EDWARD YANOWITZ (1918-2003)
Mom told me that I was the ugliest baby she had ever seen–hairy and dark and covered with a caul, so ugly that she could have chahlished aveck.
I was born on October 24, 1918, on Twenty-First Street between First and Second Avenues. I don't think it was in a hospital. In my infant year I was rescued from a fire and my father got into a fight with three Tahlyehners and beat the hell out of them. I was told this by experiencers who remembered, but are long gone.
My own parti-colored memories begin when I was about four. I was King of the May in some early spring festival. I and my Queen, undoubtedly a young and charming female four-year-old, held hands and led a group of young children in a file of two's. I'm pretty sure that my brother, Hy, who was three years older than I, was in my entourage somewhere in the rear. Of course I had to hold my mother's hand in my dependency. I can imagine that this may have been the beginning of my enjoyment in taking center stage.
At about the age of six I remember lying on a broad bed next to my father, who was reading The Toilers of the Sea by Victor Hugo, and feeling like cuddling, but being ignored. I could read at a pretty early age–well, maybe not read, but decipher letters and put them together. Perhaps my mother was having a baby, maybe Abie, the youngest, who was six years younger than I. I lay looking at the cracks in the bedroom wall sculpting shapes of animals, faces, demons in my fancy.
My father fried something, I know; perhaps eggs, and didn't do too good a job. He also stood up and peed in the kitchen sink. He was born in Roumania and came to the U.S. when he was about eighteen plus or minus five or six, I guess. My mother and he were married before 1915 and he was twenty-four at that time. He may have come to the Goldeneh Landt as early as 1905. I figure he was about twenty-eight years older than I, which means he was born about 1890; my mother, a year earlier.
Except for Abie, all the kids were born in October: Hy, in 1915 on the tenth; I, as already noted; Sinkie, the family tragedy, in 1921 on the seventh; and Mink and Irving, in 1923 on the 26th. The rhythm was probably broken by my parents' separations, which occurred with increasing frequency between children, so that Abie was born on March, 15, 1925. Somehow I came to understand that minor quarrels led to major quarrels which led to ascending lengths of departure by my adulterous parent and each of his apologetic returns heralded a new impregnation, a new birth. How joyous the triumphant male who marries a fertile woman! How vulnerable is the vessel!
I don't remember my mother's birthday or my father's. I don't think I ever knew them, or their wedding anniversary–small loss. Adults didn't have birthdays that needed remembering in those days.
I don't know where my father learned his trade of fur nailer, but he was an activist in the fur union. He was a very close friend of the leaders of the fur union. He'd boast that during the struggles to establish the union he had actually slept in the same bed with Ben Gold, the heroic president. The battles against the gangsters led by Louie Buckwalter, who was hired by the fur bosses, were fought with fists and pipes and knives and guns and the cops were on the side of the gangsters. That the Union won out, I know, but how, I don't know. I guess loyalty and generalship won over hirelings.
My father never spoke of any injuries he received, but he told me once how he and a comrade named Menscher, a giant of a man, would go into a scab shop and intimidate the boss and his workers. They didn't use weapons. My father was a "Shtarker," a big, strong man–what the anti-union press called a goon.
Sometimes he would reminisce about the Old Country. A piece of herring, an onion and some rye bread would suffice him, he would say, as he made his brief for his generation. It was a stronger and wiser generation than mine. Who can tell when memory bows to wished-for beliefs and who can blame a little fanciful editing of facts? How can I question that when he was five he was teaching children twice his age their alef, baises? Given the opportunity and moral and financial support there's no telling what a great scholar he might have become. Roumania was not fertile ground for the aspirations of Jews. There was a far-away look on his face when he spoke about the might-have-been in his dreams.
My mother was born in "Kovna, Gebehrnia." It was in Lithuania and I have an impression that it's not exactly a location, more a locale, a county. That's just my conjecture. "Gebehrnia" may mean "born in" and Kovna may be a large area. I know that every time I meet a Lithuanian Jew and say my mother was from Kovna, Gebehrnia, they smile as though witnessing a heavenly place or time. I don't know why, because my mother would tell me about how she would have to hide from the Cossacks during pogroms. I don't remember details, though the general picture in my mind is a lot more devastating than the one presented in Fiddler on the Roof. In my mind's eye there are bloody and contorted faces filled with fear, bent backs, eyes staring into blackness–no heroes–or perhaps all heroes.
Like all mothers, mine was beautiful, and I have pictures to prove it. In one she is seated on an ornately carved chair with her hair piled high on her head and falling in rich, heavy locks to below her hips. She's wearing a white, lacy dress and her skin is pure. I have some pictures of her in a form-hiding bathing suit posing with other young girls and occasionally with my father.
Mom read the Jewish Daily Forward and occasionally the Freiheit. She also read books. I know that Jewish boys were educated in the Talmud Torah, but I don't know where girls got their education. Those that did must have struggled. She loved Sholem Aleichem's stories, and I think her bias was a bit to the left of the Forward's "Jews shouldn't be noticed. They should behave themselves and keep quiet about injustices."
My mother worked as a sewing machine operator before her marriage. Working conditions must have colored her attitude. My father must have influenced her also. He was a furrier, a member of one the most red-baited unions around. I never did learn about her wedding and whether her nine brothers and sisters attended. Her mother must have.
While my father lived with us, we moved to and in the Bronx several times. There was Brook Avenue, a Hundred and Sixty Third Street, St. Anne's Avenue–especially St. Anne's Avenue where we lived on the ground floor in front. You walked up about four stone steps that were placed equidistantly between two large windows of two separate apartments. We lived in one of the apartments. I think I was six, maybe a year older–it's hard to pick time's snarls apart.
I had a healthy curiosity as a child. When my mother took me to register for first grade, the enrollment desk was down in the physical training area which was marked off with white squares and had basketball hoops on the high walls. I became intrigued by the water fountains. I tried to figure out how they worked and while my mother was talking to the clerk, I knelt down on my hands and knees to investigate the underworkings of a fountain. "Ehr cookt vee der feece vackst," (He looks to see where the feet grow from) she would say with a mixture of pride and exasperation later on in my life.
I was absorbed in The Adventures of Woody Woodchuck and Reddy Fox was ready to pounce, when my mother interrupted me.
"Eddaleh, a girl wants to talk to you."
"A girl? What!" To say the least I was disconcerted. I had no idea about those creatures, outside of my sisters, and I very hesitantly went to the door. It was a girl about my age with whom I had a very passing acquaintance. She lived in one of the rear apartments on our floor. Her family was German and they were celebrating Christmas. I followed her hesitantly and was not really greeted by the family. It was a wonderful looking tree, all green and silver, wide and tall and beneath its lower branches were variously shaped colored boxes. Perhaps my embarrassment kept me form feeling welcome. I left soon after my inviter offered me a cookie. I don't know if "Thank you," was part of my vocabulary then. I paid for that cookie for years when my family teased me about my "girl friend." I was a blusher at least from then on into my dotage.
Time jumps, skips, and falls back upon itself. My mother gave me a half-dollar to buy some groceries, and I put on some roller skates which were probably Hy's and awkwardly stumbled and rolled past my grammar school, PS 38, which had a metal grillwork fence along its front, clutching this precious half-dollar in my sweaty fist, when adventure struck! I suddenly found myself pushed against the fence by two young would-be thieves who demanded my money. Desperately and thoughtlessly I pushed them aside and clopped back the way I'd come and they never caught me. I know I babbled to my mother about my terrible ordeal and I can't remember if she made the proper fuss over me, but I felt a bit heroic. I think I was eight.
(I saw my first cotton boll then. It was an Amazement! Cotton was a plant that grew! It had seeds! I don't know where it came from, but it happened that same night.)
Another Christmas, I think it was an earlier one, Hy and I were staring into a bookstore. We must have looked like a couple of Hugo's gamins or Dickens' street urchins, because an adult (Who knows how old?) tapped us on the shoulders, brought us into the store and told us to choose books. I chose Adventures of Peter Rabbit by Thornton W. Burgess, which became the first taste I had of the wonderful world of Nature that existed in books. I once knew which book Hy got, but I've forgotten. I don't know if we thanked the man.
My brother was an omniverous reader and affected my choices strongly, except I don't believe he ever cared for the Peter Rabbit and Mother West Wind stories. He was a Frank and Dick Merriwell reader. Dick was the younger brother and obviously my favorite. At times I think the Merriwell boys destroyed me. The author, Burt L. Standish, made them so totally heroic, morally and physically, that in trying to copy them I became so critical of what they thought was evil that I adopted a Victorian outlook on life. I didn't use a four letter word freely until years after I was married. When I went to the Civilian Conservation Corps the fellow used to laugh at the way I said fuck. It was unnatural on my tongue. It became natural eventually, but I'm still a bit shocked when today's women curse in front of me. I grew up a prude.
When Hy was ten and I was seven, he received a gift from my mother's sister, Aunt Helen, and her husband, Uncle Julius, from Rockford, Illinois. It was a set of ten books called The Wit and Humor of America. Among the stories and anecdotes were numerous poems that I used to either read or sing aloud while lying on the floor in our various kitchens. The linoleum became more cracked and torn and discolored as we moved downward to lower and lower rents as money grew scarcer, but I got such pleasure out of what I was doing that I could have been on the stage of a theater. This pastime, which lasted into my teens, started when that wonderful set arrived. I still recite and sing poems aloud.
My father's good looks and his involvement in union activities gave him an opportunity for several adulterous relationships. Once, as a cover-up, he sent the family to a place called Rubel's Farm House, some distance from the city. My mother dressed in pepper-and-salt knickers, I remember. I was old enough to fall in love, and I did, madly. I fell in love with the World of Nature. I sniffed at the watermelony odor on the fresh peeled bark of apple trees, I thrilled at seeing tadpoles in an old discarded bathtub, I was enthralled at the sight of udders squeezed, the hiss of milk jetting into a bucket, the taste of strained, warm milk right from the cow, the country fields, the trees, the skies, the stars ...the Wonder!
The higher the rise, the more precipitous the fall. The quarrels had always been loud and long and I remember shrinking in fear and wincing when my father hit my mother. This one reached the zenith as suspicion became certainty. We children huddled together as my mother wept hysterically and swept glassware and potteryware from the top of the china closet and bureau. I still remember the boy and girl china dolls that were each over a foot tall smashing, their hollow insides of white plaster contrasting with their vividly colored red and blue exteriors. I remember my mother sitting on a trunk that just fitted into a kind of alcove, with us children clinging to her as she wept. I was eight. I think that was the last time I saw my father as a member of our household. I imagine a slamming of a door and a whimpering.
I used to pick up items of information from my mother's conversations with her friends, Sophie Diamond, Gussie (both unmarried), and Sophie Schlachter, another deserted wife, but she only had one child, a daughter, and a husband whose support payments were regular. I'd lie on the floor reading and not really paying attention until their voices dropped. My mother complained that my father would leave her each time after he made her pregnant; she would forgive him when he returned, become pregnant again, and the cycle would repeat itself. Eventually there was no more forgiveness left.
One of the last times my father and mother had a physical disagreement we children were sent to spend some time (perhaps only one night) with my father's mother: Bubbah is what we called her and she was a stern, unsmiling woman as I remember her. I don't remember if Zayda was alive, but his presence was evident in the stern, unsmiling face that stared down from the large framed picture that hung on the wall.
My Aunt Rose Waldman, my father's older sister, was having the same trouble with her husband as my mother was having with hers and her children were also being given sanctuary at the same time we were. I have the impression that Bubbah was unhappy with my mother because my mother had dumped us on her.
I had my first sexual experience that night. This was B.M. (before the Merriwells). Beds were at a premium and I slept with Aunt Rose's daughters in a pretty tight fit. There was Florence, who was about a year older than I, and Dorothy, about my age. I strove to lie as far as possible from Florence but was finally seduced by the loveliness of her bare eight-year-old shoulder and, ever-so-delicately, driven by pre-adolescent lust, I sneakily pressed my lips for an incandescent moment on that smoothest of all surfaces and quickly turned away.
Bubbah's children were my Aunt Rose, whose husband deserted her; my father, Louis; my Aunt May, who was married to Uncle Dave, a wily pinochler, who had to be watched; and my Uncle Irving, the rich Yanowitz, became Young along with his wife, Aunt Etta, when their son, Martin, became a CPA.
Aunt Rose had three children. There was Eddie, who was two years older than Hy, which made him five years older than I was. He was a kind of bigger bigger brother and I liked him. Then Florence, who was always pleasant and supportive, and Dorothy, who was a ravishing beauty.
Eddie was quite a womanizer when he was young and the pleasures of the pursuit never left him. Mae and I went to the wedding of another Eddie, the son of our closest friends when we were poultry farmers, the Kaisers. The wedding took place in Boston; and on the way home I decided to call Eddie Waldman, who lived in Providence, Rhode Island.
We were invited over with warmth, met his wife and daughter, given a strong suggestion that we move to Providence because Eddie was so lonely and incidentally were informed about how easy it was to screw the poor schmucks that bought furniture at his store, mostly "niggers." They were persuaded to buy what they couldn't afford and when they couldn't pay the installments Eddie would repossess the items and keep the payments so that the poorer the slob, the greater the rooking. Eddie chortled as he told me this. It was all a big joke and very profitable.
He had a lovely daughter of about sixteen and a very hospitable, charming wife. It seemed like a happy family until Eddie drew me aside and confided, "You get tired of any hole after awhile." Coward that I was, I could only smile weakly.
He told me of some of his conquests when he canvassed down South for The Gotham Premium Novelty Company which was owned by my Uncle Irving and his junior partner, Sokoloff. Eddie was part of a crew that would stop at a mill town and go from door to door to try to persuade the worker's wives to sell chances from pullbooks to their neighbors and friends. The winner and the seller would get chenille bedspreads and the losers would get small items like razor blades, toothpaste, perfumes; all very cheap stuff, but enticing to the poor mill worker's wife. Eddie was good at selling and even better at seducing, to hear him tell it. His hyperactive hormones, untempered by love, led him to follow in his father's footsteps and my father's example. He strayed too far and too often and eventually embraced singlehood again.
My father was the chief of one of the crews and made a good living from it. He couldn't work in New York City, because he was constantly delinquent in his support payments and my mother would have him picked up and thrown into a jail cell.
One of his crew members was Jean, whom I eventually discovered was my stepmother. She was thirty-two when I met her; my father, forty-six; I, seventeen. I don't know when they got married and I don't know why it bothered me that it must have been before my mother died. I was never formally introduced to Jean. When it finally hit me, I was tremendously upset, got stinking drunk and babbled to my friends, Sammy and Benny, who tried to comfort me–for I don't know what.
Eddie's sister, Florence, married a chicken broker, Oscar, who was very pleasant and phlegmatic. Dorothy married a rich man, Murray Cohen, who was a practicing lawyer. He gave up his practice to take over his father's immensely successful children's clothing factory. When he was about fifty, he returned to law.
Returning from one of the funerals that the family attended, Aunt Rose was killed in an automobile accident. Dorothy drove the car.
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