The death of J. D. Salinger and the upcoming Winter Olympics prompts a memory and some history…
There's very little in trendy California that reminds me of my hometown in northern England. That's to be expected. After all I came here to erase the past and embrace the new. Old is a misdemeanor over here. But I’m always running into sights and experiences that evoke something distant and familiar.
I dropped by Iceland in Berkeley in 1992. It was post-Olympics busy with adolescent speed-skaters and spinning ballerinas, and nostalgic folks like me. I'd taken my daughter there during my weekend-father days and I'd watched my son get his first lesson in American concussion while playing peewee hockey. I liked the place because it vividly evoked my own fleeting passion for ice-skating, forty years earlier and five thousand miles away. The same boxy, retro building that I visited every weekend when I was twelve. The same Spartan milieu, all business, no frills. The same hokey music, lots of organ and strings. And for a bonus, it also reminded me of Edith, my Grandma Daniels who never put as much as a big toe on any ice and to the day she died didn’t understand why anybody would tempt fate by doing so.
I was a war baby, born in 1942 in Manchester, the former capital of the nineteenth-century capitalist world where the slave traders, cotton dealers, and manufacturers divided the spoils and gave work to immigrants like my maternal grandfather, a Rumanian wheeler-dealer who got off the boat in England hoping it would be America. As I heard the story a hundred times, Grandpa Daniels got his start in the rag trade by schlepping a wheelbarrow of oddments several miles – it was as little as one and as much as five miles, depending on the account – to an open market in Salford, the local ghetto where Fred Engels' folks had made the fortune that would enable their son's best friend to plot the demise of capitalism. Sixty years later, my grandparents were retired, living like Lord and Lady Pumshtoch in a comfortable house by the sea, wanting for nothing. To Sam and Edith who made the journey from an East European pogrom to the suburban spa of Southport in one lifetime, northern England was Shangri-la and, as the first male grandchild, I was the designated beneficiary of gifts of thanks to the gods. (My grandmother was more into folk religion than monotheism.)
Only the best for the first-born, war baby's childhood meant the creamy top two inches of the milk over my cereal, spending money to see two movies in one day, and luxurious bunches of imported, purple-black grapes, peeled and seeded of course. "Only the best. Whatever you want. Just ask," invited Grandma Daniels. What I wanted of course changed every year, sometimes every month. But for one year back in the early 1950s, growing up in the grimy and inescapable heartland of northern England, I longed for fields of clean snow and ice as thick as paving stones.
It's a myth that England is really cold. Wet, yes. Grey, yes. Overcast, yes. Damp, yes. But cold, no. Manchester in the 1950s was still recovering from the industrial revolution and pollution was only a word that Methodists used when talking about sin. In addition to the perennial British drizzle and occasional sleet or slush, we also had pea-souper smogs that descended over the whole region like a moist, gritty army blanket. Some days you could hardly see five feet and the city slowly ground to a halt, preferably on a school day. No wonder, then, that as soon as the temperature hovered above 50 degrees, the Brits rushed to put on shorts over pasty legs and to loll in deck-chairs listening to brass bands playing Elgar and Victorian hymns. For me snow and ice were foreign, both attractive and dangerous, something that others experienced across the English Channel, beyond Calais.
In the early 50s, not yet a teen, I got my dose of exotica by going to the local skating rink every Saturday afternoon where I circled the ice several hundred times, nudging giggling girls with my elbows and chasing my fellow pubescent thugs. Perhaps I was influenced by Holden Caulfield, who found time between jazz dives and whores to accompany his ephemeral girlfriend Sally to the ice-rink where he watched her skate badly but look great in "this little blue butt-twitcher of a dress."
For a couple of years skating was my hobby and passion. It replaced marbles and cricket, and later would be supplanted by running, rugby, and chess, which in turn would give way to manual sex, beat poetry, and illegal substances. Though the rink was tawdry and dirty, it evoked another world, where kids wrapped in wool breathed smoke into the crisply clear air. I relished the sounds of tough, slender metal sluicing through the crunchy surface of the ice, resonating in the cavernous hall. I went round and round for hours, mesmerized by the familiar pleasure, not at all bored.
Occasionally, an ice show came to the Palace Theater, a memorable event in the provinces where commercial culture typically meant London-bound plays in their very experimental try-outs, or third-string touring companies doing last year's Broadway hits, or burned-out American blues singers a long, long way from home. The ice show was a big deal, an opportunity to see the glamour that grainy television could not evoke and to envision my future as the world's leading speed skater. So when Grandma Daniels waved her magic wand that particular December, there was no doubt in my mind.
Even though it was the last day of the engagement, she marched up to the box-office, confident that her giant fox fur and immaculate make-up would get us into the expensive stalls. She was a formidable woman who had got used to going first-class. "Only the best for my oldest grandchild," she told anyone who would listen. At the window, she raised herself a couple of inches, thrust out her well corseted bosom, and shouted – as she did at foreigners and bureaucrats – for "two of the best seats in the house." The clerk, used to rudeness and presumption, replied briskly: "Sorry, madam, we're all sold out of those. We've only got cheap ones left." Edith, who was well schooled in the art of when and how to make a scene, immediately and calmly asked to see the manager.
We were directed to a small inner office where the class struggle would take place. The representative of petty officialdom was played by a Uriah Heep look-alike. Edith went to work on him, smiling icily through glittering teeth. "My name," she boomed, "is Mrs. Sam Daniels." (True) "You must know my husband and my son who owns a string of restaurants throughout the world." (False) "This is my oldest grandson." (True) "It's his birthday" (false) "and I promised him the best seats in the house. I want the middle of the first or second row in the stalls and I will not take no for an answer." (True) "I will be ever grateful if you can help me," she lied, shaking Uriah's hand with her green fingers. With the speed of a magician and an equally false smile, the manager palmed the bills into his back pocket with one hand and simultaneously produced two tickets with the other. "I'm always willing to help the Daniels family," he purred.
Before finding our seats, we stocked up on enough food and drink to see us through the long winter months. Then, an usherette, military-sharp in her braided uniform, led us past the huddled masses into the front stalls. We sat in isolated and what we thought was privileged splendor in the middle of the second row, draped in furs and rugs and scarves, gorging on chocolates stuffed with caramel and nuts that clung to our teeth like limpets. Slowly, the theater began to fill up with other future British speed skating champions and ice princesses, all sitting alongside their mothers and aunts and grandmothers, all licking and chewing and sucking through chattering lips. By show time the theater was filled to capacity with the exception of the first three rows, which were roped off and no doubt reserved for visiting royalty, movie stars, the mayor, and my family. Edith looked down at the proles behind us, murmuring with obvious satisfaction, "Only the best."
The lights lowered, the ancient orchestra in the deep pit blasted us with the warmth of its brass, and slowly, ever so slowly, the thick, gravy-stained, velvet curtain creaked open to reveal a steaming stage, glistening and snorting with Christmas colors. Way back on the horizon loomed the chorus – Amazons with crimson-slashed mouths, bright pink cheeks, and spangled costumes glued to mounds of sleek, muscled flesh. They stood in a perfectly crooked line, pawing the ice like stallions, waiting for the applause to subside. Then, at the signal of rolling snare drums, they raced hell-bent to the front edge of the stage where, to the sound of a thousand kids screaming with pleasure and fear, they halted barely within an inch of breaking their elongated necks in the orchestra pit below. They stopped as if by remote control, without moving their arms or smiles. It was all in their ankles, just as I had tried but failed to learn at the rink every Saturday. Grandma and I looked up, mouths open, as the glinting feet of the chorus line dug into the virgin ice and launched a dazzling rainbow – as thick and bright as the Swiss snow I'd seen in magazines – from the front of the stage to the center of the second row. We were not just watching the show, we were in it, I rejoiced, as Edith disappeared into her furry igloo and began to bail out gallons of slush from the best seats in the house.
Back at Iceland in Berkeley, forty years later, folks almost as old as my grandmother were circling the ice – the men stately and erect, the women twirling shamelessly in short, flared minis. Every four years, inspired by the winter Olympics, there's also a rush of young wannabees who fancy themselves another Peggy Fleming. But after a few weeks of frustrated lutzes and axels, the enthusiasm wanes and the cavernous rink is almost empty every night. All over the country, rinks are being closed and their valuable commercial property transformed into movieplexes and mini-malls that turn a buck faster than a Kristi Yamaguchi spin. One block away, lithe kids in shorts and t-shirts roller blade their way through the cars, transforming endless parking lots into a vast tundra.
Adapted from “Skating Backwards," The Monthly (December, 1992)