allowed certain kinds of books, but it wasn’t that hard to smuggle things
into my room. The maid did the cleaning, and my taste in literature was
nothing to her. I had a library card; my prep school made us each get
one. I loved any murder mystery, however old or young the level of it
was, and I loved Dickens, which they might have thought was harmless
In seventh grade a cute girl named Sally in my English class asked me
what kind of music I liked. I said easy listening. It was already well into
the ’60s, and neither of my parents allowed jungle music in the house.
Sally started me on Motown—the Temptations, the Supremes, Martha
and the Vandellas. I was so pleased to be invited into her living room,
listening to her records on the family hi-fi, that I told her the stuff was
pretty good. Of course, I had heard some of it before, blasting out the
windows of people’s cars, through the sound systems in clothing stores,
but I hadn’t much listened, and what I heard now was the throbbing sorrow—Baby, baby, baby, don’t leave me—and a surprising strength in the
wailing about it. My family hated weakness, but this was a whole other
form of complaint.
Sally’s mother, who didn’t know me from Adam, liked me because I
had such a short haircut, and she brought us Cokes and salted peanuts. I
knew I was turning a corner, chomping down the snacks, slurping from
a straw, tapping the rhythms on my knee, in this alien house, and I even
thought for a second that I might slyly bring them over to better thinking about the world. I hardly spoke at that age, so how could I have done
this? Sally had lots more to play for me, if I didn’t need to go home yet.
My father said then and later that females were my undoing.
Not that it happened all at once. As much as I loved being at Sally’s, as
stunned as I was that she liked me, I felt weird and monstrous once I
walked through the door of my own house. Nor could I keep this feeling to myself. I told my parents (who were in the living room, sipping
highballs before dinner) that I couldn’t stand this crazy, silly rock ’n’ roll
Sally had played for me. My parents did not immediately ban her from
my acquaintance—that came later—but it started my father on a rant
about how the lowest elements in the population were ruining our culture. I was scared of my father sometimes, but my mother’s increasing
quarrels with him had taken away my awe. “The songs weren’t that bad,”
I said. My father slammed the coffee table with his hand.