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Two Slices of Life by Lionel Luttinger

Lionel Luttinger was born and raised in New York City. He earned a B.S. from City College of The City University of New York, a Ph.D from Brooklyn Polytechnic Institute and a Post Doctorate from Yale University in chemistry. After a successful fifty year career in science, during which he wrote and published over one hundred and fifty technical articles in scientific journals and achieved many patents, he has returned to his first love of writing prose and fiction. He has recently completed his memoir titled, A Radical Childhood, concerning his life in Greenwich Village among the artists of his time, and a book of fiction titled Mean Stories from which these two short pieces are excerpted. For the past six years, he's lived in Byram, New Jersey, and has raised five children, a businessman, a doctor of biology, a doctor of mathmetics, an environmental scientist, and a physician. He is a founding member of Skylands Writers and Artists Association, Inc.

HOW THREE SCIENTISTS DATED VIV POLCHLAPEK

When I had completed my education, I took a job with a large chemical company located in southern New England, the "American Episcopal Corp." The research lab I worked in, employed about fifteen hundred people. There were machinists, an in- house medical staff, secretaries, and above all, scientists, among whom, we hundred or so PhD's, were the top of the pecking order. Most of us had assistants, usually at the Bachelor's or Master's level. At that time there were very few women scientists employed. Minorities such as Jews and Italians were largely absent.

Our Central Research Department was named and organized in close imitation of a similar division of the DuPont Company, a much larger corporation, the largest in the industry. Whatever DuPont did, "American Episcopal" quickly imitated. When DuPont decided to staff their Central Research Department with PhD's from "the best" universities in the area, i.e., Yale, Harvard, MIT, Columbia, Princeton, etc., "we" soon followed. That may be one reason why I was hired.

A year later, when DuPont began recruiting new assistants for these men from the women's Ivy League Schools, we did likewise. Soon most of us had a fresh-faced twenty-two year old assistant, eager to work in the real world of industry.

Most of these new employees, like the ones hired earlier, were of Wasp background. Our new male scientists soon surprised me with their seeming self contained indifference to the women at work. For example, in our company cafeteria, the men and the women sat apart. They rarely spoke. It appeared that this emotive separation of the sexes carried over, as far as was possible, to the work situation itself. Clearly, this was the men's doing: the young women seemed more eager.I was assigned a new Radcliffe graduate, Viv Polchlapek. She had been a scholarship holder at school, and was a hard worker. Alas for her and these other young women, they had all been poorly trained at these all-woman Ivy League Schools. It was as if the old maids who taught there, had been fearful of damaging the minds of these young women, with quantitative information, such as how to calculate the percent yield of a chemical reaction, or what common chemicals really looked like or smelled like. The result was that, essentially, we had to train them, almost from scratch, on the job.

Viv was a plain-looking, somewhat overweight young woman, who had done well at school. She had had few, if any dates during college, and was now looking forward to a more adventurous life. She soon attracted the attention of several of the middle-aged bachelors at work.

A good many of the young and middle aged scientists who worked for "American Episcopal" were, at this point, bachelors. Lonely, they tended to hang out together. Once, after a fight with my wife, I rushed out of the house and took dinner at a restaurant which turned out to be where many of these men ate. As soon as I saw these lonely bachelors, I felt bad, and contritely went back to my wife as soon as I finished eating.

Three of these men, more or less at the same time, began dating Viv. These were Tom O'Donovan, Stan Vlasic and Carmine Ginsberg. All three were in their mid-thirties. To my surprise, all three owned up to still being virgins, and of course, these particular men were not even Wasps. Tom had an excuse: he was a religious Catholic. Stan appeared to be sickly -- a lack of vitality, very low-key. What about Carmine? Like Tom, he was a large, strong man, but his posture was poor, and there was something about him that seemed to say: "Don't bother me or expect anything from me! What I want is to be left alone!"

After work, Carmine spent much of his time in the machine shop of a high school, learning to use lathes, automatic screw machines and other stuff he would never make any real use of. Carmine was shaped like a knish, and I thought of him as a "knish- embodied intellect" (when I was a child, my mother would sometimes refer to me as a "disembodied intellect" ( an appellation which I greatly resented).

Since Carmine was a very good scientist, and knew my brother Quin,a physicist,I spent much time with him in scientific discussions. Above his desk he had some unusual pictures, such as one of the president of American Episcopal with his eyes picked out. Another was of his scientific mentor, Professor Wooden, now of Harvard.

Due to my wife's prompting I had earlier tried to interest Carmine in young single women we knew. He soon made it clear that he resented these suggestions. He would respond with something like, "I don't want your worn out old whores" - this about a pretty, vivacious young woman who certainly did not fit this description.

In any case, the three friends began to date Viv. However, they dated her, all three together. They would arrive together at her house, take her to dinner, go to a movie or a play, and, still all together, return her to her home, with perhaps a chaste kiss goodnight.

For about three months, Viv loved it! To be courted by three men, at least one of whom was an outstanding scientist, and none of whom appeared jealous or tried to make demands incompatible with her Catholic purity. It was too good to be true.

However,about four months into this relationship, Viv began to be puzzled and peevish about it all: Where was the follow-through? Obviously she couldn't marry all three.

I believe that they all owned up to loving her, whatever that meant, but apparently, marriage was never discussed. Then one day, Viv came to work,her old self but more sparkling! She held up her hand. She was wearing an engagement ring.

To my surprise, the lucky fellow was not one of the three mouseketeers. He was the maitre'd at one of the towns' fancy restaurants. Viv was wildly happy.

Not so the three mouseketeers. Collectively, and in the presence of their friends, they grieved and mourned greatly. " How could she do this to us?", was the cry. They were stunned, shocked, disappointed. It was even hard for them to believe: their Dearest Viv . . .

Viv was soon married, and, as far as I know, had no regrets. The three mouseketeers attended the wedding, and gave unusual gifts. Stan, for instance, who smoked little cigars, gave her a cigar butt encapsulated in clear acrylic.

 

CREAM SODA


Richard was very unhappy. His girlfriend of three years had left him. She was seeing another man.

Richard found this unbearable. He felt he couldn't give her up. She had been his first real lover. Passionate though he was, he doubted his abilities to handle other women. It was not even that he and Rhea had had a good relationship. They fought often, and really didn't satisfy each other. Still, it was she, and only she, that he wanted. Also, his jealousy, now, was almost more than he could bear.

Richard was not a confiding, gregarious type. He was not open, but this evening he knew he needed to see a friend.

He chose to call Gershon, who, it seemed to Richard, was one of his wiser, more worldly friends. This, even though Gershon was actually a sort of religious sophist behind his seeming sophistication. He often tried to illustrate "the wisdom of the Gomorrah" (the Hebrew book of practical wisdom.) Because of this, Richard couldn't really trust Gershon's judgment. He felt his friend was gradually slipping into religiosity.

Another reason he chose to speak to Gershon, was that Gershon was one of several of their friends who was probably closer to Rhea, than to him: he wanted to know, from Gershon, how Rhea really felt, now.

They walked slowly through Boro Park, this warm summer evening in 1942. Richard, usually happy, now very sad and anxious, Gershon for once the more confident of the two. Boro Park, a sort of slum, depressed Richard. To Gershon it was home. Hasidic Jews wandered by in their strange black coats and hats. Richard wondered how, so dressed, they could bear the heat. The streets were still filled with playing children.

To Richard's inquiries about Rhea, "What is she thinking?", "Is it really over for her?", "What does she want?" Gershon offered unsatisfactory answers: he didn't really know, and he seemed pleased to thus tantalize his friend.

"You should really find another woman", he offered.

"But who?"

Here Gershon was ready with suggestions. There was Sylvia in the Bronx, just broken up with her boyfriend. There was Annabel in the Village, whom they both found attractive.

What Richard found hard to understand and express, was that, now that these other women were available to him he was no longer in the least attracted to them, even repelled. He only wanted Rhea, who in reality was so unsatisfactory.

They stopped at a candy store to get a bottle of cream soda, their favorite drink. As they continued their walk, they each took sips. "This tastes so much better than wine or beer", said Gershon. Richard agreed. He too, couldn't understand why the Goyim preferred alcoholic beverages.

They walked over the Brooklyn Bridge, and enjoyed the suddenly cooler air over the river.

Richard thought: I feel I'm the least Jewish Jew I know. I'm not even a 100% Jew. What am I doing, preferring friends like Gershon, drinking and loving cream soda, being broken-hearted over a girl like Rhea? Maybe all of this is genetic-- I can't help it. But what about the side of me that hates all this? My family disapproves of Rhea, Boro Park, and surely, Gershon -- as well as of cream soda.

The friends walked and talked until late at night. Richard finally felt that talking with Gershon had only made him more anxious.

This took place during the early days of the war. Not long afterward, both young men were drafted. Gershon served as a tank gunner in Normandy. He suffered something like "shell shock" but managed to serve his time. However, this experience triggered his re-conversion to Orthodox Judaism. When he was discharged from the Army, he entered Rabbinical School.

Richard was disgusted with him, and their friendship died.

One person who was pleased by Gershon's conversion was his old girlfriend Sonia. Sonia had been a refugee from Romania, during the war. Though very poor, she was ambitious, and attended college. Richard remembered her as a thin girl with huge, sad, dishonest and epileptic-looking eyes, a turned-up nose, fairly good-looking, but resembling an anteater. He had once run into her at college, looking tragic. "What's the matter?" "I gowt a Bay in Bayology", she answered sorrowfully.

Sonia realized that, due to his conversion, Gershon would now have to marry her, since he had slept with her. It was, apparently "a law of the Jews". The somewhat reluctant Rabbi-to- be consented.

Richard, meanwhile, had persuaded Rhea to marry him, and lived unhappily (what felt like) forever after. But, at least they both liked cream soda.

Copyright © Lionel Luttinger. All rights reserved.

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