DON’T NOTICE ANYTHING
My mother didn’t try to stab my father until I was six, but she must have shown signs of oddness before that. Her detached gaze, the secret smile. Something.
We were living in a two-room apartment over the dance floor of a nightclub. My father was performing in the show that played below us every night. We could hear the musical numbers through the floorboards, and we had heard the closing number at midnight. My father should have come back from work hours ago.
My mother had asked me to stay up with her. She was lonely. We played gin rummy as the band below us played “Brazil” and couples danced through the haze of booze and cigarette smoke late into the night.
Finally, he came in. She jumped up, furious. “Where have you been?” she screamed. Even at the age of six, I could understand her anger. He worked with half-naked women and came home late. It wasn’t crazy to be suspicious.
She told him she knew he was sleeping with someone. He denied it. “You are!” she screamed. He denied it again, this time impatiently.
“You son of a bitch!” she said. She picked up a paring knife and lunged at him, trying to plunge it into his face. This was crazy.
He caught her by the wrist. “What’s the matter with you?”
They struggled over the knife as I pleaded with them to stop. When he forced her to drop it, I picked up the knife and rammed it point first into the table so it couldn’t be used again.
A few weeks later, the three of us were at the small table by the kitchenette, eating.
I was playing with the knives and forks in the silverware tray. I found a paring knife with a bent point and I looked up at my mother: “Remember when I stuck the knife in the table?”
“When you wanted to stab Daddy?”
She smiled. “Don’t be silly. I never did that. I love Daddy. You just imagined that.” She laughed a lighthearted but deliberate laugh. I looked over at my father, who looked away and said nothing.
I knew what I saw, but I wasn’t supposed to speak about it. I didn’t understand why. I didn’t understand how this worked yet.
Gradually, I came to learn that not speaking about things is how we operated. When we would visit another family, my mother was afraid I might embarrass them by calling attention to something like dust balls or carpet stains. As we stood at the door, waiting for them to answer our knock, she would turn to me, completely serious, and say, “Don’t notice anything.”
We had a strange list of things you didn’t notice or talk about. The night the country was voting on Roosevelt’s fourth term, my father came back from the local schoolhouse and I asked him whom he’d voted for. “Well,” he said with a little smile, “we have a secret ballot in this country.” I didn’t ask him again, because I could see it was one of the things you don’t talk about, but I couldn’t figure out why there was a law against telling your children how you voted.
One thing we never talked about was mental illness. The words were never spoken between my father and me. This wasn’t the policy just in our own family. At that time, mental illness was more like a curse than a disease, and it was shameful for the whole family to admit it existed. Somehow it would discredit your parents, your cousins, and everyone close to you. You just kept quiet about it.
How much easier it could have been for my father and me to face her illness together; to compare notes, to figure out strategies. Instead, each of us was on his own. And I alternated between thinking her behavior was his fault and thinking it was mine. Once I learned there was such a thing as sin and I entered adolescence and came across a sin I really liked, I began to be convinced that my sins actually caused her destructive episodes. They appeared to coincide. This wasn’t entirely illogical, because they both tended to occur every day. I was convinced I held a magic wand that could damage the entire household.
Like the earliest humans, I put together my observations and came up with a picture of how things worked that was as ingenious as it was cockeyed. And like the earliest people, in my early days I was full of watching and figuring. I was curious from the first moments—not as a pastime, but as a way to survive.
As I sat at the kitchen table that night, looking at the paring knife with the bent point, I was trying to figure out why I was supposed to not know what I knew. I was already wondering: Why are things like this? What’s really happening here?
There was plenty about my world to stimulate my curiosity. From my earliest days, I was standing off on the side, watching, trying to understand a world that fascinated me. It was a world of coarse jokes and laughter late into the night, a world of gambling and drinking and the frequent sight of the buttocks, thighs, and breasts of naked women.
It seemed to me that the world was very interesting. How could you not want to explore a place like this?
I was three years old. It was one in the morning, and I was walking down the aisle of a smoky railroad car. I liked the feel of the train as it lurched and roared under my feet. My father was in burlesque, and he and my mother and I traveled from town to town with a company of comics, straight men, chorus girls, strippers, and talking women. As I moved down the aisle, not much taller than the armrests, I watched the card playing, the dice games, the drinking and joking, late into the night.
I would fall asleep on a makeshift bed made of two train seats jammed together. A few hours later, my mother would wake me as the train pulled into Buffalo or Pittsburgh or Philly. I’d sit up groggily and gaze out the window as she pulled on my woolen coat and rubbed my face where the basket weave of the cane seat had left a pink latticework on my cheek. As the train crept slowly into the town, I could see the water towers, the factories, the freight trains jockeying across the rail yards in the gray early light. This would be the first sight I’d have of every city we’d travel to, and my heart would beat with excitement.
And then, five or six times a day—at almost every show—I would be standing in the wings, watching. There would be an opening number in which my father stood on the side of the stage and sang while chorus girls danced and showed their breasts. The person who performed this job in burlesque was called, with cheerful clarity, “the tit singer.”
My father sang well, and he was a handsome man. When he walked down the street, people sometimes mistook him for Cary Grant and asked for his autograph. But when he was onstage as the tit singer, no one looked at him.
After his song, my father would be the straight man for a comic. Or, there might be a sketch with a couple of comics and a talking woman. A talking woman was a dancer or stripper who could also do lines. When a woman was new to the company, the comics would ask, “Can she talk?”
Then there would be a strip. The lights would go out, and over the loudspeaker a voice would announce: “The Casino Theater is proud to present . . . Miss Fifi.”
In the pit, the drummer would beat out a rhythm while she kept time with her pelvis. She would slip off a piece of clothing and toss it into the wings. It would land a couple of feet from me, and a wardrobe mistress would pick it up and fold it carefully. The stripper would walk around the stage in time to the music and finally pull off the rest of her clothing. Except for some fringe where her underwear would go, she was naked. Blackout.
The muscle in her hip would graze my shoulder as she brushed by me. She would grab a piece of her costume and hold it against her bare chest as she walked briskly up the stairs to her dressing room.
Upstairs was where heaven was.
The chorus girls always brought me up to their dressing room. They talked with me; they patted my cheek and combed my hair. They were affectionate. I was like a pet. When they had to change costumes, they would say, “Okay, Allie, turn your back now.” While they changed, I stood with my face against the wall where their costumes were hanging. My face was buried in their silk clothes, and the smell of their sweat and perfume filled my nostrils. I heard the sound of their clothing sliding on and off their bodies. All of this was far more interesting for a three-year-old than you might imagine.
But I wasn’t only the dancers’ pet; I was a plaything for the whole company.
When I was six months old, the comics thought it would be funny to bring me out in a high chair in a schoolroom sketch. As they told me this story later, all the great comics were in this sketch: Red Buttons, Phil Silvers, Rags Ragland. I don’t know now if all these comics were actually in the same sketch; the story must have grown with each telling. They said they put a school bell in front of me on the high chair, and totally by accident, I would manage to bang on it every time one of them was getting to a punch line. “You upstaged the greatest comics in burlesque,” they told me.
When I was two, the company was playing a theater in Toronto. A photographer from the Toronto Daily Star came backstage, and my father got the idea that if he posed me in a way that made me look as if I were smoking a pipe, the paper would be sure to print the picture and the burlesque company would get some unusual publicity. They dressed me up in my woolen suit and posed me gravely holding a pipe with tobacco in it. They seem to have invented a new name for me, too. I was born Alphonso D’Abruzzo, but that day I was Alphonse Robert Alda, “Ali” for short. The newspaper printed the picture and ran a story under it that, sixty-seven years later, is a gold mine of information on how not to raise a child.
child of two smokes pipe
once broke mother’s nose
Alphonse Robert Alda, at the age of two years and three months, finds solace from worldly cares in a briar pipe.
I don’t remember my mother ever telling me I had broken her nose, so this may have been invented to demonstrate how big and strong I was or maybe to account for a slight bend in her nose she wasn’t fond of. As for smoking, according to the myth dreamed up by my father, I had reached up and taken the pipe out of his mouth a year earlier. My mother was quoted as saying they’d hoped I’d get sick and never smoke again but that I liked it and had continued to smoke the pipe. Then they invented a “specialist” from New York whom they said they had consulted. “He told us,” my mother was quoted as saying, “provided moderation was shown, the smoking might not do Ali as much harm as the psychological aspect of denying him.” This bit of invented psychology looks even stranger when, later in the article, she says: “We don’t believe in pampering children. All you have to do to stop him if he starts to cry, which is seldom, is to tell him not to be a baby.”
So, let’s review this. You’re two years old. You watch naked women shake their tits five times a day. You never get to cry or act like a baby. But denying you tobacco would be psychologically unhealthy.
At the end of the article, my mother tells the reporter how much I like to act.
“He wants to be an actor like his daddy,” she said. “Watch! Ali,” she asked, “what would you do if a man were chasing you with a big stick?” The little fellow spread himself against the wall, his face and eyes depicting horror and fright.
Then she changed him to a “funny man,” and I switched to happy laughter; then sadness when the man fell down and hurt himself. The photographer took pictures of all of this, and they show a surprising range of emotion. The caption under them reads, “Alphonse wants to be an actor.” It might just as accurately have read, “Alphonse wants to please.”
A couple of days later, everyone at the theater made a fuss over me and showed me my picture in the paper. I watched my father as he proudly held up the article and showed it around. I’d been told not to lie, yet we all knew I didn’t smoke (I drank a little beer with the comics, but I didn’t smoke). Now here was my father, proud of the gimmick he’d come up with. The picture of me holding the pipe was a clever way to announce that the company had come to town. For him, saying I smoked was no different from coming onstage in a sketch and saying, “Well, here we are in sunny Spain.” He and the audience all knew they were actually in Toronto. It was just a show, a way of capturing attention. And if you could capture attention, that was an accomplishment. It was the accomplishment.