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The Comfort Zone

In our apartment, I learned French and read Shakespeare. Outside of it, things got a bit more complicated.

Marco Roth
March 15, 2007

The couch where my father died was also the couch where he taught me to read. It was a white sofa bed, pushed up against a wall of the room we called “the dining room,” although it was really more of a library. Sitting on the couch you faced two 12-foot tall bookcases, crammed to the top, with another just like them on your right. When my father became too weak to climb upstairs, he’d have gauzy white curtains put over the French doors that opened out to the hallway, and the space took on the air of a hospice, or, worse, I thought, a funeral parlor. He would rest on the couch, hooked to his IV drip, and stare at walls the color of late summer nights.

It wasn’t a wholly comfortable couch. The raised stitches of cushion covers and armrests made it look hand-knit, but they left lines on bare flesh and also offered a series of irregularly placed knots which I used to pick at with ferocity whenever bored or anxious during our weekend lessons: English first, then French, then—beginning when I was about seven years old and ending not long after—modern Hebrew. I had other strategies for distraction, too. Leaning back, I’d run an imaginary rat through the maze of interconnected honeycomb moldings on the ceiling. Staring down, I’d idly trace the arabesques of the Persian rug with my toe. My childhood was filled with these endlessly repeating patterns. When my wandering attention finally convinced my father that lessons had to stop, I could entertain myself for hours by skipping across the dining room along the carpet’s red rhombus medallions, then jumping from peacock to antelope along the hallway’s animal carpet until I reached the open arch leading to the enormous rectangle known as “the living room.” My parents really used it as a music room. It was barely furnished: a small seating area with a glass coffee table at one end and the piano and stereo system at the other. Large enough to seat 30 people for the chamber music concerts my parents hosted two or three times a year, the room also served as a rehearsal space for what seemed an endless stream of visiting musicians, including a brass quintet my father had found busking outside Lincoln Center.

To enter into the living room meant swimming across an expanse of open floor until I’d reached a small kilim at the center. I pursued these games with an obsessive fervor, making myself go back to the beginning again if I missed a step. In some moods, I would lie on the rug reading D’Aulaire’s Greek and Norse myths or even, shockingly—obscenely, it seems now—the Signet Classics Shakespeare plays my father gave me after he’d taken me to see Laurence Olivier’s Henry V at the Thalia movie theater. I remember liking the battle scenes, the knights hoisted onto their horses by cranes, the flight of English arrows, and not much else. I cannot now tell what possible good it did me to lie there, warmed by the sun as it came through the six high windows that gave out onto Central Park West, reading Shakespeare uncomprehendingly, making sure to ignore the notes. I lingered over the mysterious list called “Dramatis Personae.” When I got further, I read mostly for the plot. I remember an odd sympathy for Richard III. I was about eight or nine.

At other times, the living room floor became a hockey rink as I skated in my socks, ignoring my mother’s warnings of splinters and heedless of my father’s half-annoyed shouts of “Vildechayah.” I’d lie underneath my mother’s Steinway B, already, even then, nostalgic for some sensation of peaceful infancy. If my mother came in to play a Scarlatti sonata, for instance, or the accompaniment for a Schubert song, I’d listen while feeling the vibrations of chords and the thump of pedals push through me. Cadences and phrases flowed and mingled somehow with the patterns of the carpets. My father had brought most of them back from Iran and Lebanon when he’d traveled there in the early 1960s, but, as with nearly all the furniture of my childhood, I ignored their provenance. They were as eternal as meadows and they were my meadows. There was one underneath the piano, too, so the sound wouldn’t disturb the neighbors. Peacefully, I’d continue to trace and draw out in the weavings what I was sure must be the music I couldn’t yet read, according to some secret law of association now beyond recall.

My father might wander through and sit on a sofa at the opposite end of the room underneath a giant oak-framed mirror that doubled the space. I’d watch him and my mother’s reflection as she managed her small hands and petite frame around the widest intervals with barely a flaw. “She plays beautifully, your mother,” he’d say to me, rarely complimenting her directly. This way of mediating kindness through me confirmed my sense that I was the center of our family life, although, as with so much else, I would later come to resent these remarks, as though my father was again recruiting me to his tastes, assuming that we would both love and cherish my mother for the same reasons. Of course he could simply have been performing an object lesson in kindness, telling me how much my mother needed to be praised. She deserved to be praised—she played beautifully, mostly in private. She’d been kept from a career by the crippling nerves she’d passed on to me in full, along with a smaller portion of her talent and will.

These weekend mornings of lessons, play, and undifferentiated family absorption remain among my most blissful memories. We were each of us alone together, without rivalry or loneliness, restlessness or fear. The apartment became sanctified: a magnificent, pre-war, two-story temple to neo-classicism, the spirit of old Penn Station and the Metropolitan Museum of Art scaled down for domestic life. Its architects had balanced openness and views over the park with cloistered spaces like my parents’ bedroom, upstairs, and the kitchen, far to the rear, down another long corridor off the dining room. Once reserved for servants, the kitchen was about the size of the one-bedroom apartment where I’m writing now. The three of us clustered to eat at one end of a thick-grained table meant for eight. The heavy mahogany furniture seemed at home under the high ceilings. I could lose myself in the forest of coats we kept in the hallway closet; the books that covered the walls of the dining room both beckoned and frightened. Some of them, like the German three-volume illustrated history of the Second World War, were forbidden at first, and placed high up. An illustrated devil dangling in a thicket of thorns made John Gardner’s Freddy’s Book an object of superstitious dread. There seemed no reason ever to leave a place of such endless mysteries, and yet of course I did, daily, and until I was about nine or ten didn’t much mind. Later, I’d avoid the place as much as possible.

My parents bought the apartment in the 88 Central Park West co-op in 1969 for $135,000. The upper West Side then was an up-and-coming neighborhood, still considered edgy and even derelict in places. Lincoln Center had recently been completed. Along 69th street, musicians and teachers in cheap tenement brownstone apartments shared stoops with working-class Irish and Puerto Ricans who had fled Hell’s Kitchen. For the first few years, my parents’ fellow board members included a painter, a well-known poet and professor, a theater actress, a few doctors and lawyers, and several elderly and well-off Jewish refugees who had managed to escape Europe in the 1930s.

Perhaps it was the early bourgeois bohemian character of the building or the fact that my father had spent most of the money he’d inherited from his mother to buy the apartment—for some reason, he insisted that we were “middle class.” This phrase echoed through my childhood. It explained why we did not own a country house like my friends, or even like my father’s sister, a writer married to a psychiatrist. It explained why my parents voted Democrat, why my father drove four-door compact cars and why, instead of shopping for his suits at Saks or having them custom-made, he bought them, ill-fitting as they were, at Syms. It explained many things and also nothing at all, although it crucially shaped my first political impulses. If “middle class” meant large apartments on Central Park West, then there was no reason why such dignified housing shouldn’t be available to most of us in a truly egalitarian society. It was only logical.

For my father, the phrase invoked an acceptance of one’s limitations as much as anything else. In 7th grade, when I fell suddenly from the ranks of the top math students in my class and was ultimately demoted from my school’s advanced math section, my father delivered a homily on the virtues of being average in most things: We were, according to him, a family of average height, average means, average talents distributed evenly, and average ambition. Yet, I heard a false note in this determined paean to mediocrity, and perhaps that was what he wanted. Listening to his sermon, at age 12, I immediately determined to be either terrifically bad or terrifically good. This meant that I immediately stopped working at math altogether, convinced that I would no longer distinguish myself in it. Even so, I couldn’t be sure that my father wasn’t serious. I began to be haunted by a feeling that he was preparing me to be a minor character in my own life, that he wished to spare me disappointment by leaving me with little to hope for. Failures always hit my parents harder than successes cheered them. They attached more meaning to them, or so it seemed to me, as though one’s life could be known only through a process of elimination.

Much later, I figured out that my father’s belief in middle-class values was actually a determined repudiation of his own family. They were hardly middle class, and neither, really, were we. My father’s career was, in many ways, like the careers of the younger sons of 19th-century German and French mercantile and banking families. As the youngest children of the youngest daughter of the founder of the Philips Van Heusen shirt company, he and his sister received, in stocks and bonds, the smallest share of the family wealth. His decision to become a doctor and a scientist was one of the more respectful ways he rejected a family that he felt had never accepted him. Theirs had been the usual immigrant success story: My great-great-grandfather had gone from schmatte salesman to company founder; his sons expanded the business and did well enough to rise to Park Avenue and private schools, houses in the Hamptons and vacations in Maine. The older daughters were married off, in dynastic manner, to men with fortunes of their own. Only my father’s mother was left and she had the bad luck to fall in love with a less honest—though no less ambitious—immigrant, Eugene Frederick Roth, a young lawyer who married her to get into the business. A letter from one of my father’s cousins refers to him as “that scheming Galizianer bastard,” that is, a Jew from Galicia in Western Poland, a group notorious, among Jews, for their dishonesty and love of money.

My father’s middle-class shtick was also part of his way of keeping my mother and me outside of the sordid family history—the power struggles, inheritance battles, and affairs, the loneliness and lovelessness of his childhood that had led him, at 13, to reinvent himself as a kind of changeling child. He did this first through religion, plunging into his bar mitzvah studies and even briefly becoming Orthodox. He also began to learn Yiddish. In 1952, his family had left behind both Yiddish and sincere religious observance as remnants of the old country, reminders of the poverty and oppression they had escaped as though fleeing Egypt. By rebelling through a resuscitation of history and discarded traditions, rather than by embracing the emerging counterculture of drugs and jazz—perhaps because this rebellion happened so early in his youth, before he had the freedom of the streets—my father also, unintentionally, brought himself into conflict with what would become the dominant trends of American culture.

I understood nothing of this growing up. Although his parents were far too assimilated for the Catskills, my father entertained us with borscht belt humor. He’d put on a Yiddish accent, which he’d picked up from Milt Gross’ “Nize Baby” and Leo Rosten, while he mocked Hasids with a zeal which only now seems suspicious, as though he were punishing them for his own messianic impulses and stubborn refusal to abandon a lost culture. He also made fun of hippie Jews, Jews—like his sister—who celebrated Christmas, Jews who threw extravagant bar mitzvahs for their children, Jews who went to Reform synagogues and sang in appalling, American-accented Hebrew, Jews who bought expensive tickets to Conservative synagogues only for the high holidays. No one, really, was safe, not even the Israelis, whom he criticized for boorishness and militarism, much as he made fun of me when I made the middle-school baseball team and proudly brought home my first uniform. By this point, he’d given up on God, too.

Although I’ve now forgotten them all, I once knew my father’s jokes and repeated them to the amusement of our concert guests. I also mimed his contempt and carried it with me to school. I became an absurd young Matthew Arnold among my peers, telling my third-grade classmates to read Shakespeare instead of watching the Smurfs. This was, even then, deeply embarrassing, but at the progressive school I attended—the Fleming School, founded as an alternative to the official French New York lycée—it wasn’t fatal. I was well-liked enough there, and, anyway, French kept me and my classmates together in a shared private language. We were allowed to be eccentric amongst ourselves, in such a way that the eccentricities of home and school flowed into each other.

Later, when I was nine years old, after my father had come down with hepatitis, the first shadow of his illness, and the Fleming School went through its first financial crisis, my parents switched me to the less experimental, more monied, Riverdale School in the Bronx. There I learned, the hard way, that most of what I knew from home—the concerts, the weekend lessons, the Persian carpets, Shakespeare—had to be kept to myself. After two years of utter misery, during which my father came home each night to find me in tears or sullenly withdrawn, he asked me, at last, what was wrong. When I tried to tell him, he decided the time had come for me to sit on our couch and read Tonio Kröger.

Marco Roth is a founding co-editor of n+1 magazine, and the author of The Scientists: A Family Romance.

Marco Roth is Tablet’s Critic at Large.