Independence Day

Brooklyn, New York 1960

MY BROTHER FRANK had ten years on me. Shortly after he turned nineteen, he had landed a job as an office assistant for an advertising firm in Manhattan, and attended Hunter College a few nights a week. He had also become friendly with Gordon and Emily Peterson, a young couple who lived on the third floor of our apartment building. Gordon, a bearded, pipe-smoking Brooklyn College professor, wore tan desert boots and tweed jackets with elbow patches. His wife, Emily, was a social worker, a strikingly beautiful blonde who would sometimes go to work dressed in a colorful African gown or Indian saris.

I stopped by their apartment once to summon Frank to dinner. Their home was like a museum. One entire wall of their living room was covered with books and record albums. The other walls featured original abstract paintings and a tiger skin next to an authentic African shield crisscrossed with two spears. Framed black-and-white photographs hung among the paintings, several of them showing Gordon in an African village. Smiling in his safari outfit, he stood in front of a straw hut along with a group of half-naked tribesman wearing face paint and feather headdresses. Some photos showed Emily in India. In one she was posing with a group of Indian women near the entrance of the Taj Mahal. In another, she sat atop an elephant.

The few times I encountered the Petersons in Frank’s presence, I got the feeling he was embarrassed by me. “This is my kid brother,” he announced the first time. “They just let him out on pass.” I wasn’t quite sure what “out on pass” meant, but I laughed along, pretending not to be offended. I wanted to look good in the eyes of these people, whom my brother held in high regard because they were way more educated and cultured than our parents or any of our relatives. Connie, my older sister, once commented how “erudite” she thought the Petersons were compared to most of the working-class families in our neighborhood. “Are you kidding?” Frank replied. “These people invented hip.”

When Frank wasn’t working or in school, he was usually in the Petersons’ apartment. My father was envious of the time Frank spent with them. “What are you doin’ hanging out with those oddballs?” he once asked.

“You don’t even know them,” Frank said.

“I don’t have to know them. I can tell just by looking at them. The guy needs a shave and a haircut, and half the time his wife is dressed like a circus clown.”

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John Califano