#83

Writing LeavingWest83rd has been a journey of its own.  This being the 83rd post, I thought that I should make note of that fact and the number itself.  I have asked around among my readers for suggestions for this post and have had several: photo essay on the block; comparison of yesterday with today, structurally;  stories about some of the more colorful characters of the block; a reprise of one or more earlier posts; and what it all means to me.  It has been difficult to choose but before that I want to again acknowledge my editor Alyse Marion Black.  Alyse has helped immeasurably to bring LeavingWest83rdStreet to life.  Her grammatical corrections and reorganizational suggestions have contributed to every post, making what I hope has been an enjoyable journey for you as she has made it for me.

LeavingWest83rdStreet has been quite a trip down memory lane and more than that it has been a joy to receive comments, make and remake connections, stick with something for almost five years, and just to write.

What is it about West 83rd Street that won’t let go of me?  The fact that I grew up there?  The buildings?  The people?  The stores?  That part of the West Side?

Or, is this an opportunity to tell parts of my family story, father, mother, sister and maybe my friends too?

The boys of 222 were spread throughout the building, east side and west side, high floors like twelve and low floors like two.  Their names included another Kenny, David, Danny, Joel, Larry, Leonard.  Have I forgotten anyone?  Both Kennys and Danny had older sisters and there were a few younger brothers in the building mix as well.

Few moms worked like mine.  Dads had all types of jobs.  There was a dentist for sure and at least one lawyer and my dad the writer.

These things certainly had impact on who we were to become.  Events, past and present, clearly did too.

We lived in a building alongside of survivors of the horrors of World War II.  This was more significant to some than it was to others but we all knew about the atrocities because our parents had lived through the war in one way or another.  Some served, some volunteered state side, some served in the civil defense (like my dad.)

I don’t remember the war in Korea, we boys were all too young, but I’m sure it had it’s impact on our parents as did the “red menace”.  I know that my father was effected as president of the Radio Writers’ Guild.

And then came the decade of the assassinations.  Each of these molded the boys of 222.  First the President and then his brother, Malcolm X and Dr. King.  While I was already in my middle to late teens during the last three, the murder of JFK was the most profound as we had been taught about the presidency and about this president in school and at home.  So young, Catholic and with great ideas and oratory.

The riots of the sixties and the anti-war movement came when several of the guys had left 222 for colleges across the country.  I was home for all of it.

What we were taught about communism and the soviet union during those years for upheaval was biased and incomplete and sometimes deliberate misinformation I am sure.  American history left out the racism of our government regarding Japanese internment and particularly absent was anything about administration after administration and court after court institutionalizing racism in housing across the country.

In these turbulent times I hope that the boys of 222 and their children and their children’s children have learned a lot and will do their best to clean up the mess.

Comments can’t also be sent directly to

Ken@leavingwest83rdstreet.com

Stuyvesant

Going to Stuyvesant High School was an honor I didn’t know I had achieved in 1963.  I knew it was a top school along with Bronx Science, Brooklyn Tech and Hunter but I was not sophisticated enough to understand what it meant to be accepted and attend.

I chose Stuyvesant because even at thirteen going on fourteen I knew that girls would be a serious distraction in classes as they already were so in junior high.

I was not alone in going from JHS 44 to Stuyvesant.  I’m still good friends, almost sixty years later, with one of the guys.  

Stuyvesant did not bring out the best in me in many respects.  While I excelled in chemistry and biology, one of my english teachers had the chutzpah to tell my father, a writer, that his son could not write.  I did okay in math and physics.  I loved photography where I learned darkroom techniques.  

I did not hang out after school.  Hang time was at Danny’s, right next door on 15th Street, for breakfast in the morning and then outside Danny’s luncheonette until it was time to go in. 

I loved chemistry; I took as much as I could.  The lab was great place.  I even went on to start college as a chemistry major.

I became a sort of mascot for the football team.  I was small so I felt safe with the big guys and quickly became a bully.  It brought out the worst in me to hang with them.  I almost injured a lower classman on the stairs.  Lucky for us both he landed on his feet.

We had a pretty poor performing football team but a great cheer, “Retain it, retain it, retain the elliptical spheroid”.  Our cheerleaders came from Hunter College High School, our sister school on the East Side in the 60s..  As I recall we would have preferred Julia Richmond, an all girls high school not far from Hunter but not for the intellectually gifted.  The football rival was DeWitt Clinton, a team we never beat, but we tried. Clinton was a ruff and tumble typical NYC High School.

The Clinton game was scheduled for November 23rd, 1963.  We marched up Second Avenue (that would  be against traffic), the morning before, a rally turned “riot”.  We were showered with coffee cups from construction sites, and were photographed for the Daily News.  The game never happened, as events of that fateful November 22nd, 1963 in Dallas certainly took precedence.  Of course, that photo, which I was in (it was staged) also did not happen that Saturday.

The NYC Transit strike of January 1966 made getting to school on East 15th Street close to impossible.  The three train trek was unavailable for two weeks.  My friend Billy, a football player, drove a mustang, so I walked across central park from West 83rd Street and he picked me up on Fifth Avenue.  He was a chick magnet in that car.  Didn’t do me any good but the ride to school was important.

My social life was never better than when I was Stuyvesant.  I have always believed that  because I was going to an all boys school I had to work at it.  I only remember that there were gatherings with girls from Franklin (a West Side private school) but I’m sure there were other sources.

My academic success was nothing to write home about.  I graduated 507th in a class of 715 with an 87 average (or was it 83).  Almost anywhere else either average would have ranked much higher than the bottom third.  I was given a passing grade in calculus because I was senior.  I took it again in college and dropped it there too.

I loved Stuyvesant; I have been a member of the Stuyvesant Alumni Association for as long as I can remember; and that’s the only such association I have joined.  I went back to the building on numerous occasions and have visited the new building as an alum. (The escalators were such an improvement over those narrow stairwells.)

Although I have few fond memories, I cherish this “credential” more than any other.

Feel free to comment here: Ken@leavingwest83rdstreet.com or below

MOM

I’ve been bad about writing with my mother as a focus. I suppose that’s because I don’t think we had much of a relationship until later in her life and by then it was unwell mother and helper son. I may be denying stuff but I’m not so sure. As this week contains both the anniversary of her birth (12/1) and the anniversary of her death (12/5), I thought it was time to write this piece of life at 222.

Mom was one of “the three weird sisters:” Eleanor was the beautiful one, my mom, Edith was the smart one and Lillian was the youngest.  Aunt Lil always laughed as she told that.  I knew my aunt Lil as a professional success and a leader of a national Jewish organization.

Edith was actually mom’s middle name.  Irene was her first name but she switched them.  I don’t know if it had anything to do with my father’s mother’s name being Irene.

In the fifties and sixties a working mother was not typical.  Mom was the office manager of a very successful dental practice on Madison Avenue. When the senior dentist passed away in 1971, less than a year after my dad, she moved on. She became executive secretary to a vice president at Group Health Incorporated.

I don’t remember doing things alone with Mom while growing up, but I do remember things with the family.  Mom lit the shabbat candles and the four of us ate together; whether the table was in the dining room or in the living room depended on the year. 

I’m not even sure mom came to school plays and things.  I know that dad was at the Mikado in sixth grade at PS9 because he was the director but whether mom attended is unknown.

I remember going to the theater as a family.  I remember those parties around the Thanksgiving day parade on Central Park West in her boss’ friend’s apartment.

Liquor always flowed freely at home.  I remember living room gatherings where mom drank gin. Dad drank scotch. Mom smoked Kents.  Dad smoked Chesterfield Kings.

While dad did not believe in corporal punishment, mom felt differently.  I only remember being struck that one time when dad was in California on business in the 60s and she smacked me.  You may recall that I went directly to the phone and ratted her out.  The only other incident of physical violence that I recall occurred between mother and daughter at the dinner table.  It was over in a flash of anger.

I remember clearly in 1970 when Dad was in the hospital my mother and her boss took me out for dinner and taught me how to eat a lobster.  We were almost alone that time.

My parents had moved into apartment 9E at 222 in the very early 1940s. It was always home to her.  She was confined in the bedroom with TB in 1950 and from then on she always had an air conditioner. It was in fact the only room in the apartment that had one for a very long time!

My parents both used taxi cabs.  I don’t remember either saying they rode a bus or the subway. I don’t know how I learned mass transit.  Cabs were fine except for the time mom smashed her thumb in the door of one that had just delivered her home.

The engagement ring that Mom wore was the one that my father’s mother had worn. Grandma died in childbirth. It was always known in the family that this ring would go to the woman I chose to marry. 

I came home one day in 1978 and said, I’d like the ring now please. She was a bit surprised.  The diamond has now passed to the next generation, going to my son’s wife.

When she was discharged from a hospital stay in the early 90s mom insisted on going back to 9E. She really needed to be in structured care but she insisted. Mom always got her way. It didn’t last long, but I learned a lot about how to get Medicaid so that she could move into a nursing home which she then needed. I was married by then and had children, it was the early ’90s. She had lived in apartment 9E for close to 50 years.

Mom died in a nursing home accident.  It had been a sad journey for her and one I’ll never forget. I had been gone from 222 for fifteen years when she passed.

Comments are appreciated here at WordPress or I can be reached at Ken@leavingwest83rdstreet.com Thanks for reading.

Rabbi?

On November 3rd, 1962 I became a Bar Mitzvah. My practice has wavered over the almost 60 years since then. I have often been very active in synagogue communities and sometimes completely inactive. From youth group at B’nai Jeshurun, to youth committee co-chair at Rodeph Sholom, much of my youth and young adulthood was spent affiliated with West Side synagogues.  I was, years later, even an officer in my Lynbrook synagogue.  This is the story of one of those active periods.

Family folklore included an understanding that my father wanted to study to be a Rabbi but in his junior year of college at CCNY, 1928-29, he changed direction for financial reasons that were never specifically disclosed.  I think that it was the crash of ’29. He went on to the Federal Theatre in the technical side of theatre and then on to his work in documentary film, radio and television.

There was little evidence at 222 of his rabbinic interest when I became “sentient” in the 50’s.  I do know that my religious education at the Society for the Advancement of Judaism (SAJ) on 86th Street was important to him, although my sister’s was not.

Here’s where it all started.

In 1975 after several years very involved at Rodeph Sholom, primarily but not exclusively with the youth program, I determined that I wanted to become a Rabbi.  How much my father’s interest played in this, I do not know.  I talked with several Rabbis during the decision making and was only discouraged by one, the admissions director at the seminary who said, “you’ll never get in here”.  

The Associate Rabbi studied with me Shabbat afternoons after services while his daughter played around us and his wife made lunch which the four of us enjoyed together in their West Side apartment.

The Senior Rabbi took me out for lunch, ordering a cheeseburger, which I found amusing even back then due to the subject of our conversation not that I expected kosher practice in the Reform setting.

One obstacle to admission was my standardized testing performance.  In sixth grade at PS9, we took the IOWAs (the IOWA Test of Basic Skills).  While my entire class performed at the 99th percentile, I was at the 93rd. 

When it came time to take the SATs, I performed well below my assumed potential.  So, when I was faced with taking the GREs for rabbinical school I attached to my application a letter explaining my history of less than stellar performance.

At my admissions interview the second question came from the student on the committee, it went something like this, you wrote us about your GREs and they were in fact pretty good, can you explain that?  My answer was simple, by writing that letter I lowered my test stress level, believing that you would consider my explanation when discussing my potential.

Money, of course, was also an issue.  After my acceptance, some resources were developed at a farewell celebration thrown by my mother before I left for Israel.  The most remarkable part of that event was the appearance of my cousin upon whom I had long had a crush.  Let’s just say that most of the party, held in 9E, was spent with her.

It was 1976 and the sailing of the tall ships in the Hudson River was also spent with my cousin.  My departure for the year in Israel followed shortly.  This was to be the first of five years of rabbinic study.  I was to be immersed in the land, history and language of Israel.

I found Israel very difficult.  My rabbinic ambition did not survive but a couple of weeks, and I was headed home to New York and unemployment.  Living at home with mom for a period, that included furniture building in the 9E living room, was also difficult.  Job searching in those days, sans internet, was very different from what it is now but I did land a job at the Vera Institute of Justice which sent me back to the skills and interests I had learned at CCNY and the tools I had developed at the Rockefeller Program (NYS’s drug program of the early 70s).

I was not well received by most at my former congregation.  I had failed their dreams for me; an important lesson I did not understand for many years.  My friend with whom I had studied on that apartment floor stuck by me throughout the difficult period and Jean (my cousin) and I were married by the Senior Rabbi at Rodeph Sholom on the first night of Chanukah in 1978.

I am often dragged back, kicking and screaming, to that significant life point.  My decision to return may have been hasty but the discomfort I felt in Israel is still palpable.  Two incidents remain imbedded near the surface, even now more than forty years later.  

I was walking down a Jerusalem street and the person in front of me stopped short.  His rifle barrel was in my nose.  My years as a 20th Precinct auxiliary police officer and my delving into robbery data for my master’s thesis as well as my father’s distaste for firearms all kicked in, leaving me quite shaken.

And then there was the errand I asked a fellow student to run to get coins for the phone, at the post office.  He came back empty-handed; there had been a team of sappers (bomb disposal experts) dismantling a car in front of the post office.

These events, coupled with missing home and Jean and my perceived difference from fellow students who were all younger and had never worked, sent me packing.  The college’s dean had no interest in turning me around saying, “if you’re not happy, go home.”

When I returned to NY I said that I was determined to be the thorn in the Rabbi’s side, wherever I landed, and I think that I succeeded for much of my life, asking questions, understanding much. 

That Jewish upbringing in multiple West Side synagogues helped guide me to leadership as an adult.  I served as a synagogue vice-president for four years and resigned in the first year of my presidency.  From youth group president to synagogue president, I believe I served reasonably well. 

It seems I was destined to not be rabbi or president.

Photography

I did have a hobby for many years. Taking my camera places.  I think this must have come from my father too.  There is a picture of him, I cannot locate, leaning behind a 16mm camera making a movie for Cejwin Camps. (That name clearly came from the Central Jewish Institute located on West 86th Street.)*  He also made movies for the FDNY, the USN, the USAF and the Fresh Air Fund as well as others.  Still photography was certainly among his skills; in the hallway in 9E hung a color photo of a tree in silhouette which seemed to grow from solid rock, said to be the rim of the Grand Canyon.

I grew up with a Kodak Brownie box camera which became a Kodak Instamatic and after dad’s death, a Mamiya Sekor 35mm camera.  I was not permitted to own a Japanese camera when he was alive.  I later owned a very early Canon Rebel (film, folks) and took zillions of pictures of my children many of which reside in amazing scrapbooks assembled by their mother, one for each of us.

I had a darkroom at 222 after his death.  I remember it was fun to develop roll film, black and white, in the little metal developing tank and then to carefully cut the negative roll into strips and pick the good ones on my homemade light box for printing. It must have been quite a sight to see me carefully moving a sloshing tray from my darkroom, his former study and my former bedroom, into the bathroom to rinse my prints of chemical fixer in the bathtub. 

Looking back, my favorite subjects were women.  I took pictures on the street, out my office window on 61st Street and Broadway and at West 83rd Street Block Association events.  I don’t have anything left now, a shame.  I remember photos of children getting their faces painted and of a beautiful woman with a revealing cleavage. (Dirty old man when I was young.)

Beside my father’s FDNY filmography, the one I remember best was “The Friendly Town” a project dad did for the Fresh Air Fund, a program that got city kids time with families in small towns with open spaces.  I think I still have that one along with several other 16mm reels.

Family movies were, of course, done in 8mm. The camera had to be wound to get the film to move.  I will say that there are many more films of my sister, first born, like in so many other families. 

The next generation, my son anyway, spends a lot of time behind the camera.  He too owned a Rebel and still shoots with a Canon.  Even before he became a father, and had built in subjects, he was one of those young people who always seemed to have his camera.  I’d like to think I had some influence.

My Rebel sits today, unused, but every now and then I wonder if I can get film and if it would still work.  It was a wonderful machine. 

*“The Central Jewish Institute of New York City, for instance, established Cejwin Camps shortly after World War I. Bertha Schoolman (my mother’s aunt) was an instrumental figure in its operation. The camp was conceived as an “educational enterprise, not just a fresh-air place for poor children.” By 1961, thirteen hundred children attended Cejwin summer camps. They were divided by gender and age, a division which fostered a sense of independence in Cejwin’s female campers.”  Thanks to the Jewish Women’s Archive.

Ken can be reached directly for comments or questions Ken@leavingwest83rdstreet.com

Sniffles The Dog and More

This is not about catching a cold.  It’s about my unique other West Side family, written about earlier, made up of five people and lots of critters.  There were cats, field mice, guinea pigs, even a snake.  The most important of the “pets” was Sniffles, a most kind and loving Lab.  There are many Sniffles tales.  They called him dark yellow, I always thought he was red.  He was one of the permanent residents while so many humans came and went over the decade I was close.

This unique family was only made more so by this labrador.  As one story goes, a guinea pig got loose in their West Side townhouse.  The poor frightened creature was found cowering in a corner on the second floor with Sniffles sitting guard between it and the cats.

In contrast, there was the time in the garage at their country house near Williamstown, Massachusetts that a porcupine found itself cornered by this protective animal who snapped its neck with one lunge.

There was no one in the family or amongst the friends who Sniffles did not get along with in all the years I spent with them.

Photo by Davide Pietralunga on Unsplash

Other animals were not always as accepted as he, but most of us were trained to be reasonably accepting of the menagerie; when the snake disappeared from its terrarium many of us found it troubling and others recognized this as unfortunate for the field mice who had similarly escaped and never returned.  The snake reappeared from its jaunt in the walls only to die on the floor.

Their Grandma lived on the top floor.  The last flight of stairs had an “inclinator,” one of those chairs that ran up a track on one side of the staircase.  We were all known to use it at one time or another.  It was fun.

It was not only a young fellow like me who frequently visited or stayed with this family.  More than one young woman was “adopted” over the years and it was not more than once that an attempt was made to fix me up.  

During one winter visit to the cabins in the country I was shuffled off with one such female adoptee to the second cabin.  She had the job of teaching me the ways of the world.  I was informed, a day or two later, that I was her first tickle fight seduction failure.

Another attempt to connect me eventually resulted in a young woman dating one of my best friends who frequently visited.  

I learned all sorts of things about NYC from my second family, like shopping for lighting on the Bowery or lumber on the East Side.  I learned to fix a lot of things without the benefit of youtube. I stripped paint from century old interior door frames using paint remover and a spoon. At the country house I learned about building a fire and the critters of the free space of that part of Massachusetts.

My acquired fixing skills were applied more broadly when I was recommended to another West 83rd Street townhouse owner who needed some work done.  The only thing that ever completely foiled me was the light with two switches (one at the top of the stairs, the other at the bottom), I could not get that wiring right.

That unique West 83rd Street family taught me much and helped me survive the complications of my own family, a home filled with alcohol and sadness.  These are people I will never forget.

Ken@leavingwesst83rdstreet.com

RAPE

In my college days, living at home at 222, I made friends of all kinds.  I did, in my freshman year, pledge a fraternity.  A friend with whom I had attended Jr. High and Stuyvesant also entered The City College of New York (CCNY), commonly referred to as City, with me. We’re still friends after 58 years.

We pretty much stuck together when we got to City in the Fall of 1966 and we were both asked to pledge after going to several rush parties.

I didn’t make it through pledging. No, I was not blackballed; I quit.  I did learn the Greek alphabet as required and remembered at all times that the last letter of said alphabet was “sir”, but for me pledging was pretty much a nightmare and I left.  At times I joined the guys but I was not a regular and don’t recall ever going to the fraternity house on Hamilton Terrace after departing my pledge class.

I turned to other pursuits and relationships.  

One of the friendships that was borne of the fraternity relationships was a young woman who did not live far from me.  There were gatherings we attended with our mutual friends and acquaintances and I know I found her attractive but I was not one to compete.  So, like with almost all the other young women in my life, friendship was the natural relationship.

Photo by Eric Ward on Unsplash

I’m not sure in what year the rape occurred but after she called the police and was taken to the 20th precinct to look at pictures, she called me.  Our relationship was not special except perhaps I was one of the few guys on the planet who had not hit on her and I was nearby and was becoming an auxiliary police officer.

After the mug shot books were exhausted we were taken back to her place which was in fact the scene of the sexual assault.  I don’t know what possessed me to agree to sleep next to her when she had a large kitchen knife under her pillow, but I did.  I don’t think I was smart enough to be scared, I was there to make a friend feel safer.

I knew nothing about rape or assault back then.  I knew nothing about how I was supposed to act.  Today I am filled with the material so widely available and I believe that it was the right thing at the right time and I look back with positive thoughts about my behavior.  Friendship and the caring that comes with that were my job that night.

I saw her many years later and, no surprise, that night was not mentioned. The warmth between us had not cooled. That is another friendship that lasted a long time.

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)

Death

Death came to 222 more than once during my lifetime.  After all, it was a building of over 100 apartments divided into two sides.  There were two apartments on the ground floor, entered from the lobby; both of these were on the east side of the building.  I only remember one passing clearly.

I was probably around ten.  It was awful, the smell.  The person who died I did not know; a part of apartment life in New York City. I remember coming down in the elevator and being confronted by what I would later learn was the odor of a lonely death.

When you entered the lobby from the street there were staircases on either side by the facing wall that went up.  On the west side of the building, my side (apartments E,F,G, and H) there was a large fan standing on the top visible step.  It was blowing the smell from the second floor into the lobby, and, I guess out the front door.  I would have put the fan in the apartment doorway and opened all the windows, particularly if there was one to the rear courtyard.  

The doormen and elevator operators knew everyone of course and could have shared information, but probably not with us kids.

The smell lasted for several days; a nauseating reminder of the event.  I was too young, I think, to get the picture.  I never knew my grandparents, who all died before I was aware of them or before I was born;  so, I never experienced what might have been the typical gateway to understanding this stage of life.  

I had a similar experience of not knowing the neighbor who died in my suburban life many years later.

Janet Place in North Woodmere was very different from 222 on West 83rd Street, houses not apartments, a block of maybe fifteen, big trees. In total we lived there about 25 years.  I remember only two deaths on the block. One was our next door neighbor.  The other was two houses down from us.

We saw the ambulance and the police cars. It happened just two doors down, and we didn’t even know a name to use to offer our condolences. After more than five years on the street, our neighbor was anonymous.

That was a Long Island-style tragedy. The death of a neighbor and you don’t even know his name. People came and went all week. We all knew the address, but not the name.

It was a street where privacy was treasured. We knew the people on either side, and the ones across the street and the ones with kids who played in the yard (a little), but the others were virtually invisible. An occasional “good morning” was possible, a nod or a smile, perhaps a wave as we drove by, but never more than those perfunctory greetings.

The reaction of one of our children was truly frightening: seeing the police cars and the ambulance, she, age 3, said, “Somebody died.” Just like that. She didn’t know the name either, but I bet she knew the neighbor’s smile. All the neighbors were pleasant with the children, a little less distant than from the adults. We allowed the children to intrude on our privacy.

Hurricane Gloria brought darkness to one side of the street, but not the other. We shared our freezer space with the ones we knew, but didn’t see anyone else to whom the offer could be made. They were invisible, as they chose to be.

When we first moved here, I thought winter was the cause. Everyone was indoors most of the time, but even in the spring there was a shade drawn between neighbors who should know one another better, if for no other reason than protection from a hostile world where little children speak of death.

We were not unfriendly or unneighborly, and I’m sure they were not either, just invisible. It was a Long Island syndrome. Perhaps the anonymity of the city is contagious, or was it brought here when the first city folk moved east to the suburbs?

It was shameful. I had not realized the shame of it until that person died, two doors down the street. I  lived on for almost seven years, and we didn’t know his name.

He had recently stopped and asked if I wanted a lawn tool that would otherwise go to the garbage men. I took it, gratefully, from his garage, but never knew his name. Another neighbor was no help, didn’t even know there had been a death; knew the family’s last name but nothing more.

I cannot speak for, or about, all of my neighbors, and certainly not for Long Islanders (no one person can), but it is a shame and an embarrassment that this situation persisted.

At 222 the anonymity was a result of sheer numbers. I knew all the kids, we went to the same school, and their parents too. I knew the neighbors on our floor. Together these two groups added up to nine families. 

Only a few less than on that Long Island street. When I think back, I realize that when people died in that building, unless they were part of one of those families, I never knew.

My wife and children canvassed for the American Cancer Society on our street. It is a very interesting experience, asking neighbors you don’t know for donations. After the exchange of receipt for cash, invisibility takes over again.

I am saved just a little from embarrassment of all this by learning that we were not at all unique. A friend told me she asked her husband about the residents of the house three doors down from her, only to find out that they had sold the house and moved, 18 months earlier.

But this was Long Island, suburbia, where my kids learned to live peacefully, without fear, among friends. The same Long Island where someone can die two doors down, and you don’t even know his name.

And I don’t suppose West 83rd Street has changed much.  There’s a bigger building across the street with more potential for not knowing your neighbors.  Lots of missed opportunities in elevators I am sure. Would be nice if the world changed.

*Silhouette credit to Creazilla.