Monday, May 5, 2008

Beach time

Double your pleasure: the following are two columns by New Haven Register columnist Randall Beach. Enjoy!

On a recent rainy morning, Nicholas Dawidoff returned to his hometown and the schoolyard where he spent so much of his childhood, throwing a ball against the brick wall and fantasizing about playing for the Boston Red Sox.
“It all seemed so big then,” he said, looking around at the new playscape and the recently restored Worthington Hooker Elementary School in New Haven’s East Rock neighborhood.
Dawidoff, now 45, had taken the train to New Haven from his home in New York City to talk with me about his new book, “The Crowd Sounds Happy: A Story of Love, Madness and Baseball.”
This coming-of-age memoir is poignant, candid and engaging, like Dawidoff himself.
The book is beautifully written but often sad and occasionally painful to read. New Haven in the 1970s was in economic stagnation; Dawidoff’s father, Donald, was mentally ill and living apart from the family in New York; and Dawidoff’s mother, Heidi, was struggling to raise him and his sister, Sally, on a teacher’s salary while living in the sparse apartment of a two-family house across from that schoolyard.
After he posed for a photo at the school, “Nicky” and I walked a few blocks to my house, where we talked about his early life and New Haven.
“It looks nothing like the New Haven I grew up in,” he said. “As I walk around East Rock now, I see all these contractors’ signs outside the houses. When I was living here, things were falling apart and nobody was doing anything about it.”
After I noted his depiction of New Haven in his book is generally downbeat, he told me, “I really loved New Haven and I still love it. Now it’s coming back. But when I was a kid, it was in decline, like many other cities.”
He said one of the great pleasures of writing the book was recalling the feel of this city and its varied neighborhoods.
“This was a special and almost perfect place to grow up,” he said. “It’s a small city but so diverse and complicated. The setting was a gift. I was blessed to have this as a writer.”
Like the struggling city, like his family and like the Red Sox of that time, Dawidoff was having a tough time.
“I felt a commonality of experience with them,” he said of those Red Sox players. “Trying really hard but falling short. That felt so connected to my childhood. I felt it in my family and in my city.”
Dawidoff said the team’s failures “were in a funny way, comforting to me, because they seemed connected with the unhappiness going on around me.”
He felt like an “outlier,” somebody who didn’t fit in with the other kids. In those days, divorce or parental separation wasn’t common and mental illness was a “taboo” topic.
“My family never talked about my father’s troubled existence,” he said. “It would’ve helped me if people had talked about it. People need to be more aware of it, more comfortable with it.”
But instead he was burdened with “this tremendous crushing shame of it. And my ignorance of it; maybe it could happen to me. This was terrifying. I spent a huge amount of my childhood working very hard to see it wouldn’t happen to me. That’s impossible, magical thinking.”
In spite of all this, Dawidoff said, “New Haven felt like paradise until that kidnapping.”
The abduction and murder of Jennifer Noon is a central event in Dawidoff’s book because it so altered the feel of his childhood. She was 5 years old, walking home from Hooker School one September day in 1970, when she disappeared. A few days later, her body was found in a wooded area of Hamden.
Nobody was ever charged with her murder. This left New Haven kids like Dawidoff desperately frightened, wondering if “the strange man” would come and get them too.
Dawidoff connected the murderer with his father. “It was easy for me to see this strange man who’d done something frightening and upsetting, to see him in terms of my own dad.”
“He was sick,” Dawidoff said. “He was out of control. Anything could happen.”
When his dad died in 1999, Dawidoff spoke at the memorial service. “I had to talk about his suffering, his hopes and aspirations.”
This led to a New Yorker magazine piece about his dad, and ultimately to this book. But something else had to happen first.
“When the Red Sox won the World Series,” Dawidoff said, “My editor told me, ‘Now you’re ready to write this book.’”
Dawidoff added, “I guess every story can use a happy ending.”
Dawidoff will do a reading May 16 at 6 p.m. at Atticus Book Store-Cafe in New Haven. Randall Beach can be reached at or 789-5766.

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