Even though in my television career I’d nominally been the boss, I’d never been the boss in the way I was now the boss in the restaurant business. It was not something I enjoyed. But I was the boss of 55 people, and it was time for one of them to go.
“I’m going to fire Douglas Sullivan” I told my various lawyers over the phone, one by one. Not one of them tried to stop me. Jake Stein offered me one of his conference rooms in which to do the deed, and that seemed like a good idea. I had researched firing, and everyone I talked to recommended the same things: do it off premises, don’t let him back in the office and have all his stuff in a box that someone can take to him, and immediately change all the locks.
My tax lawyer, Miriam Fisher, added this: “If he starts to argue with you, don’t respond. Just let him talk. Let him say whatever he wants to you and no matter how mad it makes you, just let him talk. If you have to say anything simply acknowledge that he has a right to his opinion. But don’t let it go on too long. Keep the meeting short.”
It seemed cold, but then I’d begun to learn that was the nature of business: a heart of ice. As a business owner I learned to do everything a person would normally do, minus emotion. Compassion would be considered counter-productive.
Though I’d been told the conventional wisdom dictated firing a person on a Friday, I did not want to do that. I worked at CBS News in the mid-80s when the corporation got famously “Tisched.” That was the term used when Larry Tisch, the new owner of CBS, ordered mass lay-offs and many of them in my beloved news division. On a Friday, dozens of my friends were called into the bureau chief’s office, given packets of “human resources” information and were told they had to be out of the building within a couple of hours. Those of us who made the cut bellyached on behalf of our friends, demanding to know why they had to pack up so quickly and why, of all days, the firings had to happen at the beginning of the weekend.
The executive producer said Fridays were considered the best day for a firing because “that gives the person time to assimilate the experience and come to terms with what they need to do. By Monday they have accepted their fate and are ready to look for a new job.”
Like everyone else on our show, “Nightwatch,” I found this to be heartless and cruel. It didn’t matter to me whether it made “management” sense. I’d always resented management, anyway. To me managers existed only to torment and suppress the creative spirit. I assumed they enjoyed firing people. I assumed all managers were closet sadists.
Now, here I was, about to exert my authority as both boss and manager. I followed the wisdom of doing the deed and not letting him back in the office, but I would fire him on a Monday morning. That way, he had a whole week to explore job possibilities. Also, he wouldn’t have all that weekend downtime to get mad and drunk. I was concerned that if I fired him on a Friday morning he would be back at the bar on Friday night, drinking, chiding the staff and damning me. It had happened to Howard several times when he fired employees. They came back, got drunk, got into fights and got tossed out the door. All that achieved was at the end of the day the poor fellow was both fired and 86’d. God, I didn’t want that to happen. I wanted it to go as well as possible.
The Monday morning of the firing I stood with Spencer outside our apartment building and waited for his school bus. He played with his new “Giga Pet”, a small Japanese-made plastic toy that was all the rage with his age group in 1997. Shaped like an egg, it had a small screen that displayed a moving image like an ink-drawing. At the beginning, the image was a tiny fuzz-ball, but with maturity it turned into a baby bird. The egg had side buttons the child pushed to tend to the pet; one button fed it, another button cleaned up after it went poo, another button played with it, yet another button determined the pet’s mood. When it wanted attention, the plastic egg made an awful chirping noise. It could not be ignored. If not tended for properly, the pet “died,” right there on the screen. I’d bought it for him on Saturday, and Spencer had been unerringly attentive to his egg throughout the weekend. He fed it, played with it and tended to its moods. Briefly, he showed me how it worked.
The bus appeared at the top of our street. Spencer hiked up his back pack and placed the egg in my hand.
“What’s this for?” I asked.
“Mom, we’re not allowed to take them to school. You have to take care of it for me, okay? DON’T let it die! Please!”
“Spen,” I gasped. “Has it gone to the bathroom? What if I miss a feeding?”
“Mom!” he said, as he climbed up the steps of the yellow bus and looked back at me over his shoulder. “It’s fine. I’ve fed it and cleaned it and played with it. Don’t let it die!” Never had his face looked so imploring. The bus driver smiled at me as if to say I wasn’t the first parent he’d seen left with Giga Pet in hand. Spencer disappeared into the bus, the door shut, and off it went. I looked down in my hand at the Giga Pet, which was momentarily quiet. I looked at the screen and the little bird smiled back at me.
When I got dressed for the day I put the Giga Pet in my small black backpack.
Doug and I were scheduled to meet at 10 a.m. at Jake Stein’s office. When I called to set the appointment, he did not ask any questions. “Okay, I’ll see you there,” he said.
I picked up Caroline outside Nathans. I wanted her there with me. I’d remembered my time at the television version of USA Today, which was part owned by Gannett. Our studios were in the Gannett buildings in Rossyln, Va., just across the Potomac River from Washington. Steve Friedman, the former executive producer of The Today Show on NBC, was the boss and had hired most of us from NBC, CBS and ABC. We went on the air with what we thought was a great show, but few critics or viewers shared that opinion. The reviews and ratings were dreadful. Steve was eased out and eventually replaced by corporate TV types from Gannett. They were very “by the book,” corporate and uptight. What I remembered was that whenever the Gannett henchman met with any of us who had contracts, especially when they were trying to ease us out, we never met alone. It was like being at the gynecologist’s office with a nurse in the room during the exam. The executive would come to meet with me in my office and bring someone with him, usually a secretary, whose only purpose in being there was to watch and listen – just in case. A witness, really. I hated the tactic, but now I planned to use it with Douglas.
Caroline would be my witness.
“I’m so nervous about this,” I said to her after she got in the car. She had on a bright, turquoise dress that matched the brilliance of her blond hair. We were in the last dregs of rush hour, headed downtown to Jake’s Connecticut Avenue office. “What if he starts yelling at me? What if he refuses to be fired?”
“I don’t think he can do that,” she said. “He doesn’t have a contract.”
“Do you want me to participate in any way?” she asked.
No,” I said, slightly distracted by traffic. “No. Just sit there. Be my witness. Give me strength.”
When we walked off the elevator into Jake’s lobby the receptionist said, “Mr. Sullivan is in the conference room.” I used memories to give me strength. I recalled what Doug had done or said to me in the last several months. Particularly I remembered him disparaging Howard, blackmailing me, demanding a partnership and reminding me over and over that I wasn’t qualified to run the place. The most useful memory, though, was the day Jake called to tell me Doug was trying to get the lease behind my back. That memory gave me resolve. I marched into the conference room, Caroline trailing behind, and greeted Doug.
The room was small. It’s centerpiece was a polished rectangular table and six black leather chairs, one at each end and two on the sides. Doug had taken the seat at the head of the table. He had on a sport coat and tie. I sat on one side of him and Caroline sat on the other. I put my backpack down on the floor behind me. Doug shook hands with me and then with Caroline. The tension was in plain view. He looked like he could barely clear his throat. They both looked at me, waiting for me to talk. I took a deep breath, focused and spoke.
“Doug, thank you for coming. You worked at Nathans for Howard a long time and for me for almost ten months,” I said, as I looked straight into his eyes. He looked back at me coldly.
“Howard had his team and now it is time for me to form my own team. For that reason I am going to let you go, terminate your employment, effective immediately. You will continue to be paid for another month while you look for new employment. You will have health benefits during that time, too. You will have to return your parking pass. Everything from your desk has been put in a box and will be delivered to your home.”
There was silence. He stared at me. I could see the anger in his eyes. If looks could kill.
“I thought this might happen,” he said. “I saw it coming.”
Just then, from my backpack on the floor, there came a sound. “Chirp Chirp” it went, and then again, “Chirp Chirp.” And then again and again. It could not be ignored. I looked at Caroline, she looked at me, Doug looked at both of us. I looked at him as if I heard nothing and nodded. “Continue,” I said.
“You can’t run the place by yourself,” he said. “You don’t know what to do. You’ll run it into the ground.” I looked at him but my mind was on the damned “Chirp Chirp” that would not stop on the floor behind me. “Chirp Chirp.”
I looked at him. I was in a near panic because it was so outrageous that the damned egg toy would be bleeping at a time like this, but I had to force a straight face. I kept that rock solid straight face Miriam Fisher had recommended. I intended to let him talk.
Before my eyes he changed from angry and strong to vulnerable and weak. The reality had hit him. He’d been fired. I could see it in his eyes. We both didn’t think this day would ever come, and here it was, complete with the absurd “Chirp Chirp” of Spencer’s hungry or constipated or bored Giga Pet.
“You have some skills,” he said. “You think you know what you’re doing, but you don’t.”
He said that without him I would quickly go under.
I feared he might be right, but there was nothing to be said. I let him talk for only a few minutes.
“Well, Doug, you have a right to your opinion. That is all I have to say. I have to go. I wish you well,” I said, and got up, grabbed my backpack off the floor, nodded to Caroline and walked out of the room. We left him there alone.
“Oh my God,” I shrieked to Caroline, as I unzipped my backpack and started to rummage for the egg toy. “Talk about the worst timing in the world.”
“What was that noise?” she asked.
“It’s Spencer’s Giga Pet,” I said. She gave me a curious look.
“Don’t ask,” I said with a groan.
We hustled out of the reception area and into an elevator. Once the doors closed behind us I pulled out the plastic egg and regarded it. There was the little black bird, with a frown on its face. It wanted to play. I pushed the buttons. I showed it to Caroline. We both groaned.
“That was awful,” I said. “I couldn’t believe that was happening. Right in the middle of firing the poor guy. Oh, God.”
“How do you feel?” she asked.
“Scared. Adrenaline overload. Sad. So many things.”
“You did well,” she said. “You did what you had to do.”
“I don’t know. How will I ever know?” I asked.
“And what about Vito?” she asked.
“He’ll be there tomorrow,” I said. “I didn’t think he should come in today. Terry can take care of anything that’s going to happen today. I want to tell the staff and let them know about Vito and prepare them just a beat before he shows up.”
We walked out of the building. An early winter chill was in the air. It was blustery. The holiday season would begin soon.
“I can’t believe I fired someone just before Thanksgiving,” I said. “I guess I’ve become what I most loathed – a hard hearted business person. Ice water in my veins.”
“If the tables were turned he would have done it to you months ago,” she said.
Today was almost normal. Normal by the standards of my current life. I went to the show, worked, went to lunch and to the restaurant and then met Spencer’s bus and then to Webb and then back to the restaurant and then home to feed Spencer and get him to bed and then I had dinner in the kitchen by myself and I might, just might, be in bed by 10 p.m.
However, I am ignoring the stack of bills on the desk and other mail and devoting myself only to writing here and then bed.
I will pay bills on Saturday night when I might have some money in the bank. This will be a rough, rough month for me. I have to be very careful. I have a painting on the auction block at Christie’s. Whatever it brings I will be entitled to all of it. We must do voodoo on this. If it knocks down at a good price I might have the nut to afford the move. This is so, so important.
I want to make our new house our little nest, our jewel, our sanctuary – a place of comfort, charm, peace and welcome. It’s all in the details and the details cost money. There’s not a lot that has to be done, but it needs paint and a little of this and a little of that.
I want to move ahead. I am ready to move ahead. My whole attitude is in the gear of forward motion.
Last night, between work and home and going back to Nathans for the night, I went to a small gathering at Marvin and Lisa Jawer’s for Jim Graham, the head of the Whitman-Walker Clinic, who is planning to run for the Ward One city council seat. It was a group of local political movers and shakers and I felt comfortable with them. Jim gave a good talk about having to get the city back on track and he made sense.
I met a man named Anthony Lanier, an Austrian, who owns a lot of real estate in Georgetown and who plans to own more. He boasted, “I just put two restaurants out of business today.”
He said that in a year Georgetown is going to be much different, “much better.” He said, “M Street is going to become like Madison Avenue.” He also said “you have the best location in the whole city.”
Why does that make me nervous? Probably because I still have to get a signed 10-year-lease. He knew that, too. He knew all about my lease and my landlords. He knew everything. “I would never do anything to harm you,” he said.
It’s when a man says that to my face that it scares me the most.
Phone calls from the lawyers were a routine part of my life. Over the months, the calls came in many forms; in addition to offices and homes, there had been calls where one of us was on an airplane, or on a train, walking down a street, or in a car, or at a hotel. There had been long conversations and short ones, simple conversations and complex ones. Sometimes I was zooming between Point A and Point B, concentrating both on the road and the conversation. Occasionally I was in the middle of a child’s birthday party or a kindergarten field trip. More often I was in Nathans basement or my cubicle at Larry King Live. Miriam and Sheldon’s calls took priority over everything but Spencer. There were no two people whose words meant more to me. What they said left me anxious and occasionally in tears. Then one day I got a call that was different from all the others. It was the call I’d been waiting for.
It was Miriam. She’d heard back from Deborah Martin at the IRS.
“Deborah said that if we accept certain of her judgments on other aspects of the case, and we settle, she will accept the innocent spouse defense because she believes you have a strong case.”
I couldn’t speak because I didn’t know the words. The emotions were so strong and bountiful they got caught in gridlock on the journey from my heart to my brain. My eyeballs moistened, my breath caught.
“This is huge,” Miriam said. “And it is the right decision.”
“I can’t believe it,” I said. “It actually happened.”
My mind flashed back to almost a year earlier, in the dour offices of Caplin and Drysdale, the law firm I inherited, and the moment when the lawyers there told me I “didn’t stand a chance” of winning innocent spouse. Now Deborah Martin had granted me a new beginning.
Of course, the settled case meant that Deborah Martin wanted us to agree to a dollar amount. By “settled” it meant that we would not appeal her case. In terms I could understand, Miriam reminded me that with innocent spouse I could keep anything that was in my name or Howard’s and my names, such as my income, my savings and our homes and furniture; the federal government got everything else. The IRS would take the estate and anything that was in Howard’s name alone, chiefly stocks, bonds and bank accounts, and possibly Nathans.
“Am I giving up a lot?” I asked her.
“Look at it this way,” she said. “The other way you would have had nothing, possibly not even your income. You would have been cleaned out down to zero or making payments for a lifetime. This way, you are protected, you get something. You will be able to afford your new home and the government can’t take it away from you.”
I wanted to hug her and Sheldon, but I’d learned not to get too emotional with the lawyers. I was relieved, happy, excited and, for the first time in ages, optimistic. I knew we still had to deal with large amounts of IRS debt, and the future of Nathans, but at the moment, on this day in the early winter, I had sunlight and possibility and permission to dream again. Spencer and I would have a roof over our heads. He could go to a good school. I could pay bills. I would be able to retrench and try to become a productive member of society again.
I thanked Miriam. “You know, this wouldn’t have happened if I’d stayed with Caplin and Drysdale. This happened because I fired them and hired you. I had a good case and you believed in me.”
She accepted the praise but did not wallow in it. She was pleased for me. As a lawyer, she was focused on what next and how to proceed. There was still so much to do. There had to be approval at several levels of the Internal Revenue Service, and at those different points whoever was making the call had to agree on innocent spouse, and had to agree with the Tenancy by the Entirety: that the house, apartments and furniture were mine. We still had gates to go through, but we’d made it through the first and most important of them.
That night my friend Jeannie Perin came to the apartment for dinner. Jeannie, a fit and petite horsewoman, is the kind of friend we all need at least one of. The first night I was alone after Howard died, after Martha had stayed with us a week, Jeannie and I talked on the phone. I said, “I’m having a hard time of it. I’m not handling this too well.” She said, “I’ll be right there.” Now, she didn’t live down the block. She lived 50 miles away in rural Virginia. Still, at 9 o’clock at night she got in her car, drove to Georgetown, sat with me in the apartment for the hour it took me to calm down, and then she drove 50 miles back to her home. It seemed fitting that on this night of good news she should share it with us. I eagerly wanted company.
We had a modest bottle of California sparkling wine. We sat in the kitchen and ate deli food and made lots of toasts while Spencer tried to figure out what all the noise was about. To him, Jeannie was “Aunt Jeannie,” one of his Godparents and practically family. He was excited. He could see that I was happy and that made him happy. I hugged him a lot.
“We’re going to be okay, kiddo,” I said.
“But Mommy Mommy, why?” he demanded.
“Cause the federal government today said it might let me off the hook,” I said. “You don’t have to understand that, but it’s good news. We got some good news. Good news for you and me.”
Jeannie and I feasted on the spread of food. There were cold cuts and pea soup and goat’s cheese and fresh figs and a couple of different kinds of bread, potato chips and big, crunchy chocolate chip cookies.
“This looks like we’re both on weed rather than champagne,” I said.
“May I just say this,” I announced, with my glass in hand. “I can’t believe it has happened, but I couldn’t have done it alone.”
We clinked glasses.
“Also,” I said. “Fred Thimm was right from the beginning: I had to be my own driver.”
We clinked glasses again.
“Howard would be proud of you,” Jeannie said.
I held Spencer in my arms and looked at my friend.
“I wish he was here,” I said. “Then we would have real happiness.”
Spencer scampered out of the room after the dog.
“Of course, if he was here I wouldn’t have Innocent Spouse. I think he had to die for us to survive.”
Sheldon and Miriam took me to lunch. Caroline joined us. We went to an Italian restaurant on the ground floor of their building at 18th and Connecticut. The restaurant was in a space that had been the home to a succession of failed restaurants. Nothing could last there. It seemed that every two years a new owner and “theme” came in. The tables and chairs and upholstery were from when it was steakhouse American, the murals were from when it was a disco, the new owners had added a layer of Italian. It was a timely reminder that the restaurant business was always, at heart, tenuous.
We sat in a booth. Sheldon and Miriam were on one side; Caroline and I were on the other. We ordered pasta and salads and iced tea.
The purpose of the lunch was ostensibly to celebrate, but there was serious business to be addressed. It fell to Sheldon to pose the question.
“What do you want to do about the business?” he asked.
Though I’d learned a lot and come a long way in taking control of my life, I still felt like I was out with the grown-ups. It was the kind of question that required a thoughtful answer. I don’t know that I was prepared back then to be thoughtful or wise.
“I think I should keep it,” I said, as if there was no doubt.
“Do you want to know what I think?” Sheldon asked. It occurred to me I should have asked that in the first place.
“Yes, of course,” I said.
“If you want to, right now, you can give the government the keys and walk away. Your lease is up, you’re on a month to month with the landlords, you have innocent spouse, you have a clean slate. None of Nathans debts attach to you. You are free to go,” he said.
“If I decide to keep it, if I decide to stick with it, what will happen?” I asked.
“What could happen is that you’d reach a settlement with the government but you would be paying them over many years. You’d be working for them, basically. You should also know that in the meantime, until there is a settlement, it’s not safe from seizure. ”
“It’s a gamble, I know, but still I think it’s worth fighting for,” I said. “If I can keep it, get a new lease and buff it up I can still sell it.”
“It’s important to Spencer, too. It reminds him of his Dad. It’s sentimental,” I said.
Miriam and Caroline listened. Neither interrupted my back and forth with Sheldon. I would stop to eat a forkful of salad. I would think, and then I would talk again.
“Also, it’s all I have, Sheldon. My job at Larry King Live is over in every way except the actual end, and even if I stayed there we could not survive on my CNN income. I get a part-timer’s salary. Nathans has to be worth something. With the new lease I would think I could sell it. That’s what I would like to do. Keep it and sell it.
“I can’t imagine there not being a Nathans,” I said.
The lawyers let that comment go. They had a more realistic point of view. They could see a world without Nathans, even if I could not. They indulged me. They would do what I asked them to do, even if it was impossible to know whether it was a wise decision.
We talked about what our strategy would be.
Miriam spoke up.
“What it might come down to is you would have to buy the restaurant from the government. If you gave them the keys they would likely sell it at auction. What you want to do is be the buyer before that happens. Maybe they’ll go for it.”
“What’s it worth?” I wondered.
“Without a lease, not much,” Caroline said. “Your kitchen equipment is mostly leased. What isn’t leased is in terrible condition. Your main asset is your liquor license.”
“What’s that worth?” I asked.
She shrugged and guessed. “Maybe $100,000.”
Sheldon looked at me. He gave me his most grandfatherly regard.
“Are you sure you want to be in the restaurant business?” he asked. “It’s a terrible business.”
“Only for a little while,” I said. “Only for as long as it takes to pull it out of the jaws of the IRS, and then sell it.”
I had reasons to be optimistic. The Douglas Sullivan era was over. His lawyer wrote and demanded a bigger severance package – six months pay rather than one month’s pay – but I planned to hold my ground. I had resolve. “He was ripping you off for months,” one of the staff said to me.
Vito Zappala was firmly in place as Nathans manager, with chef Paul Wahlberg in the kitchen. They had shaken up the place in the best possible way. The staff responded with enthusiasm. Vito brought with him management skills that had been unheard of at Nathans. Little things like schedules and systems and accountability were now put into place. He stepped up the training program for the wait staff. He delegated more authority to the night manager, Terry, and monitored his intake of Grand Marnier shooters. Vito also showed up for work on time and stayed late. He was there on the premises and did his job.
I was there more often, too, and made attempts to talk to the customers. I still felt like an intruder, though, and was always surprised when patrons welcomed my “hello.” In my shyness I was certain they would ask me to leave them alone.
The restaurant began to feel like the best part of the television business: collaboration. We were all in it together. I may have been the owner, but we were on the same team. I had an early season holiday party for the staff to show them my appreciation. I booked a private party room at a club nearby and served champagne punch, beer and wine, canapés, cookies and cakes, and gave gift certificates to everyone. The college kids stood in one group, the Latino kitchen staff stood in another, the managers in another, and I drifted from group to group. Everyone was appropriately nervous and uneasy – it was, after all, an office party – but that was okay. I made a little toast before the group and said, “I couldn’t do it without you.”
Through a publicist friend in New York I got leaked to The Washington Post that Mark Wahlberg’s brother was the new chef at Nathans. Annie Groer, who wrote the paper’s gossip column, asked to come in and meet him. I was thrilled. Paul was thrilled, too, as he made her lunch and posed for pictures. The story appeared the next day with a picture of Paul in the kitchen. It was Nathans second piece of publicity since Mayor Marion Barry came to dinner, and the result, as with the time before, was a discernible spike in business.
My goal was to put the place back on the map, to give it buzz, to get people to talk about it and to want to come in for lunch, dinner, brunch and drinks. I never forgot one particular statement Phyllis Richman made to me over lunch: “No one ever mentions Nathans anymore.” I couldn’t live with that. I wanted everyone to talk about Nathans. After all, it had the best location in the city. It was a legend. My task was to pump it with the verve customers expected from a legend at the best corner in the most powerful city in the world.
A regular stopped me at the bar one night. “All the changes you’ve made have been for the better. Nathans feels like it’s coming to life again. Not only that, the place feels warmer. You’ve brought warmth to it.”
There may have been warmth at Nathans, but there was a definite chill at CNN, and it had nothing to do with the winter weather. Becky returned from her three week vacation more determined than ever to make my life miserable. I gave her plenty of opportunity, too. Preoccupied with the IRS, the sale of the apartments and the house, and Nathans, my presence at the show became fractured. I was late for meetings or had to leave early. Wendy, my lifeline, had a more erratic schedule, and it seemed to be the opposite of mine. We saw less and less of each other. The guests Becky assigned me to book were moving down the ranks from constant “A’s” to more “B’s” and occasional “C’s.” I sat at my cubicle, made jokes with colleagues, but mostly watched as everyone else worked hard. On occasions, whole shows were produced without my involvement. Some days I felt like a visitor.
Both apartments were sold and soon we got promising nibbles for the house on the Bay.
Before the house began to get stripped of furnishings we went out one more time to have a last dinner party with our core group of friends. It was just before Christmas.
The guests were Terry and Susy Smith, Don Edwards and Edie Wilkie, Pete and Deborah Stark, and Martha, who rounded us out at eight. Martha would fill her brother’s place at the table.
I covered the big farmhouse table in the dining room with a white damask cloth and put out the good china, the good silver and the good crystal. I lit the candle chandelier and put votives all over the room. The flowers were yellow jonquils. At each place I put a giant red and white candy cane. The music was a mixture of new and old holiday favorites. When everyone arrived we sat by the fireplace in the living room, where I poured glasses of vintage champagne. Edie said, “This is the best champagne I’ve had - ever.”
The men stood and the women sat on the sofas and chairs. The dog, Teddy, hopped from lap to lap. From time to time the Christmas music would break through our conversation. These people had been in this room with me and Howard on so many occasions. It felt familiar and routine. We knew it was a last time, a final performance, but no one was sad. Everyone talked amiably about the last year and my struggles. Their big concern was who might buy the house.
“It better be someone we like,” someone said.
“All I care is that they write a check that clears the bank,” I said. “I love it. I’ll miss it. It’s my home, but I’m ready to move on. All I want for Christmas is a buyer.”
Spencer pitter-pattered back and forth. It was our first party since Howard died and he wanted to help. I let him stay up past his bedtime. Our former housekeeper, Gladys, had come back for one night to help me and she kept an eye on Spencer and the food. He dashed from dining table to kitchen to TV and back again.
Later, after my friends and I hugged and kissed and hugged again and they were on their way, and Spencer was asleep in his room and Gladys had retreated to her room, Martha and I settled by the fire. She lay on the long stone hearth. I stretched out on the sofa. The music was low and we could hear it as a soft accompaniment to the crackle of the fire. We stared up at the cathedral ceiling.
“What kind of man would you like to have come into your life?” she asked me.
I thought for a long while before answering.
“Really, someone who is his own man, and who knows how the world really works.”
I paused and thought some more. “But clever. Smarter than the other guys.”
“You know, Martha, what I really want is someone like me, who has been to hell and back and is a survivor, not a victim or a martyr. Someone who got over it and moved on. Life is a long journey and I admire the people who don’t let the rough patches get them too far down.”
“What do you think?” I asked. “What do you think would make the perfect man for me?”
“About the same,” she said. “Someone good and kind who will be good to you.”
Then together we burst into laughter. We had come up with the impossible dream.
Our talk dwindled to sporadic words and then silence. We both fell asleep where we were – her on the hearth and me on the sofa. Eventually the music stopped and the fire burned down to embers and we two snoozed until dawn.
This is what I did this evening when I got home from all my jobs:
I filled the bathtub with water. I took off my clothes, got into the tub and submerged myself almost completely. Only my mouth and nose were barely sticking out of the water…just enough so I could breath. I stayed like that for 10 minutes.
That was how I got away from it all. I’ve become a frog.
I don’t know exactly what the problem is. Most likely it’s the critical intersection of so many bits and pieces. The sale of the apartments. The furniture being moved out of the house on the Bay. The final numbers with the IRS. No money. Christmas. Christmas. Christmas. There’s the holiday anniversary and then just around the corner the anniversary of Howard’s death. Christmas is the anniversary of our last period of time together – the week between Christmas and New Year’s. And then that was it. He was gone.
During prayers at church I said to Spencer, “This is time for you to pray to Daddy.”
He bowed his head and folded his hands. I could hear him talking quietly into his hands.
“Daddy, please come back. Daddy, I miss you so much. Please come back. I want you to come back.”
Yesterday afternoon we stayed in. I baked chocolate chip cookies and decorated the tree. We listened to Christmas music and watched a Christmas movie. Spen helped me hang a few ornaments but was more interested in the movie.
“Does this make you sad?” I asked, referring to the tree decorating.
“A little bit,” he said.
“Well, it’s a lovely sweet tree. Our first family tree on our own. Maybe we should go get some special ornaments to mark the occasion.
He liked that idea.
“We should get an angel for the top of the tree that looks like Daddy,” he said.
“That’s a good idea,” I said.
To myself I had a little laugh and wondered if Martha, Sheldon, Miriam, Deborah Martin and the IRS would appreciate the image of Howard as Angel.
He said, “Mom, if I could have a dad for Christmas I wouldn’t want anything else. Not even a computer.”
“Okay,” I said.
“But it would have to be a dad who looks like Daddy, sounds like Daddy and is Daddy. What I really want is Daddy.”
I went through his backpack tonight to find out if there were any school newsletters inside. I found some crumpled papers on which he’d practiced writing words like “egg” and “dog” and drawings of squids, aliens and laser blasters. There was his “magic pen,” which is really a wooden stick. Then at the bottom, folded and clearly much fondled, was a picture of Howard.
What was Christmas supposed to be for us? Should we embrace it or avoid it? We could run away, but what would that fix? We would simply be running away. Besides, Spencer was certain that if we weren’t at home in Washington Santa Claus would not be able to find him. To my mind we had to tough it out like an ill wind. We would recognize the occasion but we would also stand back a little, and not let it blow too hot against our misery.
I watched Spencer closely. To my surprise he seemed in good shape. He shifted easily between a complete childish thrall with the holiday hoopla and the occasional retreat to his bedroom and a good snuggle with his rag dog “Baby.” Ellen, his grief therapist, gave me advice. “It’s important to let him talk about missing his father at Christmas because that is what will be on his mind,” she said.
In particular he talked about the year before when we had such a good Christmas at the house on the Bay. “Do you want to go there for Christmas?” I asked.
“No,” he said, emphatically. “I want to be in the apartment. That’s where we live now.”
He came with me to CNN one day to pose, along with the staff, for the Larry King Live Christmas card. It meant something to me to be included in the card. We all dressed like Larry, in white shirts, ties and suspenders. Spencer, also in tie and suspenders, stood beside me as we smiled for the camera. Wendy brought her new baby daughter, lovely little Maya, and in the picture we look like a big happy family.
Spencer and I went to only a few Christmas parties. There was something wrenching about exposure to too much family happiness. We were the odd ones out, the lost souls, and we didn’t want to be reminded. The best event was the Christmas pageant put on by his school at The National Cathedral. I watched misty eyed as he paraded with his classmates down the center aisle of the huge cathedral, a path walked by presidents and bishops, and took his place at the foot of the altar. When the pageant was over his Christmas holiday began. For two weeks we could sleep late, loaf and have fun.
The most memorable evening was the night the two of us drove to the Ellipse to see the National Christmas tree. Remarkably in the crush of tourists we found a parking space by the White House. Hand in hand, we walked all the way around the big, brightly-lit tree and up and down the wooden paths alongside the smaller state trees that make up the “Pageant of Peace.” The colored lights were bright and cheerful, the carolers sang gaily and Spencer was thrilled by the miniature passenger train that chugged around the base of the big tree.
It was cold and our breaths were caught in the tree lights. Every now and then I would hear a child shout, “Dad!” or “Daddy!” or I would hear a mother tell a child, “Go ask your father,” or ask, “Have you seen your father?,” or a boy would say to a man, “Daddy, will you pick me up?”
It hurt, and it was nobody’s fault and there was nothing that could be done but to carry on. I wondered whether Spencer heard it as well. He must have, because he would hold my hand tighter. I tried to direct his attention to different ornaments or a song being sung by the carolers. He looked so handsome in his brown corduroy trousers, and brown lace up shoes and festive sweater and his puffy brown jacket and the dark green hat. The hat made his blue eyes look green. I had on a blue suit and a long black coat and my big gray cashmere scarf.
We stood and watched the Carolers on the big stage. I urged Spencer to sing along and he did. The more we sang the more our dispositions improved.
“Do you want to see my most favorite tree?” I asked him.
“Sure,” he said.
We got in the car and headed up Pennsylvania Avenue to Capitol Hill. The Capitol’s tree, on the sloping north lawn facing the city, was covered with golden lights that cast a bright glow on our faces and the faces of the few other people there. We both marveled at it.
“Does the President live in the dome?” Spencer asked as he pointed up at the Capitol building.
“No, honey, he lives at the White House. This is where Congress works. The Senators and Congressmen have their offices here. No one lives in the Capitol. But the President does live at the White House.”
When we returned to the car he said, “I think our tree at home is the prettiest tree, because it has our own personal ornaments on it.”
That weekend at Sunday school he made an angel. He said, “It’s Daddy.” We put it at the top of the tree. When I went to move it up just a little he stopped me.
“Mom, there’s a white light behind the angel and that is Daddy’s heart. Don’t move it or he’ll lose his heart.”
Some of Spencer’s friends openly tried to make sense of what it meant to not have a father. With the holidays, some wondered whether he could celebrate Christmas. He assured them he could. In fact, he said, “My Dad can talk to Santa Claus.”
Presents piled up under our tree. I bought toys he talked about, but most of all Lego and Star Wars. One day I noticed he’d put a package under the tree with a card on it. In his scrawl it said, “Mom. Love Mom. I love you Mom. Spencer.”
On the eve of Christmas eve my friends took me to dinner at a steakhouse on K Street called The Prime Rib. Lots of black lacquer and leopard and a guy playing a grand piano. The owner, when I was introduced to him, said “I’m impressed with what you’ve been doing over at Nathans. I heard you got rid of what’s his name. That really took some balls.”
On Christmas morning my spirits were up. Spencer had slept in my bed and at dawn he jostled me awake.
“Mom, Mom, wake up! I know Santa has been here.”
Just like the year before, I followed him down the hall. He wore cotton pajamas with red Santas and reindeer. He jumped like a kangaroo as he made his way to the living room and then stopped and took it all in before making a lunge at the pile of presents. He seemed as happy as ever. He ripped at wrapping and ribbons and marveled at the gifts. I sat on the floor beside him and tried to keep order and an eye on the dog, who was lost in the paper and ribbon.
“Oh, great!” Spencer shouted at one gift.
“This was just what I wanted,” he yelped about another.
“Cool,” was his response to another.
Spencer’s thrill did not last, though. For half an hour the Christmas presents made him as happy as he could be, but after that he lost interest. He pushed them away, got up, walked past me and down the hall to his bedroom. A few minutes later I followed. He was on his bed, holding his “Baby” close, with his thumb in his mouth. He looked up at me with soulful eyes. He didn’t need to explain. I eased him over and got on the bed with him and stretched out beside him and put my arm around him. He put his head under my chin.
He spoke but his thumb was in his mouth. I pulled it out like a cork from a bottle.
“I miss Daddy,” he said. “I wished Santa would bring me Daddy. That was what I wanted most for Christmas.”
“I know, angel. That would be a great present.”
I hugged him tighter.
“Well, you’ve got me and Teddy and lots of great presents from Santa. I’m sure Daddy told Santa exactly what to bring you, and he wants to see you have fun with all your cool presents. He doesn’t want you to be sad.”
“Okay,” he said, and then the thumb went back in the mouth.
“Hey, I’ve got an idea,” I said. “Why don’t we go through pictures and you select one for your new frame.”
I returned to his room with a box of photos and he leaned very close to me as we went through them. It made us sad but not terrible sad.
“There’s our family,” he said of one picture of him, Howard and me.
At bedtime I told him he could take a few of his presents to bed with him. He picked only one, the needlepoint pillow that said, “I BELIEVE IN ANGELS.”
New Year’s Eve (Written at 2 a.m.)
Well, it finally happened. The year of my husband’s death, the worst year of my life, is over.
I marked the midnight hour not at a party or a dinner or any place with a roof over it. I stood in the middle of Key Bridge, overlooking the Potomac River and the city and hollered at the tops of my lungs. Not “yahoo” or “whoooeeee.” I just screamed a great big lusty scream of release. And then I hugged Randy Parks, who ran out there with me. Randy was sweet to come in from the country to keep me company. What a friend. He said, “I’ll do whatever it is you want to do.”
For some reason, I felt like liberation. I don’t know why. It’s not like this New Year holds the promise of great fortune or some miracle, but anything has to be better than the year just passed. And I am eager to embrace the future.
It was freezing cold, but it didn’t matter.
Started the evening at Nathans to make sure everything was in place. It was. The place looked great. The ceilings were filled with big fat gold, silver and white helium balloons. There were hats and streamers and noisemakers. We had dinner at Hibiscus, the West Indian restaurant under the freeway. It was bright and festive and full of good cheer. We drank rum punch. The owner, Jimmy Banks, made sure we had a good time. We had a terrific corner table and the crowd was lively.
From there we went to see Trish and Mark Malloch-Brown and had a glass of champagne with them. I’d told Randy I wanted to stay mobile, and we were.
From Georgetown we headed downtown to Rupperts to meet the Jawers. We stayed only for a drink and some bread. We wished the Jawers and their friends a Happy New Year and moved on. I had a date with a bridge.
We got to Key Bridge just minutes before midnight.. It was grand to be out there. No one else on the bridge but us. And the clear sky and the dark night overhead. It was cold and bright and big. And in the distance we heard honking and hooting and the city in celebration. The river glistened with the reflected lights. When I was done hollering Randy and I embraced and wished each other, “Happy New Year.” There have been some times in the past year when I've made dark jokes about jumping off that bridge, but that wasn't my mood tonight.
And now, here I am, fed, danced, tired, ready for bed and whatever waits ahead in this new year.
It was January and to my friends it was time to move on; time to put it behind me; time to get back into the swim of life. In ways that they probably didn’t even notice I had begun to move on. The planned move from one home to another was to me the purest form of “moving on.”
The January anniversaries got to my heart, but my attention was often diverted by the facts of our move: packing, packing and more packing. I made arrangements with friends to come get items they wanted. I made arrangements with a local auction house to sell items I could no longer use. I made arrangements with the Salvation Army to come get many other items, like mattresses and beds, childrens’ clothing and toys and furniture, kitchen utensils and appliances, towels, blankets, rugs, lamps, and odds and ends.
When I wasn’t at the restaurant or CNN, I met with the painter, electrician, plumber and the carpenter for the work needed at the new house.
I did most of the packing at night. It was the small things that made me cry, like a Cowry shell Howard found in Florida, or an old birthday card he’d given to me, or his reading glasses. I’d given most of Howard’s clothing to our church to distribute to the homeless, but I’d saved his suits and sport jackets for Spencer. It’s not that I thought Spencer would one day wear them so much as I wanted him to one day have them and touch them and get a sense of his father’s style. They were among the very few items I put in storage.
Spencer was not disturbed by this activity. Fortunately he was eager for the move. As our apartment filled up with packing boxes he wanted to know, “How long until we move to the new house?”
My finances had gone from fat to thin. I wasn’t in the same league with my friends anymore. It didn’t show, but I knew it. They were still my friends, though. I cared about them and needed them and I told them that. I wanted them to know I was different, that my life was more modest and less fabulous, but I was still me. In my mind, I was an even better version of whoever I’d been. I’d learned I didn’t need all that stuff.
That sheltered, pampered, coddled and indulged woman who didn’t know what a mortgage was or what “escrow” meant or whether her husband paid taxes, I didn’t want to be her ever again. I wanted her gone. She had no place in my life anymore. I was the driver now, I paid the bills, I decided where and how the money would go, and I paid taxes. As Martha predicted way back when, I made mistakes. And I would make more mistakes. But they were my mistakes.
Some friends moved on. It was inevitable. Without a man, I was the odd number and hard to place at dinner parties. I was still included, but not as often, and rarely on weekends. My phone stopped ringing at 6 o’clock on Friday and didn’t start again until Monday morning at 10 a.m.
When I did get invited to a dinner party I would be seated at the table in an interesting way. When Howard was alive, I generally was seated between men my age; married like me and in their 40s. Now, when I was seated between men they were usually the oldest men at the party. Or, one would be a man of the cloth. And that’s when I wasn’t seated between women. I found it curious and confusing.
Throughout that first year my happiest times were with my girlfriends. Whether it was lunch or dinner, a dance night in Nathans back room, or if woman and her children spent a weekend night with us at the Bay house, the company of a girlfriend made me feel normal. We were both without men. She would talk about her living husband and I would talk about my dead one. It gave me the illusion of being back in the club. And then there was Martha, always Martha.
There is a myth that widows are looked out for and that people, especially men, feel sorry for them. That’s true up to a point. A sharky businessman will take advantage of a widow in a heartbeat, if he can. Our very appeal is our vulnerability and weakness. In the course of that first year, I had to fight hard to win battles with the credit card companies, the phone company, the mortgage company, the auto repair company and others.
The company that had the mortgages on the two apartments would not accept that Howard had died – no matter how many death certificates I sent them. Each month, someone from U.C. Lending would call and ask to speak to Howard.
“He’s dead,” I said.
“We need to be notified,” they said.
“I have sent you the death certificate and letter of administration,” I said.
“Well, we need to speak to him,” they said.
It took almost the full year to get every little piece or our lives switched to my name. When telemarketers called and asked for, “Mr. Joynt,” I was able to honestly reply, “He’s not here. Please don’t call back.”
One January day enroute to CNN I was stopped at a light and while I sat there I looked up North Capitol Street toward the Washington Hospital Center. When the light changed, rather than make my right turn and head to CNN, I drove toward the hospital, a big hulking building. There’s nothing to distinguish its appearance except the knowledge that it is the best hospital in Washington. I didn’t go to the parking lot around front. Instead I drove around back, near the helipad and the entrance to the Medstar Unit. I stopped the car. I didn’t turn it off or put it in park. I sat with my foot on the brake. I leaned against the wheel and looked out the front window until my eyes caught the big glass window at the end of the hall that I used to call my “wailing wall.” I looked up and imagined myself standing there, crying. It seemed like a decade ago and only yesterday.
Then my eyes scanned to the right until I caught the sliver of glass that had been Howard’s window. I could see me at his bedside, overcome with fear, fighting to be strong, begging God to intervene.
I stared at the hospital window only wondering what poor individual was in there now, fighting for his or her life.
At Larry King Live I had a few interviews to set-up before the end of the month and my move. The one that mattered the most was Paul Newman. Mr. Newman was hard to book, elusive. When he finally agreed to a date I was thrilled. When I was a teenager he was my idol. He had to share wall space with Paul McCartney, but of the two Paul’s he was number one. In the early 1970s I was at a wedding in Connecticut at the home of his next door neighbors and he and his wife, Joanne Woodward, were there. After the wedding ceremony there was a string concert on the lawn and everyone settled on the grass and listened to the quartet. Over to my right I saw Newman and Woodward. She sat with her back against a tree. He was on the grass on his back with his head in her lap. He looked up at her, she looked down at him, fiddling with his hair. I thought, “Wow. That’s beautiful. That’s the marriage I want.”
All these years later I dialed the phone to Paul Newman’s home to do a pre-interview. He answered. His voice was as familiar as anybody’s I knew, and with his first words transformed me into the 15-year-old girl in the 10th row at the Virginia theatre watching him and Julie Andrews in Hitchcock’s “Torn Curtain,” as he pulled her behind a curtain and gave her a kiss that made me sweat. If only I could pull him through the phone line.
Instead, we talked about the interview.
“Please tell Larry I’m not a naturally funny guy,” he said.
I found this endearing.
“Of course you are,” I said.
“I don’t have any jokes,” he said.
“You don’t have to have jokes,” I said.
“I hope not. I don’t do that kind of thing very well.”
“All you will have to do is sit and be yourself and answer his questions, have a conversation with him. You’ll be fine.”
After Paul Newman, it wouldn’t matter to me whether I booked another guest. My career of bookings included Presidents and Vice Presidents, world and national leaders, captains of industry; pioneers of medicine, science, art and music; great writers and innovators; movie stars, rock stars, Broadway stars, comedians, scoundrels, and the people whose roof was torn off by last night’s tornado. Paul Newman was the candle on that cake.
I submitted a memo to Becky requesting two weeks to do my move. I asked to use some stored up “personal time.” Becky returned my memo with a scrawl across it. “No! Personal time cannot be used for a move. You will have to use vacation time.”
I showed the memo to the unit manager, Barbara, in the cubicle next to mine.
“Carol, when are you going to get the message?”
I read something in a book that said, “Usually when negative problems arise, we try to deny our involvement by blaming other people. When we blame other people or situations we surrender our own personal power to the other party.”
I thought about me and the show and me and Wendy and Becky and that I do spend too much time blaming “them.” Wendy, most of all, is doing what she has to do. Like me at Nathans, she’s keeping her boat afloat. Also, I am in denial. I’m done at LKL. There is so much writing on the wall it looks like a New York subway car in l972.
Tonight Paul Wahlberg called from the restaurant. He said, “We need a leader here to kick butt.” I am that leader. I have to be there. He cited reasons and examples and all, and I heard him, and I said to him, “I have to make a decision.”
He said, “You have to make a decision that’s right for you.”
“I have to make the right decision,” I said.
Just before the move the pressure got to me. I was up before dawn to make lists of everything that needed to be done. At 7 a.m. I woke Spencer and made his breakfast. My thoughts were elsewhere and when he didn’t hustle to get dressed I raised my voice at him. He sat on his bed, dressed for school, and said his sock hurt. I took off his shoe, took off the sock and put on a new sock. I put the shoe on. The sock still hurt him.
“You should put your own socks and shoes on,” I said, “then you can get it right.”
He was in tears. I said, “You’re going to miss the bus, you’re going to miss the bus.”
He threw himself back on the bed in sobs. “But Mommy, my sock hurts me.”
“Well, go to school with no sock then. Wear your Uggs,” I said. “But while you figure it out I’m going to go tell Fred you won’t be on the bus.”
He followed me down the hall, still crying. “But I have to go to the bathroom.”
“Haven’t you already gone?” I asked.
“No, Mom. I have to go.”
“You better hurry,” I said. “You have got to make that bus. We’ve wasted too much time already. I’m getting your jacket right now.” I pulled his jacket from the closet. “Where are your gloves and hat?”
He stood in the bathroom, crying. “I don’t know,” he said.
“Hurry. Hurry,” I yelled.
He ran out, put on his jacket, grabbed his backpack and raced with me down the hall, into the elevator and out to the street to wait for the bus.
He stood there and looked pitiful and I felt horrible.
“I have to go to the bathroom really bad,” he said, grimacing.
“Didn’t you go inside?” I asked.
“No. You were rushing me,” he said, sadly.
“Can you hold it until you get to school?”
“No,” he said, his legs pressed together.
“Go in the corner there,” I said, with a gesture toward a vestibule that hides some fire stairs. “Bums pee there all the time.”
“No,” he said.
He stood there, eyes red-rimmed from crying, knees locked together, a little 6-year-old kid, whose Mom started his day with a stressed-out fit. I looked at him and sagged.
“I love you, Spen. I hope you know that. I’m sorry. I don’t mean to start your day this way. I have too much to do. It’s not your fault. I’m so sorry.”
He dashed into my arms and we hugged.
“Do you understand?” I asked, as I held the back of his head in my hand.
“Yeah,” he said, but he looked miserable.
“Let’s run back inside real quick and maybe you can use the lobby bathroom,” I said. “Okay?”
“But what about the bus?”
“Well, I guess this time you will have to be quick.”
We ran into the building. We were back out on the street just as the bus rolled down the hill.
He climbed up the steps of the bus. When he looked back at me there were tears in my eyes.
It was that kind of week.
Two days before the closing on the new house we both got sick. We had fevers. We stayed in my bed together for a whole day. We were side by side, sharing the Kleenex, the thermometer, the orange juice and the T.V. clicker. The dog flopped on the bed between us.
We were like Mutt and Jeff. He was in his pajamas and I was in mine. We wrestled with the covers and argued about which movies to watch. The out and out favorite was “Crocodile Dundee.”
The next morning we were better, and as a treat I drove him to school. When I stopped the car in front of the school we kissed good-bye and he got out. But then he stopped at the school door and deliberately leaned over and untied his shoes.
“Why did you do that?” I asked. “Now I have to get out and retie them.”
“I know,” he said. “I did it on purpose so we could spend more time together.”
Moments like that carried me through everything else.
February 1, 1998, was a Sunday. We went to Christ Episcopal church, where the rector mentioned Howard’s name in the prayers and where the altar flowers were dedicated to his memory. I felt serene and peaceful. Spencer and I sat in the pew with Martha and our friend Randy Parks, who had been with me on New Year’s Eve, and after services we walked up the hill to the cemetery to put flowers on Howard’s grave. Apart from that, it was a Sunday like any other. We already decided not to make an event out of the anniversary of his death. Instead, we would celebrate his birthday each March 21.
Honestly, our minds were on the house closing the next day, Monday, February 2nd. I arranged for it to happen at 4 o’clock in the afternoon in order to get in a day’s work and to bring Spencer with me after school. My two-week break from CNN, using up my vacation time, began then. In those fourteen days I would clear out of the apartments and get fully set up in the new house. It was a project that required military precision. I arranged for the closings on the apartments to happen at the same time as the closing on the new house because I could not afford three mortgages. The sale of the Bay house could take longer, because there was no mortgage. I owned it free and clear. But happily there was a firm offer on the table. We would be out of that house soon, too.
The title company’s offices were on Capitol Hill, near the Eastern Market, a cavernous building that had stalls for butchers, fishmongers and bakers. For us, it was a lesser-known part of town and being there felt like an adventure. The red brick market looked like an old railroad terminal, and across from it were townhouses with offices and shops at the ground level. The title company was among them in a newer building.
“This is a very important day,” I said to Spencer, “Because we are buying our own house. This is how you do it. You go to one of these title places and sign lots of papers.”
“I’m hungry,” he said, nonplused.
We stopped at the market and I bought him a snack, which he brought with him across the street to our destination. The title office was brightly lit and cheerful and the owner, Carolyn, greeted us and led us into a small conference room. She had reams of papers in her hands.
“Let’s get started,” she said.
An hour later we were done. Spencer barely tolerated what to him was a tedious experience. He watched and listened but was not impressed, especially during the parts where Carolyn explained to me what I was signing. These days I paid close attention when I signed my name on a piece of paper.
She handed me the keys, shook my hand and Spencer’s hand and said, “Congratulations. Good luck in your new home.”
Back in the car I was on cloud nine. The sky was at twilight and the lights of the city glowed in office-building windows and on the government buildings and monuments. We drove past the Capitol building and down Independence Avenue toward the northwest section of the city and Georgetown. We drove toward the setting sun.
“This is an amazing day,” I said to Spencer. He smiled as I looked over at him. “I want to move in right now,” he said.
“Well, it will be a few days before we move in, but I tell you what: let’s go see it? Okay? You wanna go see the new house?”
“Yes,” he said, “I want to see Teddy’s room that’s now my room.”
We parked in front of the house. Before unlocking the door we stood on the sidewalk and admired our yellow brick home. It was not the biggest or most impressive house on the block, but it was ours. It looked just right for a Mom and a boy.
I put the key in the lock, turned it and pushed open the door. Spencer ran in ahead of me. The house was empty and quiet. The evening sky had faded to deep blue. It was dark inside. I switched on small wall lights. The walls and floors were bare. The windows were bare. The kitchen and bathrooms and closests were bare. Spencer took good advantage of the echo caused by all that bare floor and wall space. He hooted and hollered as he ran from room to room and up the stairs to the two bedrooms. His bedroom was in the front, and overlooked the street. Mine was in the back, and overlooked the garden.
It was empty now but first thing in the morning the house would be swarmed upon by workers: the phone guy, the plumber, the electrician, the painter, and I would be there to supervise.
While Spencer rambled about, I looked and touched and wondered and dreamed. The joy and reward I felt was a remarkable contrast to the agony and loss of one year earlier. Nothing could replace Howard, but his love was with us. The pride and happiness that filled my heart supplanted the fear and anxiety caused by the Internal Revenue Service investigation, the struggle of owning a business I knew so little about, and the regret of letting go of a journalism career I’d had for more than 30 years. I opened my heart to everything that was possible and new and just around the corner. This house would get us started.
For the first time, I felt like a grown up.
“Spencer,” I called from the living room.
“Come here. Come down here and join me,” I said.
He tore down the long flight of stairs to the living room. The house, with its Victorian design, had high ceilings. It also had lots of thick moldings. The details were beautiful. A big bay window looked out to the street.
“This house is so cool,” he said.
“I think so, too,” I said.
“And it’s ours?” he asked.
“All ours,” I said. “The bus will stop right out front to pick you up each morning.”
I got down on the wood floor and stretched out on my back. I gestured for Spencer to do the same thing. He stretched out beside me. We looked up at the ceiling, where there was an empty socket for a chandelier. Wires dangled from it. My eyes scanned the pale yellow walls, the book cases, the fireplace and mantel and the big bay window which welcomed in the deep blue of the night sky.
Spencer took my hand. We said nothing. Perhaps his thoughts were like mine. I watched my own private movie of the last year, and how on so many days it seemed impossible we could ever get to this place. I saw Howard on his death bed, the grim expressions of the lawyers, the Nathans staff listening to me with quizzical expressions, the frustration of my colleagues at Larry King Live, Martha giving wise counsel across from me in booth #26, Paolo’s kiss under the street lamp on Central Park West, me dancing with my girlfriends in the back room, shouting in the New Year with Randy on Key Bridge and, most of all, Spencer’s and my many tears.
But we weren’t crying now. We lay there on the floor of our new home wearing smiles, not frowns. And when we rolled our heads to the side to look at each other, I pulled him close, wrapped my arms around him and put his head on my shoulder. This was the beginning.
EPILOGUECarol and Spencer December 2004, on the set of "Today" at NBC NYC
We sold the house on the Bay and settled happily and comfortably in our new home in Washington.
I took a three-month leave of absence from Larry King Live and then quietly resigned. Soon after I became a producer for John Hockenberry’s short-lived show at CNBC and then Chris Matthews’ Hardball at MSNBC. However, the constant juggling of my professional career and trying to run the restaurant took a toll. The restaurant needed me full time. After a year I gave up television altogether.
Sheldon Cohen and Miriam Fisher spent much of 1998 negotiating a deal with the IRS in which the government sold Nathans to me. The money I used was from the sale of the house on the Bay – the same pool of money I tapped to buy our new house – and the six figure price was set by a professional valuation company. I also paid thousands of dollars in back taxes Nathans owed to the city of Washington, and settled many other business debts with my own money. We dissolved Howard’s corporation and formed my own corporation, a Limited Liability Corporation (LLC) to take over Nathans. After those obligations, I used the remaining money to start a college fund for Spencer.
In June 1999 my father died from complications due to diabetes. He was buried with full honors at Arlington National Cemetery. I gave the eulogy in the Fort Myers Chapel and then Spencer, my brothers and I and many friends walked behind a horse drawn caisson the long, paved road to the gravesite where both my parents are now buried. Our sister did not appear, nor has she been heard from. One rumor had her in Oklahoma, but that’s all we’ve heard.
Paolo returned to Italy after the 9/11 attacks. He and his wife operate a profitable, rural B&B.
Spencer continues to do well both in school and with his recovery from grief. Eventually I was able to say to his teachers, “Please treat him like he’s any other boy.” Whatever issues he has are because he’s a normal, growing boy, not a fatherless boy. Together we believe Daddy is a museum in our hearts where we go to visit the memories; there is more yearning than pain. I love Howard, but grief resolves itself if given the chance.
Every day I miss my career in journalism, but I read, watch and analyze the news constantly. In response to the September 11th terrorist attacks in New York and Washington, we began a series of “community lunches” at Nathans, where patrons come to eat lunch and listen to a Q&A with special guests about current events. Participants have included dozens of notable authors, commentators, achievers and celebrities, among them our good friend Harry Shearer, Bob Woodward, Tom Brokaw, Dr. Anthony Fauci of NIH, Fed Ex Founder Fred Smith, Mayor Williams, Christopher Hitchens, C.Z. Guest, Cokie Roberts, Tina Brown, Art Buchwald, Tim Russert, Kitty Kelley and Washington Redskins owner Daniel Snyder, and Redskins legend John Riggins. It’s a good, mixed bag of topics, and people line-up outside the doors to attend.
To me Nathans is still "Howard's place," and I'm the caretaker. When I go there, he's there. I don't understand the restaurant business and I'm not sure I ever will. I do the best I can, with a lot of help from 55 employees, three law firms (all too necessary, alas) , an accountant, and lots of good advice from friends, neighbors and patrons.
What lies before me is the challenge of getting a new lease, but my landlords have the option of putting in a retailer. It might be better for them, but not necessarily best for Georgetown. Nothing against retailers, or my landlords, for that matter, but as a resident I worry what it would mean to have our main intersection closed and dark in the evening. Nathans intersection is the heart of Georgetown. At least with a tavern there is some life there after dark. There's a place to go, an open door.
Nathans is 36 years old in 2005. It has survived Howard, the IRS, an episode of manhole cover explosions and the 2-year project to repair them, and my inexperience. For now, it is my life; it's all Spencer and I have to live on. I'm proud it's still a pub where the staff know your name and where the owner is downstairs or up the street, but not in a corporate office in another state.
I remain the unlikeliest saloon owner. I'm a mother and homemaker, in my mid-50s, who likes a little wine with dinner, can't bear cigarette smoke, is not good with strangers and likes to be in bed long before the bars close. But this is the hand I was dealt.
The irony is all I wanted was to find a way to avoid the debt, chaos and financial uncertainty I’d known under my parents’ roof. I wanted security and a safe harbor. My marriage, I believed, gave me that. Today I have more debt and financial uncertainty than my parents ever knew. I have no idea what tomorrow will bring, and under these circumstances it’s impossible to form a plan. Everything I feared has happened, and yet, I’m happy. Spencer is happy. We’re solid and strong, self-sufficient, and optimistic. My whole universe blew apart and the result is I became a grown up. What happened to me happens to many women and often. Women get left holding the bag. I wrote this for all of them.
Sadly, our dog, Teddy, died. Several months later we got a new dog, Leo, who is a wonderful, 9-pound ball of fluff. We have a parrot, too, named Ozzy. Every now and then Spencer concedes that we, the four of us, are a family.
I would write “The End,” except we won’t be there until the day comes when I resolve Nathans future. So, soon I hope. Thank you for reading my story.
© Carol Ross Joynt2003