I am on the roof of the building where I grew up. It is a clear summer evening. I don’t know what I’m doing there. I look around.
Standing about 20 feet away is the Devil, shrouded in black. I do not have time to react. He extends his arm towards me and upwards and suddenly I am raised high off the ground. I am petrified. He sweeps his arm to the left and suspended, I am moved off the side of the building. The great height, the Devil and my impending doom bring me to near panic and I know that I will be smashed down to the pavement below.
But I become aware that I am protected as if inside a unbreakable bubble. I know no harm will come to me.
The four of us, my parents, my brother, and I lived in a three bedroom apartment on the third floor at 760 East 178th Street. The apartment number was 4C which confused people who came to visit us for the first time. They naturally assumed that the apartment was on the fourth floor, but that’s not the way the building was designed. The first floor had the “A” apartments, the second, the “B” apartments, and so on. There was a long hallway leading from the apartment door. A bedroom was on the immediate right. Then down 10 feet or so was the bathroom and down another 10 feet was the kitchen, the living room and two bedrooms off the living room. The building had been built in the 1880’s, had a dumbwaiter for garbage, high ceilings by today’s standards, and had decorative moldings around the ceiling. The bedrooms were large and airy.
We had a small fish tank with fresh water fish and a bookcase with old dusty books in the middle of the hallway. It was on this bookcase that I found She and a dozen other books by H. Rider Haggard when I was old enough to read. He was to become one of my favorite authors as books would be a constant source of comfort and learning for me.
The window from the kitchen led out onto the street. Everything about our world that needed to be seen could be spied from that perch. My mother would sit by the window and take her position, leaning on her elbows. The street where the boys played stickball, the corner to Prospect Avenue, the street leading up to the public school and down to the Hebrew school was all within her watchfulness.
I was comfortable with the routines of the house. We eat dairy on Tuesdays, spaghetti on Thursdays, and chicken on Friday night. My mother kept a kosher home and had duplicate sets of everything for the meat and diary dishes. Although I did not know it at the time, the house was spotless, our clothes were spotless and my mother made sure that I took regular baths. The center of the living room was taken by the big Philco TV which in later years gave way to the Zenith. Unattractive linoleum covered the floors. There were no pictures on the walls and no priceless art treasures from school found there way onto the clean, white refrigerator. Only a few photographs were displayed: my parents wedding picture in their bedroom and a few posed pictures of Allen and me when were little in the long hallway.
I had a sense of stability. Tremont Avenue, the main shopping fare remained relatively intact throughout my growing up years. We went to the same bakery, pharmacy, dry cleaning store, Chinese restaurant, pizza place, supermarket, candy store and movie houses without variation. I knew my public school, where I would go to Junior High School, High School and college (nothing other than the free city colleges was an option.). The streets were always dangerous and to hear my parents talk, the neighborhood was always changing for the worse. My parents, my brother, my grandmother, my aunts and uncles, and even neighbors were, for the most part, an active presence in my life.
Yet with all this support, it wasn’t enough to sustain my mental health so that I could have what most would call a “normal” childhood. My father’s vision of who I was: weak, lazy and stupid became my own. I harbored a secret despondency. I was not suicidal. Killing myself would have been too assertive and too repulsive an act. I was capable of a certain amount of planning and was a master of avoidance, but the notion of purposeful self destruction was foreign to me. What I wanted, in the most unspeakable part of me, was for the pain to stop. My self esteem was non-existent. Self loathing was the background noise of my life, the ever present constant, the medium through which I experienced myself: My unwished for wish was to be dead.
With self-awareness of my own despair and helplessness, I could easily diagnose frailty in others and find kids who could be victims to my bullying. The earliest target for my silent, quiet fury was a boy named Stephen. I began getting into fights with him and beating him up in second grade. I didn’t like him much, I could take him – that was reason enough.
There are some moments in life that have pristine clarity. There is a quiet perfection to them, like watching a scene in a movie which has suddenly, silently, switched to slow-motion. Nothing else exists but the characters in that scene. One such moment occurred a couple of years later on a snowy day when I was walking home from Hebrew school. I spotted a small child playing in the snow across the street between parked cars. I put down my school books, took off my gloves and dug my hands into the snow. I made the perfect “snow baseball” and I threw the perfect line drive pitch. I saw it sail silently across the street guided by some invisible navigation system. It seemed to be gathering force as it landed squarely on his forehead, knocking him over into the snow. I was exhilarated. In those brief few seconds I had wordlessly brought together planning, skill, attention to detail and execution and achieved perfect results.
Then he began to cry and the still beauty of the moment shattered. I was filled with horror for I understood, perhaps for the first time, that I was a person in the world responsible for my actions. I saw the connection between the act of forming my missile and throwing it, with the boy’s pain and distress This act of awareness was self evident and in need of no further examination or thought. Where was this awareness just a few moments before? I stood there dumbfounded, humiliated and shamed, but too lost in self absorption to think about the crying child. I began to feel that I did a horrible thing but regained my senses when the boy’s mother appeared from nowhere and started running towards me. I quickly put on some speed and she retreated to her crying son.
When I was thirteen, I beat up a kid so bad his mother took him to the hospital. She called home to speak to my father. I was petrified, but the upset mother stepped over some imaginary line with him, probably saying that she would send my father the doctor bill. When he told her to stick the phone up her ass I knew I had survived a close call. When he hung up the phone, he asked me calmly what the kid did to deserve this. Seeing my opening, I made something up to justify my actions and the matter dropped.
In high school I began writing creative assignments in English class. Many of my essays contained similar themes: sad, depressing landscapes that were ravaged by nature. One day, Mr. Lee asked me to read my essay aloud. When I was finished, he asked me, in front of all the students, whether I really felt that way. Embarrassed and flustered, I replied that I was only trying to be creative. I never wrote so revealingly again in class and Mr. Lee never again asked how I felt.
Despite my youthful epiphany, I did not stop my bullying tactics until I was in my early twenties. I should have grown out of this behavior as I got older, but I didn’t. I picked on a big, gentle guy named Gerald that I knew from work. I was merciless with my teasing and he should have clocked me. My skills at finding personal weakness were quite honed by this time. I never examined my behavior until one day, in passing, he mentioned that his therapist said something to him about how I needed treatment. This seemingly innocuous statement pierced my defenses. I heard him clearly and his words staggered me. For a moment I was back in that snowy street watching the little boy cry out in pain and surprise. I felt a crack develop in the fragile sense I had of myself as a kind and caring person. Like the snowball incident years before, I had separated the person I thought myself to be from the person who acted so outwardly mean. Although I couldn’t tell him, I took his comment to heart and began to connect with a different, healthier side of me. I never picked on Gerald again.
My parents sent me to Hebrew school when I was 10. It was one of 2 orthodox shuls within 2 blocks of my house. I soon learned that this was a very different type of school. For starters, most of the kids in my first grade class were of different ages, the youngest about 8. But it didn’t seem to matter. We were all bound together by a common prayer: that the messiah should come and deliver us from this wretched school. No one wanted to be there. And the boys also shared the dreaded purpose behind it all, the Bar Mitzvah, where we would be called to the pulpit in front of a huge group of congregants and family members to solemnly entertain by singing Hebrew prayers in unfamiliar melodies. The major reason I started later than the others was cost. My parents delayed my enrollment until the last possible moment. Each month I had to bring in an envelope to the old men who sat in a dilapidated office. They wouldn’t let you just pay and go, they made you wait around and hold the envelope in your hand while they brought out these huge ledger books. Finding your name among the many in the ledger books was their major occupation. Then they studied our payment history and shook their heads slowly from side to side as they grumbled about how little we were paying. These men threatened, insinuated, ignored, humiliated; no tactic was beneath them. At first I was terrified of them. But for the most part I remained quiet. Although I told them that I would tell my parents that we owed them more money, I knew that if they were really serious, they wouldn’t be talking to me. So, I silently refused to become their messenger of intimidation to my parents.
The shul was maintained by a non-Jewish couple that got to live in an apartment rent free. The apartment was close to the classrooms and we often saw the woman of the house who performed housekeeping chores. It always amused me to smell the goyish aromas coming from her kitchen. As students we were an untidy lot and threw our candy wrappers and other unwanted stuff in the hallways and in the foyer, where we hung out before and after classes. She made the mistake of asking us not to throw so many things on the floor and we never let up after that. One day someone brought water balloons to school and this infuriated her. When she had her backed turned to us, I took a balloon, put it on my crotch, and walked behind her with a swagger, to the hilarious whoops of the onlookers. With eyes in back of her head, she turned quickly, took me firmly by the arm and marched me downstairs to the office. I was scared, not from anything the woman or the men in the office might do, but because there was the possibility of a call home leading to more wrath from my father. We waited in silence. The woman was exasperated and agitated. And suddenly I saw her problem. What was she going to say to these old men? We were ushered into the holy sanctum and she sputtered and fumbled over her words. Finally, she said that she couldn’t tell them what I did, for she was a gentlewoman and left me there to explain. When her footsteps died, the oldest of the old men asked me what happened. I took a moment to realize the new position I was in. “Nothing,” I said matter-of-factly.
“Nothing” an incredulous voice asked. “She brought you here for nothing?”
“Nothing,” I said, trying to keep my voice steady. “Who are you going to believe, me or this Shiksa?” I said with derision. The old men looked at each other and I was excused.
In my first 2 years of Hebrew School my teacher was Mrs. Bitter, a woman who was pre-programmed to love me because I was the brother of her beloved Allen. I became a star in my own right and after 2 years, skipped 3 grades and was put in a class of boys my own age. I came to find out that this distinction had only happened once before in the history of our school. But there was an ulterior motive behind the teachers’ thinking. If there was a possibility that I might want to go to Hebrew High School, I needed to be in a class with boys my own age. Despite the big jump, I held my own in class which was conducted mostly in Hebrew. But I hated it. The teacher was a strict disciplinarian and he didn’t care for the kids. The classroom was not air conditioned and all the good kids sat in the first rows to be near the teacher. In the late spring, the room became a sauna. I sat alone, in the back, near the big windows to catch a breeze. One day when I was looking out at the window, Mr. A. caught me. This was his big moment. He continued talking but made his way to the back of the class until he stood in front of me. I knew I was caught but wouldn’t give him the satisfaction of returning my gaze and admitting defeat.
“What are you looking at?” he screamed at me. I turned slowly.
“It’s a beautiful day. The sun is shining, the birds are singing,” I replied. “Perhaps you want to join them?” he bellowed.
“Alright,” I said, picking up my belongings. I left the room and never came back. My Bar Mitzvah was only a few weeks away. There was nothing he could do.
I met Renee when I was 6. She was in my kindergarten class. Renee was warm, caring and sensitive. Quiet but alert. Not very cute, but I didn’t care. She was my buddy. We sat together, talked, joked and enjoyed each other’s company. This was innocence. Neither of us wanted anything from the other. We gave freely of who we were and thought nothing of it. Then she stopped coming to school. I wasn’t aware of this at first but recognized the emptiness inside me. She was sick and the way Mrs. Schwartz talked, I didn’t think she was coming back. The class made get well cards and I was asked to deliver them. My mother walked me over to her apartment building and I met Renee and her mom. Renee was in her pajamas. I recognized the intimacy of this moment but she was as natural and carefree as she was in school. We played together in her room as our mothers talked over coffee. Renee came back to school for only a short while. One day her mother came over to me after kindergarten and told me that they had bought a house and were moving. I was stunned. I had just gotten her back and she was leaving for good. I felt that a piece of me was being ripped out. When we played together there was no thought of past, present or future. Now I felt her loss. I wanted to cry in disbelief but didn’t. Renee and I said our goodbyes and we never saw each other again.
Sue lived in the same building as us on the second floor. Our families were friends and we got together with them occasionally. Sue was a year older and we played infrequently. I enjoyed board games, but she favored activities that mimicked domestic life. She especially enjoyed making believe that we were grown ups. This went on for a few years and was quite innocent until one day, when we were about 10, she asked me to play doctor and to examine her. I didn’t want to, but she began to take her clothes off. I was petrified and fascinated as she guided my hand to her breast and then to her vagina. I got hard and then she took my pants off to examine me. I was really scared and tried to stop her but the thought of running out of her room and getting caught by her mother was out of the question. Then she mounted me, pushing me inside her. “This is how mommies and daddies make babies she explained. I felt confused as I didn’t know what was going on. I felt embarrassed about being naked, humiliated by her aggressiveness and my passivity and fearful that we might actually have a baby. I avoided Sue after this and was never alone with her again.
I met Harriet in Hebrew school when I was about 8. I fell in love with her at first sight. She had a model’s oval face with large brown eyes and long lashes. Her smile was wide and magnetic. Her brown hair was long and shoulder length. She was small, cute, bouncy and had an independent flair. Harriet’s beauty was astounding and gave me my first taste of undefined longing. I needed to possess her, as if my completeness and acceptance resided within her. I never told Harriet I liked her and wanted her to be my girlfriend but went out of my way to look for her any chance I could and engage her in conversation. This went on for five painfully shy years. Over time, Harriet could not help but notice my interest in her and I began to see a subtle change in the way she responded to me. She was in familiar territory by this time and had lots of male attention. She was waiting for me to make some overture towards her and I didn’t think she would reject me. But I was locked in fear. After my Bar Mitzvah I stopped attending Hebrew School and didn’t see Harriet again until I bumped into her on the street many years later as a young adult.