Story of Love, Death and Taxes
This memoir is based on recollections and a journal. Some names have been changed.
This is a modern survival story. It chronicles my life after my husband Howard's sudden death in 1997, when I was left with his business, a decades old Washington, DC, bar named Nathans, which I didn’t have a clue how to run. I was, and am, the least qualified bar owner ever. What came with Nathans was a universe of woe, chiefly in the form of a a multi-million dollar federal tax fraud case that was, to say the least, a complete surprise. All that mattered to me was the care and nurture of our 5-year-old son, who grieved for his loving dad, and then to hold onto my 30 year career in journalism and television. Quickly I learned that what I cared about, and what my new life demanded of me, would be at opposite ends.
In the course of my journey, trap doors, dragons, and avalanches were routine. I learned how to be something I’d never been – self-sufficient – and in the process became a grown up. I learned that when we’re in the dark and alone, there’s no point waiting for someone else to light a match.
I’m not tragic or a martyr. My husband wasn’t a hero or a victim. He was a good guy who screwed up. I loved him. Nevertheless, he left me holding a bag that only now, seven years later, is still not empty of troubles.
Gwenyth Paltrow, portraying a woman who is suddenly widowed in the film “Bounce,” stands in the street and talks to a man who is attracted to her, played by Ben Affleck. He wants life to be okay again for her and her two sons. She gives him a perplexed look. “Don’t feel sorry for me,” she says. “I am happy. I’m widow happy, but if you grade on a curve, I’m happy.”
That’s me, too.
I'm pleased to share this memoir with you and I hope you find it interesting. The first part, "Innocent Spouse," is a complete work and focuses on the first year after Howard died. The second part, when it is finished, will focus on everything that happened after those first harrowing twelve months. If you have thoughts or comments, please don't be shy: firstname.lastname@example.org.
CarolNovember 2004 Washington, D.C.
The rich indigo of the Caribbean night mesmerizes me as I lie on the deck of Spray, a 63-foot sloop-rigged sailboat. Her sails are up and full. She yaws softly. The air smells salty sweet. The water splashes the hull and spills away in a spread of twinkling phosphorescence. My husband, Howard, is beside me, also on his back, his hand entwined with mine. Our 5-year-old son, Spencer, sleeps in his bunk down below. Stars crowd the sky – brilliant and wondrous in a way that is exotic to us city dwellers. The breeze, a steady 12-15 knots, fattens the big jib. The boat makes sounds, the creak of a line here, the shush of sailcloth there, and they soothe us. It is early December, 1997, and we’re on a northerly course, away from the sandbar island of Barbuda toward the more volcanic and mountainous St. Barth’s. In shadows on the western horizon we can see the hulk of St. Kitts.
I know this sky and I know these waters. To me this part of the world is paradise and a breezy overnight sail under a star-filled sky is bliss. I lived in the Caribbean before I met Howard and after we married we came back together many times, but this is our first trip with our son. To our delight he’s taken to the surf and sand and steel drums like an island native; he responds to the motion of the boat, the pitch and roll and heel, with the enthusiasm of a seasoned deckhand.
I sigh and squeeze Howard’s hand. We share so much happiness – the love of each other, our son, this night, this place and these sounds. My head finds its familiar spot on his shoulder.
Howard is so many things to me. He has the distinguished good looks, grace and style of a prince, and the wit and danger of a pirate. That is what attracted me, but I love him for so much more. I’m proud to be his wife. He makes me feel adored and safe and secure. He understands me absolutely, he supports me, he has adjusted to my flaws. He makes me laugh to this day. I am in awe of him. Spencer and I rely on him for everything. I believe that without him we could not exist.
We are the planets and he is our sun.
“I am the happiest I have ever been in my whole life,” I say to him. “I wish I could freeze this moment, because I have never been more content. Right here, right now, I have everything I want in the world.”
We met two decades earlier at an after hours party at a Georgetown bar called Clyde’s, one block up M Street from its chief competitor, Nathans, a bar Howard owned. Nathans and Clyde’s, both founded in the 1960s, were venerable institutions, legends in the Washington, DC, bar business – just like their owners. Like his friend, Stuart Davidson, who owned Clyde’s, Howard Joynt was a gentleman saloon owner, which meant he didn’t need the work. He had family money. The bar was a hobby, a place for him to hang his hat, chat up his pals and skim a few crisp hundreds each night. “Walking around money,” he called it.
Howard opened Nathans when Washington was a sleepier city. Georgetown was the hub of the action, to the extent there was any action. Howard preferred the saloon scene in New York, particularly on the East Side along 2nd and 3rd Avenues, and he molded Nathans as a homage to his two favorite haunts, P.J. Clarke’s and the 21 Club. He launched it as a rumpus room for well off grown-ups, not college kids. The logo was a jockey on a race horse. The cover of the match boxes was a bottle of Dom Perignon.
The restaurant business provided the perfect stage for Howard’s larger than life character. He was 6 foot three inches tall, long and lean. He stood out, with his brown hair slicked back and curled at the collar, brown eyes and serious eyebrows, the strong and purposeful chin, the English tailored suits, the perfectly knotted Hermes tie, the polished Gucci slip-ons. Any room got jazzier when he walked in. He rose to the performance and, when he was lubricated with a few glasses of vintage wine or ancient cognac, it was the perfect cover for his shyness.
He smoked cigarettes, Kents, with the panache of an uptown gangster in a 40s era black and white film noir. He could talk like one, too. If the engine on his vintage 12-cylinder Jaguar XK-E didn’t turn over, it was “deader than Kelso’s nuts.” When he wanted something fast, it had to happen “in a New York minute.” He was equally at ease, both in manner and language, with a Madison Avenue antiques dealer and the guys at the bar making book on the next Redskins game. He cussed a blue streak, but not in front of women or children.
Howard liked the good life and he introduced me to it in spades. On the night when we met at the party at Clyde’s I’d never before seen anything like him – not in the movies or real life. Toots Shor as played by a combination of Cary Grant and Jack Nicholson. That would be close. The jaunty way he arrived in his tuxedo, with the bowtie untied, turned my head. The party was jammed with attractive people, but he had my full attention. He had a devilish gleam in his eye as he scanned the room. He set his bemused grin on me and walked over. “Where’s the champagne?” he asked. I gestured behind me. “Can I get you a glass?” he asked. I nodded. I was struck dumb by his glamour.
Howard came to Clyde’s from a candlelit dinner party at the home of a rich party girl. I arrived straight from 8 hours under the fluorescent lights at the NBC News newsroom, where I worked the late shift as the night assignment editor. It was 1977, and in the spirit of the era I was dressed like Mick Jagger in a combination of boutique and thrift shop clothes and, proudly, my new Capezio jazz sneakers. I’d been in Washington only a few months, after a 4-year hitch in New York as Walter Cronkite’s writer at CBS News. I’d spent some time in France and the West Indies, too. I wasn’t sheltered or unsophisticated about the world, but I was young. For an ambitious 26-year-old who had been on her own since high school, I was fairly savvy. But Howard, at 38, was savvier.
We left the party together. He opened the door for me to his shiny black Jaguar and we sped off into the balmy spring night. On the 8-track tape player the Eagles sang “Life in the Fast Lane.” I fastened my seatbelt.
“You’re a strange one,” he said. “Why haven’t I met you before?”
“I’m not so strange,” I said. “I’ve been working. I don’t get out much.”
In 1977 I owned nothing but some clothes, a suitcase, a black and white TV and a record player. I paid a small rent for a one-room apartment where I camped. This man was in a different league.
We stopped at another restaurant he owned downtown. It was closed. He unlocked the door and turned on the lights. At the bar, he opened a bottle of Dom Perignon and poured two glasses. He hitched his foot up on the beer cooler, leaned against the back bar, and slightly cocked his glass toward me, seated across from him on a barstool.
“To the strange one,” he said.
On that first night we talked all night, and we continued to talk for the next two weeks. Each night, after I got off work at 11, he picked me up outside NBC News and took me to dinner somewhere that was open late. We talked through dinner. Then, after hours at his bar, alone or with a rag tag group of bookies and drunks, or in his car until dawn, we continued to talk.
One night he came up behind me, put his hands on my shoulders and whispered in my ear, “I think I’m falling in love with you.” His words felt like a soft, warm blanket wrapped round me.
The next day we began living together and from then on, with very few exceptions, we shared the same bed every night for two decades. With little regard for judgment or common sense, I signed myself over to him. For the first half of our marriage I tried to go at his speed. I quit the news business and moved with him into a manor house on a farm in Upperville, Va. I had visions of foxes and hounds and hunt breakfasts and witty repartee with the landed gentry. There was some of that, but the predominant theme of our lives seemed to be life on the edge. Even in head to toe Ralph Lauren, I didn’t fit in with the trust fund and horse farm crowd. I was a middle class girl from the suburbs who had a work ethic. With few exceptions, no one did anything. There was little wit. My brain was rotting.
Howard wasn’t happy either.
“We’ve got to get back to the world,” I said. “I have to go back to work. You have to go back to work, too.” He agreed.
And so, the second decade of our marriage was good; in fact, better with each year. We packed up in the hunt country and moved to the Chesapeake Bay. We were water people, anyway. We liked to sail. Howard jumped back into the day-to-day management of Nathans, and I jumped back into the television business as a producer for Charlie Rose on the CBS News overnight broadcast, Nightwatch. Business boomed at Nathans. I won an Emmy Award. We made a lot of money and we spent a lot of money: on travel, shopping and making our place on the Bay into the home of our dreams. When we didn’t think life could get any better, I became pregnant and life got much better. Spencer was born in November of 1991, when I was 41 and Howard was 53. We were on the older side, but it was the right time.
After Spencer’s birth, our life was a succession of quiet, meaningful rewards. Like so many baby boomers, the years of all-nighters and nightclubbing and madcap adventure were replaced by the simple pleasures of home and hearth. Howard even quit smoking. He grew a slight paunch. His hair turned silver. We were up early and to bed early. We were a family, and as we sailed through the Caribbean islands we were as happy as we’d ever been.
On Spray, the sail luffs. The wind has shifted a little and some of it is spilling out of the jib. We don’t want that. We want to harvest all the wind. Howard’s body tenses for a moment while he listens and looks up toward the mast. We have a captain with us, who is at the helm. The captain and Howard make eye contact.
“Bring her up a little?” Howard says to Jim, the Captain, as a question rather than a command.
“Yeah,” Jim says. “Or maybe a small reef?”
Howard jumps up and goes to the cockpit. He takes the helm while Jim steps carefully to the foredeck to trim the jib. He looks up at the sail while Howard guides the boat off the wind just a degree. When he brings her back up, the rapid “wuff wuff wuff” noise made by the sail has stopped. Again, I hear the breeze and the splash of water on the hull.
I’m not worried. I’m not worried at all. When I’m with Howard I never worry. I don’t worry about the boat, the destination, the moment I’m in or the moment to come. I know he’ll take care of everything. I’ll take care of Spencer and he’ll take care of everything else. That’s how it is with us. If there’s a problem, he’ll figure out a solution.
While Howard is at the helm I sense the empty spot beside me. I want him back. I like to have him near. This early December holiday has been wonderful because we have had so much time together. We’ve sailed from Antigua to Barbuda and now Barbuda to St. Barth’s. From St. Barth’s we’ll head to our favorite island, Anguilla, to show it to Spencer. And then, Anguilla to St. Martin. After that it’s a jumbo jet and home.
The islands have been serene. The winter crowds aren’t here yet. The water is warm, the sky is blue, the anchorages are empty. The seas have varied between frisky, 6-7 feet with 35-knot winds, to peaceful, like this night. Our interlude in paradise, this respite, will give us the juice to go back to civilization and cope with the frenzy of the Christmas holiday season. We’ll be tan and rested when everyone else is pale and stressed.
I’m eager to share this thought when Howard returns to me on the deck and stretches out beside me again. He puts his strong arm around me and I snuggle my head on his chest.
“Coming down here now was a great idea,” I say.
I can feel his nod.
“We should do this every year at this time, at least until Spencer is in first grade.”
“That gives us two more years,” he says.
Howard is not one to talk about deep feelings. I can tell more from his touch or expression than from his words. But the way he holds me, the smile of contentment on his face, tells me he’s as happy as I am.
“You’d like to freeze this moment, too, wouldn’t you?” I ask.
“Yeah. It doesn’t get any better.”
When Spencer began nursery school I returned to the daily TV business as one of the producers of Larry King Live. I was hired as the show’s “big game” hunter, which meant I was expected to book the hardest to get “gets.” I enjoyed riding the crest of a hot story. For example, corporate and Hollywood wags on both coasts paid particular attention the night Disney’s Michael Eisner and Mike Ovitz came on together to insist their professional relationship was strong. Their body language during the interview said just the opposite, and shortly thereafter Ovitz was out of a job. That’s the kind of interview I worked hard to get. The weekend Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin was assassinated we were away at a rural Virginia inn. Nonetheless, while Howard and Spencer slept, I was up all Sunday night making phone calls to the mideast, to book PLO leader Yasser Arafat for Monday night’s show.
Even though I tried to get him for Larry, Christopher Reeve gave his first interview, after the accident that paralyzed him, to Barbara Walters. However, we successfully negotiated for Reeve’s first “studio,” interview, which was still a coup. When I was hired I was told the interview Larry most wanted was with the legendary and legendarily shy and elusive actor, Al Pacino. I pursued him, often with Larry by my side. Letters, flowers, sitting in the audience when he performed on Broadway, wooing his staff, arranging for him and Larry to meet – these were some of the tactics I employed. For a year we pushed until Pacino said, “yes.” The hour interview was Larry’s wish come true and he and Pacino became pals.
Though the show was produced in Washington, a lot of our deal-making happened in New York, and as the show’s “big game” deal maker I made frequent trips there.
After our Caribbean sailing trip and the holidays, literally just days after New Year’s, Larry, Wendy Whitworth, the executive producer, and I had meetings scheduled in New York. They were important, keyed to some big interviews. Though I set up the appointments, and needed to be there, I was reluctant to go because a cough Howard got on the sailing trip seemed to be getting worse. Frankly, I would rather have stayed at home and nursed my husband, but this trip was a commitment I needed to keep with the show. Howard, as always, urged me to go. He was proud of my work and never stood in the way.
“I’m going to rest in bed,” he said, “don’t worry.”
He also promised he would go to the doctor.
I fretted, but he said, “Go.”
The next morning I took the train to New York. At the railroad station, just as the train was called, I stopped at a payphone. I paged his doctor, Kenneth Goldstein. When the recording came on, instead of punching in the number of the payphone, I punched in our home number. That way Howard would have no choice but to answer the phone and talk to the doctor.
In New York, I had a busy day of meetings followed by a “live” broadcast and dinner. Back at the hotel, before lights out, I called Howard. I wanted to know if he'd been to the doctor.
“Did you talk to Goldstein?"
“Yes, I’m going to see him tomorrow.”
“Well, hallelujah. That’s a relief.”
The next day I had another full schedule. I phoned home in the morning and then again around 5 o'clock in the evening. He answered the phone and sounded chipper.
“I went to see Goldstein,” he said.
“Oh, thank God.”
“He put me on antibiotics. The intravenous kind like I had when I had Lyme disease.”
“That must be effective.”
“Yes. I’m feeling much better. He gave me a dose for today and I’ll go in tomorrow for another dose. I should be much better by Friday.”
I paused. “I’m so glad you did that, Howard. Thank you. I’m so relieved. Do you want me to come home tonight?”
“No, you don’t need to. Stay and get your work done. I’m okay.”
“How’s Spencer? I talked to him this morning, but not this afternoon.”
“Oh, he had a big day,” he said. He told me Spencer had gone out for burgers with Howard’s sister, Martha Kumar, who was in town for the day from her home in New Castle, DE.
“Okay. Well, I’m glad you are on the antibiotics. You should sleep. You know, Howard, if you want me to I will come back in an instant.”
“No, I’m okay.”
“I love you.”
“I love you, too,” he said.
When we hung up I placed another call, to the restaurant where I thought Martha and Spencer would be having their hamburgers. I wanted Martha to take a look at Howard for me, to get her opinion. But when the waitress paged around the room she said nobody responded. I asked the babysitter for her opinion. She said he just seemed like someone with the flu. She said he sent her out for ginger ale and grape juice and he was drinking the two mixed together. It was one of his favorite odd combinations. At least he was getting fluids. Still, I had wanted another set of eyes to give me a report, and it bothered me that I couldn’t reach Martha.
The next day I had some down time and went walking, but walking in New York without Howard was no fun. In our 20 years together our favorite getaway was New York. He'd lived there in his 20s and so had I and when we returned we became New Yorkers again. We did not need much of an excuse to hop in the car and drive the four hours to Manhattan. After Spencer was born we had fun taking him with us. Being there without them was a drag. I stopped in some favorite bookstores, window shopped and had lunch. I wanted to get my work done and head home. Larry and I had one last engagement that night - a Woody Allen film premiere and party. Ordinarily I would be excited, hobnobbing with movie stars, but that night I was glad when it was over and I was able to tuck in and prepare for an early departure.
The train ride between Washington and New York is a great commute. The destination is interesting in either direction. The passengers on board are people with interesting jobs, many of them movers and shakers from the major East Coast cities. There are three things I do routinely on the train between New York and Washington: sleep, read and think. The trip lasts three hours, long enough to get something accomplished. On this Friday morning, I was mostly thinking. Professionally, the trip had gone well. Personally, it was a big step for me to be away from home for three days -- away from Spencer and Howard.
I opened my notebook and wrote a small grocery list.
On the way to the apartment I stopped by Neam’s Market on P Street, our neighborhood grocery store. It was a market from the old school, complete with a butcher and fishmonger and made-to-order sandwiches. The aisles were cramped, but they felt familiar. It was the opposite of super. I bought chickens to make broth, ice cream, ginger ale, apples, pears and Italian cake – some of Howard’s favorite foods.
At home, I trilled cheerful “Hello’s” from the front door to the kitchen, where I set down the groceries. Headed down the hall I stopped first into Spencer’s room to give him a big hug and kiss. He had returned from school moments before, and the babysitter, Tricia McPherson, was suggesting a nap.
Almost casually I stepped out of his room and into our bedroom next door, where I expected to find Howard deep in a stack of magazines or fixed on the television. What I saw hit me hard: Howard was on his back on the bed, wan and frail, eyes on the ceiling, struggling for breath. I had never seen anyone so sick and helpless. I grabbed the phone and called Dr. Goldstein.
As I pushed buttons on the phone Howard looked at me, but said nothing. He was too weak to talk. His eyes were pleading.
“How could you have sent him home looking like this?” I said to the nurse at the doctor’s office. “He looks dreadful.”
“What do you mean sent him home? We haven’t seen your husband in months,” she said.
My breath caught. I felt a chill. My stomach tightened.
“He told me he was in there Wednesday.”
Dr. Goldstein came on the line. “I haven’t seen your husband since his last check-up in November.”
“But I paged you! I paged you on Tuesday. You talked to him.”
“I called when you paged me but he never called me back. I got the answering machine.”
My heart sank. No doctor. No antibiotics. No getting better.
I gave the phone to Howard. I placed the plastic receiver in his hand. He spoke to the doctor, but it was difficult for him. The most he could muster were simple “yes” and “no” answers to the doctor’s questions. He handed the phone back. Dr. Goldstein echoed my alarm. “His breathing sounds terrible. Get him to Sibley immediately. I will meet you there.” It angered me that he lied about the doctor, but this was not the time to get into it.
Washington has several big hospitals, a few of them near to Georgetown. George Washington University hospital, for example, where President Reagan and James Brady were taken after they were shot by John Hinckley, was 5 minutes from our apartment. It’s good and efficient, and has a world class intensive care unit, but it can be chaotic and crowded. Georgetown University Hospital, another “teaching” hospital only minutes from where we lived, is prepared for a range of emergencies. Sibley, on the other hand, was a 15 minute drive from our apartment. Like its neighborhood, Sibley is serene and genteel, more suburban than urban, a good place to have a baby or to take a child with a sprained ankle. I was reassured when Dr. Goldstein recommended Sibley. Maybe he was alarmed, but obviously he didn’t think Howard’s condition was critical. If the situation was grave Sibley would not have been the doctor’s choice.
Howard did not have the strength to get dressed. I sat him up and put him in socks and shoes and gray trousers and a shirt and a sweater. I went to Spencer’s room and told him I was taking Daddy to see the doctor. I gave him another hug. He was trusting and confident and certain this was no big deal. When Howard stood up he had to steady himself. He looked at his little boy.
“I’ll be back, big guy.”
The ride was excruciating for him. He had to stretch out on the back seat. I could hear him groan each time we hit a bump in the road. The Friday rush-hour traffic had started to build. I was impatient at red lights. One eye was on the road; the other was on Howard through the rear view mirror. I thought to myself, “At worst he has a bad flu, might have to spend the night in the hospital. At worst.”
When, after an x-ray, the Sibley emergency room doctors told me it was pneumonia, “bad pneumonia,” I told myself that people survive pneumonia all the time. So he’ll be in the hospital for the weekend. Good. It will teach him a lesson for not going to the doctor.
I stayed by his side in the Emergency Room. A curtain had been pulled to give us privacy. Dr. Goldstein stood by, but Howard’s care was in the hands of lung specialists. He was able to talk a little. He had chest pain, but his eyes were bright. Oxygen and an I.V. had given him some color.
When they asked him if he wanted anything, he had the presence of mind to say, “Can I get some Evian water, please.” If he was critical he wouldn’t have cared where the water came from.
I was worried and concerned but no longer alarmed. The doctors seemed calm and confident. I found a wall phone and checked in with the restaurant and the show. I called Howard’s sister, Martha, in New Castle. The moment I told her where we were she said she was on her way.
The doctors worked late into Friday night. Howard had been moved from the emergency room to the upstairs Intensive Care unit, to their most sophisticated treatment room. He was conscious, but just barely. He wore an oxygen mask and had IV’s in both arms. The doctors and nurses talked in muted and serious tones. No one smiled. A skilled pulmonary specialist had stayed late, and dedicated himself to my husband. A monitor displayed many numbers: heart rate, body temperature, oxygen absorption. It was that last number that concerned the specialist.
The nurse pulled me aside and whispered, “We’ve got to get that number up. That number is way too low.”
Howard looked at me and for the first time I saw fear. I turned away to the sink and splashed cold water on my face. It was the only way I could hide my own fear, and my tears. A shiver ran up my back. My stomach felt queasy. Events had moved into a realm where I had no firm footing. The bright lights, the purposeful comings and going of doctors and nurses, and the hushed, clinical conversations were ominous. I realized I was overcome with something worse than fear: helplessness. There was nothing I could do. Between visits to the sink I held Howard’s hand or patted his forehead with a damp cloth.
A nurse came in with a paper bag. “You should keep these,” she said. Inside were his clothes, shoes, watch and ring. She handed me his shaving kit. Was this a sign, I wondered.
The doctor said he wanted to sedate him. I said, “Good. He’ll get some sleep, and then he’ll be better.”
Before the drugs knocked him out, Howard looked at me, and spoke softly but clearly. “I want to go back to the Caribbean.”
My sister-in-law, Martha Kumar, who relieved me at Howard’s bedside, woke me at home with a phone call in the middle of the night. Her voice was grim.
“The doctor was just here. He says Howard could die.”
I looked at the clock. It was 3 a.m. The bedroom was dark and I was half-awake and as I talked to Martha I got up and began to dress. “I will be right there,” I said.
My fear was so strong it dried out my insides. I had to steady myself to focus on the moment. I ordered a cab. If I tried to drive I would crack up.
When I arrived at the Intensive Care Unit, one of the nurses escorted me to Howard’s crowded bedside. The same pulmonary specialist was there, as well as Martha and some other nurses, and new machinery, including a respirator. The doctor said Howard was gravely ill and running out of time. The machinery they had was not sophisticated enough for his type of pneumonia. His kidneys had started to fail. Blood poisoning had begun.
The husband I left breathing with an oxygen mask four hours ago, who could talk and whose eyes I could look into, was fully sedated and on life support.
The night rolled into dawn and by mid-morning I was in the lone waiting room with friends and family. We waited while the doctors tried to come up with a course of action. Wendy Whitworth, my executive producer at Larry King Live, was there with her husband Ralph. My brother, Bob, arrived from rural Virginia. Some close friends had come from the Eastern Shore of Maryland. I worried about Spencer but I could not go home. He was in good hands with the babysitter, Tricia. That was the best arrangement for him at the moment. I called and paged other doctors and pushed to get them working at full velocity, even though this was a Saturday.
Larry King called in the early afternoon. He was not his usual garrulous self. No stranger to hospitals, he asked me the particulars of Howard’s condition. “What can I do to help?” he asked. “I want to do something.” I thanked him and said, “I think all we can do is pray.”
Sibley Hospital was no place to be in critical condition on a weekend. It was a bastion of doctors who keep office hours. There were exceptions, but most of the doctors who observed my husband passed through on rounds. They wore tweed jackets and smartly pressed trousers. They casually perused his chart, his vital signs, and him, and then moved on to the next patient. The exceptional few abandoned their personal plans, put on white coats, and kept Howard alive while I pushed for a transfer to a more sophisticated hospital.
It wasn’t easy. The nearby Georgetown University Hospital would not take him. Our only hope was the state-of-the-art Washington Hospital Center, on the other side of town, home of the MedStar unit, the last hope for most victims of serious accidents, burns, gunshots and other violent mayhem. “They have a breathing device there that is what he needs,” one of the doctors said. He also said, “I don’t know if he could make the trip from here to there in an ambulance. You need a Medevac.”
There was a problem. We couldn’t get a helicopter to come get him. The duty officer at the Washington Hospital Center said he didn’t have the authority to send one. The hospital administrator had to give this kind of transfer his approval and the duty man would not call him at home. My husband’s condition was deteriorating while we argued red tape and policy with bureaucrats. At 9 o’clock Saturday evening I called Larry King.
Now I had something for him to do: would he please get through to the top person at The Washington Hospital Center. We needed a Medevac helicopter at Sibley.
Moments later Larry called back. “One should be on the way. It’s all taken care of.”
Within 15 minutes we heard the whup whup whup of the helicopter’s props and shortly after that a crew of three people dressed like a SWAT team marched into the I.C.U. They looked purposeful.
We stood outside Howard’s room as the Medevac crew went through their ministrations. They strapped him to the gurney, attached an oxygen tank, the life support system, various other bottles and bags, with everything tightly and efficiently secured. In their jump suits and helmets, it was impossible to tell whether they were men or women, only that they were serious about their work. Doctors and nurses hovered around the gurney, everyone moving with urgency. As they consulted with each other, the entourage rolled right past us. I was dismayed by the jumble of medical equipment piled on my comatose husband.
One of the Medevac crew stopped for a second, looked me in the eye and said, “We’ll take good care of him.” It was a woman. The humanity of her words cut through all my composure and went straight to the core of my fear. As Howard disappeared around a corner. I asked my small group, “What’s going to happen to him? This is going to turn out alright, isn’t it?”
They had no answers. When my friends looked at me I could see the fear in their eyes, too. We stood silent.
I gathered my things from the waiting room and left for the parking lot with my brother, Robert. The blast of cold air outside startled me. It was a bitterly cold January night, cruel and harsh. We braced ourselves against the wind, stepped over patches of snow and ice and quickly climbed into his car. I shivered. Across the parking lot we watched the helicopter lift off in a blaze of lights and noise. My brother engaged the car’s cold engine and laughed. “That’s just like Howard, always traveling first class.”
It was January 11th. We’d been at Sibley for 30 hours.
The Washington Hospital Center has teams of “intensivists,” doctors on standby for the arrival of the next “code blue,” a patient whose condition is critical to grave. Howard arrived as a “code blue.”
But there was a problem. The intensivist who was supposed to be on duty to hook up the special breathing device had phoned from home and put the procedure off until the next morning, a Sunday. The reason was unclear. Here was my husband, rushed by helicopter from one hospital to another to have his life saved, with the prospect of immediate response denied.
It was almost midnight on Saturday night. I was frantic. The only doctors I could talk to had no power to overrule the duty doctor at home. While we argued, debated, dithered and wrung our hands, Howard was dying. I paced the hall outside the ICU. Around the corner walked Tina and Albert Small, friends of ours who had heard the news and tracked us down. I told them about the situation. “Carol, we’ve got to call Michael Hockstein,” Tina said, “He’s a friend of mine and he’s one of the top doctors here.”
Tina walked into the nurse’s station and asked the receptionist to page Michael. She waited until it happened. When Dr. Hockstein called in, Tina grabbed the phone and told him about Howard’s crisis. In 20 minutes, he was at Howard’s bedside, quietly and efficiently doing what needed to be done.
Howard had arrived at the hospital with a single breathing tube working both his lungs. With Sibley’s device, the weak lung and the strong lung got the same amount of air. This put a strain on the good lung, and did not serve the bad lung. The Washington Hospital Center had a breathing machine that had been devised by a doctor there to help burn victims. It was a twin-tube device that pumped into each lung the right amount of air needed to make the patient’s breathing more efficient. A steady and skilled hand was required to get the two tubes in perfect alignment. They had to be perfect or they would not work. This was the procedure Dr. Hockstein performed. When I looked toward Howard’s treatment bay, I could see pulled green curtains and at the bottom of them the movement of lots of feet.
An hour later, Dr. Hockstein came out to give a progress report to me, Martha, Bob and our friends. The tubes were in place, he said, everything was working as it should be.
“But he is in very critical condition,” Dr. Hockstein said.
I walked into the I.C.U. and past the nurse’s station toward the well-lit bay at the far end of the room. The green curtains were open now and in the center of the room I could see Howard in his bed. There were oxygen tubes up his nose, a breathing device affixed to his mouth, I.V.’s attached to both arms, a pulse monitor clipped to his finger, a urine bag. The respirator was beside the bed and it inhaled and exhaled rhythmically. A monitor broadcast his vital signs. An X-ray machine was parked nearby. Behind him, on the wall, was the suction device used to periodically clean his lungs. He looked peaceful, like he was sleeping, albeit on the set of some sci-fi film. He was tucked in, with crisp, white sheets. Two nurses stood nearby, jotting numbers on clipboards
That night we started a routine we followed for the next three weeks. Martha spent the night, sleeping on the floor of the small waiting room, so I could sleep at home and let Spencer wake up to an almost normal morning. I arrived at the ICU after dropping him off at nursery school, and stayed until 10 or 11 o’clock at night. A few nights I slept on the floor with Martha.
When I went home I collapsed. I did not dream. I surrendered to what felt like a deep and solid sleep. I woke every couple of hours and called the nurse’s station for an update. When the phone beside my bed rang my blood ran cold. It was Martha with bad news. The breathing tubes had slipped or Howard’s pulse had dropped. She called me only when she had to, and I braced myself before picking up the receiver. Crises were frequent. Whenever they happened I called the babysitter and left for the hospital immediately.
I learned many details about my husband’s body and how it worked, or mostly did not work. I watched as strangers touched, prodded and punctured him. I saw bags of his blood, urine and the muck they drained out of his lungs. All I could touch were his feet and hands. I took to kissing him hello and goodbye on his big toe.
It was mid-January and a few blocks away at the Capitol, final preparations were underway for the second inauguration of Bill Clinton. It played out on the TV and radio as a backdrop to our private drama. I drove through the colorful fanfare as I went back and forth between the hospital and home. It was strange to see the scaffolding, bleachers and bunting along Pennsylvania Avenue. I had a difficult time reconciling the two realities: all the cheer contrasted with all the sorrow.
At the hospital it was a God awful bumpy ride. The pattern was talk, get up and visit Howard, talk, cry, wait for a doctor to come by, go to the cafeteria, visit Howard, cry, talk, wait for a doctor, visit Howard, sit, talk, and so on.
A big glass window at the end of the hall looked out on the emergency helicopter landing pad and the city beyond. The view captured both the ordinary and extraordinary aspects of where we were. Sometimes I walked to the window and watched the Medevac helicopter land with a new arrival. The patient was rolled in, almost always comatose, almost always connected to a web of medical life-saving equipment. At other times I went to the window to stare at nothing but the Washington skyline. But most of the time I went to the window to cry. I called it my “wailing wall.” When I was done crying I pulled myself together and walked back to Howard or the waiting room.
Crying was part of the ritual of waiting. That’s how family and friends eased the tension. It was okay to pass each other in the hall, nod, cry and walk on. There were a lot of us in that branded community outside the Intensive Care Unit. If at times one of us had a moment of peace or the momentary high of good news, the others took it at face value. We didn’t know each other. We came from different walks of life and different parts of the city and beyond.
Our common bond was a loved one struggling to survive. We waited outside the doors and hoped and prayed and cried. The doctors came to us with little grains of hope.
One elderly black woman said it best. After a few minutes of giving me details about her ailing son, and my telling her about my ailing husband, she took my hand in hers and said, “Sweetheart, we’re all waiting for the same thing: divine intervention.”
In the small hospital chapel, I sat in the back pew, my head bent over folded hands. I prayed for that coveted divine intervention. It became my morning and evening ritual.
While I was at the hospital the general manager of Nathans kept everything under control there. I’ll call him Douglas Sullivan. He had been Nathans G.M. for many years. I talked to him every day. In our first conversation, I said, “I need you to take care of Nathans while I take care of Howard here at the hospital. I’m relying on you.” Doug was okay with that. He was supportive. It was clear he was worried, and scared. He couldn’t imagine Nathans without Howard.
Interestingly, Doug never came to the hospital, that I know of. Terry O’Brien, the night manager, came the last night. He walked into Howard’s room, saw what was going on and looked devastated. He was the only employee to see how genuinely horrible it was.
Doug called the staff together so I could talk to them about what was happening at the hospital. It was evening, just before dinner service, when I arrived. They were in the back room – all of them. Waiters, busboys, cooks, bartenders, office staff. To a one, they had stricken expressions on their faces. I stood before them, something new for me, and said, “I want you to know it means everything to Howard and me to know you are carrying on here while he is trying to recover. I don’t know how it will turn out, but your prayers mean everything.” One of the cooks started to cry. Her tears prompted my tears and soon many of us were crying.
It was odd to be in the back room, Nathans usually lively dining room, having this morose meeting, and at the hour before dinner service. As I left to return to the hospital I dashed through the front room, the bar. It was packed with people. It was already dark out and the lights were low, the conversations animated, the jukebox humming.
The dialysis machine was rolled in and out of Howard’s room every day. X-Ray’s were taken in the morning and the afternoon. At one point the doctors looked at the pictures and thought they had stopped the pneumonia. A couple of days later they said it had begun to spread to the other lung.
One day I walked in and saw a new doctor perched over Howard. He had a small flashlight. He closely examined Howard’s eyes. He was an eye specialist.
“They are deteriorating,” he said.
The calendar said January 30th. For three weeks I had been living in a hospital. My clothes hung on my bones from the weight I’d lost. My hair had turned gray. I carried a pad jammed with medical terms and phone numbers for doctors; their pagers, their mobiles, their home phones. Personal hygiene? I washed at the sink in the hallway bathroom, using paper towels as wash cloths. I brushed my teeth with my fingers.
The slide downward was slow but unrelenting. At a certain point, on a Wednesday toward the end of the third week, the doctors asked to see Martha and me alone. They came into the waiting room and closed the doors behind them. Michael Hockstein and his colleague, Peter Levit, sat across from us with their elbows on their knees and hung their heads. Martha and I did the same. We knew; they didn’t need to spell it out.
“What’s going to happen?” I asked Dr. Levit.
“He will just slowly go,” he said.
“Is he in any pain?”
“No. There’s no pain.”
“Can we take him off of the ventilator and let him go on his own?”
“Yes, we can,” he said
That afternoon, after school, I told Spencer his father was going to die. I took him out with me to walk our dog, Teddy, along a favorite peaceful path, the C&O Canal Towpath. We were hand in hand.
“I need to talk to you about Daddy,” I said.
“I know,” he said, “he’s going to die, isn’t he?”
“Yes,” I said, delivering what felt to me like a violent, murderous
Spencer grimaced and held his eyes shut. He plowed his head into my stomach and grabbed onto me with both arms and stayed like that, his head buried in my winter coat, his fists and arms tight on my hips. He tried to stop the tears. He wiped them away with his mittens as they spilled from his eyes.
I stroked his head and his back and wrapped my arms around him as tightly as I could. His heartbreak tore through me.
“Do you want to say good-bye to him?” I asked.
His head was pressed against me, but I could feel his nod.
“I think it would be a good idea,” I said, “and I will be there with you.”
Friday morning Spencer got dressed in his best blue blazer and gray trousers, looking every bit his father’s son. But he was not my happy little boy of only a morning before. It’s not that he pouted or moped. He just wasn’t there. All that remained was the dignity.
The nurse shaved Howard and combed his hair and cleaned him up and tried to make the room look non-frightening.
Spencer and I walked into the ICU hand in hand. The staff stood practically at attention. It was as quiet as it had ever been. We made small talk with the nurses. They pulled a chair up beside the bed and hoisted Spencer up on it to be able to see his father.
“Can I be alone with Daddy?” he asked.
“Of course, angel,” I said, and I walked out of the bay with the others. A nurse pulled the curtains.
From inside we heard Spencer’s young, tentative voice begin to sing:
“You are my sunshine, my only sunshine,
You make me happy, when skies are gray,
You’ll never know dear, how much I love you,
Please don’t take my sunshine away.”
It was a song that had meaning in our family, because Spencer didn’t like to sing it. If any one else sang it, at home or at school, he ran from the room in tears. “The song is too sad,” he said, “because it is about the sun going away.”
Now, as it came quietly from his lips, I cried. The nurses cried.
And then it was silent.
Spencer pulled back the curtains and walked out of Howard’s room with dry eyes. They were bruised. But they were dry.
“I said good-bye,” he said, taking my hand. We left.
In the final 12 hours I watched as the nurses removed the respirator and most of the other machinery that had kept Howard alive. All that remained was the tracheal breathing tube and the monitor that tracked his vital signs. A serenity set in that carried us to the last seconds of his life.
Throughout the night we took turns at his beside, me, Martha, my brothers and a few close friends. I talked to him, played his favorite music, touched him, kissed him, held his hand, and stared at him.
Before dawn, I shooed every one out of the room. Howard and I were alone. Again, and at last. I took down the pictures I had tacked on the walls. I wanted the doctors and nurses to know him in the fullness of his life, not just as this comatose male patient. They were photographs from every happy moment of our lives together, our twenty years together, and as I took them down I talked to him about each picture and the memory and the times we shared.
“I don’t know how I’m going to do this without you,” I said, running my fingers along his forehead, down his perfect nose, across his lips to his chin. It wasItIt was difficult to get close, to hug or to hold on to him. He was fragile and I wanted to be careful. I tried to put my head on the pillow next to his – a gesture at once so routine in marriage and now made so heartbreakingly precious. “God, I hope you know how much I love you,” I said. I kissed his cheek, his eyes, his lips.
He died on Saturday morning, February 1, at 10:16.
The obituaries glowed. One said the Georgetown community was “robbed of a touch of class.” It said, “If ever there was (an) establishment which bore the taste, the vision, the touch and personal image of its owner, then it was Nathans. It was Howard Joynt’s place, and there was no mistaking that….With his graying, slicked-back hair, the sweater thrown over the shoulders, he often looked like he just came back from the country and was on his way to the bank, with a good glass of wine waiting for lunch.”
In the local newspapers Howard was a “yachtsman,” an “art collector,” a “wine connoisseur.” The various obits cited his generosity to community causes and his memberships in associations that supported historic preservation, the arts, conservation and maritime history. They pointed out that he was the son of Howard and May Joynt of Alexandria, Va., “collectors of 18th century American furniture and art.” They mentioned his schools: St. Stephens, Choate, the University of Pennsylvania and Georgetown University.
Howard was cremated and before it happened I gave my brother, David, the charcoal gray suit he called his “burial suit.” I asked, “Please take it to the funeral home for me.” In the pockets I stuffed photos of Spencer, me, the dogs, a credit card receipt from our last dinner out and a note that said, “I will always love you.”
The funeral home, Gawler’s, is where Washington’s old-guard are prepared for burial. The building is red brick, imposing, sturdy. The reception rooms are dressed in good Colonial style silk upholstered sofas and wing chairs, the tables and credenzas are polished cherry and mahogany. Plush carpets keep sounds muffled throughout the public areas. It’s not uncommon for families to have a bar set up at the viewing, though we didn’t. The night of the visitation I was exhausted and my voice was shot. While Spencer sat on a sofa and played with a toy I croaked greetings to the dozens of people who came. I hoped to tell them each how much they meant to Howard, but instead silently hugged them and smiled and listened to their condolences. The two rooms we booked were brightened by framed photos of Howard and many large vases and baskets of daffodils, his favorite flower.
The shiny mahogany box with his ashes sat in the first room on a round, cloth-covered table.
I knew most of the people there. Our friends, old and new, and my colleagues from the television news business, were familiar. His restaurant associates, the suppliers and purveyors who were part of the day-to-day operation of Nathans, and bartenders, waiters and other owners from around town, were strangers. For the first time I met the Heon family, the landlords, who owned Nathans building. I’m sure the landlords and the restaurant people were there to check me out as much as to pay their respects.
It only distantly occurred to me that I was now the owner of a restaurant about which I knew very little. My involvement in the operation of Nathans did not go much further than the occasional comment to Howard over dinner when he had switched breads or changed the selection of wines by the glass. “Why did you do that?” I asked. “I really like that other bread better.” Sometimes he would explain, and sometimes he would dust me off, as if my question was intrusive. I never pushed, because it was his business, not mine.
The room was a crush of well-paid professional men and women in expensive suits and dresses and others who wore perhaps their one good jacket. A television star stood next to a busboy, a lawyer next to the butcher. Our housekeeper, in a black hat, jacket and skirt, stood in a corner and quietly wept.
The burial was for family and a few close friends. Rather than hire a hearse, which was not Howard’s style, I drove his green Jaguar to the funeral home, backed it up to the loading dock and had the attendants put the mahogany box of his ashes in the trunk. Martha, my brother Bob, Spencer and the dog were in the car. We played Howard’s favorite James Bond movie themes, “Goldfinger” and “From Russia with Love.” Carly Simon’s “The Spy Who Loved Me,” had been our song. Howard would be amused. We took him on a farewell tour of Georgetown. We passed the homes where he’d lived, the places where he worked and played, and then pulled into the Oak Hill Cemetery. Nathans manager, Douglas Sullivan, stood at the gate and waited for us. He held a bottle of Dom Perignon in his hand. “For the afterlife,” he said.
The group of us recited John Masefield’s Sea Fever, “I must go down to the sea again…,” we said together. The dog barked, the rector said a prayer and the urn disappeared into the ground accompanied by the bottle of champagne.
Letters flooded our mailbox. They were love songs, really. Typical was one from a close friend on the Chesapeake Bay, who wrote, “Howard had a good sense of what was right and what was wrong. He had judgment and a quiet, unheralded moral compass. Under all the tweeds and businesses and hobbies and philanthropic activities, he was a private man. He never imposed himself or his values on others.”
Everyone who wrote mentioned his “bearing,” his “manners,” his “generosity” and his “great style.” His assistant, in a long list of fond memories, recalled “he loved counting money.”
Within a week I had four shoe boxes of letters. I bought black-bordered stationery to write “thank you” notes.
In the dictionary I looked up the word “widow.” There were a few definitions. One was, “a woman whose husband has died.” Another was, “an additional hand dealt to the table,” and the third, “an incomplete line of type.”
Each worked for me, but especially the last one.
I felt incomplete in every possible way. My bed was empty, my home was empty, the other end of the kitchen table was empty, the driver’s seat, the desk chair, the shower he used, were all empty. The other half of my conversations was no longer there. I picked up the phone but had no one to call.
Most painful was the emptiness around our son. Spencer, at 5, was in the cusp of understanding and not understanding death. Though unable to make sense of the particulars, he knew something catastrophic had happened. He knew his father was gone and not coming back. By his logic, Daddy was in heaven.
“Mommy,” he sobbed as I toweled him off after his bath, “Please kill me. I want to be with Daddy!”
Later, tucked in his bed, he asked, “Mommy, if God is good why did He take Daddy? Why didn’t He take a bad guy, like a criminal?”
Some parents would have responded with an affirmation of faith, and explain how God takes those He needs and sometimes that includes the good people. They would talk about how we have to keep our faith in God and that what God does is right and fair.
That’s not what I did. I said, “I don’t know.”
Spencer said, “I feel like I will never be loved again.”
He said this through tears, and it was part of an entire, strange rant like nothing I’d ever heard before. I sat on his bed and looked at him.
“I’m useless. No one loves me. No one needs me. I have no purpose on this earth. I’m hated by everyone now because I don’t have a daddy.”
This ripped me apart. I cried, too, because I was unprepared for his words. They stung because I wanted to protect him and also because I understood. I had similar feelings. I hugged him and rocked him and tried to calm him.
“I love you,” I said, “I need you. I know how you feel. That’s the way I felt yesterday in the car, when you got so mad at me for crying, when I saw the people walking down the street holding hands. I felt like I would never fit in again, never be part of the world again, like there was no reason for going on. But it was just a feeling and it passed. The way you feel will pass, too.”
I was strong through his dinner, his bath and his bedtime, but not for long after. In those early days, when grief was a shot of Novocain to my nervous system, I got through most of the daylight hours in a manageable fog. But after Spencer was asleep, after dark, when I was alone in the rooms I shared with Howard, the numbness wore off. Sadness saturated me like blood. I puttered and searched. I sat on the edge of our king-sized bed and stared into space.
I was drawn to his closet, to the fragrant nest of his suits and sport jackets, where my nose found the familiar scent of him, where I could press my cheek against the cloth and imagine him there. I fingered his sweaters and his shirts and his ties. I looked at his shoes, neatly lined up in a row. I crumpled to the floor, crying, and holding an empty, scuffed shoe to my breast as if it was the dearest thing in the world.
I slept in his boxer shorts. They were made of beautiful blue cotton, big and baggy, and they slipped down on my hips, but I didn’t care. They gave me comfort.
On Howard’s desk at the apartment was a stack of bills that was easily 5 inches high. That was his department, running the household checkbook. I had my own checking account and paid my own credit card bills, but Howard paid all the big stuff: electric, gas, phones, condo, cable, grocery, laundry, school, kennel, store credit, housekeeper, babysitter – and most of them for two homes, the city and our place in Galesville, Md., on the Chesapeake Bay, our legal residence.
One evening at his desk I ripped open the envelopes, pulled out the junk inside, separated the actual bill from the stuffing of pitches and advisories. I placed the bills and their return envelopes in a neat pile and sorted through them. I was shocked. The amounts of money staggered me. How did we afford ourselves? Moreover, there were two bills from a mortgage company. Each was for about $1200.
There was an 800 number and I dialed it. I patiently worked my way through the voice mail and prompts until I reached a human being. “Mortgages?” I asked. “What mortgages?”
“You took two mortgages about 18 months ago,” he replied.
This was a blow. Why did Howard boast about being debt free when we had two mortgages? And why didn’t I know about them? I punched numbers into Howard’s adding machine and pushed the tally button for a final figure. I ripped it off and looked at the number: $15,000. That was a month’s worth of bills. That’s a lot of money, I thought, where am I going to get that kind of money?
I had no idea what kind of income came with the restaurant. Howard never told me what he made. He said only, “you don’t need to worry.” I didn’t even know whether he got an actual paycheck. It had never been an issue. Money was always there. Bills got paid. Our lives were organized and well-ordered.
I pushed myself away from the desk. I put all the bills and envelopes back in a neat pile, clicked off the desk lamp, slid the desk chair back into place and walked out of the den. On the sofa in the living room I cried.
“If anything ever happens to me,” Howard said, “sell Nathans immediately. Don’t take a partner. Don’t try to run it yourself, because it will kill you. Just sell it. Get a good broker, put it on the market, and sell it.”
Although publicly I insisted, “I plan to own Nathans forever. It’s a family business,” privately I planned to sell it. I had no desire to run a restaurant, particularly a hot, throbbing bar scene like Nathans. The responsibility scared me. I was no more qualified to run a restaurant than Howard was to produce a talk show.
I would sell Nathans, but first I had to get Howard’s affairs in order. Someone explained to me, much to my dismay, that I could not receive Howard’s pay until I had recorded his death with the county, in our case, Anne Arundel County, Md., and filed his will, set up an estate and obtained a so-called “Letter of Administration” that established my authority not only as his executor but also as his heir. In his will, I was the sole heir.
This was closure, as I sat there in the Bureau of Widows and Orphans in Annapolis, Md., and answered questions about the “deceased,” and filled out documents about time, place and cause of death.
In the first few weeks I also tried to get back to some kind of routine. In the morning, I dropped off Spencer at nursery school, made a quick stop at Nathans, drove across town to the CNN building, worked at Larry King Live until mid-afternoon, when I drove back to Georgetown to pick up Spencer as school got out. Rather than work from home in the afternoons, as I did before, I dropped Spencer at home with the babysitter and returned to Nathans. I had to make sense of the business.
Just like the staff, I began arriving through the back kitchen door. Before opening, it was the only way in. If it was after opening, the back door was a way to get in and down to the basement office without delay. I liked coming in through the kitchen, saying hello to Arnoldo, the day cook, and getting a good whiff of the stock pots on the stoves, one with fish broth the other with chicken.
Arnoldo was amiable, dependable and, I would learn over time, loyal. Sometimes I asked him to make me a small omelet and he obliged with a smile.
One afternoon I arrived to find Arnoldo and another cook particularly busy. More than usual. They had trays of food set out on the counters. It was not typical Nathans food. It looked more like canapés – party food. When I asked what was going on, Arnoldo said, “This is for the ANA Health Club.” I asked, “Why for the ANA Health Club?” He said, “Something for Doug. A party they are having.”
I was impressed. Obviously we’d been hired to cater an event at the ANA Hotel. When Doug arrived I asked him about it. He got nervous and tentative. He stammered an answer, explaining that it was a “donation” to the health club. “Is this routine?” I asked. He said, ‘Yeah. We do it from time to time. Howard was okay with it.”
I didn’t think another thing about it and went on with my day’s routine. I had a lot on my mind and no single issue got my head for longer than a few minutes.
I dreamt about Howard. In one dream I drove all over the place trying to reach him on the car phone. I was lost and I needed directions. Do I turn left? Do I turn right? If only I could get him on the phone.
Spencer had a dream, too.
“In the dream Daddy dies,” he told me. “You die, too, and Tricia. First Daddy dies while you are in the room with him and you come tell me, and then you die and Tricia tells me about that, and then Tricia dies and I’m all alone.”
Out at the Bay one afternoon, while I washed dishes by the kitchen window, I saw Spencer down at the water’s edge by himself, looking out. I dried my hands and joined him.
“What are you thinking?” I asked.
“I’m just missing Daddy and wishing I could see him in his boat out there,” he said.
Martha and I dined at Nathans, our first meal there since Howard’s death. We sat in the wood-paneled dining room, known as “The Back Room.” In its time, this room had witnessed the frolics of celebrities from Washington and beyond. A typical night would have Redskin football star John Riggins at one table, a Saudi Sheik at another, CBS anchorman Roger Mudd at another, rocker Alice Cooper at another, actress Margaux Hemingway at the bar, and several trust-fund lovelies to spice the mix. Fun-loving Senators arrived with their “nieces,” because they knew Howard didn’t tell the press. The night President Richard Nixon announced he would resign from office, The Washington Post’s owner, Katharine Graham, and editor, Ben Bradlee, came to Nathans for a late dinner after putting the paper to bed.
The room was intimate and warm. The curtains were paisley, the paintings, with picture lights over them, were of horses and hunt scenes and the fabric backing behind them was muted tweed. On each table was a single red rose in a blue bottle. At the front of the room, by the windows, were three round tables. Banquettes lined one wall, booths were along the other. The table cloths throughout were white with red crisscross stripes, a pattern Howard stole from the 21 Club.
Martha and I sat in a middle booth, Number 26, a sad pair. Her face, with a faint reflection of Howard’s in it, was pale. Her white hair, trimmed to a short bob, was slack.
I looked around the room and saw only problems. Lights that didn’t work. Worn fabric. Rips in the red leather banquettes. Ruts in the polished teak floor. The menu was too long and had too many specials. Many items, the waiter said, were not available. The food was average, at best. It was Italian but it wasn’t great Italian. Martha and I stabbed forks at our plates.
Only half the tables were filled. The bar in the front was still popular, but Nathans had lost its edge, its glow and its buzz. It coasted, and the coasting had started before Howard died.
The lease had a year to go, which diminished the value substantially. But still, I thought, I can get something for it.
Before I called a restaurant broker Nathans accountant came to see me at the apartment. We talked over dinner and a bottle of red wine.
“What do you know about the audit?” he asked me.
“The audit that the IRS is doing of Nathans.”
“Nothing, really,” I said. “Howard mentioned an audit but he said he couldn’t talk to me about it and so I didn’t ask any questions. I mean, I asked if it was bad.”
“What did he say?”
“He said it was marginally bad but not too bad and that he had a plan,” I said.
“Well, you need to go see his tax lawyers at Caplin and Drysdale,” he said. “I’ll go with you.”
“Why do I need to go?” I asked.
“Because you own Nathans now.”
It’s only weeks since Howard died. It’s late on a Saturday night. We’re back in the city. Spencer is sleeping in my bed. I’m dirty, tired, flat. I’ve just finished today’s round of bill-paying.
I talked with a divorced woman who said, “I know what you’re going through.” She meant well, but she doesn’t know. She may hate her husband but he’s alive and can take the children when she needs a break.
I don’t want to be overwhelmed by what’s happening to me. I hope I can learn to be happy about going it alone. I’m not there now, though, or even close. I’m sad and lonely and helpless.
We were driving in Saturday traffic on a gray, dismal afternoon. I ached and yearned and cried fat tears. From the back seat, Spencer said, “I’m not going to have anything to do with mommies who sit and cry.”
I’m miffed by everything these days, but I’m particularly miffed by some of the stuff that Doug does. I’m cutting him so much slack, because I need him, but he does stuff that really gets under my skin. I’m sure he pulled the same things with Howard – I know he did – but I’m not as easy going. Besides, I have to run a tighter ship. He orders things without my approval – expensive things, like new equipment. And he just announces it to me, like he’s the owner.
The other day I walked in and he had some guy waiting for me, a real hustler, who wanted to sell us a scanner that would do the liquor inventory. I was in no mood for this. Doug wants me to buy a machine to do his job? I was very frosty toward both of them. I could tell Doug had already done the deal and I said, “No. No way.”
Something else nagged at me: Doug’s insistence that Howard regularly approved of the party food I’d seen Arnoldo preparing for the ANA health club as a “donation.”
Why would we be donating food to a health club in a hotel? Also, I thought, it’s very easy for Howard to be for anything and everything now that he’s dead. It’s not like I can ask him.
On a hunch, I decided to call the health club and find out about this food deal. “Oh, we don’t give that information out over the phone,” the moronic club manager said. “We’d love to have you come in and take a tour and let us get to know you.” She purposefully avoided the issue. “Listen,” I said, “I’m sending free food and drinks over there today and I can pull the plug like that.” Squeezed, she finally gave me the juice. It turns out that in return for the food Doug gets a free membership. “Top of the line,” she said, “It’s our executive membership. It’s worth $1400.” There’s one for his wife, too, and both paid for with Nathans food and drinks! I can’t believe Howard would have approved. I know I don’t approve.
I am not cut out for this business at all. Howard would know what to do. I haven’t a clue.