In fourth grade I organized the “Spy Niki Club.” The most reliable members were my friends but it had the advantage of other alliances against a common enemy, that it was possible for non-friends to join and discover they had less reason for mutual hostility than had been believed. Dodger fans predominated over Giant fans. A couple of Yankee fans — considered a foreign culture — were tolerated. All members were male, a bias no one thought of. Girls didn’t spy on boys, anyway. Well, how would anyone know?
The duties of Club members were to move around the concrete schoolyard during lunch recess, observe Niki and report to other members about her whereabouts and activities. We’d meet excitedly at the cornerstone — it was a granite block that said “1928” — and confer, I’d talk into my hand like highway police into a microphone on television (or Sky King!):
“Goldman to Taqi, Goldman to Navarro, over.” “Come in, Goldman.” “We read you. Over.”
“Report Niki seen handball court. Watching the twins play.” The ‘twins’ were Danny and Frankie. Some people claimed they could tell them apart. I had the idea Frankie had a meaner, older face and that Danny’s evil was less deep, less inscrutable. Also, Danny was left-handed. It was a relief when, once or twice a week, they wore their belts with big brass buckles that said “Frankie” and “Danny.” Ricky and Peter Peterson were fraternal and never called “the twins.”
Once we reported where Niki was and what she was doing it was harder to see how to proceed — though it disturbed me when others seemed a little casual about the Club and its members’ duties. In theory we were supposed to harass her wherever she went, embarrass her, make our — what? — our pretend-“dislike” continually known, but that was tricky. It required effort, risks and in a sense taste. There was a whole set of rules, very intricate, that determined what would be proper and I for one didn’t know these rules. It intimidated me, the more so because I did not think these were things one could learn and the ignorance seemed fixed for all time. Once I’d taken the pencil she was in the habit of keeping behind her ear and it left me sort of nauseated and nervous the rest of the afternoon.
As it was, we limited ourselves to showing up in her vicinity and taunting her, especially in the lunchroom.
“Hi Niki,” we’d say, making fun of her. She’d smile and I’d be satisfied we’d produced the desired reaction.
“Hi Mac,” she’d say. “Hi boys.” Other girls did not talk back like this. Niki was “lively.”
Niki’s last name was “Mitropoulus,” a Greek name I was told. She was skinny, taller than I, with black slightly waved hair that dipped below her shoulders and greenish skin (the kind adults called “dark”) that didn’t seem susceptible to a tan. The tallness in particular made something “serious” between us even more remote than it already was for everyone else. Her long face, with dark eyebrows and unfamiliar type of nose, could seem funny-looking or pretty — “attractive” might be a better word. “Pretty” was reserved for a whole different sort of person.
This was 1952 and in the fall she wore a Stevenson button. There weren’t many of these, nor of the “I Like Ike” buttons but that slogan seemed to have an appeal to the kids. I didn’t like the word Ike but I liked the I like and I liked the rhyme. Maybe I envied Niki her Stevenson button, for my parents were supporting a left-wing candidate that even Miss Birmingham hadn’t heard of (she frowned at me, pushing the wrinkles toward the center), and there weren’t any buttons for him either.
“What’s so good about Stevenson?” I said to Niki skeptically during a break in class. She turned around in her seat laughing as she always did.
“Generals,” she said without the necessary seriousness, “make bad presidents.” Our neighbor Mrs. Abrams, Sam’s mother, used to say with bitterness and contempt, “The Republicans don’t have anything to offer this country any more.”
“I’m for McTeague,” I said.
“Pay attention,” she said as Miss Birmingham woke from her sleeping sickness and began to speak. I was considered a far more earnest student than Niki.
Organizing the Club had worked out more satisfactorily than having a girlfriend. In first grade my girlfriend was Gail Zeiler (also, come to think of it, taller than I, thin and dark-haired though decidedly un-green and un-exotic) though Gail’s real, acknowledged boyfriend was Jeffrey Copeland, who lived on the same block of Coolidge Avenue and actually walked to school with her every day. The only sense in which she was my girlfriend was that adults would make fun of me for “having” one — that is, I think, for having selected a girl to like. I had to take a lot of ribbing, from adults, for having her as the only girl at my birthday party that year. I’d had no reason to invite any other girls. I remembered playing Pin the Tail on the Donkey and some kind of race with m&ms on spoons.
In third grade I settled like everyone else on Alison Amster. By that time I thought that if I were to win anything from a girl — whatever it was that was supposed to be won — it would be by only the most strained, unnatural effort. They were foreign, different, less a thing like yourself that you could be friendly with, a being, and more one that you bought from a bin at Key Food, like, say, a cucumber. They went not to me but to the Andy Helfant and Jack Ross types, so it appeared. “Andy and Alison,” that’s what people made fun of, endearingly, enviously.
I remember the choking nightmare atmosphere of the halls at that school, paved with concrete like sidewalks but dirty maroon. Though the corridors were perfectly straight and there was no maze to be lost in, I seemed to fear disappearing among the great numbers of bodies, most much bigger than mine, like a washer or lock-nut that’s dropped into, say, an electric generator.
“How come you live on that funny street?” I said to Niki in a low tone, leaning over my desk toward the seat in front of me while Miss Birmingham’s eyes were closed.
Miss Birmingham was in between repeating that she was adding 49 and 26 — one of her favorite nondescript numbers — and demonstrating how she got the answer, and there was no foolproof way of predicting how long it would be safe to carry out undetected shenanigans. It was a few minutes before lunch. The big black school radio had already been brought in for this afternoon’s “Know Your City” program.
“Shh!” said Niki, already laughing. Her laugh wasn’t a giggle, nor was anything about her polite. She never tried to insult me and she took my pretend-insults in good humor.
“Why don’t you live on a nice, normal street like mine?” I said, fiddling in the inkwell with my fingers. The kinds of pens that required inkwells, and consequently the inkwells themselves, had been obsolete since before I was born.
“What’s wrong with my street?” said Niki.
“It’s got those funny snowballs, you know, those blue puffy things. Flowers. And there’re too many trees. It gets all dark.” My neighborhood was newer, the trees didn’t yet provide much shade.
Niki laughed, saying “That isn’t—”
“Niki,” said Miss Birmingham as she awakened, “you are talking.” Talking was a small sin that everyone wanted to do as much as possible without getting caught, much the way some adults seem to think of adultery.
“And take that pencil off your ear, please.”
Niki removed it — she’d put it back as soon as she was in the hall — and turned to face front with a smile that neither conceded nor provoked while the rest of us understood her suppressed laughter. I admired her poise.
“Mac, can you tell the class how to find the total of these two numbers?”
I did and received three red checks on the wall chart under “Problem Solving.” On the occasions — and they were occasions — when the supposedly attractive Linda Pales managed to get something right she was lucky to receive any kind of mark. I never thought about what occupation Linda was being groomed for.
Near the end of that year our class was preparing a play called “The Neglected Garden” in which I was the Second Carrot. Other Club members served as String Bean, Lettuce and Tomato, from which positions they made ugly faces at Niki, who was a Robin, when the teacher was explaining a stage direction for the third or fourth time. Niki wore a green and brown crepe paper costume and stuck her tongue out almost to the bottom of her chin. She wasn’t shy or afraid. Edith Kaufman, the Robin with most of the lines, put on a sophisticated expression.
When we performed before an assembly of 500 fourth-, fifth- and sixth-graders, their teachers, Miss Axel the principal and most of our mothers it was Edith who could not help from bepissing herself, wilting her costume so that it clung to her — foreshadowing certain fashions of later years — and creating such a slippery condition onstage that when the Bee tried to buzz off into the wild blue yonder, he slipped and shouted “Yich!,” after which the work was received as a comedy. I thought Niki gave me a funny smile.
On the last day of school, when we were allowed to bring games in, I sprang one that involved poking Niki in the side but Miss Birmingham put a stop to it. But then as it happened Niki and I were on the same team in another kid’s game and worked together to win, and I had the impression her smiles to me had a new and different quality.
“Well, that was fun!” she said afterward. I couldn’t tell if she was being sarcastic.
© Jerry Kurtz 1981