“After Scotty” [from A Fish in the Moonlight]
[1956: I had a stage mother, an Auntie Mame, eager to push me in front of directors and producers. When my mother read F. Scott Fitzgerald’s Far Side of Paradise, set at Princeton University where the author went as an undergraduate, she was determined that I too would go there. The problem was that no one in our family, or neighborhood for that matter, had ever gone to college; we didn’t know how you got in, how you applied. So, my mother, drawing on the familiar, imagined Princeton as a casting office to which she, my agent, would take me, there to strut my stuff—and, in her mind, be admitted to a place that, if good enough “for this famous American author,” was surely “good enough” for me. With me in tow, she barged in the Office of the Dean of Admissions. This is an abbreviated version.]
In an unmistakable Philly accent, one similar to the Brooklyn accent but with a cacophony of its own special inflections, my mother announced theatrically, “Pleased to meet you, Mr. Harrison. I’m May Elaine Homan; this is my son Sidney. He’s bright and he’s got talent. I know you’re gonna like him!” For her, he was a producer looking over the talent, and I, the boy performer who, be assured, could act, sing, dance–and roller-skate! Mother was reverting to her earlier career as an actress, a shadowy life of run-down theatres and grubby agents she had known before meeting my father. Confronted with an unfamiliar situation, a totally new character in this Dean of Admissions, she had recast the strange as the familiar.
“Mrs. Homan, why don’t you have a seat in the outer office, and I’ll be glad to talk with your boy”—“boy” as in “boys,” the current word for undergraduates in those days. My mother was flustered. Clearly, she wanted to remain with me as my agent during the interview, but how could she resist such a charming man, one with manners, with bearing, with a style of speaking that seemed both foreign and wondrous? Reluctantly, almost petulantly, she rose with an “all right, if you insist” embossed in every slow movement. A dramatic cross to the door, a reluctant hand on the knob, and then the inevitable exit line. “I’ll tell you this, Harrison, you’ll like the kid. He’s got talent.”
The moment I was sure she was gone, I learned forward in my chair. “Dean Harrison, I’m sorry my mother was so . . . well . . . forward.”
That kindly man, who would later become a dear friend, replied, “On the contrary, Mr. Homan, I find your mother quite refreshing. You see, I spend most of my day speaking to stuffy matrons from Scarsdale.”
While Mother waited anxiously outside, I spent the next hour being interviewed by this genteel figure, a success, to judge by the book-lined office, the gold-leaf paperweight on the desk, the dedicatory plaques on the walls, a success for certain, witnessed by his style, by the grace with which he made me feel comfortable. “Let’s talk about matters, shall we, Mr. Homan? I want to find out your opinion on things.” Something happened that never happened to kids in my neighborhood: an adult had asked me my opinion, had engaged me in serious conversation, had treated me as an equal. Prose, elegant prose, passionate prose that I had never heard before poured from my lips as I told him about my life, my hopes, about my father the telephone installer, as I joked, for the first time I can remember, about my mother, telling him of Far Side of Paradise and my rude awakening earlier that morning, about playing stickball with my cousin Grace who was six feet tall and looked like a boy, about Leslie Doober, Bruzzy Fleck, Connie, Arson, and Fingers Grittle.
Walking to the door–I feared that my mother would have her ear glued to the other side–he turned to me with, “I want you to fill out this application and have your high-school send me your transcript as soon as you can. OK? You’ll be hearing from me.”
In four weeks I received a letter of acceptance from Princeton. As I would learn later, mine was a “special admission.” In those days Princeton’s undergraduates were overwhelmingly alumni sons, white, Anglo-Saxon Protestant boys of wealthy families. There were no women, only a few blacks and Hispanics, no recognizable minorities to speak of. I was admitted, therefore, as the “token” tough white kid from the inner city. In the next few years, the civil-rights movement and then the Vietnam protests would change Princeton, change what Scott Fitzgerald himself once called “the great country club in the sky.”
Years later, when I became a Professor of English, once each month my father would call me, and our conversation at some point would invariably lead to the following interchange:
“Sid, you went to Princeton, right?”
“And the other boys in your class, they all became lawyers and doctors, right?” Now the idea here was that they had gone on to really important professions, to “manly” work, whereas a teacher, let alone a Professor of English, was somehow less significant, perhaps even “unmanly.”
“That’s right, Dad,” I would reply, not wanting to argue.
But Dad would persist. “You know, Sid, having gone to a fine school like Princeton, you could still change your profession, become one of those doctors or lawyers, couldn’t you?”
“I could, Dad,” was my noncommittal response, sometimes sweetened, as he grew older and sadder, by a “I’m thinking about that.”
But after a digression to other topics, Dad would return to my having gone to Princeton, his voice now more mellow.
“You know, Sid, I look at it this way. You’re a Professor of English and I’m a telephone installer, right?”
“Well, boy, we’re both in communications, right?”