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 

6 thoughts on “A Unique West Side Family

  1. Good post. I also worked as a counselor for a day camp at the Kaufman campsites in Rockland County. I was also reminded of George Carlin’s story of growing up on Morningside Heights in the 50s.

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  2. Ten years ago I spent some time back in the NYC area, and took a drive up to Yonkers and Sprain Rd., the site of Silver Birch Ranch Day Camp some 45 years earlier. I was heartbroken. I didn’t recognize a thing, not even the property itself, which had been plowed over to build private homes and an indoor tennis facility with parking lot. All I have now are dim memories. And getting dimmer all the time.

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  3. Given our several conversations on this, including a/the? most recent about the lady referred to, it struck me the other day that you would be the right person to actually write her biography, detailing her legal work, integrating a fuller view of the family, etc. Now here I see in 1 of your opening sentences, you say “I could write a book but I won’t”, answering/rejecting my thought before I even shared it with you. Please do give it some thought. It would be an awesome project for you, you are very well suited to do it, and it would honor her and her family, as they deserve.
    Oh, BTW, this is an excellent piece.

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