Tuesday, July 7th, 2009
A few months ago, we published Kipp Friedman’s two-part account of his year spent living with his father, the famous playwright and novelist Bruce Jay Friedman. Spurred by positive feedback, Kipp began working on capturing other memories from a childhood in 1970s New York City. The following is one such episode, about the time he and his family spent living in Great Neck, New York. Kipp hopes to turn these pieces into a full-length memoir, and he is currently looking for a publisher. -Elizabeth Minkel
The Barracuda in the Attic
In early 1967 my father was sent on assignment by the Saturday Evening Post to interview New York congressman and civil rights leader Adam Clayton Powell, Jr. who was living in self-imposed exile on the Bahamian isle of Bimini. At least that was the plan. Recent coverage of the controversial politician’s alleged financial impropriety had made him leery of any further harmful publicity, so when my father arrived, the former Harlem-based politician and preacher—who now spent much of his time out of the media spotlight, enjoying sport fishing—was less than cordial and kept him waiting for hours. When they finally met, my father was only granted a few minutes, and before he knew it, the interview was over. Their meeting, however, would end on a high note: they exchanged cigars. But my father didn’t think he had enough material from the uncooperative politician for a story. His editors disagreed, and insisted that he write about NOT getting the interview. That’s how the story ran, under the apocryphal heading: “Adam Clayton Powell at the End of the World.”
Forced to cool his heels while waiting to see Powell, my father did what any self-respecting writer with some down time in the Bahamas would do: he went big-game fishing. And much to his happy surprise, he quickly caught a bite. While it wasn’t a 400-pound blue marlin like Hemingway’s “Santiago” in The Old Man and the Sea, he had hooked a respectable-sized barracuda. Being that this was his first (and only) attempt at sport fishing, he was quite proud of his accomplishment and couldn’t wait to tell us all about it upon his return. Weeks later, when the large box arrived at our home in Great Neck, New York, I remember how he carefully removed the barracuda from its packing, recalling what a struggle it was to reel in the big fish. It had now been treated, stuffed and mounted on a wooden board, and he proudly displayed his trophy in his office/study in the attic of our home.
I’m pretty sure it was my older brothers Josh and Drew—and not me—who first teased my father that the barracuda looked a little old, pointing out that it was missing some teeth, too. Dejected, my father concluded that he had indeed caught an elderly barracuda (not that we could really discern the age of a fish) and that it also appeared somewhat smaller than he remembered when first plucked from the Gulf Stream waters. It must have shrunk, he suggested, during the taxidermy process.
To my six-year-old eyes, though, the cigar-shaped barracuda was quite an impressive catch. It was at least two-thirds of my height and body weight, and I thought it made a worthy addition to my father’s office. I remember touching its button-like black eyes with my fingers and admiring the reddish-silver-blue hues that streaked its frame from gill to greenish tail. Most impressive, perhaps, were its uneven, fang-like, razor-sharp teeth, which jutted out from its open mouth, creating the impression that it was grinning maniacally, as if it were having the last laugh. It reminded me of a picture I saw in Famous Monsters of Filmland magazine of Lon Chaney, Sr. in “London after Midnight.” I couldn’t stare too long at the fish without starting to feel scared and looking away.
My father placed the barracuda on a wall above a burgundy leather recliner where he often read and took cat naps after working long hours at the large oak desk that my mother had bought for him at a rummage sale. A year later, he would set a framed poster from his off-Broadway hit play Scuba Duba alongside the barracuda. The poster featured a drawing of a befuddled-looking frog in scuba gear, and it called the play a “a tense comedy.” Its effect next to the old barracuda made it seem as though the menacing-looking fish and the bug-eyed cartoon frog were indeed locked in an intense comedic standoff.
Occasionally, I would find my father resting on his recliner to the gentle whirring of the Hammacher Schlemmer sleep sound machine on the end table. Invariably, there would also be the remains of a cocktail and a half-smoked Macanudo cigar resting on a glass ashtray, too. His wood-paneled office retained the sweet, musky aroma of freshly smoked cigars, and he kept a humidor with a stash of cigars in a nearby storage closet. He also kept a minibar in his office with a bottle of Amaretto liquor and J&B Scotch whisky.
A wooden magazine rack next to the recliner was filled with an assortment of periodicals, some of which contained his most recently published short stories. We’d find copies of Esquire, Mademoiselle, the Antioch Review, the Paris Review, Cosmopolitan, GQ, and our favorite, Playboy. Sometimes Drew and I would sit behind the recliner while my father napped or read and take furtive glances at Playboy photo spreads and centerfolds. I don’t think my father noticed, or if he did, he didn’t seem to mind, but I knew instinctively that this was risky behavior on our part. (We had seen issues of Playboy before at my Aunt Dolly’s house in New Jersey, but my aunt had carefully removed any trace of the offending pictures, leaving behind just the text, much to our disappointment, and no doubt, to my Uncle Irving and cousins, Chuck and Scott, as well).
I loved spending time in my father’s attic office, partly because I was infrequently allowed entry. While my brothers and I had pretty much free reign of our three-story house (and did our best to explore and uncover every nook and cranny), my father’s attic office was special and to be approached with caution and a sense of wonderment. Even my mother, who had initially helped him select furniture and decorate his office, spent little time in his private sanctum, giving him the space he needed to do his writing.
Just getting to my father’s office, you felt that you were entering a separate world. Our bedrooms were on the second floor and as you ascended a narrow flight of creaky stairs, you left behind a cacophony of noise from multiple TV sets and stereos below. His office was located at one end of the attic hallway and he usually kept the thick unpainted wood door locked. We would have to knock before entering, just as if we were entering a real business office. Often I could hear his rat-a-tat typing and the ching sound made by his old Royal manual typewriter as he pounded the keys.
Occasionally, my brothers and I would gather around his recliner as he spun spontaneous stories for us or allowed us to make up our own fantastical tales filled with bizarre superheroes, like flying boys with bat-like wings and monkey boys with special banana powers. Sometimes he would capture our stories on a tape recorder. We were at the pre-teen age when scatological humor would creep into our conversations and whenever our stories drifted into the territory of bodily function humor—typically involving, for reasons I can no longer ascertain, the exaggerated sounds of constipated Chinese waiters—my father would quickly interrupt: “Okay, boys…that’s enough of that,” and story time would come to an end.
For nearly 13 years, my father had worked in an office cubical editing a series of magazines for Magazine Management Co. on Madison Avenue in midtown Manhattan. He quit his job in 1966 to pursue his full-time writing career, which coincided with our family’s move to Great Neck. His new attic office must have seemed palatial compared to the cramped confines of his former office, which shared a wing with the newly established Marvel Comics and its iconic founder Stan Lee. I remember whenever we visited him at his office, he would meet us in the reception area and hand us a stack of Marvel comic books like candy, including Dr. Strange, The Fantastic Four, and The Amazing Spider-Man.
One of the nicest features of his office in the attic was a picture-frame window which took up the width of an entire wall, letting in a steady stream of natural light throughout the day. He set his oak desk in front of the picture window, giving him a commanding view of our expansive backyard. If you stood at the desk you could see a small garden below, and the vines that crawled up the side of our Tudor-style house. Beyond the garden was an open stretch where we played ball games. Capping off the view was a curtain of majestic weeping willow trees alongside a gate at the far edge of the backyard. I remember how proud he was of a tall Spanish-style carved wooden chair with red felt lining on its arms, back, and seat. A red oriental carpet beneath his desk and chair made the otherwise dark hardwood floor stand out. Filled bookshelves bracketed two corner walls. Beside his desk was an antique wooden chest covered with interlacing metal plates and hinges. It looked like Long John Silver’s treasure chest and could only be opened with an oversized golden key. I never saw what was stored inside, but in my youthful imagination, it must have been worth its weight in gold to my father (my mother had a matching chest in the bedroom, which was filled with Victorian-era clothes and shoes, old movie magazines and other collectible fashion materials).
Upon entering my father’s office, you passed a storage closet where he kept his manuscripts and stories on file in boxes. He also had a private bathroom filled with his toiletries (there was a bathroom in the master bedroom one floor below, but my mother’s seemingly endless supply of beauty products took up much of its cabinet space). He had taped to a wall near his desk a Long Island Newsday cover with the alarming headline: “Madman Escapes.” Beneath the headline was a boxed photo of a disheveled looking Richard Nixon stepping off an airplane during a 1968 Presidential campaign stop in Long Island. Although the headline and photo were for separate stories, my father said the paper’s editors were sharing in a private joke while sending a subliminal message to its readers.
Beside his desk he kept a framed picture of a smiling President Lyndon B. Johnson on the wall with a funny inscription made out to my father. It was a forgery given to him by a former magazine editor colleague, Melvin Shestack, who was known for his practical jokes and elaborate pranks. My father also kept a picture of himself sitting at his desk surrounded by all his old magazine colleagues, as a reminder of his former place of employment.
As a pre-teen, I was oblivious to the pressures my father must have been under providing for a wife and three children in a large house in the New York suburbs, especially after having left his full-time job. But I do remember how our live-in housekeeper Mrs. Sullivan would regularly prepare a fresh pot of coffee and breakfast for him in the morning, and would occasionally find him still asleep with his head and arms draped over his typewriter at his desk after a particularly grueling night of work. These were the days when it wasn’t uncommon for him to write a story or two over a single weekend, which would be promptly sold to a willing magazine by his literary agent, Candida Donadio. On one such weekend when I was about three, he sold four stories to Playboy—which paid absolute top dollar at the time, at about $5,000 per story—and celebrated his good fortune by purchasing a new MG sports car. I remember my brothers and I stuffed in the backseat of the two-seater, with me in the middle on top of the spare tire bump. I didn’t mind the discomfort and found the experience adventurous, like a roller coaster ride, especially when I heard the roar from the engine and felt the sudden lurch of the car as my dad shifted into high gear.
While my father was furthering his full-time writing career in the attic, my brothers and I were being equally as creative and imaginative in our explorations throughout the house, including the rest of the attic. We often played hide-and-seek and other games in the adjoining rooms, closets, and crawl spaces, sometimes at our own risk.
In 1969, Josh had collected several copies of the Life commemorative issue documenting Neil Armstrong’s historic walk on the moon. To mark this momentous occasion in our nation’s history, Josh, Drew, and I stood beside a window outside my father’s locked office. A rope was tied around my waist. Lifting the window screen, I climbed through the opening, stepping out onto a narrow ledge. Surveying the backyard landscape beneath my feet, I noticed how small the world had suddenly appeared. That’s one small step for man, one giant leap for mankind. Standing like a skier on an incline, I nervously inched my eight-year-old frame in the direction of a level surface area on the rooftop, just beyond the windowsill; I remember thinking that it would make an ideal setting for a game of box-ball. My brothers ostensibly had a firm hold on the rope, even though I felt little tension on the line. I had faith in them, though, as Armstrong must have had in his fellow astronauts aboard Apollo 11.
Just then I heard a rustling sound as a mustard-colored station wagon with faux wood paneling pulled into our gravel driveway. Standing still, I watched as the car came to a stop and out came our middle-aged housekeeper, Mrs. Sullivan, carrying a bag of groceries.
Josh shouted from the attic window, “Hel-lo, Mrs. Sull-i-van!”
Startled, she looked up and I waved back at her. When she saw me on the roof she dropped the grocery bag. She appeared as though she were about to faint as she braced one arm against her chest. In a panicked, high-pitched voice she shouted: “Kipp! Josh! Get down! I’m going to tell your fah-tha!”
“What’s the matter, Mrs. Sull-i-van?” Josh answered, and then I felt a tug on the rope as he and Drew pulled me back to safety inside the attic window—our first (and only) roof-walk mission aborted.
On another occasion, the three of us discovered a narrow crawl space behind the guest bedroom wall at the other end of the attic where our grandparents, Poppa and Sophie, used to stay whenever they visited us from Fort Lauderdale. Each of us jimmied our way single-file on our backs inside the dark crawl space. I remember narrowly missing scraping my head against a rusty nail that protruded from the low-hanging ceiling above. The crawl space led into a hidden room that was partially illuminated by light pouring through cracks in the wall. We figured this was where the home’s previous occupants stored their luggage, although in our youthful imaginations we were prepared to encounter anything—from a box of gold coins to human remains. Instead, we found something of equal interest: a Green Hornet toy ring—evidence that children from an earlier era had once played in this very same hidden room.
As my brothers and I grew older, our interests naturally expanded beyond our house and our father’s office in the attic. Our time became more occupied by school, after-school activities, playgrounds, the “Food Fair” sledding hill down the street, other friend’s houses and backyards, movies, music lessons, little league baseball, summer camp, girls, and family vacations.
My father’s writing career continued to flourish as well, as he found himself traveling more frequently to Hollywood. He would expand his writing of short stories, novels, and plays to include work on screenplays and TV pilots. He would also spend more time in nearby Manhattan. My mother was also furthering her artistic aspirations, first by creating an exhibit of original Plexiglas artwork and jewelry, and then as an audition training apprentice under the wing of acting coach and casting director Michael Shurtleff.
Although there were a number of clues that my parent’s marriage was beginning to unravel—with words like “separation” and “open marriage” spoken solemnly and in hushed tones within our earshot—I remained blissfully unaware of their marital strife. Soon there would be talk of moving as far away as Rome to “save the family”—anywhere to escape the “negative” influences of nearby Manhattan and Elaine’s, the Upper East Side restaurant and writer’s salon where my father often met many of his literary friends. That remained just talk, as we soon moved in 1973 to a large apartment on Manhattan’s Upper West Side. Within a year after the move my father would move out for good, officially starting the separation process that would lead to their divorce. He settled into a loft studio apartment on 63rd street off of Madison Avenue, less than a mile from his former Magazine Management office. He now made due with a cluttered makeshift work area in one corner of his apartment, a far cry from his former stately office in the attic.
The only things I found familiar in my father’s new apartment were the Scuba Duba poster—plus a poster from his more recent off-Broadway hit play Steambath—and the old barracuda, which he placed above a Formica desk (his large oak desk had been sold in a hectic pre-move rummage sale). Time and several moves had taken a toll on the old fish, which was becoming somewhat frayed and starting to resemble smoked fish at a bar mitzvah. It was missing more teeth and looked strangely out of place against the cream-colored wall, so one day he simply tossed it out.