That summer Mel Jacobs had taken to
going to Central Park on weekends. It was the usual New York summer, hot and
humid, but Central Park seemed a little cooler. Hed found a softball
field near the southern end of the park where girls, or young women, he
supposed he should call them, played and he liked to watch them. There was
nothing prurient in this. Maybe it was because it was that for the past two
years, in the Army, hed been mostly in the company of men. Whatever the
reason, he liked to watch the way they gracefully moved, their athleticism. He
even liked to watch their occasional fumbles. He never thought of approaching
any of them. If he wanted a girl he could get one at any time; his many aunts
would be delighted to find him a nice Jewish girl. But he knew, from past
experience, that would lead to consequences. In those days, in the 1950s,
if you had sex with a nice Jewish girl or even just dated her for a few months
youd be on the track: engagement, marriage, the job of course, the move
to Long Island or somewhere and the family. That was the last thing he
Jacobs had come home from the Army in
June. Hed been drafted out of college during the Korean War but had been
posted to Germany where hed worked in an office so his Army experience
couldnt be called too unpleasant. Hed been able to travel, to
London, Paris and Rome and a few other places. Now he was back in his old
bedroom in his parents apartment in the Bronx. He supposed hed have
to get a job sooner or later, but this didnt seem urgent. Hed
joined what in those days was known as the 52/20 club. The Army would pay him
$20 a week for 52 weeks. He had to go downtown once a week to collect it. The
Army place was in a big hall where you had to stand in line, like everything
else you did in the Army. It gave him a feeling that he was still somehow in
the military although now he was a civilian again.
What did he do the other days of the
week? He slept late; it was good to be back in his own bed.
It was nice not to have the sounds and smells of the barracks, especially of
the latrine. His father, a plumber, still working, got up early and went off to
a job somewhere. His mother would have cooked him breakfast every morning but
mostly he just had cold cereal and leisurely read the New York Times. To please
his mother, he looked through the ads in the Times Help Wanted section. He then
dressed, glad to be in civilian clothes and took the subway down to Grand
Central Station. Hed tell his mother he was going to stop into a couple
of employment agencies and during the first week he had and quickly found out
their ads - hundreds of jobs for college grads - were phony. Hed walk up
Fifth or Madison Avenue to the park, Central Park. Sometimes hed go to
the zoo. He liked to watch the seals splashing around. Sometimes hed walk
all the way up to the Metropolitan Museum of Art and browse through the
galleries. He liked the French Impressionist Paris scenes, imagining he was
there. Sometimes he stayed downtown, had dinner at an inexpensive restaurant
and went to a play. You could get a ticket to most Broadway plays at that time
by going to the box office just before curtain time. So that was how he passed
In late August Jacobs went with his
parents to Manhattan for the wedding of one of his cousins, cousin Bobby. It
was in a hotel, a pretty fancy one, and the members of his family milled around
speculating on how much everything cost. He met another cousin, Ben, whod
also been in the Army but had been stationed in Washington, D.C. Bens
father, a lawyer, had influential friends. Ben was six months older then him
and theyd always been pretty close. They went outside to talk.
They exchanged stories about their Army
experiences Ben said his time in Washington had been pretty boring but
hed been able to get back to New York a few times. He was envious of
Jacobs being able to travel in Europe. Jacobs told him hed met a
French girl in Paris. He took a small photo out of his wallet.
Pretty, said Ben.
Yeah, and Ive always been a
sucker for that French accent.
Are you still in
I wrote her a couple of weeks ago
but she hasnt written back.
Does your mother
Of course not.
Ben laughed: So, what are you
Nothing much. What about
Im starting law school in a
Then youll go to work in
your Dads firm. Youre on the track.
Ben shrugged. I dont know. I
dont really want to work for my Dad and I dont even know if I want
to be a lawyer, but you have to do something. Have you been playing any
handball? When they were kids theyd sometimes get together, either
in the Bronx or Manhattan, to play handball. Ben was a pretty good player,
Jacobs recalled, although not as good as himself. Jacobs had been captain of
his high school handball team.
No, I havent gotten around
We should get
Yeah. Well, we better go back
Ben was going to law school and cousin
Bobby, besides getting married, was finishing medical school and would be a
doctor somewhere. My son the lawyer; my son the doctor. On the track as good
Jewish sons should be. What would he be, wondered Jacobs.
After the wedding, Jacobs mother
started asking him about looking for a job. Shed probably been asked by
all their relatives what her son was doing. He told her, Yeah, he was looking,
but he really wasnt. He supposed hed have to but later. He
remembered a short story by Ernest Hemingway called Soldiers
Home hed read in college. It was about a soldier named Krebs back
from World War I whod come back to his Midwestern town and was content to
stay home, sleep late and do nothing. He recalled that Krebs liked to sit on
his porch and watch the girls of the town go by but didnt approach
them. He didnt want complications. That soldier had been in
combat and Jacobs hadnt but he knew how coming home afterwards felt.
Krebs mother had also been on him and at the end of the story hed
decided to go to Kansas City and get a job.
Jacobs hadnt known what he wanted
to do in college so hed settled on majoring in English. In the few
employment agency interviews hed had hed been asked why he
wasnt going to be a teacher. Evidently, if you majored in something like
English this is what you were expected to do. He sometimes thought about going
back to school; his mother would be happy. My son the Professor. He had the GI
bill but this would mean staying with his parents again and riding a subway to
school again, just like when hed gone to college. He couldnt
imagine doing that.
Jacobs did do some writing, getting out
his old college typewriter. He wrote about his experiences in the Army. His
first story was about being inducted and then going to Camp Kilmer in New
Jersey. In the first night there somebody had yelled out a curse and then
somebody else and pretty soon everyone was doing it. He called that part of his
story The Night of the Curses. He was trying to
convey the shock of a nice Jewish boy from the Bronx at this first night away
from home and in the Army. He didnt think he was another Hemingway and he
had no intention of becoming a writer, but it was something to do.
In September Jacobs met his cousin Ben
at the handball courts at the northern end of Central Park. The hot humid
summer was over and in the park the trees had started turning color and
everything seemed less oppressive. He and Ben got into a doubles game against
two middle-aged men and they had a hard time beating them 21-18. They were both
pretty rusty. In the second game they picked up a little and won 21-14. After
that they were tired and turned down another rematch. They sat down on a bench
and talked. They were breathing heavily.
Im beat, said Ben.
Yeah, me, too. Im out of
You were doing pretty good at the
Jacobs shrugged. Ive got a
long way to go.. Hows law school?
Going to be tough. How about
you? What about that French girl?
She did write back. She met
So your mother doesnt have
to worry? So, still hanging around?
Still. Im doing a little
writing, about the Army.
Jacobs told Ben about the night of the
curses. He was trying to write another story, about a soldier in his barracks
whod been harassed by his sergeant and had tried to commit suicide.
You know, said Ben,
Your mother called my Dad about you.
I didnt know..
Good Jewish mother looking after
Yeah, I guess I havent been
a good Jewish son.
They talked some more and said
theyd try to get together again but Ben said that with law school being
so tough he might not be able to make it.. Jacobs said that was
A few weeks later Jacobs got a job with
an advertising agency through his cousin Bens father. It seemed his uncle
had influence in New York, too. When he interviewed for the job he showed the
manager who saw him the two stories about the Army hed written so that
wasnt wasted effort after all. The manager told him the stories
werent too bad but sounded a lot like Hemingway. In any case, he got the
After another few weeks Jacobs had a
date with a girl whose phone number one of his aunts had given him. So he had a
job and maybe a girl; he was on the track. The next weekend he went to Central
Park to watch the girls, the young women, play softball for the last time.