When we lived in Maryland, my father worked for various paper companies. He held a series of middle management jobs that, during the 1960s, a man without a college degree could land mostly just by virtue of being a well-spoken WASP. Never the corporate type, he would have been far better suited to being the principal of a middle school, for example. But if he lacked the sharp elbows required to jockey his way to the upper echelons of business, his bended elbow was perfectly made for the era of three-martini lunches. As an exceedingly nice guy who held his liquor fairly well, he was an attractive drinking companion. He wasn’t into sports, but he knew to peruse the back pages of last night’s newspaper for scores; he wasn’t a womanizer, but could be trusted to keep quiet over a co-worker’s indiscretions. Everybody liked Steve Olmsted.
Occasionally he would take a business trip, and my mother would take advantage of his absence to dispense with the usual way of doing things. I now see that she probably hoped to recreate the clubhouse feeling that existed between her and us before we started grammar school. We could watch TV as we ate, usually the Dick Van Dyke Show or I Love Lucy. She would make a pitcher of very milky tea, and we would eat “crazy meals” marked by one big fun entrée like spaghetti. During the commercials, someone would ask: “Please don’t pass the butter!” – then declare—”Opposite Day!” (Only as an adult did I discover we hadn’t made up this game.)
When my father was home, dinner was promptly at six. In the warm months, around 5:45 or so, my father would stand on our porch, letting out a long two-toned whistle that would penetrate every far-flung nook and cranny in the neighborhood. We had five minutes to finish up whatever game we were playing, five minutes to run home, and five minutes to wash our hands and make sure we were wearing a clean shirt. I can’t remember ever being late for dinner.
If traditions such as “no advertising on the table” (like milk cartons), and monogrammed napkin rings were a legacy of my father’s upbringing, establishing a topic of conversation at the table was truly his own idea. He made sure that all of us had a chance to have our say. Otherwise, my brother Luke and I would dominate the proceedings – he being naturally bossy and me naturally talkative. My dad would try to sum up our various contributions or impose a theme of sorts. This worked fine in principle, but in practice his consumption of Zinfandel made him a weak Master of Ceremonies. More often than not, his illustrative anecdote would miss the very point he was trying to make, or his poorly constructed joke would land with a thud. We would feel embarrassed for him, me in particular. My mother would say “Oh, Steve” wearily, then suggest we clear the table. We would gratefully comply.
A few times when my Dad was going into his raconteur manqué mode, I stumbled onto a one-liner that managed to make his misfire seem like a set-up for my joke. Not only would the tension be broken, but everyone would burst out laughing, and I would take pleasure in saving my father from appearing foolish. I began to dread his stories and unfunny jokes less as I became better and better at turning him into Ed McMahon to my Johnny Carson.
Had his alcoholism turned my father mean or violent, life would have been more difficult, but less confusing. None of us except my mother had yet connected the cocktails to what seemed like a corresponding drop in I.Q every evening. I simply recognized that my dad was the parent who never seemed to answer a direct question with a direct answer, and would be perfectly happy to help you with your math but could never spot an error in your work.
I knew that when a TV dad came back from a business trip, the children clamored to find out what he’d brought home for them. I also knew mine wasn’t that kind of dad, but asked once anyway, just in case. Almost apologetically, he came up with one of those small little airplane bottles, empty of its bourbon. Nothing could have pleased me more.
Down in the basement, the younger four of us – Luke, Sandra, Erica and I – would play “White Trash Family.” The little airline bottle, filled with tea, was the perfect prop for Luke as the gruff, working class father. As we “ate,” he would swill it down, pretending to get increasingly drunk and abusive. This was thrilling to us in the same way a scary movie might have been had we been allowed to watch one. Sandra expertly played the cowering wife, keeping her head down, waiting for the first inevitable faux swat of many. I would vainly try to fend off the brute, as little Erica pretended to eat her invisible cereal while looking on in horror that was only half-pretend. (My poor sister could never understand why we couldn’t just play regular “house.”)
Eventually our pretend dysfunctional family evolved into a tableau for a bona fide haunted house. We nailed some two-by-fours across the underside of the steps, fashioning an enclosure in which I played a humped creature kept at bay by my brother, as he cracked a bullwhip against the concrete floor of the basement. Doubling as guide, Luke would greet the neighborhood kids at the basement door in a cape, a flashlight in his face providing ghoulish illumination. He would then take the wide-eyed guests along a path to a table where my sister Sandra, dressed as a crone, would offer them “eyes” for sale—bloody marbles in ketchup-stained cotton. Erica would be hidden under the table, poking at their little legs with something wet. Then came my animal shrieks from under the stairs, which would propel them to the exit going up to the garage and back into the driveway and street. Not bad for five cents, but since we wanted repeat business, we were always coming up with new features.
One day Luke and I took one of Erica’s old dolls, put a noose on her, and dangled her over a water pipe that threaded its way across the ceiling. I had the bright idea to light her hair on fire, a reckless suggestion for a goody-two-shoes like me, probably born from an intense desire to impress my older brother. I remember my shock when he agreed we should try it, as the de rigueur reaction to any idea generated by me was a scowl. Matches were taken from the ashtray where my father rested his pipe, and an attempt was made to drop the doll into an empty toy chest with her hair on fire.
We hadn’t counted on the flame-retardant nature of the doll’s nylon hair, so all we managed was some minor singeing, to my secret relief. (I liked the idea of being “bad” far more than actually being bad.) But the word “singe” evoked something else, another phrase that danced at the edge of my tongue. I had overheard it when my parents were discussing the merits of a job offer my father was considering.
Luke released the rope, and chest slammed shut on that poor doll. The moment called for some sort of caption, a signature, le mot juste. And suddenly the adult phrase I had recently learned popped into my head. I waited a full second, then delivered it in my best Vincent Price.
Perhaps this is only mildly amusing in retrospect, but I can say without a doubt that at the time it killed. Even my brother, who usually went out of his way to avoid acknowledging my jokes, could not stop laughing. More importantly, neither could I. I felt the rush of being intentionally witty; the payoff of constantly juxtaposing different combinations of words and ideas against each other and then delivering the result at precisely the right moment.
Being funny was my first addiction.
In 1968, my father started working at the West Virginia Pulp & Paper Company. We loved calling him at work. The word “pulp” was just plain fun to say , and then there was the alliteration when it was followed by “paper.” Those poor receptionists had to say the whole mouthful every time, no doubt amused at the paroxysms of giggles this provoked when we heard: “West Virginia Pulp and Paper Company; how may I direct your call?”
In 1969, the company renamed itself Westvaco, and transferred my father to New York. The next year we moved to Mount Vernon, the first stop on an easy commute for my dad to Grand Central Station. The house was a perfectly lovely Tudor on a leafy street, but the town itself was far more Bronx than Bronxville, and our new schools were full of abrasive kids of every ethnicity speaking in a very scary accent.
The basement of our new home was serviceably dank and grey, but we felt no need to replicate our haunted house. The mean streets of New Yawk were plenty full of terrors, thank you very much.