Benches

A friend of sixty years recently shared a photo with me.  The picture of nine ladies and one gentleman sitting on a bench on a Broadway island was interesting and understood but not memorable, except for one thing.  The couple on the left end were Black people.  Surprised the heck out of me.  It wasn’t memorable because I don’t recall any groups that large sitting on the 83rd Street version of this bench.

I have since learned that the photo was taken about twenty-five years after my first memories of this phenomenon (older people sitting on the benches) when they would have been all white people.

Thank you www.dougschwabphotography.com

The islands and their benches I remember well, but not “elderly” ladies sitting in groups.  My friend explained that this group might well have just come from tea and english muffins at the Metro diner on Broadway.  The photo places this bench on 90th Street; the New Yorker theater is in the background.  We can’t make out the movie title on the marquee so it is hard to date the photo but having found the photographer I now know it to be circa 1981.

Places for tea near West 83rd Street included Schrafft’s and The Tip Toe Inn.  I remember the former as cavernous, the few times I ventured in with aunts or the grandmas of friends.  I remember white tablecloths and napkins and waiters in uniform.  Truly a different time.

There were other notable restaurants in the surrounding blocks:  The Hungarian Rendezvous and Ho Sai Guy being the ones we attended.  Most of the storefronts on Broadway were retail stores like Bostonian Shoes, Levy Brothers, Radio Clinic, RK Boutique, the driving school, Rappaports, David’s, Florsheim Shoes, and so many more. These small businesses thrived in those days. Many were passed from generation to generation.

I could walk into most of these businesses, with or without parents, and be greeted with a smile and called by my name.

Today is so different. So many “small” businesses are big and keep you anonymous.  I try not to go back to those.  But, admittedly, today I shop in places where I expect to be “lost in the crowd,” like Amazon.

The island on 83rd Street was a school crossing and was often guarded by a police officer. The only one I recall was Sam.  He was a giant of a man.

If we crossed at 82nd Street instead of 83rd we walked on the north side facing Plymouth.  It was a lady’s shop so I never went there; the windows were often of great interest to young boys.

The islands are still there, still have benches and are no doubt populated.  They look nothing like the islands on Park Avenue; richly planted on a seasonal basis.  But they are part of the West Side’s character.

WINTER COMES TO WEST 83RD STREET

We were quite a group.  And in all seasons except winter we played street games with significant frequency.  In the winter, well, it was different.

There were those mountains of snow that appeared across Broadway near 84th street at the bus stop.  Incredible.  They were taller than a city bus.  built there by city snow plows, they were white for a day, maybe two, and then slowly grew gray and soon to black unless of course there was new snow or a surprise melt.

Climbing those hills was something for us city kids. It was like being in Riverside Park without the walk.  

The game was king of the hill.  The danger was not completely lost on us; there was always the possibility of rolling off into traffic.  We were snowball makers of course and the thrill of nailing the back of a bus, the side of a truck or one of the gang from the top of the mountain was, to say the least, exciting.

In those days drivers were less dangerous it would be 15 or 20 years before kids would have to worry about being shot by an angry driver.  We got yelled at, and occasionally cursed, but never more than that.  

I don’t remember ever being chased by a cop!

Even with the snow ball fights on our block, usually from behind the parked cars, we never assaulted Engine Company 56 as it roared down West 83rd Street headed for the intersection with Broadway, two or three firemen on the back step, hanging on.  That would have been sacrilegious and because my dad was a buff and he and I hung out in the firehouse, everybody knew the danger to those guys on that back step.

We never had to push a shovel.  Living in an apartment building was sweet in many ways.  Having a super and a handyman and doormen meant many things including clean sidewalks.  In those days merchants cleaned their sidewalks without prompting, pushing the snow from the building line into the gutter between the cars, and sometimes under the cars.

I never took up skiing but we were all sled riders; sometimes in the street but mostly in Riverside Park where we joined dozens of other children from the neighborhood.

Suburban living in my 30s meant shoveling a significant driveway, front and side walkways.  Luckily my wife love to shovel. She still does.  And there were times the kids helped or just joyously played around us.

Now, snow is pretty but it interferes with my getting around.  That comes with age.

THE Library

When I was at Stuyvesant one of my favorite places on the planet was the 42nd Street Branch of the New York Public Library.  I went most Sundays.  I got on the 104 bus on the west side of Broadway between 83rd and 84th Streets and headed south toward 42nd Street and Broadway and finally turning left eventually getting off at 5th Avenue, across the avenue from the library.

It was a glorious place with the huge lions out front and the cavernous lobby.  

The research room (on three I believe) was adults only EXCEPT for students of the specialized high schools, like Stuyvesant.  Gaining entrance was a privilege I cherished.  

Photo of Rose Reading Room by John Angel on Unsplash

In the anteroom one found librarians if you needed help and rows and rows of card catalogues.  They smelled so good and led me to the treasures of the collection.  

Beyond the catalogue room was the Rose Reading Room, actually two reading rooms.  Their walls were lined with bound journals and more.  In the center space, between the reading rooms, were the pneumatic tubes that sent requests to the stacks and the dumbwaiters that brought books and periodicals up from the nether reaches.

It had all started in the card catalogue where I learned the letters and numbers that identified the library holding I was looking for; usually more than one at a time these were applied to multiple call slips that would be handed in at that center section and a call number assigned to my request.

Then you waited, watching the lighted number board avidly waiting to spy your number which meant a message or your books from below.

It was one thing I wished for that I never got to do, see the stacks.  I imagined high ceiling and rows and rows of bookcases in perfect order. And a lot of dust and a very special smell.

I did my homework and my research in those reading rooms right through college.  Although CCNY had the Morris Raphael Cohen Library I preferred the amazing 42nd Street Branch.

Much has changed since the time I used this wonderful resource.  When I went looking for something a few years ago I found that the card catalogues were no more, replaced by machines.  But there were still those helpful research librarians to guide me to what I wanted. 

Lady Heroes

When I was growing up they were called heroines, there were also actresses.  The division of the sexes was clear and accepted.  Today as you know they are all actors and heroes.

I recently wrote about my heroes the Kennedy brothers, Malcolm X and Dr. King.  This drove me to look around my memories for heroines of my childhood.  It was a difficult search.

When you google heroines of the 1950s you get actresses.  If you push harder you get Mamie Eisenhower and Eleanor Roosevelt.

Wonder Woman appeared in the comics during the war years. The comics then brought us Supergirl in 1959.  Batgirl doesn’t appear until the ‘60s.  That decade also brought us Jackie.  She was not universally a hero but neither were the aforementioned first ladies.  I don’t recall ever being taught about these women.

I will say that the women outside of my family whom I admired most were my teachers: Mrs. Miller at PS9, Miss DiPiero at JHS44. Others too, but those two were standouts.

There were no female Rabbis, like my daughter-in-law, for me to idolize, like I idolized my childhood rabbi.

I was already past my teens when Bella Abzug and Shirley Chisholm took formidable roles in politics.  They were not formative for me but they were avidly cheered on.

Why wasn’t I for example, taught about the scientist, Heddy Lamar or civil rights lawyer, Constance Baker Motley? (Look her up)

So as a boy I had no female heroes to idolize like the men remembered and idolized by many.  This is a clear defining matter.  

Today my grandson can idolize RBG (who he will hear about from his mother) or Michelle Obama or so many others.  Some things have changed, maybe not enough, but they’ve changed.

Those Men

The ‘60s were a turbulent time in America.  We were threatened with annihilation, there was an intolerable war, crime was rising, rioting was significant and commonplace  and our heroes were being murdered.  I lived at 222 throughout this decade with both my parents alive.  These events changed us all.

I own a book produced by Life Magazine entitled “The Day Kennedy Died.”  I skimmed the Warren Commission report and I wonder what is in the documents that have been held back from us for more than fifty years.

The Kennedy brothers, Dr. King and Malcolm X all suffered sudden violent deaths brought to us by radio, television and print media.  We were tortured by the tragic losses, the violence, the conspiracy theories and the future which had become so bleak.

When President Kennedy was assassinated I was in high school, literally.  I learned of his death on the subway.  He was a hero in our house and the loss was felt for a long time.  The weekend of his funeral, my dad, worked programming the music for the ABC network.  We all watched in great sadness as John Jr. saluted his father’s casket and the riderless horse with boots backward in the stirrups passed.

I remember the bloody dress of “Jackie.”  So many loved her youthful approach to the formalities of being the First Lady as well as her beauty.  We, like her and John Jr. and Caroline would never be the same.  

Watching LBJ being sworn in did not make us feel safer.

In my house, where there was a connection to the Strategic Air Command (a friend of Dad’s) we learned that all our bombers were in the air that night lest the Soviet Union tried to take advantage of a country in mourning.

Over the following days we saw the pictures of his head’s sudden jerking, of his wife holding in, of a secret service agent climbing the bumper too late.

We watched the murder of his alleged killer.

We were not numbed enough to take in stride the murders of Bobby, Martin and Malcolm.  The use of their first names was, and remains common. It is not disrespectful.  It demonstrates an everlasting personal connection.

When I recently picked up the book from Life, just holding it brought tears to my eyes, all these years later.

When we took our kids to Arlington National Cemetery and visited President Kennedy’s  grave it was not the end of the trip.  As we walked up to his brother Bobby’s burial place, marked by a simple white cross on an otherwise empty green hillside, I told my children that if they wanted to understand their father they should look to the words and deeds and hopes of these two men; and the hopes of a nation and its young people.

Things That Linger

Do you ever wonder what helped make you who you are today?  I’ve been thinking about things that I brought to adulthood from West 83rd Street.  There’s a lot.  Who I am today grew out of that boy, teen, young adult. I am sort of all over the place in these thoughts.

The first thing that comes to mind about the street is the firehouse a block away between Amsterdam and Columbus and the fire alarm box we passed while walking there.  Box 1138.  So much of my dedication to community comes from watching these men (at that time there were no women) slide down the brass pole, step into their boots, put on their rubber coats and leather helmets, and jump on the back step of 56 Engine to ride into the unknown to serve my neighbors and me. 

Not only did I learn service but I began to understand that there are different levels of bravery and they should all be respected.  Dad never served in the armed forces because he had only one eye but he served in the Civil Defense and he served the FDNY through the Third Alarm Association and through his movie making.

I started early as a safety squad lieutenant helping younger children cross broadway and as library squad captain in sixth grade.  I also served as president of a synagogue youth group (this was probably more fun than service).

The firemen gave as part of their job and Dad gave both professionally and voluntarily.  I gravitated toward leadership positions.

In our group of boys living in 222 I don’t think there was a leader.  We were an informal group of buddies who played together in the street and in each other’s apartments. 

Did I become and Auxiliary Police Officer because, in part, of these examples?  I am sure.

Did I become active in the school district on Long Island in which we raised our family because of these examples?  I am sure of this too.

My civic minded approach to life surely arose from the examples set on West 83rd Street.

Besides learning the way around firehouse and a fire engine my time in the dispatchers’ office in Central Park demonstrated a slightly broader understanding of the differences among men.  Often the dispatchers were firemen on light duty, men with temporary disabilities doing the same job as full time dispatchers.  There was also Russ, he was the only African American fire department member I ever met.  But, at least on the surface, he was treated no differently than other dispatchers.

Russ, like Helen, was significant in my life as was the song from my father’s un-produced musical “Wonderful Three Horse Hitch” entitled “We Don’t Care” that talks about race and religion in the world of firefighting; we don’t care if you’re black or brown, we don’t care whether you worship beneath cross or star.  These were defining words – what my father believed and what I learned.

I brought much more with me from West 83rd Street; perhaps for a future post.

Moving

I believe that moving is one of the most stressful things that humans do to themselves.  I haven’t done it too frequently, but I’ve done it.

Raised in apartment 9E at 222 West 83rd Street, I moved out of my parents’ place, briefly, while in college.  I went back.

I moved again in the early ‘70s but just up the block and across the street.  And again, I moved back to apartment 9E.

I finally left in late 1978 when I got married, and we moved twice after that.  It was thirty years after marriage before I moved again, on my own. And now, I’ve moved again.

Enough.

Thanks Unsplash & Kelli McClintock for the photo

That first move was because I was in distress living at home with my parents during the tumultuous years of my late adolescence.  Most of the guys from the building had already gone to college.

The next move was to express my independence as a working adult.  Moving back again was during unemployment.  Mom was the safety net having maintained 9E as her home with room for me.

They said it absolutely could not be done. There was no way that a 29-year-old who had been born and raised on the West Side of Manhattan could ever move to Long Island and be happy. Marriage or no marriage, it was absolutely impossible. The former officer of a block association, auxiliary police officer and general community activist could not possibly leave behind all that he had known for the suburbs.

I had not learned to drive until some friends insisted on giving me six driving lessons for my 21st birthday. After all, who needs to drive when you live in the heart of New York City? 

When I started dating my future wife, driving came in handy once I understood the difference between driving courtesy on Long Island and in the city.  They warn you in driving school in the city: “When the big red lights on the back of the bus go off, get out of the way; that bus is pulling out, over you or in front of you.” There were hardly any buses in the suburbs.

None of us knew for sure that I would make it, but I really wanted to try. My intended came from “there” and I had spent many pleasant hours “out there,” so, why not? It might be fun.

Anyway, we were moving into the top floor of a two-family house; that was something like living in an apartment house. It wasn’t 16 stories with more than 100 apartments, but it was not a single-family dwelling with a vast expanse of lawn, etc.

None of this lasted very long. Nine months later, we were looking for a house. Nothing lavish, just a place to live. Then we found it. A little more expensive than we had planned for, but just marvelous. I had been bought and so was this house. Three bedrooms, tremendous backyard and  a lawn to manicure, two-car garage, central air, in-ground sprinkler, finished basement and patio.

Who could ask for more? We couldn’t, and we didn’t. The deal was struck the same day. (You can take the boy out of the city but you cannot take the rushing out of the boy!)

Within the month, we were in.

No one could believe that we and, of course, the bank, owned a home on Long Island. The following summer, we had a vegetable garden and I was doing my own lawn, fixing most things with ease and actually finding time to sit in my backyard.

Two years later, to the month, along came our first child. Two winters later, and the second winter after that, the second and third arrived. Now the transplant was permanent. Though I had been raised and educated in the city, it was clear that things had changed and it was clear that my children would not be raised there – particularly after I had seen the alternative.

My old elementary school was designated for children who were supposedly unmanageable in the regular classroom. And the new building was not situated nearly as well.

My old junior high school was never safe – it was, however, where I learned to survive the West Side’s sometimes mean streets. To go to a good high school, I used the subway in the 60s. Subways were more dirty and more dangerous in the ‘80s. Who can think of the ‘90s without some doubts?

I remained a devotee of the city but did not go there except to work. When I did return, I found it dirty, smelly and loud – things I had never noticed before. That fire engine that I never heard now comes roaring down the block. The trees are scraggly, not the beautiful plantings of the block association – certainly not like the beautiful trees I owned.

The transplant from the city took. Although rejection seemed to threaten at the beginning, the anti-rejection drug – my new marriage – worked its magic.

When it came time to move as our marriage dissolved, the old neighborhood called to me but was just too expensive.  I landed in Forest Hills where I stayed for twelve years.  A wonderful building staff and some neighbors who became friends actually made it a little difficult to leave.

But I’ve moved again, back to Long Island, an apartment this time.  Closer to family and long time friends, it is where I built my adult life on the foundation provided by growing up on the West Side!

MOM

I have not written much about my mother and after writing a significant post about my father I feel guilty.  I can’t really write about a boy and his mom; we didn’t have a memorable relationship until her later years.  This was unfortunate because I came to know that mom was a very intelligent and strong person who most likely had a lot to share.

Mom lived on West 83rd Street from the early ‘40s until illness forced her into a nursing home over 45 years later.  She was ill with tuberculosis in 1950 forcing isolation from her newborn son.  When I discovered this isolation in my own therapy, the result was a focus of the effect that such a separation had on me.  Many, many years later I began to see the effects it had on her relationship with me.

A young Edith Schoolman Marion

Because of the lung damage mom always had an air conditioner in the bedroom to facilitate sleep.  She slept closer to the windows.

Ten years after the TB there came cancer.  She toughed it out through a radical mastectomy and radiation.  This was before reconstructive surgery made the scene so mom had a falsie inserted in her bra from 1960 until her death in 1993.  It was neither the cancer nor the TB that led to her passing.  It was the accident in the nursing home after suffering numerous strokes that resulted in her death.

Throughout my childhood my mother worked for a children’s dentist, running his office.  She translated an article of his into french, a language she shared with my sister.  I happily remember going to the dentist, my mom was in charge.  And I remember the chalk teeth and the real instruments that I was given.  I think they hoped I would become a dentist.  Sorry, mom.

Dr. A. died eight months after my father, leaving mom with the need for a new position to support me and her until I finished college (although I did have part time jobs along the way.)

First, she took on the position of executive secretary to the CEO of a not-for-profit and then moved with him when the agency was swallowed up by a huge insurance company and he became a vice president.

Before Dad died in 1970 she entertained in our apartment.  I recall that her parties were well attended and memorable.  They did not include neighbors but did include professional friends of both my parents.  That meant, writers, dentists, actors and others.

There was also the famous thumb incident.  Both my parents traveled around Manhattan exclusively by taxi.  It was late in the afternoon when mom slammed a cab door shut on her thumb.  It was brutal and it was purple.  Her recovery was complete.  She was a fighter.

I remember well that my mother was called upon, frequently, by my sister’s friends for personal and confidential advice.  She was well loved.

Mom had friends in the neighborhood and on the East Side.  She traveled and managed quite well for many years.  

My mother was generous with me as an adult, too, providing some much needed cash to produce Volunteer Firefighter, my children’s book.

Mom stayed in apartment 9E until the last possible moment, having fought me about leaving until the inevitable move occurred.

Before she was finally confined almost exclusively to bed, the three kids, Jean and I visited and one time we took Mom outside in a wheelchair and provided much desired Chinese food.  The choking incident and the displaced false teeth were scary and a bit funny to all of us; the youngest believed that eating Chinese food caused your teeth to fall out.

Mom’s passing was not gentle and the years before it were not pleasant for her.  She, my sister and I grew closer in the last year but it was uncomfortable for Mom and hard on my sister and my wife and children.  

The last Marion moving out of 222 West 83rd Street was Mom.  Emptying the apartment where I had lived for more than twenty-five years and she had lived for over forty-five was a sad task.  Some furniture made it our home on Long Island, the all important “secretary” moved to my sister’s in Washington.  Jewelry was divided up and my family’s life in 9E was brought to a close.

Comments are always welcome here or at Ken@leavingwest83rdstreet.com

A Special One About Dad

This summer’s vacation from the blog included the date of the 51st anniversary of my father’s death. I’ve written much about him and he will probably be featured in the future as well. With some editing this was written for this anniversary.

***

My dad, Ira Marion, died in 1970 at the age of sixty, when I was just shy of twenty one years of age, living at 222 and going into my last year at his alma mater, The City College of New York.  I’m sorry he missed the last fifty plus years.

The summer of his passing was a difficult one: daily hospital visits, work and school.  And there was the brief period at home eating through a straw before returning to the hospital to die.  His funeral was big enough to make me gasp when I saw the crowd.  His obituary, in the NYTimes, was much smaller than he deserved.

My mother and sister went through the funeral as I did.  My sister had been living out of town for over five years when he got sick.

When I was young he and I rooted together for the baseball and football NY giants and for Navy during the traditional army/navy game.  We played baseball in riverside park and he directed me with the rest of my PS9 sixth grade class in the Mikado.

Dad was a writer, that’s how he made his living most of his life.  Some of the older among you will have heard a radio show called “Crime Does Not Pay.”  He wrote every episode.

A young Ira Marion

Early in his career he wrote theater and later, musical theatre.  In college he arced a large wattage spotlight and melted the grips of his pliers.  My son Seth now owns those; a gift through the generations.

His friends included writers, conductors and the outstanding voice of the Texaco Opera, Milton Cross.  All these people added to MY life.

In 1963 he programmed the music for the ABC Radio network for the weekend we mourned John Kennedy before his funeral.

And there was more, “Disaster” written for radio for the American Red Cross and “Meet the Professor” an ABC public affairs TV show.  

And all along he was a dedicated “fire buff,” making me one too. Serving the firefighters on the frontlines through the Third Alarm Association.

There were also films, often written directed and produced by Dad.  Among them were films for the NYC Fire Department, The US Navy and the Fresh Air Fund.

I have written a lot about my father in this blog.  Like many adolescents I spent much of the time denying that I could write because, after all, many of us did not want to be our fathers.

He was a character.  My friends were required to demonstrate their good manners in his presence and on the phone.  Once before disappearing with drinks when I had a girl friend over, he called me into the kitchen and said “don’t do anything I wouldn’t do”.

Like you imagine, as a writer, dad smoked and drank.  Both, too much.  I smoked like he and my mother and pay the price in my senior years.  I never took to drinking.  That was probably because that damage was so visible and inflicted on the family.

My children never got to meet my dad and he wasn’t at my graduation or my wedding.

Dad would have been proud of my children and the family Jean and I created: Seth with his involvement in theatre and Judaism, Alyse, a natural leader and athlete and Rachel, a teacher of children with special needs.

Today I miss him probably more than ever because I have watched some TV shows involving male characters and their fathers struggling as adults to communicate and find that special love.  My dad and I never got to do that.

Comments are always welcome here at WordPress or addressed to Ken@leavingwest83rdstreet.com

VACATION

I don’t remember ever taking a vacation for the sake of vacationing with my parents.  I remember a working vacation when we drove throughout New England visiting small colleges for my father’s show about such institutions.

That was the summer I counted Chevrolet Impalas from the back seat.  I don’t know where we went, where we stayed or what we did while he worked.  In fact, I don’t recall how old I was.

Vacations came later in life.  My wife was an expert trip planner and we did some wonderful things in addition to the typical, like Disney.  The Four Corners and the Virgin River in Zion National Park have always stood out.  In that river, cut through a canyon, I took an amazing photograph of my younger daughter and after doing that, I looked up through the canyon walls and knew that there was a God.

Thanks to Stephen Roth and Unsplash.

There was also San Francisco and the visit to Alcatraz.  It was on that trip that Jean found a rare thing: a place where amateurs with children could go spelunking.

They made me go first and it was pretty scary.  The last cavern was discovered from a ledge high up, underground and you had to ride the rope from the ledge to the cavern floor; unforgettable.

The family trip to Israel was extraordinary: visiting family, some I’d never met; and exploring Jewish history and even some culture in the desert.  Very memorable was the airodium (probably misspelled) where our children literally FLEW over a giant fan.  That was something I hope they will never forget.

Summer camp I guess was my vacation.  Day camp, when I was old enough to appreciate what I was experiencing, served as a vacation from the city life during daytime.  If I had loved sleep away camp, and had pleasant memories, I’m sure that it would have served as a vacation for me rather than what I suspect was a vacation for my parents.

There are a lot of things going in my life now which suggest to me the need for a vacation for this blog.  I hope to be back in the Fall.  Until then my readers and friends, thank you for your loyalty and THANK YOU FOR READING!

Comments are always welcome. ken@leavingwest83rdstreet.com