“I Don’t Know”

I wrote this more than 25 years ago.  I had been gone from West83rdStreet for quite a while by then.  The only time I recall ever hearing “I don’t know” was when said by classmates at PS9 or JHS44.  This was never by a teacher before high school, and rarely then.  Clergy at Rodeph Sholom, the SAJ and B’nai Jeshurun might suggest that they would look it up, as did college faculty, but rarely.  Adults seemed to know everything or thought that they did or did not want to lose power to those younger than themselves.

It is a simple phrase, the sweeter for being seldom heard, which has amazing power. People fear to speak its words, as if to do so would cleave the heavens. Indeed, it would have the cosmic effect of reducing the number of noisy disagreements between adults and adolescents, between bosses and subordinates, between husbands and wives. Imagine: three words that could reduce malpractice insurance rates, “I don’t know” is a phrase that’s a sure sign of honesty.

“I don’t know” is often the response of the smartest people. We have a cultural requirement for substantive answers to all questions and a corollary fear of appearing stupid or ignorant. This combination begets circuitous or fictitious answers, which leave us looking stupid or ignorant or dishonest.

Photo by Simone Secci on Unsplash

The parent confronted with a question for which no answer comes to mind fears losing face (which translates to power and control) unless some answer is provided. Its obvious flimsiness triggers a quick deterioration from simple disagreement through shouting match to knock-down drag-out. All for a lack of “I don’t know.”

If you can’t make it all the way to “I don’t know,” “I’m not sure” might suffice. A strong followup to either combination is “I can find out” or “I can check on that.” With teenagers and other young people, you’ll find that a new respect has developed. Your willingness to admit to a less-than-perfect knowledge of the world and your willingness to pursue what’s important to them will add new vitality to old relationships.

The boss who responds to subordinates’ questions with “that’s your job” and the employee who fakes it are not fooling each other. The employee senses that the boss doesn’t know, and the boss is positive the employee has the shovel out. In both cases, dramatic benefits are possible from “I don’t know.” The boss who admits a lack of encyclopedic knowledge will be held in higher regard, and the employee whose fallibility is demonstrated can actually make points by the proper reception of insights from above.

I’ve always admired salespeople who have at their fingertips the names of people they can call upon to fill the gaps in their knowledge. Faking technical material never works and isn’t necessary. Knowing where the answer is is a short step from having it.

Doctors are the worst at “I don’t know.” (This is mostly our fault, because we have the highest expectations of these professionals.) They’ve even improved on it, with a sonorous phrase, “I want to refer you to…” And, of course, “I don’t know” is not even in the vocabulary of politicians. Many of us avoid using the words “I don’t know” because they’re interpreted as a sign of weakness or incompetence. Rest assured that for some “I don’t know” is a demonstration of true strength.

Why are these words so troublesome? I don’t know.

Ballet and More

Ballet and More

The ballet is a thing of beauty.  It has played many roles and filled many spaces in my life since my sister, the ballerina, was the family’s star. 

I don’t remember when I first attended a professional ballet performance, nor why or with whom.  Ballet was a gigantic part of my sister’s life and still is so many decades later.  It is part of her daughter’s life and seems to be the lifeblood of her daughter’s daughter.  That side of the family is dancers!

When I was growing up I knew not the ballet except for Linda’s involvement, and the ballet school across Broadway on the second floor over the shoe store. I suppose I was at some time jealous of the attention she received for excelling at dance.  But, she was also the one who brought home great grades and wound up at a top college.

I know that I really came to the ballet in the ‘70s.  I was a subscriber at the New York City Ballet, front row center, third ring.  Never without a date, those tickets were a lure.  It is also where I fell in love with Suzanne Farrell to whom I wrote my first fan letter, ever.  I received two autographed pictures. She was amazing.

I went to see her company with my sister during one visit to Washington DC.  Being in the same “house” as such a star in my life certainly filled me with joy and excitement.

I saw Edward Villella dance and Jacques D’Amboise as well, along with Patricia McBride and so many more great dancers.

Forty years later I met Jacques at his National Dance Institute (NDI, NationalDance.org), a program I supported when I could, bringing dance first to NYC public schools and then schools across the USA and the world.  I brought my sister to a program at NDI where she sat for a photo with Jacques which made her very happy.

And then there was the time I went to The City Center to see the Miami City Ballet and met Edward Villella, securing his autograph for my sister.

But dance in my life didn’t end there.  At 65 at the National Dance Institute (due to their generosity) one of their teaching professionals gave me ballet lessons in one of their studios.  It was wonderful (makes me tearful how much I miss it.)  And then I took a couple of classes at 890 Broadway, a building filled with dance.  I built a barre out of PVC pipe which I still have and a ballet shrine above that barre.

The wonderful people of NDI have kept in touch and my great niece’s adventures in dance bring me joy.  

I still smile at Suzanne’s photo on my wall and Linda still takes classes.

What Did You Do For Exercise?

I just purchased a treadmill. Continuing recovery from my 2019 medical difficulties and diagnoses like osteopenia require walking.  This got me to thinking about exercise, then and now. When we were growing up on West 83rd Street and when we are aging back on Long Island.

Exercise in the good old days was reserved for specialists. The training for fighters and runners appeared periodically in magazines and certainly in films. We didn’t think about exercise for mere mortals.

We played many street games (handball, stickball, football, stoopball) that required exertion but never for exercise.  We bowled, we played baseball in the park and we walked to and from JHS 44.  These were never considered to be for our health, long or short term.

Winter brought sledding, snowball fights from one side of 83rd Street to the other, climbing snow mountains at bus stops, and moving pieces on board games.

When I took up bike riding (finally at 40) that clearly became for exercise although it didn’t start out as such.  It turned out to be too late for my coronary status and was terminated after an accident involving a raccoon in the early morning hours.

We owned a treadmill which i rarely and then never used.  We owned a nordic track skier which I rarely and then never used. I even moved it to Forest Hills and never set it up and then I moved it to Rockville Centre and used it a couple of times but found it beyond my capabilities.

I had a stationary bike in Forest Hills which was used occasionally and then not at all.  This too came to Long Island for rare use, again my inability to stick with it and the difficulty of using it.

In recent years, exercise has been a craze that passed me by, but my limitations now have called me to it.  I can’t run, I hope to be able to walk more than a couple of blocks.  In the ideal world, I’ll be able to throw away the cane, I’ll be able to take trains and subways (managing the stairs) and I’ll visit West 83rd Street to see how much it has changed.

I know that keeping at it is the secret to achieving this goal and I’ll try.

ken@leavingwest83rdstreet.com

11/05/2022

Riding

I have written about summer camp but not specifically about horseback riding.  It was sensational.  Each morning the bus picked me up on West 83rd Street and took me to the “wilds” of Yonkers in the Silver Birch Ranch Day Camp.  The “wilds” being high on a hill above the Tuckahoe Road exit number 6 on the NYS thruway.

Being a West Side kid I knew about the riders in Central Park and the Claremont Stables.  But Silver Birch was different.

The corral wasn’t very big.  It was on two levels, well sort of, with a little trail up some not so big rocks that led from the lower to the upper flat area.  The lower area was where you would typically find the horses tied up to the wooden post and rail fence and Jerry, the riding counselor, perched.

We all wore cowboy boots, those of us who helped out.  The campers were encouraged to wear at least hard sole shoes.  We wore western snap button shirts and jeans, just like Jerry.  His girlfriend was Gail, the best looking counselor in the camp, of course.

We taught campers how to bridle and saddle the horses.  We were a small operation. We let them ride around the flat upper part of the corral and then we taught them how to brush down the animals.

The older kids got to go out on the trails that left the upper camp area which surrounded the upper corral.  This was mostly a walking ride with Jerry in the front and one of us, the counselors-in-training (CIT), bringing up the rear.  For the better riders the trail ride included an area where they were encouraged to run their horses.

Credit Colin Lloyd on Unsplash.com

And then there was the time the horse fell on me.  While Jerry sat on the fence around the upper part of the corral I took one of the horses to ride in loops.  Forgetting that the animal was slightly lame on the left I was making left turns until….over we went.  I got untangled as the horse got back on his hooves and Jerry looked down at me and said, “Is the horse all right?”

Sally and Milt, who owned the camp, used to tell us about the time when they rode on the NYS Thruway while it was a dirt route under construction to become the highway we all know.

They were great folks.  Sally was a nurse.  She seemed to be the person running the day to day operation.  Milt, if I recall correctly was a doctor.  We didn’t see him every day.  They had  a daughter, Garth Allison, who was several years younger than me.  She had a crush on me and I thought she was very pretty and I was very flattered.  They had a gorgeous Irish Setter named Maverick.  He was friends with us all.

Sally gathered the CITs together in the office one day and we talked about pimples.  She was very firm in her belief that most if not all of us had skin which was adversely impacted by milk.  I stopped drinking milk and stopped getting any pimples.

I stayed with family on the camp grounds for to weeks one summer while my parents were away.  My mother was in Europe with her best friend, Florence, and dad was in California working.  It was fun being with Sally and Milt, Garth and Maverick.

In my last year as a CIT, I had visions of Jerry moving on and me taking over.  Instead, sadly, Sally and Milt sold the camp to a developer.  Now when you look up from the Thruway around the Tuckahoe Road exit you see houses.  What a loss!  I really loved it there in the wilds of Yonkers.

Acne (no photos please)

I was one of the lucky ones.  My pimples were few and far between.  Others were tortured by their skin eruptions.  And, as we know children, particularly teens, can be very cruel.

But it wasn’t just acne that resulted in exclusion from the group that went to most of the parties, sat at lunch together or just hung out.  There were those considered “ugly” or “fat” or just plain peculiar.

I don’t think I was cruel but I participated in the exclusion.  I remember a girl who was known to have a crush on me in 7th grade.  I paid her little attention because she was not attractive or socially adept.  I’ve wondered, often, how she grew up and what I might have missed.

When we played post office or spin the bottle there was always someone you didn’t want to be with in that darkened room or to whom you did not wish the bottle to point.  You kissed or made out anyway.

And we were segregationists.  I don’t remember any of my fellow elementary classmates of color being included in activities outside of school.  In fact I remember no social inclusion at all until college and there it was unusual.  

In high school, because it was all boys, there was little socializing outside of the 15th Street building except at football games and the Hunter and Julia Richman school dances.  At the latter I didn’t participate much and don’t recall anything inter-racial. 

For me, I don’t believe the separations were conscious until the civil rights movement exploded on college campus’. My era saw the birth of Black studies curricula.  In those days to be liberal meant not to notice the color of people.  Today it is rightfully different.

My co-chair of the President’s Commission on Drug Use at CCNY was a Black woman, I don’t think I noticed.  And my sociology mentor was a Black man, this I noticed, probably because I first encountered Dr. Walter C. Bailey in a class called “minority groups,” where he made a big effort to educate the previously insulated White kids about racism in life’s daily encounters, language and history.  He was successful in creating change in me.

Looking back at college I can recall the battle between Greek life and House Plan life.  Fraternities were very ethnic, Houses, less so.  I was in House Plan but even here I remember separation by race and religion. 

I can say that I am sorry it was generally like that and that I was like that.  Even if the segregation was unconscious or unintentional, we all could have gained from knowing each other better.

My adult life has been less separatist, mostly because of work.  But looking back, because most of my socializing was based around the synagogue, it too was isolating.  

I try to recognize opportunities today but I still encounter myself seeing stereotypes.  And when I look at the world around me, I see that so much has not changed from the days on West 83rd Street.

Brands

There was Hellmann’s and Skippy and Savarin, Wheaties and Wonder.  So many brands that I was raised on.  Today I use two of these four and don’t think I would consider else wise.  I don’t brew coffee like my father did, so no Savirin.  I don’t eat much white bread, so no Wonder.

There were non-consumables too like Castro Convertibles opened by the little Castro girl.  So many things that shaped our consumption habits.

Most of the advertising I was exposed to was on television and most of that on Saturday morning and after homework was done during the week.

I don’t remember what Hoppy pushed or Sky King, Superman, Cisco, or even The Mickey Mouse Club.  Most of the commercials, too are long gone from my memory.  I have a friend who can still sing the Buster Brown jingle.

Photo by Towfiqu barbhuiya on Unsplash

Streaming today, using services like freevee, that has commercials, is just repetitive junk mail delivered on the screen.

The brands I recall from the neighborhood were shoes.  Bostonian on the northwest corner of 83rd and Broadway and Florsheim on the southwest corner.  Woolworths on the northeast corner of 79th and Broadway wasn’t a brand but it sure was a presence.

There was also Horn and Hardart known to me for its nickel slots in the automat rather than its famous coffee.  Schrafft’s, famous for its ice cream was a ubiquitous restaurant chain as well as present locally on Broadway near 82nd.

Rexall drug stores seemed to be everywhere.  I don’t remember the name of the big drug store on the west side of Broadway near 81st Street, Beck Drug maybe?  I just recall that it had everything.

There were other chains as well but not as everywhere as the burger places I’ve learned to ignore.

What do you remember about shopping between 79th and 86th on Broadway?

ONE HUNDRED

WordPress informs that the next essay (this one) will be my 100th posted to LeavingWest83rdStreet.  What to write for the 100th essay is a serious question. The first 99 have brought me friends, old and new.  They have brought me great joy.  They have brought memories to my consciousness that might otherwise have been lost.  They have made me think in greater depth about friends and particularly about my family. 

The boy who grew up on West 83rd Street passed through many things.  The group of boys who lived in 222, supplemented frequently by neighborhood friends (hi Jon) shared many experiences and many people.

There were the children of a dentist, a lawyer, a writer (that was me).  The other parental professions are lost to the ages, if they were ever known.

I find myself drowning in all this, unable to pick one soul or one untold story that merits this placement.

So, I do nothing new except send a message.

To my faithful readers, Thank You.

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.