S. N. Behrman
The New Yorker
 June 29, 1946: 28-33

For the Easterner on the Pacific Coast, the New York papers take on an alarming importance. They come three days late, but their arrival constitutes a rendezvous with whatever remains of one's past. I remember how, one Sunday in February, 1932, a New York paper led me to a more than ordinary rendezvous with my own past. I was in temporary exile in Hollywood that year, and that particular afternoon I had settled down happily with the New York Times of the preceding Thursday and was browsing contentedly through the obituary page. (From the West Coast, death in the East somehow always seems glamorous.) Almost immediately, I found myself involved with the Times' recapitulation of the career of a Massachusetts educator who had just died in Boston. "D. W. ABERCROMBIE, EDUCATOR, IS DEAD," announced the headlines. "Principal Emeritus of Worcester Academy, Which He Headed from 1882 to 1918; Made Several Trips to Europe to Study Educational Systems; Published Many Articles." I went on to read the story of Dr. Abercrombie's career, but however laudable the Times made it out to seem, I took no joy in it. I became conscious almost at once of embarrassment and malaise, without at first having any idea of the cause. By the time I had finished the obit, I felt actually hot—I must have been blushing. When Dr. Abercrombie took charge of Worcester Academy, the article stated, it had only thirteen pupils. It now had over two hundred students and was one of the best-known preparatory schools in the state. This was admirable, but it made my embarrassment more painfully acute. By the time it was disclosed that Dr. Abercrombie's career, all in association with New England schools, had lasted for more than forty years and that he had made several visits to Europe to study educational systems, I felt myself perspiring faintly, and when it was further revealed that he had been sent, as an honorary representative of the United States Bureau of Education, to study methods in German secondary schools, I was so uncomfortable that I had to force myself to go on. In contemplating the details of Dr. Abercrombie's career, I had an increasingly horrid sense of intrusion, of a kind of obscene invasion of his privacy, and what made it even more awful was the overwhelming impression of recurrence. I seemed to have had the same experience before. Here I was, doing it again! I read every word: how many of Dr. Abercrombie's addresses on education had been published, in addition to articles on education and on school administration ; how he was a native of Bolling Green, Macon County, Alabama; how he had got his A.B. from Harvard in 1876 and had remained in Cambridge an extra year to study law. I drank in his honorary degrees, his marriage, his children. I read it all and let the Times fall from my hands. I was trembling; I was hot with shame.

I asked myself why. And then there took place in my memory a "quick dissolve," a phrase I had used that very morning to convey a shift in intimacy between two characters in the moving picture I was working on. Suddenly I knew why. It had nothing to do with Dr. Abercrombie, really. It even had nothing to do with me, really, though it did me no good to tell myself so. It had to do with Mr. Lavin and Mr. Lupkin and a ride I happened to take with them on the Providence Street trolley car. I hadn't thought of Mr. Lavin or Mr. Lupkin for nearly forty years, but I remembered them now with mortifying clarity.

The Providence Street car ran up and down Providence Street in Worcester, Massachusetts, the city where I was born and grew up. Providence Street climbs a very steep hill, and at the top is the Worcester Academy. When the Academy was built, the character of the street that led up to it was somewhat different from what it was by the time I took the trolley ride I so burningly recalled that afternoon in Hollywood. From a still earlier period in my childhood, I remember that two mansions stood at opposite corners, where Waverley Street bisected Providence. I can't be sure, but I seem to remember that one was inhabited by a Mr. Crompton and one by a Mr. Knowles, two worthies who, I now think, must have been the joint owners of the Crompton Knowles Loom Works. I clearly remember the houses —square-built, white, with round, colored windows in cupolas, and surrounded by leafy trees and smooth lawns. By the time I was old enough to go to school, Providence Street had ceased to be fashionable. The wealthy families had moved away, leaving Providence Street and its adjoining streets free for Irish and Jewish immigrants. My family lived on Water Street, just off Providence. The phenomenon of migration must have begun to take place just before I was born; by the time I was six or seven, the Messrs. Knowles and Crompton had moved. Gradually, the foreign-born population infiltrated the hill till it skirted the eminence of the Academy itself. Without, I imagine, knowing in the least how it came about, the Worcester Academy found itself dominating not the agreeable mansions of the Messrs. Crompton and Knowles but a packed frontage of "double-deckers," one Roman Catholic Church, and two rival synagogues.

The Worcester Academy had a football team, and although it did not know it, it was also the team of its lowly tenement neighbors. On Saturday afternoons, when the Academy was playing on its home grounds, we Irish and Jewish children used to go up there. Some of us would dig holes in the half-frozen ground under the high fence which enclosed the football field, creep under, and watch the games until caught; others of us would seek vantage points on the top porches of the neighboring double-deckers. Those who could manage to insert themselves into the grounds watched the game with frantic loyalty; those who couldn't hung around outside to be the first to hear the result. We knew by name every player on the Academy team and the records of its opponents. Providence Street regarded the Academy team as its own; that the emotion was in no way reciprocated did not for a moment mitigate its intensity.

To Providence Street generally, all the students at the Academy—not only its athletes—were a fabulous jeunesse dorée. From the rather stony play ground of the Providence Street School, at the foot of the hill, we used to watch, in the fall, the arrival of these young men coming up from the Union Station to begin their studies at the Academy. They were strange and wonderful, in their new suits and aloof airs. It did not occur to us that the Academy was anything less than the most exclusive school in the world. If we had been told that its standing was so tentative that it even took several Jewish students from other cities, as I have since been told was the case, we would have refused to believe it. During the whole school year, we used to watch these young exquisites going up and down the hill, mostly to or from the station—worldly scholars from the magic regions of "out of town"—and wonder. What manner of creatures were they? What degree of patrician opulence enabled them to travel on trains to reach a place of study and to reside a whole season in this exclusive precinct? The main building of the Academy, chocolate-colored, with pinched-in quadruple towers of painted brick, remained remote and unattainable, dominating the hill, tantalizing our thoughts as we speculated about the kind of life that must be lived within its sacred portals. There it stood, an unexpected Xanadu from which the surrounding moats of the Cromptons and the Knowleses had been drained off, so that we were allowed to nestle up to its very foundations.

The Providence Street car was a kind of Toonerville trolley which jerked slowly up the steep hill. It had benches along each side, and the aisle between them was very narrow. There was a cord, hanging from the ceiling and running the length of the car, which you pulled when you wanted the car to stop.

The trolley ride I remembered so painfully took place on a Friday afternoon. I found myself—I couldn't have been more than nine or ten years old—humping up the hill in the crowded car, full of my older co-religionists going home to prepare for Friday-night synagogue service. I was sitting alongside the Messrs. Lavin and Lupkin. They were both well known in our community, partners in a clothing establishment. Mr. Lavin was a big man, with a large face and coarse features and a grating voice; Mr. Lupkin was much smaller, with spectacles and an innocent, kindly look. Mr. Lavin was considered brilliant; certainly he was tremendously energetic and his activities went on till he died at a great age, in harness. Mr. Lupkin was considered rather stupid but amiable; he was commonly in a state of ecstatic acquiescence, bobbing his head and agreeing to everything. Often he would nod at you violently even before you required affirmation. There sat Mr. Lavin and Mr. Lupkin and there sat I, and across the narrow aisle from us, so close that his knees almost touched the bulky Mr. Lavin's, sat Dr. Abercrombie.

I don't know now how I knew it was he, but I did. Perhaps he had been pointed out to me before, but anyway I knew him. I remember him vividly as he sat there; he was just under medium height, slim, almost frail, and in spite of his pince-nez and a black overcoat with black silk facings on the lapels, his manner was modest. There he sat, tightly ingested into the Jewish population of Worcester. He was looking off into space, his eyes fixed on some happy hunting ground of his own—a region, I sensed, where there were no foreigners. He was pretending, I was sure, that there were no Jews in the world. I remember feeling an intense self-consciousness. I hoped my elders would make a good impression on Dr. Abercrombie, exhibit to him a certain elegance of behavior. I don't know what I expected them to do, but I yearned to have them at least present a united front of suavity.

Whatever I hoped for, Mr. Lavin did precisely the reverse. He had been staring fixedly at Dr. Abercrombie, and to my horror, I saw him reach out and put his pudgy forefinger practically in the educator's face. This was not out of pugnacity; it was merely a gesture of identification for Mr. Lupkin's benefit. Mr. Lavin's guttural tones grated out over the whole car; since he knew little English, he spoke in Yiddish, but the precision of his gesture made the subject of his conversation unmistakable.

"You see that man?" he inquired of Mr. Lupkin.

Mr. Lupkin nodded eagerly. "I see him," he said. "Surely I see him."

"That man," said Mr. Lavin impressively, "is Dr. Abercrombie, the president of the Academy."

Dr. Abercrombie—no longer able to pretend that he was alone in the world, for there was Mr. Lavin's fist before his face to refute him—fidgeted uneasily. He shifted his eyes to another point on the ceiling. As for me, I wanted (a little ahead of my time) to be vaporized, and I should have liked the Messrs. Lavin and Lupkin to accompany me.

For once, the eternally acquiescent Mr. Lupkin was skeptical. He stared at the squirming prexy. "That man Dr. Abercrombie?" he asked incredulously.

"That's Dr. Abercrombie," said Mr. Lavin positively.

I remember that I had a mute desire to explain to Dr. Abercrombie what was behind this vocal, public identification. For even at ten, I knew that in pointing out Dr. Abercrombie, Mr. Lavin's gesture was one of pride. An illiterate man himself, he worshipped, as did most of the occupants of that car, any form of education. For him, for them all, Dr. Abercrombie was the living embodiment of education. There, in their midst, education sat, paying a nickel fare like themselves, and they were awed and exalted. I deplored Mr. Lupkin's unbelief, but understood it, too. The fact is that, for Mr. Lupkin, the physical materialization of Dr. Abercrombie was rather a disillusionment. He simply couldn't imagine that such a little, unassuming man could be Dr. Abercrombie.

After allowing his eyes to run over Dr. Abercrombie's features, hat, pince-nez, and overcoat, Mr. Lupkin, for the first time in his life, made a positive assertion. "This," he said, as if he were referring to a specimen preserved in alcohol, "cannot be Dr. Abercrombie!"

Mr. Lavin was furious. To be contradicted at all was irritating to his imperious nature and to be contradicted by his cowed partner was unprecedented. He was livid. "I tell you," he shouted, and his swerving fist narrowly missed Dr. Abercrombie’s stomach, "that's Abercrombie!"

By this time, the attention of the whole car was focussed on the fascinating mystery; all eyes eagerly searched the putative Dr. Abercrombie for some final clue. But I could endure no more. Although it was long before my stop, I rose weakly to reach for the bell cord.

Lavin accosted me. "You speak English," he rasped. "Ask him is he Abercrombie or isn't he."

I was unable to speak. I was unable to do anything.  Mr. Lavin was sarcastic. "What's the matter?" He glowered at me. "Have you gone dumb all of a sudden?"

I don't know what would have happened had not the Irish conductor come by at this moment for the fares. "How are you today, Dr. Abercrombie?" he inquired respectfully as he took the president's nickel.

Mr. Lavin, though he could not understand the conductor very well, at least recognized Dr. Abercrombie's name and turned on his companion with angry triumph. The mystery solved, the whole car relaxed.

"Well?" demanded Mr. Lavin bitterly of Mr. Lupkin. More accurately, he said, "Nu!," which can be very declamatory. "Who knows Dr. Abercrombie better—you or me?"

His intimacy with the president established beyond peradventure, Mr. Lavin sat back, glowering. But Mr. Lupkin, defeated by the facts, could still not reconcile himself to them. He gave Dr. Abercrombie one final, dismissive stare and then made a gesture of a kind of despairful negation. It said plainly, "Well, if this is indeed Dr. Abercrombie, then anybody can be anybody."

For me, this contemptuous gesture of Mr. Lupkin's was the last turn of the screw, but I am sure Dr. Abercrombie did not see it. The moment he had got his change from the conductor, he had returned to the rapt contemplation of his private and homogeneous world on the ceiling. But I jumped off the car and ran as best I could up the steep hill toward home. I was hot all over. In fact, I am sure that not since have I blushed so comprehensively, or, at least, not till I read that obituary in the Times forty years later.

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