Moses & Memories

I lived close to money when I was a kid—a thousand yards, give or take, from the estates of the Hitchcocks, Phippses, Vanderbilts and other Old Westbury, Long Island, grandees. (We are back in the late thirties now, moving on toward Pearl Harbor.) Middling poor, feckless at school, employed from age fifteen by the Ocean Assurance Co., Ltd. (map clerk-office boy), I commuted Monday through Saturday to New York and spent a third of my check, four dollars a week, feeding one of two saddle horses left in my Dad’s barn. (We were, as I should acknowledge, erratically poor: my Dad was a contractor who had at least one fair year amidst the hard times, and my mother had a successful, Depression-spawned, home baking business; my Dad needed the horses as some men need drink, and, as a matter of fact, he stopped smoking and drinking in just this period.) Summer workdays after supper and Sunday mornings before church, I ran my horse in the Hicks nursery or aired him, more decorously, along the connecting roads— Powells Lane, Guinea Woods, et cetera. And now and then there were confrontations, since the grandees hated intruders and had their own private police. They, the private police, drove up beside you, the alien equestrian, in conventional cop’s car and uniform, asked about your street address and your old man’s name, and then told you to get your tail home.
With people on foot, these Old Westbury Raiders could be equally hard-nosed. We had a jazz trio in those days—myself (piano), and my classmates Jackson (rhythm) and Rockett (soft shoe)—and after an evening’s practice at my house, we’d take off happy sometimes for a stroll, crossing Jericho near Pete Bostwick’s and heading up toward Steele’s Hill; more than once the cops cut us off at the pass. Never a radical, young or old, I was, however, scarred by these “adolescent experiences,” as I admit; most of my life I’ve been scratchy toward wealth.
In THE POWER BROKER: ROBERT MOSES AND THE FALL OF NEW YORK (Knopf, $17.95), Robert Caro speaks of a number of grandee strategies, over and above private police on public roads, in my village and places nearby, for keeping the likes of me (and the whole of New York City) out of the millionaires’ enclaves. What is more, some of his best pages detail counterstrategies, devised by a willful, brilliant civil servant who, sustained in part by his own unique resentments, dared to enter contention with the grandees, and—high exhilaration for me—ultimately broke their power to exclude. (For the record, Robert Moses was president of the Long Island State Park Commission and superintendent of New York City construction. He planned and directed the building of a dozen or more city and suburban expressways, the Triborough, Verrazano, Throgs Neck, Bronx-Whitestone, and other bridges, Lincoln Center, the Colosseum, public parks beyond counting—you name it, he built it.)
My purpose in mentioning my experience on these fringes isn’t to provide additional documentation (none is needed; this is a 1200-plus page book); it’s merely to acknowledge that I read Mr. Caro’s book from a special perspective. The truism about not being able to go home again is nowadays a comment not only on growing up, but on population shifts and transformations of landscape; places disappear. “My” Long Island exists in memory as a rural world; more and more trains and cars, perhaps, but they weren’t as present to consciousness as truck gardens or shallow draft boats, farmers, clammers, fishermen . . . In my wife’s Flatbush, there were farms; even at my grandmother’s house in Bay Ridge, I seem to remember greenhouses just across the road; pastureland lay all around us on Powells Lane. Nothing singular about the arrival of urban sprawl, of course; the oddity lies in the literary experience—the “personalized” reading about political and historical processes of urbanization, wherein memories and fantasies and ghosts continually interrupt, joining public and private experience in disturbing, and now and then moving, ways.
Consider, for example, this problem: When Robert Moses was collecting parcels for his Long Island parkway system, he dealt not alone with grandees, but with old farm families of the region, people for whom something approximating the frontier experience had been a reality of early life. Mr. Caro dwells on the subject partly to establish continuities of arrogance in Robert Moses’ moral character, yet I wander with my elders amidst his characterological analysis, attentive—but nostalgic as well. My grandfather on my father’s side cleared ground as a boy with his father, a largish landowner in, of all suburban-to-be places, Rockville Centre. I knew my grandfather as a loved one who possessed grape arbors and hard candy in a glassen jar, who was humorous and extremely manly, who allowed my Uncle A1 to stable three delicious polo ponies in his barn (no poverty here, surely), who had a Shetland that was my comforter, bearing me everywhere spiritedly during a year’s sick leave from elementary school (no poverty there either), who sat beneath a tree rocking and rocking in front of the farmhouse where my father, my two uncles, and four aunts grew up, and where my mother learned to cook from my father’s mother, rocking and rocking at the corner of Hempstead and DeMott Avenues, opposite the Hewitt School, and every morning and afternoon as I passed he called out “Binny,” and not a person who came by on foot but visited with him under the tree, and one summer noon in New Hampshire, my older sister Janny (was she then ten or eleven?) put her arm around me (seven? eight?) and said, with a letter in her hand, that Granddaddy had “passed on,” and I positively remember thinking, Ah but then there won’t be any more school or trees and possibly my pony is dead . . .
I have, as they say, lost my place: My point is that I lose it times beyond numbering. As evidence of the intensity of Robert Moses’ absorption with his schemes, Mr. Caro reports that the planner often forgot the tides while exploring inlets from the bay and possible routes for his causeway; he had to muck in from the flats and summon a neighbor the next day to take him back to his freshly floated boat. But can I count how many dozen times we did that, sliding off from Elly Sprague’s Rockaway yard or wherever, not to map causeways, but to smell sea grass and sunset, and smoke Wings? 1 don’t just hear gulls and see diggers, I feel my Dad’s fury at one midnight homecoming (“You’ve terrified your mother, you realize you could kill her?”), and I behold the entire sweet harbor scene as it was. Elly Sprague’s ketch was blackhulled, unimaginably lovely, and he called it My Wife because he had no wife, and he and Opal, the one hand at the yard, silent, corncobby, overalled Opal, left the grounds in the coffee pot on the hot plate in the tiny tarpaper-shack office for weeks on end. and that summer when we all Biked daily to the yard where Rockett was finishing his famous skipjack, Dos Amigos, the black grainy stuff poured peculiarly slowly in the sun.
Mr. Caro reports further that Robert Moses amused himself, as a veteran commuter (Babylon was his stop), by feelingly reciting the LIRR stations on his line, and as I read, I hear in my skull’s cave the conductors’ voices, the clear, evident relish with which—after all those boring trochees (Lynbrook, Baldwin, Freeport)—they socked into MAssa-pequa, Ronkonkoma, et al. Still further, the biographer reports Robert Moses’ ecstasy in discovering, only a few blocks from an early Sunrise Highway traffic jam, a superb, secret, forest-enclosed, mile-long body of water—another jewel to be added to his park system. Water closes over my head in darkness. What could this place be but Hempstead Lake, where forty summers back I and scores like me skinny-dipped by the moon? And did not everybody know the holes in that fence? And could anyone that late in time presume to regard these waters as his?
Let me be clear: There are moments in the book at hand when hard information burns off nostalgia, shakes sentiment, prompts analysis and thought—as, for example, when Mr. Caro speaks of the “Jones Beaeh Tower.” Together with the author I recognize this edifice as a landmark. When my sister Janny, long gone from me, drove to the beach in her red car, “top down,” blond hair flying, we, the elder sibs, sang with the radio, while the young ‘uns—they have grown-up names now, but one was then called Twink —kept eyes out for The Tower. First to see it, a pin in haze, cried aloud, whereupon we knew that in minutes we’d be there, racing down from the Overlook across hot sand into the clear, salt, numbing, blue swell of the Atlantic.
But in Mr. Caro’s pages the object itself—magic from our past, a tower of anticipation—emerges as a concept, a thought-up thing. A water tower was necessary, it appears, and somebody proposed that it be just that, an ugly, bare water tower, and Robert Moses said No, for not only did this man insist upon flowers everywhere, upon perfect cleanliness and greenery and lawns; he wanted in addition structures of distinction and images that echoed in imaginations:
He already knew that he wanted a focal point for the beach, a beautiful centerpiece big enough to be seen from miles away, that would be a symbol of Jones Beach, something that visitors could identify with .... someone suggested a lighthouse, and I said, ‘No, goddammit, we’re not going to have any lighthouse.’ We already had a lighthouse, for God’s sake.” . . .
On the next trip to the beach, Harvey Corbett suggested that the water tower be designed as an Italian campanile, or church bell tower. There were many different types, Corbett said, and started to reel them off. As he was reeling he mentioned the one in Venice. Venice! “I like the one in Venice best,” Moses said. According to one of the men there, “[Moses] pulled out another one of his envelopes and sketched the campanile in Venice right there—and that’s how the water tower was done. And that’s the way ‘most everything was done. . . . He’s more responsible for the design of Jones Beach than any architect or engineer or all of us put together.”
The mind doesn’t step back from these sentences into gaudy reminiscence; it reflects, instead, on the uses of “professional knowledge.” This planner knew that “the beach” must be a reverberant image, a destination harkened after, a signal answering a longing. He knew that the world of differences is magical—at least in childhood, and perhaps later as well. Long Beach, to a person walking east from Lido, was burned out, boarded-up hotels with faded signs (BATHS 25ȼ); it was drab row houses on sand-drifted streets made of broken, heaved-up concrete; above all, it was sick, lonely dampness beneath the boardwalk —immeasurable gloom. The Tower, on the other hand, summoned purest happiness, natural beauty, familial harmony—and this by intention of the creator. I read Mr. Caro’s paragraphs on the planner’s concern for detail not as snippets of easy characterization, but as provocation to thought: What a lot people can know, at their best, about each other’s fantasy life!
But, as bears repeating, cool pondering isn’t ever, for me, the true name of this read. I happen upon a passage about the history of driving, an argument that chauffeur-driven Robert Moses knew little about the experience of “motoring” as it shifted character, from recreation to nightmare, between the thirties and fifties. Looking up, I see I’m gazing distractedly at cars on the parkway, headed back of a summer Sunday evening to the city—some early period when this sight didn’t signify pollution or bloat. We were courting then, and my lady was about to leave for college, and we walked out to the bridge over the Southern State (now the LIE), and, studying the endless flow of headlights, we were silent and big with poetry: the river of life . . . the “summer of ‘42” . . . what would become of us all?
Now the author turns shrill: He’s castigating the ugly racist policies of the Long Island state parks authority. Blacks could seldom secure bus permits; when they managed to do so, they were assigned to parking lots miles from nowhere; these white, middle-class, pastoral enclaves were quite as meanly selfish in their way as the gated acres of the grandees. Shame is seemly, but in me, alas, it fails to take hold. The period exists in memory as a time not of white pride, but of sadness and bewilderment. The Great Depression yielded funny episodes even into the middle thirties. (My mother used to cool cakes and pies out the kitchen door on the roof of the Lincoln, an elegant souvenir of our family’s previous glories; my Dad went on buying license plates for this vehicle long after he used it much, but one Saturday afternoon he backed it out, swept round the drive, and all up and down DeMott Avenue, the weekend’s production of Bliss torts, pineapple upsidedowns, lemon meringues sailed off onto kempt lawns!) But all too soon in our house the Depression meant a great dearth of laughter. Asked to brood on segregation, I seek relief, focusing instead on a “pool show,” the Jones Beach clowns who made my father roar, flopping off the high board in crazy Victorian bath dress, flailing and wheeling—what gorgeous, crisis-banishing explosions of laughter! What a weight lifted from us, the children, the whole world!
Ah, but Moses was sly, grabby. Think of the schemes by which he locked theoretically independent souls—contractors, insurance people, senators, even entertainers like Guy Lombardo—into his imperial entourage. I do so think—and stumble once more into irrelevance. Flush now and again, we ate as a family at the boardwalk cafe, danced towas it Lombardo? no, Enoch Light. Have I invented Enoch Light? I remember, first, my gangly self, hateful round eyeglasses, huge ears, perspiring clumsiness—and then one particular evening a redemption that, suddenly too real, waters my eyes. My mother remarked, altogether casually, as it seemed, “I already enjoy dancing with you and one day you’ll dance very well, I think.” How exceptionally fine! What impeccably matter-of-fact kindness!
Few readers, whatever their distractibility, are likely to find fault with this biography as a work of popular history. Conflict is its center, and the agonists are figures of charisma and wit—FDR, LaGuardia, Ickes, A1 Smith—whose wars of will, viewed at a distance, clang with consequence. The Power Broker also qualifies as a source book about political power, its creation and nurture. By which rules do you abide if your goal is to achieve a reputation for “getting things done”? Which rules can you afford to break? Mr. Caro’s examination of the methods by which Robert Moses simultaneously accumulated enormous political power and built an array of parks, bridges, and highways without historical precedent answers these questions, and in the process, teaches a shrewd course in “public sector” relationships of money, power, and imagination.
As a moralist, the author is less winning, because overzealous in presenting private character as public fate. The Power Broker is conceived as a moral fable: A man of parts begins professional life as an idealist, undertakes projects in governmental reform, and is defeated by corrupt old pols. Humiliated, he resolves to learn their ways, and aided by persons originally drawn to him in admiration of the energy of his idealism, achieves the yearned-for mastery. But the process of learning is also that of hardening; the other side of the coin of competence at realpolltik is contempt for the weak, and appalling obliviousness; in the end the very style of his mastery brings him low. The pattern is clear—so obtrusively clear as to hint that personal animus may have shaped it. Mr. Caro seems insufficiently interested in the broad structural changes in American social organization that brought into being roles like that which Moses played; he also underestimates the scale of the resistance, among the “liberal rightminded,” to the anti-urban-renewal doctrines that the Goodmans, Jane Jacobs, and others sought to bring into currency late in Moses’ reign.
Yet The Power Broker possesses, undeniably, the virtues of its chief defect—which is to say, if he “overhumanizes” the great twentieth-century transformations of landscape, the author also succeeds in recovering a sense of the interpenetration of public deeds and private lives. And that sense deserves recovery. “Hometown readers” like myself slip off, as indicated, into personal byways, but for decent cause: Mr. Caro is quick to admit ordinary people to his pages, and inclined to spend time with them even at the cost of oversimplifying his conceptual structure. Here is a family, James, Helen, and Jimmy Roth, caught up by accident in the process of change: their farm was divided by a parkway, and they asked for fair treatment and didn’t receive it— because “the age demanded,” because Moses was Moses and power is power and righteousness is righteousness, because the march of democratization was then, on this front alone, sacred, because so too was the Car. The biographer of the Leader is spacious about the feelings, before and after, of the Little People; he allows you to feel, as you read, that it’s not impertinent to bring “you and yours” into the Big Picture: history is what happens to each of us, and each Roth is entitled to tell a story.
And while those stories underwrite the final indictments, a measure of balance is, surprisingly, maintained. I can testify—as who cannot?—that when emotions of loss are in the equation, such balance comes hard. Last spring, the fathers of “my” Long Island village, hunting a voice for the annual lecture at the new library, came to me, and I drove south eagerly—and got lost. Can they have paved the lake? Can they actually have paved the bridle path? I looked at precisely the place, just across the dam, where memory told me the fearful accident occurred after which my mother never again mounted horse—and I swear there is no path. Quite gone. At dinner before my talk, I heard that not a single building lot was left, that they now tear down houses and build new ones in old cellars, and as for my grandfather’s tree . . .
Enough: Self-pity had me by the throat. I was “on the spot.” but the true intersection of public and private-public history and private pique—had vanished, obscured by self-involvement. Turning the pages of Mr. Caro’s book, however, I knew more than nostalgia could tell. I threw a stick for an almost forgotten hound, played “San” up-tempo in G, buckled a blanket tight in a winter stall, hugged my horse by its neck, and heard them all—father, dear sister, grandparents . . . (They woke and spoke, each of them, whistled and swore—not for the world would I have missed it.) But I also felt pressures from the great world, biddings of the “long revolution” of human aspiration, announcements both of the universal will to share and of the probability of huge error among those selfselected to slice the pie. In sum, the lessons of The Power Broker in Dallas or Denver might be different from those it carried home to me, but I’d nevertheless wager that readers on any American turf will find it to be more than “merely” a splendid entertainment: it is a strikingly ponderable book.