Worlds Apart, Colliding

They came from totally different parts of the world: he from the Bronx in New York City, and she from Philadelphia’s very elite Main Line. She had been trained from early on to curtsey sweetly, smile endearingly, and call everyone mister and miss or aunt and uncle if they were her parents’ good friends. She was more often seen and not heard. She had a governess, traveled First Class on the Ile de France Ocean Liner more than half a dozen times, and by the time she was eight years old she spoke Italian and French, as her family lived in various countries in Europe, where she attended schools. Her best friend was called Poppy. He, on the other hand spoke one language, English, and he did it with an accent that could barely be understood except by the people in the Bronx, saying “dees” and “doos” instead of these and those. He lived with his parents in a one-bedroom apartment, where his bed was a cot located behind their plastic-covered couch. He played stickball on the street in front of his apartment with a broomstick handle and a Spaulding ball. He used the same ball for a game called stoop ball, which involved throwing the ball against the steps of a stoop. By the time he was eight years old he was carrying a penknife in his pocket for protection. His best friend was called Froggie.

He was a crossing guard for a school, a very trusted and honored position. He was also the boy in his class at PS 96, who always had his hand up and had the answer to every question on the tip of his tongue. His teachers all loved him. So did the girls. He was a good-looking boy and he knew it. His body was trim and slim and he had dark, slicked-back hair, which he shined with pomade. Along with his knife, he carried a comb in his pocket, which he used every time he passed a reflection of himself.  He read voraciously, listened to the latest tunes on his radio and went to every movie that played at The Globe on Saturday afternoons, throwing popcorn with the best of them and grabbing kisses from the girls. What made him really stand out though among all the others on his block, in school, and in the Bronx, was his absolute charisma and magnetic personality. And, oh yes, at the age of twelve he was voted the most hilarious kid in his class.

On the other hand, she, at the age of twelve, was wearing two long blonde braids that swung back-and-forth when she rode her little gray pony, Chiclet, at the Radnor Hunt Pony Club Saturday mornings. Saturday afternoons, she attended ballroom dance class lessons at the Marion Cricket Club, where she learned to waltz. She took the train during the week down the Main Line to a private girls school called Agnes Irwin. There she played field hockey and lacrosse and studied French and Latin. Her parents were very strict. She was not allowed to watch television except on Sunday night when Walt Disney Presents was on. She lived in a big, old, wonderful stone house once owned by one of George Washington’s generals. There were pastures filled with sheep that grazed happily alongside horses, and there was a lovely pond surrounded by four weeping willows that geese and ducks floated onto. As she grew taller and stronger she graduated from her little gray pony to a beautiful dapple-gray horse, called Sea Witch, joined the Hunt Club, and went out fox hunting every Saturday morning at the crack of dawn. Dressed in a tweed riding jacket, Jaipur pants and boots, a stark white stock tied neatly at her neck, she followed the hounds, galloping through forests, up hills and over hedges and fences. By this time she no longer wore braids, so her hair was tucked back in a hairnet so it could be kept neatly under her black hardhat. The only boys she had a chance to socialize with had names like Roosevelt, Wanamaker, Cromwell and Biddle. She met them either out fox hunting, on the train going back-and-forth to their various private schools, when she was competing against them at horses hows on weekends, or at Saturday Dance Classes. The afternoon dance classes had become evening classes now that she was older. Everyone was much more graceful after so many years, and skilled at twirling and sliding smoothly across the beautifully waxed Merion Cricket Club dance floor. The girls wore gowns and gloves and a bit of light lipstick and the boys wore black dinner jackets, bow ties and shiny patent leather shoes, and they all waltzed to music played by a live string trio now.

He was smooth himself, in a threatening kind of way. A serious dancer, he was cool and sleek, just slightly stirring his hips. His moves were fluid and he was up on all the dances, like the Frog, the twist and the Bristol Stomp. He liked living on the edge and he danced that way. By the time he entered The High School of Preforming Arts, a very famous school for actors, dancers and musicians located on West 46th street near Broadway in Manhattan, he had already preformed in several Broadway shows and live television dramas. In the Omnibus series he played Christopher Plummer’s younger self. Falsely claiming he could play the guitar, he taught himself to play overnight and got the part of “the captain’s cabin boy”, in The Hindenburg Disaster, shown live on The Kraft Theater. He was also a master in mathematics and tutored dozens of fellow students, like Al Pacino, after school at Horn & Hardart’s Automat, a block away. With the money he made he bought slick clothes and went out on dates. Summers, he worked at The White Barn Theater in Westport, Connecticut and lived in a trailer behind the theater. It was there that at the age of fifteen he drove for the first time, a fancy stick-shift convertible, that belonged to a wealthy young girl who he not only convinced he was much older, but also that he had been driving for years. They had a fling and he happily drove all over Westport that summer, without a license. After graduating high school with honors, he received a scholarship to Hofstra College, where he studied Shakespeare and joined the stage crew of which Francis Ford Coppola was also a member. He also became part of a comedy act there, called The Uncalled Four, which preformed at Steve Paul’s The Scene in Greenwich Village. Because he was the straight man in the group, he began wearing suits and ties.

Three weeks after she graduated from high school, she was given a most unusual Debutante Party. Held in an immense red and white-striped circus tent set up in a side pasture of her family’s estate, there were clowns and fortune tellers, performing lamas with ostrich feathers on their heads, zebras, monkeys, and a baby elephant called Queenie, who stood on her head. The champagne flowed and there was waltzing to the music of the great Lester Lanin and his Orchestra. The Philadelphia papers all wrote about her debut into society, as did many magazines, calling it “the Debutante Party of the year”. She loved it all and was very grateful to her parents for giving her such an extraordinary ball. But she was also anxious to begin the next part of her life, for that fall she was to attend the prestigious Neighborhood Playhouse in New York City, where she would be studying acting. She loved it there, she loved doing scenes from The  Glass Menagerie, in which she played the gentle lame girl, Laura. She had never met so many different kinds of people who came from all over the United States and Europe. Where she was accustomed to dressing in linen and cashmere, they wore jeans and tight tee shirts and black dance skirts and leotards. She knew she stood out like a sore thumb and began wearing her long blond hair back and high on her head like some of the dancers did. The summer after her first year at the Neighborhood Playhouse she got a job as an apprentice to the manager of  The Westbury Music Fair on Long Island. She got coffee, licked stamps, sold programs, and worked backstage helping out when the new shows arrived every week.

It was a just a few days after she had started working at the theater, that she first met him. He was talking to Billy, the one eyed-custodian, when he suddenly stopped and looked over at her. He was wearing dark suit pants and a tie, and the sleeves of his blue oxford shirt were rolled up to above his elbows so his muscles showed. Her heart stopped beating and she caught her breath. Instinctively, she knew that she should turn and run. There was danger in him, she could tell. But she couldn’t move.

It was a cold blustery morning. It was his second day working at the theater. He had told the manager, who had hired him when someone else had dropped out at the last second, that he had been running box offices in summer theaters forever. He knew the ropes. They were lucky to have him, as he was just between jobs. But in actual fact, he did not know the ropes at all. This was his very first time in a box office selling tickets. After he left Hofstra he had gone to work for Lucille Lortel at the Theatre de Lys. He worked as a stage manager for the various shows that came and went, like The ThreePenny Opera and Brecht on Brecht. But the theater was dark at the moment. And he had rent to pay. He was talking to Billy, the one eyed-custodian, about a stuck drawer in the box office, when he suddenly stopped and looked over at a girl standing no more than five feet away. She was wearing jeans and a white cotton shirt. A belted khaki raincoat hung from her shoulders. Her hair was long and blond and blowing in the wind. He stared at her and somehow knew, from that second on, his life was changed forever.


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