Mr. and Mrs. Friedman owned a candy store around the corner of our building. They had a wonderful comic book display but kids weren’t allowed to look at them if we weren’t buying. I loved Batman, Superman and Green Lantern but my brother turned me on to the joys of Mad Magazine. Mr. Friedman was a grouch, didn’t like kids very much and resented making his money by having to do business with them. I liked to order lime rickies when I could afford them, or ice cream sodas, just to make him work. The Mrs. seemed kindly but one day she began some ribbing at my expense. “Thocolate? You want thocolate ice cream?” She said with a touch of sarcasm. It didn’t take much to knock me off center. “Isn’t anyone telling you to pronounce your words properly?” But no one was. After this incident if I was with my mother or anyone else in the store I would have them order my ice cream for me. If I was alone and had to order for myself, I would get vanilla to avoid embarrassment.
It didn’t take the school system long to catch up to me. Speech Defect. DE-FECT, that’s what they called it and that’s what I thought of myself. This was another blow to my almost non-existent self-esteem. They put me in speech class in the first grade. Little did I know that it would be a life sentence without parole. It was an educational experience of many kinds. Not only did I learn to say “ch” instead of th,” I began a lifelong battle to sound like a snake, and conquer my word nemesis: “rail-road.” The speech teacher would spend a few minutes with each kid telling us to put our tongues in what seemed to be ridiculous places. Who could talk like that? I was to learn, most people.
Speech class lasted about an hour, and when I returned to class I also learned that I didn’t need to be present to catch up with what I had missed. As I got older I was also introduced to the politics of itinerant teachers who needed a requisite number of students in order for them to have a school visit and a payday. By the time I reached the 8th grade my speech was certainly intelligible. But I was aware there were many other students who needed this service more than I did. I reached my limit for humiliation, walked out and never returned.
My best friend was my brother. As youngsters we would shoot marbles across our bedroom floors and down the long hallway in our apartment or spy at girls getting undressed in their apartments across the street with his telescope. But being older and popular, he was often out and about while I was alone in the house. Summers were particularly brutal and lonely. I was allowed to play in front of the house but not allowed to go into the street to play stick ball or punch ball. To my mother, the street always seemed too dangerous and I, too young. The only kids that hung around the sidewalk were girls and toddlers and I didn’t want to hang out with them. I got pretty good at “down-the-river” and “box -baseball,” but there were limits to what games you could play on the sidewalk. I didn’t have a bike larger than a tricycle and wasn’t allowed to ride a two-wheeler. We could not afford a day camp although one summer I snuck into a program at my public school until they threw me out for non-payment. What I did to occupy myself was read. It was my only pleasure and my only escape from isolation and loneliness.
Before the start of third grade I read 23 Hardy Boy books and several others besides. My new teacher asked everyone in the class, in turn, if any of us had read a single book over summer. When it was my turn to respond I recounted all of the books I had read. I received teasing from my classmates and a quizzical look of disbelief from a teacher who thought she had heard it all.
One book that struck a chord in me involved a young sailor in the great age of seafaring vessels. He got into one adventure after another, using his wiles to survive. In the end, he had to face a moral dilemma to save some strangers from certain death. His choice, the only one which made sense, resulted in the hero sacrificing himself and suffering a humiliating defeat in front of his peers. He lost a leg in the process and his seafaring dreams came to an end but the author led you to believe that he took the right action and had grown from this experience by accomplishing a greater good. The book unsettled me. I wondered what was to become of the protagonist next, as if he was going to pick up his life in some unwritten pages of another book. His life, as he dreamed it, was over. I didn’t get a sense of where he would go, what he would do or how he would manage to live life on land, one which he was so unprepared for. I began to think that life was more like this book than I had previously imagined. I longed to read the unwritten pages of my life story. I wanted to think that there was hope for me like I believed there was for the brave sailor. I had clung to an unspoken but very real desire that my father would just disappear, and with him, my everyday sense of impending terror. I began to form an understanding that my life was just the way it was. And the probability of rescue, however intensely wished for, was unlikely. Slowly, the subject of my reading turned from fiction to philosophy and history. Was life nothing but the misery and the sense of isolation that I was feeling? How did people from ancient times cope with meaning in their lives? I began reading the large overview of philosophy series by Will and Muriel Durant. I couldn’t keep track of the many ideas and began keeping index cards of quotations and thoughts from the great scholars. I expanded my readings into psychology when my brother became a psych major. I read many of his textbooks focusing my attention on theories of personality. Freud was a major attraction and I enjoyed reading his own words after reading so much that had been written about him. But this was just a stepping stone. When I found Jung I felt that for the first time I had found someone who had an inkling of the truth. I resonated with Jung. His notions of the collective unconscious, of anima and animus, were not just ideas to me. I felt them to be true. I especially enjoyed Psyche and Symbol.
Autobiographies, notably Lawrence’s Seven Pillars of Wisdom and Merton’s Seven Storey Mountain (and later the Autobiography of Malcolm X), inspired me with the possibility that a person could not only take stock of one’s life but take control of it. The little book, six nonlectures by e.e. cummings, became a hallmark of individuality and a mirror to me of everything I was not. Even The Agony and the Ecstasy by Irving Stone portrayed Michelangelo as a person driven by his passion. I knew I had to find my passion in life and that once I did, it would pull me forward and give me direction and meaning.
Around the time of my high school years I discovered the existentialists. I was enamored with Camus. I completely identified with The Stranger and with K., the protagonist in The Trial. How could he know me so well? I saw my life as following the rules, paths and expectations set by others. I did not know who I was or what I wanted. This would have entailed knowing possibilities and having choice and I neither knew nor did. I was very aware of the only choice Camus thought possible for him. I read Kafka’s Metamorphosis and was astounded not only by the power of his symbolism (I had never read anything like that before) but was frightened by my understanding of the story. I began to think that suicide might be the only creative and courageous act left for me.
One notable exception to the summer doldrums of my youth occurred in 1957 when I was eight years old. My father surprised us by taking us to the Dunes Motel on Collins Avenue in Miami for 2 weeks in August. In my mind, the larger than life Charioteer at the motel entrance will stand forever, although the Dunes is now long gone. We packed up the push-button Desoto as if we were never returning and took off down route 95 in the wee hours of the morning. Before this journey, I thought the New Jersey turnpike had been the most exotic place in the universe. What I loved most about this trip was stopping for lunch in the small towns on the way down and back, and seeing the many different ways people lived their lives away from the squalor of the Bronx.
In a South Carolina town we shopped for toiletries in a Woolworth Department Store. I wandered away from my parents looking at the different products on the counters, marveling at the fountain service that long since disappeared in my neighborhood. I took a sip from a nearby water fountain and a Black man hurriedly came over to me. “You can’t do this,” he said sternly, and held my gaze. I knew I was in scary territory. I quickly went into “father-mode:
listen to his words
retrace your actions
evaluate the context
use your head…. I drew a blank.
He pointed to a sign, high over my head that read, “Colored-Only.” “I didn’t see it,” I stammered. He looked around, saw that no one else was paying attention to us and said, “I can tell you’re not from around here. Be more careful next time.” I scampered away, glad that some anonymous stranger was looking out for me.
That summer was also remarkable for chiggers, one of the wonders of creation. These vermin blessed my legs and my brother’s neck and we came home with festering sores. It was only after Allen developed large infected sores and he went for treatment that I mentioned my problem. But by the time I said something, the infection had spread from my knee down to my ankle and I had a fever that wasn’t going down. Dr. Friedenreich was called to examine me. He took one look at my green and purple leg and he gave my mother a look of astonishment. “Sadie (he was only one who ever called her by her real name) why didn’t you call me sooner?” But he didn’t expect an answer. He knew my mother wouldn’t call unless it was an emergency. Who had money for doctor bills?
He disappeared into the kitchen with my mother and returned several minutes later. He told me that I should really be in the hospital but that he did not want to risk moving me. He also said that if he had been called any later, I would have been in danger of losing my leg. But he was going to take care of me. While he said this, he held his right hand behind his back, obviously holding something. My eyes never left his hand, my fear incredible. What was going to happen? My mother came forward with a rolled up towel and the doctor told me to bite down on it and to yell as much as I wanted. I took the towel between the teeth and my mother positioned herself on the bed holding down my leg with a grip so strong I didn’t think it possible. Then the hand came forward and I saw the scalpel. I turned away in terror as he cut into my flesh and with his massive hands, forced out the pus through the large incisions.
When it was over I looked at the sheets covered with blood and vile smelling fluids and couldn’t imagine that my leg was intact. Thankfully, the bandaging took longer than the carving as I needed the time to recover from the shock. The doctor ordered that I drink plenty of fluids, and for some reason, my mother gave me 7-Up almost exclusively. It must have been on sale. I drank so much that I couldn’t stand to look at it for several years. I missed three weeks of school. Out of boredom, I not only kept up with my homework but I completely finished reading my schoolbooks, cover to cover, much to the amazement of my teacher. I recovered nicely and returned to school with no permanent damage to my leg.
I don’t remember when my awareness of the angels left me. As a small child of four I felt the presence of two angels, one over each shoulder. I didn’t see them, but in my quiet moments I thought of them as embodying the image of the Statue of Liberty, with rays of golden light emanating from behind their heads. I felt their protection and guidance, especially in times of stress or trouble. At these times I could wordlessly connect to them and feel a sense of calm.
Most of the time I wouldn’t think about them, but when faced with difficulty, I would rely upon their sheltering warmth. A visualization would appear in my consciousness, a shimmering silver sea beneath a raging storm. A lick of golden wave would reach out and touch me, and I would feel a certainty that the difficulty would pass and everything would be alright. One day while I was alone in the house, I tried to balance one of my brother’s stickball bats on the tips of my fingers. The presence of the angels popped up in my mind. Previously, their unbidden presence would mark a silent, unthinking command to stop whatever I was doing. That day, consciousness dawned and with it, a response of rebellion. I wasn’t going to stop. I continued balancing the stick for several minutes, enjoying the sense of danger and bravado. And then I narrowly escaped disaster. I grew too confident in my newly found skill, walking around our apartment when the bat came flying out of my hand, hurtling towards the large fish tank in the hallway. I caught it by the tip but I could not stop my forward momentum. I ran into the stick as I planted it firmly against the wall. It scraped painfully against my thigh and left a large purple wound that stayed with me for weeks. I got the message.
My parents were friendly with the other Jewish families in the building and were best friends with the Gold’s on our floor. Harold Gold, who could have been Jimmy Durante’s brother, worked in a toy store and would steal model cars and toys for his son Freddy every week. If this wasn’t enough to make him a God in my eyes, I had only to look at how he adored his son. Harold and Mollie were older than my parents. But their children, Anita and Freddy were the same ages as Allen and me and this is probably what forged the bond between the parents. For most of my youth, Freddy was my only friend.
It wasn’t that Freddy did not like me or that we did not have some good times, but I was Freddy’s friend only when he didn’t have something better to do. He was small, fast, and athletic. I was pudgy, slow and not allowed in the street. He had a world of stickball and punchball and other kids. I played sidewalk games. Outside of the house, or especially when he was with other kids, he teased me mercilessly. When he would have anything to do with me at all, he would hit me and run away, daring me to catch him. On those few occasions when I did catch up to him I beat him up pretty good.
When Freddy turned 40 I was invited to attend his birthday party. We had not spoken to each other in years, but at his party I was amazed to discover the reverence with which he held me and astonished to hear such a different accounting of our childhood together. He remembered close times and had fond memories. He could have been talking about someone else. I simply smiled my way through these stories wondering how my memories of the past could have been so very different from his. It was another lesson about the power of perception and how it can shape a person’s reality.
Mr. Jefferson was the super of our building. He collected our garbage from the dumbwaiter which still worked when I was young, shoved coal into the furnace and shoveled snow from the building’s entrance in the winter and did what he could to keep the 1880’s building in good repair. My parents never said an unkind word about Mr. Jefferson and they always gave him a present at Christmas. He was considerably older than they were, was medium height, stocky and had gray about his temples. He had an even disposition, enjoyed the children of the building and never had an unkind word for them. I never knew if there was a Mrs. Jefferson, but from time to time he was visited by his son, Roy. Roy was a classy guy with uncommon good looks. You could just tell he loved his father and had respect for him which is the way I felt too.
Mr. Jefferson lived in a windowless apartment in the subbasement of the building. There was no direct way to get there. Around the right side of the building was a long ramp leading down to a large enclosed area that was the resting place for the building’s garbage cans. Mr. Jefferson would roll the rusty cans up the ramp on collection day and roll the empties back down. A little to the right of this area was a cut out through the building that led to the fenced, partially weeded, but mostly broken up pavement that was the stage for the building’s backside. It was a totally enclosed area bounded by surrounding buildings. It was impossible not to peer into the unseen lives of what seemed like countless apartments. There was always movement by the windows, shadows on drawn shades, and occasionally someone watching you. It always frightened me to be there. It was here that there was a doorless opening to our building with two paths. One led to a small area that had a washing machine and seemed to be the Mecca of every bug in the Bronx. I don’t know if we ever used these machines. In fact, I have no memories of washes ever being made! The other path led to the door to Mr. Jefferson’s apartment. I was only inside once, but I was amazed how large it was and how well it was furnished. With one look around I realized that there was a lot more to Mr. Jefferson than any of us understood.
Mr. Jefferson was a Negro. I don’t know what made me see that difference for the first time. In a flash, a curtain of innocence fell from my eyes, and the unspoken understanding which had been like a cloudy haze, came into focus. All the hateful things I heard my father say, all the stories about segregation in the South, all the crime in the news, all the conditioned fear that was poised to take hold, all became known in one terrifying moment. I had always harbored suspicion, even contempt for these Negroes that I had yet to come across. And now I knew that something inside was changed. I was filled with sorrow for the Negroes and for myself. My sense of injustice was born and I feared that I would forever see only differences in people. I felt that something truly horrible had happened to me with this new found knowledge and I cried.
What restored my equilibrium was my love for Willie Mays. Willie, who was my hero, was so much more than the color of his skin. All the things I admired about him, his love for baseball, his zeal for excellence, his ability to come through at clutch moments, were contrary to the ingrained notions of stereotype and programmed hatred I did not yet know I possessed. As I never felt anything but idol worship for Willie, I knew there was hope that I could overcome the prejudices ingrained since childhood.
I had a loud booming voice when I was young. When a group of kids were talking, I would be the one likely to get singled out and into trouble. By the time I was in 5th grade, I was used to this. But I had not run into the likes of Mrs. Debutari. She fingered me from the start as one of the bad boys, and try as I might, I couldn’t shake her. I was one of the nice, sweet, respectful children who followed instructions and didn’t give the teachers lip. I figured she knew this, but couldn’t get away disciplining the really bad boys who would defy her authority and make her look bad. To make matters worse, she sent home a note to my parents stating that I had failed to hand in some homework assignments. I would be thinking about my funeral arrangements had I not been so angry. This was simply not true. My mom came to school for one of those famous parent-teacher conferences. Mrs. D. was as sweet and phony as she could be, but she quickly solved the problem. She asked me what the assignment was for the following day and I defiantly said that she didn’t give one. She pointed to a corner of the blackboard and asked me to read it. “Read what?” I asked. The following Saturday, mom brought me to a store that looked like a repository for used shoeboxes. This store belonged to Mr. Feigenbaum, the optometrist. He didn’t look like any doctor I had ever seen and I couldn’t imagine him cutting people up and doing the bloody things that doctors do. I had also heard that eye doctors put things in your eyes and I was scared. But during my examination he just fiddled with all his dials and lenses. He told us that I was severely near-sighted.
When I put on my first pair of glasses I was filled with rage and disbelief. Not because I could see clearly for the first time, that was pretty spectacular, but because I realized all that I had missed in life. Suddenly I understood why I was such a lousy ball player, why I needed to sit up front at the movies and make a score of other adjustments that I hadn’t been aware I was making. And I cried because of all the people around me throughout my childhood, no one picked up on this but rueful old Mrs. D.
But this miracle of gaining normal eyesight was soon to be topped by another. Mrs. Debutari retired. My whole class rejoiced and the naughty ones took pride that they were instrumental in putting her over the edge. They had found their purpose and felt their new power. A new teacher, Ms. Cohen took over the class and I returned to good graces. She was everything Mrs. D was not. She was right out of school, young, pretty, idealistic and completely unaware of what was facing her. The class bullies found their new sport and were determined to do her in. Ms. Cohen did not return the next year. Through some quirks of administrative oversight, this same core group of kids, including me, managed to stay together through the 6th, 7th and 8th grades. At the end of the 6th grade, Mrs. Chafetz called it quits, at the end of the 7th, Mrs. Grossman retired, stating that she had never seen a group like us before. At the end of the 8th grade, Ms. Farrell, another new recruit, left teaching entirely. Five for five.
Having my new glasses and restored to good-boy status, I thought that my life as a “J.D.” was behind me. That is, until I was brought down to Mr. Kligman’s office. I waited for him outside the hall. He came out and looked very sternly at me. He told me that someone had seen me set a fire to the garbage can of used milk containers and I was in serious trouble. I was to wait in his office until he returned. Inside, a Spanish kid was already waiting. I had seen him around school, but didn’t know him. We both sat in silence for what seemed a long time. If it hadn’t been so quiet, I would not have heard the small sound that came from Mr. Kligman’s desk. And then something clicked in my brain and I understood what was happening.
If I was called into the office about the fire, then this kid must have been also. He was my accuser. And the small sound I heard was from Mr. Kligman’s intercom. There must have been a small crowd in another room, listening. I wasn’t going to disappoint.
“You here about the fire?” I began innocently.
“Oh yeah,” he said confidently. “You did it. I saw you!”
“Now how can that be,” I said sarcastically for my audience, “You know I didn’t do it. You must have done it yourself!” And he replied,
“So what? You gonna prove it…” Bingo. I was whisked away and told to return to my class. The Spanish kid never returned and was rumored to have been sent to the feared “500 school” for the really bad students. I never was really worried. I didn’t know how to light a match.
I knew very little about Jesus. I knew we could not celebrate Christmas and I knew that when not in public, my father would say that Jesus was a phony and the perpetrator of the biggest fraud on mankind. And those were the kind words. I felt very uncomfortable with the notion of Jesus as the Son of God. But I felt an attraction towards Jesus that was as unmistakable as it was frightening to a young Jewish boy. As I got older, I went to a few church services to see what it was like, but I was turned off by the Church and its liturgy. I applied my method of choice for discovering most things about the world: I read. I read the New Testament, Chardin, Merton, and a bunch of pop books on the market. One book had an engaging title, “Are You Running With Me, Jesus?” It portrayed the power of faith and belief without the trappings of religion. It appealed to me in a way Jewish Orthodox and church services did not. Still, I could not embrace Jesus as my savior and did not yet feel a complete connection with my spirituality.
Something magical happened when I turned 10. I was suddenly allowed to stay by myself without a supervising presence. On Fridays my father met up with the only guy that could put up with him, my mother played cards with the neighbors and my brother did what boys do with their friends. I was home alone. Tired of Broderick Crawford on Highway Patrol and repeats of Twilight Zone, and having no computer games to practice my commando skills, I created my own virtual reality. I filled the bathroom sink with water and gathered my supplies: a paper plate, a paper cup, and last, a luger water gun that held a lot of water for its day. I sat down in the bathroom, waiting for my prey. It did not take long for those big old roaches to start roaming the walls. I’d pick a big one and capture it under the cup. Then I’d slip the paper plate under it and take it to the sink, where I would dump it in the water. Roaches are not great swimmers so I had time to position myself. Slowly they would reach the edge, where the water met the sink, and try to gain a foothold onto dry land. Sometimes I would let them crawl up a bit, and then I would zap them back into the water with my water gun. If it was a fast bugger, then one roach could last me for hours. If they were not adept, I would need a few to keep me busy. When I was tired and ready for sleep I would drain the water and watch them try to get away. Sometimes they were so feeble that they had little fight left and washed away down the drain. Not one ever escaped.
I was a bit of an enigma to my teachers: I would do well on one test that all the kids did poorly on and then bomb an easy one; I was bored and would not pay attention in class but generally produced good quality work when I put my mind to it; I hardly ever spoke up in class but often knew the answer when called upon; my reading scores were quite high but I would perform below expectation on other standardized tests. I remember the day when an administrator came to discuss which kids would go into the 2 year SP (Special Progress) class enabling you to skip the 8th grade and which kids would go into the newly formed 3-year SP which didn’t skip a grade. It was clear they were talking about me but the Administrator wanted to get a good look at me. I was asked to stand and then turn to my right.
Horror upon horrors: as many left handed people, I had to learn to cope in a right handed world. I wrote with my left but threw a ball and batted righty and did most other things right-handed. To this day, I have trouble distinguishing my right from my left although I cover for it better now. Instinctively, I know my left hand and then make the connection to my right when needed. I wasn’t as quick as a kid. I began turning left and with this turn, left behind my chances with the SP, at least for two years.
Stoppage of time
My first clue that the universe wasn’t playing with a full deck happened when I was 10 years old and at the movies. No, it wasn’t a sci-fi thriller, though I loved the Incredible Shrinking Man. I went to the concession stand and ran back to my seat through the dark aisles and fell, face forward. As I fell, clutching my popcorn and my drink, time slowed. My feet were off the ground and I floated in a peaceful space for what seemed a very long time. The events of my young life flashed by me as if I was watching a slide show. Then I hit the ground and got a bloody nose. In an attempt to clear my breathing, I inadvertently pushed the blood all over my face. The movie people were more upset than I was and thought I had broken my nose. They took me to the office and I was afraid they were going to call my parents. I think they were, too. I ran away when the bleeding stopped. I felt I had learned something important from this experience, though I didn’t know what. Years later I discussed this phenomenon with a psychiatrist friend of mine. He suggested that fear, or some related factor, speeds up the processing faculties of the mind. The perception of the mind working so fast, he continued, gives the impression of time slowing down. While this may be a plausible explanation, while I was falling, I wasn’t looking for one. I had experienced another way of understanding myself in a world where time was relative. It felt natural, not funny or wrong. I was sure that others had felt the same way as I did but not talk about it to anyone.