…Under the Clock at the Biltmore

At an age when it’s hard even to remember the name of someone I met ten minutes ago, random memories have a way of jumping into my head for no reason whatsoever.  Today is Thanksgiving morning, 2015, and I’m supposed to be writing a review of the beautiful movie Brooklyn for this week’s deadline.  Instead, a memory popped into my head with all the sights, sounds, and emotions of when it happened in 1947, and I can’t shake it.

As a sixteen-year-old freshman at Vassar, taking the train from Poughkeepsie to New York, with a transfer from Grand Central to Penn Station for a train home to Red Bank for Christmas vacation was still intimidating.  Truth?  It was the first time I had done it.  My classmates – most of them two years older – were old hands at that game.  They dressed confidently in print dresses, high heels, a little veil, and dress gloves and took off for this Christmas to their families just as they did on weekends to go to football games at Yale, Harvard, and Princeton.

On my morning stop at my mail slot, a letter from Dickie Hurd, my best friend through all of childhood.  He would be in New York that day.  Would I meet him under the clock at the Biltmore and take the train back to Red Bank with him?  Even now, an involuntary intake of breath came as I wrote that sentence.  In a world without television or air travel or telephone conversations, “under the clock at the Biltmore” had become the apex of post-war glamour.

Girls who met “under the clock” were tall and beautiful, experienced, sophisticated, and in love.  In my young mind, they swept into that lobby to meet their tall, handsome dates.  I was thoroughly scared when I accepted Dickie’s invitation to meet him under the fabled clock.  Neither of us qualified.

As I made my way into the lobby from Grand Central next door, I was literally cold with apprehension.  I met none of the requirements for being in this symbolic place and had a deep fear that someone would expel me because I had no right to be there.  My clothes were not sophisticated but I hoped my pageboy hair that I rolled up every night on cotton socks would get me through.  The biggest disqualifier:  Dickie and I weren’t in love.  We were pals.  He was still a senior at St. Paul’s.  Would someone know all this and expel me with a lecture about this violation of the glamour of the circumstance?

We met, surrounded by young men and women who belonged there, all engaged in the small talk of the era.  They seemed so comfortable.  No one came up to tell us we didn’t belong.  We crossed town to Penn Station in a cab and the ride cost ten cents.  We took the next train home to Red Bank and somehow two childhood friends had survived meeting under the clock at the Biltmore.

And when, in this era of instant communication and informality, you laugh at the shallowness of that ordeal, just imagine what it must have been if sixty-eight years later the very thought of it caused me to turn cold.