EDWARD YANOWITZ (1918-2003)
At the time of my mother's death, Hy and I were living in a three-room apartment at 64 East Fourth. We were paying fourteen dollars a month. Some years before we had placed what furniture we had in storage and never retrieved it. There was no hot water. We weren't there long enough to find out about the heat. There was a kitchen sink, a tub, a two-burner gas range, an ice box, a double bed, a chest of drawers, I think; and that was it. Of course, there were multitudes of cockroaches and rats, which probably contributed to the reason why a "Condemned" sign was pasted on the front door of the building.
My father took us to our tenement and then went across the street to the grocery with which we had dealt for about ten years. The Dolinskys were kind people who had carried us when my mother's illnesses or the tardiness of my father's checks left us destitute. Mr. Dolinsky's heavy Jewish accent didn't hide the fact that he was a thinker. He had once paid Hy to write a letter to FDR giving his ideas for bringing the country out of the Depression. I automatically sneered at the idea that a man with a Jewish accent could offer anything useful to the President of the U.S. It was the same kind of attitude that had made me squirm when my mother, wearing a clean housedress would come to school during Parents' Week.
The grocery bill was larger than it should have been. When I'd come home from school, I would often stop and get a two cent banana or a five cent Ward's cake, which was about a four inch square, two inch deep two-layer chocolate cake. I'd also buy milk to make myself a quart of my favorite cold concoction with cocoa and sugar. I'd always be on the lookout for tasties and could never deny myself any. My mother always managed to pay something to keep the bill from going through the roof. It was there now with a vengeance–I think it was close to a hundred dollars. My father must have gulped when he took care of it. That was an enormous amount during the Depression, though it bought a heck of a lot of groceries. What sighs of relief the Dolinskys must have breathed!
After long discussions they recommended a family on the ground floor of 77 East Fourth, who would probably be willing to accept Sinki as a ward. My father and Jean made the arrangements after some haggling and promising and Hy and I were hopeful. Sinki's prognosis had varied from very negative to the suggestion that, "She may grow out of it."
My father's first attempt to win Hy and me over as his children again followed an old pattern. He took us to a place we'd never been before though it was very close; a Roumanian Restaurant on Second Avenue near Fourth Street. The sky was the limit and we could choose what we wish. The amount of money he was spending got in the way of my enjoyment. We had been so poor and this lavish display offended me. Oh, the food was wonderful (not as good as Mom's cooking, of course), but I didn't enjoy it.
I guess he tried to keep his promises. He brought Sinki back from Craig Colony and she moved in with her foster family. My mother had always said that Sylvia was his favorite child and I guess her epilepsy was a blow to him. The foster family kept her for about two or three weeks and then gave up. I guess they liked the money but couldn't handle the problems. My sister's fits frightened them too much and they begged off. I think my father tried to find someone else but failed. So he gave up and Sinki went back to Craig Colony. I think my father experienced some difficulty because, while it was a state institution, they tried to collect money from the families of their patients. My father didn't want to pay and he succeeded in not doing so.
I don't know if it was the day of the funeral or the day after the funeral that we met the Glicks. Aunt May was my father's younger sister and her only son, Mike, was being bar-mitzvahed on that day. My mother hadn't liked my Aunt May and accused her, I believe correctly of stealing and destroying some of the checks for support that my father sent. I think Aunt May must have disliked my mother intensely and felt she shouldn't get any support. According to my mother, she'd send Mike to pilfer our mailbox when she knew my father had sent a check. I never learned whether my father was a party to this.
A while before my mother's death, she had signed a paper agreeing to divorce him. I know he resisted paying anything, but my mother made it very difficult for him to work in New York. She had him thrown into prison for non-support often. That's probably why he went to work for Uncle Irving. I guess in frustration he finally paid the munificent sum of fifteen hundred dollars to be free of her. The money was supposed to be divided equally among the children. I have no way of accounting as to how it became supposedly three hundred apiece. I'm reasonably sure that I got my three hundred and used it to buy a 1930 DeSoto for forty-five dollars and take a trip to Florida with Hy and my friend, Sammy. Sinki's money went into the bank under her name and she never got to use it. Minki never learned anything about her share.
The bar-mitzvah was a golden opportunity for my father to introduce his children to the family. There was quite a crowd at the Glicks' home. It was a kissing crowd, and I succumbed unwillingly to many sloppy lips applied with some vigor to parts of my face. The women were bad enough, and some of the men weren't terrible, but my Uncle Max (a generation removed) slobbered and smacked and was kind of revolting. I discovered later he liked boys. Nobody seemed to be bothered about homosexuality–or about sexuality, for that matter. I only discovered two other cases besides Uncle Max, but I was never really close to the inner grapevine. Everybody exclaimed rapturously about how much I looked like my father. There were great aunts and uncles and various types of cousins–first, second, third–I couldn't keep count.
My Aunt May was the Mother Superior of the Glick household. She ran it with a shrill voice and a velvet glove. Her husband Dave would complain as unpleasantly as possible, but she had her way. She had five children. When my father finally took Minki out of the HOA, he placed her with Aunt May. Mink wasn't happy there; she was treated as a slavey. After a couple of years, he brought her down to live in what he hoped to make a permanent home in Memphis, Tennessee where he had opened a gift shop.
Flo, the oldest of Aunt Mae's children, was married to Sam, an asthmatic. After my father's gift shop in Memphis failed, he went back on the road with Jean and arranged for Flo and Sam to board Minki, which they did for quite a number of years. They had two children, Sonny and Myra, and Mink grew to be quite fond of them. However, Flo also made a slavey of her. Mink liked Sam who treated her very nicely, but she ran away from their home twice. The Eastern climate became unbearable to Sam and he had to move to Colorado. He got involved with a woman out there and wrote to ask Flo for a divorce. I guess she must have gotten some kind of settlement and since she was a rather attractive woman was quickly grabbed up by a high school sweetheart, Harry, a five-by-five cab driver who was very glib and knew how to inflate taxi fares. He died about ten years ago and Flo married someone whose name I don't know.
Ruthie was the second daughter. She was the ravishing one and she knew it! Alas, too late. When she was sixteen she married Sid Zwirn, who was about thirty-six at the time. He was a baker and made good money. They had three children–that is three children were raised in the household. There were Bunny, Merry and Francy. Bunny and Merry were probably Sid's. Ruthie was probably the first female I ever heard who said, "fuck" with relish. She also read every pornographic book I became acquainted with. I remember talking to her about The Lives and Loves of Frank Harris, one of the literati who enjoyed cunnilingus. She would tease her husband about her boy-friends. Bunny grew up chubby and good-natured, Merry was pretty, but, horrors! married a Christian boy, and Francie was born cross-eyed but had a terrific, outgoing personality, a real stage presence, and eventually married a psychiatrist with somewhere between four and eight children. Sidney died when Ruthie was about fifty and Ruthie remarried some years later and moved to Florida.
I think I had been away in Florida with Hy and Sammy for a few months, and when I visited the Zwirn household I was shocked at Ruthie's appearance. She was pregnant and her pretty face was bloated almost beyond recognition. Her body was acceptably enlarged, but I had never seen such fat lips and fat cheeks on her before.
Sylvia came next. She was finer featured than Flo, but no great shakes. She copied Ruthie's mannerisms and eventually married Abie, who might be described as a petty hood involved in the numbers rackets and gambling in general. He was a pleasant fellow, who, I understood, could be very unpleasant. He was-dark featured and slim when I met him and in later life, after his divorce from Sylvia, became fatfaced and fatbodied. He had a great head for figures and I remember his son Butchie, while about five or six, immediately giving answers to problems like 367 times 4733. It's still hard for me to believe. He grew up to run a bagel shop. I don't remember much about Rita except that her father's later years of chubbiness showed up in her at an early age and lasted. Her disposition was delightful. Joel was born while Abie was in jail for something he got caught at. The kid was interested, I understand, in the same kinds of things I used to be–nature, tropical fish, plants. He eventually blossomed into a homosexual. Then there was Stevie, who today is a travel agent in Israel. Sylvia also married a man with a Santa Claus figure after her divorce. She has a bad heart valve and has had open-heart surgery twice.
Elsie and I were closest in age; and when I went to Morris High School at night to try to finish up so I could graduate, she went with me for a while. Her birthday was the twenty-eighth of October, which, I guess, made it easier to become friendly. She introduced me to her circle of friends and her second cousin (and mine), Miltie Ershowsky, whom she loved madly.
Among Elsie's friends were a few second cousins of mine. There was Flo Pullman, with whom I had something going for a while, though my naivete and her giggling never reached any fruition outside of some labored kissing and sneaky kitzels which were repulsed with wide-eyed shocked disapproval. Solly Pullman was the son of Joe Pullman, my granduncle, who was the twin brother of Sam Pullman who was married to the twin sister of Joe Pullman's wife. Solly Pullman was Joe Pullman's son, and somehow my second cousin. The strain on homosexuality showed up in him also. He was a very pleasant, friendly fellow.
Sally something-or-other was also a numerical cousin of mine. She was a bright chipper sparrow of a girl. It gave her a kick to steal me from Flo.She induced me to take her rowing in Central Park in the late evening and I sat on her seat and we kissed a few times and she rapturously told me of her dire plan and how angry Flo was going to be. I guess I should have felt chipper because of the value placed upon my delectability, but I felt used instead. I didn't redate Sally, though I met her and her two kids some years later when her husband unloaded a 1936 Hudson Terraplane on me.
Miltie was a year or so younger than Elsie and resisted her wiles for a while, but she was indomitable and he finally gave in. They were a nice couple. Mae and I went to their wedding. Elsie was beautiful in a wide, white wedding gown and Miltie was handsome. The Ershowsky family was famous in New York for their provisions (Salami, pastrami, corned beef)–the gantze megillah. I could usually count on Miltie for a sandwich during my hungry years. They never had any children. They sold their business in New York and moved to Florida joining Ruthie. Elsie died of cancer and Miltie married again.
Mike was Aunt Mae's fourth child. He dreamed of becoming a wheeler-dealer like his brother-in-law, Abie. He had the personality, but not the talent, and so followed his father into the ILGWU and became a business agent, no doubt through his father's connections. That wasn't strange, even then. Jobs and advancement came through nepotism ninety percent of the time. Mike was skinny to the point of gauntness. His father was skinny also, but his father was a little over five feet tall, while Mike was close to six. He married a very nice girl named Zelda, a trifle more than pleasingly plump, but also possessing a delightful, cheerful personality.
Harriet was the last child of Aunt May's. She was a child of the sixties though she was born in the thirties. She refused to be called Harriet and became Terri. She was wild and free and copied all her sisters' worst habits. She was attractive, became a model, possibly a call girl, had Christian boy friends, and died of an overdose, possibly suicide, before she was twenty.
Uncle Dave died in his sixties and Aunt May followed him about ten years later, in her seventies. They both died of heart disease. Flo is 72 now and that means that Ruthie is 69, and Sylvia must be 67. I've known them as people, cousins, for nigh on fifty years.
My father's family were card players; particularly pinochle. Whenever they got together in my Aunt May's house, Uncle Dave would bring out the cards and the game would begin. My father smoked cigars throughout the night and they would play a talking game. Uncle Irving kept up a sing-song monotone referring to each play in a kind of talmudic dissertation. They would make comments deprecating somebody else's play. They would argue, condemn whoever was their partner. (In three-hand pinochle, two players are always trying to defeat the bidder), and would joyfully slap their cards down when taking a trick. My uncle Dave was a sneerer; a small man, but aggressive, and a bit of a cheat. When laying out a meld, one card would be partially hidden behind another and quickly shuffled back into the hand. He always had to be checked. The stakes were low, but winning was everything.
Whatever women there were in the house had to cater to the needs of the men in between the poker or canasta games that they were involved in. There were never quiet games; always roars of derisive laughter, agonized groans of dismay, angry accusations, tinkling cups and glasses, crying of children–it was a circus. I watched, I learned, and I sat in when they needed a third or a fourth, and boy, did I get jeered at for stupid mistakes! It rings in my ears: "How could you do that? Didn't you see what I led? You threw away the hand!" Oh, boy, how they built my confidence!
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My Uncle Irving was married to my Aunt Etta, who had the most repulsive, dry skin I ever had to kiss. Kissing was almost Frenchlike in my father's family. Whenever I kissed her cheek, I got a strong feeling that she hated it as much as I, but custom prevailed. To compound the felony, she never returned any kisses, she would just offer her cheek. She was not an unkind woman–perhaps she had some skin affliction. Their son was Martin. When he became a practicing C.P.A, the family name was changed to Young because it was not Jewish sounding, which might have cost Marty customers. Hitler's anti-semitic propaganda had a heavy effect here in the thirties. Uncle Irving invested in the stock market and in East Side tenement buildings, and probably made a good deal of money that way.
His primary business was called "The Gotham Premium Novelty Company." My father was one of his crew bosses. The crews would go to a southern state and convince cotton mill employees and their wives that they should sell chances on a "pull-book." When all the chances were sold, the seller would have collected somewhere around twelve dollars. There would be one winner who could choose a chenille bedspread, a bathrobe, a vanity set, a blanket, or any one of several other premiums; and the seller would receive a box of toilet articles. My uncle and his partner, Sokoloff, made a great deal of money by selling in quantity.
My father explained to me that he ran his crew from Birmingham, Alabama, and that he was going to take me down there to live with him. During the explanation, though he never made any introduction per se, it became apparent that Jean was his wife.
I don't know why that bit of information had such an impact on me, but that night I went on a drunken crying jag in front of Benny and Sammy, my two best friends. They couldn't tell why I was disturbed, either. There are probably a thousand pat answers–maybe the inner-me wanted an unattached father.
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At the time of Abie's and Mama's deaths, Mink was at the HOA's camp. When she came back, I was still staying at the Lavenberg Corner House. As a treat I took her and Sinki out for a holiday. I warned Sinki not to tell Minki about any of the deaths.
Mink was twelve then. For some reason or other, Sinki made an excuse to speak to Minki on the side and told her about the death of her twin brother, Irving. Mink was terribly shocked. I thought something was wrong and asked her what the matter was. She was so frightened about what she thought I would do to Sinki, because Sinki had told her not to tell me, that she just shook her head; and since I had taken them out for a holiday, I let it go.
A short while later Hy visited Mink and told her about all three deaths. Mink fainted.
My father finally took Mink out of the home and had her board at Aunt May's home. Mink felt that she was being treated like a slavey and became very unhappy. Some notice must have been taken of this because she was then placed in Flo's home. It turned out to be a change from one overseer to another. The only difference was that Sam treated her nicely, and she became very fond of Myra and Sonny, the two children.
My father and Jean had to go back to Birmingham, Alabama, to get his crew started working. He said he would send for me as soon as he got things started. He arranged for Uncle Irving to pay Flo four dollars a week for Mink's board. Eventually Mink went to work at the Gotham Premium Novelty Company for four dollars a week. After working for too long a period at that wage, my sister asked for a raise. Uncle Irving shunted her off by telling her to ask Sokaloff. Enough nagging got Sokaloff to pay her three dollars more. When Flo found this out, she demanded that Mink pay her two more dollars for her board.
Mink's success with Sokaloff gave her enough confidence so that by the time she was sweet sixteen she had noodjehd him to raise her pay all the way up to ten dollars a week! She had, in the interim, run away from Flo twice but had to return. However, when it grew more and more apparent that her career did not lie with Gotham, she saved a little money, quit her job and quit Flo's house, and got her first sewing job at sixteen dollars a week. It was a job with a greater potential also. When Sokaloff found out how much she was making, he was flabbergasted. "Who's going to pay you sixteen dollars a week to work? It's impossible!" he said.
I don't know why, but my father had to go to Washington, D.C. and he arranged to meet me there. I traveled by train to Union Station, met him there, went to watch the Nine Old Men, listened to a boring Supreme Court in session, and then continued by train to Birmingham, Alabama. It was my first acquaintance with Jim Crow. Segregated cars weren't bad–if you were white.
My father let me order all the southern fried chicken I wanted to at my first restaurant meal in Birmingham. He finally had to give up–I wouldn't quit.
We stayed at the Brothers' boarding house, which was run by Mrs. Brothers, a widow, with the help of her two teenage sons. She was genteel, as was one of her sons; but Charlie was deep down mean and ugly. He loved to tell stories about lynchings and scatological tales about his travels. He had run away to New Orleans once and delved into the seamier perversions that he swore he had witnessed.
One horror tale, that he had or had not witnessed, concerned "this big, black buck who had done something that got the Klan sore, so they caught him, sat him down on a stump of a tree, nailed his balls to the stump with a big spike, piled brush 'round him, gave him a knife, and set fire to the brush. He had to cut or burn." And when I asked the all-too-obvious question Charlie would chortle with glee and say, "He did what you'd do," and I'd just about sicken and die.
My father was a bit put out by my East Side New York manners. However, Southern politeness started to rub off on me. I learned to say, "Please pass the okra, black-eyed peas, and other strange fodder that was available. I liked to eat so I learned early to like what I was eating. I always got a kick out of experimenting.
I went to Phillips High School in Birmingham. It wasn't the same as going to school in the North. The American History teacher seemed to take pleasure in trying to embarrass me. He called me a "Yankee," but it always sounded like "Damnyankee" when he said it. I didn't make any friends; I guess I didn't know the code words. One girl really laced it into me for being so stand-offish. She was Jewish, and I guess young, handsome, Jewish boys were at a premium. I felt totally at a loss under her lip-lash, and I would have been happy to have done something to stop her tears, but I was not, as yet, a sophisticate in the art of handling women.
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