At birth, I lived at 12 West 72nd Street at Central Park West. Directly across from the spot where Mark David Chapman assassinated John Lennon, Oliver Cromwell Apartments is now a landmark of luxury in a tony neighborhood called Lincoln Square. We moved out when I was a year old, so I say with some seriousness that it’s been downhill ever since.
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I attended elementary school in Malverne, Long Island. The town’s name came from Malvern in England. Someone added an extra E to make it more English. It was a tiny one-glance town with two claims to fame. By day, Long Islanders came to visit Grossmann’s Farm, which operated as a working farm for decades. By night they came for the Malverne Theater, which boldly offered Italian films banned by the Catholic Church. As far as I know there was only one Asian family in Malverne. Susan Eng was in my class. Her family ran a Chinese laundry between a butcher shop and Charley Solomon’s candy store.
After my father died, I became a voracious adolescent reader. I’m not talking about poring over age-appropriate books from the Young Adult Section at the public library. I’m talking about devouring bestsellers I found in the basement bookcase. I was 12 when I learned from John Dos Passos, John O’Hara and John Steinbeck why people don’t get along. Stuck in my memory are two potboilers about marital infidelity that I read before I knew what marriage was about: Peyton Place by Grace Metalious and The Man in the Grey Flannel Suit by Sloan Wilson.
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While my father was still alive we lived in suburbia 28 miles from the Theater District but my mother would not abandon her love for Broadway musicals. Whenever there was a hot new musical, she would get tickets and pull me out of school for a Wednesday matinee. We’d get dressed up, take the Long Island Railroad to the City, visit my father’s dress factory at 1400 Broadway and have lunch at Horn & Hardarts automat before the 2 o’clock show. With my Mom’s m.o., I saw the original Broadway cast productions of “Guys and Dolls” (1955),”Oklahoma!” (1955 revival),”Peter Pan” (1955), “My Fair Lady” (1956), “The King and I” (1956), “Carousel” (1957), and “The Music Man (1957).” After we moved back to the City, we saw “Bye Bye Birdie” (1960) and “”Man of La Mancha” (1965). Thanks, Mom. I don’t know how she missed taking me to the original “Sound of Music” (1955) and “West Side Story” (1957) on Broadway but I caught those on the big screen, where they belonged.
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I was in junior high school when a pair of books ignited an interest in Southeast Asia: The Ugly American by William J. Lederer and Eugene Burdick; and Deliver Us from Evil by Dr. Tom Dooley. These works opened exotic horizons in the early Sixties and put me on the path I eventually followed to Asia. In 1976 when I returned from working and traveling abroad, I enrolled in the Asian Studies Master’s Degree program at the University of Hawaii. The most memorable course I took was Americans in Southeast Asia, taught by a retired U.S. Foreign Service Officer named Windsor G. Hackler. I’ve been obsessed with this topic for 40 years and remain grateful to the gracious Greg Hackler, who died in 1996.