MY LIFE IN THE SWIRL
By David H. Lippman
The arithmetic was simple. Between 1976 and 1980, boys outnumbered girls at New York’s elite Stuyvesant High School by about four to one. The school had only become co-ed in 1973, and for some reason, girls were still catching up with the academic test one had to pass to get into a high school that has spewed out four Nobel Laureates in its 100-year history. Its alumni also include Tim Robbins, Lucy Liu, Jimmy Cagney, Thelonious Monk, Beastie Boy Adam Horowitz, “Elegant Universe” scientist Brian Greene, and U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder. If you wanted to be on a team that drew respect and admiration, you joined the Math Team.
In short, it’s a school full of very intelligent kids. And the guys outnumbered the girls four to one. That made the girls very picky, and understandably so. If you were not going to be a pre-med, a pre-law, a pre-dent, an engineer, a biochemist, or a scientist, girls weren’t interested in you. Of course, it helped if you had rippling muscles, good looks, a hot car, a trunkful of beer, and access to one of the new discos that were opening up all over New York, like Studio 54.
The results were very simple: the really hot girls dated college freshmen. The druggies and boozers dated druggies and boozers. The Asian girls were usually not allowed by their parents to go on dates, because they either had to study after school or work in their parents’ business. A good number of girls weren’t dating at all, wisely focusing on getting the highest grades possible. The jockettes on the girls’ athletic teams (we had them) dated the jocks on the boys’ athletic teams. The girl who was head of the local chapter of the National Honor Society was a Jewish princess who went out on dates accompanied by her grandfather. A pal of mine who actually got a date with her told me it was a nightmare. The “date” consisted of the grandfather grilling my pal about his studies of Talmud and Torah (which were none), and urging him to join his synagogue to do so. At the close of the “date,” under his glowering eye, girl and boy shook hands cordially and agreed never to “go out” again. Another girl had left her fiancé behind in Israel, and couldn’t wait to get back to him.
Then there were other cold factors that whittled down my social life. There was a boy in my class named Ryan Sweeney (not his real name), who came from a family of geniuses. They were written up in New York magazine. He had blond hair, rippling muscles, high grades, and was captain of the swim team. He showed up for Creative Writing class with Frank McCourt (yes, THAT Frank McCourt, of Angela’s Ashes fame) one February day wearing only swim trunks and goggles. The guys stared with envy at his toned figure. The girls drooled with desire at his toned figure. McCourt glanced at his toned figure, muttered, “Jesus Christ,” and studiously ignored him. Needless to say, he had plenty of female admirers. I could not compete with that.
The result was that the girls, not the boys, were the ones who sat around the big table in the cafeteria, regaling each other with highly colored tales of incredible sexual adventures the previous weekend or night, or complained about their boyfriends’ inability to please them properly. All the guys could do was sit there quietly and ponder the reversal of fortune. The girls’ stories of actual adventures easily eclipsed the wildly inflated stories guys usually tell.
More to the point, the girls enjoyed having the position of power. When asked out, they would tell the unwanted suitor precisely why they would not be seen outside of a classroom with a snotty little jerk like that particular suitor, that she would rather eat worms than go out with him, and that the suitor could go to hell and die.
So as teenage years and raging hormones hit me, and I began to wonder about the two great questions of life (1. What’s under that dress? 2. Can I play with it?), I quickly realized that the ratio was worse than four-to-one against me…it was more like 30-1.
Coming from a Jewish family, I naturally figured I would chase girls of the same ethnicity. They turned me down, often with considerable derision. I was not going to be a pre-med. Or a pre-dent. Or a pre-law. I was a dork, a dweeb, a nerd, and a clown. In a school full of dorks, dweebs, nerds, and clowns.
So I expanded my range of pursuit. I had stunningly bad luck. The girl who sat next to me in Art Appreciation was the daughter of the Palestine Liberation Organization’s Ambassador to the United Nations. She was cute, but we had fundamental differences over little matters of Middle Eastern politics. I approached a charming girl in my Creative Writing class. She had a boyfriend. I approached another one. She also had a boyfriend. I gave a third one the history assignment she had missed the previous day. Her boyfriend threatened to kill me if I ever spoke to his girlfriend again. Clearly, I was on a roll.
I asked out another girl I knew, and she presented me with fliers for her fundamentalist church. That ended that. I tried another girl in my lunchroom, and she was indeed eager to go out with me…if we went to her lesbian rights rally. I thought she was coming up with a great way to humiliate me in front of everybody. No, she was serious. She wanted me to get involved with the crusade. Later she showed up in school wearing a button that read, “A Woman Needs A Man Like A Fish Needs A Bicycle.”
But then, I had to admit, I was not that great a “catch.” I didn’t know it, but I suffer from Asperger’s Syndrome, a mild form of autism that turns its victims into socially clueless “little professors,” who can spew out all kinds of useless trivia, but lack any sense of social skill whatsoever. Teenage boys, by definition, lack social skill. I was suffering from a deficit of social skills. I came off as a weird loser. To make matters worse, I was having an awful time at school and with my life. I could not do math. Or physics. Or chemistry. My teachers said I was the “stupidest person” in class. That quip seared me for life.
My mother was a borderline narcissist who used suicide threats to turn me and my brother into emotional wrecks. My brother suffered from Crohn’s Disease, which turned my mother into a hysterical, screaming, monster, alternating angry threats with bouts of self-pity. In my senior year, I nearly killed myself. Instead, I just suffered a nervous breakdown. I was a wreck, and girls noticed that, and stayed away.
Sometime in this three-year ordeal, I flew to Florida to visit my grandmother and her sisters in their retirement community, and sat quietly in the living room, listening to them run down the current generation’s morals, which were, of course, very bad. Especially whites going out with blacks. After decrying modern dating habits, they would grill me on mine, and were quite relieved to hear that I was still pure. They hoped I would remain so, and that I would soon present them with a nice Jewish wife, so they could come to my wedding. As I was aged 15 years old, marriage was far from my mind. I just wanted to get laid, and find out what all the fuss was about.
But my grandmother and her sisters planted a little seed in my mind. That fall I sat next to a charming black girl in my Creative Writing class (with Frank McCourt again), and we hit it off right away. She was funny, pretty, intelligent, and had a great smile. After about two months, I impulsively asked her out.
She turned me down. She had a boyfriend. Of course.
But she did it differently than the previous white girls I had asked out. She told me I was a very sweet guy, and if she did not have a boyfriend, she would have gone out with me. She recognized at some levels that I was an outcast myself from the school’s society, and she had a better idea of what it meant to be rejected harshly by powerful forces than the white girls did. She sensed my desperation, and saw that despite my social awkwardness and issues, I was not a bad guy, and let me down gently. I was touched by that.
So I started asking black girls out. I got similar results. I was a very nice guy, but they had boyfriends, or they weren’t dating, or their parents wouldn’t let them date. I think they meant their parents wouldn’t let them date me, because of the melanin content of my skin, but they were good about it. They didn’t humiliate or embarrass me. They didn’t insult me. They didn’t berate me as a loser. They didn’t bring in their boyfriends to threaten my life. They didn’t run off and tell their friends that the total jerk Lippman had just asked them out on a date, so they could all laugh at me. I was struck by the warmth and decency being displayed.
I didn’t get any dates in high school. On the night of the Senior Prom, I went to Yankee Stadium and suffered through the indignity of the Yankees losing, 10-2, to the hated Boston Red Sox.
Next year, I started my freshman year at NYU, in a state of self-loathing. In classes and parties, I continued to pursue women, and again, noticed an interesting thing – white girls turned me down harshly, black girls turned me down nicely.
In my second year at NYU, I finally acquired a girlfriend – a Jewish girl from Long Island, who had more issues than Time magazine. She relieved me of my virginity, but she was at war with the world, and drank heavily. When she drank heavily, she became loud, offensive, and obnoxious.
The relationship ended when she intercepted me outside one of my classes in the early afternoon, loaded. Her father had not paid her phone bill, and it was about to be shut off. So she had done the logical thing, round up loans from her pals to pay the $75 bill. Then instead of going to the phone company to pay it, she got drunk, and staggered over to my classroom, where she screamed abuse and imprecations about her father, and insults at amused passersby.
I flung her into the elevator, took her back to her dorm room, got the money and phone bill, walked over to the phone company, and paid the bill. On the way back, I realized that if I stayed with this girl, I would spend the rest of my life dragging her drunken self out of parties, events, and restaurants, fending off angry and embarrassed people. So that relationship ended.
At the same time, I met a black girl in my Politics class, who I’ll name Sara, who agreed to go out with me. She was warm, calm, and relaxed. She happily introduced me to her pals, and soon I was attending parties in Harlem with her friends and relatives, and even though I was editor of the school’s Jewish student newspaper, I was hanging out mostly with black people.
They were a hell of a lot more interesting than the folks in the school’s Jewish organization. The males all seemed to be career-obsessed hypocrites, and all they talked about was the latest essay by some rabbi, or Middle Eastern politics. They decried the horrible sight of Jewish guys marrying non-Jewish girls and vice-versa…then drooled over a fresh photograph of actress Phoebe Cates, whose father was Jewish and mother was Chinese. Miss Cates was then attending NYU, learning how to act, so she could do “Fast Times at Ridgemont High.” Apparently she was an exception to the rule against dating non-Jewish girls.
I cuttingly pointed out to these gentlemen that by their standards, Lisa Bonet, who is my age, was a nice Jewish girl, too. They didn’t know how to handle that one.
The girls were stereotypical princess, down to the screechy voices. One such girl sauntered up to me one evening, wearing a mini-skirt, puckered her lips at me, and said she would go out with me if I found out for her “which parties the pre-meds go to.” I picked my jaw up off the floor, and asked, why do you need to know which parties the pre-meds go to, I asked. “Daddy says they can take good care of me,” she said. I picked my jaw back up off the floor again in amazement.
That did it – no more Jewish girls for me.
I got quite an education from my pals at NYU. What the “black tax” was. What it was like to have security guards follow you around in trendy stores. The irritation they felt at being patronized. Who Garrett A. Morgan was. They looked with annoyance and disdain on the dysfunctional members of their ethnic group, and resented being linked to their anti-social actions by sharing the same color skin. They looked askance at kids they’d known in the neighborhood – or more usually the old neighborhood – that they’d grown up with, who were wasting their lives.
I told them about having similar experiences. I told them about walking into my eighth grade home room on the first day of the year and having every kid look at me, and say, “Oh, no! It’s Lippman!” The teacher told me I was in the wrong room, and I left. All the kids applauded as I left the room. My pals nodded sagely. They could relate to that, sharing with me stories about their own lives or their parents’ and grandparents’ struggles.
I was in love with Sara, but she was not in love with me. She was in love with her burning ambition to become a politician in her native Harlem. After we graduated, I never saw her again.
Around this time, a young lady one year older than me with the unlikely name of Rae Dawn Chong burst into prominence as a film actress, playing a Neanderthal woman in “Quest For Fire,” a caveman drama, in which she invents the missionary position. She went on to do some highly forgettable movies, like “The Squeeze,” “The Principal,” “Commando,” and “Soul Man.” She also had a short appearance in “The Color Purple,” where Oprah Winfrey punches her in the nose, and she flies across the room and down a hole in the floor into the river in best Wile E. Coyote style. Regardless of the films, though, she had a luminous presence in them, an unbelievable smile, and after that, when asked what I wanted my fantasy woman to look like, I would answer, “Rae Dawn Chong.”
Interestingly, I had few experiences with “Angry Black Women.” Maybe it was because I was dealing with the black middle and upper class…Sara’s mother was a judge, for example. None of them were single mothers, supporting damaged men. They didn’t see me as an oppressor, a threat, or a monster. None of them had tattoos – or at least none that I could see. They didn’t have weight issues, they weren’t loud, and they avoided fried chicken. I didn’t meet the black women one sees on TV reality shows or situation comedies unless I turned on a TV reality show or a situation comedy.
A year after I developed my crush on Rae Dawn Chong, Vanessa Williams earned her hardware as Miss America. I usually didn’t care one bit about the Miss America pageants, because I believe they celebrate dirty old men’s lust and female stupidity. But Vanessa Williams was different. Aside from being hot, she looked like she had something between her ears besides hair care products. Like every other heterosexual man in America, I wondered what was under her gown. Like every other heterosexual man in America, I got to find out.
One of my funnier moments when covering the Yankees for United Press International was when I got a copy of the infamous magazine while en route to Yankee Stadium, and was able to share it with my colleagues in the press box. After the game, while we were interviewing Dave Winfield about his achievements in that game, the talk turned to the Vanessa Williams fiasco, and Dave wondered what the fuss was about. He had not seen the pictures. My colleagues ordered me to produce the magazine, and the normally articulate and urbane future Hall-of-Famer was, for once, lost for words.
So when people ask me who’s second after Rae Dawn Chong, I answer, “Vanessa Williams.”
But the switch was not quite flipped. On Thanksgiving Eve in 1984, I met Kathy, who I eventually married, up the block from my home, by then in Hoboken, New Jersey. She was and is Irish-Italian girl who raised Doberman Pinschers and champion tropical fish. She joked that she did not intend to get married, and if she had a kid, she would raise that kid, like a dog – put her in a kennel and teach her obedience. We laughed about that.
An aside note here: we met on the streets of Hoboken. At that time, the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade stored and built its floats in Hoboken, and rolled them out the night before the parade into the streets of Hoboken before sending them through the Lincoln Tunnel. Hoboken residents usually troop up to those streets and inspect the floats, trying to guess what they will be the following day. There I met Kathy, with a pal, making dirty jokes about what the floats were supposed to be. We walked around together, and then back towards her home. She thought I was stalking her. I thought I was just going home in the same direction as her. She stopped at her front gate, and said, “Good bye, now. I live here.” I was astonished. I had no idea she lived up the block from me.
We went out for a year, and then, unable to take my inability to move forward in my life, dumped me. She went off with another guy, living with him in Newark. But we remained friends. After all, her family lived up the block from me in Hoboken, and we saw each other all the time. Even though we were no longer lovers, she knew me better than I knew myself. Kathy has a remarkable ability to read people and situations. As she often says, “I hate being right all the time.”
The switch was now flipped. I was done with white girls. The black girls I had met in high school and college were warm, friendly, and supportive, even if they all seemed to come equipped with boyfriends. Somewhere, I thought, there had to be black girls who were not issued them.
So I pursued black girls exclusively. And I started getting dates. Some relationships worked, and some did not. Sometimes the girls I approached were perplexed and baffled at seeing just who was asking them out. They did not expect to see a white guy standing there, asking them out. Rarely did I encounter hostility. Usually I just got a warm rejection.
25 years later, it’s hard for me to remember the details now. Some of these relationships lasted as long as most of my pursuits of women did – an incredible 20 seconds. Long enough to find the object of my interest was turning me down. Some of them lasted a few dates. One lasted two years. I remember some of the faces, not all of the names. Was it the girl with the dreadlocks I took to Yankee Stadium or the girl with the straight hair? Or was that the one who thought I was a great guy, but was saving herself for marriage? Was it the police officer’s daughter who lived at 148th Street and Lenox Avenue or the shop-owner’s? I was never good with faces, a problem caused by my Asperger’s. It’s difficult to separate them out so many decades later. Little moments still stand out, instances of warmth and tenderness, or disconnect and failure.
My parents didn’t object to my taste. My mother admitted that back when she was a student at the University of Leeds in the early 1950s, she had dated a black African exchange student. She did not give details. She never did. Dad was a very easygoing guy. He just said that when he grew up in Upper Manhattan in the 1930s and 1940s, my types of relationships simply didn’t exist. But if I was happy, he was happy.
I dated one girl who lived at 148th Street and Lenox Avenue, and I would drop her off at home, then walk down Lenox Avenue in the summer heat to the subway station at 135th Street and Lenox Avenue to go home, and contrary to the cluckings of out-of-towners about New York’s crime and racial issues, nobody bothered me. I was just another New York guy plodding down Lenox Avenue on a hot summer night.
Living in New York, I didn’t have too many social problems. My girlfriends and I would get decent seats in restaurants, nobody staring at us. My friends were warm and cordial. My parents treated them with as much good cheer and hospitality as they could muster.
While this was going on, I took a screenwriting course at the New School for Social Research, with an instructor named Meade Roberts, who had worked with Tennessee Williams. I wrote a romantic comedy screenplay in which a white guy on college spring break in Florida met a black girl in his grandmother’s retirement community (who was on spring break doing the same thing), and they fell in love. The class and Meade loved it. I have no idea where the hard copy and computer disks are any more. The black kids in the class thought I’d done a good job with the characters.
Right after that, C. Thomas Howell did the movie “Soul Man” with Rae Dawn Chong, which sort of dealt with the subject, but did so badly. Rae Dawn was as luminous as ever, and she married C. Thomas Howell. Their union lasted about two years.
Two of the girls I dated endured for a while. Cecilia was older than me, and regarded me as the plaything of an idle hour, which I did not mind one bit. We dined in restaurants in Greenwich Village and then went back to her place in East Orange, where she lit candles in the bedroom. Then she got tired of me, and didn’t return my phone calls.
By then, I was working in the newspaper business full-time, and was working 4 p.m. to midnight, which were not the best hours for going out and meeting people. So I took out a personal ad in a magazine aimed at black single women, and amazingly, I got a bunch of responses. I tried one response, who said she was a baseball fan, and took her to a Yankee game. In the third inning, she admitted she was not a baseball fan. It went downhill from there, but again, she was pleasant about it.
The next response was from Lorraine, and she lived in Jersey City. I picked her up at 3 p.m., took her out to see “The Last Emperor,” which had just come out, and we had a great time. We had dinner, and talked all evening. I got her back home at 3 a.m. Some of my dates turned into marathons. So did this relationship. It lasted for two years.
Lorraine was a very sweet nursing student and Air Force reservist, with a brassy family, that included two funny nephews. I took them to Fleet Week in New York and the postage stamp show at Madison Square Garden, where they enjoyed the “Kids Camp.” Lorraine’s family invited me to their events. I even went to the wedding of Lorraine’s college roommate, up at West Point. They were very accepting of me, and I was glad. In most white events, because of my negative experiences, I felt like an outcast, even in dealing with my own family, because of my mother’s manifold issues. With Lorraine’s family, I was not.
Kathy was pleased with what was going on too, and she was happy I was finding dates and girlfriends. When my newspaper held a party honoring me and other staff members for winning some journalism awards, I invited Kathy and Lorraine both to the event. They got along. But Lorraine tartly noted that Kathy seemed to know me better than she did. She asked if I was still in love with Kathy. I wasn’t, I said. Deep down, I was not so sure.
After about six or seven months, Lorraine and I talked about getting married. I had a big job interview with a newspaper in Annapolis, Maryland, so we drove to Annapolis by way of Gettysburg, touring the Civil War battlefield, and then heading to the job interview. Both of us were amazed by the distance Pickett’s division traveled to get slaughtered. She was military and I was into military history, so we had common ground there, too.
While I was grilled by the newspaper editors, she went over to the local hospitals and asked about nursing jobs there. I didn’t get the job, so we didn’t move to Annapolis. Too bad. I liked the city on first appearance.
My crew at my newspaper knew about my taste in women – they’d met Lorraine at our paper’s events – and one of my colleagues told me about an annual event in New Orleans called the “quadroon ball,” in which, back in the 19th century, young white men were introduced at some giant formal cotillion to stunning young part-black women, and the young women would be lovers to these men until they found their high-born wives. Apparently the theory was that these black girls would teach the white boys what to do to “perform marital duties” to their future wives.
That’s an interesting and bizarre tradition, I told my pal, but why are you mentioning it to me?
Because, he said, they were doing them again in New Orleans, for the more benign purpose of bringing boys and girls together to find romance. So let me get this straight…they have a ball full of women who look like Jasmine Guy (my crush at the time) dressed like Vivien Leigh, all hoping to meet a guy like me?
That’s the deal, my pal said.
Well, I answered. I had to go to this event, and ask each girl in turn the vital question that would determine if we could get along: “Who was the last member of the New York Yankees to receive the Most Valuable Player Award?” The correct answer at the time was: “Don Mattingly, 1985.” A girl who shared my passion for baseball and the Yankees and San Francisco Giants would win me.
Around this time, my newspaper had to cover Mike Tyson and Robin Givens in some detail. Mr. Tyson had suffered a problem with his limousine and dumped it on a street in Manhattan, in the presence of two Port Authority of New York and New Jersey cops. Angry at the car’s failure to move, Mr. Tyson gave the car to the cops, who flipped a coin to choose which home to drive it to. Mr. Tyson flagged down a taxi, and went home. A few days later, Mr. Tyson’s handlers began asking the Port Authority Police about the car, and could Mr. Tyson get it back? The cops lived in our coverage area, and were investigated and charged with illegally taking gifts. Our reporter had to go out and interview Mr. Tyson and met with the then-Mrs. Tyson. Our reporter came back to tell us that she was pretty sure that Mike was mistreating Robin, and they should not be together. But they sure had a ritzy mansion together.
I told our reporter that if Robin Givens had dated me, she might not be living in a ritzy mansion, but she wouldn’t be getting slapped around. I predicted a swift divorce. A few months later, they did get divorced. My colleagues joked that I should try to catch Robin on the rebound. I told them I would if I could, but at that moment, I was taken.
On Friday, January 6, 1989, Emperor Hirohito of Japan joined his ancestors, and died. When I came to work at my newspaper, there was a stack of phone messages from Lorraine. Breezily, I told her I was answering her earliest message and ignoring the later ones.
She told me that she had been to the doctor, and learned that our various birth control measures had failed. Before I could absorb this shock to the system, one of my editors came up and told me that one of our copy editors, Mike Pauciello (that’s his real name), had been killed the previous evening in a car crash.
I had interviewed Mike for his job on the newspaper’s copy desk, recommended his hire, trained him on the copy desk to replace me when I was promoted, and regarded him as my protégé at the paper. Now I had to write his obituary.
It was an interesting weekend for me. I have never written about it before. Little issues of life and death spun around my head like fireflies. I could not concentrate on anything. One minute I was trying to figure out how to be a father, the next I was grappling with Mike Pauciello’s death. Lorraine and I talked about what we were going to do. I was ready to marry her, and told her so. She did not want to tie me down, but wanted my support in raising the child. She was prepared to be a single mother. I was not going to be an absentee father. We had strained conversations.
On Monday morning, I went to work and that evening, to Mike’s wake at the funeral home. His family thanked me for the obituary. I told them it was an agony to write it. The next day, I went with the chief copy editor to Mike’s funeral, which was as awesome and lugubrious as all Roman Catholic funeral masses. I cried hard. And that was all for Mike Pauciello. He was done.
From there, we went back to the newspaper, where I found a fresh stack of messages from Lorraine. I answered the latest message instead of the first. She told me she woke up that morning with serious bleeding, and went to the doctor. He had performed something called a “D&C,” which ended the pregnancy. And that was all for my impending baby. I was not going to be a father. That was done.
Death and life were both over.
Incredibly, we stayed together. But then the newspaper fired me the day after my birthday, and I had great difficulty finding work. I seemed to be in a permanent state of rage over getting canned. I was very angry – I had won them my 10th award the day before I got fired – and couldn’t get over it. Lorraine couldn’t deal with my anger.
So she decided she’d had enough, and moved to North Carolina. We parted on friendly terms, but we lost touch.
Trying to find a way to make money from writing, I found my screenplay, took the characters, and turned it into an interracial romance. It was about baseball and newspapers, and it didn’t work. It got rejected. I don’t know where the computer disks are any more. When I look back on it, I can see innumerable flaws in it.
My career a wreck, still living at home with my parents (my mother had a remarkable ability to keep me dependent and impoverished), I decided I had to get as far away from them as possible. I joined the Navy. The other factor that made me go in was that Saddam Hussein had invaded Kuwait, and it felt to me like Hitler marching into the Rhineland. He had to be stopped, and I did not feel I could sit on my ass watching the war, while fellow American citizens and my British relatives were fighting it. Ironically, my first day in the Navy was the day the first Persian Gulf War ended. Saddam heard I was coming, and knew I would bore him to death with an Aspergian lecture on the development of the Me 109.
Being lousy at math, I could not be an officer, so I got guaranteed training as a US Navy Journalist. After basic training, I was sent to the Defense Information School in Indianapolis, where all branches of the military trained its public affairs people. I was 10 years older than most of the other recruits, which created an odd social situation. They waxed nostalgic over the greatest moment of their lives – the senior prom. I hadn’t even gone to mine.
It was an unwritten requirement that everyone at the Defense Information School have a romance while they were there, which usually ended when the couple got their duty assignments after graduation, with the guy going to Germany and the girl going to Texas. I didn’t have a Defense Information School romance. There weren’t any girls, white or black, who were interested in me. But the pattern repeated itself – the white girls turned me down harshly – I was too old for some of them – and the black girls did so sweetly.
From there, I was stationed on a Navy base in Sasebo, Japan. Once again, the guys outnumbered the girls, and the girls enjoyed it. The American girls on the base all got themselves pregnant for that noblest of reasons – to move out of the barracks and get that housing allowance money. Some were quite annoyed that being pregnant didn’t mean they could get out of the Navy.
The military is an interesting meritocracy in some ways, with racial issues either non-existent or extremely visible. Interracial romances and marriages were routine and common. Sailors and Marines showed up at the base theater, the PX, the base club, with their Japanese, Filipino, black, or Latino wives and kiddies, and nobody said anything about it. At the same time, black and white Sailors got into fistfights in front of the base club or below decks over a racial taunt.
There were a few single black girls on the base. None of them went out with me. One was a single mother of two, and was committed to motherhood. Others, as usual, had boyfriends. Another had a white fiancé on another base. One was a lesbian. And one had endured a hysterectomy, and had no interest in romance with anyone. I was friends with all of them. I helped one girl move her stuff from the barracks to her new apartment in town, and she regaled me at some length about the problems she was having with her black boyfriend. I tried to console her and help her out, at the same time grinding my teeth, knowing that if she went out with me, she wouldn’t be having those problems. As my sister-in-law observed, I seemed to make a lousy boyfriend, but a good husband.
There were, of course, carloads of Japanese girls available, but most of them, faced by an American sailor, would giggle, and say, “No English…you take me to States?” Japan has a very sexist society, and Japanese girls were eager to get the hell out of their home country, where food came in small spoonfuls, everything was expensive, and the toilet was a basin in the floor that required the user to assume the Thurman Munson squat to perform bodily functions.
I began to notice that I was now on a two-year dateless streak, and I just gave up and accepted that. There was one advantage to celibacy…I didn’t have to worry about birth control and venereal disease, unlike my colleagues. I devoted my energy to my work at the base’s TV and radio station.
When I went out off the very American base into Japan, I became aware of Japan’s racism. I got followed around in stores by security guards. Businesses that didn’t want “gai-jin” tromping in would put up signs only in Japanese characters, or order the Americans out if they sullied the door. The museums in Nagasaki about the atomic bomb demonized the Americans, without mentioning that the Japanese had started World War II in the Pacific. The Nipponese looked at me warily.
When I went traveling in Japan, high school students would jump me in train stations and airports to test out their English on me, and ask me questions as to what I thought of Japan, and then take a photograph of me with them. I felt like a circus freak, being used to entertain people. With the questions, I felt like I was in a minstrel show, with my white face replacing the blackface and pancake makeup. Irritated, when the photographer told everyone to make a big smile, I would say, “Remember Pearl Harbor!”
They didn’t know what that meant.
I told my black friends on the base that I was beginning to have some idea of what they went through back in America, with the caveat – my experience had an expiration date: November 1, 1994, the day I would ship out to my next duty station. Theirs did not. They agreed. One of my black colleagues proclaimed me an “Honorary Negro,” and I accepted the title cheerily.
My three-year dateless streak ended during the floating lantern, when I met up with a Japanese reporter for the local TV news station, who had lived in England for awhile. She was doing the story about the festival, in which the Japanese place little lanterns on little rafts, bearing message to their ancestors, and float the rafts down the river on a summer evening. It’s a beautiful ceremony, and I watched the reporter do her stand-up, chatted with her, and then helped her wrap up her TV cable. We were in the same business, and I took her out. We went to a local restaurant.
Everybody stared at us. I wasn’t sure if it was amazement or disgust. My girlfriend was uncomfortable.
After that, my girlfriend begged me not to take her out to restaurants in the town, because she was the anchor on the TV news station, and it would look bad if she was seen in the town with a “gai-jin.” We could go to the restaurants on my base, where nobody would stare at her.
I wanted to visit her TV station, see the studio, and how her side lived. No way. Could I go to her home. No, she lived with her parents, and she would be embarrassed to be seen with me with them. Could we go to a party at her friends’ place. No, she would be embarrassed to be seen with me with them.
Well, what could we do?
I could marry her and take her to America, she said.
If she was embarrassed to be seen with me with her in her town in Japan, and could not meet her parents, I was not going to marry her. I was not going to be the son-in-law who was barred from the in-laws’ home. So she told me we couldn’t go out any more.
Fine, I said.
A month later, she called me up and asked me why I hadn’t called to ask her to go out with me.
I told her that she had dumped me, and for me to call her after that was a felony in the State of New Jersey, namely “harassment.” She was upset. Her previous boyfriend in Tokyo had called her up after they had split up.
I wasn’t like that, I said.
So that was that. At least I had broken the dateless streak. We had a last weekend in Nagasaki, and parted for good.
The experience gave me plenty of time to wonder how many black-white romances back in the States had gone sour because one party was embarrassed at being seen in public with the other. It was interesting and painful to be a dirty little secret, a “booty call,” who could not be allowed to join in polite society. At the time, I was reading about Thomas Jefferson’s big secret, Sally Hemings, and I thought about what she went through and what she put up with. We don’t even know for certain what she looked like.
One thing I was certain about…I was tired of being single, tired of being alone, past 30, fearful of dying alone. I wanted to get married, and I really didn’t care what the ethnicity of the future Mrs. Lippman would be.
A few days later, I flew home to New Jersey, for 30 days of home leave before going to my next and last duty station, in Christchurch, New Zealand, a country I had always dreamed of visiting.
Kathy picked me up at the airport. She had done that before when I had come home on leave from Japan. She mentioned that she was no longer living with the guy she had been with since dropping me eight years ago. She was living alone in Newark with her dog and her fish. That was interesting, I thought.
On Thanksgiving Eve, 1994, 10 years to the hour after we had first met, Kathy called me up and asked me out to dinner. She wanted to look over the Macy’s floats, before they went through the Lincoln Tunnel to New York. So we went out, and looked at the floats again. As Yogi Berra would say, “It was déjà vu all over again.”
Then she invited me to her place in Newark. This time, I picked up the signal. She was in love with me again. I didn’t know why or how, but I wasn’t going to let this moment slip away.
As she drove from Hoboken to Newark, she talked about how she wanted to get married, have kids, and live somewhere where the air was clear and there was no pollution.
I was about to get assigned to a country that had clear air and no pollution. And now that Kathy was available, I was in love with her again. I thought to myself, “If I don’t ask her now, I’ll spend the rest of my life wondering what would have happened. If she says yes, I’m probably set for life. If she says no, at least I’ve tried. This is my only chance. Don’t blow it.”
So, 10 years after we had gone out on our last date, I asked Kathy to marry me. She turned around to see who I was talking to. It took three tries, but she realized I was serious, and said “Yes.” We got married on March 29, 1995, in New Zealand. My father died a week later. Once again, little matters of life and death fluttered around my head like fireflies for a week.
That was the end of my swirl, although I still have an unrequited crush on Rae Dawn Chong. That’s okay…Kathy has an unrequited crush on Bruce Springsteen.
Kats and I have been married for 17 years now. Our daughter Wallis was born on March 29, 1997, in New Zealand, on our second wedding anniversary. For our anniversary, I took Kathy to the hospital. The fact that our daughter was born on that date, to me, is a message from Higher Power, saying, “This was meant to be.” At the very least, I have no excuse for forgetting the date.
Kathy has taken perfect care of me for the past 17 years. She knows me better than I know myself. She puts up with my Asperger’s and has found the tools to help me navigate it. She works with wives of other Asperger’s sufferers, and tells me that these wives suffer – their husbands are in denial. Despite a brain that doesn’t work properly, I do my best to care for her – putting food on the table, carrying up the laundry, taking our genius daughter to art museums in Manhattan, trying very hard to be sociable with other people.
For the last 14 years, I have worked as a press information officer in Newark, New Jersey. Newark is a city that is now dominated by black leadership, whether the mayor is Sharpe James or Cory Booker. For both mayors, I have been a unique sight – English on my mother’s side, New Yorker on my father’s side, Jewish on both.
I have, at least, some understanding of the political and social problems both my co-workers and the ordinary Newark resident have to deal with. I work very hard to publicize the City’s programs and the positive side of its people, and work well with all my colleagues in municipal government. For the first time, I have met “Angry Black Women,” and when they vent, I tell them about my dating history and my days in Japan. They cool off a little. One of my colleagues in Recreation, thanking me for work I did to publicize his Gospel music program, proclaimed me an “Honorary Negro.” I told him it was only the second time I had been given that status, but accepted it humbly.
My crew knows about my dating history, and the irony of how my marriage turned out, given my taste in women. They tease me hard about the plotline of the new TV series “Scandal,” in which Kerry Washington’s Olivia Pope is a public relations expert who is carrying on with the very white (and very married) President of the United States, played by the very white Tony Goldwyn. Do you find Kerry Washington very attractive, Dave? Yes, I do, but I’m not trading Kathy for a publicity photo of Ms. Washington, or any other woman, white, black, or indigo, for that matter.
I work with a lot of intelligent and attractive black women, some of them city employees, some of them public relations folks on various events. Sometimes they even flirt with me, which I find astonishing. I’m not used to being the object of flirtation, by any woman. Maybe it’s because I no longer carry myself with the air of single desperation and clinginess I had when I was single. Maybe it’s because I have come to terms with Asperger’s, and make a Herculean effort to follow the unwritten rules of social lubrication. Maybe it’s because thee ladies have all seen “Something New,” or various famous black women on the arms of equally famous white men, like George Lucas, Matt Stone, and Robert De Niro. Maybe it’s because the black girls I meet are irritated with their “Damaged Beyond Repair Black Men,” (a new phrase that I have recently learned about) and are expanding their horizons like I expanded mine.
Sometimes I wonder if the girls who told me they had boyfriends didn’t really, and were just trying to get rid of me because Asperger’s made me annoying. Or that my Asperger’s prevented me from knowing when girls were making moves on me. Or that my Asperger’s made girls think I was weird. 32 years after high school, 28 after university, specifics, as I say, become foggy.
Regardless, when I meet an attractive, single intelligent, black woman, the kind that I would have wanted to date, I tell them, “If I hadn’t been happily married for 17 years, I would be asking you out for dinner this evening.” They are always flattered, and give me a sweet smile.
I often add, “However, since dating is behind me, I’ll tell you this: if your boyfriend isn’t treating you like a goddess, send him to me and I’ll give him a lecture he’ll never forget.” They invariably roar with laughter, and say they’ll take me up on it.
I think that if I was single, some of these ladies would probably indeed have dinner with me, and more.
But in the real world, my statement to these ladies tells them two things: yes, I find you attractive, but no, I’m not going to chase you. We can work together and be friendly. The fact that I tell them that I find them attractive lets them know that I regard them as an equal and extremely worthy person in every way, and the fact that I’m married lets them know I’m not on the make. We can get along, and the various elephants of our society of race and sex can all leave the room now, thank you very much.
In 1999, my Asperger’s was finally diagnosed, and I realized why my interpersonal relationships had been so difficult for so many years. Unlike other Aspergians, I realize my brain does not work, and I try to work around it, forcing myself to be more sociable, and not sound like a “little professor.”
I cannot imagine going out on a date any more, and much of my memories of dating and girlfriends from before I married Kathy have faded into the past. I can’t even remember the names any more.
I do remember sweet smiles, warm words, warmer expressions, and tender moments from girls with ebony and mocha-colored skin. If I’d known then about my Asperger’s, and had developed the sets of social skills I now have, there’s no doubt in my mind that those relationships would probably have gone further, and lasted longer, and maybe even resulted in marriage. They didn’t happen, because I was a mess. It wasn’t your fault, ladies, it was mine. You were good to me, and I wasn’t very good back.
I’m sorry about that.
But thank you for all the kindness and warmth you showed me. You made me a better and stronger person. Even when you rejected me, you made me feel warm and loved during times when I felt only hopelessness and despair. You helped me develop skills that have made me a good husband, father, and human being.
In 2000, I screwed up my courage, and went to my 20th anniversary high school reunion, and met up with the girl who sat next to me in Creative Writing class so many years ago. Yes, she remembered me. She even remembered me asking her out.
“I would have gone out with you,” she said, laughing.
“Well, it’s a little late now,” I said, as I pulled out my photograph of my daughter to show her.
She gave me a sweet smile.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
A graduate of the New School for Social Research with a Master of Fine Arts in Creative Writing and from New York University with a Bachelor’s Degree in Journalism and History, David H. Lippman is an award-winning journalist who has worked in newspapers, wire services, television, and radio.
Born and raised in Manhattan’s Greenwich Village, he began his writing career as one of the legendary Frank McCourt’s students at Stuyvesant High School, graduating from the school in 1980, and his journalism career as an intern for “The Maven,” sportswriter and broadcaster Stan Fischler, working on his baseball books and columns, and covering the New York Mets.
After that, Mr. Lippman worked as associate editor of the Mets’ official magazine “Inside Pitch,” and then for United Press International, covering the Mets and Yankees, working on the 1986 “Who’s Who in Baseball” and other baseball magazines.
He spent three years at The Hudson Dispatch, a 40,000-circulation daily newspaper in Hudson County, New Jersey, where he rose to the post of Associate Editor, in charge of the editorial page. He also covered a wide range of news, and won 10 awards for his writing, including “Best Editorial” and “Best Feature Article” in the 1989 New Jersey Press Association contest. He also worked at the Boca Raton News as an editorial writer.
He joined the Navy in 1991, after the Iraqi invasion of Kuwait, and served for eight years in broadcasting and public affairs. He spent three years in Sasebo, Japan, where he wrote, shot, edited, and directed television shows and newscasts for Armed Forces Radio and Television Service, and also hosted a radio show. After that, he was transferred to Christchurch, New Zealand, where he served as Public Affairs Officer for the U.S. Naval Antarctic Support Unit. There he did public relations for the U.S. Antarctic Program, writing articles, giving tours, and delivering lectures. He also published the command newspaper, and organized special events for the 40th anniversary of the U.S. Antarctic Program in 1995. He received the Navy Achievement Medal for his work.
After discharge in 1998, Mr. Lippman continued to work in journalism and public service, becoming a Public Information Officer for the City of Newark, New Jersey, and has worked there ever since, eight years for Sharpe James, six for Cory A. Booker. He has written hundreds of press releases and articles over that 12-year period, and many speeches for both mayors. He was named “Employee of the Month” in October 1993. The events Mr. Lippman worked on include the groundbreaking and opening of the Prudential Center in downtown Newark, high-profile nationally-covered murder cases, and Mayor Booker’s ground-breaking municipal reform initiatives. In 2001, Mr. Lippman wrote the City of Newark’s public presentation of its post-9/11 homeland security measures, which Mayor James delivered to the Municipal Council and at community meetings. He has also done news segments for the City of Newark’s Government Access TV Station on Channel 78.
Mr. Lippman earned his Master of Fine Arts in Creative Writing from the New School for Social Research in 2001, studying under Robert Polito, Dani Shapiro, Honor Moore, Pablo Medina, and the late Lucy Grealy. He gained his Master’s while working at his full-time job.
Mr. Lippman also writes a day-by-day history of World War II on the web, located at http://usswashington.com/worldwar2plus55/index.htm He began the page in New Zealand to commemorate the 55th anniversary of the war, and it expanded over time to encompass the subject at a daily level. The page has won a number of web awards, and was rated one of the “Best 100” pages on the subject in the book “World War II on the Web,” by J. Douglas Smith and Richard Jensen, published by Scholarly Resources, in 2003. It has also gained accolades from well-known historians like Stanley Falk, Walter S. Boyne, Gregory Urwin, Mark Zuehlke, and Sir Martin Gilbert (Winston Churchill’s official biography).
In addition, Mr. Lippman writes articles on World War II history for magazines. One of his articles was recently published in an anthology alongside those of historians Caleb Carr, Stanley Weintraub, and William Manchester.
He is also indulging his creative whimsy with a piece of fan fiction based on “The Hunger Games” trilogy on the FanFiction website at http://www.fanfiction.net/s/8059424/1/Interview_With_the_Mockingjay
He lives with his family in Newark, New Jersey.