Bob Mayo walks up 167th Street like he owns it.
He’s been practicing The Walk.
He’s got it down: the beat cop’s unhurried, unworried progress through the neighborhood. Every leisurely step marks his territory, every sideward glance warns local wannabe hoods to keep their pompadored heads down. This little corner of the west Bronx is his.
The Walk is powered by a subtle but distinct hip roll as the weight of his fullback’s (high school) body shifts from one large shiny black shoe to the other. The police special sits low on his right hip, ruining the line of the long blue jacket. He doesn’t mind the bulge. It and the shiny new badge on his blue coat are the reasons the crowded sidewalk opens before him. This swagger is the result of hours of practice up and down the hall outside of apartment 32A on the sixth floor of his building, under the eyes of disapproving neighbors and wide-eyed kids. Mayo has dreamed of this day. Too young for the Second World War, at last he has a uniform and a gun.
And bad guys out there to vanquish.
This is the sidewalk meltdown summer of 1953, a month of 90+ degrees. Eisenhower is in the White House, far less happy and articulate as a president than he was as a general. (He’s discovered that giving orders is easier than giving news conferences.) It’s the Korean rehearsal for Indo China and Viet Nam. More locally, the continuing Yankee dynasty renews itself (DiMaggio hands over to Mantle).
Now, in his new policeman’s uniform swinging his shiny new policeman’s billy club, Mayo proceeds up 167th Street towards the Concourse, surveying his territory under the brim of his new policeman’s hat. Glancing from side to side he confidently flips club at the end of its the leather thong, an act of lazy intimidation expertly practiced by generations of New York cops on their beats. But Mayo’s club flips counter-clockwise, then bounces off his outstretched hand, revealing a rookie on his first patrol. He quickly reels the club back in his hand and looks around.
A couple of smirking 10- year-olds stand outside the candy store. Mayo’s hands suddenly feel sweaty. With each step west up the hill it gets hotter.
He tries the club twirl again but now his hands are too slippery and his confidence melted.
He passes the delicatessen with hot dogs wrinkling and potato knishes blackening on the grill in the window. Then the “appetizing” store with its carp swimming in the window tank, pickles bobbing up and down in brine in open barrels on the saw-dusted floor, the hills of nuts and dried fruit, yellowish smoked white fish beside the smoked salmon, the mountain of halvah on the counter. Mayo takes an apple from cart outside and bites. Then, from a distance, two New York voices getting louder and louder, passions heated by the weather. At the top of the hill two yellow taxis sit side-by-side at an endless red light, gunning their engines. The drivers honk their horns, wave their arms and shout at each other through the open windows. Across the Grand Concourse, a 6-lane thoroughfare designed after the Champs Elysée as the Bronx’s own epic parade route, a man with a child is hailing one of them. Or the other.
Mayo has reached the Kent Theater.
On its marquee the word “S H A N E”, in huge capital letters, circles around. One by one letters appear from around the corner, each letter a score or more of white bulbs, until the word is present, and then disappears. Following it, in smaller blue letters with ice tops: “It’s COOL inside”. Beneath the marquee is a ticket kiosk and behind the glass with its mouse hole opening at the bottom sits a hot, tired, unsmiling woman in a hot, tired red uniform. The Kent, unlike the Loews 167th Street across the Concourse and especially unlike the Loew’s Paradise near Fordham Road, is no movie palace, not the place to take a date. It‘s a place to see a double bill and the Movietone News for 35¢, sleep all afternoon or shout at the screen. It had seen better days a month after it opened.
The woman is imprisoned and not just by her kiosk. On either side stand life-size cut-outs of Alan Ladd and Jack Palance, two actors of the Forties shooting their way into the Fifties. They face each other feet spread, bodies hunched, hands beside their holsters. She is directly in their crossfire. The cardboard Ladd has something he does not in the flesh: height. Here he is as tall as the unsmiling Mr Palance, Hollywood’s baddest Bad Guy.
Mayo stops and considers. He moves slowly around and in front of Palance. Facing him, legs spread, he pulls his hat lower at the brim. His right hand moves to his side and pulls the side vents of his jacket to reveal his holster. The two gunmen glare at each other. A mother and child walk slowly past, turn their heads, then hurry off, the boy dragging behind, eyes wide. Mayo turns away and swings his club now expertly, grabbing it just as it arcs up and is about to fall. He taps the rim of his hat and nods smiling to the woman behind the glass and walks into the cool.
The air is full of screaming kids and the smell of 30 years of popcorn, including the fresh handfuls flying through it launched by the audience. Shouting at the screen, they stop only to heave handfuls in their mouths too. Ten years before Mayo was in one of those seats, throwing popcorn from the balcony. Back in the kiosk the woman thinks: cops, punks, put a uniform on them and they think they own the place.
The sound of the movie intoxicates him. He sees the action in his mind before he sees the screen. Slowly, he climbs the stairs towards the balcony. Victor Young’s music rises with him. He and the men on the big screen are moving to a climax. In his mind’s eye—-as on the screen—Shane, the homesteader’s friend and Palance as Jack Wilson, the hired gun, are about to settle things: Good v Evil.
Earlier, Shane, the good gunman, gives every kid the right to feel forever OK about guns.
Shane: A gun is a tool, Marian; no better or no worse than any other tool: an axe, a shovel or anything. A gun is as good or as bad as the man using it. Remember that.
Mayo pushes passed the curtain on to the balcony. He stands to the side of the packed rows of excited young voices, eyes, like everyone lese, fixed on the screen. He slowly spreads his feet and holds his arms out wide. His body takes on the crouch of the men on the screen. Mayo pulls his coat aside and unsnaps the safety catch of his holster. He puts his hand not on his gun but just hovering above the handle. He is in the movie. He is Shane. At the end of a row a boy turns his head from the screen and stares. The theater has gone quiet.
Shane: So you’re Jack Wilson.
Jack Wilson: What’s that mean to you, Shane?
Shane: I’ve heard about you.
Jack Wilson: What have you heard, Shane?
Shane: I’ve heard that you’re a low-down Yankee liar.
Jack Wilson: Prove it.
On the screen Wilson and Shane draw and fire.
On the balcony, Shane II also draws his revolver and fires at the screen. “Bang! Bang! Bang! he shouts at the top of his voice. And then, just after the action on the screen has gone silent, “Bang! Bang!” His voice fills the theater.
Every kid in the balcony is looking at him. Downstairs heads turn and look up. A dozing usher in the back row springs into life and shines her flashlight on him, picking out his silver badge. Mayo slowly replaces the gun. He rises from the crouch. The cop replaces the gunslinger. Freed from life on the big screen he slips behind the curtain and disappears.
He bounds down the steps, passes the kiosk and is up 167th Street. Turning left on the corner he walks quickly passed the news stand by the IND Subway entrance with Jewish Daily Forward, the Day, the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung and the Irish Times hanging above the cigar- smoking owner reading the Post. Only after the first art deco apartment building on the Concourse is behind him does he slow down. He glances back. No one. He turns and steps quickly down the steps and into the shadows of the narrow side alley which leads to the store room of the building. Standing by large cans of ash from the furnace he reaches into his breast pocket and takes out a half-smoked joint.
Minutes later he is back on the street, walking away from the sweet lingering smoke. Loosening his billy club on its leather thong, he begins to swing it, and proceeds, slowly, deliberately, down the Concourse, doing The Walk.
Public School 24 sits at the top of what would be the Palisades on the east side of the Hudson, if the high wooded hills on the east side of the Hudson were called Palisades. To us they were just the hills that went down to the river.
Riverdale begins at the southern end of those high hills, at the northern end of the toll bridge. For $4.00 (which was 10 cents in the 1950s, then 25 cents, then….etc) you cross high above a narrow body of water where the East River going west broadsides the Hudson River going south. The Dutch called this New York argument the Spuyten Duyvil—-spouting devil. The commute from Manhattan to the Bronx must have been somewhat more challenging though considerably less expensive before the bridge left the wind and unpredictable tides far below.
Here the uber urban Westside Highway turns into the bucolic Henry Hudson Parkway and promises Westchester, Putnam, and Dutchess counties. And, after it becomes the Taconic State Parkway a few miles north at the Hawthorn Circle, FDR’s Hyde Park and even Vermont come into the mind’s eye.
A mile or so south of the toll bridge Washington escaped the British after losing the battle of Long Island. He crossed the East River to Manhattan just ahead of the Redcoats, and made his way north up hill and down dale. This was before Governor Clinton flattened the place to impose New York’s grid system of streets and avenues. When the General reached the point where they would one day build a bridge between New York and the rest of America he was rowed across to New Jersey to live and fight again at White Plains. He left behind fist-shaking Brits and his good name, Washington Heights.
North of the Bridge, a few hundred years later, Louie Wexler played basketball shirtless in the schoolyard of P.S. 24 to show off his burgeoning teenage muscles. Joe Horn threw orange Spaldings at a velocity that made you cry real tears if it hit your arm playing stickball. And Steve Roth dealt 5 and 7-card-draw poker (5-10¢ bets) to all of us on Saturday nights at his parents’ house. This was, of course, before girls.
We are in Riverdale, the Bronx, which was very unlike the Bronx.
Those hills are only a block or two west of the Henry Hudson Parkway, away from the new red brick apartment buildings that line either side of the highway in an unapologetic display of architectural mediocrity—-with their faux English names (The Briarcliff, etc) and never used balconies. Now you are in green woodland that rolls down to the river. Cover the railroad tracks at the bottom with your hand and from the river it probably looks much as it did to Henry Hudson in 1609.
We are eight miles from Midtown and a million miles from Manhattan.
Substantial houses and estates of the rich and great, including Toscanini’s, gradually appear out of their leafy privacy. Arturo Toscanini, the conductor of the Metropolitan Opera (and the New York Philharmonic and the NBC Orchestra), was famous for enthusiastically accepting the orchestra’s gift of a gold watch on his birthday, then, minutes later, smashing it to pieces at the quality of their rehearsal. The emotional Maestro kept excellent time but couldn’t tell you it.
The New York Central tracks run along the river until they turn west to take the 20th Century Limited to Chicago. But that was in the 20th century. Remember Cary Grant and Eva Marie Saint in North By Northwest? That’s the train.
Of infinitely more importance: trains of far lesser renown stopped first at Harmon-on-the-Hudson where the electric engines were exchanged for steam. Then, passing West Point and Bear Mountain on the left, to Cold Spring, where we got off to spend halcyon summers in camp, summers that that came with their own fireworks as instant storms rolled in high above the river, wind rattling windows, lightning making the day into momentary day, while the old Dutch settlers played thunderous bowls high in Dutch heaven. Welcome to the Catskills.
Apart from being a switching yard, two other important things made Harmon special.
The Ice Cream man got on the train. And an engineer with a blue and white striped cap let you climb up onto the locomotive where he opened the fire box to so you could feel the heat burn your face, and allowed you to pull the cord and blow that lonesome whistle.
The thrill of being a whistle-blower in the Age of Steam.
When we weren’t playing basketball or stick ball in the schoolyard of PS 24, we were putting pennies on the tracks below just before and trains rushed by, flattening them.
Occasionally, training for a future Viet Nam, we would throw cherry bombs at the trains.
Newly built, P.S. 24 was for little kids, grades 1-6. The schoolyard had a playground for the smallest, sandbox and all, beyond the last basketball court where we played. There was a small green wooden building which housed equipment. It was also the headquarters of the park attendant or “parky”.
Our parky was Paul Goluboff. Tall and rail thin, he was not young, but not old like our parents. He seemed weathered, tempered by time, but undefined by it. He was not muscular, but he had sinew, physical and moral. There was something about him that made you think that, like Lincoln, you wouldn’t want to call him out or see him mad. In a stiff wind he might bend but never break. If you had any rails around, you felt for sure he’d know how to swing an axe and split them.
But mad was the last thing he ever seemed to get.
In his green New York City Parks Department uniform he rode his bike to and from the playground. I can’t imagine him in a car, much less owning won. He was always outdoors, as his face showed. He was a vegetarian, and brought his bagged lunch every day. He knew the birds and their calls. He grew plants you could eat and he did. He was a Buddhist, which was like a religion but wasn’t. I later came to think it meant being entirely at peace and comfortable with the world, who you are and what you do.
Being comfortable in your own skin is a cliché until you see someone who is.
He never tried to be one of us. I don’t remember him picking up a basketball except to retrieve the occasional one when it ran away down the hill. He never raised his voice. While we were in a hurry to grow up, he was never in a hurry about anything. He never admonished us for being too loud, too rough or too anything as we tried our damnedest every day to be bolder and older.
Maybe it was the river, but later it occurred to me he was like Pete Seeger, if Pete Seeger had chosen to spend his life in a faded olive green uniform working for the parks department and happy in his privacy.
Like Seeger, he was one of those totally human people we all wish we met more of, but never have; people who take comfort in limits. Because their ambition is less, not more. They find contentment in calm. They should have had him hauled before the House Un-American Activities Committee for that un-American attitude alone.
And if it ever turned out Paul Goluboff had sung with the Weavers, I wouldn’t be surprised.
So my sister dies after The Year of Cancer, the year in and out of Sloane-Kettering, that dreadful place.
The pod of doctors making the rounds daily, faces changing but all unsmiling and unrevealing. The chemo that worked, then didn’t. The radiation, the pain which they never managed to manage in spite of the meds taking her to other worlds. The flying visits from friends and relatives from Chicago, New Mexico, even from London with babies in tow.
Scan followed by scan followed by scan. The good news, the bad news, and then just the bad news.
Then the dark day of signing the DNR form, followed by the 24- hour care-givers (the good ones and The Nightmare) and finally the hospice nurses at home. Three, maybe four good weeks of Marcia being Marcia, back in her own apartment and her own bed and not exactly “pain free”. Witty, quick, funny, sardonic— she was once again my smart and endlessly hospitable New York sister. Entertaining and laughing with friends: the Elvis impersonator at her birthday, the trip out in a wheel chair to see her son’s new apartment (the last she would have alive). The joy of holding her young granddaughters she desperately wanted to see grow up.
“One day this cancer will kill you,” her seeming under-age oncologist had said months before. And on September 6th 2012 at 2:30AM, it did.
A few months after we all walked down Amsterdam to the grim confines of Riverside Memorial Chapel, where we watched her paintings scroll by on video while she lay in oak, with the Mogen-David like a celestial address label inscribed on the lid, my brother-in-law became my former brother-in-law.
He never told anyone, not even Max, his son. From December, he went off air. Not a word.
Then March 12th, an email.
He had met someone at Nice-Matin on 79th Street, just down from my sister’s apartment, and gotten “involved”. That was “a couple of months ago”. He was tired, he explained, of being miserable and why should he be? His silence, someone said, was because he was afraid the news would upset us or we would be angry.
A casual glance at his profile on Facebook revealed he was rather more than involved. He was married.
There was the name of his new wife. There was his big smile, showing the camera the new ring. The new wife? Also an upper west sider, just around the corner in fact, also a painter. He had found a replacement.
Later he told someone they “met” online in December, had their first date on New Year’s Eve, went to City Hall on January 31st and tied the knot. This was followed, he confided nonchalantly, by a “nice, celebratory lunch”. (Chicken? Steak? How was the salad?)
Who knows when he started looking? In the spring I remember a man at the end of his tether, desperate for a way out. On one monthly visit to New York to see her and support him he demanded I ’take over’. It had all become too much. But I’m not her husband, I protested. It’s your job.
He started spending more and more time in Princeton, separate to get back to his science and his job, leaving Marcia with 24-hour caregivers, until only the weekend was left for his wife and her inescapable trajectory.
There had been a lot of talk about him remaining a member of the family. It was her great wish. It was ours too. We thought it was also his. We made a great effort to keep in touch. He deserved our support. He had had a terrible year and initially had nursed her wonderfully. She had said so.
And anyway we liked him. There was no reason not to.
He wasn’t what you would call domesticated. He needed things doing for him. But he was boyish, charming, a free spirit, fun to be with, and as a scientist he opened up a different world to us. Most of all, he made Marcia happy. We were grateful he came into her life when he did.
So after the funeral we made plans.
Come to England for Christmas, we said, we’re renting a farmhouse in Suffolk with all the kids. You’ll be in Germany?
Come to London, we said in January. It will be crowded but fun. No answer.
In March: We’re coming to New York to see you. You’ll be in Paris? (“For a little R&R”.)
Then silence. And since then, silence.
So my sister died and then their life together also ended, in secretive, furtive dissembling: the gauchness of a not-so-grown-up man feeling guilty and only his own needs. Marcia’s memory and his putative family shoved aside.
Somehow we and she had become the enemy. The cancer and that terrible year were not something that happened to her, but something done to him. He was the victim. As such, he found other injuries. We had never accepted him into the family. She had not given him enough closet space in the apartment after they were married. Resentment and anger poured out in defensive emails, a boil lanced.
And if he had to have enemies. he had to forget kindnesses. The many visits, weddings as part of the family, the meals, the intangible support through that year. And the material support so he wouldn’t have to worry about money.
He took his revenge. Without telling her children he cleared the family apartment of 35 years of memories. Art books that had belonged to my father. Her paintings disappeared. Furniture was taken. Two sets of china, one from my parents, were delivered to the new wife’s country house, along with the refrigerator, ripped from the wall. Neighbors reported a string of people leaving the building with our family’s things, all price-tagged.
The new wife and her daughters oversaw the dispersal of my sister’s life.
We found her wedding ring at the back of a drawer.
Grief is not for someone who is “tired of being miserable” three months after his wife dies. Miserable is the hand you are dealt because your are alive and are a man and have loved. That love is the cause of grief, and if you can’t or won’t grieve, that’s an absence, or rejection, of love.
And maybe, for some people, the past doesn’t matter. It’s about “me” and “me” needed to move on, fast.
He always needed looking after. She said he’d soon find someone. Marcia predicted it. Perhaps not that soon.
At the beginning he had been good to her and for her. But at the end his boyish charm had become an unmanly embarrassment. He had legal rights but no moral compass. He did great emotional damage: to us and her dear friends, but most of all, weirdly, to her memory. Laid to rest, he disturbed her peace. None of us deserved the sneaking around, the subterfuge and self-pity. We all suffered in that terrible time.
But he should remember who died.
You want to know what tough is, try being born in one place, leaving all familiar things as a young man, and learning to survive and support yourself in an alien world. Then move to another place (and language) and learn how to support yourself again. And then move to another place and another language and not just learn the local ropes all over again but become a giant in your chosen profession.
You don’t need to see one of his 76 films to understand the genius of Billy Wilder.
Wilder was one of those mid-century mittel-Europeans who knew how to survive and succeed. They walked across Russia, they walked out of Auschwitz, they walked away from trouble and if it ever found them again they knew what to do.
Wilder tells the story: “If you ever wake up in a strange hotel room with a strange woman at your side and she is dead, call Sam Spiegel. He will know what to do.”
If you want to know how to survive, ask a survivor. If you want to know how to succeed, figure it out. The story could be the opening scene from a film noir, but in Wilder’s life and in Spiegel’s it is just a dramatization of the danger and uncertainty that lurked around every corner of it until they hit Hollywood. In a tight spot? Buddy, the Gestapo aren’t even on the train yet. The thing is, figure it out: be smart, resourceful and work like hell. In other words, be “creative”.
Immigrants have a great advantage over the rest of us. They are continually called on to reinvent themselves, to figure it out. While most of us have them given to us from birth, they have to write their own parts. That’s why they are often so good at it and do so well. That’s not a Mexican gardener in front of your house, that’s someone inventing himself.
He’s in good company.
Endre Friedmann left Budapest aged 16. He went to Berlin, danced in clubs with women who needed a companion, learned to use a camera, went to Paris, fell in love with Gerda Taro, took his Leica to the Spanish Civil War, went the the Second World War, jumped into bullet-slashed water in Normandy with the first allied troops, entered Paris with General LeClerc, partied with Hemingway, made love to Ingrid Bergman, founded Magnum with Cartier-Bresson, went to China, went to Russia with Steinbeck, went to Utah, worked in New York, became an American, went to IndoChina and before he died there, stepping on a land mine, Robert Capa reminded all photographers that if their pictures weren’t good enough they weren’t close enough.
Immigrants are the quintessential Americans. Or rather they have what we would like to think are American essentials. Risk-takers because they have nothing to lose, full of innovation and energy because that’s what’s in their bank, investors in the future because they have no past to return to. Entrepreneurs, they have the potential to reinvent themselves, and us.
And we are afraid of letting too many in.
Growing up in New York I lived in the orbit of the ILGWU.
The International Ladies Garment Workers Union was “The Union”.
Everyone called it simple that, reverting to “the ILGWU” only for the uninitiated from out of town.
The Union was the champion of the workers, the people who before the union had and not long ago had sat bent over sewing machines for 12 hours a day. It supported liberal causes long before the word became the right wing fear code for brown skin and the “welfare class”.
What my father and his generation understood by the word was simple: helping people rise: that those on the lowest rung of the ladder could move off and up, just as they had themselves. They believed in this not just because it was the right thing to do, but because the result was better for all of us.
It was, of course, a statement of belief in the idea that society was more than a collection of individuals and their rights. Being part of a group brought mutual responsibilities and mutual benefits.
It was still the land of opportunity. People still felt the tide of optimism after the war. So why not give everyone every opportunity to rise? The Union did it with better wages, safer work places, health clinics, education programs, and its own resort.
It’s hard to imagine now how large a shadow the garment industry cast in the city. There was, of course, “the garment district”. Through it ran “Fashion Avenue”. It employed thousands and generated many millions in revenues, wages and taxes. My father, on the periphery, represented a trade association of small “contractors, men whose “shops” did mostly “piece work” for the big manufacturers. The shops had anywhere from 25 to 100+ machines.
His job was to represent the contractors and negotiate contracts with the manufacturers and the Union.
The contractors would rarely make the whole garment. They would make sleeves or shoulders or buttonholes. My father, like many in the trade, could look at a garment and estimate its cost, the labor, the time it would take, etc. He worked closely with the Union and was a confident of many senior officials.
His affiliation with “the movement” stretched back, as many of theirs did, to the Jewish Labor Bund beginnings in Poland. As a young man he organized workers and made speeches in support of improving the lives of workers. In this country he worked for the Jewish Labor Committee, a Union-backed organization that rescued people from Nazi-occupied Europe and helped place war orphans.
In the 60’s it played a significant role in the Union’s campaign for Civil Rights.
One my father’s great friends was Louis Stulberg, who succeeded long-time ILG president David Dubinsky. Stulberg silently paid his rent after my mother, Ida Pearlstein, died and while he was out of work for the best part of a year, with two young children to support. It was something that was never mentioned.
Dubinsky, Sasha Zimmerman, George Rubin, Stulberg, Luigi Antonini were big personalities. Some of the Union people, the business agents who were responsible for organizing union shops, were just big. They had to be. Some manufacturers could be violently anti-union. They thought it cost them too much money and that they should be allowed to treat their workers as they chose. They hadn’t yet figured out how to export their jobs south to Georgia or east to Viet Nam and China, and take our tax base with them. In the periphery there was always organized crime: “the boys”. If you left them alone, my father counseled, they generally left you alone. If you “joined”, by borrowing money at loan-shark rates because you had nowhere else to go for capital, or to pay off debts, you were a member for life. Resignation was not in the by-laws.
The Union was as much a social welfare organization as a tool for collective bargaining.
When I was in high school I worked summers at Unity House, the leafy union resort for its members in the Poconos, just over the Pennsylvania border. If you were a union member you got two weeks sitting in Adirondack chairs or freezing in the spring-fed lake with the perch. In the evening, when you finally dragged yourself away from the second and third helpings at the table, you would be entertained by nightly concerts in the auditorium. The programs ran from Italian opera to popular music. One memorable rock-and-roll night featured Little Anthony and the Imperials, who closed their set with a falsetto-driven rendition of “Hava Nageela”. Think a Bar Mitzvah in Harlem.
I was a bus boy, then a waiter in the cavernous dining room. There was a huge Diego Rivera mural at the entrance, which no one took notice of until it, and the dining room, burnt down. There on the porch, ignoring Mr Rivera’s passionate dream of revolution, the guests lined up every night, dreaming of the Italian chef’s veal stew. At 7PM, like advance shock troops of the Appetite Army, the doors opened and they rushed in, not so much hungry for food as hungry to eat. The act of eating and eating a lot, of being able to eat a lot, of being seen to eat a lot, was some kind of sign of being OK.
The kitchen was divided into two parts, Jewish and Italian. The Jews would get gefilte fish. The Italians, eggplant parmesan. Everybody got roast beef. The kitchen practiced a seniority system. The veteran waiters got the first choice of rolls in the morning and the ends of the roast beef in the evening. All the guests wanted end pieces once someone at their table asked, and someone always asked. The competition in the kitchen was fierce for the well-done ends of roast beef. Unfortunately, a roast only had two ends. The eggplant parmesan was the best I have ever had, and I was not alone in that judgment. The waiters kept multiples in their station drawers to enjoy after work with a beer, until the stocky Italian chef, who wondered why there were never enough for the guests, found out. One evening after dinner he ran around the dining room opening drawers, waving his chef’s knife. Afterwards there were always enough eggplant parmesan to go around.
One of my fellow waiters was Jon Dolgen, son of Abe Dolgen. Abe was a Union official and friend of my father’s. Jon became Head of Paramount. When I saw his picture in the paper 40 years later it, was Abe. In 1963 we decided not to go to the March on Washington where Martin Luther King spoke from the steps of the Lincoln Memorial because we wanted to work the weekend for tips, play softball and perhaps get lucky with a waitress after dinner.
So much for our sense of history and commitment to social justice.
The following is from the archives of the Cornell School of Industrial and Labor Relations, where, by the way, my mother, Ida Alter, was one of the first women graduates as an adult student after the war. It’s probably more than any ordinary person needs to know about those pioneering people from the past. But what’s wrong with letting their names ring out over the silent decades, since they built and were “The Union”, which helped so many people rise?
The ILGWU was founded in New York City in 1900 by Jewish, Italian, and some Scots-Irish and Irish immigrants. The Union sought to unite the various crafts in its rapidly growing industry to increase their mutual strength. There was early resistance to the ILGWU from the garment manufacturers with whom they collectively bargained. There were also challenges to the Union’s domination of the trade by the Industrial Workers of the World and by Daniel DeLeon’s Socialist Trades and Labor Alliance.
By 1917, the ILGWU had defeated its rivals. Through a combination of militant and impassioned work stoppages lead by its more radical members and vigorous organizing and negotiation, the Union had also consolidated its power, greatly improved working conditions for its members and created the mechanism for arbitrating disputes and grievances under a labor-management agreement known as the Protocol of Peace. In 1919, the ILGWU became the first American union to negotiate an unemployment compensation fund that was contributed to by its employers.
The momentum of the previous two decades, however, was nearly lost to politically inspired intraunion warfare in the 1920’s. Under its newly elected President Morris Sigman, the Union’s General Executive Board disbanded left-wing groups within the Union in 1923, charging that they were communist cells. The radicals within the Union formed the Joint Action Committee to coordinate their battle with the parent Union. The issue came to a head in 1926 during a bitter and costly Cloakmaker’s strike. Mismanaged by the communist leadership in the local, the strike plunged the International eight hundred thousand dollars into debt. The chaos caused by the strike and the subsequent expulsion of communists from the Union left it greatly weakened. Sigman resigned in 1928 and was succeeded by Benjamin Schlesinger, who had previously lead the Union between 1914-1923. He remained as President until a fatal illness forced him to resign in 1932.
Despite the political turmoil during the 1920’s, the ILGWU pioneered in the establishment of an extremely progressive health care program for its members which included not only regional Union Health Centers but the establishment of a resort for union workers first located in Massachusetts, later in the Pocono Mountains of Pennsylvania, known as Unity House. The Union also had an imaginative and pioneering Education Department which not only trained workers in traditional union techniques, but provided courses in continuation education in such basic skills as citizenship and the English language. The ILGWU also offered its members a forum for their social activities—sponsoring such activities as sports teams and even a mandolin orchestra.
In 1932, David Dubinsky was elected President of the ILGWU. Dubinsky and the ILGWU (then 200,000 strong) were to play an important role in fostering industrial unionism in the United States by encouraging the formation of the Committee for Industrial Organization. The Union would be an important political force in New York City and State politics and in the Democratic Party and Liberal Party as well. Dubinsky and his union were also instrumental in the decade-long effort to bring the plight of European Jews suffering under Nazi persecution to the attention of the world through the efforts of the Jewish Labor Committee. The ILGWU leadership included a number of significant figures in labor history in addition to Dubinsky. Among these were former presidents Benjamin Schlesinger, Morris Sigman, Louis Stulberg, and Sol Chaikin. The names of many of the union’s other officials such as Luigi Antonini, Charles Zimmerman, Rose Pesotta, Frederick F. Umhey, Julius Hochman, Fannia M. Cohn, Isidore Nagler, Gus Tyler, and Leon Stein, are also well known to historians. In the period following the Second World War, the union suffered a decline in membership due to the movement of shops from the urban centers in the northeast to the south to avoid unionization and to take advantage of less expensive labor. The ethnic and racial character of the ILGWU also changed as European immigrants were supplanted by Asians, Latin Americans and immigrants from the Caribbean.
The Union’s African-American membership was also to greatly grow during this period. In recent years, despite vigorous efforts by union activists to limit such activities, garment manufacturers were to export their manufacturing abroad, taking advantage of cheap third world labor supplies and further cutting the membership base of the union.
In July 1995 the ILGWU merged with the Amalgamated Clothing and Textile Workers Union (ACTWU) at a joint convention, forming UNITE (Union of Needletrades, Industrial and Textile Employees). At the time the new union had a membership of about 250,000 in the United States, Canada, and Puerto Rico.
My father got to New York in 1939. He escaped Warsaw just ahead of the Nazis. He was 25 and had left his family behind. All perished.
He went to London. After a few weeks friends from the Jewish Labor Bund helped him get passage on the old Queen Mary, the one with 3 smokestacks. It was the last transatlantic voyage she would make before being turned into a troop carrier.
One evening, while waiting for the great ship to leave, he noticed he was being followed by a policeman. Seeing the uniform he walked a little faster. The policeman walked a little faster. My father walked a little faster. The policeman walked a little faster. Then a large hand landed on my father’s shoulder.
“Excuse me, sir, but you look lost. Can I help?”
Policemen who followed young Jewish socialist men down the dark streets of Warsaw or Lodz did not traditionally stop them to offer assistance. The copper who pointed the lost soul in the right direction, along with the Magna Carta and the English Common Law, established in our Chaim a lifelong respect for things British.
At that moment he became an Anglophile.
His Anglo enthusiasm included thick Shetland sweaters, venerable Scottish whisky, Charles Laughton, Aneurin Bevan, Hugh Gaitskill, Herbert Morrison (Chaim never discriminated between the left and right wings of the Labour Party), Edward Elgar, sausage rolls, Ewan McColl, the Rule of Law and the British democratic tradition.
He had considerable respect for the Royal Family, judging it the equal of Hollywood and the Roman Catholic church when it comes to putting on great spectacle.
Eventually, he headed up a trade association of small manufacturers in the garment business in New York, “contractors”: mostly Italian, Jewish, Chinese, Hispanic: and turned himself into some kind of American success.
It was called the Infants & Children’s Novelties Association. Later, probably because few people knew what a “novelty” was anymore, it changed its name to the Infants & Children’s Sportswear Association.
I didn’t know what a novelty was until someone said it was “snow suits and things like that”.
Snowsuits were one-piece Eskimo overalls for toddlers, with mittens attached to the cuffs by strings. The kids disappeared into the snow suits and the mittens disappeared in their thousands, despite the strings. Not losing them would have been a novelty.
I never discovered what other “things like that” referred to. “Sportswear” covered all sins, and novelties.
The men and one woman who made up the association were owners of small garment factories or “shops”. They were called “contractors” because they contracted to work for the big manufacturers who actually designed and branded the clothes and sold them to the Macys, Gimbels, Lord & Taylors and Saks Fifth Avenues. They did piece work, almost never the whole garment.
The big manufacturers were the knights of the industry. Men like Carl Rosen of Puritan cut elegant and imposing figures in finely tailored suits, a succession of film stars (or “starlets”) on their arms, and race horses in the country.
The contractors were usually short, pugnacious men who smoked cigars a few sizes too large and talked a few decibels too loud. They argued as a way of life, over anything, especially when negotiating the cost of button holes or pleats. Almost none had been to college but all had degrees in hard knocks, some advanced.
They were men making a go of it.
They knew failure as well as success. In the garment business disasters were numerous but rarely fatal. Like a hit record, one good season could propel you through several bad ones.
And like the Brooklyn Dodgers, they had faith in “next year”. No matter how many times you struck out, there was always another season, another time at bat.
They were known to each other by single names: Karasic, Russo, Liu, Saporta, Famiglia, Posner. I never heard anyone addressed as “Mister”. “Professor”, yes; “Doctor”, yes; even “Your Honor”, all terms of kidding, mocking affection.
First names were for wives or girlfriends—-or both. It was a long time before I discovered that Karasic was born Isadore and Saporta was also Hymie.
They were capitalists: moguls in miniature. But they had not yet acquired that disease of American success and affluence, that corroding sense of self-entitlement. They had a shared humanity. All had been chased from somewhere else, somewhere far worse. Never for a moment did they forget it.
They spoke English with foreign accents, rarely the same ones. Even the eastern European Jews, who were from all over the pale of settlement, didn’t sound the same. Now Americans and New Yorkers, they couldn’t believe their luck. But they took nothing for granted. They worked all hours and all angles.
And while they themselves would describe their industry as “dog-eat-dog”, they were considerate and generous in a way only people who have seen how bad the world can really be are generous. For them, the Second World War was yesterday, the Great Depression last week. They remembered both. New York was their salvation. It was also their diaspora.
Two principles: catastrophe was just around the corner. And someone was always worse off than you.
If a police officer was killed in the line duty a fund would be established for the family. The contractors would be the first to put their hands in their pockets.
Of course, if pulled over by a traffic cop for being less than respectful to a stop sign or doing 60mph in a 40mph zone, they would take out their wallets to show their license. But the first thing the cop would see would be a large, raised Police Benevolent Association logo on the wallet. Inside the license sleeve, which you might just happen to notice when the license was removed, were letters from the head of the PBA, the Mayor, their priests, rabbis—anyone with a title declaring what a good citizen and fine human being and upstanding citizen the holder was for supporting the police, the firemen, the sanitation workers, etc, etc.
They were tough cookies, fit enough to survive and even prosper in a tough game in the toughest town. But they were no fans of Hobbes and they weren’t Social Darwinists.
It was a tough world all right, but that was why you shouldn’t be a shit, especially a complete shit.
(And anyway when you were less than a generation away from the Old World, in southern Italy or eastern Poland or western China, where the opportunity for a person to advance, no matter what their energy and talent, was zero, this new world wasn’t THAT tough.)
They grew their businesses from a few sewing machines to 75 or a 100 or more and helped thousands of women operators, who spoke less English than they did, support families. Some contractors were only a few years off the boat, but already had bought their own houses, drove their own cars and made good lives for their families in Long Branch, Asbury Park, Syosset and Yonkers.
They were capitalists, but also citizens, lifting others along with themselves. They had, it seems almost awkward to say today, a sense of civic responsibility.
Nobody was rich. Who dreamed of rich? Rich was for people in the glossy magazines and Technicolor, movies starring Tab Hunter and Yvette Mimieux and a beach. Rich was an MGM fantasy, good for two air-conditioned hours on a hot Saturday night.
Going to Chinese restaurants, going to Florida, raising a family, having a kid go to college: that was rich.
They were grateful to my father and that gratitude made them dangerous. They could kill you, with food.
When Henry Caruso invited you to dinner at his house in the Jersey Highlands, course after course was carried from the kitchen by regimes of Caruso women.
Platters of pasta were followed by eggplant parmesan. Then roasted chickens. Then veal scaloppini. And when it was impossible to consider eating another thing, out came an enormous platter of pot roast and vegetables. Desserts made their appearance. Cakes, cannolis stuffed to bursting, biscotti in several flavors. You had to eat something of everything and say yes to more.
Looking down the table you’d see the Caruso clan piling it in, joyously, with gusto.
They weren’t eating because they were hungry, they were eating to eat, to celebrate, to show the world and themselves that the life they hungered for was here because they had made it, and it was good.
Finally out of the kitchen, for her curtain call, slipped the maestro of the meal, Mrs Caruso. Up to that point she had only been a head darting in and out of the dining room, a nervous mother hen checking on the appetite of her chicks.
The Chinese contractors held their gastronomic assaults in Chinatown.
Tony Liu’s dinners were in a small and undoubtedly family-owned restaurant off Mott Street.
They consisted of uncounted plates of beef, pork, duck, sweet and sour fish and several you probably wouldn’t want to know anyway dishes. Dinner always ended with Winter melon soup. Winter melon, it turns out, is not a melon but a rather large gourd, rude in shape to boot: long, fat, curved and hairy. But the soup was spectacular and in spite of being gorged, we all waited for it.
Leather pouches filled with marbles—or pearls for all I knew—-were going away gifts for the women.
Hospitality was not limited to the table. When my mother was in the hospital in the early 60’s for “a procedure”, her room could have been mistaken for the flower shop in the lobby. Then Hymie Saporta, a Sephardic Jew of large enthusiasms, large rings, large generosity and no inhibitions entered. He was nattily dressed in what he proudly announced to my mother was “a new $400 suit”, even though her interest in sartorial detail was at that moment at a low ebb. He carried a gift: in a mature forest it would have been a modest tree. In that hospital room it was a Redwood.
There were always tickets to be had for courtside seats to the Knicks at the old Madison Square Garden on 48th Street and 8th Avenue. Given the Knicks of that era—-Kenny Sears, Ray Felix, Willie Naulls and Richie Guerin-and others you haven’t heard of——those tickets weren’t always in such great demand. But World Series tickets to The Stadium were, and signed baseballs by the 1956 Yankees and tickets to the latest Broadway shows.
Today this may look like a little payola, but it was simply gratitude.
My father kept everyone going. He was the center of the the wheel.
He helped negotiate contracts between the contractors, the big manufacturers and the International Ladies Garment Workers Union. He knew all the key players and was trusted by all.
He was a fixer, and that was his ambition and pleasure.
He introduced A to B and B to C. A had a project and B had appropriate skills. C knew how to make it happen. Prices were negotiated, Hands were shaken. Sewing machines sewed. Prosperity ensued.
He was a professional Confident—-with senior union officers, with manufacturers, with contractors. People came to him for advice. They whispered in his ear. They came to our table with anxiety. The got coffee, babka and advice. They left feeling better.
They valued his judgment as well as his connections. He always had his members’ interests at heart. The contractors knew it and had confidence in him.
They knew he was more interested in bringing the the issue to a successful conclusion: in having influence instead of having money.
Being listened to, respected, being the hero of the moment and to the group, was his own measure of success. So their interests coincided.
A natural net-worker, he smoothed the way, keeping the shops working and profitable, the machines humming, the workers employed. He knew the individual strengths of each shop and matched it with the appropriate job. He untied knots and brought people together.
He found the common ground. Things worked.
One does well, all do well. That’s the way America worked.
Today, of course, that idea would be the real novelty.
Scottie was late. He was always late. Even today, when I was going to get a new mother.
I had special permission to be excused from PS 90 for the afternoon. We were going to my new mother’s family house at 2676 Hubbard Street, Brighton Beach, Brooklyn, where she had married my father earlier that day. My new aunts and uncles would be there too, including Silvia and Ruth (whose names from that day on would always be one word: silviandruth, or occasionally ruthandsilvia, as they wandered the world together, spinster aunts ready to fly to any destination with one small bag to fulfill their responsibilities at our birthday parties and graduations.) Uncle Fred, a gentle giant I thought, very calming: he seemed to instinctively know how to lay low and stay out of the family’s occasional arguments that blew up, suddenly, like tropical storms. I soon learned that Silvia’s preferred means of communication was the bellow, a shout with the bass turned up. But blue skies returned with equal suddenness. And of course at the center of all this mishbocha madness was Grandma Bessie.
Tiny in old age but forceful, using a fractured English (her favorite comedian was “Red Skeleton”) or, when provoked, an agitated Yiddish to direct and correct the family and break up the spats, of which there were many. She could forgive us children anything, and would ride to our rescue if she thought we were being harried by grown-ups. (“Leave them be, leaves them be,” she would say, usually in Yiddish.) If she suspected you were ill she would whip up a “guggle-muggle”, a warm elixir of raw eggs and unknown ingredients culled from old country knowledge no doubt. I held my nose and drank. Her table was always laden with good food and when she called you to eat, everybody came.
Waiting for Scottie, I thought little of this. Taking the D Train to Brighton Beach would take over an hour, so time out of school was slipping. Tall and slim, a great looking kid who became a forever-young man with a big smile and a shock of blond hair, Scottie spoke with a soft burr to credit his nickname. He was a charmer, a charming screw-up, and it was a life-long surprise to him to later discover he needed more than charm to get by. He got married, got married again (my father grumbled: again a wedding present?). Then he got married again. By then he wasn’t such a great looking kid, but a grown man who looked too much like a kid but too old to be one. A Scottish-American Jackie Coogan who was always late. He must have been 20 years older than I was but that’s to be expected when your mother or father is from a family with 18 or 21 children—-depending on who has been doing the counting. My father, who was the youngest and last to leave home, said 21; his older siblings long flown the Polish coop to Leeds, London, Glasgow, and the west Bronx, always said 18 or 17 or even fewer, but what did they know? Over the years and great distances people lose count or weren’t there to keep it. In the end it hardly mattered: Hitler made the numbers academic, for those who stayed anyway, and that was most of them. But in case you think it far-fetched remember, Benjamin Franklin was one of 18 siblings.
Once as an 18-year-old I went to Dublin to meet, for the first time, another first cousin. Eddie Miller was the son of my father’s oldest brother, Sanny, who started as a garment maker in Poland and finished as a horse player, pub regular and well-known story-teller in Dublin. A tailor, he took seamlessly to the Irish way of life. Eddie was born just as the Russo Japanese War threatened a visit from Cossacks looking for volunteers, so his father left, for Leeds, then Dublin. When we met he was middle-aged, older than me by almost 40 years, older than my father, his uncle. Also a tailor (“E. Miller, Bespoke Tailor, 2 Exchequer Street, Dublin”), he was a happy habitué of pubs, pub people and pub chat. This was when conversation was serious business in Ireland, in Dublin an Olympic sport every night at the local. Regulars came as much for conversation as for the Guinness or the Jameson’s, or even keeping warm. When I pushed open his shop door late on a darkening October evening and introduced myself, he stood for a moment to let it sink in. Then he flipped the “open” sign to “closed”, pulled down the blind and shut the door behind. Hurrying me out to meet, Kitty, his wife, he suddenly he stopped, studied me for a moment and enquired in all innocence: “Gerry, do you take a drink?” Later, having been introduced to two pubs and countless men, a few women, not a little whiskey and many dogs—-one of whom could open a pack of chips—-we fell into his flat and a bollocking from Kitty. Eddie lived a good life. He knew it. No money, but lots of friends. Dublin was his town. Unlike Kitty he had no lust for America, no need to acquire, no sense that worth would come from excess cash in his pocket. All this drove her crazy. She would have been America bound. When Eddie died in the Jewish Home of Ireland, having been put there by a stroke and certain over-eager relatives, he was 92. The home was run by young Catholic girls, country girls. They were much better Jews than most of the Jews they served. When we arranged for a birthday cake to be delivered to him they would not allow it to set foot in the door. They couldn’t be sure of the kosherness of its making. It never bothered Eddie. Nothing did, except the relentless disappearance of the intelligent married to the loquacious: his pals in the art of conversation, the storytellers and bon-mot-ists whose skills seemed heightened, not dulled, by drink. I wish I had Eddie’s self-contentment. I hope I have his genes.
Scottie, on the other hand, had the American bug: ambitions never to be satisfied. Stanley, as he began, grew up in Glasgow. His parents stopped there on the immigrant highway, Poland to the Bronx. Years later, after 4 children, all of whom had picked up Scottish accents and presumably learned to support Rangers or Celtic before they were ever aware off the Yankees, his parents eventually resumed their journey, arriving at 1820 Loring Place, off Tremont Ave. Scottie’s mother Rachel was my father’s oldest sister. Rachel must have been in her 50s but could have been 120. To me, she seemed ancient, ageless, whatever age witches are in the nightmares of 6-year-olds. She may have been kind but she didn’t feel it. She may have been acting heroically and with great goodness helping my father by taking us in and off his hands, but I had no appreciation. Her pastries, which she used to roll out in long rows on the dining room table and then roll backed having ladled on dried fruit, were the pastry equivalent of heavy artillery, Poland not Vienna. She seemed not just old, but the idea of old: she was short and wide, with underarms that sagged and swayed. And she was heavy-handed. She made lumpy porridge and made my sister and I eat it, even cold. What she wasn’t was my mother. My father parked us there while he tried to restart his life after my mother, Ida I, died at the end of a long breast cancer. He needed to find a job, go to work, pay the rent (which friends had been paying for a year), and find a mother for us who might also happen to be a wife for him. Rachel did her best as a stand-in, and we, selfish as only small children can be, remained eternally ungrateful. Meanwhile, what the new Ida took on at the not tender age of 39 after a life as a working woman and college (Cornell no less, the School of Industrial and Labor Relations) graduate, was impossible to conceive of: a ready-made but broken family. And a couple of seriously screwed-up kids who showed no mercy until long after the marriage, and far down the years when they realized how lucky they had been. Ida II was, as my sister finally nailed her, “a beautiful soul”. Scottie may have been late that day getting us to her wedding reception, but for 30 years after Ida was never late with anything important to do for us.
Heavy wooden seats exploded against the backs of chairs across the room. They punctuated the din of 30 eight-year-olds suddenly freed from artificial order to live joyously in the chaos of the moment. Somewhere a high-pitched voice, first stern and commanding, then cajoling, then imploring for, of all improbable things, silence. We knelt beneath our desks, arms pressing our heads down to our chests. A classroom rehearsing for an airline’s instructional video of what to do in the “unlikely event” of a crash landing? Not us. We were preparing not for the unlikely but for the inevitable, for the imminent even. This was destiny.
We were protecting ourselves not from the danger below, but from above. Moscow’s bombers were droning in our ears overhead. And if not today, they would certainly be tomorrow. It was scary. It was exciting. So we closed our eyes and hunched down to protect ourselves from the flash, and the shower of glass from the blast that would follow.
But that day, at least, fate intervened. Moscow must have had agents on the ground, maybe in the school yard. They discovered our drill, and realized we were invulnerable as we crouched, protected by our ink-stained, pocketknife-initialed and bubble-gum-bottomed desks in class 3C, PS90. In the end they never dropped The Bomb, the planes turned back. There was no Third World War that day. Hostilities were averted.
If we were protected during the day by old oak and layers of ancient shellac, the Russians might come at night. So night after night as the drone of approaching airplanes reached maximum decibels directly over Apt 32C, 1166 Grand Concourse, loaded with A bombs, bringing the blinding flash that would obliterate the Bronx and the world—- which I could see in my mind’s eye burning from frame edge to frame edge like old silver oxide film—-I fought back with a secret weapon. Lying in bed, chest tightened, breath held, face turning scarlet and eyes tightly closed, I visualized the flying phalanx of Tupolev TU—95s, aka “The Bear” (speed 550mph, range 7000+ miles), and made intense machine-gun-like sounds at the back of my throat, aiming at each plane’s four engines. Ack, ack, ack, ack! I started with the lead plane so the rest of the squadron would know they were under attack. Eventually, the psychic barrage began to have an effect. One by one the planes dipped their enormous wings, turned and headed for home.
But relief was temporary. Soon there was another small buzz on the eastern horizon coming from Long Island and the Atlantic. Then it was not so small, getting closer and closer and louder and louder. As always, they were coming straight for me, ignoring Idlewild and LaGuardia, Yankee Stadium and Lindy’s on 52nd Street. Once again I had to go into rapid defensive mode, under the covers, eyes shut tight, keeping focus: ack, ack, ack, ack! In that blackness I could see everything: the fleet of planes in the moon-lit blue-black sky, the empty, unsuspecting street below, almost white in the moonlight, my borough, my building, my bedroom. I was at the epicenter and had to remain vigilant until the light of dawn crept through the blinds.
I don’t know how many sleepless nights I personally saved New York from complete annihilation before getting up and going to school. Nobody does. I like it that way.
He was wild-eyed with ghostly white flesh, and, to my 8-year-old-eyes, ancient.
He had just enough flesh hanging over his bones as he ran by the candy store to seem like a skeleton in hot pursuit. In his white barber’s coat he was a horror comic cover with a surreal hospital theme: a post-mortem doctor chasing an unwilling corpse, scalpel at the ready.
I see him still: tall, gaunt and deadly earnest, long legs carrying him along much faster than they should have been able to: down Sheridan Avenue and up McClellan Street with an open barber’s razor held high in his right hand.
Seconds before we were his tormentors, dancing stupidly in front of his window. Now our faces were contorted with fear, eyes wide and and ears pulled back as if by the wind.
An exquisite terror urged us on. We ran for our lives.
Meanwhile, six blocks away, at 161st and River Ave, the Yankees would be winning, or Mickey or Yogi or Rizzuto would soon make sure they would be by the end of the 9th. All was normal in the west Bronx.
The barber, German, an immigrant—-surely a survivor of the war—-but on which side?—-had a small shop on a side street off the Grand Concourse. We’d tease him by dancing around the front of the shop, banging his window, one leg tensed for escape. He showed no reaction while he clipped and shaved his customer, until the moment our awful teasing and ignorant chants (“Heine”? “Kraut”? “Nazi”?) dredged up what-ever demons lay shallow in his skull. In one movement he was away from the chair, out of the door, razor high. We were gone, around the corner and up the hill to the Grand Concourse, laughing and screaming. Right on the Concourse towards 167th Street and the refuge of the alleyways that ran under the Art Deco apartment buildings standing side by side, welcoming sentinels of safety. We headed for their dark storage rooms and dusty furnace rooms and finally, at the back, concrete rear “gardens”. You wanted to get in amongst the rusty bikes and dusty baby carriages of grown-up babies, and disappear, hearts pumping, in the blackness. You did not want to get caught out back where there was only one way in and out, and the walls too high to climb.
Today the same buildings, with their tongue-in-groove flooring, spacious sunken living rooms and Deco multi-colored tiles, along with the 20-minute commute on the D Train to Columbus Circle, are waiting to welcome a new migration of young families seeking sanctuary from Manhattan, this time not from the terrible old ghetto-like lower-east side, but from the new uber-fashionable lower-east side where restaurants are good and rents are bad.
Unfortunately in both neighborhoods the sour pickles in huge wooden barrels are gone.
Besides playing hookey and going to Yankee Stadium (Bleachers, 50¢) this test of boyhood mettle and group sadism was the most exciting past-time in the neighborhood, a rite of passage and a truly dumb thing to do. How long could you wait before you ran? Who would wait the longest?
The Barber was a mystery. What nightmares exploded in his brain from a tragic or malevolent past? Was he a refugee from a concentration camp with faded purple numbers on his forearm, or one of its guards—-a Nazi who had been interned in America and after the war, and, as the 40’s dragged into the 50’s, simply let go.
Here amongst Bronx streets named for mostly useless Union generals, he found a little private war where for us every engagement ended with an egg cream, a long pretzel and an elevated heart rate.
From adrenalin rush to sugar rush, and the candy store: when you and your gang of desperadoes are 8-years old, what could be sweeter?