cables.
And that’s how, later on, I got to see all the ballet rehearsals (and performances) from backstage. I became a kind of fixture backstage, like the Phantom of the Opera standing on the catwalks high above the stage, watching Maria Tallchief and Freddie Franklin, Alexandra Danilova, Patricia Wilde……all tights and makeup, music and fantasy.
While my classmates at St. Francis de Paula were out playing baseball, football, ice hocky, I was my own personal phantom of the opera, living in the make-believe world of castles, princes, princesses, pusses in boots, sugar-plum fairies….