EDWARD YANOWITZ (1918-2003)
My father left and money left with him. Mom moved us down to the East Side between Second and Third Avenues to 71 East Fourth Street, first floor front. I think the Jews were in the majority on East Fourth in 1926. There was a mix–Poles, Irish, Italians, an occasional black–Hungarians, Lithuanians, Galicians, Russians, Germans–Czeck and double-check Americans.
There was a kid pitching pennies at a sidewalk crack. I was curious. "What do you do?" He explained whoever got the coin closest to the crack won. I only had one coin, a quarter. My mother's youngest brother, Uncle Willie, had visited us and was generous. I pitched the quarter. I lost. Spector, that was the SOB's name took it. I protested in vain. That's the way you play the game. I've played it a lot since then. Never did learn how to win.
There were several meeting halls on the block and on Yom Kippur, one that was devoted to services allowed poor kids to enter for free. It was very boring, listening to the dahvening and standing and sitting and turning to the East, and my friends and I never stayed long.
"You sinned! That was a sin!" Sammy or Benny would say. I would be a bit nonplussed because there were so many sins a Jewish boy could commit when he was amusing himself. You couldn't tear paper, you couldn't carry anything, you couldn't think about girls, you couldn't eat at all or you couldn't eat trayf when you did eat. There were always pitfalls. On Pesach don't eat Chumitzdich and don't eat in a Goy's house and make sure it's kosher whatever you eat. On a field day when I was in sixth grade, I brought a sandwich for lunch. One sandwich! I was hungry; a friend offered another; I ate. Meat with grease on it? Butter! Oy what a sin!
God punished me. I was in a hundred yard dash and He convinced me that I should reserve my speed until the finish the same way Frank Merriwell did in his mile runs. I was so far behind I came in last in the next race.
I went to Chedar on Fifth Street. I learned to mumble as fast as I could, words I didn't understand. Eventually I learned the Hebrew for pen and pencil and man and woman and that was about it. There were classmates (only boys) who mumbled so fast I wouldn't have understood what they said if I could have understood what they said. I went to Shul and tried to dahven, but always needed the help of some Tahless-garbed elder, who without ceasing his genuflecting, would patiently flip the pages of the sidder and point to the correct place. As soon as he turned around I'd be lost.
As a scholar I didn't shine, but when it came to recitations in Hebrew, I was It. I always got a fountain pen at Channukah. The Rebbe would Kvell over me and comment about how well I expressed the meaning of The Holy Writ.
I loved the Bible stories and I loved and feared God and was eventually bar-mitzvahed and ribbed my left arm with the tight tvilim and bowed to the East and my intentions were honorable, but like New Year Resolutions quickly undone. I was a graduate Jew, qualified to be part of a minyan, but not prepared to affirm my Jewishness, and quite willing to let it lapse. I was considered a Goy by the orthodox Jews, but that word was bandied about by them as much as Jew Bastard was bandied about by too, too many otherwise sensible humans.
Manhattan Center was used for union meetings. A cellar establishment next to it was used as a distribution center for Eskimo Pies–no bicycle carts in those days; the vendors pushed them. When a cake of the solid carbon dioxide that was used to keep the pies frozen broke we kids would snatch pieces and have fun watching the marvel of ice boiling in water and giving off clouds of steam. We'd juggle pieces from one hand to the other just quickly enough not to get a frost burn.
There was a broad, tall (five stories, at least) building where Steinway pianos were either stored or manufactured. As we grew older we boys would try to throw rubber balls onto its roof from the street. Benny, who was two years older and six inches shorter than I, could do it; I couldn't. There were two candy stores across the street from each other and we kids used to play cards on the benches that were set out by the storekeepers. We played brisk, casino, poker–no money, we had none. The benches were usually safe to sit on. When we played games like Ringalevio, Three Feet Across, punchball, or stoopball, a bag of garbage might come rocketing down and either hit or spray us. It wasn't exactly like The Middle Ages because these building actually had toilets on the inside–with Running water! (Of course, they were in the hall.) It's embarrassing when a faulty lock allows the door to be yanked open by the girl next door at a very unpropitious time. And this was not The Girl Next Door. She just lived there.
Similarities existed though. We moved downwards socially and economically from 71 to 69, 57 and eventually, 60 East Fourth, a model of the tenement pits. I was about thirteen when we moved to the third floor front in 57. This building was about the fifth from the corner of Third Avenue (The Bowery) where drunks curled up in doorways or lay in the gutters dead to the world. I had graduated to my own bed, an army cot that was set up in the kitchen.
I had gone to sleep. I was awakened by what sounded like raindrops hitting the floor, occasionally hitting me, but they weren't wet. I stood on the cot and reached up to pull the string which turned on the light. I couldn't see it but I could feel it. When the light went on "Iss hut gevorren finster in mine aygen." The ceiling, the walls, the floor, the cot and I were covered with cockroaches. The light drove them away. I didn't turn it off when I went back to sleep.
Poverty declared war on us and we fought back. In the battle against roaches we rimmed the baseboard of the kitchen and the cracks around the sink and bathtub with the blue of Copper Sulphate. It was spread behind the coal stove and ice box. The bedsprings were tilted so that a corner was over a large schissel. Boiling water was poured on the corners to strike the bloated bedbugs dead–bloated with our blood. I enjoyed killing those flat, red bugs. They would hide in the thinnest crevice, but Mom was indomitable. Eventually we stopped waking up and finding our sheets smeared with our blood.
We heard the rats, but didn't see them until one night a day or so before Halloween. Driven by a creative urge, I used the enamel-topped kitchen table to draw with crayons my Halloween oeuvre. There was a backyard fence similar to the one Tom Sawyer had tightroped, with a cat perched upon it, a giant half moon with a witch on a broomstick flying between the horns, squiggles that looked like bats–and I was just filling in colors when what to my wondering eyes appeared? On the drainpipe that jutted out of the cracked and broken wall, placidly staring at me insolently, lounged a gross ugliness gnawing on a garbage scrap: A rat! I grew paralyzed, then frantic, and then coolly I threw my crayons at it, I took off a shoe and threw that, I threw a book at it, I bounced the table; and I conquered. It sauntered back to the vile depths from whence it sprung. I dared it, but it wouldn't come back. My first windmill.
I contributed to the animal life in the apartment, but no vermin! A garter snake escaped from a thread I used as a leash and scared my poor mother out of her wits when it suddenly appeared from a floor cupboard and skittered to some remote place of safety (probably where the rats were). I loosed a horde of small snapping turtles in the backyard. I transported a nest of blind, pink baby mice into our apartment, but they soon starved without a mother's love. A tenement backyard is not like a suburban one. It lies at the bottom of a canyon of crowded buildings festooned with rusting fire-escapes, numberless clotheslines and staggered, what we called, "telephone poles" but were poles used only for clothes line reels strung from the fire-escape to the pole. There were also toads and frogs in the apartment as the tadpoles reached maturity.
I started catching and keeping water creatures by the time I was twelve. In 69 East Fourth I kept them in a five-gallon butter can on the fire escape among my flora which grew in an orange crate: Poison Ivy, Virginia Creeper, thorny bushes–whatever had roots....toadstools, mushrooms...
It grew cold in the winter and a film of ice developed over my aquarium of sunnies, cabomba and anacharis, but I wasn't worried because Hy told me that fish were cold-blooded creatures and ice couldn't harm them. The ice grew thicker and my faith in my brother's advice waned. I was sure that the aquarium was a solid block of ice. In a panic I lugged the can in and placed it in the sink. It was quite a heavy load. Since they were cold-blooded creatures and couldn't feel anything, my experimental nature demanded that I discover what was hidden in the mysterious, beckoning translucence of the ice. I watched the hot water dig deeply into the thick slab and felt rather than saw an object zzzooom past me. Flapping on the floor was a dying sunny. A successful experiment: I learned that fish can die in hot water!
My mother was a dressmaker and worked in a sweatshop on Twenty-eighth Street and Sixth Avenue. She used to walk to work and back in order to save the Third Avenue trolley carfare, a nickel each way. I used to do a lot of the housework and the cooking. Mom would prepare the food and put it in the icebox. When I came home from school, I would heat it and add whatever needed to be added; onion, celery, and cut-up potatoes. If it was a soup I would bring it to a boil, skim off the scum, (Mom called it, "Sahm." She said it was poison.) and turn down the flame so that the soup would simmer. There were other directions for stews, and tzimmus, and chuck steak fried in onions. I would kosher the meat by sprinkling it with Diamond Crystal Kosher Salt, rinse it when I was supposed to do so. It saved my mother a little work and I guess it made her a little happy when she dragged herself home from a piece-work factory after at least an eight-hour day. I never counted.
On Fridays I'd scrub the kitchen floor–no mop–hands and knees and bucket, brush and rag. On some other day I'd remove the enamel top that covered the bathtub (which was in the kitchen) and I'd try to wash the clothes. I used a washboard for scrubbing, I think I soaked the white clothes in a bleach for a while, but I don't think I ever enjoyed that job. I climbed the "telephone poles" to attach the clothes line reels. I could cling very well.
The washtub was our bathtub too. One day Sophie Schlachter and her daughter, Rose, came visiting. I was washing off my weekly deposit of filth when Mom opened the kitchen-hall door exposing my all which I dunked in panic. The water was opaque with dirt so I guess my pride was hidden, but I blushed from root to topmost branch.
Hy was never called "Hy" by his friends. He was always "Yonny." I don't know why I never was. The closest I came to a nickname was "Snake." That was because Sammy, Benny and I were interested in snakes. Sammy was "Fangs," Benny was "Poison," and I was "Snake."
Hy was always a social creature; he knew everyone. If I accompanied him on a walk from Fourth Street to Fourteenth Street along Second Avenue, we couldn't take ten steps without his greeting someone or being greeted–and the greetings would extend to from ten minutes to forever. It bored me to death, but I was kind of proud of his social prowess. Of course, I envied him too. I was the good-looking one and I didn't know anybody. Personality counts, I guess. He was a member of an active club at the Stuyvesant Neighborhood House, called The Jubilos. They put on shows, they wrote skits, were very strongly anti-fascist, anti-nazi and Hy loved it.
He was treasurer for a while and spent the fifteen dollar treasury on something he wanted and was unfortunately asked to account before he could make good. My mother made good.
There was a time when for some reason or other Hy and I were the only ones at home. My mother was probably in the hospital at the time. Somehow we woke up late and Hy suggested we go to Broadway and see some movies. Some money had come into the house. We spent the day seeing five Broadway movies plus vaudeville. I think I was fourteen at the time and not as yet used to playing hooky, but it was absolutely wonderful. I think we saw Broadway Melody of 1932 and I don't remember what else.
Movies were a nickel and I loved them and I started stealing nickels from my mother's pocketbook, later dimes. I don't know if she ever suspected anything, but she was no dope. She never made an issue of it, though.
When Eddie Cantor was very popular and we had no radio, I begged my mother to buy one. I sold her on the idea by promising not to go to the movies–I wouldn't have to, and we could listen to all kinds of things and "Please, Momma, please, I promise on my word! I promise, I promise, I promise!" A few days after I had given up, an eight tube Atwater Kent was delivered to the house.
I kept my promise–for about three days, but Sunday night after Cantor sang "I Love To Spend This Hour With You," I begged my mom to give me a dime–it cost that much at night–so that I could go see a picture I just couldn't miss. She gave it to me.
I started to "watch cars" outside the Loew's Commodore on Sixth Street and Second Avenue. I was an exceptionally naive child. It was really a racket. People with cars were often afraid of what the watcher might do if turned down. I wasn't that good at it. I'd never have made a cop. I tried to keep kids from sitting on the fenders of my charges, but it was a tough neighborhood and there were tough kids around. I wasn't one of them. Nobody ever attacked me, but I didn't give out many chances. Sometimes one of my customers would have to call my attention to the fact that he was pulling away! People were nice generally and I'd get a nickel or a dime–sometimes a quarter, and once a whole half-dollar–or did I dream it? I'd bring home money to my mother. I'd buy the kids stocking fillers at Christmas time and I'd tell them stories that they begged for.
That was my Dr. Jekyll side. I was very vicious to my younger brothers and sisters. I cowed them with my gestapo tactics. I'd say, "Shut up!" and lash out at them. Hy would whack me once in a while–too often, though I suspect he was trying to be the father we lacked. One day I became so angry at him that I hid behind the kitchen door (that was the entrance to our railroad flat) and I socked him in the face when he came in. He grabbed me; he was strong, but I was no weakling, only a coward, I guess. It became a wrestling match. I remember punching futilely at his stomach and I don't remember the upshot.
My mother, in desperation, appealed to the school authorities because of my rotten behavior. I was interviewed by a psychologist(?) I think. She sat and stared at me and asked me an occasional question and referred me to the Vanderbilt Neurological Institute, which was on 168th Street and Amsterdam Avenue. There, a man who doodled throughout the time I spent with him, sometimes stared at me, but I don't recall him asking me any questions and I continued beating up my sisters and brothers.
My ever-alert imagination led me to some really interesting sadisms. Irving was older than Abie, but much more sensitive. Abie was a tough little son-of-a-bitch and would take no crap from anyone, except me, because I was still too big to whip. I would force the two of them to fight. Abie would kill Irving, though Irving would try to cope with him. I'd egg them on as Irving's tears flowed, force him to stand and take it, till he'd be on the verge of collapsing. I would hold up Abie's hand, declare him the winner, and, I think, make them shake hands.
Abie wouldn't let anyone harm Irving. They really loved each other and I loved them. I guess they were toys to me. I remember one night I was home alone and I heard them coming up the stairs. I turned out the light in the kitchen, opened the door about six inches and, forming a claw with my hand, I held it so that they would see it. They were gabbing away until they both shrieked in fear and, screaming, ran from the monstrous hand. Laughing uproariously, but a little frightened myself, I caught them both, one encircled by each of my arms, and comforted them until they quieted down. I really was a dangerous lunatic. I once slapped Mink on the side of the head and she quivered in shock for what could only have been seconds, but seemed an eternity. I was frightened then.
My mother would try to hit me sometimes in order to punish me for hitting the kids. One day she came at me with the broom, and in order to avoid her I crawled under the bed. She poked at me with the straw end as hard as she could and I tried to avoid being hit by pushing at it. The wooden end hit her in the face. She dropped the broom and clutched at her eye with a cry of pain. I scrambled out from under the bed apologizing profusely.
"I'm sorry, Mom. I didn't mean it. Mom, I'm sorry. Please, Mom, please," I cried, and I was crying, feeling her pain, hating myself, blaming myself, begging, but she turned from me and left the bedroom.
I didn't know what to do with myself. I couldn't stay in the house. I ran downstairs and started to walk uptown along Third Avenue. I think it was my self-pity that carried me along and after a few blocks I decided that I would run away from home and never come back. I had a nickel, and I could have taken the subway to Van Cortlandt Park at 242nd Street in the Bronx, but I decided to walk it and save the nickel for food. My resolve petered out at 125th Street. I could either buy a hot dog and keep on walking or I could take the subway back home. I did neither. I took the subway to Van Cortlandt Park, still determined never to go back home.
Van Cortlandt Park was my favorite place in the whole world. It was where I found all the woodland creatures that I would bring back home. Pond snails, little shiners, sunnies, killies, dragon fly larvae, mosquito wrigglers, field mice, toads, frogs, garter snakes and all kinds of plants and bugs. I walked in swampland among skunk cabbage plants, found bird nests and stood so quietly watching a flicker feed its young in a hole in a hollow tree that a chipmunk ran between my legs. It was my wonderworld.
The subway became the elevated in the Bronx and the first place one saw when entering Van Cortlandt Park was a formal garden that was laid out as a rectangle about two hundred by four hundred feet. The perimeter was a path about eight feet wide made up of crushed stone. Three or four canals about the same width as the path and fed by water from the large lake that was hidden by a railway abutment ran the length of the garden and fed off each other by connecting canals that were about forty feet apart. You crossed each canal via a short, wooden bridge that led you by a crushed stone path directly to the next canal with its wooden bridge and so on and on.
The water was filled with various forms of aquatic life; I remember huge Japanese snails, goldfish, carp, minnows and plants that made this budding naturalist a lawbreaker. Nobody ever seemed to care if I pillaged this treasure-house, but I felt like a daring thief when I collected rich stores for my aquarium at home. I had a ten gallon glass one with a metal frame now, that I had paid only $2.99 for. The salesman had proved his faith in its construction by turning it upside down and standing on its slate bottom. He weighed over two hundred.
Today the sky was gray as I trudged determinedly along the path and over the bridges, under the railroad abutment and across from the lake to the hill that led by precarious paths up to my own fairyland. To others' eyes it may have appeared a desert land. It was sparsely covered by weeds because of the gravelly soil sprinkled with scattered rocks. On my first foray here I discovered tiny creatures which I thought at first were grasshoppers, but when I caught one I discovered they were tiny toads. When one slipped under a rather sizeable rock, I heaved, and discovered my first garter snake.
Another time a flip of a rock revealed five tiny, blind baby mice and two courageous adults who gave me some insight into what daring deeds love, (or instinct?) could lead to. One can admire a mouse when it dashes bravely under the heel of a monster person to snatch its baby by the scruff of the neck and skitter away. Each parent dashed in turn. Their furs were colored differently; one a rich golden brown and the other a sleek black. I was generous. I allowed them to rescue three of their litter. The other two I placed in my shirt pocket. Somehow they crawled out on the subway ride home, but I caught them. I tried to keep them alive, but they died and I threw them in the garbage next morning.
But that was long ago. I tilted no rocks today; I saw no fairyland. I trudged dismally ahead. I felt pangs of hunger, but I throttled them. The sky grew dark. It was not night as yet. The darkness was caused by thunderheads and soon the first heavy drops fell. It was a summer's day and a summer storm and I gave up my resolution quickly under the pelting, turned and headed home.
I had probably only gone about a mile past my hilltop and when I reached it, I was dumbfounded. Niagara Falls had come to Van Cortlandt Park. Water cascaded down the ravine-like paths and I slid and coasted to the bottom of that thousand-mile hill. There was no discernible lake. Where I had walked on dry land and the macadam of the auto roadway, I now waded in water at least a foot and a half deep. When I had to walk under the railroad abutment, the water came to my waist and when I came to the first wooden bridge, I found it floating on a level with my chest. The designers of the garden had tethered them so they couldn't float away. Wearily, I pulled myself up on it, walked its length, dropped off, walked to the next and the next again and again until finally I was through the garden and sloshing up the elevated steps.
I didn't know what to do. There were a couple of people at the change booth. I looked at the exit doors, thought about sneaking onto the station platform, decided against it, and got on line. When my turn came, my tongue stumbled over itself.
"I duntaveanymoney buhcoodyalemmegotrue. . ."
The stationmaster glared at me and brusquely motioned me to get away from the window. I started to plead again, but he shook his head vigorously and indicated that I should move aside. My spirit was defeated, and I withdrew and stood feeling forlorn and hopeless. I was a cold, hungry, shivering wreck. Oh, how I yearned for home! I was just a few yards from freedom. All I had to do was to yank open an exit door and dash down the platform to the train in the station. That's all I had to do. He couldn't follow me, but what if? What if he called a conductor? I gave up. I just stood there in a blank fog.
And then someone was holding my hand and pressing something into my palm. I stared. It was a coin: a dime. I looked up and found myself looking into the wrinkled face of a little old woman, who, without saying a word, smiled and went through the turnstile. I stared after her; I looked at the dime; I lifted my head and saw that she was entering an elevated car. I ran forward to say something, the door to the car closed, the train started to move.
I stood frozen for a moment, looked at the dime again and whispered, "Thanks." I went to the change booth, got two nickels for the dime, and after putting one in the slot, went through the turnstile and walked into the subway car in a daze. It would be wonderful to report that I passed on this great fortune to some poor soul later on in life, but I don't remember doing so.
The daze lasted most of the ride home. When I finally trudged as quietly as I could up the stairs to the apartment, it was about midnight. I didn't have a key and, oh, how I was plagued by what I had done. I hesitated before knocking, tapped gently, then tried the door. It was unlocked. I opened it. In the light that leaked in from the hall I could make out my cot set up with the sheet turned down invitingly. My chest felt so tight I couldn't breathe. I undressed, crawled between the sheets and lay there with my eyes brimming and my heart full.
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