Saturday, 16 May 2015

The New York Still in Me

An early painting: Story Board of Memory
I’ve heard it say that the earliest impressions last the longest.  That when nearer to the end of your life than the beginning, those memories of childhood, even infancy, become more vivid, so much so they start to crowd out the later ones to such a degree that you can’t remember whether or not you’ve just taken the life-saving pill you need to go on.  If all this is a worry, it’s also a lot of fun.  Take New York, for instance.

I was only a toddler when I went there with my mother.  It was wartime and my father was fighting in the Pacific, though my parents had divorced by then and she would have gone without him in any case.  New York was the place to go if you needed to make your way as an actor, which is what my mother was.  And as it was, she was doing quite well at the time, mainly in ingenue roles in the dozen or soaps that were aired on the radio those days.  I remember a great deal of those days and more, it seems, as I approach the second half of my seventies.  What I want to focus on now is one particular aspect of our life there.

Let me explain.  As well as being a single parent (although departing from the common view of such, in that her life wasn’t really a struggle then as it is for most others, and women on their own did reasonably well during wartime), my mother became a sophisticate the minute she stepped out on Manhattan Island's granite, the rock base that holds all those skyscrapers in place, most of which were there at the time.  Until then she had been a Midwesterner, naïve to a fault, despite the divorce and her profession.  New York, or Manhattan to be accurate, for she rarely left the island and got lost in the Bronx when she did, changed all that.  The thing is, she began to drink.  Not heavily, she never went that far, but it was New York, I believe, that connected her with the cocktail.  In 1943 and thereafter, until we moved to Los Angeles four years later and I grew into a Westerner and left all my budding Eastern pretensions behind, she learned about the Tom Collins, the Harvey Wallbanger, the Manhattan, of course, and above all, the Martini.  Like most of her generation she never drank wine then – wine was for the alcoholics who hung around the Bowery, the street people of the time.  The European habit of wine-drinking came later, as it did in Australia, the very fact of it being European another step up in my mother’s eyes on the sophistication ladder.

I said that I became a barbarian on moving to Los Angeles.  I no longer went to museums on the weekends (there were few then by comparison), I was exposed to West Coast locutions that would have never gone down in my New York classrooms, I started living in houses instead of apartments, and became a young suburbanite, riding a bike to school and spending my summers surfing.  The transformation was complete when I began to look down on Easterners as effete.  Yet my mother didn’t change.  She and her friends went on drinking cocktails, martinis especially, the drier the better, meaning going easy on the Vermouth and pouring in more gin or vodka, and she expanded the repertoire to embrace the Bloody Mary, with arguably sadistic lashings of tobasco.

Fast forward to Australia, circa 1960.  I had left my mother behind, along with a host of other things, when I arrived in Sydney late in 1958.  Here, I soon found, living in my inlaws’ pub, people drank beer or hard liquor mainly; if the imaginative concoctions that were the staple of my mother and her associates were known, they were rarely served, and if so, only in special places on special occasions.  Like everything else American, it seemed - including me - they were regarded with that curious mix of disdain and envy that characterised the Australian attitude of the time.  The Australia I came to was still intriguingly English in orientation, in spite of the resentment people naturally felt about living in a farflung outpost of a waning empire.  Whatever the hard feelings, British was still better.

I was a young woman, scarcely a woman then, as naïve, truth be told, as my mother had been when she took me with her to New York all those years before.  Living in that Sydney pub put me off drinking for a while, but in Canberra I starting drinking cider and brandy, lime and sodas.  I never saw the martinis that Frank Moorhouse had begun writing about, and later, Helen Garner.  And some fifty-seven years down the track I hardly ever drink alcohol, maybe a taste of red wine on social occasions, or champagne on special ones, and lately I’ve ordered Campari and soda, the favoured drop of a certain cherished prime minister who managed to stay sober on it while enduring the many engagements a politician is obliged to, continually subjected to ‘the ruthless bonhomie of the Australian,’ as a particularly insightful writer once put it.   But though martinis have become almost de rigueur among Australian sophisticates, I’ve so far stayed away from them.  I’m not sure my system could stand them, and there’s a part of me that resents - I admit it – the current Australian embrace of practically anything American, the 21st century’s version of our tired old cultural cringe.  And this goes for New York especially.  Everyone wants to go there, to live there, a number of my grandchildren for a start, and in at least two contemporary novels I’ve read, the sine qua non of the protagonist’s making it is ending up there.   

My mother died 19 years ago, of cirrhosis of the liver, would you believe, from contracting chemical hepatitis through stripping paint on the cupboards in her Venice, California kitchen.  It had been years since she gave up cocktails, so there was no small irony there, not to mention a tragedy.  That notwithstanding, now that I’m getting closer to my own departure, the martini has become ever more attractive to me.  For as it has come to be with so many of us, martinis in their way are a symbol of New York for me, the sharpness and the dryness of them, the memories preserved in them.  And because of this I may in my dotage throw caution to the winds and, what the hell, make it my habit of drinking them, sipping them slowly while watching the sun go down, then disappear entirely over the edge of the Pacific.