A Cape Cod Notebook 8/7/07

listenBill Lazuras

By Robert Finch

It's noon on the pond. The wind has died, the air has grown hazy, and the surface of the water is opaque and opalescent like a silken cloth spread in the sun. There's only one other boat on the pond today. Over against the wooded eastern shore, I see Bill Lazarus's small outboard. It's painted sky- blue, the blue of the old Cape Cod wagons, and Bill is sitting in its stern, trolling among the rocks as he has for over forty years.

I've been out fishing with Bill several times. He taught me how to net minnows and to find the bass holes. He knows this pond through long, affectionate intimacy, and the decades of summers spent out on its shining waters have left their mark on his softly-folded, blotched, and sun-freckled face. He remembers when the hills surrounding the pond were as bare as the Yorkshire moors. He has aged with it, and his once-rich voice now vacillates between deep tones and soft, breathy squeaks. But his eyes are dark brown, kind, and clear.

Now eighty-nine and a retired New York banker, Bill Lazarus grew up in the notorious Hell's Kitchen section of the Lower West Side. As a young boy he sold newspapers at Sixth Avenue and Thirty-Fourth Street, "a corner," as he put it, "I had to defend with my life."

He describes himself as "a three-time high school dropout," but he managed to take some Spanish courses at City College. Once he was arrested and spent a night in jail for shooting craps in front of the Algonquin Hotel. His mother refused to bail him out. His uncle thought it would be good for him. But his Spanish teacher came to see him in his cell, and told him, "Now William, this doesn't mean a thing. You're doing well in your lessons - be back in class Monday morning."

At the age of sixteen he shipped out to Havana.

"Why Havana?" I asked him.

"It was the closest place to New York they spoke Spanish then," he explained. On the day he arrived he got a position as a bank teller for twenty-five dollars a month - the beginning of a sixty-three year career in international finance. During his long career he's traveled all over the world, wintering in Havana until 1959 and subsequently in Florida. But every spring for the past forty years he and his wife Frieda have returned to the shores of this pond, to their small house tucked among the pines on its eastern bluff. Fishing is his excuse for being on the pond, as "observation" is mine. Sometimes he likes to put me in the position of an "authority," though his knowledge of this pond is far deeper than mine. Now, as we pass one another in our small boats, he waves in greeting, points at the gulls on the water, and hails me in that half-resonant voice: "Say, what do you call those black-backed gulls?" "Right!" I shout back, laughing, and for a moment he is the old Adam, naming the birds.

Broadcast August 7, 2007