Ducking into a Phone Booth
Guest Column by Wendy Saul
Documentation of personal experience — written, oral, visual — has become a global obsession. Young tourists who long for exotic travel fill their picture frames with images of themselves smiling brightly and blocking out the crumbling buildings in the background. And truth be told, as I go through old photos, I toss the random pretty flowers and the Great Wall of China pix and keep the ones of my parents at different ages, looking more or less healthy or happy.
Similarly, the desire for memoir abounds. The hope in each case is perhaps to give a kind of enduring life to experience. The best efforts locate concrete images upon which to hang stories, and the saddest, often realized in funeral testimonies, end in a string of superlatives—"She was the kindest, sweetest grandma that ever lived.”
As an inveterate reader of obituaries and funeral oratory, I understand the desire to pay tribute and gently, sometimes elegantly, summarize a life. It’s the chance to tell the story of people we want family members or our wider circle to remember.
But what stories would we choose to tell? I can imagine someone going through my closet and tying my forgetfulness to the nine unused toothbrushes found there. (The dentist gives them out with each tooth cleaning so I keep them for guests.) I can also imagine a citizen of Pompeii wanting to dialogue with an anthropologist or historian: “That pottery was utter crap, and anyone with any sense in town knew that.” So what can we, the still living, do to shape our stories?
What I offer here is a challenge: to do more and say more. First, let’s tell our own stories and not wait for the toothbrush police to come in with their interpretations. But there is the larger ask: Might we try to contextualize our personal stories in a way that gives witness to history? Like that imaginary citizen of Pompeii, we have a chance to leave traces not only of our stuff, but also stories tied to our stuff and our experiences. I am not talking here about what you were doing when Kennedy was shot or the World Trade Center was attacked, though those images are surely important and worth recounting. What I’m talking about is wonderfully exemplified by the social justice activist and lawyer Bryan Stevenson:
“My grandmother would talk about how, after Emancipation, other formerly enslaved people would come to their home, and (my great-grandfather who had taught himself to read) would stand up and read the newspaper each night. And she would sit next to him, because she loved the power he had to engage people, to make people feel calmer or more informed. “
My own attempts focus on significantly less important historical incidents, but the following one tries to say something about class, about the role of the telephone booth, and about a GI recently returned from WWII —
In 1945 my father, Sylvan Saul, a man of modest means and excellent posture, just home from WWII, was to meet his classy fiancé and her mother in NYC. Together they would choose items — towels, sheets, even glasses — to be monogrammed with the bride-to-be’s new initials.
At 2 o’clock sharp, the agreed-upon meeting time, he stood on the corner of 43rd and Fifth, anxious and handsome. He looked at his watch with satisfaction, glad to have arrived a minute early, ready for the day. At 2:06 he looked at his watch again, still pleased that he was not the one who was late. By 2:16 he was becoming annoyed. Before the days of cell phones, there was no way to contact a party in transit, and so one just waited. By 2:22 he began to worry. Was it traffic on the bridge between NJ and NY or was there car trouble? An accident perhaps? At 2:33 he saw them heading toward his corner, arm in arm, chatting casually.
“I’ll teach them a lesson!” he said to himself and popped into a nearby phone booth from which he had a good view. Would they worry that he had simply left? Were they sorry for keeping him waiting?
For a minute or two he watched. They chatted. Occasionally my mother looked up and down the street. Once she checked her watch.
Emerging from his phone booth hideout, he, crossed the street, kissed my mother on the cheek and greeted his mother-in-law-to-be. Indignantly she raised her chin, headed for Lord and Taylor’s and called back over her shoulder, “What’s the matter with you? It’s past 2:30. We have been waiting for over half an hour!”
“It’s been like this ever since.” he would say, shaking his head and sighing deeply, as he told the story.
I am not sure if our children — and surely not the next generation — have any sense of what it meant for us, for example, to live at a time when abortions were illegal, when dancing schools sought to reify Victorian norms of little boys bowing and little girls sitting primly, passively by, or when it was okay for a 9-year-to take off on a bicycle for the entire day or a 10-year-old to ride the bus downtown alone in Chicago without fear. Such images or mini-stories need not be long or complicated. Might Alte be a place to give such witnessing a try?
Wendy Saul is a retired professor of education and coauthor of Thinking Like a Generalist: Skills for Navigating a Complex World.