Other Voices #18
It's Christmas, and my kids chip in to give me a stereo tape recorder and microphones. I am 38 — no longer young — and have begun to see the outline of my life and to understand limits. For reasons I don't fully understand, it seems important to find Peter and record our old songs together. In fact, it's the only thing I can think of to do with the stereo recorder.
Peter's mother gives me his number. We meet for coffee. He is a squarish man now, broader and more settled. He is in AA and has not had a drink for two years. He lives with a woman named Connie who has three daughters and is also in AA. He works as a night watchman and is studying geology days at Columbia General Studies. He says he is happy. His life is finally together and on track after several false starts.
The recording session goes well, better than I expected. Peter digs out his battered Martin dreadnought and I dust off my Guild. We do Stewball, Wreck Of The Old '97. We do Green Briar Boys, Everly Brothers, Baez, Kristofferson. Peter has brought Meg along, Connie's fourteen year old daughter, a serious dark haired child with sparkling green eyes and a lilting soprano voice. She has a good ear, and works in nicely on the Peter, Paul and Mary stuff.
I make a copy of the tape for Peter. I am grateful and a little guilty. I feel as if I have stolen something from him, something important he was too innocent to value properly.
Two months later Peter calls. He tells me he made a pass at Meg. Says he saw her coming out of the shower and couldn't help it. Connie freaked out, threw him out of the apartment, and started drinking again. It caused a real flap among their AA friends.
He asks if he can borrow $100.
* * *
Twenty-three years before this phone call, Peter Shaw and I are playing our guitars and singing Everly Brothers and Weavers' songs in a large gracious living room overlooking Central Park West. Peter's sweet tenor harmonies float above my baritone melody lines. There's a party going on and we are the center of attention. We are surrounded by pretty admiring teen-age girls in tweed skirts and black leotards. I am fifteen. I will never be happier.
A year earlier, when he was fourteen, Peter won $100,000 on a TV quiz show called The Big Surprise. His categories of expertise were music, church Latin, and American history. Peter has golden hair, blue eyes, and a sweet boyish smile. He radiates sincerity and charm. His audience rating was consistently very high.
I have known Peter for six months now, and we have learned to sing and play well together. We perform at parties to impress girls and at bars in the Village for beer and change. He is the better musician, while I provide leadership and experience to complement his innocence. We know the duet is more effective than either of us alone, but we are wary of each other's appeal. We trade off smoothly when we perform, but the truth is we each want to be a solo star.
* * *
Peter lives with his family in a tenement building on 96th Street a half block east of Park Avenue. The apartment is a railroad flat, a series of small dark rooms strung off a long narrow hall. His father is an alcoholic who has given up trying to resume his advertising career. He works occasionally as a proof reader for a vanity press. A six by four foot Princeton banner with frayed edges hangs above his bed.
When I come to the apartment, Peter's father takes out his Princeton yearbook and reviews the careers of his more illustrious classmates for me. Peter says he does this whenever anyone comes to the apartment, which isn't often. He says his father dropped out of college before graduating.
Peter's mother endures: washed out blue eyes, smile of Christian forbearance, veins like spaghetti on the back of her hands. She takes in laundry to help with family finances. Peter has a younger brother and sister who are also blond and blue eyed — truly angelic looking children. The family goes to church together every Sunday.
The family didn't have a bean when Peter won the $100,000. The TV network put Peter in touch with an elderly lawyer who was dazzled by his charm and promise and stepped in to protect his interests on a volunteer basis. The family got immediate access to $25,000 but the rest was put in a trust fund for Peter's education and future.
Peter says I'm the only one of his new friends he's actually invited home.
* * *
Peter's life changes after winning $100,000. He goes on a national publicity tour. The newspapers come to the apartment and photograph him brushing his teeth, and sitting at the kitchen table with his mother. He is voted Catholic Boy of the Year. He begins to attend a good prep school and hang out with a new bunch of kids.
Peter drinks beer but he doesn't do drugs. I get him to try marijuana. After four hits he says he doesn't feel anything. Then he rolls around on the floor laughing helplessly for ten minutes. He says he wants to feel this way for the rest of his life.
Then he goes rigid with fear and stays that way, curled into the sofa, for two hours without speaking. Later he tells me he will never do drugs again.
Peter has a new girlfriend. She is blonde, plump, and pretty. Her mother organizes Catholic charity balls. Peter and his girlfriend are virgins. He has been pressuring her to have sex with him and she finally agrees. He asks me where he can get a room with no questions asked and I tell him the Hotel Earl in the Village.
Peter describes it to me later. The room is small and ugly with threadbare carpet and stained bedspread. He doesn't know how to make her relax. She begins to cry when he takes off his trousers. He pulls them on again and sits on the edge of the bed, holding her hand and talking softly to her, reassuring and soothing her. After a while she says she's willing to try again. Peter kisses her a few times and unbuttons her blouse, but something's wrong.
Peter says she looked like a victim waiting to endure his lust. He can't stand it. He takes her home.
Peter appears to move seamlessly between his family and the privileged world of his classmates. He is lighthearted and affable. He charms us all with his innocence and beauty. When he graduates from prep school, he plans to go to Princeton like his father.
Peter floats above the darker currents of his life like a shining angel, borne aloft by a soaring Irish tenor voice so true it could break your heart.
* * *
I have not seen Peter for three years although I hear he flunked out of Princeton. We meet at a college party in New York. He tells me he has spent the last of his $100,000 prize money traveling abroad with his brother and sister, and he now plans to study for the priesthood.
He tells me that last year he went to Notre Dame Cathedral in Paris, sought out a priest, and confessed he had stolen $100,000. He says the quiz show tested him exhaustively and knew exactly what questions he could answer. They let him continue on to win the jackpot because of his popularity with audiences. He says he always felt like the money was tainted and he's glad it's gone.
He says with the money gone and the confession behind him, he is finally ready to begin the rest of his life. He is upbeat, cheerful, lighter than air.
We are both 21. By this time, Peter's father is a wet brain alcoholic. He forgets the topic of his own sentences half way through. He often has three or four cigarettes going at the same time. Peter's mother takes him to AA meetings, but it's not clear that he understands where he is.
By this time, Peter's younger brother is a street kid obsessed with fast expensive cars. There is no money for his sister's college, so Peter says she will go to work.
* * *
The next time I see Peter it's two years later on the Lexington Avenue subway heading downtown. I am on my way to work. He is smiling, diffident. He is wearing an old suit that pulls at the shoulders and waist. The suit suggests hard times, but his enthusiasm for life appears undiminished. I tell him about my job and ask him what he's up to. He says he has a court appearance downtown. Charges are being dismissed, but he has to show up before the judge. What charges? I ask.
He says for years he has been going up to the roof of his tenement on 96th street at night to seek out and spy on women undressing or having sex. The tenement roof is surrounded by taller apartment buildings with windows that afford excellent opportunities for watching unobserved. This particular evening, he was watching a woman undress who was a favorite of his. He had watched her many times and knew exactly what time in the evening she would begin. In fact, it often seemed to him she sensed someone was watching because of the way she played around and took her time. As if she secretly enjoyed being watched.
On this particular evening, for the first time, he moved forward into the square of light thrown by her window onto the tenement roof and exposed himself. He doesn't know why. He saw her react, saw her reach for the phone, but he stayed on the roof until the police arrived. He says he believed the shock and humiliation of being caught and charged would cure him of this sickness, this voyeuristic compulsion which he despised.
It was a first offense and the woman was willing to drop charges based on the court's assurance of his sincere desire to rehabilitate himself.
Peter relates this story in a brisk friendly manner with no obvious hesitation, as if he were talking about someone else. He says after he clears up the case today he's going to a Catholic retreat in Wisconsin for an indefinite stay. He is optimistic about the future.
He gets off at Chambers Street, smiling and waving. I stay on for Wall.
* * *
Seven years later a friend tells me he saw Peter singing in a little cafe off Lexington Avenue. One evening my wife and I get a sitter for the kids and stop in. The place is downstairs, a cramped cellar room with a bar and ten small tables. There are two other couples having drinks when we arrive around 10:00 PM.
Peter seems glad to see me and pleased to meet Molly, but his diffidence now has an apologetic edge. He says the pay isn't much but the drinks are free and the owner doesn't mind if he makes a bed behind the bar, which saves a lot on rent. It's a temporary gig, he assures us. He has a plan to get a geology degree when he gets the tuition together. Then he will go to work for one of the big oil companies. He says that's where the real money is.
Sitting on a high stool near the bar, Peter performs with his guitar. His face looks puffy under the soft spotlight, and the bartender keeps a full glass at his elbow. When he begins to sing I ride his sweet voice like an arrow smack back into a party in the Village when we were 17. We are performing the same song and we are bathed in adulation and love and indescribably happy. Then I want very badly to pick up a guitar and go up there and sing with him and I feel very badly because we are no longer 17.
We are both 30. By this time, Peter's father is dead of cirrhosis and his mother is working full time at Woolworth's. Peter takes her to church every week and afterward she fixes him Sunday dinner. Sometimes he sleeps over Sunday night.
By this time, Peter's brother is in prison for car theft. His sister is married to a man who drinks and abuses her.
* * *
It's funny how things work out. After I got back in touch with Peter and taped our old songs, I didn't see him again for seven years. By then, I was divorced. My kids were having problems at school, and problems `relating' to me. The entrepreneurial venture I launched had failed, and I am now back working for a big company in a job I hate. I have a chronic pinched nerve in my neck.
I am forty-five years old. I never actually spelled out where I wanted to be at that age, but I know where I am isn't it.
But this isn't my story. This is Peter's story.
Peter calls me to arrange lunch. Says he needs advice. I suggest we meet at my club near Wall Street. I figure that way there will be no check to embarrass him.
Peter tells me he's living with his mother at the moment and still working as a night watchman. He says the job is ideal because he can study while he works. He only has two courses and one paper to complete for his degree at Columbia General Studies, and that's what he wants to talk to me about.
He says the oil industry is in a major slump and he no longer wants to work for one of the oil companies. He would like to teach, but his degree will not be in education. It's possible he could teach at a parochial school without an education degree. He has to research this angle. But there's another very exciting possibility, a way to make a lot of money quickly. It involves installing satellite dishes on New York apartment house roofs, allowing the building occupants free access to cable and pay TV channels. There's an opportunity now, but he'd have to move quickly before the cable TV companies catch on and the FCC rules against these installations.
Anyway, if he does the satellite thing he can't finish the degree right away, and he thinks a degree could be useful no matter what he winds up doing in his career. But if he finishes the degree now, he might miss the satellite opportunity due to FCC rulings.
He says God means Good Orderly Direction to him now. AA taught him that. He left AA for a while, but he has been back in for almost three years. He has regained his enthusiasm and optimism. All he needs to do now is establish Good Orderly Direction in his life.
You're a successful businessman, he says. What do you think?
Peter has aged badly. His stomach hangs over his belt and the clean planes of his face have shifted and dropped. The golden hair is sparse; a pink mottled scalp shows through. I feel a little sick. Maybe the lamb was too heavy for lunch. I want very much to leave the restaurant.
Get the degree, I say. Definitely. The degree will be useful. There will always be other opportunities like this satellite dish thing. You can always go after them once you get the degree.
The cold air strikes my flushed face as we step out on the street and the chill extends down my back. Peter shakes my hand and thanks me for lunch and for my help. For thirty years I have successfully stayed on the periphery of this man's life, away from the center of his pain, but as I watch his back recede on this cold, cloudy afternoon I am suddenly unendurably lonely.
That night I get pretty loose behind five or six vodka gimlets and then do up a quarter Z of quality Peruvian coke. I don't get that wrecked very often, and it scares me a little. I wonder about Peter's AA meetings, what goes on there, who attends.
I think about calling the kids, but they're almost never home in the evening and when I do get them these days the conversations are full of awkward pauses and one word responses to my questions.
So instead I take out the tape Peter and I made, the tape of the songs we sang thirty years ago when our lives were charged with bright promise. I turn out the lights and put the tape on at full volume and it still works.
Peter and I are floating effortlessly together over a world of open possibilities, physical grace, unconditional love. The men in this world are lean, strong, and just. The women are young and beautiful. There is just enough sadness in this world to remind us of how happy we really are.