Saved By Eloise

Saved By Eloise

When friends announced their newborn’s name, Eloise, memories of New York’s Plaza Hotel stiffened my spine. I’d erased all memories of the palatial turn-of-the-century landmark after Donald Trump bought her in the late 1980’s. I even dumped my co-memories of Eloise, an early literary heroine who lived in the Plaza without her parents.

In the early 1950’s, my mother took my sisters and me to live for a while in her childhood home in North Jersey. One day, we took a train to Penn Station, then a cab ride to the Plaza at Fifth Avenue and Central Park South. We drank coca-colas, went to the powder room and backtracked home.

The book Eloise was published in 1955, a few years after that memorable first trip to the Plaza. The protagonist is a precocious six-year old, though the book was written for adults. After its publication, my mother gossiped about author Kay Thompson as if she were the next-door neighbor. On the phone with each of her sisters, she’d giggle at Eloise cartoon antics. They all grew up in the shadow of New York, mocking spoiled high society children similar to Thompson’s Eloise.

Kay Thompson lived at the Plaza and wrote the idiosyncrasies of other residents into Eloise stories. Plaza kibitzers tittered about a wealthy widow who had her hair done cheaper in the men’s barber shop rather than the women’s salon. Thompson had Eloise get her haircut in the barbershop too. Eloise picks ribbons from the garbage in the service elevator, mimicking a reclusive countess who was known to pilfer through hotel trash bins. 

Talk of the Plaza Hotel wafted through my childhood. I imagined myself living in the Plaza with my dog and turtle, like Eloise, getting into all sorts of fiendish exploits. My charlatan father often stayed there, or pretended he stayed there. I overheard him arranging to meet other business contacts in the Palm Court or the “coffee shop in the lobby,” as he satirically called it. When I was a teenager I lived with my father for a time in Manhattan. The Plaza was in the vicinity of my walk home and I’d often stop to use the powder room or meet friends in the coffee shop.

Once when I was around nineteen, I came out of an alcoholic blackout at 3:00 a.m. on the powder room floor in the Plaza. I had no purse, no money and was far from my New Jersey home. The bellman allowed me to use a phone in a small back office. I called Bernadette, a high school friend in the Bronx whom I hadn’t contacted in four years. She knew the bellman.

“Ask him for money and take a cab to my place.”

When I arrived, she made up a bed on her couch, gave me homemade chocolate chip cookies and milk. I tried to tell her what happened.

“No explanation necessary. It’s the home of Eloise after all. Anything can happen.”

The Reunion by Regan Burke

In the locked ward of the Marlboro Psychiatric Hospital in Monmouth County, New Jersey, I was withdrawing from my demons – cheap wine, LSD, amphetamines and marijuana – when my long-absent father appeared before me. I was 24 years old. The last time I’d seen him, the week before I was to enter Monmouth College, I’d knocked on the door of his mid-town Manhattan apartment seeking money to pay my first year’s tuition. He was drunk, wrapped tight in a dirty blue bathrobe. He wrote me a check, then stopped payment before I could get to the Admissions Office in Long Branch, an hour down the Garden State Parkway.

Fresh out of a straight-jacket, I had no clothes or shoes of my own, having arrived at the public madhouse in an ambulance after a drug overdose. I wore a short-sleeved baggy muslin dress from the institutional collection designed and made by the permanent residents.

“You have a visitor,” the nurse said before escorting me from my cell-like room to the end of the hallway into a clean and airy space she called the Day Room. There were windows along the wall opposite the door, starting maybe six feet up from the floor and reaching the ceiling. For the first time I realized my confinement was subterranean.

My father turned toward me. His brown felt fedora, soft brimmed with a hand-creased crown, topped his elegant duds: white open-necked shirt, tweed sports jacket, gabardine trousers and cordovan wing-tips. A miasma of feelings engulfed me. I feared him. I missed him. I loved him. I hated him.

Why didn’t she say it was my father? I had no idea how to talk to him, or anyone else for that matter. My body shook and rattled as I searched for some kind of appropriate words. I knew only hippy language.

“Hey, man. Far out. You’re here. I’m a little strung out.”

He told me his story of recovery from alcoholism. He loved the effect from his first teenage beer. After that, once he picked up the first drink he binged until he was forced to stop. He had been in and out of jail for getting in fights, drunken driving and cashing bad checks. He couldn’t hold a job. In the end, he holed up in the New York apartment drinking quarts of scotch round the clock until an old friend knocked on his door.

“Had enough, Burke?”

After years of trying on his own, these bewitching words got him to open the door and allow a few men from Alcoholics Anonymous to enter his life. The obsession to drink lifted. “A miracle,” he called it.

He told me about an AA meeting at the hospital. He didn’t suggest I go, didn’t offer to take me, didn’t tell whoever was charged with moving me around my current existence. He just laid the words down. And then he left. He never removed his hat.

About 25 years into my own recovery — admitting defeat, examining resentments, practicing forgiveness, making amends and consciously increasing a spiritual life — that reunion with my father came back to me. I now know supernatural love and courage drove him to bestow his abundant legacy, the gift of sobriety.

Suffering the Consequences

Suffering the Consequences

In late summer 1962, I ran away from home; away from my mother, away from my three sisters, and away from our year-round Jersey Shore beach house. My mother had left my father a few years before, after we were evicted from a mid-century-modern in the Chicago suburbs.

I loved moving close to the Atlantic Ocean but not even the beloved beach down the block could keep me from escaping from my mother’s uncontrollable, screeching, violent rampages. I fled to my father, two hours away in Manhattan. He’d moved there to be close to us and to try, once again, to stay sober. My mother suspended her hatred long enough to allow a few visits between us, but when he moved into a new girlfriend’s suite in the Delmonico Hotel on Park Avenue, my mother cut off all communication with him.

When I arrived, he checked me into my own hotel room, across the hall from his and the girlfriend’s suite. I enrolled in the sophomore class at Marymount Fifth Avenue Catholic girls school, where I became fast friends with another girl who lived in a hotel—her father managed the Waldorf-Astoria. I was no stranger to hotel living. My family had lived in the Meridian Hotel in Indianapolis for a year when my parents were drinking round-the-clock and couldn’t pull it together to find a family home. At 8-years-old, I had learned to run a tab for grilled cheese sandwiches and Coca-Colas in the hotel coffee shop. I relied on the doorman to report my whereabouts to my parents when I went out to play, since they weren’t always available to ask permission. I loved that part.

In early December at the Delmonico, I woke to a fiery, closed throat and vice-gripping headache. I went by ambulance to the emergency room of New York Presbyterian Hospital and was diagnosed with mononucleosis, hepatitis and migraine. The doctor explained that mononucleosis is called the kissing disease because it’s transmitted by mouth. Oh shit. Shame ran in my veins alongside the debilitating virus. I was afraid everyone would find out I was kissing a lot of boys and having sex.

Treatment included nausea-producing morphine injections and steroids. To heal my inflamed liver I lay flat on my back for 30 days— through Christmas and New Year’s. Classmates from Marymount brought homework; friends from the Jersey Shore sneaked in beer; my Boston boyfriend came with a stuffed Wiley Coyote; a case of Reese’s Peanut Butter Cups showed up from my cousin,Therese. My mother never visited nor called.

Central-Park-New-York-city-NY-6While I was in  the hospital my father rented a furnished 3-bedroom apartment
overlooking the Wollman Skating Rink in Central Park. Prolonged bedrest in the new home led to my recovery. The compulsory homework necessary for me to move on to my junior year slipped from my hands and onto the floor as I slept off my diseases. I returned to school after four months and failed that year with a final average grade of a humiliating 34.