What To Be?

When I was growing up everybody wanted to be something.  My earliest recollections are of wanting to be a fireman.  I even said it aloud in the film my father made for the fire department, FDNY.  It changed many times over the years.  I often look back and think that life happened to me rather than me controlling much.  

 

I did not however want to become dentist even though there were some pleasant things that might have been designed to push me in that direction or not discourage to me.

My father’s friend and my mother’s boss, Dr. A., was a pedodontist; and apparently an important one because he was once president of the American Society in his profession.

Because of him, while others played with GIJOE which my dad objected to, I played with chalk molars and real dental instruments.  I never filled the cavities I made but I do recall digging in the chalk.

Unfortunately, I got my mother’s teeth.  Dad smoked and drank to excess and had all his teeth.  Mom had the same habits and eventually no teeth.  I had a mouth full of cavities and tremendous amounts of dental work (still do).

I had the honor during a children’s dentistry week to appear in the World Telegram and Sun with Dr. A.  I treasured my celebrity for many years.

One of the structures at the World’s Fair was the Singer Bowl (yup, as in sewing machines).  The children’s dental society held an event there that featured an icon of the times, Soupy Sales.  I got to meet Soupy because of my relationship with the society’s  president.

You may recall the Thanksgiving Day brunch on Central Park West, this was also a benefit of the world of dentistry my family was attached to.

I worked in the “pedo” department at the NYU College of Dentistry sitting right outside Dr. A’s office, he was “pedo’ chair, while I was in college.  I was collecting and processing data for a children’s dentistry research project with the affiliated Bellevue Hospital.

With all these “encouragements” I never entertained dentistry as part of my future.  I also never thought of becoming a writer like my dad, or a lawyer as was once suggested by the director of campus security at CCNY.  I fell into sociology and social science research as a result of my love and admiration for Walter C. Bailey my professor and mentor.  After his retirement I sat at his desk for my first real job at the New York State Narcotic Addiction Control Commission located then at 61st Street and Broadway which was happily within walking distance of West 83rd Street.

Coffee Pot

I’ve been writing now for several years to bring to myself and others the memories of a West Side childhood in the 1950s and 60s.  I think there is certainly no more odiferous memory than the aluminum coffee pot perking on the stove every morning.

The pot on the stove was part of every morning that my dad was home.  If he was away on business everything was timed differently.  He drank only Savarin brand, in the red can.  The aroma when a new can was opened is one of those smells I can conjure, well sort of.

The coffee grounds were scooped into the basket which sat on the upright and then covered and placed in the pot which had already been filled with tap water.  The little glass bubble in the center of the lid placed on the pot came quickly to life and the kitchen filled with coffee, coffee, coffee.

Dad drank his black.  I remember a heavy white ceramic mug.

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The stove it sat on had four burners and five knobs.  This was the stove that had removed my sister’s eyebrows when she turned on the gas and then lit the match to stick in the little hole.  Those were the days when you applied butter to a burn.

For many many years the kitchen floor was linoleum but after a significant flood from the washing machine which stood as the centerpiece in the kitchen my mother determined the concrete floor should be painted a brick red and left otherwise uncovered.  I know that I broke more than one glass on that hard surface.

No, there was no dryer.  Well, except for the wooden contraption that was suspended from the ceiling and lowered by pulley.  Clothes which had been spun in the washer were hung from this wooden frame and dried on their own.  The rope broke more than once in my life.  One of the many things the building’s handyman was able to fix.

Outside the kitchen was the dining room.  The wallpaper was a bright red on the wall made of plywood that had been used to divide the space into dining room and dad’s study.  The floor here, like the living room and hallways was parquet.  In fact, the floors throughout the apartment were wood.

One of the other unsafe things about apartment 9E was that all the exits, that were not windows, were on one end of the apartment.  There was a backdoor in the kitchen, a front door next to the kitchen and a fire tower door in the hallway leading to the front door.  That fire tower was a nice touch.  An enclosed stairwell that ended in the lobby by the building’s front door provided safe exit if you could get to it.  If there had ever been a fire in the living room, the only exits would have been windows at the very edge of the extension of fire department ladders.  

My dad, the fire buff had thought about the extension ladder limits but apparently not about egress or maybe the 100 foot ladders of the FDNY made the exiting problem less important.  

We were never tested with a fire of any consequence in our building!

The Mugging

I left West 83rd Street many times before I was married, but always briefly.  Summer Camp, short stay on West 78th Street.  Never far, never long.

College was one of those times too.  I am a NYC educated boy:  PS9, JHS44, Stuyvesant HS, CCNY, the John Jay College of Criminal Justice.  From kindergarten through graduate school I never really left.  In fact I lived on West 83rd Street through all those years except for that time on 78th Street.

The City College years created many memories.  Some memories are unpleasant, some very New York of the time (1966-1971), others very pleasant.

The scary moments I remember most clearly were not during anti-war demonstrations, not the burning of the Aronow auditorium on CCNY’s south campus, not the resignation of Buell G. Gallagher, CCNY president and one of my personal heroes.  One of the scariest moments was the mugging.

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I don’t know why we were walking east on 125th Street to turn north and go to school.  I do know that there were two us, although I do not remember who he was.  (Maybe he’s a reader who will identify himself, maybe not.)  What I do remember is that there were six of them and two of us, that we were separated and I was shoved to the floor in a tenement hallway and that there was a small child watching.  

I remember that they demanded my wallet and that I gave it up.  They took the money out and when I asked for the wallet back, it was actually returned to me.  And then they were gone.

A frightening event;  I can’t see their faces.  I know there were six. And that small child quietly watching, like he had seen it before, with a blank look in that dirty stinking hallway.

We recovered and went to school. I’m pretty sure to tell our war story.  Not proudly, mind you, just another event in city life.

Parades and More

I think I grew up in a period of New York history that was filled with parades.  There was Thanksgiving Day, Columbus Day, Veterans’ Day, and Memorial Day;  there were parades for winning teams and other heroes, like astronauts, as well.  These were celebrations. Some of them were glorious.

I remember going down to Riverside Drive to watch the parade to the Soldiers and Sailors Monument.  For those of you who don’t know, it was built as a memorial to those who died in defense of the Union in the Civil War.  Located on 89th and Riverside Drive, overlooking the Hudson River, it stands today as always.  Originally known as Decoration Day this became Memorial Day with time, and came to honor all who gave their lives in defense of our country.

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This is different from Veterans’ Day, celebrated on 11/11 to mark the end of world war I on November 11th, 1918.  Over the years I have occasionally attended this parade to honor those who served in the armed forces of our nation both in my family and not.

Columbus Day has a parade.  I don’t know when it began to focus itself as an Italian heritage parade but that certainly brings less controversy in these days of questioning.

Thanksgiving is filled with parade memories.  Starting in the neighborhood with the balloon inflation outside the Museum of Natural History on 77th street and heading down Central Park West and then down to Macy’s (the proud long-term parade sponsor) this was the highlight of the parade year for children.

I have vivid memories of balloons and marching bands and santa followed by the sanitation men (they were all men in those days); it was quite a mess to clean up.  

The balloon memories are vivid because mom’s boss had a colleague who had an apartment on the third floor of a Central Park West building at which was annually held a brunch/lunch event.  While the moms talked and managed the food and the dads watched Thanksgiving football, we all hung out the windows and watched the balloons fly by our noses.  This was a dream come true, year after year.

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The other very West Side Thanksgiving memory occurred in the dining room of a brownstone between Columbus Avenue and Central Park West a few doors west of Rodeph Sholom.  Assembled here was a truly American grouping that included among others a part Cherokee woman, a Presbyterian minister, a children’s social worker, the family to whom the house belonged made up of a New Yorker and an Oklahoman, and, among others, me.  

I baked a challah to add my Jewish touch.  It was carefully home-made dough, twisted into an 18-24 inch loaf covered in egg wash, of which I was very proud every year (the recipe came from The Jewish Catalogue and served me well in other settings as well).

The prayers at this table were ecumenical and the love and warmth of friends and family was evident thru the meal.  I still miss Joe and Cynthia, and Mommy Rae and Chuck and Dick and the rest of the family.

I’ve made new memories too.  For almost 20 years my family has joined other volunteers on Thanksgiving Day serving with Yes!Solutions on 125th Street.  The servers come in all sizes, shapes, ages, ethnic and religious origins, orientations and colors.  We join together to relive, again and again, the true American story – welcoming everyone to the table to share in our bounty.

School Choice

I am a city boy; born and bred in Manhattan and schooled publicly, I could not be anything else.  I believe that early on I was expected to attend one of New York City’s exceptional high schools.  

My sister went first, leaving PS9 for Hunter.

Me, I had a decision to make in the ’62-’63 school year, Stuyvesant or Bronx Science?  All boys or co-ed?   The test was the same, as it still is.  I chose Stuyvesant; not because of its academic excellence but because it was all boys.  I knew then that if I went to Bronx Science and there were girls in my classes I would not pay attention.  I think that was pretty insightful for one so young.

My three years at Stuyvesant were many things.  

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My social life in high school was incredible.  I believe this to be true because I had to work for it.  While Hunter girls were our cheerleaders and we had dances with the girls from Julia Richmond, it was hanging out after school with students of the Franklin School that yielded relationships.

The “brat” did reappear in high school.  I was too small to play football but made friends with team members.  This gave little me the protection I needed to do stupid and one time dangerous things to lower classmen.  This was the downside of the all boys school.

During the transit strike of 1965 when Michael Quinn was calling him Mayor Lindsley we had to find our way to school.  83rd Street and Broadway to 15th Street and First Avenue was not going to be easy.  But I had a friend, football player, a little older, drove a mustang convertible.  All I had to do was get to the East Side and Billy picked me.

High School was filled with adventures and things of which today I am not proud.  Most of the latter were because of the crazy culture of an all boys school and the difficulties between classes (seniors, juniors…) 

There was the riot over a football game with DeWitt Clinton in which I took part.  That occurred on the day JFK was murdered.  A day never to be forgotten.

There was paying with pennies in the cafeteria to force the principal to let us go to the 1964 World’s Fair.

There was tripping younger students in the hall and being disrespectful to the young French teacher that resulted in her running from the classroom.

There was graduating 507th in a class of 715 with an 87 average.  It was a tough place to make the grade.

Who knows if I would have done better in the Bronx Science environment where I would be trying to impress the girls instead of the guys? 

Camps

Summer camp, everybody went to summer camp.  We went to different places in different states but it surely felt like everybody left town for 8 weeks once school was over.  Kids from 222 went to camp in Connecticut, Pennsylvania and, I am sure, elsewhere.  Railway Express trucks picked up trunks all over the neighborhood in late June and returned before Labor Day.  Attending camp was both a right of passage and an example of middle class privilege.  

I attended sleep away camp from just shy of 4 years of age until I was almost 12.  Cejwin Camps, billed as the largest Jewish camp in the US at the time was founded by mother’s uncle Al.

That first summer I was not there for the season.  My parents stayed on the peninsula in the middle of the man made lake on the Port Jervis campus.  The lake separated the “boys’ side” from the “girls’ side” with the peninsula jutting out in the middle. That spit of land was covered in bungalows and had its own beach.  Summer residents included family and friends of the founders and senior staff.  It also often was the summer rest stop for Rabbi Mordechai Kaplan fondly known around there as Modchi.  

As I was so young, no doubt it was comforting to be able to see the peninsula’s beach from the Yonim beach knowing my parents were just across the water.

The camp or camps, because it was made up of seven different areas for the different genders and age groups, was Reconstructionist in its religious practice and philosophy; the reason no doubt that its founder Rabbi Kaplan was resident there during the summer.  On Saturdays, after services, everyone was in white.  The songs we sang at campfires were frequently Zionist in nature and I remember in arts and crafts doing a copper piece for Israel’s 10th anniversary (pictured below).  It stills hangs in my apartment.

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As I advanced from Yonim (for the little ones) to Hadar and then Carmel, I unfortunately recognized my status as great nephew of the founder and director and took advantage.  My temper, discussed previously, that of a spoiled brat insisting on getting his way, was frequently displayed at  camp.

When I ran away, they found me under the dining room.  I ate with the kitchen staff that night. 

My last summer was in Carmel.  The “brat” was in full bloom when I pushed up the window screen and whacked the head counselor on the back of the head with my brush.

But that was not the end of camping for me.  I moved on to day camp.  Silver Birch Ranch Day Camp was in Yonkers.  It was up on a hill and we had horses.  We got to camp by bus each morning and at 16 going on 17 I became bus counselor.

The friends from Silver Birch were one of the two groups of young people at my Bar Mitzvah in 1962.  One of my clearest memories remains the congratulatory kiss I got from the beautiful counselor who was dating the horseback riding instructor who I worshipped and eventually worked with in my last year at camp before it was sold.

I was reminded not too long ago that my West Side comic book buddy Jon Katz (of katztales.com) was also at Silver Birch.

One summer when my mother went to Europe with her friend Florence and my father went to California for work I got to stay at camp in the home of the directors and their daughter.  They were wonderful people who took good care of campers and staff.

Many people come flooding back from those summers in Yonkers.  I did it backwards, sleep away camp and then day camp.  They are both long gone and each played a significant role in my life.  

Hector

Like all fathers mine brought me varied exposures to a broader life than my own as well as the breadth of experiences that New York has to offer and would continue to offer throughout my life.

Previously, I’ve mentioned his writer friend Hector Chevigny, author of “My Eyes Have A Cold Nose”. Hector was many things to dad including friend and member of the Radio Writers Guild in which both were active.  He was also a writer of scientific papers on being blind, having been blinded as an adult in the mid 1940s. He was one of my dad’s brilliant friends.  I’ve also mentioned his dog who would curl up under my crib when they came to visit.

Hector died young, at 60 like my dad but five years earlier (1965). 

Besides the things mentioned above Hector was a Quaker, the only one I can recall in my life.  When he died in 1965, I was 16 and attended his funeral.  His was not the first funeral I remember attending.  Dr. Henry Eisenoff was the family pediatrician, the type that made house calls.  He got me through measles, mumps and scarlet fever along with less serious ailments of the 1950s and 60s.  He passed the year before Hector.  His was the first funeral I remember; it was held at Temple Rodeph Sholom on West 83rd Street.

Hector’s funeral was held at the Quaker Meeting House downtown on East 15th Street.  It was a simple place and so was the service.  Friends and family rose to speak about Hector, a kind of community eulogy.  My father had prepared, of course, several typewritten pages were folded the long way in his inside jacket pocket.  He never took them out, so moved by the extemporaneous speeches of others.  I don’t remember his words but I remember they were deeply felt as he joined the community in saying goodbye to a dear friend.