A Little Bit About Class and Religion

 

As I celebrate the arrival of the fifth year of this blog, LEAVINGWEST83RDSTREET, I thought to start with what continue to be sensitive subjects in the USA.

 

My religion, Judaism, was alway important in my West Side life.  When I was five, I was so enamored of  Rabbi Jack Cohen of the Society for the Advancement of Judaism  on West 86th Street that I begged to attend religious school.  I did, right through my bar mitzvah, about which I have already written.  My sister and I traveled different paths and I traveled more than one myself, but we both kept religion close.

 

Religion was noticeable in public school pretty much only on the day of “released time” when the Catholic kids got to go to religious education.  We Jews went after school.  I doubt that they loved their religion time any more than we did, except we had to give up play time for ours, they had to give up school.

Free Jewish Star Of David image in Vector cliparts category at pixy.org

Except for those clashes with the parochial school kids coming out of the Holy Trinity school up the block , and looking out our back windows at those same kids having their knuckles thrashed by their nuns, there was no issue of religious friction in my life.  Everybody kept to themselves or just kept quiet.

We didn’t know the difference between Catholics and other Christians, we thought they were all the same.  I don’t recall any storefront churches in those days, but I didn’t wander much east of Amsterdam Avenue or along its length.

As an adult I see religion as something over which humans have fought for centuries and continue to do so.  

Right up there with religion is class as a problem among people.  

I believe that class was an unknown differentiator to we kids in public school nine.  It was, like religion, rarely if ever discussed.  Religion popped into conversations around Bar Mitzvah and Confirmation.

Rich kids went to private schools like Franklin and McBurney and we didn’t mix with them until high school.  

There were kids with bigger apartments with Riverside Drive addresses and the West End Avenue kids did seem to have more space too, but this didn’t translate, for us, into wealth and I don’t recall ever being excluded because I lived on the other side of Broadway.

Those bigger apartments had room for a grand piano and everybody had their own bedroom.  Our dining table was moved into the living room when I had to move into dad’s study (which had been carved out of the dining room) and at that time the dining room became his work space.

I always had enough, went to a Jewish summer camp for many years and then a non-denominational day camp, and I got an allowance that grew with me.  It was, of course, never enough.  So, on my West Side there was never an issue of class.  

I’ll leave race and ethnicity for another essay.  Much has already been written but there is always more.  Here, I’ll say that unlike religion and economic class, race and ethnicity were open dividers even in elementary school as kids of color (as we would call them today) were almost completely separated from the white kids right through the public school system of the 1950s and 60s.

GOLDEN BOY

As I have written previously, my adolescence was a social one.  I learned early that theatre was an excellent vehicle for many things, not the least of which was dating.  Dad knew lots about theatre and we all enjoyed going.  I loved the ride in the jump seat of a checker cab from 83rd Street and Broadway to the theatre district.  We would pass up regular cabs for the checker ride that was so much fun.  In the fifties and sixties we understood that the West Side was filled with writers and other creatives.  It was also the home of stars.

I was not often left out of things but I felt left out being the only member of my social circle who had neither braces nor glasses.  Both PS9 and JHS 44 were filled with kids with teeth straighteners and kids with four eyes.  I met the beautiful Iris during the summer before my sixteenth birthday (1965).  Golden Boy starring Sammy Davis, Jr. was a broadway hit with a hero* of Jewish boys in the most important role.  So I took Iris for my birthday and got to wear my brand new glasses for the first time in public. Of course these had been secured at the optician’s in the Hotel Bretton Hall on the east side of Broadway between 85th and 86th Streets.  One of many such establishments in the neighborhood.

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When my sister’s birthday and fathers’ day fell on the same Sunday, it too was a time of celebration by going to the theatre.  That night we went to see Pal Joey.  Dad tripped on the way up the stairs and limped to our seats.  Before intermission he was so uncomfortable that he left and took a cab home.  It was the next day that I learned that he had actually fractured his leg when he fell.

PS9 was the elementary school of many future theatre persona of note; TV stars, too, graduated from ‘9’. It is said that among them were Hamlisch and Winkler, could be true.

We were well versed in the stage as it was common for numerous elementary school classes to perform for assemblies.  My sixth grade class did The Mikado and my sister’s sixth grade class had put on Pinafore.  Both Mrs. Miller and my father, the volunteer director, thought that Gilbert & Sullivan operettas were shows to which all west side kids should be exposed.  I do believe that my love of G&S works and other theater can be traced directly back to those assemblies as well as the love of theater in apartment 9E.

While the Beacon Theatre had given up it’s live stage vaudeville to become a movie theatre, the Promenade Theatre up the block and downstairs became home to great shows like Godspell which I fell in love with in that little West Side theatre.  Godspell played there from 1971-1976.  The show moved to Broadway and through many tours and revivals.  In 2011 it was brought back to Broadway as a first of its kind crowdfunded production in which I invested.

That revival was not a success but my friend Ira has said “Ken, you may not have gotten your money back but you certainly got your money’s worth”.  I met people I never would have met, went to places (like 54Below) I would never have gone to, and met at least one friend I expect to keep forever.

The theatre, from PS9 until today, has been a part of my life.

*Sammy Davis was our hero because this great entertainer had converted to Judaism in the late 1950’s.

RADIO

Although there was television in the 50s and the growing phenomenon it was, radio was still significant.  The advent of rock ’n roll and the transistor radio made this  communication instrument ubiquitous.  However, radio had once been the staple of my father’s professional life.  In my infancy he had been president of the Radio Writer’s Guild and through my adolescence he wrote both radio and television shows about higher education.

At William J. O’Shea Junior High School the absolutely funniest joke during my tenure was the one about the elephant and the monkey in the bathtub, the elephant says “please pass the soap” and the monkey responds “no soap radio”.  We thought that this was extremely humorous.  Adults didn’t get it, which made it funnier.  You see, there was nothing funny except that it wasn’t.

I suppose the monkey could have responded with no soap, toilet paper but he didn’t.  It would not have made a difference but my point here is that in the early 60’s radio was still important. 

We West Side kids grew up with radio which was joined by TV to be our entertainment along with our street games and board games.  

To my life, radio was much more.

In our west side apartment one could always hear the fire department radio.  The receiver was in dad’s study and the extra speaker hung in the corner of the dining room.  Dad and I were always alert to hear our corner’s fire alarm box, one-one-three-eight and any radio calls for multiple alarm fires that would inevitably send him running off to the Red Cross building to get the canteen out to go to Bickford’s and then the fire scene to serve soup and sandwiches with other members of the Third Alarm Association.  The radio stayed on until dad’s death in 1970.

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The other radio in my life was of course rock & roll stations that brought dancing into our lives at PS9 and JHS44.  There were other stations and disc jockeys but ABC was dad’s employer, and therefore a favorite, even if he didn’t appreciate our music.

Later there was the Citizens Band radio I used as a commuter.  My handle was “gingerale”.  I was driving a green rabbit.  I joined the “six-nine convoy” and always had friends on the road.  When I began to commute with a colleague she got the handle “rider”.  The convoy met Thursday mornings at a fast food place on Astoria Blvd., it was already the 1980’s.

The comings and goings of radio in apartment 9E went beyond the constant squawking of the fire department dispatchers to shows dad had a part in.  He was known to have programmed much of the network’s music for the weekend immediately following the murder of President Kennedy.  He tried to market “Your Fire Reporter”.  He produced and wrote “Disaster” for the American Red Cross and a public service program called “Meet the Small College”.  Before my birth there had only been radio and filmmaking in his career.

As a teen walking home from “44” across 77th Street to get to Broadway and then uptown to 83rd Street you would find me with my pocket size transistor radio, like most of my friends.

At home we played records but on the street it was radio.  Sometimes strolling and sometimes while playing stoop ball or handball, the radio would provide background noise.  It was a tool of presidents and mayors and a source of support for my family.

 

Photo By Joe Haupt

Girls2

Dating was something that did not mean going out much.  It meant being a couple, going to parties, walking her home, an occasional movie date and sometimes making out.  The old West Side provided many opportunities from Rudley’s diner like atmosphere on the way home from JHS 44, to the Woolworth’s counter and movie theaters all over the place: Loew’s, Beacon, New Yorker, Thalia and many more. This post briefly explores some of my adolescent failures.  They were once embarrassing; now they’re amusing.

We moved through our classmates in elementary school, well I didn’t during fifth grade and sixth grade going steadily with one girl as explained in an earlier post.  We certainly moved through junior high too.  At William J. O’Shea Junior High School 44 we were afforded new opportunities as that school was fed by several elementary schools bringing news girls and boys together.  As far as I knew there were few if any “fast” girls in my classes.  And if truth be told, I would not have known what to do.

There was no such thing as sex education in those days.  As progressive as the West Side was, we  were left to grope our way through relationships.  

It wasn’t like we didn’t know the difference between boys and girls.  Those of us with older sisters knew a little more than those with male siblings.  I can still tell you the name of the first girl to wear a bra in elementary school.  And bra strap snapping was all the rage at some point in junior high school.

I know there was some sexual exploration between boys.  This was relatively innocent and very secretive exploration of our bodily capabilities. 

I engaged in a lot of post office and spin the bottle, kissing was the thing, but I failed to engage in anything more because of rejection as noted in the previous post or my naiveté.

I recall a couple of “fast” girls I did not know what to do with.  They will remain un-named but it was my innocence that left my virginity in tact beyond many of my friends.

I think it was my senior year at Stuyvesant when a young woman  took me to her east side apartment with no one else home and offered me everything.  I was a total failure, having no clue.

And there was another girl at another time, home alone and not knowing how to get my hands where I wanted them.

Summers were interesting as my friend Jon has pointed out.  There was no paucity of girls who wanted to be girlfriends.  I must have been something because the younger girls with crushes were numerous.  With them, of course, nothing happened.  In fact nothing serious happened with my peers either.  I was what I was, at the least unknowing innocent.

The trip from the West Side to Yonkers was made for numerous summers.  The day camp, now a housing development, was an escape from the school year routine of park play in Riverside Park and the parties in typically large West Side apartments.

 

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Every girl I can recall was amongst the prettiest, summer or school.  By late in high school I regretted not having responded to a less attractive junior high girl who was mad about me. Regretted because by then I had  better understanding of relationship potential with someone who cared.

I had a college friend in those hippy, free love days, who would say, when introduced to a girl “Hi, I want to ball you”.  It didn’t work often but it did work.  This was not my approach or my ultimate way to success.

I think that teenagers these days are very different from the way I was but I suspect that there are plenty of Kennys still around.  Some wondering what they are missing and some not.

 

Image by b0red from Pixabay

Girls

Being a teenaged boy in the early 1960’s on the west side created many social opportunities.  Beginning in the late 50’s some of my closest friends were girls.  I learned early that the best way to better understand the world of girls was to have girls as friends to explain some of what was going on.  But, there were things that could not be discussed even with friends.  Like the picture of Raquel Welch in her deer skin bikini (circa 1966) affixed to the ceiling directly over my bed.

Even with all the help, girls remained a mystery.  I’ve already written about my first great love in 5th and 6th grade, the longest relationship with a girl until my marriage at 29.  There were many others along the path, some I remember and some I don’t. 

In the early years there was lots of spin the bottle and post office.  Lots of kissing and giggling and hand holding; and endless talking, on and off the phone.  

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An interesting time, looking back, were the Stuyvesant High School years, 1963-1966.  An all boys school at the time, Stuyvesant did not provide any opportunities except the Hunter girls with whom we occasionally had dances.  We thought of them as nerds as they probably thought of us.  But, my social life was never better than it was in those years.

I’ve always thought that this was so because I actually had to work for it.  Many relationships came out of the Franklin School near Central Park West and 89th Street.  It was a private school but we were Stuyvesant boys.  I remember once, in a show-off moment, acting like the jerk I could be, walking down the double yellow line on 86th street from Central Park West to Columbus.  I vaguely recall parties too.

The last two years, 64-66, in high school I was also involved in United Synagogue Youth (USY) at B’nai Jeshurun.  I was chapter president although we had never belonged to this synagogue or any Conservative Jewish organization.  I was very active in USY attending weekend retreats, called kinusim, on Long Island and in Westchester as well the national convention in Washington DC where I was hung out a third story hotel window by my heals.

It was in USY that I met Roz of Harrison, NY.  She was two years younger than me and later was my date to my high school prom.  Harrison was a very wealthy community.  I attended an event at their synagogue and walked from the train station.  I learned about the concentric circles of such communities, the houses getting bigger as we (their youth advisor and I) walked outward to the wealthy part of town.  Her dad provided a limousine for prom night and a hotel room for Roz.  (The answer to your question is, nope!)

I also went to a prom on long island where the after party was on the beach.  Again, although this time I tried, the answer to your question is nope!

GREAT DANE

My mother was four feet eleven and one half inches tall.  That half inch was always important to her.  Dad was five foot six.  So, I was always near the front of the size places line in elementary school. I’m pretty sure I came after Charles, Elissa, Esther and Susie.  It was the way things were done at PS9 in those days.  I don’t suppose we do this to children anymore.

Mom’s stature was enhanced by high heels of course, but she remained shorter than dad.  I passed early on, though I could not tell you when.

Mom had many friends, Florence was taller, Peggy was taller, Harold was a big man.  Her sisters, one taller and one shorter, were Eleanor and Lillian respectively.  The closest great aunts on dad’s side were little.  And of course there was big Aunt Molly and Little Aunt Molly (I don’t know where they fit in).

pdpicsBut the height story I remember most clearly occurred after dad’s death.  The players were mom and me and her friend Bob and the great dane he brought along to visit at 222.  Bob was an old  boyfriend; a big man who raised big dogs.  The one he brought along to this visit was tan in color and drooled and, he could dance.

This all played out in the living room in 9E.  The stereo was turned on and the dog stood up on his hind legs, put one paw on each of mom’s shoulders, leaving his head  significantly above hers and danced with her.  Funny picture (I wish  I had one) of a fun time.  

We never had a pet when I was young.  I only remember September the cat I had for a while at 18.  You may recall her as part of the draft story.  The scars on my wrists (noted on my draft card), which were really on my hands, were made by September when she forgot to let go.

The other Kenny in the building and his sister Susan had a dog.  I don’t remember any others in the building belonging to my peers.  But I do remember a family, I knew well in my teens who had cats, a wonderful dark yellow labrador retriever, guinea pigs, field mice and at least one snake.  As you might imagine there are a lot of heart warming and not so heart warming stories from that house.

COLLEGE COMMUTER

Living on West 83rd Street made higher education convenient.  Like my father before me  I chose CCNY for my college.  While he had been the class of 1930, I would be the class of 1970.  As you will learn, like so many others I took more than four years and graduated with the class of June 1971.

There are so many facets to college life, even urban college life as a commuter from home.  Whether the social, the academic, or the travel, there are stories to be told.

My usual method to college was the #1 train to 137th Street and the hike up the long hill to Convent Avenue.  This was easy due to the training provided by the three trains required to get to Stuyvesant, the 1, the BMT and the Canarsie line.  

This all changed after Ron started using his car to go to school, a little pale blue Opel, and frequently picked me up.

And there was always the amazing M104 Bus, the scenic route, which turned East on 125th Street, but that walk resulted in the mugging I have written about previously.

Too, there was Roy’s blue Chevy Biscayne with the three speed stick on the column and the dayglow paint on the dashboard, a true hippy mobile.

**INTERIOR R21 SUBWAY CAR, CIRCA 1968, NYC TRANSIT MUSEUM

No matter how I got to City College, north campus or south there was my ever changing campus life.  That first semester, Fall 1966, I had german at eight in the morning and a class I have forgotten at 4 at least 3 days a week.  That first class was in one of the southernmost buildings on the south campus leaving me a long walk from most methods of transportation.  At least one day a week, I had nothing between those two classes.

That first semester was so unsuccessful that I dropped out of the academic life in the second semester.  I did take the upper class advisor training in January 1967 in spite of my failure to be a registered student.  

It was so easy to get to campus, as a commuter, that I could stay in the social life.  I also spent most of that semester refining my hearts game in the inter-fraternity council office.  I dropped out of my pledge class in a fraternity that season; it was not the life for me, being bossed around and reciting the Greek alphabet, and being expected to participate when I didn’t particularly want to do so.

The House Plan Association became my base of operations later in 1967.  I even held the position of lower class representative on its board.  I made lots of friends, all but their memories lost to the ages.

I pursued Bobbi for at least two years.  She was never interested and I refused to give up.  She repeatedly let me down gently.  I can still see her when I try hard.  More than anything I remember her braids.

During my house plan years I had a spot on a window sill in Finley Hall that served as my office.  Like Lucy, I provided cheap counseling for any of my friends or acquaintances in need.  What I didn’t realize until years later was that nobody provided similar service for me.

However I got there, train or car or bus, when I graduated in 1971 (41 years after my dad) I was part of the class that had survived the anti-war movement, the demonstrations against the so-called temporary huts being built on the south campus lawn and the takeover of the south campus by Black students during the open enrollment crisis which resulted in the resignation of the college’s president.

At my graduation, the last to be held in Lewisohn Stadium, there was a standing ovation and tears in my eyes when former President Buell G. Gallagher* was seen in the procession of dignitaries.  He had led the college with dignity and had my great respect.  He had been way ahead of his time in the 40s.  

Today, the campus is very different.  But, there is still the Morris Raphael Cohen Library wherein reside my father’s collected papers, loaned long term to his alma mater.  My dad talked about having Cohen as a professor who once collected an assignment and explained that after class he would head to the pool.  Those that floated would fail and those that sank would pass.

 

*Gallagher’s 1946 book Color and Conscience was among the most critically antiracist books written by any white person in the 1940s. It interrogated Jim Crow and other forms of racism in light of the history of slavery and growing anti-colonial movements. In the book he wrote that “Our racial caste system has its historical roots in slavery, but thrusts its contemporary tentacles into every crevice and cranny of the social structure throughout the nation. Slavery as ownership of chattel is gone: as a caste system, it remains.”  In this book he went so far as to criticize the ban on interracial marriage, something that was downplayed by antiracist activists in the era.