EDWARD YANOWITZ (1918-2003)
I got a job once. I was about twelve and I was standing outside of the Second Ave heater at Second Street and Second Avenue looking at the pictures on a sandwich board that was leaning against the wall in the front of the lobby. A giant of a man with a painted face, wearing a tall hat and red and white striped trousers spoke to me.
"You want a job?"
"Yeah, you want to work?"
"I go to school."
"After school. Three hours a day and three dollars a week."
That was a lot of money! "Awright. When do I start?"
"Tomorrow. Be here four o'clock."
I told my mother. She wished me good luck and on the morrow I became a working man. My boss sent me out to get him a sandwich and when I was coming back into the theater a kid a little older than I stopped me.
"You woikin' for him?"
"Yeah," I smiled.
"Did he try anything yet?"
I was puzzled. "What d'yeh mean?"
"You'll find out." He walked away.
The boss wanted me to help him make up when I came backstage. He gave me a small brush with some chalky stuff on it and told me to brush his forehead with it. He was much too tall to reach and he pulled a stool over and told me to stand on it. I was eager to do a good job and was involved in doing what I thought he wanted me to do, when I felt his hand on me where I had never had anybody else's hand except my mother's when I was too young to wash myself. I pushed his hand away.
"What's the matter? You worried about your petzahleh?" His face was wreathed in a sickly grin.
"I don't like it, that's all. "
He didn't touch me again and when I got down from the stool, I left him and the theater and my first job.
I had another strange experience when I was even younger. Since my mother worked and we kids would come home after school and my mother worried about what might happen in the house or on the street, she arranged for us to attend a day nursery. It was next door to the Hebrew School. I remember eating breakfast there and some cookies and milk after school. I remember falling dreamfully in love with a girl named Sylvia Silberstien, who never gave me any indication of reciprocation. I'd sit on the first floor fire-escape, she lived on Fourth Street also, and I'd sing to myself, "Why does my heart skip a beat, when I hear a little footstep on the street? It's a precious little thing called love." And once in a while I'd get a heartflutter when I spied her.
That's not the strange experience. The Hebrew Yard was at ground level and the day nursery had a cellar which went below ground level. The basement windows of the day nursery were of opaque wired glass and came above ground level. One day when I came out to the Hebrew Yard I noticed a group of boys standing close to one of the windows that was tilted open from the top about four inches. They were very quiet, but they were smiling with relish. The window was pulled shut before I got to it, but Oscar Rosenblatt, about eleven, was anxious to share his nouveau experience with everyone.
" The girls are takin' showers down there. They're using cups to compare their tits. Tillie had to use a soup bowl!" he chortled.
Oscar was a tough little kid. He copied his older brother, Izzy, or "Shorty," who was supposed to be real tough. They were pretty friendly with me though I didn't understand why. One evening, they invited me to the movies. I was easily convinced to go and I was really interested in what was going on on the screen when Izzy said something I didn't catch and he took my hand and said, "Grab this," and it took me an eternal second to realize that he had placed my fingers around his member. I pulled my hand away, and both he and Oscar laughed.
I didn't know how to leave and they didn't do anything else so I stayed to the end of the movie. When we got out, Izzy said, "Come on up to the house."
I tried to make an excuse, but was persuaded by camaraderie. When we got into their apartment, Izzy started fooling around with Oscar. I didn't understand what was going on. Izzy unzipped his fly and said to Oscar, "Come on, boy, do your daily dozen." Nothing happened, but I finally stuck by a lame excuse and left and never went anywhere with them again.
* * * * *
I had three fights in my life and avoided a lot more. One was with a kid named Oscar Popper, who took a dislike to me. He was about my size and a little heavier. I think it was in the summer of my thirteenth year. I had been bar mitzvahed and had followed the prescribed rituals for about a month, I guess, but laygen tvillum was too tedious and I was never heavily religious. I was a late sexual bloomer and hadn't pursued all the inquiries that eventually became important to me.
Oscar persisted in trying to rile me. He wouldn't get physical with me, but he taunted me with one very stupid remark. He'd say, "Hahaha, your mother had six kids. You know what that means, don't you? Your father did it to her six times."
Even in my naive state I knew his logic was way off and I didn't really want to fight, but I said, "Shut up!" and he said, "You wanna fight?" and I had to say, "Yeah," and so we fought in the Hebrew Yard and some adult stopped the fight and everybody told me I won. I know I hit him a few times and he hit me a few times, but at least he didn't fling this taunt at me anymore.
I had a grudge fight in Surprise Lake Camp, which was set up by one of the counselers. We wore big, heavy gloves and I was declared the winner there also, but I never really counted that as a fight.
There was a kid named Marvin Gold who also developed an antagonism towards me. This happened in eighth grade. He'd say something insulting, for instance when we were going up the stairs. I'd stop and turn, and he'd sneer, and then I'd continue upstairs. He became more and more of a nuisance and I didn't want to fight. Finally, I couldn't take it anymore and we had a slight wrestling match on a staircase landing, at which time we contracted to have a fist fight.
He was at least my size and he hit me a couple of times and I hit him a couple more as hard as I could because he had gotten me sore. The fight took place in Tompkins Square Park near Junior High School 64. We fought for a while before an adult stopped us. I didn't feel hurt and the next day was Friday and Marvin didn't come to school.
On Monday he showed up and my eighth grade English teacher asked him why his face was all black and blue. He said he'd been sparring with his uncle and his uncle got a little rough. After class the teacher asked me to stay. I didn't know what for until she smiled and patted my hand and said, "Good. He's deserved it for a long time."
* * * * *
My mother's health didn't improve. We were on relief and eked out an existence. Sometimes my father's court-ordered ten dollars a week would come for a while. One of my great failings was that I didn't know what was going on.
My brother was the mensch; my mother let me know it often enough, so I didn't bother my head about family problems. The selfisheh chaleryeh was wrapped up in himself and his hobbies.
One day Sammy Feinberg, my best friend, who shared a great deal of my love for living things, was fishing with me in the 69th Street Lake in Central Park. There were elaborate semicircular steps leading down into the lake and thick, low stone fences, each from ten to twenty feet long with rounded, sculptured tops, that ran along the lake in a straight line at that end.
We were sitting on one of these parapets, fishing for sunnies. We used a piece of black cotton tied to a bent pin that we'd shape with our front teeth. We used a flour and water mix for bait. We didn't have much luck at first and then Sammy caught a nice, aquarium sized one. He put it in a milk bottle only half full of water because we knew fish needed oxygen. A little later he caught another nice one and then I finally caught one–a little big–but I didn't want to throw it back. I caught another and I had two in my milk bottle. I suggested we quit so that the fish would live, but Sammy got a bite and had another one.
He wanted to quit then, but I didn't want to. He caught another one and then I did, but he still had one more than I did. I caught up to him, but the fever was on me and I caught another one almost immediately. I wanted to quit because the sunnies were gulping for air at the top of the water in my bottle, but Sammy had to catch up; and by the time he did, we had sunnies packed like sardines in the milk bottles. There wasn't one alive in my bottle when I got home. Mom scaled them, cut off their heads and fins and ground them up bones and all and made some delicious fishballs out of them and food always came in handy.
* * * * *
When I was fifteen I kissed my first girl, and it almost spoiled sex for me for life. If kissing could be so obnoxious, what was I in for? It was "The Girl Next Door." Sound romantic? Poor kid, she had a heck of an acne affliction and my only conversation previous to her seduction of me took place with me sitting on the toilet in the hall and her opening the imperfectly latched door and catching me with my pants down.
"Hey!" I shouted spiritedly.
"Oh!" she replied.
I can't blame her completely. I was a late bloomer and ready for experimentation. She waylaid me in the hallway and said, "Hi, ya wanna go up on the roof?"
What could I say, "No?" No, I couldn't; we went and at her invitation I sat down on one of the low walls that separated the tenement buildings and she sat next to me. I was nervous. I really didn't know what to do. She helped me. She snuggled up to me and put her arm around my back. I had to reciprocate. Then she turned her face towards me; I turned mine; she brought her lips close to mine; our lips met. . .
One thing that has had the tendency to drive me insane throughout my life is girlish laughter in my presence directed at me. I think her name was also Sylvia. She laughed and she laughed and she laughed. Perhaps it was only three seconds, but it was much too long.
"You smacked your lips," she snickered.
I thought that was the way you kissed. I tried it her way and it was not pleasant. I don't know how I got away from her, but I always held the toilet door tightly closed and I never went up on the roof without scouting it first.
The roof was a great place to go. It was five stories up and I would crawl to the edge until I could just barely see the street. My stomach would turn, but I'd stay there for a few moments. I tried getting up on my knees and was proudly fearful when I succeeded. I couldn't bring my foot close to the edge though.
I used to walk down to Battery Park to go to the Aquarium, a wonderful building that had been converted from an armory to the greatest collection of aquatic creatures that has ever existed in the world. I've been to a lot of sorry imitations so I speak with authority. There were sharks, electric eels that lit electric lights, seals whose echoing honks bounced resoundingly from the walls of the giant building, and colorful fish from all over the world. All around the edge of the sea lion tank was a live setup about two feet wide that demonstrated the life history of the salmon. First the brilliant red eggs, then the hatching fry separated from their older siblings by progressively higher steplike falls, which they jumped as they grew strong enough.
One day on the way to the Aquarium, as I was passing Wall Street, I found myself being trailed by a large, hairy dog. I always loved animals so I reached over–his head came to my hip–and petted him. That was it. He wouldn't leave me. He insisted on following me, which may have influenced me to change my mind about the Aquarium. I turned around and started back home.
It was natural for me to call him, "Buck." I had read Call of the Wild and he looked like a "Buck." He was so friendly and so playful. He'd take my hand in his mouth and chew it carefully; I'd wrestle with him, he'd snap at me playfully. He was my dream of a dog.
Nobody was home when I got upstairs. I figured Buck was hungry so I looked for something, anything. There were some old, boiled potatoes and I tossed them piece by piece to him and he caught them and came back for more. I ran out of them and found an old piece of dried rye bread as hard as rock. I tried to cut a piece off the piece; the knife slipped and I finally learned the difference between arteries and veins. I hit a gusher in my left wrist–the scar is still there–and clamped down hard with my right hand to stop the flow of blood. It took time, but I held it hard and then wrapped a rag around it, and while Buck commiserated with me, coagulation took place. There were a couple of times I was fooled, but in the end, it ended.
I didn't want to tell my mother, so I cleaned up, wrapped a clean rag around my wrist, and when she asked, I said it was nothing.
That night I took Buck up on the roof and tied him to a pole. He had a collar, but no information on it. In the morning I decided to walk to Central Park with him. I had no leash; I didn't need one. He'd come when I'd call or whistle and I was having a lot of fun with MY dog. I usually walked up to Broadway and about Tenth Street and then would walk along Broadway to Twenty-Third Street and then along Fifth Avenue to the park. Today I walked to Third Avenue and Fourteenth Street and then I started walking on the north side of Fourteenth towards Seventh Avenue. We were next to the Fourteenth Street Armory when my world crumbled a little. Fourteenth Street has always been a high traffic street and I became frightened when Buck suddenly angled across it to the accompaniment of horns and squealing brakes. I started to chase after him and then I stopped.
He was safe on the other side. He was jumping all over a young man who was hugging and petting him with joy. Buck was doing flipflops when I finally came up to them.
"Is that your dog?" I asked.
"It's the family's. We were so worried. Did you find him?"
"I guess he found me," I said woefully.
"Come with me," he said. "I know my father'll give you a reward."
"No," I said, and turned and walked away.
"Thanks," he yelled after me.
I turned around; he waved and started walking toward the West Side. Buck didn't pay any attention to me.
My wrist throbbed a bit for a couple of days and I washed it and put iodine on the stab wound and figured it would heal up. All my cuts had always healed. After about five days my seventh grade English teacher, Mrs. Schrank, called me to the front of the room while the class was writing a composition.
"Why are you holding your arm?" she asked softly.
"Holding my arm?" I said looking at it. "Oh, it hurts a little."
"Roll up your sleeve. Ohmygod! Mason," she whispered to a boy in the front row. "I want you to go with Yanowitz to Mr. Kirke's office. And hurry."
Mr. Kirke, the principal, took one look and sent me, along with Mason, to the emergency ward of Beth Israel Hospital, which was about five blocks away. They took care of me pretty quickly. The doctor told me if I'd waited another day, I would probably have lost the arm. I don't remember what he did to me, but the swelling gradually disappeared and in a few days I was okay.
Momma was kind of upset with me and shook her head in bewilderment as she laced into me. "Vuss is the mehr mit dir? Hust nisht kyne seichel? Oy vais mir, Ich cholesh aveck!" ("What's the matter with you? Haven't you got any sense? I'm choking to death!") I guess she was a little worried.
Actually, it was just another contribution to her burdens. She had a wracking cough. She was losing weight, yet she kept trying to make a go of things. She was always a fighter. I remember witnessing, or perhaps hearing so often that I believed I'd witnessed, her collecting money on the street for an unfortunate family thrown out of their apartment by their landlord. Nickels and dimes were contributed by the poor to give the dispossessed at least a temporary possession. We walked the tightrope between possession and dispossession too often ourselves. Momma could pull out all the stops when she had to.
I never enjoyed going to Orchard Street with her. I was always ashamed of her continual bargaining. In the depths of the depression "a penny saved was a penny earned" with a vengeance. And did my mother fight for pennies! She never bought anything on Orchard Street at the price quoted. I imagine she was not unique.
Sometimes things get kaleidoscopic. I remember my mother's old world passionate screaming on the beach in Coney Island when Sylvia disappeared among the crowd under the boardwalk. She ran this way and that, not caring about the spectacle she made. What tortured imaginings must have been racing through her head! And when she found the eight-year-old, what carryings-on! Huggings and kissings and cryings and caressings.
One of the happy moments in my life was when I got the grippe. I lay on the kitchen cot. I guess I was about ten or so. Momma knelt on the floor and lifted my head to feed me spring-chicken soup. When I finished, she kissed my cheek, caressed my head and made me feel so gooooooood. I really relished that illness. I had no pain; I was just lethargic and receptive to love.
I remember she had a date once. She gave herself a permanent with curling irons she heated over the gas flame. She wasn't as proficient as a daily or monthly user; she winced as she burned her scalp. She bought a bright new flowery dress of some soft material that blew in the wind, put on lipstick and rouge and became a new woman. She was about forty then, and some friend of hers was trying to work out a match. Oh, did we kids praise Momma! I know it made her happy and it made us happy too. None of us could conceive that such a change could take place. It was not that we thought of her as ugly, but she never wore anything but old housedresses, her hair was always parted in the middle and hung about an inch below her ears, she never wore lipstick, and she was always very pale.
Nothing came of the date. In fact, I don't even remember if it was cancelled at the last minute. My mother never painted her face, got a permanent, or wore that dress again.
She tried to take in boarders once to earn more money. I think that worked for a couple of weeks and ended.
We moved from 57 East Fourth Street to Eldridge Street, which is further downtown and cheaper. We lived about a half block from Houston Street, where there were concrete handball courts, another game I didn't excel in. I went to Seward Park High School and played a lot of hooky. I had plenty of opportunities for it with my mother sick so often. Sammy and Benny visited me from Fourth Street and became much more friendly than I with the gang of girls and fellows around there.
I made the second team on the football squad and actually got into one game for about five minutes. It was all due to some strategy that Gellert, the captain of the team pulled off. He was the first team left tackle and I was his sub, so when he pretended to be hurt, I had to take his place. On the first play the Boys' High team didn't pay attention to me, and I went through the line and tackled the passer before he could get rid of the ball, causing him to lose about ten yards. That was my moment of glory.
I was a thorn in the side of Gellert in a few ways. In order to develop agility, the football team played basketball. I was told to guard him and I did too good a job of it. He complained and said something about it not being legal for me to play so tight. My ignorance had me lay back somewhat, enough for him to get a basket. I was never well-informed about sports. I was asked to come out to play for a semi-pro team and while lining up on defense, a line coach yelled something to me. I looked up. The play was called and two hundred pounds of helmet smashed my chest. That was it as far as football was concerned. My chest hurt for many months after that.
In my English class the teacher had arranged an elocution contest. There was a girl who recited something with such emotion that it made me cringe. I did "Fleurette," by Robert W. Service. This girl was so thrilled with my rendition that she made it a point to compliment me at various times and places. I would nod my thanks and move on. Gellert came to me and threatened me if I didn't leave HIS girl alone. I felt no attraction for her, poor thing, so I was properly cowed.
* * * * *