Enclosed please find a detailed account of a most unusual experience recently undergone by me, my brother and a friend of mine who lives upstairs in our apartment building…
Background: Broadway composer Mary Rodgers (daughter of composer Richard, mother of composer Adam Guettel) introduced readers to sophisticated, unapologetically slovenly, teen Annabel Andrews in 1972, in the classic Freaky Friday, in which the generation gap is bridged when Annabel swaps bodies with her mother for a day. Ten years later, Annabel’s younger brother Ben (“Ape Face”) would undergo the same transformation in Summer Switch, swapping bodies with his father, discovering that a 12 year boy makes a pretty good Hollywood executive.
But in between all of this body-swapping, Annabel, Ape Face and Annabel’s boyfriend Boris Harris had an entirely unrelated set of adventures on the mean streets of 1970s New York, this time involving a magical television set.
The Plot: The book opens with a letter from Annabel to the head of the parapsychology Department at Barron University, requesting that they review the enclosed “report” of ESP activity- she swears that this first-hand account is “the absolute verbatim truth” and all parties concerned “positively reek with credibility”.
Annabel’s report begins with the “basic facts” about herself, her younger brother, and upstairs neighbor and almost-boyfriend Boris (including reminding Freaky Friday readers about how Boris is actually named Morris), and how this whole crisis started when, after a romantic birthday celebration at The Bitter End, Boris presents Annabel with the unromantic gift of a pair of walkie-talkies.
Annabel is also distressed about the fact that despite living downstairs from the Harrises for her entire life, she has yet to meet Boris’s mother, a fabulously eccentric author to whom the buttoned-down Boris is allergic. Literally.
It soon comes to light that Sascha Harris is so fiscally irresponsible that the phone has been turned off for non-payment (hence the walkie-talkies) and the Harrises are in hock for tuition for Boris’s fancy private school, let alone the rent on their pad at the Majestic (in Summer Switch Ape Face complains about having to constantly correct people who assume that 115 CPW is the Dakota, having to explain that they live across the street at the Majestic). Annabel desperately wants to help her friend, but it is Ape Face who discovers a solution when he fixes up a broken TV set that Boris sold him for fifty cents and it miraculously starts broadcasting the next day’s programs.
Ape Face, who isn’t even allowed to watch TV in the first place, just wants to sneak in the afternoon Creature Features, and never does understand what he’s done, but Boris sees a chance to raise some cash by betting on horse racing.
Annabel tries to balance books, karmically speaking, by trying to prevent the constant muggings, rapes and murders she learns about in advance, but the future obstinately refuses to be changed: if it appears on “The Box” it is going to happen, one way or another.
New York of 1974 is populated with an assortment of colorful lowlifes- tabloid reporters, Weathermen, and OTB habitués. Rodgers also meticulously documents the dueling accents of the city, such as this scene in which Annabel fails to prevent a Bleeker Street warehouse fire:
“She trun a bomb inna winda,” said Dan Diction. All the guys were staring at me.
“I did not trun a…” I took a deep breath and began again, enunciating carefully and clearly, and pausing between each and every word.
“I did not throw a bomb in the window. I threw a beer can…”
“She trun a bomb!”
“She din’t trow no bomb. She trew a beer can. To tell you the trute,” he admitted, “she was trowin’ it back after I trew it at her.”
Annabel’s “ESP” arouses the suspicions of Daily News reporter Bartholomew Bacon, who becomes increasingly dependent upon Annabel for his scoops.
(In a joke that went way over my head as young reader, Annabel initially identifies herself to Bacon as “Marvin the Torch”)
Annabel becomes increasingly concerned with Boris’s increasing avarice, as his bets at the Port Authority Bus Terminal OTB start paying off. When Sascha abruptly takes off for the west coast, Boris grabs the chance to redecorate the apartment, buy his mother a new wardrobe and find her a psychiatrist. Annabel, still trying to do good, arranges to have the Harrises’ discarded clothes, furniture and appliances shipped to their housekeeper’s Granddaddy Clovis, who lives deep in the heart of the Florida Everglades.
Boris bets big on the Kentucky Derby, but his winning streak comes to an end when Annabel and Ape Face’s mother discovers that Ape Face has been watching contraband television programs and ships The Box off to Granddaddy Clovis with a load of old furniture.
Boris is initially furious, which rouses long-dormant sisterly feelings in Annabel:
Then he did something I would have never thought him capable of. Repeating, “Isn’t that what I told you never to do, isn’t it?” he shook Ape Face back and forth ‘til I though his teeth would fall out.
Next it was my turn to do something I never would have thought I’d be capable of. I hauled off and socked Boris in the chops- hard.
Finally, Ape Face said in tones of great awe, “Gee, Annabel, you’re as tough as John Wayne!”
“I had it coming to me,” said Boris, licking his swollen lip.
“And you sound like John Wayne,” said Ape Face.
At least Boris will be able to collect enough from his OTB bets to cover his mother’s debts, and so all is forgiven as he and Annabel settle in to enjoy Derby Day with a champagne toast. All’s well that ends well, right?
Unfortunately, Ape Face had been left in charge of monitoring the racing results, and he immediately switched over to the movie, missing the fact that the horse Boris bet on had been disqualified. Not only broke again, but now tens of thousands of dollars indebted to Saks Fifth Avenue, Boris half-heartedly attempts to jump out of a window. Annabel is in the midst of consoling him when Sascha arrives home, less concerned about the money and more concerned that Boris has thrown away all of their things and replaced them with mink coats and white naugahyde living room suites.
Mother and son have a long-coming blow up, which of course results in understanding and acceptance for all parties. Plus Sascha was in L.A. collecting a $50,000 payday on a screenplay anyway, so NBD.
Meta! Department: The book’s coda is in the form of a response from Barron University, in which the head of the Parapsychology Department expresses a very mercenary interest in locating Granddaddy Clovis and The Box.
However, he also suggests that Annabel send her fantastic tale to Ursula Nordstrom at Harper & Row. Nordstrom was, of course, the famed editor who brought us Harriet the Spy, Charlotte’s Web, the “Little House” series and… the work of Mary Rodgers.