By Amy Hildreth Duncan
One cold winter morning in 1956 Pop walked out of the house and didn’t come back. Ma sent me to look for him. I wandered around for ages in the snow and couldn’t find him. He finally turned up, drunk as usual. Ma sent me back out to try to find where he’d hidden his bottles of booze. I found one stashed under the dog house.
Pop was a drunk when Ma met him before they got married, but he was so charming she didn’t notice. After fifteen years of marriage, she couldn’t not notice any more. She nagged him about it and Pop kept telling her to get off his back, and finally he just didn’t come home any more. He moved to New York and that was that. They got a divorce.
I couldn’t bring him up in conversation after that, because Ma would start badmouthing him in that “and-I-hope-you-don’t-turn-out-like-him” voice that I couldn’t stand. She had always pegged us as “two of a kind” because Pop was a writer and a photographer, an artsy type, and I wanted to be a jazz pianist when I grew up.
But then one day I got a letter from Pop inviting me to visit him in New York. I was terrified to mention it to Ma. I was only 14 years old and had never been on a train by myself, and besides, to visit Pop, of all people? So I could hardly believe it when she said I could go, and was sure she’d change her mind. But she didn’t, and to this day I don’t know why.
Pop met me at Grand Central Station. I thought he looked a little threadbare, but I tried not to notice. He gave me a hug and said, “OK, off to the Cave.” This was his nickname for the apartment he lived in. I was sure it was going to be exciting and exotic, like his friends Ivan and Alma’s place he’d told me about, with tropical fish and African drums and wild animals in small cages. With a name like that, it had to be. We walked all the way there, around fifteen blocks, with Pop pointing things out along the way that he thought would interest me. After block seven or eight I was tired of lugging my suitcase and listening to his endlessly boring tour guide chatter. He finally said,
“Do you want me to carry your suitcase?”
When we eventually reached the Cave I realized that not only was it not exciting and exotic, but it was too small for the two of us. It was a rundown, ratty railroad flat in the basement of a crumbling old building — small, dark, cramped, dirty and jammed with aging photography equipment, photographs and stacks of papers.
“I got you a room in a hotel,” Pop said after he had showed me around the Cave, which took a little less than a minute. We headed out to the street again. At least the hotel was close by and there was a bed for me to sleep in, even though the bathroom was down the hall. But the place looked and felt creepy, and I envisioned myself peeing in the tiny sink in my room in the middle of the night instead of risking the long, dimly lit hallway that led to the communal john.
“I have a surprise for you a little later on today,” Pop said. “I’m going to take you to the set of Mr. Wonderful and you can meet Sammy Davis, Jr.”
“Wow,” I said. I couldn’t stand Sammy Davis, Jr. or any of those rat pack guys, for that matter. I thought they were corny. Pop, sensing that I was underwhelmed, mumbled something about how he had might get a job taking publicity pictures for the show.
So, after our lunch standing up at a hot dog stand we headed toward Broadway to the theater. I forgot all about how corny Sammy was when he came over and shook my hand. I mean after all, he was Sammy Davis, Jr. and I was meeting him in person and he was standing right in front of me, smiling at me. I was surprised at how short he was, and I couldn’t stop staring at his glass eye. He and Pop talked a little about the show and Pop gave him some photographs. I couldn’t wait to tell my friends I’d met the great Sammy Davis, Jr. when I got back home.
After that, Pop took me to a real African restaurant, the African Room, where a friend of his was playing, the drummer Babatunde Olatunji. I found out he was famous, too. I was starting to think my Pop was a pretty important guy, even though he lived in the Cave and had put me up in a fleabag.
That night Pop dropped me off at the hotel. I was a little leery about being all by myself in the place, and horrified at what Ma would say if she knew, but I pretended to be brave so Pop wouldn’t worry.
“I’ll be fine, Pop,” I said. He looked sheepish.
After he left, I couldn’t figure out how to lock the door to my room. I pushed and pulled and twisted and yanked, but it still kept opening every time I turned the knob. Finally I gave up, put the door chain on and went to bed. It took me quite a while to get to sleep because of the unfamiliar city noises outside my window, but I was exhausted from our busy day and I finally dropped off.
Sometime in the middle of the night a man’s voice woke me up. It was coming from right outside my door. Whoever it was sounded very drunk, I lay still and stiff as a poker in the bed, my heart beating like mad. Suddenly my door opened…whack! The chain had stopped it from opening all the way. I was shaking like a leaf as I crawled further under the covers. Oh God, why didn’t Pop let me stay at the Cave with him? The man kept forcing the door over and over, and I was sure the chain was going to snap and that he was going to come in and do unspeakable things to me.
Suddenly I heard another voice — it was man, too, and this one didn’t sound drunk. He must have been a hotel employee. He tried to quiet the man down, and then led him away. I could hear him asking the drunk guy where his room was, and he kept saying, “THAT’s my room!” referring to my room. Finally the sound of their voices faded away in the distance. My eyes were stuck open for at least another hour. I got up and peed in the sink.
The next day I told Pop what had happened. He had a pained look on his face and said he wished he could kill the guy. That made me feel a little better. And I felt even better when Pop took me to meet his Aunt Ruth that afternoon. He gave me the full rundown on Ruth Dubonnet on the way over to her town house in the East Sixties, telling me she was a high society dame who was once married to his grandfather and later on was engaged to Artur Rubenstein, the famous classical pianist. Her last name came from Monsieur Dubonnet, the wine magnate, who was her ex-husband.
Aunt Ruth was always taking some young artist, writer, dancer, singer or actor under her wing, and I think at one time Pop had hoped she’d do that with him. The reason that she never had became very clear to me years later when Aunt Ruth, not known for her diplomacy, took me aside at a dinner party and told me that my father was not only a terrible alcoholic, but a raging drug addict as well. I wasn’t sure if I should believe the drug part or not.
Ruth owned the brownstone on East 54th Street, and the composer Jule Styne lived in the basement apartment. We rang the doorbell and a maid in a black and white uniform ushered us in. I’d never seen such luxury except in the movies, and when Ruth, tall, slender, sophisticated and flashing a stunning smile swept into the room in a silk robe, I thought I’d died and gone to glamour heaven.
“Oh GOD!” she boomed in a smoky voice. “It’s my niece! — and how are you, Bob?” She gave us both a little hug and steered us into the sitting room.
“So, you are the pianist.” She was dazzling, and I couldn’t take my eyes off her.
“Um hm,” I mumbled.
“Well, why don’t you play something for us?” said Ruth, pointing to the shiny black Steinway baby grand sitting in the corner. Pop didn’t have to urge me, because I wasn’t shy about playing. In fact, the place I always felt the most comfortable was on a piano bench, so I gladly accepted Aunt Ruth’s invitation. I sat down on the padded bench and began to play “I’ve Got a Crush on You,” which was the first song I’d ever learned by ear. I played the melody prettily with block chords and then started to improvise. About half way through there was a knock at the door. In a minute the maid came in with a middle-aged balding man who said,
“Well, I just had to come up — I thought I heard Barbara Carroll playing up here!”
I couldn’t have been more thrilled! Who was this guy and how did he know that Barbara Carroll, one of the few female jazz pianists on earth, was my hero?! I’d been listening to her records ever since I had started playing jazz. He came over to the piano and shook my hand.
“How old are you, dear?”
“I’m fourteen,” I said.
He smiled at me and said to Ruth,
“This kid is going places, Ruth. Keep an eye on her, will you?”
Ruth turned to me and said, “This is Jule Styne, the composer, my dear, and you should be very flattered.”
I didn’t really know who he was, but when I found out later that he was the one who not only had written all the music to “Peter Pan,” but also some of my favorite songs like “Just in Time” and “Time After Time,” I was mightily impressed.
After Jule went back downstairs, it was time for us to go, too. Before we did, Ruth gave us a grand tour of the house, which had three floors. Then she suggested that I use the bathroom before we started back to the hotel. The thing I’ll never forget about that trip to the bathroom were the gold faucets.
“Gold faucets!” I thought. “Now if that isn’t just the living end!”
I still had another day to spend in New York, but the next morning Pop took me to the Cave, sat me down and said,
“Say, I hate to ask you this, but…” I knew what was coming.
“…do you have a few dollars you could lend me?”
I dug into my purse and gave him a ten-dollar bill. We hung out in the Cave the rest of the day, and Pop bored me to tears by showing me tons of his photographs. Then he took me back to the hotel and showed me how to lock the door to my room. The next day we walked around the city, had a hot dog, and then Pop took me to the train station.
“Thanks, Pop, I had a great time.”
He hugged me and didn’t turn his face away fast enough for me not to see a tear slowly making its way down his cheek.