Somewhere among my effects—my stuff, my junk—there is a small book with a white cover, stiff and warped. It’s not a Bible, and I’ve not read it very much. It’s a copy of poems by Tennyson.
For the first twenty years of my life I lived in an apartment house in Manhattan, a five-story L-shaped building that abutted a twin building, so that together they formed a protective U around a courtyard. My neighbors were Irish (mostly: the Stewarts, the Harrisons, the Kirks, the Keowns, the Dwyers, the O’Dwyers), French (one couple, the Rollands, on the fourth floor), Greek (one family, the Armases, with a girl and a boy the same age as me and my brother), Jewish (a few: the Pages, the Weinglasses, the Pollacks, Martha Greisel), German (the Wankes).
Among all these nameable nationalities, there was one couple, the Cheadles (Dickensian name, especially since he was a lawyer), whom we called “English.” They weren’t from England. They simply didn’t have a tag like the rest of us. They were, I guess, what people now call “WASP.” Mrs. Cheadle had a fluty Eleanor-Roosevelt kind of voice. She told me once that Mr. Cheadle had gone to Columbia Law School in the same class as Franklin Roosevelt.
I think the Cheadles had come down badly in the world. No lawyer, doctor, or teacher lived in our building or in the near neighborhood. And while I was living there, they came down even more, because they moved from an apartment on the first or second floor to a three-room basement apartment, with half-height windows that looked out onto the feet of people coming and going—or playing—in the court.
I commuted to college from that apartment house, for four years walking a block or so to the screeching elevated subway train that I took downtown. And then I married. My neighbors showered me with rice. Mrs. Kirk gave me two silver-plate serving pieces, a fork and pierced spoon that I still use frequently—out of her own things, because they were tarnished and my mother polished them. Mrs. Cheadle gave me the white book. I think it meant she had hopes for me.