17 June 2014
Before Christmas in 1937 when I was six, my grandmother invited me for our annual lunch at the Plaza and a trip to F.A.O. Schwartz. In the Palm Court the violinist played through lunch while I tried to figure out how to take more than two of the pastel colored peppermints. We discussed which costumes we would look at when we crossed the street to Schwartz. Last year it had been a British Grenadier’s outfit which I still wore often, feeling immensely proud in the tall black fur hat with the strap under my chin. Now my grandmother was making ominous suggestions that I be a ballerina or a gypsy. I writhed in embarrassment at the thought and wondered how to get the Swiss Mountain boy’s suit.
Impasse at Schwartz; so our quest turned to a toy. And suddenly there he was: a doll about two feet tall, a miniature boy child with furry hair and blue eyes whose lids closed when he slept. When we left, I clutched him in front of me as if I were carrying a baby brother.
My grandfather and I discussed names for the doll over checkers that night and it didn’t take long. “You know who’s the best, Joanie”. “Joe DiMaggio, Gramp.” Gramp and I listened to the ball game at two in the afternoons when he always managed to be away from his office. Dimaggio was the mystical hero, Joltin Joe the center field star for the Yanks who silenced a ball park every time he stepped up to the plate, the slugger who set the standard for sportsmanship.
Shortly after the purchase of Joe DiMaggio, the doll, my father was sent to Florida to “rest” – from what was never clear – and my grandmother and I were to join them via the overnight train to Miami. Two bunks. “Do you want the upper or the lower, Joanie?”, Gram asked. I thought hard about whether it would be worse to be in the upper when it fell or in the lower when it was fallen upon, chose the lower and watched my grandmother make her elderly way up the ladder while Joe and I tucked safely underneath.
My father had promised I could play a slot machine in Florida and there, on the Miami boardwalk, I dropped a silver dollar in the slot, pulled the arm, and watched 12 more fall out to the tune of ringing bells and flashing lights. I ran down the boardwalk, trailed by the family, to the children’s store we had passed and traded my silver dollars for a bathing suit, pajamas, and a white suit that buttoned to yellow pants. Joe spent a week with me at the Pancoast Hotel in Miami Beach resplendent in his brown trunks with the white belt. I thought about my grandfather at two each afternoon and knew he was listening to the ballgame and thinking about Joe DiMaggio.
I was a grandmother myself when I read that Joltin Joe would be playing in a nearby celebrity golf tournament and went just to see him. Coming in on the 18th, there he was, 74 years old and slightly stooped, white-haired and lean in a pink shirt approaching the green. I couldn’t say a word but thought, “There’s Joe DiMaggio.” No one around me knew him. They were all young, but as he came off, old men drew around him. “Hiya, Joe, Good man, Joe.” They knew. It was all there: Miami Beach, my doll, and listening with my grandfather to the ballgame while we talked of Joe DiMaggio.