Returning from Vietnam in 1971, the best thing that ever happened to me was the fulfillment of my relationship with Natalie—which has endured to this day. Second best? Surely the onset of my friendship with Chuck, which unfortunately ended a few weeks ago with his passing.
In 1971, Chuck and I met at Long Island University when the Army gave me an “early out” to return to college. Chuck was on the rebound from an aborted stint at Cornell University. Like a pair of wary rescue pups, we struck up a cautious friendship to start. Chuck liked the Army field jacket that I wore; I was covetous of his intersecting-striped Onitsuka Tiger sneakers. We traded. From then on, we were virtually inseparable.
We had many common interests. We loved R&B music, Bogart movies, delicacies from Russ & Daughters, the venerable Lower East Side appetizer shop, Scotch whiskey, beer, basketball and smoking. Always smoking. Sitting in the back row of our classes, we’d chain-smoke cigarettes and work the daily NY Times crossword with religious fervor. For a final exam, our philosophy instructor asked only one essay question: “What did you learn in this class?” Chuck and I submitted the puzzle. We got a C. Maybe we should have tendered a box of Marlboro instead.
By 1973, I was steadfastly focused on finishing school, finding a full time job, and getting married. A European adventure was the furthest thing from my mind. But Chuck had one planned down to the nickels and dimes. We’d both be graduating in May, then heading in different directions: Chuck to the London School of Economics for grad school; me to a full time radio news-writing job in Upstate New York. Chuck made a convincing case that a summer road trip was called for to mark these milestones.
We flew TAP Airlines to Lisbon for $130 and then backpacked by train using the au courant student Eurail Pass—unlimited travel anytime, anywhere, for a flat fee. From Portugal we crossed the border into the unheralded Spanish beach town of Vigo, then caught up with hoards of other young world travelers in Madrid, southern France, Florence, Switzerland, Germany, Amsterdam, Paris, and finally, London.
We spent meagerly on coffee, inexpensive meals of mostly sandwiches, a few beers, museum visits and cheap hostel lodgings. Early in the trip, at a bar in Madrid where we hung with some local students, I had the temerity to order a Cognac. Chuck hit the roof for me blowing our budget. Later, in Munich, the bank teller doing our currency conversion made a decimal place error that resulted in a 10-times windfall in our favor. We spent our ill-gained fortune on expensive British cigarettes, a sit-down meal and lots of beer. Years later, that bank came looking for Chuck in the US to collect. They did not prevail.
In Amsterdam, we joined with thousands of other vagabond students at “The Dam,” the city’s central and most iconic public plaza, where everyone partied high on weed or hashish. We ‘scored” a $5 ball of hash—Pakistani Red, we were told—but when we fired up our little pipe…..nothing. We’d been ripped off. For Chuck, ever mindful of our pursestrings, this would not stand. He found a patsy more inexperienced than us, and we unloaded what was left for exactly what we paid. Back to beer. We were drug free for the rest of the trip.
Paris was the crowning achievement of our adventure.
We traipsed around Montmartre, ate Algerian couscous near Place Saint-Michel, sipped hard cider with crepes served by pretty French gals in Normandie dress in St. Germain. Even Natalie, who was on a separate journey of her own, showed up for what proved to be a pre-wedding honeymoon. We saw the Eiffel Tower before it was a light show, Impressionist art before there was Musee D’Orsay, and the Louvre before it had a pyramid. We puffed French Gaouloises cigarettes —“gow-wheezers,” we called them—before they carried warnings.
At the sidewalk tables of legendary Cafe de Flore and Les Deux Magots, we worked The New York Times crossword puzzle, kept up with the Watergate hearings, and handicapped currency exchange rates from a neatly folded International Herald Tribune. Chuck insisted we carry four currencies in those pre-euro days: travelers checks denominated in Swiss Francs, German marks, British pounds and U.S. Dollars. At the time, we got about four francs–or “frogs” as we called them–to the dollar. Coffee cost one frog, beer about the same. We could eat a full meal for about ten.
Chuck was a magisterial trip leader and his business sense imprinted sure-handed discipline on our travel. But like escargot in garlic butter, he was an acquired taste. Chuck could be outrageous, insolent, sullen or giddy from one moment to the next. He was intelligent to a fault and infuriatingly haughty at times. I found his bad taste and misbehavior viciously amusing. But not everyone shared my opinion that, most of the time, it was harmless fun.
Chuck got us thrown out of the Palace of Versailles because his pseudo boom box–a portable radio with a built-in cassette player that we borrowed from Natalie–blared soul tunes not in keeping with the decor or decorum of Louis XIV. We were bounced from a cheap Latin Quarter hotel on Rue du Sommerade when Chuck outraged the madam of the house one morning by roaming the hallways bare-assed looking for toilet paper. “Ou es le papier du toilette?” he publicly exclaimed in his altogether. Chuck used rudimentary high-school French in other ways that–at the time–seemed hilarious. “D’argent du guerre!” he would demand, usually when he had one too many beers and was of a mind to take locals to task for the country’s World War II debts.
On an excursion to Reims in the Champagne district, we visited the House of Lanson. Then still family-owned, Lanson didn’t offer the typical wine house tour-and-tasting for visitors. But Chuck had a scheme and he wangled a private-office appointment with one of the Chateau’s directors. Despite our dress of blue jeans, T-shirts and sneakers, he fibbed and said that I was shopping for a suitable Champagne for my impending wedding. We walked out with two bottles–complimentary, of course–of Lanson Black Label. Back in Paris, we stashed and chilled them in an odd porcelain basin affixed in our hotel room. The water closet was down the hall, but even the most modest accommodations had bedside bidets.
At summer’s end, Chuck stayed on in London for his master’s degree and I went home to my new bride and new job. But our friendship stayed strong. In 1977, I was best man at Chuck’s wedding on an epically cold and snowy February day in Buffalo, NY. In 1983, on the night my son was born, I fled the hospital to Chuck’s house the moment my wife and the baby fell asleep. We both got astoundingly drunk because becoming a parent startled and scared me like nothing–not even Vietnam–ever had.
Not long after, however, Chuck and I drifted apart. We raised our children in different suburbs and our career paths veered. As a PhD in Economics, he rose very high in the banking food chain. By the early 1990s, Chuck stopped taking my phone calls, and my e-mails to him went unanswered. I became angry and resentful. I never stopped caring. Eventually, however, I just stopped trying. Even now, I’m at a loss to understand the schism. We were disconnected for decades.
Until three years ago. I had just retired. High on my bucket list was getting back in touch with Chuck. It took a fair amount of detective work to track him down to an apartment on Manhattan’s Upper West Side. I arrived unannounced to find only his wife. Chuck was in an assisted-living facility in Florida, suffering from severe Parkinson’s Disease and dementia.
I made two pilgrimages to see him. The first time, I brought some of our favorite items from Russ & Daughters. (You ever try to get herring in cream sauce through airport security? Not easy but, thanks to Natalie, I pulled it off.) We attempted to do the crossword puzzle together, but Chuck’s physical coordination and mental concentration weren’t there. By the second trip, a year later, I brought photos for him to see of my trip with Natalie to Vietnam. But he could not comprehend. Chuck was barely able to speak, stand or recognize me. I held him in my arms and we danced to The O’Jays, The Spinners and more. It was a tearful goodbye.
Last month, I was happy to again be in Paris, my 12th visit in 47 years, virtually every one with Natalie at my side. Like the first time, a special occasion drew us to Paris this year, the heralded Leonardo da Vinci exhibition at the Louvre. The City of Light was cold, bleak and gray; a sharp and befitting contrast to my bittersweet memories that hot and heady August 1973 week in Paris.
Chuck was 67 when he died on January 8. I loved him deeply, in good times and bad. He was a true and loyal friend, until he wasn’t. I missed him terribly during the years we were estranged. And in February, the last time I saw Paris, I missed him all over again. At the Louvre for the Leonardo exhibit, Natalie and I hiked the stairs of the Denon Wing to the Salle des Etats. It was a comfort tinged with sadness to see the master’s Mona Lisa there, snug and secure, exactly where Chuck and Natalie and I first viewed her in 1973, the first time we saw Paris together.