Sunday, February 24, 2013

Where Not to Drive Your Rolls-Royce

My father told me this story.  He was a doctor.  We lived on the East Side of Manhattan, where the tone of genteel prosperity was pervasive.  Daddy worked on the West Side of Manhattan, where things were a bit different, back in the 1950’s.

Central Park lies between East and West, and, to make things easier for people like my father, there are a number of transverse roads (I think we used to call them “cuts” because they run largely in trenches below ground level). 

One of these cuts leaves Central Park at 97th Street and Central Park West.  Thanks to urban renewal, 97th Street is quite wide as it heads toward Columbus Avenue.  This was a favorite route for Daddy and his doctor friends as they commuted to St. Luke’s Hospital.  They could go over to Amsterdam and turn right, or they could turn right on Central Park West.  St. Luke’s is less than a mile north on Morningside Heights, nestled in with Columbia University and the Cathedral of St. John the Divine. 

When I think of my father I often think of an old French movie, The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie.  Not for the movie, although it’s quite a good one, but for the title.

Daddy didn’t believe in showing off.  We lived well, but not extravagantly.  And that was on purpose.  You showed just enough for the world to see you as a member of the upper middle class.  And you didn’t show any more. 

Daddy drove a Buick.  He would never drive a Cadillac.  Too flashy by half.  One day he came home and told us that a very successful colleague had purchased a Rolls-Royce.  Daddy wasn’t one to criticize a colleague.  I imagine him shaking his head and chuckling, as he often did.

And then one day he came home and told us the story.  Again, it was not his way to take joy in the suffering of others.  Not so much as an I told you so.  Just a shake of the head and a rueful smile were enough for him.

As I recall, it was summer, and the nights had been warm.  Dr. Rolls-Royce had been on his way to the hospital at the end of the day to see his patients.  This was called “evening rounds.”  He drove through Central Park and emerged on to 97th Street, where it appeared that an informal street party was going on.

As I mentioned, the street here is quite wide, so it’s a natural place for a crowd to gather.  You can put a lot of people on the asphalt and still have room for cars to get through. 

Perhaps it was a very large crowd.  Or perhaps people looked at the car and felt unmotivated about moving out of the way.  I don’t know.  But Dr. Rolls-Royce found himself having trouble getting down the block.  Rumor has it he may have honked his horn once or twice.  Then he accidentally bumped someone.  And the next thing he knew, strong hands were pulling him from his mobile castle and beating him.  Whaling the tar out of him would perhaps be an appropriate phrase.

I don’t actually know how all this was resolved.  Perhaps the police arrived.  I don’t know.  But Dr. Rolls-Royce managed to get out of there with his car, which apparently didn’t suffer so much as a scratch.  And when he got to the doctors’ cloakroom at the hospital, he waxed indignant for all to hear.

This story puts me in mind of a scene in the movie Casablanca, where Humphrey Bogart says to Major Strasser, “Well, there are certain sections of New York, Major, that I wouldn’t advise you to try to invade.”

I think it was then that I began to understand there was more behind our lifestyle than simple modesty.  My father became a grownup during the wretched excess of the Roaring Twenties, and then he lived through the Great Depression and spent a few years touring Europe during World War II.  He’d seen a lot, and he knew when to keep his head down.

The rich of his time also seemed to have learned this lesson (with a few exceptions).  Then, somewhere perhaps in the Reagan administration, they forgot.  And I think we owe much of the more tedious aspects of our politics today to that forgetfulness.

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