This is not about the classic by Marcel Proust, although kudos to you, if you are one of the few that has been able to read Proust from cover-to-cover. Instead this entry is about what old-timers do with increasing frequency; and that is dwell on memories of past occasions. Mainly, I believe, to escape the aches and pains of the so-called golden years. Which should really be called the zinc alloy years.
In any event, and for no particular reason, I got to thinking about my life during the 1950s, as I was taking my Sunday walk, yesterday. During that decade I went from early teen-agehood into my early 20s. I grew up in a poor neighborhood in Brooklyn that was roughly half Jewish and half Italian; and would hang out with guys named Vinny or Vito or Carmine, as well as Robert, Alvin and Seymour. In those days people aged much more quickly and died a lot sooner than today. People started looking real old by the time they reached their mid-to-late 60s, and their life spans rarely went beyond their mid-to-late 70s. I remember as an early teenager hanging out with the guys in one of the neighborhood parks and watching the many old people that lived in the “hood.” Invariably, they were bent over, usually had to use a cane to walk, and barely had the energy to schlep from one park bench to the next. For most their teeth had been removed and they were wearing dentures. Or else, their teeth were in the process of falling out, virtually before our very eyes.
So, with youthful bravado, we declared that this was no way to live, and that the best thing for us would be in dying by age 60, or 65 at the very latest. After all, that was still a good 50 years into the future. At our young age, 50 years seemed like all eternity; so we bravely declared that by 65 we all preferred death rather than schlepping along, with a cane, all bent over, no energy and false teeth. We didn’t specify how death would occur by that age; it would somehow just materialize at our will. So now I’m well past that age limit, and I suspect the rest of my teenage “buds” are too. Indications of the progress medical science has made in the last several generations.
When I entered City College in the mid-1950s (where tuition at that time was a stunning $10 registration fee each semester) I quickly developed deep friendships with 3 other guys who shared similar views as mine. If you weren’t already aware, the 1950s was a particular stultifying decade, where strict conformity to what were considered societal norms was demanded of everyone. The 4 of us would routinely bemoan the widespread conformity that had been inflicted on everyone. So we became atheistic existentialists, and tried to behave as the French existentialist writers of the time did. Writers like Jean-Paul Sartre, Albert Camus, and Simone De Beauvoir. We would read all their stuff, and tried to tailor our thinking to accommodate their philosophies. When Albert Camus was killed in an auto accident in Algeria in the 1950s, it was as if we had lost a parent. To believe in God when there was so much wretchedness and despair in the world was unthinkable. When the Beat Generation finally came upon scene during the latter part of the 1950s, with writers such as Jack Kerouac and Alan Ginsburg, it felt to us like a breath of fresh air.
But it came to pass, during those college years, that each of us got a part-time job, after school, with a tax accountant who operated in the Bedford-Stuyvestant neighborhood of Brooklyn. For those of you not familiar with Brooklyn, (shame on you, if that’s the case) “Bed-Stuy” was an all black, mostly poor working class neighborhood, similar to Harlem in Manhattan. The man we worked for, who had a typical personality one would expect in a tax accountant, was named Herman Lord. Don’t think that the irony of we 4 would-be atheists working for The Lord, as we called him, was lost on us. The Lord had built his tax practice on the premise that everyone coming in to have their income taxes prepared would get a refund. And just about everyone did, since they all had low incomes. Once a man came in that had a high enough income to where he actually owed the Government money. I almost couldn’t find the words to inform him that he had to write a check to IRS.
In those days Bed-Stuy was as free from crime as any other neighborhood in America. Some nights I was in the office by myself, as the other guys didn’t have a shift, and The Lord had decided to take the night off. Never once did I have the slightest concern for my safety. When I would leave the office about 9:PM my car was often the only one parked on the street. Never once was any damage done to it. Of course, as we all know, those days are gone forever. After I graduated college, I had to get a full time job, and could no longer work for The Lord. Shortly thereafter, I wound up relocating to Paris, France for 3 years. I’ve written several previous blogs about my experiences in Europe, if you’re further interested.
The 1950s was also the decade that Dwight Eisenhower was President. Everyone liked Ike, even if you disagreed with his policies. Who couldn’t adore that warm smile he always generated. Today’s looney-tunes Republican Party would never nominate a sane, rational and moderate man such as Eisenhower who won 2 landslide elections. Perhaps the decline of the American empire started when the nation failed to heed Ike’s warning about the growing and intrusive influence of the military-industrial complex in our every-day lives. Or, perhaps it began when us four atheists stopped working for The Lord.