Summer of Sam

Ilene Dube

The first Star Wars movie blasted across the screen in the summer of 1977. At the end of the movie, as we got up to leave, we heard loud explosions outside the theater. We thought it was the Son of Sam, coming to get us. But it was only firecrackers, as it turned out. It was just a year after the nation’s bicentennial celebration, and the spirit of ‘76 was still flying that July night in Brooklyn.

That was the way it was that summer. Everyone was on edge. Everywhere you went, every corner you turned — Sam might be there, lurking, ready to get you.

I had just moved into an apartment in Park Slope with my fiancé. No sooner had we moved in than he took off. He was a teacher, and with the whole summer vacation ahead of him, he was off to meet friends for backpacking and canoeing out west. It was the beginning of a great relationship. I only paid half the rent and had all that space, was how he put it.

The apartment was the third floor of a brownstone. It had an enormous living room with a giant picture window, and then a triangle of a window above that, ending in the peaked ceiling. The kitchen and bath were newly remodeled, and the cockroaches held frequent soirees in those spaces. There were two bedrooms, one of which housed my darkroom and desk, and the other, where we slept, had a parapet. This was actually a piece of tarred roof above the downstairs bay, but you could climb out the bedroom window and sit out there to get a tan. I decorated it with house plants that shriveled up in the hot sun.

Lenny and Ronny were the guys who lived in the apartment just below us. Lenny worked as a tour guide at Rockefeller Center, and Ronny stayed home and ironed Lenny’s shirts. Ronny was from Georgia and he spoke in a magnificent drawl about the soaps he’d watched that day.

Lenny and Ronny were the nicest neighbors, until about midnight. That’s when all their friends, who were cast members in The Wiz, came over and turned up the volume. They had quadraphonic speakers on their ceiling — our floor — so sleeping past midnight was out of the question.

Our landlady, Anne, lived on the first floor with her two kids. She had creamy skin, blond hair (not a target for the Son of Sam, who preferred brunettes, like myself), and her thighs were incredibly smooth, right up to that last little curve just where her shorts started. Her Swedish father owned the building. Anne was on Welfare, much to her father’s chagrin, and periodically her ex-husband would stop by and have a huge fight with her.

There would be screaming and the sound of things banging against the walls, and kids whimpering.

About a week before he left for his backpacking trip, my fiancé went to do some laundry in the laundromat a block away. While he was there, someone held up the laundromat at gun point. My fiancé was unharmed, but we switched to the Chinese laundromat on Seventh Avenue. For an extra 35 cents, they folded everything.

A week later, someone stole a bicycle from Lenny and Ronny. It had been left in the hallway, just outside their apartment.

We decided to get a police lock installed on the door. The man who installed it was sloppy, and he gouged out a two-inch irregularly shaped hole in the wood floor. “Come by the store and I’ll give you some wood putty to fill it,” he said as we stared at the hole, wondering how much of our security deposit we would forfeit.

That was the summer I started running. And there was an incredible heat wave.

Every night, the sun set in that triangular window in the living room. Because it was the third floor of the brownstone, with no attic above, that apartment retained all the heat of summer. It was hotter than the subway.

We had no air conditioning, just an old fan that rattled in the bedroom window. Most of the time I didn’t bother using it because it sounded like a helicopter about to take off.

I awoke super early in the morning, ran up and down the hills between Seventh and Eighth avenues in Park Slope, then came back and took an ice cold shower.

It made the day tolerable, somehow. Also, I hoped that, by running enough, I might be able to have thighs like Anne’s.

That year, I worked as an editor of romance magazines. I worked at my office in Manhattan, finding photographs that were suitable for the ridiculous stories we dreamed up, then came home and stayed up late typing romance stories on my Smith Corona portable electric typewriter. Stories like “My Husband is a Dr. Jekyll/ Mr. Hyde — and I get the Best Sex from his Monster Side!” and “My Father is Having a Baby.” Meanwhile, I was aspiring to the New Yorker, and prided myself on the personal, encouraging rejection letters I was getting. In my spare time, I printed pictures in my dark room and hung them around the apartment in metal frames I bought at The Pottery Barn.

Sometimes I’d stay later in my air conditioned office and use the IBM Selectric, but often I needed the break of the long subway ride in between.

One night, coming home to Brooklyn, I ran into the rich cousin of a friend.

“You have no air conditioning?” Caryl gaped in utmost disbelief. “You poor thing. You should come and sleep at my apartment.”

I experimented with not eating that summer, to see how thin I could get. I experimented with eating nothing but cantaloupe, or maybe a box of frozen peas for my one meal of the day. But no matter what I did, I still weighed 115 pounds. Some women at work ate nothing but a pint of Haagen-Dazs for dinner. I didn’t even try that. I was amazed to learn that, no matter what I ate, I always weighed 115 pounds.

It was also the summer of the great Northeastern blackout.

The freckled cartoonist from my college newspaper was working as an illustrator for Marvel Comics. Marvel was owned by the same company that owned my romance magazines, and so we often had lunch together. We had been chatting on the phone one night, when all of a sudden, everything went black.

One thing that was really nice about this apartment was that, on a clear night, if you stood in just the right place in the living room, you could see the New York City skyline in the distance. But on this night, all of a sudden, the New York City skyline was gone. If I hadn’t been connected to another human being on the phone, I would have been terrified. When the time came to hang up, I fumbled around and found the transistor radio. I listened until I heard about the black out, and then I turned it off to conserve battery power.

I went to bed and hid under the covers, without a clue that, just below me, people were looting stores.

As I slept with the windows open — no one had air conditioning on this night — I heard dogs barking in terror. I kept thinking about the Son of Sam, who claimed to have been motivated by a neighbor’s barking dog.

When I saw his face on the cover of the New York Post and learned that he worked for the Post Office, I felt sorry for David Berkowitz. He was a deeply disturbed psychotic, a pathetic loser. He had a mundane job, which can make one psycho, and then this wretched dog next door was driving him out of his skin, on top of everything else. He had no intimate relationships and no sense of interior design — his sanctuary was as depressing as a dungeon. He went out for walks to escape it all, and couldn’t bear to see other people enjoying life.

Once he got started, he realized the power this whole thing gave him. The headlines in the New York Post, the Daily News. His letters left here and there, clues to the story of who this man was. This was a high like nothing he had ever experienced. He was riding a roller coaster.

That summer, a lot of people asked me what kind of relationship I had, that my fiancé just went off for two whole months. I hadn’t really thought about it until they asked. Then I started to wonder.

I was also confused about my status: was I part of a couple? Or was I like a single person who should be looking to date? This was, after all, the summer of Studio 54. Everybody was having sex with everybody, right out in the open.

I never did figure it out.

That was also the summer I learned that you could walk down Fifth Avenue, starting in the 70s, right on down to the Village, bawling out loud with tears streaming down your face, and not a single person would stop you to see what was the matter.

Then I got sick. It started with a sore throat. When I opened my mouth wide and looked inside from the mirror, I saw a little spot that looked like a whitehead. First I started gargling with Listerine, but that didn’t help. My father had always taught me that sunshine and salt water could cure anything. I gargled with salt water, and I lay a beach towel out on the parapet and sat out in the sun with a book for hours at a time, watching my house plants burn up.

Then I tried swabbing at my tonsils with a Q-Tip soaked in Peroxide. That seemed to help for a while. But then the infection returned, and I realized I needed to see a doctor. I tried a new doctor in Brooklyn Heights.

“Tonsillitis.”

It was a no-brainer diagnosis. He prescribed penicillin. I took the penicillin for a week, but I wasn’t getting any better.

“In the days before antibiotics, you would be dead by now,” my doctor assured me. He prescribed Keflex, a stronger antibiotic.

I was out of work for a week and a day. My doctor, who learned I was living alone, suggested I stay with a friend or a neighbor. I thought about staying with Lenny and Ronny. Or maybe Anne, but then I’d infect the kids. I moved in with Caryl, because her air conditioning made my days in bed more pleasant. Also it was nice to have someone come home at night and check in on me. Caryl’s apartment was decorated like she dressed – smooth, clean, no frizzy edges. Fortunately I slept most of the time because it would have been hard to be sick and be so neat and clean. Caryl wasn’t exactly sure what kind of relationship I was in either, but was too kind to ask.

I went back to work on a Tuesday. I felt fine, until someone came over and asked me if I felt OK.

“I feel great,” I said.

“But you have a red rash all over your body.”

I looked in the mirror, and sure enough. My boss told me to call my doctor and go home.

The doctor said I was having an allergic reaction to the antibiotics I’d been taking. “You could be allergic to penicillin,” he said. “Or you could be allergic to Keflex. Or, you could be allergic to the combination. We need to make a note on your record that you are allergic to these drugs.”

He prescribed Benadryl for the rash and called it in to the pharmacy.

I had no trouble getting a seat on the subway going home. Every one cleared out of the car when they saw my rash. I picked up the Benadryl at the drug store, then headed for home, walking up the two flights to my apartment. I put the key in the lock, but could not open the door. The police lock was jammed.

With my rash and my little brown bag with a bottle of Benadryl, I marched five blocks to the hardware store. I found the man who had installed the lock and told him the problem.

At first, he ignored me to help another customer. When he was finished, I stated my problem.

“Hey, you was supposed to come and get some wood putty to fill your hole. How come you didn’t come?”

“I’m here now,” I said. “I’ll take the wood putty. But I’m here because I can’t get into my house. Could you please help me with the lock you installed?”

“Lady, I can’t help you. I have a date in half an hour.”

I pulled my little prescription bottle out of the bag and pointed at it. “I am sick,” I said. “I need to get home and take my medicine.”

At that point, he packed his tool bag and headed out to his car. He said he’d meet me there. He didn’t offer me a ride.

By the time I walked the five blocks — uphill — he was already there, fiddling with the lock. Finally he got it to open. He even filled the hole in the floor with the wood putty.

“Well, you’d better take care of yourself and get better,” he said when he left. “If you ever need me for anything, don’t be afraid to call.”

Yeah.

So I took my medicine and went to bed. I must have fallen into a deep sleep, because the next thing I knew, the phone was ringing, and it startled me from my dream. I had to stumble down the long hallway to get to the phone.

“Hello,” I said, and then everything went black as I fell to the floor.

When I came to, Caryl, who had called to check up on me, was shouting into the phone.

In the end, Son of Sam was caught. My fiancé returned, and in September I had my tonsils removed. I didn’t get the electric train set I had wished for, like my little brother did when he had his tonsils out, but my fiancé brought me a bag of apples when he came to the hospital.

“Apples?” I asked. “I’m supposed to be eating ice cream.”

“Soon you’ll be eating apples again.”

 

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About the Author:

Ilene Dube’s stories, essays and poems have been published in Huffington Post, Atticus Review, The Grief Diaries, and U.S. 1 Summer Fiction. She is a writer for Philadelphia Public Media, Princeton Magazine, and U.S. 1 newspaper and was arts and features editor for the Princeton Packet for 20 years. She has recently completed a novel and a story collection.

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