- Why Get There from Here?
And suddenly we were poor. One Friday morning, I was the overindulged eight-year-old son of a prosperous Scarsdale physician—so affluent, in fact, that my mother, always prepared for the improbable calamity, warned me to inform any future kidnappers that I was the child of an “assistant professor,” my father’s academic title, rather than a doctor. “Nobody steals a kid who can’t be ransomed,” she assured me knowingly. By nightfall, all three of us had been reduced to scouring the closets, combing the interior pockets of my father’s old suits for neglected currency. I recall discovering a 20-dollar bill coiled inside a toothbrush container, later a half-roll of quarters tucked—for reasons likely forgotten during the Eisenhower administration—into the pouch of my grandmother’s cylindrical hatbox. By daybreak, armed with the proceeds of my brother’s piggybank and a 100-dollar loan from my father’s parents, we’d stockpiled enough currency to survive the 24-hour drive to the Gulf of Mexico. My mother had married my father for richer and for poorer but not for the risks of air travel.
Let me contextualize our poverty: we weren’t lighting-struck poor like Pasternak’s Zhivagos or driven from the land like Steinbeck’s Joads; Mom never found herself forced to sew our drapes into gowns à la Scarlett O’Hara. Rather, in the era before round-the-clock credit and ATMs, both of my parents had failed to withdraw the cash or purchase the traveler’s checks necessary to launch our Florida vacation. They’d each apparently planned on ducking into our local bank branch on Saturday morning, but an underrated nor’easter had snowed shut its doors; because Monday was to be George Washington’s birthday, we had to survive 84 hours on our meager trove of assorted bills and coins, which included a stack of Kennedy half-dollars. My [End Page 79] father drew the line at sacrificing his satchel of bicentennial quarters. Even in poverty, he never lost his keen eye for a fruitless investment.
I cannot convey the depth of satisfaction I enjoyed each time I found a 20-dollar bill stashed inside a wide-lapelled jacket; in today’s keyboard economy, where seemingly anything can be purchased online and delivered within 24 hours for the right price, the profound sense of accomplishment I experienced in the wake of our search, riding down I-95 in the backseat of my father’s Buick Regal, past the billboard in northern Virginia that announced “Last Kosher Meat until Miami” probably seems as remote as the delight of a Sioux warrior spearing his first buffalo. It was a satisfaction I had known at least once before, when my father and I, constructing an electronically illuminated diorama for a second-grade project, managed to locate a five-and-dime store vending Christmas tree lights in April. I am not sure I have known such gratification since. In any case, as the interstate led us into the Heart of Dixie, where ghostlike swaths of Spanish moss haunted the landscape, revealing corrugated tin tobacco shacks and invitations to “Pick Your Own Okra,” I briefly knew firsthand the stirring wonder of my intrepid forebears, of Marco Polo and Magellan and Admiral Byrd. In hindsight, that was the last good day of vacation I ever had.
When we returned from our two-week sojourn along the Florida coast—a trip during which my parents demonstrated that their ability to bicker did not depend upon the climate—I mustered the courage to ask my father two questions that I’d kept squirreled away for months: “Why do people die?” and “Why do people go on vacation?” We were seated on the terra cotta sofa in the living room, opposite a glass table that Dad, at age 36, had instructed me not to rest my feet upon with the admonition, as austere as a pharaonic decree, “That’s the coffee table your mother and I plan on dying with.” My father tackled the first question with a series of generic and internally inconsistent insights, all of which boiled...