The Hôtel de la Mer, was similar in some respects to the hotels that had been popular in the Catskill mountains during the mid-twentieth century. Those hotels were in what was known as the Borscht Belt. Jewish families, like my own, escaped the heat of the city for a week or two there and entertainments were provided: stand-up comedians like Milton Berle and Henny Youngman and others performed there as were, occasionally, plays on their way to Broadway. From all of these I was naturally excluded and left to stay alone in our room because of my young age.
As I have described in detail previously, the Hôtel had several areas, as a cruise ship might, each with its own dining room, theater, and gambling casino. Guests from one area were prohibited entry into another, for reasons I did not yet understand.
On more than one occasion, I found myself in one of the opulent theaters, entering the stage from the wings. At center stage was a long, beige corduroy couch upon which sat one or two other actors, each unknown to me, with their legs expectantly crossed. I had neither a conception of the plot nor the name of the play and absolutely no idea of what lines I was expected to recite.
I stood there in that moment, aware of my inability to play my assigned part, though I had a sincere desire to do so, and the confidence that I could, if only I had attended the rehearsals and had learned the lines of the character I was playing, none of which had been the case.
The blankness of my mind at that moment, the knowledge that the other actors relied upon me, and that the audience paid good money to see this play and expected to be enlightened or at least entertained by it, weighed heavily upon me and I was at a loss to know what to do or what to say. I knew this was my fault and that I would be cut no slack and would have to walk off the stage and suffer whatever derision or consequences would follow.
And then, as was often the case at the Hôtel, I found myself in an empty corridor with neither a key nor any recollection of how I got there or my room number, and moreover, no expectation that anyone would come to my rescue.
This feeling was not an anomaly. From an early age I had the feeling, more, an absolute belief that there was a set of rules and definitions, a set of common understandings that were not only what I was expected to know but which were immutable. Unchangeable. Fungible only by some higher, wiser, authority, to which people in general were not privy and which were modified only when the authority decided that a rule or definition, or even, say, the number of letters in the alphabet, a speed limit, or what constituted a planet, might decree that change.
I had no comprehension of the source of that belief, and given that I was then an adult I felt quite at sea with the notion that I seemed powerless to determine my own actions and interact responsibly in uncomfortable situations, let alone keeping myself out of them in the first place.
And then, as chance would have it, one evening I found myself in the Hôtel’s well-curated library, standing before the tall bookcases that lined each of the four walls of the dimly lit room, every inch of which held books bound in the most exquisite leather in muted colors of deep green and crimson. And, as expected, each was printed in the original French. It was there that I first encountered the writings of Simone de Beauvoir.
I was so struck that evening, in reading her Ethics of Ambiguity, that I deigned not to sit down in any one of the several comfortable chairs placed around the room, standing, reading page after page, oblivious to the passage of time, until I had read the entire book.
On one page, I recall, another reader had underlined in light pencil a passage in which Beauvoir had written that, and I repeat her words here as best I can recall them, “as children we live in a world of ready-made values and established authorities. A world where obedience is demanded and we believe that the foundations of the world are secure and that our place in the world is naturally given and unchangeable.” Moreover, at one point she wrote that the words of wisdom we receive from our parents and other adults are expressed as if they were the juice squeezed fresh from a piece of ripe fruit.
Later in the book, Beauvoir explains that adolescence is the end of this idyllic era and that it initiates a time of moral decision-making. Through it we enter into the world of adults and, as adults we are called upon to reject the mysticism of childhood and to take responsibility for our freedom, our choices, and our actions.
I saw then, perhaps for the very first time, as I stood there in the duskiness of the hotel library, as if jolted awake from a satisfying slumber by Beauvoir’s writing of her own lived experience, that I, and here I pause in saying this for obvious reasons, that I had never accepted the transition from childhood into true adulthood, and that all the while in my experiences in the Hôtel, my sense of bafflement and helplessness, were mired in an agonizingly long period of quasi adolescence and that I might someday, through my own will, find my way out of the Hôtel and the absurdity of my time there.