Kitty Burns Florey

Essays

PHILIP AND ME AND THE CLOSET


I didn’t exactly dislike children, but I can’t say that I liked them much, either. Mostly I avoided them; if I was forced for some reason to hold one or play with one I found that it wasn’t as bad as I’d expected. Sometimes it was even fun. But I was in no hurry to repeat the experience. I figured someday I’d have a couple of my own, but not for many years.


I was twenty-one years old and living in Boston, a senior in college. I needed a part-time job, so I agreed to baby-sit for a little boy named Philip who lived across the street from the apartment I shared with two roommates. The pay was a buck twenty-five an hour. This was the 1960s, and, believe me, that was good money.


Philip was about eighteen months old, an adorable toddler with fat pink cheeks, tiny white front teeth and blond bangs. His parents were Bonnie and Jim Dupree. Jim worked in a printing factory, on the four-to-midnight shift; Bonnie was a secretary in an insurance company in a town north of Boston. They needed me from 3:30, when Jim left, until Bonnie arrived home from her long commute around 6:30 in the evening. I was supposed to play with Philip, take him for a tiny walk, and give him dinner.


Mostly, it was an easy job. Sometimes Philip was still having his nap when I arrived, so I could study or read until he woke up. I always felt a little annoyed when he woke up because I was usually in the middle of some interesting book (I became an English major because they actually gave me college credits for reading books I would have read anyway), but when I went in to lift him out of his crib I was always glad to see him: there he’d be, pink and wet, his hair mussed from sleep, holding out his arms and saying, “Piddoo get down!” And then I’d lift him out and change him and we’d build things out of blocks, or walk to the drugstore on the corner, or snuggle up together and read over and over a book he loved called I Am a Bunny.


I grew fond of Philip, but I always called him the monster in different languages because it got a laugh out of my friends. I’d look at the clock at 3:25 and say, “Whoops! Gotta go. Le monstre calls,” or when my boyfriend David telephoned me at the Duprees’ I’d say, “El monstero is sitting on the floor mashing Cheerios into the rug.” A friend who was studying Czech taught me to call him stvura. But except for one thing he wasn’t a monstero at all; he was actually a very benign child.


The exception was dinner. Philip’s dinner became, for me, a daily nervous breakdown, and if the closet experience hadn’t made me quit my job, Philip’s dinner hour might have done it, eventually.


I didn’t think the Duprees were very good parents. Twenty-one-year-olds are notorious know-it-alls, but even now I think I was right in my opinion. For one thing, they hired me as a sitter even though I had absolutely no experience with children. (I was an only child, and I had become the kind of absent-minded college kid who was always cooped up with a book – and, believe me, you could tell this by looking at me.) For another, Philip didn’t seem to be bathed regularly; when I asked Bonnie if I should give him a bath after dinner, she shrugged and said, “Kids his age don’t get that dirty.” Also, they had provided him with very few books or educational toys; most of his playthings were the kind I disapproved of, like ugly plastic airplanes and cars, and silly little squeaky things, and toy sports equipment. I’m not sure, but I Am a Bunny may have been his only book.


But, worst of all, at least to me, was what they provided for his dinner: Spaghetti-O’s. “Every night?” you may ask incredulously, and I fear that my answer is: Yes, every blessed night.


Even I, twenty-one years old and ignorant about nearly everything that even verged on the practical, knew that kids have to have vegetables, fruits and a varied diet. Spaghetti-O’s and a grimy Tommy Tippee glass of chocolate milk didn’t seem to fill the bill. But their nutritional negligibility wasn’t even the biggest problem with the Spaghetti O’s. The biggest problem was that Philip was learning to feed himself. He insisted on feeding himself. And Bonnie and Jim told me to let him feed himself. I don’t know why feeding himself was so important when bathing wasn’t, but chez Dupree it was the eleventh commandment: Thou shalt let Philip feed himself, no matter what the consequences.


I’ll tell you the consequences, though if you have any experience with toddlers and/​or Spaghetti O’s you should be able to figure it out. Spaghetti-O’s are small and round and covered with red sauce. Within minutes, so was Philip.


We started the dinner thing every day at five o’clock. We had to start early because it became a point of honor with me that, by the time Bonnie returned at 6:30, it would be over, meaning that all traces of Spaghetti O’s would be removed from Philip, the high chair, the floor, the walls, and me. This gave me an hour and a half, and most nights I barely made it.


Philip was happier eating his dinner than anyone I have ever seen. I must admit that he loved Spaghetti O’s. He dove into his bowl of O’s like a piglet into mud. He had his little spoon with the curved handle, but he preferred those more versatile and reliable tools, his hands. Occasionally he would practice small-motor skills and, taking great pains, pick one O between thumb and forefinger and manage to get it into his mouth, looking very pleased with himself. More often, it would get mashed to pulp or go up his nose or land on my sweater. And his usual method was nowhere near so finicky: he would simply grab a fistful of those little guys and jam then in the general direction of his mouth. Then clap his hands together and laugh maniacally. Then rub his hands in his hair. Then turn the bowl over or knock it off the tray of the high chair. And more. And worse.


“He’s got to learn to feed himself,” Bonnie always said when I ventured to suggest that perhaps Philip wasn’t quite ready, wasn’t perhaps, maybe, quite coordinated enough. “He’s just got to keep doing it, or he’ll never learn,” she said. She was single-minded on the subject. And Philip seemed to agree with her, because when I endeavored to take the spoon and deposit the food in his mouth – playing all those old tricks, variations on here comes the choo-choo, open wide, the train is coming into the station, chug chug chug, here we go-o-o! – Philip began to cry. Nothing else could make him cry. He was really a very sweet child – have I said this before? – until it was time to eat. He would howl and scream and yell: “Piddoo do it!” He would beat his fists on the tray and his nose would run. So I gave in.


Certainly more than half of Philip’s dinner ended up other places besides his tummy. I learned to remove most of Philip’s clothes, to wear a plastic apron, to clean him up afterward without actually getting him into the tub. The whole scenario always put me in a foul mood: fed up with Philip, furious at his parents. It was as if, on a dare or something, Bonnie and Jim had contrived to come up with the most fiendish hell in all of baby-sitting history. It was bad enough that they insisted the kid feed himself – but the dinner they provided had to be the reddest, messiest, stickiest, most easily dispersed food known to man: Spaghetti O’s!


Still, I coped. I’m proud to say I coped pretty well. By the time Bonnie came in, Philip was fed (more or less), he and the kitchen were cleaned up (ditto), and the two of us were snuggled cozily on the sofa together reading I Am a Bunny.


“How was everything?” Bonnie would ask.
“Just great,” I would say, smiling falsely. “Fine.”


It was a perverse satisfaction to me that when Bonnie walked in Philip didn’t automatically jump down and go to her. Usually he said “Hi, Mommy,” all smiles, but then he snuggled closer to me and said, “Weed!” So I’d finish the last two pages of the book (the part where the bunny goes down his hole and gets ready for bed and then hops in, wearing a red-striped nightcap), kiss him goodbye, and be out of there.


For this I made $18.75 a week. If Jim paid me, he nearly always gave me a twenty-dollar bill, but when Bonnie did, she wrote a check for $18.75 exactly.


This went on for a couple of months – not the greatest job in the world, but better than nothing, conveniently located, and decently paid for – really, minus the dinner madness – very little work.


Then one day the Bonnie asked me if I could work late the next night. She had to go out after work and wouldn’t be home until around ten. I saw a chance to make an extra four dollars or so – which in those days meant maybe three paperback books, or a good Chinese meal, or movie tickets for me and David – so of course I said yes.


I got Philip through dinner (which, by then, had become no less annoying but at least was completely predictable – something certifiably awful that I just had to grit my teeth and endure, like biology lab), cleaned him up, and zipped him into his blue and white Bugs Bunny sleeper. He was really cute when he was sleepy, his little head flopping against my shoulder as I carried him into his crib; he gave me one of his sloppy wet cheek-kisses when I put him in, and I gave him a much neater one back.


Then I went out to the living room to do homework or whatever. But I didn’t feel like doing homework, and instead I did something I’d been wanting to do since I started sitting for the Duprees but never dared: I snooped.


Please don’t misunderstand. I wasn’t brought up to be a snoop. In fact, my mother had always cautioned me: “Don’t pry into other people’s things. You might see something you’ll wish you hadn’t.” But there were times...


I think I felt justified because I didn’t like Bonnie, and thought she and Jim were bad parents, and resented the Spaghetti-O’s. And Bonnie always wrote me that prissy exact-change check, and Jim sometimes looked at me the way the fathers look at baby-sitters in really trashy novels. But these are lousy excuses. The fact remains that I shouldn’t have. But I did. I went into their bedroom and looked around.


It wasn’t very interesting. Their bed was king-size and rather impressive because to me its huge, inviting expanse implied that, contrary to the way they looked (basically, like nerds, although the word hadn’t been invented yet), they probably had a lot of sex. On the other hand, from the evidence, they didn’t sleep in the nude: striped pajamas and a high-necked blue nylon nightgown were draped over the bedposts. The bed came with a matching mirrored dresser that was covered with an ugly and dusty dresser-scarf. It held a faded pink satin pin-cushion, a few framed photographs, an array of Bonnie’s cosmetics, and two hideous china lamps in the shape of coolies; the lampshades were their red Chinese hats. On the bed was a comforter made of some sleazy, slippery iridescent stuff that had had a vogue in the Fifties. A stuffed blue dog leaned against the pillows, just in the middle: one of those mangy plush things you could win at carnivals. There were dust kittens on the floor, and the yellowish carpet badly needed vacuuming.


I was gratified to find that it was the ugliest, least inviting bedroom I had ever seen – as if that fact justified my snooping.


I didn’t have the nerve to go through the dresser drawers, but I did open the closet door, and on the floor in the back was a cardboard box, the kind typing paper comes in. I pulled it out and peeked inside, then wished I hadn’t. Mom, you were right. I saw something I wished I hadn’t.


They were photographs. I had seen dirty pictures before. I had even gone to a porn movie once – something about a girl whose gynecologist thought she needed a sexual awakening (or something like that; the plot wasn’t the point), and took her to a Greek island where a lot of soft-focus vaguely sexual activity took place, some of it also involving a manly local fisherman, against a backdrop of incredibly beautiful ocean and sky.


But these photographs were something else. I don’t even want to talk about what they were. I’ll just say that they didn’t depict sex between consenting adults. They were a shock. They were appalling. They were brutal. They were evil. I looked at half a dozen of them, repelled and fascinated and frightened. Then I quickly put the box back and shut the closet door and hoped, desperately, that everything was exactly as I had found it.


I went back into the living room, closing the bedroom door behind me, though I had a moment of panic when I couldn’t remember if it had been open or shut. I couldn’t do my schoolwork, couldn’t call up a friend, couldn’t read. I just waited, in a sort of daze of horror, and tried to think of what I would say to Bonnie that would get me out of the job. I knew I couldn’t work for them any more. I knew I couldn’t enter their apartment again, could never feed Spaghetti O’s to their poor little boy, could never again take their money.


I don’t remember what I told Bonnie when she came in: something outrageously untrue but not implausible. Some family disaster, probably. She was angry that I didn’t give some notice. I told her I was sorry, and she didn’t have to pay me for the three days or whatever it was I had worked that week. She said, irritably, “We’ll split the difference,” and pressed some bills into my hand. I took them, just to get it over with. I knew I was leaving the Duprees in the lurch, and I didn’t care. I was so upset I didn’t even care if I never saw Philip again. I didn’t want to think about the Duprees, ever again. I just wanted to get out of there.


Maybe I over-reacted. I don’t know. Maybe there was another way I could have handled it. Eventually, I began to feel that I had betrayed Philip, that he would miss me and not understand why I was gone, that maybe I had been someone he needed in his life. But I couldn’t think what else to do, and I didn’t consult anyone. I didn’t even tell my roommates, or David. I made up some lie about why I had quit. I knew that if I talked about what I had seen in the closet I would start to cry, I would get upset and get them upset, and I didn’t want to do that. Also, I think I was afraid of being considered silly, or hysterical, or – worst of all – unsophisticated. But mostly I wanted to put the pictures out of my mind.


For a while, I didn’t see Jim or Bonnie again, though they lived right across the street. If I had run into them, I know I would have crossed the street, ducked into another yard – anything to avoid them. But I didn’t see them, and I wondered if they had moved. Then, one day, as I was coming home from school, their front door opened and Jim came out the front door of their apartment with two men. I shrank back so he wouldn’t spot me, and then I saw that his head was ducked down, he was in handcuffs, and even though it was a cold day he wasn’t wearing a coat. The men hustled him down the steps and into a black car, which drove away almost before the doors were slammed.


I saw Philip once more, a couple of months later, being wheeled down the street in his stroller by some girl who looked like she was in high school. I’m not sure what I expected: maybe for Philip to look abused, or corrupted in some way. But he seemed fine. He had a plastic toy in his hand and was kicking his feet against the stroller. I hesitated a moment, then bent down and gave him a big smile and said, “Hey there, Piddoo!”


He frowned and corrected me. “Phiwup,” he said, pronouncing it very carefully, and that was all. He had forgotten me. I was gone from his world, but he and his parents and the horrors in the closet were never really gone from mine.

ORWELLIAN CONSIDERATIONS: TEA

In the perilous and stupid times we live in, George Orwell is often invoked, in reference to either his brilliant and ever-relevant essay “Politics and the English Language” or his most famous work, the increasingly prescient 1984.


However, I have recently come across an essay of Orwell’s that touches the lives of common people – at least mine – more immediately than either of those works. It’s called “A Nice Cup of Tea,” a title I like for many reasons, not least because my mother often used to say, “I think I’ll have a nice egg.” (I can see her now, head cocked to one side, a little anticipatory smile on her face.) She never said simply, “I think I’ll have an egg.” Eggs for my mother were always nice. I agree with this. Eggs are indeed nice, but they are not as nice as a nice cup of tea, and that brings me back to Orwell, whose essay I quote here because I so strongly agree with all eleven of his rules, particularly the ninth (I emphasize this because one of my best friends actually puts half-and-half in her tea, which in my opinion makes it into something that is distinctly not tea – and not nice), and the last (although my own husband violates it on a daily basis). As for the fifth: yes, as a modern busy person I usually use teabags – but Orwell is (of course) right: when I measure out the real thing, the tea is always nicer. And for the record, Irish Breakfast is my tea of choice (strong!), with Twinings Prince of Wales (not as strong, but interesting) a close second. My old piano teacher, Helen Schafranek of New Haven, a Russian Jew who legend has it fled her homeland with her piano in tow, drank Swee-Touch-Nee. My husband drinks Earl Gray, somewhat shamefacedly. My daughter, a former tea drinker, switched to coffee as soon as she got out of my clutches and went off to college. I try to drink a cup of green tea daily because it’s good for me, but my heart isn’t in it. Anyway, here’s Orwell:

A Nice Cup of Tea

If you look up 'tea' in the first cookery book that comes to hand you will probably find that it is unmentioned; or at most you will find a few lines of sketchy instructions which give no ruling on several of the most important points.
This is curious, not only because tea is one of the mainstays of civilization in this country, as well as in Eire, Australia and New Zealand, but because the best manner of making it is the subject of violent disputes.

When I look through my own recipe for the perfect cup of tea, I find no fewer than eleven outstanding points. On perhaps two of them there would be pretty general agreement, but at least four others are acutely controversial. Here are my own eleven rules, every one of which I regard as golden:

First of all, one should use Indian or Ceylonese tea. China tea has virtues which are not to be despised nowadays - it is economical, and one can drink it without milk - but there is not much stimulation in it. One does not feel wiser, braver or more optimistic after drinking it. Anyone who has used that comforting phrase 'a nice cup of tea' invariably means Indian tea. Secondly, tea should be made in small quantities - that is, in a teapot. Tea out of an urn is always tasteless, while army tea, made in a cauldron, tastes of grease and whitewash. The teapot should be made of china or earthenware. Silver or Britanniaware teapots produce inferior tea and enamel pots are worse; though curiously enough a pewter teapot (a rarity nowadays) is not so bad. Thirdly, the pot should be warmed beforehand. This is better done by placing it on the hob than by the usual method of swilling it out with hot water. Fourthly, the tea should be strong. For a pot holding a quart, if you are going to fill it nearly to the brim, six heaped teaspoons would be about right. In a time of rationing, this is not an idea that can be realized on every day of the week, but I maintain that one strong cup of tea is better than twenty weak ones. All true tea lovers not only like their tea strong, but like it a little stronger with each year that passes - a fact which is recognized in the extra ration issued to old-age pensioners. Fifthly, the tea should be put straight into the pot. No strainers, muslin bags or other devices to imprison the tea. In some countries teapots are fitted with little dangling baskets under the spout to catch the stray leaves, which are supposed to be harmful. Actually one can swallow tea-leaves in considerable quantities without ill effect, and if the tea is not loose in the pot it never infuses properly. Sixthly, one should take the teapot to the kettle and not the other way about. The water should be actually boiling at the moment of impact, which means that one should keep it on the flame while one pours. Some people add that one should only use water that has been freshly brought to the boil, but I have never noticed that it makes any difference. Seventhly, after making the tea, one should stir it, or better, give the pot a good shake, afterwards allowing the leaves to settle. Eighthly, one should drink out of a good breakfast cup - that is, the cylindrical type of cup, not the flat, shallow type. The breakfast cup holds more, and with the other kind one's tea is always half cold before one has well started on it. Ninthly, one should pour the cream off the milk before using it for tea. Milk that is too creamy always gives tea a sickly taste. Tenthly, one should pour tea into the cup first. This is one of the most controversial points of all; indeed in every family in Britain there are probably two schools of thought on the subject. The milk-first school can bring forward some fairly strong arguments, but I maintain that my own argument is unanswerable. This is that, by putting the tea in first and stirring as one pours, one can exactly regulate the amount of milk whereas one is liable to put in too much milk if one does it the other way round.

Lastly, tea - unless one is drinking it in the Russian style - should be drunk _without sugar_. I know very well that I am in a minority here. But still, how can you call yourself a true tealover if you destroy the flavour of your tea by putting sugar in it? It would be equally reasonable to put in pepper or salt. Tea is meant to be bitter, just as beer is meant to be bitter. If you sweeten it, you are no longer tasting the tea, you are merely tasting the sugar; you could make a very similar drink by dissolving sugar in plain hot water.

Some people would answer that they don't like tea in itself, that they only drink it in order to be warmed and stimulated, and they need sugar to take the taste away. To those misguided people I would say: Try drinking tea without sugar for, say, a fortnight and it is very unlikely that you will ever want to ruin your tea by sweetening it again.

These are not the only controversial points to arise in connexion with tea drinking, but they are sufficient to show how subtilized the whole business has become. There is also the mysterious social etiquette surrounding the teapot (why is it considered vulgar to drink out of your saucer, for instance?) and much might be written about the subsidiary uses of tealeaves, such as telling fortunes, predicting the arrival of visitors, feeding rabbits, healing burns and sweeping the carpet. It is worth paying attention to such details as warming the pot and using water that is really boiling, so as to make quite sure of wringing out of one's ration the twenty good, strong cups of that two ounces, properly handled, ought to represent.

Evening Standard, 12 January 1946.

Taken from The Collected Essays, Journalism and Letters of George Orwell, Volume 3, 1943-45, Penguin ISBN, 0-14-00-3153-7

PS For tea fans, the album Sunrise on the Sufferbus by the band Masters of Reality contains a great song (by Ginger Baker) "T.U.S.A." about the difficulty (too true) of getting a decent cup of tea in this country, with the immortal line "Pour boiling water over the tea/​How simple and clear/​Can the instructions be?"

And that lovely photograph up above is of course one of my husband Ron's, taken at Fanelli's Cafe on Prince Street in SoHo.