Verbs: Part 6—Voice

Voice is that characteristic of a verb that permits the speaker to specify, and the listener to understand, the relationship among the action described by the verb, the agent causing or initiating the action, and the recipient of the action.

There are in English two voices: active and passive. Using a bare-bones active voice construction, the usual order of words is agent–action–recipient, or in grammatical terms, subject–predicate–direct object. In the corresponding passive voice construction the order is recipient–action–agent.

Active voice. Let’s look at a very simple active voice sentence that contains all three—and only those three—elements: an action, an agent, and a recipient.

Julian enjoys movies.

In this sentence, the action word—the verb—is enjoys; the agent (the doer) is the proper noun Julian; and the recipient of the action is the plural common noun movies. In a sentence diagram, we can illustrate this with the most basic of diagrams, which portrays the subject (the agent), predicate (the verb), and direct object (the recipient) on a single horizontal line, separated by vertical lines of different lengths.

 

Passive voice. The equivalent passive voice construction places the recipient (now the subject) and verb (now lacking a direct object) on the horizontal, and puts the agent (now the object of a prepositional phrase) in a subordinate position:

Movies are enjoyed by Julian.

And here is its sentence diagram:

 

What’s the difference? As you can see, this version is semantically, but not syntactically, equivalent to the active voice version—it preserves the meaning but not the grammar of the original sentence. Specifically, where the first sentence uses a simple present tense form of the verb to enjoy, the second one has to use the more convoluted passive construction, which in this case is [present tense of the verb to be + past participle of the verb to enjoy]. Furthermore, the passive construction pushes the agent (Julian) to the end of the sentence, introduced by a preposition (by) that indicates that he is the agent. Not trivially, three words have become five.

The syntactic differences between active and passive constructions are not the only differences; we will discuss other differences later in this article.

Forming the Passive Voice

The passive is formed in English not by inflecting (i.e., conjugating) the root verb, but by using auxiliary verbs. Specifically, as we have seen in the sample sentence above, the present indicative passive of the verb enjoy is formed by joining the present indicative active of the verb to be, in the appropriate person and number, to the past participle (the third principal part) of the verb enjoy.

I enjoy movies becomes Movies are enjoyed by me.

We like food becomes Food is liked by us.

Politicians sometimes tell lies becomes Lies are sometimes told by politicians.

Passive verbs across the tenses. There are active and corresponding passive verb forms for most, but not all, verbs across their many tenses. Here are examples.

As you can see, some verb tenses, most notably the perfect progressive tenses, really can’t be made passive. You can also see that many of the possible passive constructions sound odd—stilted and awkward—to the ear. For this and other reasons, most writing manuals urge careful writers and speakers to avoid passive constructions where active ones will be more effective. Typically, the active voice is not only more concise than the passive, but it is punchier, more direct, more forceful too.

Note also that commands (i.e., verbs in the imperative mood) do not do well in the passive voice. Pick up those papers simply works better than Those papers are to be picked up. And Sheriff Matt Dillon would have been met with naught but derision if he had snarled, The sky is to be reached for, Bart.

Similarly, the passive voice drains the power out of questions. Is that man bothering you? is better than Are you being bothered by that man? and Can I help you? is much better than Can you be helped by me?

Using the Passive Voice

Writing manuals and teachers so often and so forcefully inveigh against the passive voice that many people believe that there is something wrong with it. Well, there is nothing grammatically wrong with the passive voice per se, but it has certain undesirable characteristics that justify the cautions of writing manuals. In moving from active to passive constructions, we introduce  not only the obvious formal differences in the sentence (use of an auxiliary verb, inversion of the verb, slowing the pace and flow of the sentence, shifting of the agent and the recipient in the sentence, increasing the level of difficulty of the sentence), but other, subtler differences as well.

For the careful writer or speaker, the most important distinction lies in the differing effectiveness of statements in the two voices. The active voice supports sentences that are pointed, direct, and concise. The passive voice supports sentences that are indirect, vague, or even evasive. This mainly explains the counsel in books on effective writing to avoid as much as possible the passive voice.

Habitats of the passive voice. Some types of writing seems to thrive on passive constructions. Bureaucratic prose, for example, is rife with passives, as in the following actual examples:

Your signature should be placed in the box to the left of the date box, the form should be dated, and the completed form should be placed in a stamped envelope and mailed to the following address.

Employees are advised that their desks should be locked overnight, and in cases where sensitive documents are kept in the desk, during any absence from the desk of more than a few seconds. Such documents, if unattended, can be glanced at and even removed for copying if they are not secured. This will not be tolerated.

Police and legal writers also use the passive voice. In many cases, this is an intentional (or instinctual) bias toward an avoidance of clear assignment of responsibility. If a police report states,

According to witness testimony, the alleged perpetrator was initially approached by the alleged victim, hostile words were exchanged, leading to blows, and the ensuing altercation was actively engaged in by both parties.

the probable intent—or at least the pretext—is to avoid assigning responsibility for the altercation clearly to either the accused or the alleged victim.

Another sphere in which we find many passive constructions is scientific and academic writing. In this case, the culture of academia provides decades of precedent for avoiding the clear pattern of agent–action–recipient in all forms of research reporting. This seems to stem from a professional shibboleth against inserting the actual agent, the researcher, into the narrative of an experiment or a study. This shibboleth of course goes hand-in-hand with the prejudice against the first-person pronoun in research reports.

Here is an example from a journal article. I have underlined the passive constructions and made the active constructions bold. As you can see, the passives have it, 7–4.

A group of 1st-graders who were administered a battery of reading tasks in a previous study were followed up as 11th graders. Ten years later, they were administered measures of exposure to print, reading comprehension, vocabulary, and general knowledge. First-grade reading ability was a strong predictor of all of the 11th-grade outcomes and remained so even when measures of cognitive ability were partialed out. First-grade reading ability (as well as 3rd- and 5th-grade ability) was reliably linked to exposure to print, as assessed in the 11th grade, even after 11th-grade reading comprehension ability was partialed out, indicating that the rapid acquisition of reading ability might well help develop the lifetime habit of reading, irrespective of the ultimate level of reading comprehension ability that the individual attains. Finally, individual differences in exposure to print were found to predict differences in the growth in reading comprehension ability throughout the elementary grades and thereafter. (From Cunningham, A.E., & Stanovich, K.E. (1997). Early reading acquisition and its relation to reading experience and ability 10 years later. Developmental Psychology, 33, 934-945.)

In sum, the passive voice is not by any means incorrect, but at its most benign it lengthens sentences without adding anything new. Moving along the scale from benign to malignant, the passive voice can lead to genuine awkwardness of expression. And moving further toward malignancy, the passive can subtract something of importance from the sentence: the agent. If the agent is suppressed, the passive voice can be a way to dodge responsibility.

Secret Agents

This agent-suppressing ability is the most probable cause for the frequent use of passive constructions by politicians. Let me take just one notorious example, the sentence Mistakes were made.

“Mistakes were made.” Believe it or not, this agent-free passive sentence has had a very long run in political discourse. The first instance cited in a list of “notable political usages” of the phrase that appears in a Wikipedia article of the same name (at http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Mistakes_were_made)  goes back to the presidency of Ulysses S. Grant. Enjoy this sampling:

  • “Mistakes have been made, as we can all see and I admit it.” (President U.S. Grant, 1876, reporting to Congress)
  • “We would all have to say that mistakes were made in terms of comments [critical of the Washington Post].” (Ron Ziegler, President Nixon’s press secretary, 1973)
  • “And certainly it was not wrong to try to secure freedom for our citizens held in barbaric captivity. But we did not achieve what we wished, and serious mistakes were made in trying to do so.” (President Ronald Reagan, State of the Union Address, 1987)
  • Acknowledging that it was ill-advised to involve both a senior banking regulator and the Democratic Party’s senior fundraiser in White House discussions with the banking community about banking policy, President Clinton said “Mistakes were made here by people who either did it deliberately or inadvertently.” (1997)
  • The king of all users of the phrase is probably Senator John McCain, who had a lot to say during the George Bush administration about the Iraq War. Speaking with reporter Tim Russert, McCain once said, “I think that one of the many mistakes that have been made is to inflate the expectations of the American people beginning three years ago that this was going to be some kind of day at the beach” [which, by the way, had been McCain’s own position earlier]. Then, speaking of President Bush, McCain went on to say, “he admitted that errors have been made.” When Russert tried to pinpoint an agent for all these mistakes, asking, “Isn’t that the president’s failure?” McCain replied, “Well, I—all of the responsibility lies in everybody in positions of responsibility. Serious mistakes are made in every war. Serious mistakes were made in this one, but I really believe that there is progress being made [Wow! Another one!], that we can be guardedly optimistic.” (2005)
  • U.S. General David Richards used the phrase to lay to rest the souls of about 70 Afghan civilians killed in an air strike: “In the night in the fog of war, mistakes were made.” (2006).
  • Attorney General Alberto Gonzales admitted that the firing of eight U.S. Attorneys during the George Bush administration for apparently political reasons had been a bad idea with “I acknowledge that mistakes were made.” (2007)
  • The Internal Revenue Service, apologizing for apparently targeting political action groups for audits before the 2012 presidential election, commented “Mistakes were made initially, but they were in no way due to any political or partisan rationale” [a statement that appears to have been vindicated by subsequent investigations] (IRS, 2013)

These statements all admit the existence of mistakes, but they seem to pin the blame for them on nothing at all—perhaps a change in the wind or a giddy whim of fate. The use of the passive voice makes it easy to avoid taking personal responsibility, and for this reason careful writers (and I mean stylistically careful, not legalistically careful) should weigh the use of the passive very judiciously against the almost always more straightforward active voice.

In my next blog post, I plan to write a little bit about the grammar of the United States Constitution.

Sisters—Part Three

[This is the conclusion of a story about my sisters, Justine and Veronica, in the 1950s and early 1960s.]

Upon graduation in 1958, Justine was not expected—make that not allowed—to go to college. Girls in those days and of our class and ethnicity (both the Irish and Italian sides) were not destined for college. They were genetically programmed to get a job right out of high school and work at it until they met their future husband. After the nuptials, they would quit work to take care of household duties and bear children.

Justine did not appreciate this genetic blueprint and made her feelings known. I sat through many essentially one-sided debates on the college issue.

Justine argued something like this:

“I want to go to college and I have a right to go. Dad went to college, why not me? I’m good enough in school that I can get a scholarship. Then I can find a way to pay my other expenses. I’ll pick a college in the city so I can live at home to save money. When I graduate I can get a better job and earn more money with a college degree than with a high school diploma. And I can certainly meet better boys in college than in the neighborhood.”

With this she rested her case. The prosecuting attorney rose in rebuttal.

“College isn’t for girls. While you’re living under my roof, you don’t have a right to do anything that I don’t say you can do.”

My mother was the prosecuting attorney, by the way. Aunt Lucy, Aunt Margie, Aunt Kathryn, and probably every other woman my mother knew except Eleanor Roosevelt (whom she didn’t really know all that well) would have been happy to serve as expert witnesses.

Case closed. Justine’s future was determined.

###

Justine had no choice but to seek employment right out of high school, except for a short detour to pick up the additional equipment that would make her employable. Aunt Margie suggested a good secretarial school in the area where Justine could pick up skills comparable to those that Roni had already acquired through the curriculum at her commercial high school.

Defeated, Justine did as told, spending a summer learning to type and take shorthand and then gaining employment at a company in Manhattan named Agrico, which dealt in farm equipment and supplies.

She earned decent money but continued to live at home. This meant that she had to turn over her entire paycheck to our mom and live on an allowance. This was ungodly galling, and Justine thought that she might circumvent the policy by using tactics similar to those employed by my dad. On payday, he was sure to make a stop at Ryan’s Bar before coming home; this was his way of getting at least one good evening’s use of his own money. Justine was no drinker, but she did like clothes; her Ryan’s was Macy’s. This led to the incident of the pretty white blouse.

Fed up with my mother’s parsimony, Justine decided after nearly a year of feudal serfdom to seize some of her money for herself. One day she stopped at Macy’s on the way home and bought a plain but pretty white blouse—a fashion update—to wear to work.

My mother sniffed out the Macy’s bag instantly and confronted Justine.

“What’s that in the bag?”

“What? Oh, nothing. Just something I picked up for work.”

“Let’s see it.”

“No. No, mom. It’s just a little something. It will be good for my work.”

“Show me.”

“Look, you can see inside. It’s just a blouse. For work. Just a pretty white blouse.”

“You don’t need that. You have plenty of blouses.”

“Yes, but this one’s pretty. You know, for work.”

“Who are you trying to impress? Is it that Mr. McKee? Why do you need a fancy blouse?”

“It’s not fancy. It’s just pretty. And what has Mr. McKee got to do with anything?”

“That’s what I want to know. Take it out of the bag and let me see it.”

“Here. Here it is. See? It’s just a pretty little blouse. It’s white. For work.”

“How much did you pay for it? Give it to me.”

“No. You don’t have any right to take it. It’s mine. I bought it with my own money.”

“You don’t have any money. The money you earn is my money for supporting you in this house. Now give me the blouse and the receipt.”

“No. No, please, mom. It didn’t cost much. And it’s just for work, not to go dancing or anything.”

“So you go dancing with Mr. McKee? He’s married you know. You shouldn’t encourage him.”

“Oh mom. It’s not like that. He just likes me. He’s nice. We don’t go dancing or anything. He just likes to talk to me. And anyway, the blouse is just for me. For work. I paid for it.”

“Give me the bag. With the receipt.”

At this point, my mother grabbed the Macy’s bag. Justine held on tight until she had to give it up. My mother took the blouse out of the bag and held it up for inspection. She looked at the price tag.

“Fifteen dollars? You spent fifteen dollars on a blouse? I could have bought a week’s groceries on that. I’m going to return this blouse as soon as I can get downtown.”

Justine’s face showed fear and, to be sure, loathing. She lunged for the blouse and got a fistful of it. The two of them tussled for possession like the two mothers in Solomon’s court. There was a ripping sound.

My mother reacted first. “There. Now you’ve torn it. How am I supposed to return it now? I’ll have to put it away.”

She took the damaged blouse, bundled it up inside its bag, and stuffed it into the lower drawer of the sideboard in the dining room, with the spare tablecloths and napkins.

Horrified, Justine broke down as thoroughly and miserably as I ever saw her do. I pitied her. I stood silently at the foot of the dining room table, seeing my mother in a new light.

A scene from the long past came to me—the pencil case incident. But now I realized that my mother had switched sides. Instead of being my sister’s fearless protector she had become just another Sister Felicia Jerome. I felt ashamed and sorry for Justine.

Roni had a similar reaction, but I saw that her pity was alloyed with a malevolent force field clearly directed at my mom. I thought of this moment later when I noticed that Roni managed to use her own money to buy a record player, for which she encountered no fallout. That was Roni: She just did things and dared anyone to question her. I got the idea that mom would never tear any of Roni’s clothes in half.

The blouse remained in the sideboard drawer. For all I know, it is there still.

Justine continued to work for Mr. McKee until she met a local boy at the St. Mark’s Tuesday night dances. They hit it off right away and within a couple of years they married and Justine moved as far away as she could.

Sisters—Part Two

[This is the second of three parts of a story about my sisters, Justine and Veronica, in the 1950s and early 1960s.]

To me, Roni was the closer of my sisters—closer in age and availability. Justine, six years older, was more distant, more involved in her own stuff, and too mature to be much of a companion. Roni was different. She played with me and fought with me and talked with me often. Consequently, I liked her better. On the other side of the coin, she was the sister I kicked down the stairs.

Much later, in the two-year period between Justine’s wedding and her own, 20-year-old Roni and 16-year-old I became even closer. We went to the movies and the beach together, and I accompanied her to the classroom part of her driver training course a subway ride away. Sometimes we listened to the little blue and white Decca record player she had brought home one day after work, in flagrant violation of house rules against spending her salary on anything at all not approved by my mother. I guess one day she just snapped, having become unbearably frustrated after looking one time too many at the non-functioning turntable in the massive, vintage 1930 radio-phonograph console in the living room, which my parents knew would never work again but refused to replace, insisting they would someday get it fixed.

Roni was also very cool—and utterly noncompetitive—about her standing relative to Justine’s at school. Justine was something of a legend in St. Mark’s elementary school. She was highly intelligent and the nuns knew it and gossiped about it. She set some kind of IQ standard. When it came my turn to work my way through the Catholic school system, one of my early teachers crystallized the challenge I faced: “Oh, you’re Justine Murphy’s brother. She was a very good student.” The clear implication was that if I tried I could maybe be a respectable second best.

This mattered to me. Roni had probably heard the same thing, but for some reason having to do with gender or birth order, I guess, it never affected her. She was content to find her own way, make her own friends, and toil at the level of accomplishment with which she was comfortable. This was a good level, but not the highest level. Justine was all high 90s, Roni was typically low 90s.

In the early grades, I didn’t know from 90s, but unlike Roni I wanted to be as respected as Justine. I formed the intention of accomplishing that task, but it was initially hard to tell if I was succeeding. In the early years of schooling under the nuns of St. Mark’s, there was no perceptible, formal system of measurement by which to differentiate gradations of intelligence. There were no numerical or letter grades in first or second grade, just animal stamps, holy cards, and check marks. The teachers in those grades were probably covertly frustrated with and peeved by early signs of developmental lag in some of their charges, but they resolutely showed nothing in grades one and two to distinguish between the smart kids and the dumb kids. Virtually the sole divider that I noticed pertained to urination: Kids who peed in the classroom were held in noticeably lower esteem than those who did not.

I did not. But then, of course, neither had Justine or Roni.

###

Justine was smart, as the nuns observed, but fragile. She was painfully shy, to the point that she could barely look another person in the eye. She was also sensitive to the sun, with the result that she was constantly squinting, which brought a worried, wrinkled look to her face. She was in no way the comparatively outgoing, social type that Roni was, and consequently had few tight friends. And most notably, she was no good under pressure.

Take the nun I will call Sister Felicia Jerome, Justine’s fifth grade teacher. Sister Felicia Jerome had a reputation, well deserved, of being strict and demanding—not so much in academics (Justine’s strength) as in neatness and orderliness. In particular, Sister Felicia Jerome resented the law of gravity: She hated it when kids dropped things. She made it a policy that any dropped articles, including pencils and paper, would be confiscated, to be returned, if she wished, after class.

This of course was a virtual mandate to Justine to drop things. She lost pencils, pens, erasers, notebooks, bobby pins (Sister Felicia Jerome could hear them drop halfway across a crowded schoolyard), sheets of paper, rulers, what have you. Every day Justine would come home bereft of some essential article of learning and my mother would have to replace it.

The pencil case was the last straw. Every kid was required to have a pencil case. You could have a Lone Ranger pencil case, a Betty and Veronica pencil case, a plain pencil case—as long as you had a pencil case. The pencil case held, naturally, pencils, but also pens, erasers, compasses, protractors, and a rash of other accoutrements of fine schooling. One day Justine dropped her case and Sister Felicia Jerome took it from her. Justine went home that day in tears.

My mother had a strong reaction. She could replace the odd pencil or pen, especially since my dad could easily purloin writing implements and paper through his job at the New York City Board of Education, but a pencil case held a king’s ransom of expensive items. It was costly itself, and compasses and protractors were also pricey. The thought of replacing a fully loaded pencil case lit my mother’s fuse.

With me in tow (I was too young to leave behind and Justine too distraught to babysit), she marched straight to the school and managed to find Sister Felicia Jerome at her desk, probably brushing up on torture techniques of the Middle Ages. My mother parked me in the hallway outside the classroom door and stormed Sister Felicia Jerome’s desk. Mom was steely-eyed, righteous, and more dominant of voice than even a nun. I listened as she absolutely cowed Sister Felicia Jerome.

I of course had no intention of missing the visuals, and so I moved from the hallway to the doorway. The good nun made futile attempts to argue her case but my mother rode roughshod over her protests. All discussion ended as mom demanded to know where the pencil case could be found (a closet in the corner of the room); then she retrieved it and departed without another word. She left Sister Felicia Jerome dumbstruck.

I would like to say she also left her contrite and made a new nun of her, but I have no evidence for either claim. All I know is that Justine was involved in no more incidents of brutality. And by the time I got to fifth grade, Sister Felicia Jerome was no longer at St. Mark’s, having probably been reassigned to Quantico to train marines.

###

Justine’s shyness was a social barrier but she was in no way a misfit. She was mostly a typical American girl of the 1950s: She was aware of and responded to fads, followed the stars in fan magazines, enjoyed American Bandstand and other popular TV shows, tried to style her hair in a Hollywood way with newly invented Toni home permanent kits (bad idea), did her best to hide her acne, and even attended the Tuesday night dances in the St. Mark’s auditorium—in other words she wasn’t just withdrawn and hyper-bright.

Justine had friends but they were not the alpha girls. She admired many boys but they pretty much ignored her. Her dances and romances on Tuesday nights were virtual, never actual. She was not sexually advanced; that was for the Italian girls. She didn’t know how to flirt.

Roni knew how to flirt. She attracted boys through her good looks, outgoing personality, and sense of humor. Her school grades weren’t threatening and she was easy to talk to. The result was that Roni had an easier time than Justine in the lab experiment that is grades six through eight. This doesn’t mean that she had what you would call boyfriends in grade school or did anything as socially avant garde as go steady, but she was at least in the mix.

As for disciplinary matters, Roni glided through grade school without attracting any particular Sisterly attention. She had no pencil case incidents, no detentions, but also no scholarly or good conduct awards. Of all the Irish girls in her class, she probably earned the fewest holy cards for pious or devotional acts. She attended mass on Sundays and, with the rest of the school, on First Fridays. She didn’t talk too much or too loudly at those events.

She attended the Tuesday night dances, and actually danced with some of the boys. There were no blots on her report cards, but no stars either. And when it came time to graduate in 1956, she followed the predestined route allotted to girls of her apparent qualities—the one that led to the commercial high school, St. Joseph’s, rather than the academic high school, St. Brendan’s, that Justine attended.

Compared to Roni, Justine also accepted a great deal more fatherly attention during the early years of high school. After dinner, my father would sit with Justine at the dining room table that served as the homework zone for all of us. He had an astounding memory. Justine was forced to struggle with French (evidently a more academic language than the Spanish that was Roni’s lot in her commercial school) and my dad remembered far more than I would have guessed. I particularly remember him helping Justine through a laborious translation, bit by bit on successive nights throughout the school year, of Blanche Neige (Snow White). I was amazed as I sat doing my third grade math at two things: that my dad was fluent in French and that French people had Snow White too.

He not only did French homework with her but also, if I am remembering it right, Latin, algebra, English, social studies, and everything else but P.E. I was impressed, but when my time came six years later to take the same subjects, I let it be known that I preferred to do my homework by myself. My dad was disappointed but I had a statement to make.

The other service he rendered her (and later me) was to adjust his workday so that he could take her to high school. She was the nervous type, admittedly, but it seemed excessive even to the young me that he did this two years straight, considering that St. Brendan’s was one express stop away on the subway and he took her not just to the station but all the way to the school door. When my time came, he took me to the school door for two days; for the rest of my freshman year (and never later) he went only as far as Times Square, where our paths diverged. I don’t remember if he decided to do it this way or if I made the choice, but I suspect it was the latter.

Justine’s high school career was uneventful. She did quite well at St. Brendan’s and had several close friends. She joined the French Club and dreamed of going to Montreal or even France with her classmates, but never did. Her consolation was a class trip to Washington, D.C., in senior year, which excited her as much as Paris would have done. She was bright enough to enjoy learning and to crave more when she finished high school.

This was not to be.

[To be concluded]

Sisters—Part One

I retain in the spacious shame department of my long-term memory the image of my sister Roni’s rear end growing steadily smaller as she slides and stumbles headfirst down the basement stairs. Roni’s dive was no accident: I pushed her. I should mention that I was probably five at this time, and Roni nine.

It all started with the Pepsi bottles.

My mother, who had virtually despotic control of the household finances, kept everyone in the family, my father included, on a tight, nonnegotiable budget. One line item was Pepsi Cola. My two older sisters and I loved Pepsi, and my mother would accommodate our craving by purchasing one six-pack for the three of us. The rule was that she would not replace the six-pack until six empty bottles had been returned to the cardboard carrier, which was kept on the first step of the stairs leading to the basement.

The mathematically correct ration was of course two bottles each; our young morality made this apportionment as inviolable as the water distribution system on a lifeboat. The minute the sixth bottle hit the carton, and not a second before, we could petition my mother for another six-pack.

It was well established that I liked Pepsi most among the three Murphy children and, developmentally, had the least self-control. My sisters knew this. At the time of the stairway incident, they were also old enough to have considerably more freedom than I. They could, for example, leave the house unaccompanied to walk to and from school. This meant that they could, at least theoretically, obtain a soft drink from a local soda fountain. There was just such an establishment on the corner of 18th Street and Avenue Z, which is to say one block from our house and less than that from the schoolyard. Therefore, were they so inclined and so flush with cash as to put a nickel together (or even half a nickel, if they were willing to share with another girl), they could procure a perfectly satisfactory carbonated beverage without having to invade their home ration.

For this reason or some other, it was frequently the case that there remained in the cardboard bottle carrier one untouched bottle after I had polished off my two Pepsis. I suspected Justine of engineering this situation intentionally because it resembled a tactic she often used when we all had ice cream cones. She would slowly, slowly lick her scoop of ice cream while Roni and I applied a vigorous tongue to ours or even, in my case, bit off fairly large chunks. The result was that Justine was still working on her cone long after we had finished ours. With great kindness, she would moan and sigh with pleasure as she ran her tongue over her cone, somehow managing to scrape it so fine as to diminish the total surface depth one micron at a time.

So, as I say, if there was to be a Pepsi laggard in the house, nine times out of ten it would be Justine. This time it was Roni.

She held steady at one Pepsi for the better part of a week. I would check every morning and a few times during the day, and I would invariably find five down and one to go. Finally, I resorted to a tactic that was not in the code of the Pepsi bottles: I asked her if she was ever going to finish her last bottle and, if not, could I maybe have it.

Instead of saying either yes or no, she surprised me. “Oh, do I still have a bottle left? Let’s go count them.” We went to the top of the basement stairs, and she knelt and bent over—way over—to achieve a physical, hands-on count of the bottles: “One, two, three, four, five empties, and one full one still to go. I had no idea,” she said. “I’ll just have to enjoy that last one in a couple of days. Sorry, Eddie.”

I was old enough to process irony. I snapped. Without conscious intent, my knee moved forward squarely to meet her bottom and then simply continued moving. So did Roni. She went down those stairs soundlessly, as far as I can recall, and reached the bottom with great speed. That’s when she started crying.

I ran straight out the front door. I am ashamed to say that I didn’t even pause to run downstairs and check her condition; I suppose I could claim that her crying reassured me that she had suffered nothing fatal and made it unnecessary to examine her further, but that would be a lie. I didn’t think of that or anything that had Roni at its center; I thought only of me.

I had never done anything of this magnitude before. I knew I would be in trouble, but I didn’t know how much. I didn’t run away; I merely nailed myself to a cross and hung around on the sidewalk in front of the house.

After some time my sister Justine came out and delivered the preliminary verdict: “Mom says you should just stay out here and wait until Dad comes home.” She wouldn’t even answer me when I asked if Roni was all right. All she did was give me a look such as his jury probably later gave Ted Bundy after convicting him of multiple murders in 1980. “Just stay here,” was all she would give me.

When my unwitting father finally arrived, I greeted him shyly and with evident guilt, but I wasn’t clever enough to put my side of the story on the record first. In truth, there was no my side of the story. I let him go into the house without saying why I was outside. Several minutes later he came out and told me in an eerily flat voice, “You’re in serious trouble. Roni will get better, but I had to call the police.” Just then a siren sounded a couple of blocks away.

Of course he hadn’t called the police, but I was convinced he had. It turned out that Roni was shaken up but perfectly fine (well, maybe a slight scrape or two) and my Brooklyn-savvy dad had played the odds about the siren, winning by coincidence. When the siren died down without spilling a team of armed officers onto 19th Street, I began to catch on. My father forced a stern look onto his face and told me to go inside, apologize to Roni, and put myself to bed.

I was relieved, having spent the time outside the house in a fantasy land of punishment, prohibitions, and lost futures. Dread of pain occupied a significant portion of my mind, but the worst of my torments was embarrassment. I thought about all the people on the block who didn’t consider me a ruffian. I pictured the people at mass who admired my hymn singing. I thought about how I would enter school in just a few months with a bad reputation, never have friends, grow up lonely. I begged God for another chance. I think I even offered to give up Pepsi for the rest of my life if only, if only.

Years later, when I became a father, I recalled this incident and the way my parents handled it. The flagellation I self-administered while stewing on the sidewalk, greeting passersby and trying to look normal while convinced that a lurid GUILTY sign hovered over my head like a tarnished halo, was far harsher than any punishment my parents could have doled out. It seems impossible, but no one can nail you to a cross better than you can.

And it worked. I never kicked anyone down a staircase again.

###

If you are the youngest of three children and you are a boy, it is arguable whether having two older sisters or two older brothers is the more advantageous position (we will ignore the case of having a mixed pair). The common wisdom is that having older brothers is better, at least in Darwinian terms, because it makes you tougher, more competitive, more fit. The thinking is that you will be improving yourself as you strive to keep up with your brothers in sports and physical games and have to defend yourself when the games drift toward physical or psychic abuse. With older sisters, there is usually no sense of endangerment, and hence no forced muscular or psychic development; instead, the suspicion is that you will be coddled, treated perhaps as a little dress-up doll—sissified.

On the whole, I think it was good that I had older sisters. I don’t remember being coddled, and I am certain there weren’t any dress-up situations. It may have been a developmental disadvantage that my sisters were stereotypically feminine when it came to physical activities, because I am and always have been completely hopeless at sports, but both of them were clever and appreciated intelligence, offering a fertile environment for my style of humor and my verbal predilections. Another advantage of older sisters is that I never had to wear hand-me-downs. I also got my own room.

My sisters pretty much went their way and I went mine. They were close to each other, sharing a room at home, while I had my own small room adjacent to theirs and directly above the kitchen. My room was near enough that I could hear them talking as I drifted off to sleep, and their companionship in the dark hours seemed sometimes enviable, but I was mostly happy to have my own little enclave where I could think my thoughts and hum my hums without interruption.

My sisters were just fine as siblings go, although I always—always—felt different from them in ways other than the obvious. For one thing, they didn’t seem to like leaving the house, preferring to remain indoors on weekends in their pajamas and bathrobes well into the afternoon, while I couldn’t wait to jump into my dungarees, as we called them then, and slam the door behind me.

For another thing, they never hung out with the neighborhood kids, while I was an enthusiastic member of a group of boys and girls from the block who spent summers on the street running, playing red-light-green-light, roller skating, flirting through a game called “Truth, Dare, Consequence, Promise, or Repeat,” and engaging in long bouts of a New York game called Ringolevio—which was a bit like tag, but subtler and more complex. (Ringolevio is to tag as chess is to checkers.) To this day my personality and even my appearance remain quite distinct from my sisters’ (who in both respects resemble my father), and I have long harbored a secret suspicion that there might have been a milkman in my mother’s life.

My sisters were four and six years older than I, and thus a bit out of range for playing and companionship purposes, which may have helped to nurture my more solitary side when I was at home. As soon as my Uncle Marty and his family moved out of our basement in 1952, I moved in. My parents made the basement a kind of large storage area for all sorts of things, including my toys, comic books, and baseball cards. When I wasn’t outside playing with my friends, I was in the basement reading, imagining, shooting, making marble runs, counting my play money, and daydreaming.

[To be continued]