I worked in the downstairs customer service office. I answered phones, helped customers and filed invoices. I was a terrible file clerk. I often inverted numbers and lost paperwork. Not a good thing.
It was a fun place to work though. The employees were young and partied a lot. Not that I went to the parties, but the young guys and the old ones were flirts and made me laugh.
I worked there after school and weekends from 1967 to 1968. It was my first job with a paycheck.
In June of that year, a young brash twenty-two-year-old guy came to work for the president of Naum Brothers. Rumors swirled about him before he even arrived. He was a graduate student from the University of Rochester. He was there to do an internship and help the business grow. A small desk was put into the corner of Bob Naum’s office that faced my desk. We were separated by only a thin door.
The clerks in sporting goods said that he was full of himself. I heard from the cashier, Patty, that he was kind of cute. The guys in the warehouse thought he was just green behind the ears, with too many ideas that weren’t practical.
He was a controversial person before he ever started. I came into work one day and there he was sitting at the miniature desk in Bob’s office, engrossed in some paperwork.
I remember that he looked like he was from another planet! He had dark red curly hair with some serious thick waves at the top that looked chiseled in place like ski slopes. He was tall and lean and had lots of freckles. He looked like a cross between Lyle Lovett and John McEnroe.
He wore a too-tight burgundy-red suit that was shiny and inches too short at the sleeves and ankles. When he talked he sounded weird. I could only understand every other word of what he said. Often his words sounded like one big slur until I realized he had a wicked-bad accent from Queens, New York.
Len totally fascinated me. He was opinionated, definite.ly not average-looking and full of himself. He was also Jewish. How did I know he was Jewish? The rumor mill and his last name. Some people at work had never known a Jewish person before. It sounds hard to believe but true. They made crude and racist remarks about him. That was my first real brush with bigotry. It seemed horrible to me that people could be so ignorant and cruel. It just made me want to be friends with him more.
Greece back then (and today for that matter) was a white middle-class place to grow up in. As a kid I never saw a black person until I was ten. It happened when I was swimming at a city pool in downtown Rochester. My mother would drop me off at the pool on Saturdays. I loved to swim. As a kid I never wanted to get out of the water. One day I jumped into the pool and found myself right next to a little girl who was black. I had on my favorite purple bathing suit and she had on the same one too! We just bobbed in the water like seals looking at each other and smiling, and then I touched the skin on her arm. She looked down and giggled, then she touched my purple bathing suit and we laughed. We both dove underwater and that was that.
Len was exotic to me. I didn’t know if I was attracted or repelled by him. He didn’t fit into any category that I was familiar with. This made me want to know him all the more. That was easy because Len loved to talk about himself. He was smart, articulate and told wild tales to captivate audiences like me. I was young, seventeen to his worldly twenty-two. Just trying to decipher his words with his Queens accent was a trick, but once I broke the code I was all in. What seven.teen-year-old girl isn’t impressed by and inquisitive about, an older man who finds her interesting?
He said that he had graduated from Queens College sum.ma cum laude. I had no idea what that meant: was it a fraternity? He was working on his MBA at the business school at the University of Rochester. I was impressed because he reminded me of my brother: hard working, educated, cultured and going somewhere. Most importantly he was from New York City! My dream town, the place where I wanted to live and have a life. Maybe he could help me escape from Greece?
The more I got to know Len, the more I fell down the rabbit hole with him. He seemed like a fine catch. We could talk about everything. He loved politics, art and music. He had worked as a summer intern in the mayor of New York John Lindsay’s office as his personal assistant. He had been the vice president of his undergraduate class and had campaign rulers to prove it. He was a competitive tennis player, worked with one of his professors helping him write a book, and was smart enough to land at a major university with a full fellowship. He was working at Naum Brothers for the president! He was cocky and sure of himself. He wasn’t afraid of authority, but I could tell he was a little shy when it came to girls.
I had to ask him out on our first date! We had only known each other for a few weeks. In fact, I had seen him by chance right after we had met at work, at an outdoor opera performance in Rochester that I had dragged David to as a halfhearted, last-ditch effort to try and salvage things between us that summer.
David was in his naval uniform and was on leave. He was really annoying me because he didn’t want to go to the opera. Just as we were walking up the crest of the hill to walk down into the bowl of lawn where the seating was, up comes Len and two of his grad school friends. My ego got the best of me. I made sure Len saw me. I acted all friendly to Len in a swaggering way: “Oh my goodness, hiiii! Sooo good to see you. Do you come here often?” I was flirty and ignored David who stood behind me, kind of like a puppy dog. I have to say, it felt good to assert a little power back then. I could feel that I was clearly done with my old relationship and was making way for the new one. I was also sticking it to David.
Seeing Len at the opera was a good conversation starter back at work. I asked him if he was going to go to the next performance the following week. He said he hadn’t thought about it yet. I said, “Want to go together?” Len seemed a little taken aback by my boldness. But then, said, “Sure, let’s go.”
The opera we saw was La Bohéme. It was August 3, 1968. It was a warm summer night and I had a great time. I didn’t realize it then but it was the beginning of a new chapter in my life that would last for thirty-four years! Len picked me up at my house in his royal blue Dodge Dart. He met my father and mother. My father made wisecracks like: “Leonard, take good care of my little girl. Be sure you get her home by a decent hour.” Ha ha ha.
With my parents, I always played the role of the good little girl. I was not going to end up dealing with my father like my sister did, listening to him having a tirade and calling me names and having him hit me. I kept my curfews but did what I wanted after I left the house. I was good at coming up with elaborate stories as a smoke screen.
So to prepare my parents to not make a big deal about Len being Jewish or five years older than me, I told them about his internship at Naum’s and stressed that he worked for the president, was an MBA student, and that we were going to an opera. That strategy worked. My father was intrigued and Len’s business credentials outweighed any other possible is.sues. Yes, it was a coup!
My father was the opposite with David. When he would come to pick me up, my father would grill him about his intentions with me and what he wanted to do with his life. He was actually insulting to him about joining the Navy, which was odd since my father was in the Navy during World War II. He even went so far as to tell David he needed more direction and motivation in his life! When David and I went out, I always made up some fictitious story to my parents about some fancy place he was taking me to. I would get all dressed up and act like that was where we were going. Then we would head to the drive-in movie. I would whip out my casual clothes that I had concealed in a large purse, change in the back seat of the car, and then make out with David the rest of the night, never watching the movie. We did this even in the winter! I always came home dressed the way I had left, and no one was the wiser. I was very sneaky!
My father liked Len. He didn’t care that he was Jewish. He never mentioned his age. He liked that he was from New York and was an MBA student. My father wanted to pump Len about his business ideas, but Len was not much interested in talking to my father. He saw my father as a country bumpkin and rough around the edges.
At the time I saw my father in two ways. He could be mean, angry, childish, ethically murky and violent, but he also was my dad. I could be proud of him when he defended me and I could admire him for taking charge during tough family times or for his sense of humor. I could see his good points and wanted to forget about the rest back then. Len automatically felt dislike for my father and acted that way towards him right off the bat. He wasn’t exactly rude but he didn’t engage with him either. It was the first time I had seen anyone stand up to my father and not buy his shtick. Amazing! I was always busy sidestepping my father, giving him the respect he thought he deserved, while in my heart I felt upset, afraid and resentful of him. It was a balancing act. I had never openly defied him up to this point.
Len didn’t have any of these constraints. He was an adult with his own life. He didn’t care if he won over my father or not, and as time went on he encouraged me to do the same.
Our first date was a life-changer for me. The night was warm, the music heavenly, and sitting under the stars on a blanket taking it all in was magical. I felt free, like I was stepping into a new world, on the verge of exciting things to come, and I felt Len was a good person to try all this out with.
After the concert we went out to a dive for a bite to eat. It was my first dive experience! We talked for hours, or should I say Len talked. I listened. This is when all his stories came out that impressed me so much: how he had worked for John Lindsay; how he had almost gone to Cornell but had lost his tuition money on a bad stock bet; how he had pulled together a concert for José Feliciano at City Hall in New York; how he excelled at tennis, winning a junior championship at Forest Hills; how he went to school with Paul Simon and Art Garfunkel; and on and on.
I felt like the country mouse that wanted what the city mouse had. I wanted a bigger life. I wanted to live in New York City because I loved the feel of it. The city was intoxicating, addictive. So many renowned people, places and opportunities all at your fingertips, ready to be explored, ready to taste. It was a movable feast of art, food, history, architecture and life. I wanted every part of it. I wanted out of Rochester.
I think this is when Len started to see me as Eliza Doolittle to his Henry Higgins. He was the more polished, worldly, older guy who was going to educate and shape the younger inexperienced Dale. Once he even called me his diamond in the rough. I was miffed by that comment, but I was eager to learn, eager to experience things, and saw him as my future, my teacher and partner. Then we fell in love.
Once we started dating, we often would just hang out in his apartment. I loved it there even though it probably should have been condemned! It was a ratty second-floor place with paper-thin walls, rusted sinks, a two-burner stove and dirty aluminum windows that rattled when it was windy. It was on a main road across from Mount Hope Cemetery. After our first date, we spent most of our time together there. Going to his apartment made me feel free and grown up, unfettered by critical eyes or limitations.
Len had a roommate but he moved out quickly. I hate to admit this, but we probably drove the poor guy out because of our crazy sex life! After all that time waiting for David and being a good girl, I figured, “What the heck, enjoy life now!” And I did!
Sometimes Len would make dinner. His specialty was spaghetti and red sauce. My mother never made pasta, ever. This was a new experience for me but Len did it with a special twist. He would add oregano, garlic powder and red pepper flakes to the sauce. Then he would taste it, and if it didn’t make him sweat, he added more until he did! That was the secret of his sauce. It had to make him sweat! I only ate it once. It was pretty bad.
Len took me to movies at the university. I got to go to frat parties, which I hated, and lectures by giants like Paul Samuelson. It was like opening a Christmas present with every new experience.
Len’s close friends were married. We hung out with them a lot, but they were very uncomfortable with me. I was just too young to be part of this group, but Len didn’t seem to have any problem with it at all.
That summer I had graduated from high school and it was Len who told me I should find another job, get out of Greece and into Rochester. He also suggested I take classes, like economics, at one of the local colleges.
As Eliza, I did just that. In the fall I got a job as a nurse’s aide at a city hospital and took an evening class in economics and got college credit. Len was proud of me. I was proud of me. We had a great year together. We even had a clandestine night in New York City.
It was the spring of 1969 and I was still just seventeen. Len flew to Manhattan from Rochester for a job interview. He invited me to meet him there. “Yes!” I thought. It was like a dream come true. I remembered exactly how to maneuver around New York from my younger days of wanting to run away and live at the YWCA!
My parents were in Hawaii at the time. I just needed to tell my grandparents that I was going to stay at a friend’s house. I drove myself to the airport, got an afternoon flight to New York, took an airport bus to Grand Central Station and met Len on the corner of Lexington and 42nd Street. I was fear.less. And no one knew but Len and me!
We spent the afternoon doing touristy things, and I saw my first Broadway show, The Great White Hope. We stayed in a swanky hotel that night and I flew back in the morning. I now felt like there was nothing I could not do if I put my mind to it!
At work I was learning all kinds of things too, some of them good, some of them hard. Working in a hospital makes you grow up quickly. Some of my duties were washing bedpans, taking vital signs, changing bedding, cleaning wounds, and even on occasion taking the deceased to the morgue. I am not sure how I made this transition from being a part-time office worker to a full-time nurse’s aide, but I did it and it seemed natural to me. It was almost like a rush each time I pushed myself to do something new.
One of my patients at the time was a rabbi. Rabbi Hofstadter. He was an Orthodox rabbi. He was kind, out-going and friendly. I would go into his room and talk with him a lot about being Jewish. He answered all my questions. It was at this time that I decided I might want to convert to Judaism. I know, what was I thinking?
Since leaving Catholic school I had started to have many doubts about being Catholic. While I felt spiritually connected to God, religion and its rules felt forced and fake to me.
One of the events that jarred me into giving up Catholicism was the Great Northeast Blackout of 1965. It was a wild night. The electric grid that powered parts of Canada, New England and all the way down through New York and New Jersey went out. No one knew what was happening. It seemed momentarily like the end of the world was upon us! The black.out lasted thirteen hours.
That cold November night, my parents, sister and I were all huddled together in the living room around my little transistor radio that was about the size of an iPhone, but without the current technology. Astounding how much things have changed!
This little radio was our only connection to the rest of the world. There was only one station broadcasting that we could pick up that night and it was from Detroit. They were talking nonstop about this unprecedented event and urging people to stay inside and not panic. As we waited in candlelight for more news to unfold, not knowing what would come next, I decided it was an opportunity for a unique conversation. I decided it was time to play the devil’s advocate. I decided to ask my parents about sex or, as they put it “the birds and the bees.” I am not sure why I thought this was a good time. Maybe it was the cover of darkness or the end-of-the-world feeling. I already knew about sex thanks to my sister, but the kid in me was miffed that my parents wouldn’t answer my questions about it, and now I felt I had them cornered.
I played dumb to see what they would say. My mom was a nervous wreck saying: “Oh, Henry, do we have to tell her now?” My father kept clearing his throat nervously, not really knowing what to say and at the same time yelling at my mom: “God damn it, Liz, she is old enough to know this; why can’t you tell her?”
It was a total failure. Nothing really got said about sex and I started to laugh. I let them off the hook, telling them I already knew.
Then we all laughed in relief, but it made me realize I wasn’t a little kid anymore. I was only fourteen, but I was beginning to realize what my parents thought mattered less and less. What I thought and wanted mattered more, and the idea of being able to pick a new religion seemed revolutionary and freeing. It was another bond to the past that I was breaking. My father always said, “I don’t care what religion you are, just that you have one.”
So I took him up on it.
Converting to Judaism seemed logical, especially after I met Len. I already had this idea in my mind. Knowing him helped me put it into action. When Rabbi Hofstadter turned down my request to convert, telling me: “We don’t need anymore bad Jews,” I just shelved the idea for a while. I knew that I would find another way to become Jewish.
Len graduated with his MBA that spring and got a job at a large CPA firm in New York that started in June. I got accepted at Wagner College on Staten Island. I had found out about Wagner in a college catalog. I applied and had an on campus interview, which I flew to and went to by myself. All I remember my parents saying was: “Okay, Dale. That’s fine.” I guess by then I was completely off their radar even though I was still just seventeen. I was excited about going to college, and I also was excited to be in New York and near Len.
I had one more fling with Len that summer. His new employer, Arthur Young, sent him to Miami for two months on an accounting job. It was 1969, the height of the war, but Len had gotten a 4-F draft exemption and was free to go to work. Being in love with Len diluted my thoughts about all the political and social unrest in the country and what direction it might take me. Now I wanted to go to college, have a serious boyfriend, and then figure the rest out. Len and I talked about the war and civil rights issues. He was a Liberal Democrat at the time. He even thought about doing pro bono work for a while in the South. I thought college was a good place for me to start.
That summer Len asked me to meet him in Miami. I concocted another cover story for my parents like before and flew to Miami alone on a new adventure. I was eighteen now and pretty much doing what I wanted, but still not revealing to my parents all of my moves, which they would have vetoed. Years later, when I was in my thirties and had three children, I told them about my trips with Len. My mother laughed nervously but my father got mad. He couldn’t believe I so completely fooled him.
Going to Miami was a blast! Len took me to discos and nightclubs. We were staying at a great hotel on the beach with a huge outdoor pool. I went swimming in the ocean for the first time, got dunked by the salty waves and drank whiskey sours by the pool afterwards. I had never been farther than New York City before this. In Miami, Len started to talk about us getting married down the road. As much as I wanted this, I also wanted my freedom, but it was exciting to feel wanted.
I went home and told my parents nothing about what I had really been doing. I packed up for college and left in late August. My parents drove me to school. I remember arriving on the college campus and taking a deep breath in, wanting to inhale and hold on to the moment, to feel it in every part of my body. I was really in New York, at college, and soon going to be on my own. Dorm windows were open and all kinds of music was tumbling out in between cackling laughs; kids were acting crazy, and the smell of pot and patchouli was floating every.where. The air was warm and mellow as I heard Bob Dylan’s voice, soft as warm butter, rolling out this song:
Lay, lady, lay, lay across my big brass bed
Whatever colors you have in your mind
I’ll show them to you and you’ll see them shine
Lay, lady, lay, lay across my big brass bed
Stay, lady, stay, stay with your man awhile
Until the break of day, let me see you make him smile
His clothes are dirty but his hands are clean
And you’re the best thing that he’s ever seen
Stay, lady, stay, stay with your man awhile
Why wait any longer for the world to begin
You can have your cake and eat it too
Why wait any longer for the one you love
When he is standing in front of you
Hearing this song sent me into a trance. The song felt like it was about Len, me, and our relationship. It was evocative and haunting, but it wasn’t until years later that I realized that this song was not about Len but the man I would meet. But before that happened, I first had to take the road in front of me.
My parents helped me unpack, then we went down to the ferry terminal and said our goodbyes. It was sad, melancholy. As the ferry silently pulled away from the dock, my parents stood at the stern, one arm around each other, the other arm waving goodbye to me. A quick shiver ran through my body watching them drift towards Manhattan. I was now on my own and headed into new territory.
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