Saturday, March 29, 2014


On a fine March day 35 years ago, there I was sitting in Concert Choir, right where I liked to be, just behind and slightly to the left of Scott Edelman, who had a truly epic backside and was my guide - what with me being, to be kind, what cruel judges on television singing contests call "pitchy" - toward hitting any note above middle-C.

He'd sing loud, cheating just a little over his shoulder, and I'd chime in.  Just a typical fifth-period at a typical suburban Philadelphia high school in 1979.

And then the voice of the principal on the PA system, sounding a little off.  We were going to the bus circle; we were going home.  A teacher had a transistor radio and looked worried.  The bus driver only said there was some problem and we'd know more when we got home.

Which, eventually, I did.  And found what was, by our home standards, chaos.  The television was on, loud, and Grandmother Muscato, who was at that point living with us, was not off in her own sitting room, but rather standing in the dining room.  Moreover, she was with an air of grim determination packing the silver into two of her old hatboxes.  Mother Muscato appeared, carrying a suitcase.

We were fifty miles or so from Three Mile Island, but they wanted to be ready.  We sat and watched the news, waiting for my father to come home from Center City.  It seems so primitive now, our only source of information the TV, no Internet, no cell phones.  Mother had been trying to get through to my sister for a couple of hours - she (and her one-year-old) lived just out of sight of the plant, there on the Susquehanna.

The weekend before, I had gone with Miss Rheba and some pals to see the new Jane Fonda movie.  At the time it had seemed both melodramatic and, more than we admitted, scary.  Nuclear peril was in the air, and suddenly it seemed we were living it.*

That day turned out to be the kind that changes lots of things, but not, in the end, for any of the reasons that we feared, sitting there, watching.  Actually, technically speaking, it was the next day turned out to be the memorable one.

Not all that long after I got home, you see, my sister pulled up out front.  Sister was - still is - a scientist, and she was working in a lab that morning, on campus just downriver from the plant.  When, just around the time the first report came out, a colleague came out of his lab, looking shaken, saying the radiation monitors that were part of his work were going haywire, she made a beeline for the daycare, got the baby, and headed for our house.  Well, she and, it turned out, something of a menagerie.

Two cars had arrived at our house, you see.  In one were Sister and baby, unexpectedly accompanied by an extravagantly dressed, flowing-scarved person who was introduced as a Poetess, along with her toddler, a red-haired child prone to long, unnerving stares.  In the second car were two rather shell-shocked-looking husbands (Sister's and Poetess's), Sister's two half-feral Afghan hounds, and the Poetess's large, raucous African gray parrot.

We stayed put that night, Mother coming up with some kind of dinner for the unexpected company.  Conversation was awkward, not just because we were, after all, still facing potential apocalypse (and not just because Grandmother grudged all the silverware coming back out of the hatboxes - if were going to have to flee, we were still going to have enough salad forks, like decent people, if she had anything to do with it).  No, it was an odd and uneasy evening all around.  I slept on the sofa in Grandmother's sitting room, my room turned over the visitors.

That night was nothing, as it turned out, compared to breakfast the next morning, when (I learned in detail long after), Sister laid out just why the whole crowd had come along.  I wasn't there (teenagers can sleep through anything), but by the time I got up, it had all been worked out.  Sister and Poetess, it seemed, were leaving for Paris.  The baby was staying with us.  The husbands, even more befuddled now than they arrived (they'd apparently only just met), were, once the evacuation around the plant ended, going back (with the Afghans and the strange toddler and the parrot).

Within a few days, the silver was back in its usual drawers; the baby was a happy new fixture in Grandmother's sitting room, and Sister was well and truly embarked on the next phase of her life.  She and the Poetess didn't last (she was too fixated on her subsequently published biography of Djuna Barnes** to be good company over the long haul), but -esses in general sure did.  She (and the baby) moved to New York, which gave me an in there when the time came.

As for The China Syndrome, I can't imagine watching it again; those kinds of late-70s social-issues pictures seem as dated as Warners backstagers (and a lot less fun).

* Look at her, up there.  Her lapels should have gotten credited separately.
**  Famous Sapphist 's identity changed to protect the not even vaguely innocent.


  1. Did the husbands also settle down together in post-apocalyptic domestic bliss? Jx

  2. I'm curious if the term poetess ever worked it's way into home wrecker? My mother still tends to toss that word around occasionally.

    1. Let's just say that there was some choice vocabulary used, then and later. I believe that Grandmother, ever true to her love of silent movies, at one point referred to her as "that vamp."