EDWARD YANOWITZ (1918-2003)
For a long time I found it difficult to find a term with which to address my father. He never called me anything but Son. It choked me to say Dad. At the table I would direct my voice directly at him and try to catch him looking towards me when I spoke to him. Sometimes my, "Pass the potatoes," would be rather loud and startling. I finally succumbed, with some rationalization that semi-satisfied me. I think he was stunned the first time I used it.
Jean was easier; I called her by name. There was a problem when people commented on how young my mother looked and I would have to say she was my stepmother. It embarrassed her and it embarrassed me also. I never could say she was my mother, though.
Mink had a bit of trouble adjusting to the Southern school she attended. She only had one friend and was generally lonely. I think she was happy when the gift shop was closed because of poor business, and Dad decided he would go back to work in fur. Jean and he went back to Brooklyn and lived with her parents, Mink went to live with Flo, I moved in with Hy. Dad had gotten Hy a fur floorboy job earlier in the year through his union connections, and he succeeded in getting me one, too. I can't remember what time of the year it was, but I know I went to Washington Irving High School at night in order to try to get my diploma. I never made it.
The Furriers Union had been fighting for workers' benefits and progressive reforms since its founding. They were an aggressive, democratic group, whose program happened to parallel that of the Communist Party of the USA. Hy had always been more politically minded than I and subscribed to a thoroughgoing radicalism. He found himself right at home with their ideals.
I remember the speeches and entertainment that were given on trucks fitted as stages on Seventh Avenue. I remember roaring at the antics of Zero Mostel mimicking Hitler, using a comb for the moustache, giving the flaccid bent arm "Heil!"; aping Mussolini: pouter-pigeon chest, jutting chin, and straight-armed fascist salute. He accompanied the imitations with calculatedly scurrilous remarks and acerbic songs that delineated their characters. Zero was about twenty-five then.
Hy had always been interested in the movies, the theater, and acting and actors. He had filled notebooks with pictures of stars and supporting players; anybody who ever appeared on the screen interested him. Once we were on the sun roof in Steeplechase Park and Hy grabbed my arm. He pointed at a fellow who he said had played the part of an elevator boy in some B-movie. He went over to him, called him by name, and got into a long conversation with him.
Hy had joined the Furriers Dramatic Group which was directed by Jules Dassin, who became a Hollywood director. He directed Zorba, the Greek. He left and was replaced by some other future-famous director; it might have been Josh Logan. I may be wrong. There was another director who showed how to break down an amateur actress's reticence when doing love scenes, by being physical with her before the rehearsals. Hy told me it worked.
When I joined , Lulla Adler, the niece of Stella and Luther Adler, was the director. She never became famous in her own right, but she was a capable coach; and, while the entire group was not talented, they were all spirited and eager to accept corrections. We were young enough to believe we had a lot to learn despite our obvious genius.
The first thing I saw the group do was a play about Limbo, where souls were held while the decisions as to where to send them were made by the Judges. Souls of people who had died violently were awaiting judgment: A lynched Negro, a murdered union organizer, a woman dead of starvation, a young soldier, and others destroyed by a casually ruthless society. Hy played the role of the murdered union organizer. It was agit prop and it succeeded in stirring me to pity and anger. It also stirred in me a desire to show how good I could be in a field where I had shown talent since I'd first opened my mouth. I never could sing worth a damn, though I tried, Lord knows, I tried, but when it came to recitations, I had THE voice.
Lulla supervised an acting class, giving us certain impromptu assignments. I was told that I was returning home to ask forgiveness of my mother for some horrible deed, and I threw myself into the task with abandon; I shrieked and cried and moaned and thrashed about and still wonder if I made a damned fool of myself, but it really felt good to let myself go. We did a lot of improvisations, where you literally devise your own role and learn to respond to, rather than anticipate, your fellow actor's moves. It was a marvelous mental chess game and could be wonderfully creative, or mind-binding.
It was patently understood that we were a politically aware group and whatever we did was meant to be entertaining, but entertaining with a purpose, like the Chinese theater. Lulla knew most of the literature of the proletariat that was available and had contacts with unpublished progressive playwrights. It was a great new world for me and I plunged in voraciously. I was a quick study, but quick as I was there were members of the group who knew everyone else's part, including mine, while I was still struggling. One thing I developed was the shaky confidence of the budding genius; I knew I was better than anyone else, but I was scared that I was worse than everyone. There was always a certain sliver of criticism in me that made less of other people's attempts. I was ashamed of this attitude and fought a losing battle to convince myself it wasn't just envy, but it clung. . . .and still does.
I'd accepted the responsibility for the condition of my life for a long, long time. I didn't blame public officials for the poverty of my family. It was God's Will, though my mother did complain: "Oy, Gott, fahr vuss hust doo oonz geshtrufen?" The Alderman in our district used to line up the kids and take them to the Loew's Commodore some mornings. He was real nice. The Jewish Social Service gave us food and clothing, sent me to Camps Vacamas and Surprise Lake for two weeks of heaven in the summertime. The Hebrew School didn't charge my mother for the education and the Bar Mitzvah lessons; the day nursery was free for us to attend while my mother worked. We got free breakfasts, had a place to play, so how was I to criticize anybody?
The flag salute, "The Star Spangled Banner," and the study of American History had made me a Statue of Liberty patriot. I would sing "America the Beautiful" with a passionate vision of the loveliest land in the world, endowed with the greatest virtues mankind could revere–Liberty, Freedom, Brotherhood. However, as time passed, a Canker Worm started gnawing at my vitals as I lifted my eyes and mind to what was going on in the land I loved. I realized that what I loved about America was its Promise, not its actuality. It was never dreamed of by the practical Founding Fathers as Utopia, but the Constitution and the Bill of Rights were meant to give all the people a chance to pursue happiness, not just an elite.
I started to resent poverty. I'd been slammed around by it all my life. I kept checking all the clever phrases that kept me in bondage, and started recognizing they were just advertising slogans meant to sell a product that had many, many flaws. In an Equal Society, I was a member of the Lower Class. I had been unhappily aware that Jews were kicked about and made to feel inferior not only in Nazi Germany, but here in my beloved country; and I'd lived down South and found that slavery still existed in many subtle forms.
I had long bull sessions with Hy, who tried to explain why he'd become a member of the Young Communist League. There was plenty to criticize that I hadn't been aware of, probably because my interests lay with Nature and the wonders in ponds and streams. I was too busy dreaming to pay attention to the unnatural world. I started to nod my head to his arguments.
Sammy's father was a short, thin, stooped, dahvening Orthodox Jew. My Rabbi in Cheyder had told us that one of the long-lived patriarchs had donated seventy of the years of his life so that King David could be born and live for seventy years. David knew about this and as his doomday approached, this wise son of Solomon decided he would defeat his destiny. He knew that he couldn't die while he was dahvening, because the Angel of Death had to be seen before death and couldn't interrupt a man who was praying. So he dahvened, and lived a short time longer until the Angel fooled him into looking out the window to see who was shaking his fruit tree.
I never saw Sammy's father without a Bible in his hands, his mouth in constant movement, intoning the holy words. I knew he had to stop when he went to the john, but he strove to be a holy man, and Sammy had been trained to be like him. He'd argue with me about Communism and Atheism, and point out articles in the newspapers that proved conclusively that The Soviet Union was an evil place led by evil men who intended to spread their evil throughout the world. I ridiculed his newspaper data and showed him articles from the Daily Worker which proved that the truth about the U.S.S.R. was never going to come from American newspapers. Our army had fought against the funding of the U.S.S.R. and the vendetta begun then would never end. Distrust them and distrust any of their ideas! That was the guiding motif behind our dealings with the Communists.
Sammy had offered me a cup of tea while we were arguing amicable over our beliefs. When he gave me a tea bag to dunk in my hot water, he laughingly made an excuse for the tea's lack of color. The poverty in his household did not allow for the luxury of a new tea bag until no vestige of color dissolved in the hot water. I laughed with him at his father's stinginess and only realized later what a sad joke it was. Hy's arguments, based on logic, were more convincing than emotional, religious, pie-in-the-sky theories. Believing what I did, and wanting to learn more, I became a member of the Young Communist League.
I was a pretty good floorboy. It didn't strain my brain. You had to work fast, you had to carry heavy, wide, nailing boards, and you had to be at the beck and call of the busy operators, cutters, and nailers. I worked for a boss who was very strongly anti-union and anti-communist, but I felt American enough to believe in my constitutional right, my constitutional obligation not to hide the fact that I was a YCLer. There was an important demonstration I'd been asked to attend, and I asked the boss to let me off a half hour early. Naturally, he wanted to know why. I told him. He looked at me for a long moment, shook his head, and said, "All right, but you'll have to make it up."
I made it up the next evening. From then on, he would dig at me, and not so subtly either. Whenever he wanted me, he would call, "Communist" do this, do that, and I started to understand how naive I'd been. A few days later he gave me the real haw-haw when I had my pocket picked in a bus. "You see," he said. "You see? It serves you right!" I couldn't see the connection, but I didn't argue. He was happy to lay me off a couple of days before Christmas when the Season ended.
My money dribbled out. Christmas had cost Hy his job also, and he was staying at Ruthie's house while the family was away on vacation. He suggested I move in with him. There was a double bed in the front room that we could use. The apartment was on the first floor and had two windows which led out to the fire-escape.
I got a one-night job through the State Employment Office. I hadn't had any experience sleeping in the afternoon, so I didn't even try to sleep before I got there. I started at nine p.m. I had to move barrels of limes and repack them in boxes. It was a pleasure to be immersed in the lime odors, but the barrels were heavy, my energy level was low, and I was tres happy when quitting time came at five a.m. I was disappointed to find that another hiree had been given a full-time temporary job on the basis of his work.
When I got to the house, I dragged myself upstairs and pressed the buzzer. I got no response. I tried again and again, and nothing happened. I wondered if Hy was home. I became more and more frustrated, finally left the building, looked around to see if anyone was on the block who would notice anything, climbed up on the stoop, jumped for the lowest rung on the ladder hanging from the fire-escape, dangled a few moments, chinned and wrenched and wriggled until I maneuvered my body up far enough to rest my knees on the lowest rung, and finally felt strong enough to climb onto the fire-escape. It made me furious to look through the window and see Hy sleeping peacefully, oblivious even when I pounded on the window. I could have murdered him with ease. Luckily for me, and probably for him also, the window was not locked. I opened it, stepped down into the room, undressed and collapsed into bed.
Even one-night jobs were non-existent. I hated to borrow and promise to pay back without really believing I ever would be able to do so. I had been bitten by a bug of pride; I guess it came from the Merriwell stories, and the Horatio Alger "Rags to Riches" books. With a background like that, how could I possibly sponge! A hero out of my books could never become a beggar! Oh, I'd been part of a family that was accepting charity, but that seemed different. I was hungry all the time, and I ceased to feel welcome at Aunt Mae's house, though I may have been hypersensitive because Hy was never bothered.
I canvassed the employment agencies on Sixth Avenue. I didn't "even" have the experience to be that lowest of all low–a dishwasher. I can't remember where I got the nickels and dimes I used for carfare and food. You could buy a hot dog or a knish for a nickel and they threw in a large mug of root beer at many of the stands. Even nickels disappeared. It was lucky I'd learned to sneak into a subway exit through some bent revolving door bars, or I would have had to walk enormous distances.
Fate intervened. I'd become superstitious about it. I discovered that the Jewish Agricultural Society was placing young fellows on farms. This was something that was me! It would be like living in Van Cortlandt Park! I had always loved living creatures, the outdoors, plants, animals; it couldn't miss. Sure enough, when I applied, I was given a job on a twenty-five hundred bird chicken farm outside of Middleboro, Massachusetts. My salary was thirty dollars a month, plus room and board. Perhaps not "Riches," but away from "Rags."
Trains were slow in '38. Four hundred and fifty miles took close to nine hours and I had had to catch an evening train, and I never learned to sleep on trains. I arrived in an exhausted condition. The farmer met me at the station in Boston and drove us the forty-odd miles to the chicken farm. I was hungry, but more than being hungry, I was sleepy; and the owner, a man of about forty, plagued me with questions. As he rattled on I found myself dozing, shaking myself, responding stupidly to past questions and ignoring present ones. I must have appeared surly, but I think he finally realized my condition; and when we got to the farm, he asked me if I wanted to sleep a while. I admitted I could use a little rest before I got started. I napped for a couple of hours ad felt somewhat refreshed. He had allotted me a tiny room: the bed was comfortable enough, there was a small chest of drawers and a clothes tree. My bedroom door opened on the kitchen; and when I came out, my boss greeted me, had me sit at the table, and fed me a fried chicken that had been alive half-an-hour earlier. It was delicious!
With a halfway alert mind it didn't take long to learn the chores I was to do daily. I had to feed, water, collect the eggs twice a day, clean the dropping boards, chop the heads off chickens and dry pluck them, and take care of any problems that came up. I used buckets on a wheelbarrow for the mash and scratch, lugged buckets of water up hill and down dale to those insatiable creatures, and developed muscles along the way.
I'm chagrined that I've forgotten their names. The farmer–I guess with me there he was more of a record keeper–was a nice man. He warned me early-on that what was my apparently perfect bite could bring me grief. He opened his mouth and showed me some of my future nightmares. He had had a set of beautiful teeth and a perfect bite. Over the years ordinary chewing had ground down his teeth until only a narrow ridge of what had once been full grown teeth showed. He gave me his medical opinion that I would have the same ground-down pulps when I reached his age. Perhaps it was vanity that scared me, but I was scared. I only stopped worrying when I reached his age.
His cheerful, smiling wife was rotund to softness, and a very pleasant, motherly woman, who fed me well. His daughter Ruth was just about the right age for me; she was attractive, but we didn't mesh. There was a twelve-year-old son, an open friendly kid, with whom I got along well, and there was a delightful goat that followed me wherever I went and dropped his black, pea-sized defecations merrily as we did my chores. He was a really pleasant companion.
A friend of the family came to visit. She was a real five-by-five by thirty-five-plus. I was embarrassed by her a number of times. She'd insist on dancing with me to victrola music and advertently rub up against me in what she undoubtedly felt was a provocative manner. We sat in the back seat of the car while the farmer drove and his wife sat next to him. Whatever remarks they were making were vulgar or lewd, but I couldn't follow them. They ragged her to death after the ride. They had an uproarious time doing it.
I had a grand opportunity to let my feelings of inferiority mushroom while there. Ruth's friends were college students, and one night she invited a number of them to a barbecue. I wasn't uninvited, but I felt out of place and retired early. I tried to read, but the sounds of young voices, girlish giggles, music, merriment, kept me from making sense of what I was reading. I couldn't take it anymore. I re-dressed, but didn't have the guts to walk out into the kitchen, so I climbed out of my window, which was on the dark side of the house, and skulked around a chicken coop so that I would appear to be coming from elsewhere. It didn't seem to make any impression on anybody, anyway; they were having too good a time. Eyes just slipped past me. I felt the fool.
Ruth's father and mother arranged for me to accompany their daughter and some pairs of her friends to some sort of entertainment. We were all dressed up; the car was crowded and somebody had to sit on somebody's lap, and Ruth sat on mine. It was a very, very pleasant experience, but it had been thrust upon me from the blue, so to speak, and I acted the fool by enjoying the contact, but sitting like a statue–not even daring a shoulder–She was pretty. . . .
I wrote letters to Sinki while I was there and enclosed small money orders for her. I don't remember her writing back, but I think she must have. This whole time period is difficult for me to trace. I loved the country and liked the chickens and the food and the family, but I didn't like being a hired hand. I felt inferior and I didn't want to stay that way. The family seemed unhappy to see me go, but wished me well.
There was one farewell that left me high and dry. I had arranged to leave the next morning and was just entering my room when Ruthie stopped me. The kitchen was empty and she asked me to sit down across from her at the table.
"Now don't get all hot and bothered."–I think that's a direct quote. The rest is not exact. "When you first came here, I died. I felt so lucky that someone like you was coming into my life. You acted so cold, I just didn't know what to do. I gave you a thousand opportunities to just be nice, to just be warm, and you were a cold fish. I couldn't let you go away without letting you know. Goodby." She left the room. I sat staring after her. I finally got up and went to bed.
Oh, the lips I might have tasted. . . .
Hy had a job in fur again and I moved in with him in a room in a brownstone on Twenty-Seventh Street near Ninth Avenue. I got a job as a floorboy soon after, and we both went back to the dramatic group. Lulla had decided to do Gerhard Hauptmann's strong labor play The Weavers. There was a young and pretty blonde girl that I had a scene with, and she kind of invited herself up to my room to rehearse. That's what we did, that's all we did, and I walked her to the subway.
Hy made a contact with a group that was putting on an American History Pageant at Madison Square Garden and he suggested I come up and maybe I'd get a role. The central character was Joe Worker, who, through intolerable situations, struggled, fought against the enemies of The Working Class and, though not victorious, never gave up. It started with the American Revolution, quoted Tom Paine, touched on the Alien and Sedition Acts, Samuel Adams' radical ideas, Franklin, Jefferson, and went on through 1812 and the War to Free the Slaves, and into the Twentieth Century until 1939.
They had already cast Joe Worker, but the director gave me a shot at it and thought I fit the bill as a young American working man. There were 22,000 people in the audience, and I still remember the hush as the light went out and the music for Ballad for Americans started and Paul Robeson's voice, magnified a thousand times, rang out with the first few lines and, as the lights came up slowly, and the echoes of that magnificent baritone faded slowly, I was alone on the stage. A giant spot hit me, I raised my prop, which was just a chair, and began the show.
None of us on stage could be heard, no matter how loudly we spoke. Maybe the first row in the audience could hear our shouts, but the amplified sound levels of the mikes in the sound booth drowned us out. Professional radiomen and women, cast in our roles, recited our lines. Their voices became our voices as we got caught up in the dramatic combination of audience, action, lights, applause, vastness, and human unity. The vibes were right; we were attuned to one another like an enormous congregation proud of a miraculous asseveration. We were sure of our beliefs. Our cause was just!
I've never duplicated that experience. I think it needed innocence as the spice. Still, I learned to love beauty even when I discovered its warts. I learned to concentrate on the loving aspects in humans rather than the flaws; but eventually I could only do that in fantasy, on stage.