— Chapter Four: Hum Drum —
Comedy of Errors may also be purchased from Main Point Books in Wayne,
Stewart’s mother, Dottie, was born to a working class-family in which she was the third child and first daughter of Mary and Ed Short. Born in the late 1870s, both Mary and Ed were second-generation German/Dutch immigrants who migrated to Philadelphia from New York. Mary had two younger sisters who left school early to work in a garment factory at Second and Market Streets where they spent their days – Emma ironing finished shirts and dresses, and Lizzie stitching collars on a treadle-operated sewing machine. None were married, but Mary had finished high school and worked in a school library before meeting Ed at a dance she attended alone and without a chaperone. Ed had quit school at the age of 13, having found work in a foundry pouring molten brass, copper, bronze and gray iron into molds for valves, elbows and casings for the plumbing industry.
Ed didn’t mind his work. He was industrious and thrifty and saved most of what he earned, hoping for a better life. As he approached the age of 29, he met Mary, a woman who outclassed him in every way. She was a reader, a thinker and a Baptist, who saw in Ed a person who required only the simplest of pleasures, but who matched her passion for improving his life in ways he could observe, but never explain.
The couple was married in 1904 in the home of the Reverend E. C. Miller, a church planner and evangelist, who was gathering a group of like- minded believers together in his area to form the Olney Baptist Church, a worship center that would be built and maintained by its working class parishioners. Although no one in Ed’s family attended the wedding, Emma and Lizzie stood by their sister’s side, along with Mary’s mother and father. Ed’s friend Joe Box, who designed and shaped the molds for many of the products manufactured by the foundry, was Ed’s ring bearer. Mary wore white, sincerely exhibiting her virtue maintained through two years of steady dating with Ed, followed by several awkward misunderstandings due to Ed’s expectations on their wedding night.
Ed had a plan, and for Mary it didn’t matter that he was neither handsome nor had the slightest concept of social graces. He did, however, have a bank account, and was able to put a downpayment on a stone duplex house they found in the Olney section of the city. He’d also proved to be a steady, inventive and industrious worker, and so management promoted him to the job of foreman for the casting department in the factory. Unbeknownst to his bosses, Ed was also was seeking an opportunity to build a business of his own.
Ed and Mary had their first child, Stanley, in 1906, followed by another son, Russell, in ’08. Mary, who had learned to cook, clean, mend clothes and keep house from her mother, expanded her skills to include carpentry, plumbing, landscaping, painting and plastering to upgrade and improve the quality of their home.
In 1907, Ed bought a gas-powered taxicab, which he used to shuttle as many as six workers to and from the foundry each day. Many times he’d wake up near midnight to pick up workers ending later shifts and transport back five more returning home. The fares he charged were reasonable and based on the paygrade of the rider. Over time, Ed found other men at the factory willing to drive his cab for hire when he wasn’t personally using it, in order to keep the service active throughout the day and night.
Mary kept the books, and saw that Ed was doing well, so she suggested that he purchase another cab that he could hire out. His bosses didn’t seem to mind the service he provided, since their employees who rode to work in Ed’s taxi were always at work on time, as was Ed.
In 1912, Ed left the foundry and officially began his own small cab company manned by drivers recruited from various factories in the city. The cabs were solely for the use of workers who had limited options for efficient transportation to and from their jobs at a reasonable expense.
Meanwhile, Mary had her hands full with two young boys, and whether she wanted another child or not, one of Ed’s few pleasures in his free moments was coupling with his wife, whether she was in the mood or not. Mary was well aware that the outcome of each act of intimacy could bring her another child to feed and care for, one destined to weigh her down with even greater responsibilities as it grew.
The prediction became a fact when in 1913 Ed and Mary welcomed into their family a female child, whom they named Dorothy. If Mary ever thought that the boys were tough, Dorothy was a terror from the moment she popped out. She demanded attention and screamed at almost any provocation, broadcasting loudly her desires to be fed and diapered, and then throwing up the breast milk her mother drained into her and pooped and peed again, almost immediately, after every changing, as if to let Mary know that she was the one in charge, and not her mother.
It didn’t get any easier as Dorothy passed the toddler stage, and Mary tried to keep Ed well fed and satisfied by offering non-vaginal sexual options she read about in books and magazines. Before 1920 there were few reference manuals on sex, and even after reading them, women had to figure things out on their own or talk with other women about how to keep from getting pregnant. Abstinence wasn’t an option, and she couldn’t count on the use of condoms, if Ed would even think of using one. Mary didn’t have any close friends to confide in, and her sisters were clueless about such things, so she asked her doctor what to do. He suggested coitus interruptus, or that her husband pull out of her before ejaculating, but that wasn’t always successful.
Mary’s fourth and final child was Phyllis, who was born in 1920, the year that latex and the modern condom were invented. Mary was in her early ’40s and had moved from her bedroom with Ed to sleep in Dorothy’s room. Phyllis turned out to be the easiest of her children. She was a momma’s girl with a disposition that matched Mary’s own. She had a willingness to listen to her mother and follow the rules of the house, whether or not she agreed with them.
Dorothy disliked Phyllis from the very beginning, since her little sister got most of the attention. It wasn’t enough that when Dorothy turned three and began to sing, her mother, noting that her daughter’s pitch was near perfect, engaged a music teacher, Mrs. Gregory, to expand and explore her daughter’s gifts.
Stanley had begun to play the piano at age six, and had little trouble learning on his own, once his mother sought out a used baby grand that occupied most of the living room. Russell never had artistic passions or the patience. But twice a week, Dorothy walked three blocks with her mother to Mrs. Gregory’s house to have her talents nurtured, which, according to the teacher, were evident quite early.
Dorothy was taught to read and play classical scores, but unlike Stanley, who loved the structure as well as the playing of an instrument, Dorothy preferred to toss off the tunes of the day, and could transcribe any melody into any key at will. Classical works required study, and Dorothy had little tolerance for the subtleties of composers who jotted notes in the corners of their scores. She read music quickly, but was careless with her timing, preferring tunes that enabled her to embellish and change the tempo, mood and order of their structure, and invent variations that ignored the intentions of the composer or those of her teacher.
Dorothy was 13 when Phyllis turned six, and Mary took her youngest to Mrs. Gregory to find out if she had any of Stanley’s and Dorothy’s natural skills. Phyllis enjoyed playing the pieces given to her, and learned to play fairly well as she grew older, but although the teacher much preferred Phyllis as a student, she had to confess that, however undisciplined Dorothy was, she would be the one in the family destined to succeed in music and the arts.
By the beginning of the Great Depression, Ed owned four taxi cabs and employed eight drivers. His income was solid, and he had earned a reputation for both his driving and his appearance. He always dressed in a freshly pressed black suit and a chauffeur’s cap, an outfit that he also demanded of all who worked for him. Adding to all of her duties at home, Mary made sure the cabs were clean and washed, since Ed often worked from very early morning until far past dusk.
When Ed was home, Mary apprised him of the activities of all the children and the struggles that they faced. He always listened, without saying much, and provided anything she needed, only wishing she would return to his bed. Although Mary was more than likely too old to conceive again, she had lost the urge and they never had sex again.
Since Dorothy was talented and could already read books, her mother enrolled her at the age of five and a half into the Oak Lane Country Day School, a private elementary school that offered a progressive program for its well-heeled students. Opened in 1916, Oak Lane’s mission was to honor each child’s individuality in a setting that fostered intellectual, creative, academic and personal growth. The tuition was high, but with Ed’s income increasing every year and the boys nearly through school and out of the house, she felt they could manage the investment which would place Dorothy side-by-side with members of the upper class — the Strawbridges, Snellenburgs, Greenfields and Rothschilds. Although Mary had her prejudices, she also respected the emphasis the Jewish community placed on education. She had come from nothing, and she wanted her daughter to marry well and foster any abilities that she might possess in music and the arts. She also wanted to be sure that the raising of Dorothy would not become a life-long task, since the two never did see eye-to-eye on anything.
In high school, Dorothy became Dottie, and Oak Lane Country Day School expanded its offerings to include secondary education. Dottie’s sister, Phyllis, had been enrolled in Friends Select, a Quaker school located in downtown Philadelphia. Dottie graduated from high school in ’29 and despite envisioning a career as a hockey player, at her mother’s urging leaned towards the use of her artistic abilities and was accepted in the fashion program at the School of Design, which many years later became Moore College of Art. Although the Great Depression had lowered the financial situation of many families, Ed worked night and day to keep his income stable, driving his own cab and lowering his fares to maintain his customers and keep his business operating.
Both of Mary’s and Ed’s sons had gone to textile school and were employed in the textile industry. Stanley became a textile engineer and made his mark by inventing a soundproofing material for theater curtains, and Russell went out on the road selling fabrics to companies that still had a market that could afford them. Dottie graduated from art school in 1933 and was escorted to her graduation dance by a dapper young stockbroker with slicked-back hair and a pencil-thin mustache: Jim Little. The blind date was arranged by one of Dottie’s friends, Margaret McCutcheon, the daughter of the man who had schooled the youthful “Lothario” in finance. Jim spoke with enthusiasm and was a graceful dancer. He drank and smoked with an air reminiscent of the men in stories by F. Scott Fitzgerald, set in an era Dottie really knew little about, but had imagined to be romantic, naughty and a bit dangerous.
Jim was the perfect gentleman the evening of the dance. He introduced Dottie to the Manhattan cocktail, a drink served in a chilled martini glass and garnished with a maraschino cherry. The two knew several of the same people, and Jim enjoyed the act of drawing, as did Dottie. He liked many of the same songs she liked, and had even commandeered the band’s piano at the dance for Dottie to perform a rendition of Gershwin’s “The Man I Love.”
Dottie confessed she was headed for a career in fashion design and was moving to New York City, while Jim planned to stay close to home and forge his path in the stock market, as the price of many stocks were still low and a promising buy for those willing to invest in the future.
They parted that night with a kiss and a week later Dottie borrowed some money from her aunt and took the train to the Big Apple, where she found a furnished studio apartment six floors up, with a fire escape leading to her lone window overlooking an alleyway. She waited tables and dragged her art school portfolio of pen and ink drawings to fashion houses and newspaper art departments across the city. She then sold stockings, ladies underwear and nighties at Macy’s, and ate lunch and dinner at the automat. Her brother Russell, who had also moved to the city, took his sister out for a decent meal once a week, as she lost weight and wore down her heels along with her spirit.
Six months later, Dottie came back home to her parents’ house in Cheltenham and soon found an unpaid internship in the basement art department of Wanamaker’s Department Store in Center City, where she copied other artists’ styles and made a few dollars working freelance, illustrating shoes and handbags.
Then the war broke out, and Dottie made friends with the small stable of newspaper watercolorists whose art populated the pages of The Philadelphia Inquirer and The Evening Bulletin and were the greatest draw for customers in the retail industry.
Dottie was called on to play the piano at parties, attended mostly by single girls since there were few worthwhile men to date. Most of the attractive and available men were overseas, or on their way over to fight the “Japs” or “Fritz”, and only those suspected of being “queer” or otherwise unsuitable to carry a gun remained stateside.
Dottie’s mother was stuck with an adult child she never really cared for, and who, though talented, couldn’t seem to earn a living wage. Despite her failures, Dottie remained ungrateful and believed herself superior to her parents and her younger sister. She smoked behind her mother’s back, but sometimes left one half-smoked fag rimmed with lipstick in an ashtray on the edge of the baby grand. She began attending Presbyterian services, and joined up with the First Presbyterian Church of Olney while denigrating her less liberal Baptist background. Her real aim was to become an Episcopalian and mingle with the elite she’d touched on in her life, but by whom she was never truly accepted once they knew that her father drove a cab.
There were a few small affairs: one quite steamy with a married man introduced to her by her brother Stanley; and another with a fellow she realized early on enjoyed the company of men more than that of women. She wrote a song about her life and titled it “Hum Drum,” and accompanied herself singing about “taking the eight o’clock train,” and “the long hours passing,” while pausing to sip a Manhattan and take a drag of a Lucky Strike as it trailed smoke across a cocktail lounge.
The war was far away, but loneliness tolled in her internal clock as Dottie passed from her twenties to the age of thirty in 1943, as she watched through a fog of smoke and dreariness as younger girls of a later generation were being courted by boys who would miss the world at war.
Jim Little kept in touch with V-mails sent from Hawaii, Kwajalein and other atolls of the coral seas: Beru, Ontong and Peleliu. Things didn’t seem too bad for Jim, since all of his correspondence was censored. He wrote poems to her and drew army-issued postcards of nearly-naked native girls, while he zoned out on his ration of Mai-Tais, Zombies, and Torpedo juice, a blend of pineapple juice and 180-proof grain alcohol otherwise used to fuel the underwater missiles that tore through the Pacific. If anything, he felt deserted and alone, as did Dottie.
And then the war ended, and the men that could come home, returned.
Jim was just one of thousands of them... mentally damaged by war, if not destroyed for life by blindness or deformities. Men who, like Jim, had no real home to go to, or a real life left to live.
But Jim was good enough for Dottie; he at least appeared to have survived.