At the Goodwill store on West 25th Street I came across a book called The Double Helix by James Watson, the scientist who discovered the structure of DNA. I opened it and looked at a picture of the author. I knew his name from my friend Gemma, who lives in a crumbling mansion on the water in Cold Spring Harbor, New York, a hamlet where the famous DNA laboratory sits. She knew this James Watson. I bought the book for a dollar and on Friday I took it with me to read on the train to Brooklyn for my tax appointment. It was full of crystallographic X-ray data and chains of polynucleotides and I understood almost none of what I read, but somehow it held my attention anyway. And what I did learn from it was that apparently certain magnified protein structures look, to certain scientists, very beautiful. It was pouring that day, and when we came up from underground the train filled with silver light and there was Brooklyn spread out around us.
I sat down in the tax office waiting area, across from a man reading the New York Post with the headline, "SUBWAY HORROR! Gal Killed in Track Leap For This Bag," and I imagined myself as the victim with the train bearing down upon me. Would I ever do such a thing as jump onto the tracks if I dropped something? How does a person manage to drop their bag onto the tracks? I came back to my senses on the hard chair, hugging my bag very tightly and surrounded by glum-looking people.
It was my second trip to Brooklyn in a week. A few days earlier I went with my friend Joanne in her car to retrieve something she needed from her storage unit. She said she can’t go there alone, and once inside the place I understood why. Until that day I had never been inside one of those facilities. It was a vast, windowless cavern full of dark rows of padlocked metal doors. “Murder lockers,” I whispered as she opened her padlock, and she said, “Ach.” She found what she needed and then she handed me the horn from her father’s Victrola. We took turns putting the small end of it to our ears and singing into the big end, and we realized that the old ear trumpets that hard-of-hearing people used to use must have actually worked very well. On the drive back to Manhattan in the dusk, we passed the overgrown ruins of empty mansions along old Admiral’s Row on Flushing Avenue. I said, “Do you still love New York?” And Joanne said: “Sometimes I do and sometimes I don’t.”
Tax problems are the reason my friend Gemma lives in a mansion that is crumbling. When I first knew her almost twenty years ago, she kept a studio apartment on 57th Street near the Russian Tea Room. I knew she had the mansion on Long Island where Cole Porter had lived and composed a lot of his famous songs, but much of the time she stayed in the city. She must have been close to 70 then, and she was still very beautiful and glamorous. She had traveled all over the world and collected marvelous tapestries and jewelry and paintings. She had collected books since she was 16 and still living in a tenement on the Lower East Side. She loved to read and she loved to tell the secrets that she found in books and stories about poets who did shocking things in public. She loved eccentrics and she had a beautiful dog, Gala, named after the wife of Salvador Dali. Now and then she would allude to certain tax troubles that were plaguing her and her husband, who was much older than she was, and those troubles would eventually cost her the place on 57th Street. The house on Long Island fell into disrepair and the roof caved in on one side. There was no money to fix anything and Gemma and her old husband lived in the ever-diminishing dry parts of the old house, while every so often the ceilings in certain rooms would come crashing down like glaciers collapsing. None of this was Gemma’s fault. The tax problems came with her husband, who, before she ever knew him, spent time in prison for something to do with taxes. In prison he befriended Julius Rosenberg and the wardens pressed him to pump Julius for details and rat him out. But he refused. Instead, he arranged to have money given to the Rosenbergs’ defense lawyer on the outside, and after the Rosenbergs were executed, that lawyer killed himself.
Gemma said that learning how much he tried to help the Rosenbergs was what had swayed her towards him, and she married him. The IRS tortured him for the rest of his life. At one point, he tried to sell the mansion and James Watson considered buying it. Gemma described him coming to look at the property, and how he looked like a mad scientist grasshopper striding all over her lawn. He brought with him a famous cytogeneticist named Barbara McClintock who had achieved something monumental having to do with the different colors of corn. “I don't know what the hell it was all about,” Gemma said. “But she got a Nobel Prize for it.”
Suddenly my name was called. The advantage, the accountant told me, of having the kind of crap year I obviously had, was not owing as much. So I left feeling happier than I thought I would, and when I got home, my ancient dog spotted me and came forth on her rickety legs with her tail wagging. She’s deaf now so I can let the door slam with no barking. Tomorrow I will go buy a metal funnel. If I put the small end to her ear and say “I love you” into the big end, I think she might actually be able to hear me.
March 14, 2010