Probably the most dramatic event of my childhood occurred the first
winter we lived across from the armory. It had snowed and the streets were wonderfully
icy. Since we lived on a hill, we kids took turns hunching down on our heels and having
someone push from behind. Id push my friend Reese Patterson, then hed push me.
With a good start you could slide about fifteen feet.
On one push, however, I lost my balance. My forehead, just above my
left eyebrow, stopped my movement by way of one of the iron bars on the armory window.
Reese was scared to death and walked me across the street and up the one floor to our
apartment, 2C. Mother answered the door and immediately called father when she saw the
flow of blood down my cheek. I was dutifully marched into the bathroom where Dad reached
into the medicine cabinet for some cotton and peroxide. When he dabbed away the blood, he
exposed a white line, which was my skull after all, a kids skin is pretty
tight. My mother standing behind me fainted dead away.
Dad told me to stay there and hold the cotton on my wound while he
carried Mom to bed. Then he called Dr. Friedman, who showed up in almost no time. I sat on
my fathers lap on a chair at the kitchen table while the good doctor intoned that
Id need about three stitches. Dad said hed give me a nickel if I didnt
Money has never meant very much to me, but a nickel was a nickel! You
could buy five pieces of penny candy or an extra bag of popcorn at the Saturday afternoon
movie. I may have made a few grunted "hmms," but I earned the nickel.
Up the street and around the corner on Broadway was the Uptown theater, a
neighborhood movie house that was filled completely by kids at Saturday matinees. Each
Saturday my mother gave me fifteen cents. Then I and my best friend Reese, also with his
fifteen cents, would head for the Uptown. If we went in before one oclock, admission
was ten cents; after that, it was fifteen cents. We always got in just before one and that
left a nickel for popcorn.
We would see two features, news, a cartoon, and there was a break at
about three in the afternoon between the first and second features. The theater manager
would come on stage in his tuxedo while two ushers pushed a large wheeled table loaded
with toys and games. Another usher pushed a round cage out from the opposite wing.
Theyd roll the cage on its axis a few times; then the manager would unlatch a door
in the middle and swing it open on its hinges. A young member of the audience (who had
been chosen at random to come on stage) would pick out a torn ticket stub. Wed all
examine our stub halves as the number was read and if your number was called, you ran up
on stage and were handed a prize. This went on until the table was bare, then, on with the
movie. I won my fair share of prizes, such as a bow and arrows with rubber suction cups on
The Uptown on Saturday evening about seven oclock is where my
father could always find me and take me home to dinner. I have a feeling that a lot of
fathers ran into each other in that lobby toward mealtime on Saturdays. My Dad got so he
could walk into the dark theater and just about sniff me out. But I got to see the movie
about two and a half times.
After seeing Tarzan the Ape Man with Johnny Weissmuller and
watching Rin Tin Tin, the smartest German shepherd in the world, I decided what I was
going to do when I grew up.
I began elementary school the year we moved to 169th Street. That year
I watched construction begin on the George Washington Bridge linking Manhattan with New
Jersey, which eliminated the ferry service. I read recently that ferry service is about to
be re-installed to relieve the traffic congestion on the bridge. Im not quite sure
if thats progress or serendipity.
Grandma and Grandpa then lived in a ground floor apartment on my old
street, 172nd. One of their great joys, and mine, was the weekends. Saturday mornings I
would ride the subway with my father to the hat factory, where I could play all morning. I
was spoiled there by everyone: Johnny de Gaetano (a trimmer who later became factory
foreman), Mary (who worked right next to him and soon became his wife), and all the other
employees, mostly Italian and Eastern European Jews who kidded around with me and showed
me how the hats were made.
Every few Saturdays before noon, Dad would drop me off at
Grandpas fur factory, about a mile away. Id always have fifteen minutes or so
to examine the factory while Grandpas employees shut down their machines for the
Saturday afternoon and Sunday weekend. The first thing Grandpa would ask, as he locked the
factory door behind us, was, "Where should we have lunch?" He always knew that
Id choose the cart a few streets from his factory, where the man stood under an
umbrella at the curb and sold hot dogs with mustard and sauerkraut for a nickel, and gave
a free glass of lemonade with each dog.
After lunch, wed stroll hand-in-hand to the nearest movie house
where we could always be sure of seeing a great cowboy picture with Hoot Gibson or Tom Mix
or Harry Carey or any of the other great Western stars. It was always a double bill: two
pictures, a newsreel, a short subject and a cartoon. Wed stay and see the show
twice, a total of about five hours. As I look back, I wonder if he wasnt a bigger
kid than I was.
Wed take the subway home, where Grandma had a good meal waiting.
Grandpa could never eat dinner without benefit of beer, and he kept a goodly number of
bottles in a bedroom closet. This was the prohibition era, so he got his supply from a
bootlegger, just as everyone else did. The beer was kept cold in the ice box. To keep it
chilled, every other day the iceman brought in a good size block of ice for twenty-five
cents. In the dining room credenza, Grandpa kept a bottle of schnapps and a shot glass.
Before sitting down, and after wed washed our hands, hed pour half a shot
glass of the liquor and toss it down. It was then time to eat.
On these Saturday nights, hed pour his beer into his favorite
stein and then fill a small juice glass of dark foamy bock for me. Wed clink
glasses, and then say in unison, "Hock der Kaiser, wolzein, drink em down!
AAhhhhhhhh." I never knew what it meant but that didnt matter.
Although we were Jewish, it meant nothing to me, even less to Grandpa.
He was a self-styled atheist and had raised his five children that way. His reasoning was
that if there were no religious differences among men, most all of the wars would have
been averted. And if there was a God, what kind of God would permit brother to slay
brother in the name of a different way of worship? My father and his brothers and sister
had had no religious training to speak of, so as I grew up, I knew I was Jewish but it
didnt have a deep impact on me. I think some friends of mine, and of my parents,
went to temple, particularly on the high holy days, but I never set foot, except once,
inside a synagogue until I was well into my teens. You cant miss what youve
The Depression had not made the least impression on me. It was only
later, when I was old enough to understand, did I learn what my folks had gone through.
More than a quarter of the national work force were without jobs, and there was no such
thing as unemployment insurance. Up, down, and across the entire nation, along the
railroad tracks, "hobo camps" grew up out of nothing. Men hopped freight trains
from town to town, looking for work. Most of America was agrarian, so the best a hobo
could hope for was maybe chopping some wood for the stove or doing menial farm chores, and
having a good meal to follow.
I would play near the palisades a few streets away from our apartment.
Looking down a hundred or so feet to the shore of the Hudson, I saw all up and down the
river homeless men living in shanty shacks made of empty wooden crates or huge cut-up tin
cans. I used to walk down there. I remember meeting nice men of all ages. They knew by the
way I was dressed where I came from. But if they were having a communal stew made of
whatever theyd all collected, they never hesitated to invite me to participate. I
got in the habit of helping myself from our pantry and delivering dozens of cans of food
to my new-found friends. My mother either never noticed, or, if she did, never said
anything. Shed go shopping and the larder was always full.
I can remember getting only one spanking in all my childhood. I was
probably seven years old and was forbidden to cross the street without the hand of an
adult. What Id do was go around the corner, then cross. In the spring days, when the
weather was gentle, Id come home from school, get a baking potato, rush down the
stairs, outside, around the corner, across the street and run the short block to the
palisades where Id meet several buddies, each of whom had a potato. Wed build
a little fire and, when it had burned down to coals, wed toss the potatoes on the
red embers, turning them occasionally for about fifteen minutes until they were black.
Then wed stab them with long green sticks and sit there, eating a great afternoon
snack. This joyful, half-cooked delight, was called a mickey, probably because potatoes
were associated with the Irish. The charcoal rubbed off on our hands and faces, but at our
age who cared, they were delicious! Even the raw part.
Unfortunately, one day I when I rushed to get to the potato bake I
forgot to go around the corner and a neighbor saw me cross the street. By the time night
fell and my father was home from work, I hadnt shown up. My parents asked around and
found out about my indiscretion. By the time I walked through the door, they were calling
the hospitals and police.
My mother ran to me, crying, and begging to know where Id been.
When my father asked if Id crossed Wadsworth Avenue against their direct
instructions, I shook my head.
It was definitely not the right answer.
I was picked up and tossed on my stomach on the sofa. My father reached
into the hall closet for a thin hanger, just a slight wooden arc with a wire hook sticking
out from the center. After three or four blows on my rear end, the thing broke. My father,
more exhausted by the nerve-racking experience than the exercise, collapsed into a chair,
wiping the sweat from his bald head with a handkerchief. I lay there and screamed, more
from fright than hurt.
I never did it again until I was old enough to cross the street
without permission. Years later, I laughingly recalled the incident to Dad. He had
absolutely no memory of it. But he did remember another time with Grandpa.
I was nine. Grandpa picked me up at home in the afternoon for a movie
that we both wanted to see, and we headed out to the "movie palace." Loews
175th Street: a demeaning name for an extravaganza of a lobby with a thirty-foot ceiling,
gold-leafed gilded plaster angels floating high against the walls, and beautiful carpet
that made me think I was sinking up to my ankles as I trod across it. We saw King Kong
starring Bruce Cabot and Fay Wray, with whom I immediately fell (and ever since have been)
in love. After the first show I said, "Grandpa, can we see it again?"
"Sure. Ill get some more popcorn."
We stayed for a third show. On the way home from the theater, we
stopped in at a pet store to get me a green-backed turtle in a shallow bowl, along with
some gravel, a small stone, and some turtle food.
By the time we arrived back at Grandmas, my parents were there.
It was after eight in the evening and all three of them came at the poor man as if he were
a kidnapper. I sat out of the way on the couch, holding my latest possession in my lap.
After ten minutes of their screaming at the tops of their voices, I cut
in with my shrill, little voice. "Why is everybody mad at Grandpa? Look! He bought me
a turtle." Three furious adults turned to me as I proudly held up my acquisition.
Somehow, that put an end to it.