Casser Tour, Summer of Love
In the Summer of 1967, as heat and anger gathered to explode in Newark and Detroit and love gathered in San Francisco, I boarded a bus in New York’s Port Authority with my parents. This was the last vacation I remember my parents taking and the last I felt obligated to take with them. I was 13, wouldn’t be turning 14 till after we returned with images in my bag I would unpack and explore after Midnight when the voice of WNEW-FM’s Allison Steele added her purple throated voice to my Brooklyn nights.
My parents could teach a class in pretending to a middle class life while seeking to cover working poor income. This may be far more common today with great recessions recent and looming, and an economy of deepening and widening divide, leaving many with memories of assumed solidity and finding liquidity only in the sweat from fear. Back then, even as the ‘60’s opened rifts in perceptions of permanence, we weren’t yet at recessions, gas shortages, and disco.
My few friends were all at camp, volunteering or working at places with doors opened by parents. Me, with a stutter and imagination, I packed a small bag and joined my occasional bookkeeper mother and always women’s shoe store salesman father. How did they even come up with the money for this 7 day tour of upstate NY and a day trip to Expo ’67 in Montreal…the last world’s fair of any note. Back in September, when I had my poor kid bar mitzvah on a Thursday morning, apparently the other sanctioned day for this particularly Jewish American affair, what little money was offered by the 15 or so family in attendance was quickly handed to my parents so the rent could be paid that month. “Today I am a renter”, is what I should have said.
The “should have saids”, especially self-damning for a stutterer, would have prominence one particular night on this trip. The thread of that evening’s tapestry began when we first entered the bus. My parents sat in the fifth row of two seats on the left side while I took the window seat across the aisle so I could lose myself in the scenes that would roll by, knowing that everyone else would be coupled up and no other kid would be dragged along.
Within minutes, my parents and the couple in front of them started talking and laughing. I was pointed at, and I turned my head and waved. No need to attempt saying “hi”…I could get stuck on that ‘h” until the bus reached Westchester. So began a vacation connection that dominated my parents’ attention, not to my surprise but to my liking as it allowed me to be separate and wander.
The other couple, Sal and Donna Bonneti from Newark, was as authentically middle class as my parents were not. Sal owned two plumbing and hardware stores and Donna was a junior high school teacher. They had two kids, both boys, 16 and 17, at sports camps in Pennsylvania. Just the kind my father wished I was and knew I’d never be. I was the son who he beat at boxball and handball every Sunday morning. The one who threw the Passover meat down the incinerator by mistake.
As the bus took its route north to the first stop in Lake George, I heard the shared laughter as my parents and their new friends exchanged histories, real and shaded. I looked out the window as suburbs and then more rural space opened up to the July sun. In just a few days we would hear the news about riots in Newark with fires burning a city that would see ashes and broken glass as a turning point; where blood and national guard boots marked spaces where homes and stores stood only a week before. Sal and Donna, shaken and the easy smiles gone, would leave the tour early to return home and become part of the Newark exodus to find a new place to try and start over in middle age. Memory advises that they moved to Westfield, with a new hardware store and stories to add to the July that changed Newark and Detroit, and the hopes from 1964 and 1965.
Lake George was a half-day stay in a town where a beautiful lake and history from the French and Indian War were obscured by the honky-tonk commercial drapes. We likely had lunch somewhere but no memory is attached even as an aftertaste. The taste that mattered would come that evening.
We pulled into the parking lot of the St. Moritz in Lake Placid around 5 PM. It was a large Victorian hotel with all the requisite dark wood and American imaginings of Old World grandeur. High ceiling lobby, polished floors, uniformed employees, overstuffed chairs and a genteel hush.
My parents’ room had a large bed and thick curtains. Mine, smaller, had a single bed set against the wall with the window opposite. The Casser group was set to have dinner at 7, so I asked if it was OK to take a walk to town and be back in time. As I took many walks on my own in Brooklyn, this was an easy ask.
An Adirondack town of once and future Olympics, Lake Placid allowed me to easily imagine I was walking in a village in Switzerland or Germany. That’s the beauty of an imagination nurtured by time alone and internal architecture; my eyes become a projector of images that mix reality and dreamscape. Walking past shops keeping winter like a child you don’t want to change, I could feel a chill and hear the glide of skis.
I made it back by 6:30 and my parents were wearing their best. My mother in a dark blue floral dress and my dad in a suit. I had dark brown corduroy pants and a dark shirt. We took the elevator down to lobby and were shown to large dining room, almost a ballroom it seemed, filled with tables for the Casser tour and one or two others. Sal and Donna were already seated at a table and waved us over to the three empty seats.
As we walked over, my heart sped up and I could feel sweat forming in my scalp. She wore a black dress and black stockings, and her black hair framed a face with red lips that were slightly open and eyes the color of a lake at dusk. We sat down and no one noticed my sweat or my breathing. And then, she came to the table.
“Good evening. Welcome to the St. Moritz. My name is Beth and I’ll be serving you tonight.” I saw my father and Sal glance at each other and I felt angry. I tried to lift my eyes to hers but couldn’t. Donna told her how lovey she looked and asked if she was a student or worked at the hotel full time. Beth said she was a student at Ithaca College, majoring in English and her family lived in the area.
She asked for drink orders and when she came to me, I managed to look up and, in one of those moments I could never rely on, I said, “Coke” without a stutter. She smiled and I reached quickly for my water glass, almost knocking it over.
Dinner was a blur of my watching Beth as she approached the table, asked how everything was, asked about the tour and where we were from. When she heard, “Brooklyn”, her dark lake eyes widened and she said a friend lived in Brooklyn Heights. She visited during Christmas break and the streets were so pretty and did we live near there. My mom smiled and said we lived across the street from Prospect Park, only a few subway stops away. Hinting that it was as nice as the Heights, maybe even a little finer. Another pretend, but so much had become that I wasn’t sure if she knew the difference. Beth looked over at me, smiled, and said,
“Sounds like a nice place to grow up.”
I swallowed my third Coke and managed,
“Oh, yeah. I l-l-love the park.” My stutter brought looks from Sal and Donna, but it was Beth’s that mattered. In her eyes I saw more than the usual mix of embarrassment and pity. Or believed I did. I wanted to say more but could not.
I did love Prospect Park. It was my escape in many ways; a place where I could be in Middle Earth or the England of Edward III, anywhere but Brooklyn and the three room apartment I choked in. I would sit in the living room that was my parent’s bedroom at night and read Compton’s Pictured Encyclopedia. Or sit out on the fire escape outside the bedroom I shared with my older brother and read, getting lost in the story and the sound of the open subway trains rolling noisily just beyond a concrete wall. In that moment looking into Beth’s eyes, I knew I added something special to my walking dreams. And maybe to my sleeping ones.
As dessert was being served, a group of four from the hotel came into the room carrying a microphone and moved to a space at the back of the room near a large piano. Three were musicians, one guy carrying a bass fiddle, another a saxophone. The third sat down at the piano.
The fourth guy set up the microphone and said, “Good evening, ladies and gentleman. On behalf of the entire staff at the St. Moritz, we hope you are all enjoying your stay with us and thanks to Casser Tours and McClellan Vacations for choosing us for your visit to Lake Placid. Tonight we would like to continue with a tradition we have here at the hotel. We’ve discovered through the years that every summer we are lucky to have among you some real talent in song. So, we’d like to invite anyone who has talent and feels brave enough to come up and share a song or two.”
Oh no. I knew what was about to happen. Whatever happened to their lives, however smaller and plainer they became, my parents always saw themselves as entertainers, at least together. My mother did have a fair husky kind of voice and back in the late 1930’s was asked by a quartet who played Brighton Beach to accompany them on a tour. They had heard her sing, maybe on the boardwalk one summer afternoon when she was with friends, and thought she’d be perfect for their sound. They even had a group name picked out, Gypsy and the Four Kings. But when she asked her parents, Rachel and Morris, a clear ‘no’ kept her in Brooklyn and singing at family gatherings, and maybe still at the boardwalk. But no farther.
My father wasn’t a singer. He could help my mother keep a tune moving, but his real talent was in dance. He looked a bit like James Cagney and he moved a bit like Gene Kelley. Together, my parents found their escape through dancing, gliding in sync with an energy and grace they could never replicate in lives that seemed to forever recede from pre-war dreams. And I existed in the regrets when the music stopped.
One or two people from other tables found the courage and need to step up and sing a standard the band knew and could adapt to the singer. Then, I heard the chairs move and I saw my parents heading toward the microphone and the space where, for a half hour, they could make all the pretend real.
As they began with Gershwin and switched to Berlin and began to dance, you could feel each table’s conversation turn to silence and surprised admiration. All the attention they always wanted right there amidst the coffee and chocolate cake in a ballroom at the St. Moritz in Lake Placid, New York. Sal and Donna watched them, smiling. Sal turned to me, and whispered, “Hey, they are really good. You must be proud.” I nodded, looked down and wished I could get up and leave. I thought about it and then suddenly, sitting down next to me was Beth. She leaned over to me and I stopped breathing. She leaned into me and said, “I know. “ She put her hand on mine and continued, “Once you are a little older and can get away, it will be OK. I promise”.
She got up and maybe she smiled at me but I couldn’t look at her then. Only when she walked to other tables could I watch her walk, stop, and lean in to a whispered request. I wished I had said something.
My parents continued to dance, now to Porter. I got up and walked away, unseen. Or so I thought. As I turned to look back, I saw Beth looking at me and she waved.
I walked to the lobby, sweating and my hands shaking. I heard applause as I left the hotel and walked towards town. The lights from the shops were on now and I stopped to take a breath, and then another. I started walking again, and imagined Beth was with me, not saying anything, just holding my hand. After a while, I imagined telling her about England in the 14th Century and her smiling. I saw that smile for a long time. After I had left for college, as Beth had promised, things did get better, and I was able to smile back.