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
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
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
"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.