Tuesday, February 24th, 2009
When Kipp Friedman was 16 years old, he moved into his father’s apartment on East 63rd St. in Manhattan. His parents had recently divorced, and his father, the novelist and playwright Bruce Jay Friedman, welcomed his youngest son into a bachelor life at the center of the New York arts scene in the late seventies. Kipp Friedman writes about this pivotal time in “Life with Father,” the first half of which is published below, followed by a link to part 2. And be sure to check out our recent interview with him as well. —Elizabeth Minkel
Life with Father (1977-1978)
Memories of Take-out Pizza, a Wayward Monkey and the Black Room
by Kipp Friedman
My father once asked if I wanted to know the bravest thing he ever did. At age 46, he still cut an imposing figure: he was barrel-chested, tall, handsome, and robust from earlier years of weightlifting and more recent jogging—a sort of urban, Jewish Ernest Hemingway. He had recently shaved off his salt-and-pepper beard, adding years to his appearance.
Heroic deeds flashed before my eyes. Growing up I had heard stories of his physical prowess, and like a good son I was curious to hear what he felt was his bravest moment. My brothers had told me numerous times about how he had once lifted a dinner table and thrown it on top of a surly man who had said something insulting to our mother in a restaurant. Then there was the time in the late ’60s when my father showed me fresh teeth marks on his muscular bicep. He said Norman Mailer had bitten him in a jealous rage at a party over my father’s recent success as a playwright. Mailer had hit him by surprise in the stomach, but instead of hitting back, he calmly patted him on his head, saying, “Now, now Norman. Behave,” which only served to further enrage the writer. My dad quipped that maybe he should have his arm checked for rabies.
On another occasion, our family was invited to a party in the East Village that was attended by the organized crime figure Crazy Joe Gallo. In an effort to soften his image, he had lately begun hanging out with people in the theater and arts communities. I was about 12 at the time, and I was invited to play pool with Gallo and his bodyguard (Gallo—artistic aspirations notwithstanding—had an active contract out on his life and would be shot and killed in front of his family in Little Italy within weeks, adding another chapter to the city’s crime lore). After playing pool, he paid my father what he felt was the ultimate compliment, saying, “Your son’s a real Jew.” Bravery, perhaps, but he would later acknowledge that it was sheer folly to have exposed his family to such a risk.
For whatever reason, my father decided not to tell me what the bravest thing he ever did was, which, of course, only served to heighten my curiosity. I decided to let it go. Years later, I brought it up again, but by then he had obviously forgotten. I could see he was searching for an answer that would both satisfy me and get him off the hook.
“The bravest thing I ever did…was…staying as long as I did in an unhappy marriage,” he said, explaining that he kept his marriage to my mother going until my brothers and I were emotionally mature enough to handle a divorce. I knew that wasn’t his original answer; even if it was what he truly felt at the moment, he lacked the sparkle in his eyes that I remembered when he asked me years before.
The answer I was looking for was probably overheard around table number 4 late one night at Elaine’s, the popular Upper East Side eatery and writers’ salon. He was most likely swapping “Bravest-Thing-I-Ever-Did” stories among his constellation of friends, which on any given night might include novelists, editors, reporters, directors, producers, publicists, publishers, actors, police detectives, politicians, socialites, and the proprietress, Elaine Kaufman, as well.
The moral of the story, if there is one, is this: when an author offers to share a “Bravest-Thing-I-Ever-Did” story, don’t let him off the hook so easily, for the story might change or be completely lost.
As the youngest son of an accomplished writer whose career has spanned half a century, I’ve heard stories all my life. Over time, many of them have been embellished, altered, and given new meaning. At the risk of oversimplification, my father has always had a knack for taking seemingly random, everyday occurrences and items lifted from the news and allowing his creativity to take over. It’s as if he had been hardwired to ask: what if? Endlessly curious, he had the habit of wondering aloud whenever we passed a strange town what it would be like to live in there, putting himself in the imaginary shoes of its inhabitants. Before you knew it, he would be piecing together the shards of a new story, and he would scribble down a few notes for future reference.
In the summer of 1972, he was asked to write an impromptu skit for a McGovern for President fundraiser in the Hamptons. This was about the time of the Bobby Fischer-Boris Spassky World Chess Championship in Iceland. In my father’s imagination, the iconoclastic Fischer—whose erratic behavior was well-documented—would begin popping individual chess pieces into his mouth to unnerve his Soviet opponent, thus sparking a Superpower confrontation. He had written the skit on a dinner napkin, and made sure that edible chess pieces were created just for the skit.
In the end, what mattered most to my father was whether it was a good story: something that you’d want to share with your friends, and perhaps even your youngest son. I admit there have been rare moments when I thought it would have been nice to have been the progeny of someone less creative, more practical, with something a bit more tangible to hand down—say, a department store or hotel chain. But oh, the stories I would have missed.
If not the bravest, then certainly one of the most fortuitous decisions I ever made occurred over 30 years ago, when I asked to move in with my father at age 16. It was the spring of 1977. My parents had recently divorced, and my father was still adjusting to his new single life. He has told me this was a particularly dark period for him. It was also a transitional time for my entire family.
I had been living with my mother on the Upper West Side along with my oldest brother, Josh. One day, the elevator opened and I saw that it was piled high with stuffed boxes, milk crates and suitcases. My mother and her new boyfriend, Bob, emerged. “Bob’s moving in,” she simply stated as the two of them walked past. Looking like a cross between Carlos Santana and Al Pacino in “Serpico,” Bob had long, dark curly hair and a scraggy goatee. He worked for the city’s parole office helping rehabilitate ex-cons. What I remember most about him, though, was his off-kilter, dopey laugh, because it reminded me of Tommy Chong’s. Always good-natured, he would lend me his books on astral projection and The Teachings of Don Juan: A Yaqui Way of Knowledge by Carlos Castaneda. We got along fine, but I began to feel like I was an extra wheel in my mother’s new life. They were planning on moving into a smaller apartment on the Upper West Side and my older brother, who was now working as a technician at a sound studio, was about to move into his first apartment. My middle brother, Drew, had recently returned from Boston University and had decided to move back in with my mother. That left me, feeling a little uncertain about where I fit in. I remember asking Drew, somewhat plaintively, where I was going to live, and he suggested: “Why don’t you move in with dad.” Hearing no objection from my mother, I called my father, who gladly welcomed my move.
I had a prophetic dream that summed up the rudderless feelings I must have been keeping bottled up inside. I was in the backseat of a World War I-era fighter plane with my mother’s boyfriend, Bob, behind the controls, his long hair spilling out of his aviators’ goggles and cap. The plane zigzagged wildly through snow-capped mountains while Bob giggled uncontrollably, and I shouted that I wanted to get off because I knew at any moment the plane would crash. As in most dreams, I awoke not knowing the outcome. (Sadly, within a year Bob would die of a massive heart attack, at age 33.)
When I moved in, my father was busy working on his “Lonely Guy” series of satirical self-help articles, offering important life-skills advice (what to do with those little left-over pieces of soap) for lonely guys (and gals). The articles, which appeared in Playboy, Esquire, and other magazines, were compiled into book form in 1978 with the release of The Lonely Guy’s Book of Life. It would later be made into the motion picture, “The Lonely Guy,” starring Steve Martin.
Recently, I thumbed through my copy of The Lonely Guy’s Book of Life and instantly recognized a number of things that transported me back to that period of our lives together 30 years ago. In the book’s epilogue, appropriately titled: “Whither the Lonely Guy,” he poses the question: Isn’t it possible, then, in some way, to stop dead on a dime and become a Lonely Guy No More? And then he answers his own question: Sometimes life itself will lend a hand.
LONELY GUY (opening door): Jeremy! What are you doing here?
EX-SON (carrying a suitcase): Hi, dad. I heard you were lonely. I’d like to spend my last year with you before going off to Furman U.
LONELY GUY: This is an awfully small place.
EX-SON (entering): Don’t worry about it. You’ll hardly even notice me. Where do I put my collection of Iggy and the Stooges records?
For the record, I never owned any Iggy and the Stooges albums; I was always more of a Neil Young fan.
As bachelor pads go, my father couldn’t have picked a better place. His 12th floor duplex apartment, off 1st Avenue and East 63rd Street, was in the heart of the New York singles scene at the time. “Saturday Night Fever” was spreading the gospel of disco music to the world; you couldn’t escape the infectious rhythms of the Bee Gees. Each weekend a legion of satin-shirted, freshly permed John Travolta hopefuls, straight out of Brooklyn and Queens, would make their pilgrimage to the disco-lined boulevards of midtown Manhattan looking for action. One block from our apartment was Maxwell’s Plum, which started the whole singles bar craze in the mid-‘60s with its ferns and heavy brass fixtures. Around the corner was the original T.G.I. Friday’s (long before its omnipresence at malls and frozen food sections of grocery stores), its familiar red-and-white striped marquee visible from my bedroom window. Two blocks south, on 61st street, Rodney Dangerfield still couldn’t “get no respect” when he headlined at the comedy club named after him.
Amid the bustle of the local bar and club scene were many family-owned businesses, too—butcher shops, pizza parlors, antique stores, laundromats, hole-in-the-wall delis, Irish pubs and hardware stores—which leant the area a timeless, homey quality. At the Ottomanelli Brothers meat market nearby, a stout butcher would greet me in thick Brooklyn-ese: “Hey, Bruce Friedman’s son! Ya’ fodda’s such a nice man,” while wrapping choice cuts of veal or steak. Even the owner of the Chinese laundromat would tell me, in broken English, how much he liked my dad, while slipping me an almond cookie or dried lychee nut with our laundry.
For over a year I lived in what I would affectionately call the Black Room. My father rented the apartment from a director of television commercials who had painted the walls of the downstairs bedroom pitch black and the ceiling a reflective silver, which allowed you to see yourself (and presumably anyone else you were with) when you looked up from the king-sized bed. The somber color scheme of silver-upon-black gave the impression that you were entering more of a nightclub than a bedroom—all that was missing was a gyrating strobe light. Visitors would ask out of concern, but with a hint of envy, how I could stand to live in such a dark, moody room, but I never felt the least bit melancholy or uncomfortable. The large windows, offering an unobstructed view of high-rise buildings to the west, certainly helped brighten the room, and I enjoyed watching the brand new elevated red tram cable car pass by, carrying commuters to and from Roosevelt Island across the East River. Each night I fell asleep to the whir of honking, braking and squealing of cars jockeying for position along 1st Ave.
My father’s bedroom/office area was on the second floor, which led out to a garden terrace, complete with white statuary, overlooking York Avenue high-rises to the east, with a partial view of the 59th Street Bridge poking out between buildings. An immaculately dressed, dour-faced diplomat lived next door. He owned a small spider monkey that would occasionally escape and wind its way down vines onto our adjoining terrace only to urinate in the potted plants. The first few times it happened, my father reacted with mild amusement, but when it continued, I remember his growing displeasure. Fearful of being bitten if he attempted to frighten off the monkey, he would instead coax the creature with yogurt until the unapologetic diplomat would arrive, with pained expression, to reclaim his wayward pet.
It didn’t take long for us to settle into a comfortable routine. I continued to attend a private high school on the Upper West Side and I assumed much of the dog-walking responsibilities. Rather than set rules, my father had adapted a wait-and-see, laissez-faire approach to our living arrangement. The only restriction I can recall was the same one that applied when I was much younger: try to keep the noise down while he was working. Otherwise, we lived like two bachelors, surviving mainly on take-out food—Chinese or pizza being our favorite—which we often ate while watching a Knicks game on T.V.
My father has told me on a number of occasions that he could never imagine doing anything for a living except writing. Sometimes, though, I think that he would have made an excellent chef: he took great pride in his cooking abilities, whether whipping up the perfect French omelet or sauteing veal chops, and he enjoyed sharing his cooking knowledge with me. Many of his cooking techniques, he admitted, were based on tips he had picked up from women he had been dating, and I was the happy beneficiary of these culinary experiments. The trick, I was to discover, was his fearlessness in the kitchen combined with his attention to detail. Once I had the pleasure of observing him while he prepared sweetbreads, attacking the classic French dish as if it were a science project. I remember him ceremoniously soaking the veal thymus glands in cold water for hours, explaining the importance of removing the blood, fat, and any other impurities. After removing them from the pot, he blanched them with cold water and lemon juice and boiled them to further remove any impurities before drying and flattening them, and then finished the process by battering and frying them in light olive oil. He simultaneously prepared an accompanying Madeira wine reduction sauce. Years later, when I ordered sweetbreads prepared in the same style at several French restaurants, I was amazed at the similarities to my father’s one-time concoction.
While he may have been lonely in his new-found single life, he was never really alone. Since his separation and divorce, he had dated several women, and never seemed to lack the attention of many others. The dating seemed to pick up, though, around the time I moved in. As an accomplished playwright, he was accustomed to actors auditioning for important roles. It seemed as if the women he was dating were also auditioning. Once the subject of dating came up and I remember him stating matter-of-factly: “They all want to marry me.” But apparently, he was in no hurry to select a new leading lady in his life.
Occasionally, he would ask my opinion about a particular woman he was dating, pointing out an interesting fact about her—one woman, for example, had once dated Clint Eastwood. Sometimes, I would simply offer my thoughts without being asked. Knowing that I was somewhat of a permanent fixture now, I guess the women he dated saw that it was in their best interest to make a nice impression on me as well. But that wasn’t always the case. One woman in particular, I recall, made an off-hand comment that my peach fuzz-of-a-mustache made me look childish and immature. Naturally, that stinging remark didn’t leave a favorable impression on me (although I quickly shaved).
I did, however, take an immediate liking to Denise, the lanky Wilhelmina agency model who, when first introduced, grabbed me in a tender bear hug (I still remember how great she smelled) and cheerfully handed me a copy of her modeling flier, showing various shots of her in a bikini and wearing a fur-lined winter coat. I’m not sure why that relationship ended, although I remember my father once innocently mentioning something about Denise’s overprotective Italian brothers. One positive he took from that relationship, though, was the addition of a delicious veal piccata recipe to his culinary repertoire.
One of the more unusual of the women my father dated was a quiet, unassuming woman I nicknamed “4 O’Clock Franny.” I never said much to Fran because she would typically show up around midnight, barely saying as much as a hello, and sneak out the door early in the morning while I was making my breakfast. Then there was a nurse he saw a few times who worked at a nearby cancer hospital. My father said she always seemed to be a little depressed due to the nature of her work, plus the added burden of caring for an elderly parent. I knew that relationship was doomed when he asked, somewhat rhetorically, whether he could endure a lifetime of terminal illness-related conversations.
One of his longest on-again, off-again relationships was with Diane, an attractive raven-haired Jewish woman. She was nearly six feet tall and had an infectious laugh. Diane was only seven years older than me and I always thought of her as more of the older sister that I never had. My father had first introduced Diane to me and my brothers at a Chinese restaurant when I was about 13. While my brothers acted standoffish toward her because of her age, I remember looking up at her in her blue jeans and black leather boots and commenting, “You’re tall.” By the time I moved in with my father, Diane was back in the picture. Now at age 16, I was painfully shy around women and had a tendency to mumble and stare at my feet whenever women talked to me. So one day Diane decided to offer me some valuable advice on how to talk to girls. Directing me to look into her eyes, she said that the secret to getting a woman to notice you was by establishing eye contact.
A few days later, at school, I noticed a pretty blonde walk by. Our eyes met. But instead of looking away, I returned her blue-eyed gaze, and the most amazing thing happened: she smiled back at me. Diane was right. As fate would have it, I would run into the same girl while entering our apartment building one day; she lived with her family four floors below mine and I had never even noticed. We became friends and would start traveling together to school. Although a year younger than me, she had already begun dating.
Several Fridays after school, she led me to Beefsteak Charlie’s for beer and burgers, and then, feeling a bit tipsy, we made our way home. Before I knew it, we were back in the Black Room, with me sitting frozen and awkward on the edge of my king-sized bed. The only problem was I was new to the nuances of boyfriend-girlfriend dynamics; Diane’s advice had only gone so far as establishing eye contact and I hadn’t the faintest idea what to do next. After what seemed an eternity, I remember we left and climbed onto the roof of the building and looked out on the city. And that’s pretty much how our friendship remained. I may have asked my father for advice and he suggested that if I liked her, I should impress her by taking her up to Elaine’s. Unfortunately, I never got beyond Beefsteak Charlie’s, and soon she would move with her family to Roosevelt Island. For all I know, I saw her pass by my window each day on the tram carrying her home.