Jake was a man of habits so fixed and precise that if you wanted a casual chat
with him it was quite unnecessary to make an appointment. Provided you knew
his routine. Then it was easy enough to station yourself at the right time at
the place where he normally appeared at that hour. He would be there—perfectly
punctual, unhurried, and serene. According to people who had known him much
longer than I, it had always been so.
Of course, even
in adult life, Jake’s occupations underwent occasional basic changes, with consequent
modifications in his daily activities and their geographical locus. Thus, after
Jake withdrew from the investment bank founded by his maternal great uncles,
where he became a partner shortly after graduating from college, he no longer
needed to go down to Wall Street. The center of his daytime activities shifted
to a small personal office in the Lever Bros. building, consisting of his own
large room, a reception area where his secretary, who had followed him from
the bank, had her desk, and another room, a cross between a library and a dining
room, where he held occasional meetings. Being in midtown now made it inconvenient
for Jake to use the Downtown Association or the services of the old Italian
barber on Broad Street. He therefore took to lunching at a French restaurant
in the low Fifties, except on Mondays, when it was closed, and, after a wretched
period of trial and error, settled on the barbershop in the Waldorf Astoria.
He deplored its transformation some years later into a hairdresser’s salon.
The manager was more than willing to continue to look after Jake, but Jake discovered
that there was no one left in the establishment who cut hair like a barber.
Once again, Jake was at loose ends. The solution came when a female friend recommended
a barbershop on Lexington Avenue in the Seventies, to which she took her small
sons. Jake was happy to discover that he liked there the daylight coming through
windows from the Avenue, and the freedom from a fancy hotel’s pretensions. The
haircuts were correct too, reminding him of the work of a barber in Rome he
particularly appreciated, who had been located in the via Mario da Fiori and
had moved to via della Vite. Except in heavy rain, when he was driven by a car
service that he also used to go out in the evening, Jake went on foot to the
office and back home. He walked invariably on the east side of Park Avenue from
the apartment building where he lived, which was on the Avenue in the low Eighties,
until he reached 57th Street. There he crossed to the other side and continued
to his office. In the afternoon, the itinerary was reversed.
These walks and
the rest of Jake’s city routine were naturally suspended during the summer,
which for Jake stretched from early June to mid-September. During that period,
he traveled in Europe, a statement that may imply more activity than actually
occurred. Jake confessed to spending a few days in London, and a few days in
Paris. But, by the beginning of July, he would have reached the castello
in the Dolomites belonging to his sister, married to a Milanese notable. There
he would stay until it was time to return to New York, with perhaps two or three
days in Milan thrown in for good measure. His fellow guests at the castello
have told me that there as well Jake’s life followed distinct and well-established
rules. In the morning, he went for long walks, preferably with his sister and,
as soon as they were old enough, her two sons. A leisurely Italian lunch followed.
Afterward, until dinner, which was served late, Jake worked in his room. He
would emerge in time for drinks, changed, fresh, and eager for company, willing
to stay up after dinner as late as anyone over grappa, walnuts, and old Parmesan
The nature of Jake’s
work has remained something of a mystery to me. There was the theory that he
looked after his own and his sister’s investments. Perhaps the money of other
family members was involved as well. It fit with his occasional comments about
the state of the market, economic trends, and mistakes of central bank authorities.
I could imagine him devoting a great deal of time at the castello to
telephone calls with his office, where his secretary would have arrived by the
time he finished lunch, and having other important and tense conversations with
New York. The separate line he arranged already in the sixties to have installed
at the castello, when telephone lines were not easy to obtain in Italy,
reinforced such a hypothesis. Later, the second line would have been required
for his laptop. He was an early and enthusiastic user. One might have expected
him to sit on the boards of two or three of New York’s more important cultural
institutions, but so far as I know that was not the case. That left the family
foundation, which made grants for the benefit of performing arts. He ran it
pretty much as though it belonged to him. A rather different theory of Jake’s
occupations seemed to me equally plausible. It would hold that his involvement
with investments was limited to speaking a couple of times each month to the
investment advisers who really ran the family money, and that he spent the afternoon
hours remaining after lunch on a couch in his office with a good novel or a
biography, or enjoying a healthful nap. He was remarkably well read. It doesn’t
much matter. The only reason I found Jake’s workday occupations intriguing was
their wonderful compatibility with the sure-footed and unfailingly affable manner
in which he made his way through life.
When I knew him,
Jake was unmarried. If there had been an earlier marriage that ended in divorce,
I have heard no mention of it. Certainly, I have not heard about Jake having
had children. I confess to having wondered occasionally whether Jake was gay.
There was no reason that jumped to the eye to think he wasn’t. Among men of
his generation—and mine as well—it had been pretty much standard operating procedure
to conceal homosexual inclinations and, even more so, active homosexuality.
While a number of my classmates and other acquaintances of my age came out into
the open in the late seventies and in the eighties, some of them flamboyantly,
I believe the majority didn’t bother; they simply stopped keeping up their guard.
The fact that in society Jake usually appeared in the company of an attractive
woman with whom one might suppose he was sleeping—not infrequently it was for
a long time the same woman—did not, in my opinion, prove anything one way or
I am a fast walker.
As I did not need to get to my office in the East Forties especially early,
it was not unusual for me to catch up with Jake on his morning march down Park
Avenue and be in danger of overtaking him. When that happened, I simply crossed
the street, avoiding the dilemma posed: should I greet him, and keep going at
my pace, perhaps with a word or two about being late for an appointment, or
should I fall in step? Walks to work and home, when I manage to have my place
of work within a reasonable distance from where I live, are precious to me.
In addition to the benefits they bestow on the body, they offer a rare opportunity
to chase ideas that get pushed aside at other times of day. I supposed that
Jake might share my feelings and was reluctant to intrude on his privacy. But
one morning he had slowed down and turned to contemplate the magnificent apartment
building on the northwest corner of Park Avenue and 66th Street—tall, somehow
standoffish, with decorative classical arches on its Park Avenue face and a
cornice that seems to echo the University Club and therefore the Pitti Palace—and
there I was, just a few steps behind. He could not help noticing me. He returned
my greeting with greater amiability than I thought I had any right to expect,
and said that, should I be disposed to slow down a bit, he would be happy if
I walked with him. I accepted the offer readily.
Jake had interested
me ever since we met some years back, when I thought he might open for me a
window on certain aspects of New York life. There must have been a budding sympathy
on his part as well because, just as we were about to separate at 57th Street,
he suggested in his quiet, offhand manner that there was no reason why we shouldn’t
walk together regularly, since apparently we adhered to the same schedule. Some
days later he went further, suggesting that in bad weather he would be happy
to give me a ride. The driver would pick me up at my address in the Nineties,
then collect Jake and let him out at the Lever Bros. building, and finally deposit
me at my office. I was surprised by both the precision and the generosity of
this proposal, and told him so. He laughed, and said that secretly he was an
enthusiast and an activist. You mustn’t think that I want to impose on you another
obligation when you surely have so many; he added, Let’s see how the system
works. After having had my company for a while you may decide that you would
do anything to escape: change your route to Madison Avenue or Fifth, perhaps
even take the subway or the bus!
I didn’t tire of
Jake. Instead, my curiosity turned into genuine fondness. It was a dry and very
pleasant autumn so that, with one or two exceptions, we were able to enjoy our
morning walks. I noticed in the course of our peregrinations that Jake always
slowed down to gaze at the building at 66th Street. He also cast long and sometimes
intense looks at certain other buildings on the west side of the Avenue. Soon,
I had an inventory: the tawny building at the corner of 76th Street; the fraternal
twin buildings on the northwest and southwest corners of 73rd Street with complicated
terraces and setbacks at the highest floors; on the block between 71st and 70th
Streets, a second set of twins resembling the first pair; at the northwest corner
of 67th Street, towering above the Pratt Mansion, a severe and unadorned sandstone
limestone structure; and finally, that building at 66th Street. We were getting
along so well that on one of our morning walks I was bold enough to ask: Why
do you look each time you pass with such intensity at those same buildings—I
identified them—on the other side of the Avenue? Have you made it your habit
to walk on this side so as to get a better view?
Jake smiled. It
was an interesting coincidence, he told me, that I should have put the question
on the first day of November, which is All Saints’ Day, since the homage he
paid by fleeting glances was his way of visiting certain graves. Someone important
to me had lived in each of those buildings, he explained, but the persons in
question are dead or, in one case, utterly lost. There is another reason for
walking on the east side of Park, he added more cheerfully. One is spared the
wretched view of Lenox Hill Hospital and Hunter College. When we reach them,
I just look straight ahead.
The answer intensified
my curiosity. I asked whether he would tell me about the former inhabitants
of these mausoleums.
Jake. My feelings are not very profound, except for one case, which is special.
Mostly it’s nostalgia for vanished friends and pleasures. For instance, in what
you have called the tawny building lived an elderly childless couple, friends
of my parents, possessed of remarkable eighteenth-century French furniture.
Their apartment was on the third floor, not really for the sake of lower maintenance
charges, although being miserly the husband surely derived pleasure from not
paying as much as the occupants of the apartments on the high floors, but so
as to avoid having their treasures bleached by sunlight. For greater safety,
the curtains were almost always drawn. A profusion of lamps and sconces relieved
the gloom, bathing in pink glow sofas, settees, armchairs, side tables, étagères,
escritoires, bibelots, and curios the pair had collected. Most of these objects
are at the Metropolitan Museum, to which they were bequeathed. I linger among
them often, remembering the apartment and the old couple’s receptions. They
were fond of festivities and had the intelligence to invite young people to
stir things up a little and bring the average age of the guests below seventy.
The husband used to say he’d do anything and invite anyone so that these gatherings,
once they sat down to bridge and canasta, didn’t look like the social hour at
a home for old Jews. The goulash, Taffelspitz, and Sacher chocolate cake they
served were astonishing; I haven’t eaten better even at the Rote Bar of the
Sacher Hotel itself. The old couple was Viennese; they and their friends had
been rich and shrewd enough to get out of Central Europe with a good part of
their money and valuables ahead of the Germans. They made more money in the
New World and had good lives, but without exception, they made me think of amputees:
the old life from which they had been severed was, for all its humiliations,
one they missed and yearned for. When they talked about it, perhaps because
the accents had their own aroma as irresistible as that of the buffet table,
you were transported into movie land, Rick’s Café in Casablanca and The
The other memories
are darker, Jake told me. For example: in one of the buildings topped by what
I call the hanging gardens of Babylon, lived the mother of a friend who was
also my college classmate. The terrace wrapped around the first floor of her
duplex and was accessible from most rooms. My classmate was her older son. She
began to give annual May parties out on that terrace for his friends—and the
friends of his friends—a year after he and his guide were killed in a climbing
accident in the Andes. That was during the summer after graduation. It was a
freak accident, like all accidents, Jake told me, because his classmate was
an experienced climber who had made the ascent successfully once before; the
guide was widely understood to be the best; and the weather had been perfectly
normal for that time of the year, without any sudden storms or other problems.
Just what had happened never became clear; there were no other climbers in the
vicinity. Then, her younger son was lost at sea, in brutal weather between the
Cape Cod Canal, through which he had already passed, and Portland, Maine, where
he was taking his boat for the winter. Wreckage of the boat was found, but not
the body. That left the old lady as the sole survivor of the family, the collaterals
being very distant. I should have told you at the outset, said Jake, that she
brought up the boys alone. Her husband was killed by a polo ball that hit him
on the forehead one month after the younger son was born. She gave those parties
right up to her death, thirty-five years after the climbing accident. Meanwhile,
not a few of us—I mean the group that had come to them at the start—had died.
Many had divorced and remarried. She invited the new wives and continued to
invite the discarded ones if they had not moved away from New York. And we kept
on showing up—some, like me, without fail—though often considerably changed,
sometimes atrociously. You can imagine it. Vast expansions of girth, normally
attractive faces turning various shades of purple or violet, the usual loss
of hair in the case of men and in the case of wives baldness brought on by chemotherapy.
Our hostess hardly changed at all, except that gradually she shriveled. Then
one day, her lawyer telephoned to say she was dead. She fell down the stairs
of her duplex presumably during the night, landing headfirst on the marble floor
of the foyer. The skull was cracked. The cook found her in the morning. I thought
he was going to ask me to speak at the service, there being no one else still
alive who knew her as well, but he told me that he would deliver the eulogy
They are mostly
like that, said Jake, my other stories. Straightforward tales of unavoidable
loss. Sometimes, when I walk down Park Avenue, the weight of memories is such
I think I have lived one thousand years, maybe longer.
I pressed Jake to
tell them to me. He said he was not inclined to do so, except perhaps one, less
simple, with the false Palazzo Pitti as setting. But not during our usual walks;
if I wanted to hear it, he would offer me a simple lunch of sandwiches at his
office. Usually he ordered from a nearby delicatessen. We made a date, after
I assured him that corned beef would be satisfactory.
It turned out that
a sandwich lunch in Jake’s office was taken at a round table with a black marble
top, and included a bottle of Piedmont wine which was made by his Milanese brother-in-law.
Jake’s secretary put the food on the table, Jake poured the wine, sniffed, declared
it satisfactory, and launched into his story.
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