A Unique West Side Family

In the fifties I didn’t cross Amsterdam Avenue.  All activities that I can recall were to the West from 222 which was on the East side of Broadway.  Forays were also to the North, not past 86th Street and to the South, not past 79th Street.  Life expanded to the South in the early sixties with the addition of William J. O’Shea Junior High School and friends from the lower 70s and just above 86th.  

True expansion to the East didn’t come until the summer of 1965.  That was the year I was a bus counselor for Silver Birch Ranch Day Camp and met a family that would bring new West Siders into my life.  I could write an entire book about my experiences here, but I won’t.

A family of five, three generations, and rarely only that, welcomed all kinds of people into their home for meals and celebrations.  I was one of the fortunate.  I even got to spend significant time and bring along some of my own friends. The last member of the family was Sniffles, the family dog.

It all started when the family couldn’t quite get the boys out on time for the camp bus.  I was invited to walk up from Broadway to the block between Columbus and Central Park and join the family for breakfast; thus assuring that the bus driver would wait for the kids accompanied by the bus counselor.

by Kacper Nowotka

Saturday breakfasts were always the same.  The standard fare was tuna fish with mayo, pickles, olives and onions on a toasted english muffin with a slice of Old English cheese melted on top.  I don’t think anyone that came to that breakfast didn’t turn their nose up and then wind up loving it.

Thanksgiving has remained a clear memory among the many joys of this relationship that I hold dear and important.  

Somewhat estranged from my own family this family became mine.  Using the Jewish Catalog for a guide I baked a huge challah which was used as the centerpiece.  At the table were family, clergy and friends, a unique blend of personalities, religious persuasions and ethnic groups.  It was a genuine West Side mixture.

There are many stories that became family lore.  These were people who accepted everyone, took in many over the years, and worked to better their neighborhood.  Famous among these stories was their relationship with a local street gang.  They took the guys to see West Side Story (the movie) and when the gang saw the sharks dancing down the alley they said, “those faggots are supposed to be us?” (Please accept my apology for the language, it was the 1960s.)

Some of the guys could be found around the house over the years and were always friendly on the streets.  I met the gang around the same time I met my friends. 

The gang is referred to in www.leavingwest83rdstreet.com/2017/08/25/pool

As I moved from high school to college our relationship strengthened.  Their house in the country was a place I frequented often and was allowed to bring friends.

My graduation from CCNY in 1971 helped inspire the boys’ mother to go to college for the first time in her life at 37.  She had come to NY to be an actress, met her future husband and turned to raising her family. She would go on to complete college, law school and a Ph.D. truly demonstrating the mind that had been hidden while dedicating its power to all of us.   She used that power and those credentials to work tirelessly for children’s rights at the United Nations and around the world.

I was part of that family for many years.  I made many friends and acquaintances in that house and always felt cared for and safe…

ken@leavingwest83rdstreet.com will happily respond to your private questions and comments 

Death 2

This month, August 2020, marks fifty years since my father died. That number is overwhelming and has caused a deluge of tears.  I’ve written about his funeral and bits and pieces about his life and illness, but not enough.

I remember dad’s obituary in the New York Times.  It was about two and a half or three inches.  I was so disappointed that it was so short.  I knew even then, at twenty, that he deserved more.

He didn’t die at 222, he died at Mount Sinai Hospital, but he battled and suffered in 9E.  I can picture him sitting at the table eating through a straw as the throat cancer had swollen significantly and limited his swallowing.  He had been in the hospital for some time until they figured out what was wrong.

I traveled back and forth in his earlier hospitalization as well as the final one.  Getting to 98th Street and 5th Avenue from 83rd Street and Broadway involved two buses or the 86th Street Crosstown and a long walk up 5th Avenue to 98th Street.  Coming from school meant the number one train to 86th Street and then proceeding.

When dad went back to the hospital, the picture was gloomy and my final visit found him with tubes everywhere.  As I left he waved and we both understood that it was a final goodbye.  He died later that evening, leaving me with that image of the final wave.

It was a sad end to a life that, from 1942 to 1970 had been lived on West 83rd Street.  He had been the Civil Defense Warden with a key to the light box on West 82nd Street for turning off the lights along Amsterdam during air raid drills.  Here he had been based when he wrote for the Air Force and the Navy and the War Bonds program.  Here he lived while for 25 years he had been a staff writer for ABC after years at the Blue Network.  Here was the jumping off point for “Meet the Professor” and ABC public affairs show for which he traveled the country developing and telling the stories of remarkable educators.

Good Times

West 83rd Street had been his home when he wrote, produced and directed films for the FDNY, featuring me in a cameo appearance in the film F.D.N.Y. (see link below)  222 was the base from which he flew out the door to the Red Cross building on Amsterdam Avenue in the 60s to get out the canteen for the Third Alarm Association to provide coffee, soup and sandwiches to firefighters (then called firemen) at large fires.

This was the home from which he walked to PS9 to direct Gilbert and Sullivan’s HMS Pinafore for my sister’s 6th grade class and the Mikado for my class years later (my sister and I being a bit more than five and half years apart).  I don’t know if she had a part in her year but I played KoKo, The Lord High Executioner, with my little list.

In 1963, seven years before his death, we sat in the living room of apartment 9E and listened to the ABC network music, programmed by my dad, on that horrible weekend of the Kennedy assassination.  Here we sat to watch the funeral with the horse with the empty boots turned backward and the little John Jr. saluting his father’s casket.

In the late sixties, when the drinking won and dad lost his job at ABC he struggled and found a job with the NYC welfare department as a case worker.  He didn’t have to go far most days because the bulk of his caseload was in the Endicott Hotel which was converted in 1981 into what are now million dollar condos.  It was in this brief period of his life that I picked him up off the floor and bandaged his head wound.  Something I’ll never forget.

It was not until my adulthood that I began to understand the roots of his drinking.

My father’s childhood had been far from easy.  My grandmother died in childbirth and grandad ran off leaving little Ira to be raised by his maiden aunt, Betty.  He lost an eye to disease and wore a glass replacement for the rest of his life.  He had back surgery, I don’t know when, which because of an anterior entry and the rearrangement of intestines left him with a pot belly which he filled with beer (Miller High Life or Rheingold) as an adult drinker.  That of course was for lighter times, Teacher’s Scotch was his drink of choice.

It was the drinking and the three packs of chesterfield kings a day that were his undoing.  I was never much of a drinker, understandably, but I did smoke as both my parents did.

Years later a cousin said to me “we tolerated your father’s arrogance because of his brilliance.”  Did he feel himself, down deep, an unloved, less than perfect man?

Fifty years after his death there is a mixture of memories good and bad, like anyone else I guess.  As I grow older I see more and more of him in the mirror and in myself.

(email me at ken@leavingwest83rdstreet.com for the dropbox link)