A RUMOR was making the rounds—Ruthie Skolnick’s mother had heard from someone (most likely Miss Solimando, our sixth-grade teacher) that Ruthie is among the finalists in the citywide Brotherhood Week of 1955 essay contest. I took this in with all the mixed feelings you might expect. Not that I had really imagined myself a winner…but if Ruthie, why not me, too? I knew exactly how I would spend the $25 cash First Prize. The red and gray leatherette case of the portable phonograph in the window of the music store on Greenwich Avenue beckoned to me every time I passed by on my way to school, just across the street.
On this, the Big Day, its flocked silver turntable gleamed in the sunlight as I munched my baloney sandwich, being careful not to get mustard on the clean white blouse I wore as a mandatory symbol of school spirit for our last Assembly. Tonight was the event I really cared about. For that, I had a blue taffeta dress and a velvet headband.
I wiped the mustard off my fingers on the paper towel included in my bag lunch, and trudged back inside. Somehow I just knew Ruthie would graduate trailing clouds of glory, and I would never be able to save enough money for the red and silver trophy I deserved.
The auditorium is warm. Late June in a Victorian-era public school building without air-conditioning in New York City is no joke. They started backwards with the awards, after some mind-numbing speeches by a bunch of city officials, a rabbi and a priest.
Arlene Marie LaRotunda, Third Prize. Clap clap clap. Ruthie Skolnick, Second Prize. Clap…what? Second Prize?
I look over at Ruthie and her mom, but she is already happily running toward the stage, grinning ear-to-oversized-ear. And then—First Prize, Barbara Riddle. I go numb for a second. The fuzzy silver turntable is mine! Flash bulbs.
Later, the photograph of Arlene and Ruthie and me on the front page of The Villager: my black velvet headband askew, a dazed smirk on my face. Ruthie’s ears poking out from the sides of her thick brunette pageboy, her Cheshire-cat grin. Lightning had struck twice at P.S. 41!!
FIVE days later, I am frantically looking for my vinyl LP of “Highlights from the Nutcracker Suite.” I have played it five times a day for the past four days. It was recommended by the clerk in the music store when I asked him how I should go about amassing a “classical” record collection to go with my new record player.
I corner Anita, the younger sister of the household my mother has temporarily parked me in while she hunts for new living quarters for us. (We’d been forced to leave our rented Bank Street townhouse when her newly-launched public relations business went belly-up and her current live-in boyfriend evaporated.) After I’ve cross-examined Anita with no success, I appeal to her older sister Linda, my classmate. It was thanks to my friendship with Linda that her parents had granted me temporary shelter with them while my mother “re-organized” her life.
It’s difficult to stand on your dignity when you are an unwanted guest sleeping on the daybed in a virtual stranger’s TV room, especially in a railroad flat where everyone passes by your bed on the way to the bathroom or kitchen. I hold back my tears and plead for Linda’s help.
Reluctantly she reaches under her bed and hands me two large fragments of vinyl. She’d found them in the trash bin under the sink last night. She warns me not to complain about Anita, the little princess of their household. It’ll only make their Dad even more irritable.
He’s tired when he gets home at night from unloading freight on the docks down by the Hudson River, a few blocks away. He’s a longshoreman, like Marlon Brando, and almost as good-looking. He proudly took us all to see “On the Waterfront” at Loew’s Sheridan, and let us all stay to see it a second time. He’s already put a down payment on a lot in a town called Ardsley, and one of these days they will abandon Manhattan. We drove there once, all of us jammed into their car, trying to share his excitement over the large rectangle of rocks and dirt bordered by little wooden stakes and the tattered red and green flags left by the real estate company. I couldn’t imagine leaving the city for this barren wilderness. Maybe they would never make it out, either.
In the meantime, my Nutcracker excerpts had been getting on his nerves. Anita had heard him complaining. Anita, his little princess.
I accept the two jagged halves of my first 33 1/3 record from Linda and furtively retreat to my makeshift hallway bedroom. There is still a lot of silvery metallic fuzz from the turntable on the shiny black vinyl shards. The fuzz sticks to everything, and prickles if you get it on your skin. It’s like the sharp stuff in the center of an artichoke heart. It could maybe travel through your blood to your heart and kill you if you weren’t careful.
Later, sitting in the dark, I wonder what my mother is doing tonight. I wonder how her house-hunting is going. I wonder if I will ever win First Prize in anything again.
I wonder if I am strong enough to be a hated winner.