At the end of the eighth grade several boys took the admittance test and were accepted to Brooklyn Tech, one of the specialized high schools in the city. This, combined with the growing exodus of the middle class out of the Bronx, left some glaring vacancies in the 9SP3 class in my school. They needed some kids to fill the empty seats and I was asked if I wanted to go. A back door into respectability was unexpectedly opened and I grabbed it. Freddy’s words, written into my school yearbook, remain for posterity: “You can’t be a deuphis because you are coming into my class.”
Up until then, schoolwork and grades were things only my father was interested in. I had maintained an 85 average just by showing up. Now for the first time, I felt challenged to show the other kids that I could be just as good as them and to show the school that this was where I belonged in the first place. I did well in math, science and music, which for me was a major subject, and I was the favorite of my English teacher. I was the brother of Allen, the darling of her class 6 years earlier, and I inherited an anticipation of greatness that was only matched by her blind affection for me. My work was only mediocre. I never received a grade in English higher than 85 in the previous 2 years of junior high school or in the three years of high school that followed. But she loved me and, as it turned out, my brother did not disappoint.
The class had to write an autobiography as the major assignment for the year. It was time to hand it in and I was in a panic. We had months to write it and I didn’t have a word. I could hardly bear the pain of self-reflection. My existence was defined by insecurity. I felt no sense of self, just fear. Fear of triggering the wrath of the capricious God that was my father. Life was a progression of expectations that always left me falling short. How could I write this? I turned in tears to my brother for help. He wrote a very engaging autobiography that earned outlandish praise and a 95 from my adoring teacher. At the end of the year I was only one of a handful in my class that made Honor Roll with a 90 average. Freddy wasn’t one of them. It was, however, a short-lived sweetness.
We all took the entrance exam to Bronx Science, one of the elite high schools in the city. My motivation was simple. Avoid going to Roosevelt High, the site of my brother’s greatest academic achievements when the school enjoyed a better reputation. It had turned into an unruly hangout of tough guys awaiting jail or their draft papers in the six years since Allen had been there. Besides, everyone else in the smart classes took the test. It was the leveling plane. If Freddy got in and I didn’t, my 9th grade average wouldn’t be worth a damn. To my amazement, I was accepted. But so was Freddy and all the other smart kids in class. My pride and my fear knew no bounds. I would have the summer to mentally prepare myself for the greatest challenge of my life. At least I thought I’d be prepared, until I had a causal conversation with Ms. Smith, my science and homeroom teacher.
I came up to class one warm spring lunchtime as I usually did, to open the high windows with a long jump pole, clean the blackboard and the erasers, and straighten things up that needed straightening. This afternoon started no differently than any other. Ms. Smith made small talk with me, but on this day, I noted a slight change in the tone of her voice as she shifted to a new topic of conversation. She began recounting the number of kids that had made Science, but had left me out of the mix. When I reminded her that I also was going, in a voice dripping with disbelief, she asked slowly and deliberately, “And what are you going to do there, Michael?” That moment I tottered. And for the next three years, I never regained my balance. The ninth grade had been a year of firsts for me. I received recognition for playing the trumpet, I made Honor Roll and I proved to myself and to the other kids that I belonged in the SP class. But to Ms. Smith, a teacher I liked and respected, I didn’t stack up. I felt that my growing confidence was only a sham. She had seen through me. All my feelings of doubt and unworthiness bubbled to the surface once again.
To my father, admission to Science meant vindication. His advice that hard work would pay off bore fruit. At heart, I knew I had gotten lucky on the test and had to be at the bottom of the barrel of the 400 accepted boys. My brother wasn’t always going to be there to bail me out. I recalled Ms. Smith’s question and asked myself the one over and over again. What was I going to do there anyway?
Almost imperceptibly, the last days of ninth grade brought about a transformation to the class. Most of the kids had been together for years and the realization that something special was ending brought unspoken sadness and closeness. The prom was approaching and the girls, in their wisdom, knew that the boys would be helpless. The cabal got together and matched everyone with a partner. The girls came in two’s and three’s and surrounded each boy. They were very business like. This was not a date, they assured me. The whole class was going to the prom and I was going to the prom, period. This was not a choice and I was going with…(I held my breath)…Rebecca. I smiled at their selection. They matched me with a Jewish girl, just slightly taller than me. I had active fantasies about half the girls in class but the well-endowed Rebecca wasn’t one of them. Still I liked her and it wasn’t a date, anyway. I would have died to take Linda Watanabe. Linda, who was rumored to be sexually active with a gang member, Thurston, ending up going to the prom alone. When I asked why, she said that her conservative Japanese parents would kill her if she went out on a date and, besides, Thurston would not allow her to go with anyone other than him.
I have no memories of the prom itself, held in the gym, but I do remember that afterwards we all went on buses to Jahn’s ice cream parlor on Fordham Road. I had never felt such a sense of belonging and acceptance. We stayed until some of the boys got thrown out for having a food fight which only added to the fun. I took Rebecca home, kissed her gently on the lips (she did not open her mouth) and wandered about the streets going in the general direction of school, not wanting the evening to end. To my surprise I saw Linda and approached her. I asked her if I could walk her home and she said yes. This was as close to a date that I would have for years. She lived about a half mile from school and I felt exhilarated and wilted by the time we arrived at her apartment building. I walked her up to her door and was about to kiss her good night when Thurston came out of nowhere brandishing a knife. He screamed at Linda and glared at me. When he regained some measure of self control he ordered Linda inside but she didn’t budge. He told me to leave, pointing the knife in my direction and I did. I never felt that Linda was in any danger. The knife was for my benefit. But I was in no position to stand up to Thurston. I left quietly, feeling sad for Linda, and cried as I walked home. Linda and I never spoke about this in the few remaining weeks we had left of school.
The organizers of the prom arranged for a Saturday trip to Playland. Not everybody from our class went but we had a great time. Why didn’t we get together like this all year round? After this, a smaller group met a few times in Crotona Park, just to hang out. Y feeling of belonging lasted for a few weeks longer. Then graduation day came and we all went our separate ways.
When I was 15, my father got transferred for the summer to a small cheese plant in the Catskills. They paid for our bungalow and I was sworn to secrecy lest this financial arrangement be disclosed to anyone. All the kids went to the bungalow camp, except me. My father would not pay the extra cash as this would come out of his pocket. When someone asked me, in his presence, why I didn’t go, dad replied that I didn’t want to. I had to go along with this lie even though I longed for friends and activities. People could not understand that I would prefer to be alone and tried to convince me all summer to join up. At one point, my father even tried to convince me that it was what I wanted! Nevertheless, I was used to being alone and it sure beat the Bronx pavements, at least for one summer.
I became interested in handball that summer and played with anyone. We played with Spaldeens for that was the ball we had. On the weekdays, when the court was empty, I taught myself to hit the ball with my left hand. By the end of the summer, I was quite competent and developed a good sense of anticipation to complement my newly found quickness. A year later, when I had met Gary in our development in Queens, I found out that he also played. We teamed up as partners and never lost a doubles game in the next three years, until he went off to college. It was the only athletic achievement in my life.
The neighborhood had been changing for years. Changing meant that the white, Jewish families were moving away and non-white, mostly Puerto Ricans were moving in. My father was very much aware of this “element” and was quick to tell me that he wasn’t prejudiced as he cursed the Negroes and anyone else that was different for the rising crime rate, dirty streets and other social ills. Still, he put up with the indignities as rent in our three bedroom apartment was cheap. Two events helped push him over the edge. One was that my brother was graduating college and going off to grad school, so we didn’t need a third bedroom. The other was that a new tenant moved into the building who had large German Shepherds. He let one of his dogs shit in the stairway. I was surprised that my father didn’t kill him for it, but maybe it was the Shepards that stopped him.
We moved a few months into my first term at Science to a brand new development a few miles south of Kennedy airport. Like most decisions, my father did not need anyone’s advice about where to move. He simply did what he thought best. It was a brand new building, had built-in air conditioning and was set in a park-like surrounding. When he announced we were leaving, I feared mostly for my mother. Her mother lived a few blocks away and they saw each other almost daily. Her sister was just a bus ride away from where we lived. Ma didn’t drive and I feared the new isolation would make her drinking worse. I had no idea about what kind of commute I was going to have, but this too, was an annoyance I would have to deal with. The biggest, unanticipated change for me was my brother’s moving away to grad school. My reliance upon him was so strong and our bond so close, that I could not imagine what life would be like without him giving me support and showing me the way. On the drive back from the airport to see him off I felt as if a part of me had been ripped out. I felt desolate. Several times in the coming months I called him from payphones, holding back the tears, to ask him for advice or just to hear his voice. We could never speak privately from home as phone calls to Texas were a major family event and were expensive. From time to time, he would send me funny letters which also helped lift my spirits a little, but didn’t completely ease my loneliness.
I saw Rochdale as the first opportunity in life to recreate myself and meet new friends. But after several months I hardly met anyone new as I did not go to the local high school. I felt shut out and alone, not entirely new feelings for me. Two of the friends I did make were boys who went to other specialized high schools in the city. Gary went to Stuyvesant and Howie went to Brooklyn Tech. I also made friends with Rick but the four of us never clicked well together as a group.
I stayed with my parents in Rochdale Village for six years.
The trip to Bronx Science was 2 hours away on public transportation. With a bit of encouragement, I might have been persuaded to go to the local high school and save myself three years of misery, but after all the build up, I didn’t have the moral fiber to truly consider the possibility. I entered Science as scared as a human being could be. Although several of my junior high friends also made Science, I never shared one class with them and hardly saw them. Not knowing a soul, feeling stupid and unprepared, I began my high school career without my biggest source of support, my brother.
My high school career was formed that fall in Math and French classes and was sealed the following year in English and Science Technique Lab, or STL, as it was called. My math teacher was an old, irritable, but caring soul. In her class I saw my true potential: somewhere between the good and the very bottom. I would get very high marks on one test then crash on another. She once commented to me, “Greenstein, you’re fast, but you’re bad.” It was true. I picked up the concepts fine but in my rush to apply them would misplace a decimal point or make other mindless mistakes. I got an 85 in her class. French was a different story. My teacher asked me a question, in French, on the first day in class and I answered in English that I didn’t understand. He went on to insult me both in French and in English and picked on me and a few other boys throughout the term. He shamelessly flirted with the girls, touched them on the back of their bras and stared down the chests of the few girls that had them. I managed a 65 on the statewide regents and that was what he gave me on my report card. Sometime in that second semester I think I subconsciously gave up on academic achievement.
The only saving grace to my high school years was my English teacher, Mr. Lee in 10th grade. He made us read a book a week on top of all the other work we had, and gave us interesting assignments such as writing descriptive paragraphs without articles. He suggested that we all get personal subscriptions to the New York Times (which, he claimed he read cover to cover each day), opened up the world of Shakespeare to me and encouraged us to contribute to class discussions based on our own interests. He was the best teacher I ever had.
I hoped to get Mr. Lee again the following year but was not so fortunate. Instead, I had the mean spirited Mrs. Applebaum. We were all seated alphabetically in her class and by luck of the draw, three Michaels sat behind each other. She would walk slowly about the room, throwing questions aimlessly into the air until she turned on a hidden pivot and called out a student’s name. It didn’t take long for her to call out “Mike..ll and watch to see who answered. All three of us shrank in our seats until after another interminable silence, she would slowly enunciate a last name. This teasing was cruel and I hatred her for it.
One day she announced a special class project. We were all going to read the book Arrowsmith by Sinclair Lewis and a few students were going to be picked by her to be on a special panel exploring the themes of the book. She handed out the book, the special theme assignments and called out the names. I could have predicted she would pick l me and my heart sunk when I heard my name. Days passed and my anxiety grew. I was paralyzed by fear but there was something else, a growing sense of rebellion. I was determined not to read the book, but I also needed to complete the assignment and avoid embarrassment. Then it hit me. Having mastered library skills in the 7th grade, I would research everything I needed to know about the book and my theme question. I probably spent more time doing the assignment my way than I ever would have had I read the book. I had my notes organized, memorized key facts and, on the day our presentations were due, I felt as prepared as I was going to be. Not knowing the full story or the characters but knowing the intricacies of 5 – 6 questions, I sat at the table and presented my opus. I was astoundingly good. After my turn, the others on the panel began speaking. I again harbored a fear that I would be asked a question or ask to comment on my fellow panelist’s presentation. But I handled this well, drawing upon the bits and pieces of information I picked up in the classroom discussion. Everyone, even Mrs. Applebaum, complimented us for a good job.
The purpose of Science Technique Lab was to give students practical experience in a scientific endeavor. We had to research a scientific idea, conceive of a project, then build and demonstrate it, all in one semester. In other schools, such a class would be called Shop. It amazed me that many kids got to work right away. What were they thinking of? I hadn’t a clue where to begin. By the time I came up with an acceptable idea, June, a girl in my class, came up with one that was similar. So, I did the chivalrous thing and let her have the project. But she needed my help to complete it. So I wound up doing her project before I even had another idea to run by my teacher. She wound up with a 90 and I failed for the quarter. This went over real well with my father who screamed, threatened, insulted and glared at me for months. I had lived up to my father’s expectations, Mrs. Smith’s expectations and my own expectations of failure. Like Freddy had written into my yearbook, I was a deupheus in Science clothing.
At some point during the school year I was called down to the guidance office. A middle aged woman with many things on her mind ushered me into a chair in a closet that masqueraded as a workspace.
“You know why you’re here?” she asked. I stared at her blankly, scared and unknowing. Did I put something on fire, I wondered? She held out a copy of my transcript with my “less than Science perfect” grades. They sure looked familiar to me. I said nothing.
“Is everything alright?” she asked in a matter of fact voice. I gave my response the same level of emotional commitment.
“Yes.” A few moments of silence passed. Then,
“Have you considered transferring out of Science, to a local high school? You know some of them are quite excellent.” I waited a few seconds to give her the impression that I was giving it some thought.
“No,” I replied. She turned and went back to the papers on her desk.
“That’s all,” she said and didn’t look up.
Mark was my friend Gary’s older brother. By the time we became friends in Rochdale, Mark was away at college. He seemed to appear at odd times, coming and going on his way to other places. He was very smart and charismatic like Allen, but here the comparison ended. Everything about Mark screamed counter culture. He looked like John Lennon and held radical views on just about everything, or so it seemed to me. He was never without the company of the prettiest, hippest women. One even revealed herself as a witch. I admired his girl friends, admired his freedom and his natural courage. He seemed on a relentless journey to find himself. His energy and passion could be overbearing at times and a simple conversation could be taken to ideological extremes.
Mark had left a number of his books behind in the house between journeys. As an avid reader I claimed them. These books introduced me to social and political theory, and encouraged my interest in metaphysics. Ouspensky’s The Psychology of Man’s Possible Evolution was the right book for me at the right time. Not only did it reinforce the fact that people have been always been struggling to understand their true nature and find their place in the cosmos, but it updated the context and gave Eastern philosophy a more Western tone. This spoke to me more directly and the ideas resonated with my experiences. I had yet to meet a seeker of truth that was not part of a group of smiling people donning strange robes, repeating nonsense syllables. This formulation and introduction to the enigmatic Gurdjieff had well-know historical adherents. As I was to learn, one of the current ones was Mark. Although I knew it was unfair to judge any teaching by one its followers, I could not help but think that Mark, driven by a compelling need to pursue his studies, was not a model of humility or compassion. I questioned whether he was truly benefiting from the teachings.
The books of Ouspensky and Gurdjieff were an important step for me in a positive yet uncertain direction. The Gurdjieff movement was vibrant and growing while he was alive, but seemed to have lost its vitality in the years since his death. It became clear in my mind that what I needed was not a dying ember to cling to, but a living, ever present teaching. And rather than follow an imperfect example, why not search for a person who has completed the journey, a living exemplar? I knew I was getting closer to something important to my development, but what?
The brush with evil: the old lady on the train
Hy was the deli man at a supermarket in the Bronx. He was quite proud of his skills and he often told me, “Not just anyone can slice smoked salmon.” My father knew him for years when he traveled the supermarket scene as a sales rep from Breakstone. He met up with him at the barbershop in Rochdale Village and he arranged for Hy to drive me to school as he worked nearby. Hy liked to complain about this hardship. I know that if my father had heard him speak this way, Hy would have found himself on his back.
But Hy didn’t really drive me to school. He drove directly to work, which left me with a nice little uphill hike on the other side of the reservoir to get to Bronx Science. It wasn’t too bad in the spring, but in the winter, a cold wind would blow off the water. No matter what, I would have to schlep around the reservoir to school. It was a small betrayal I bore in silence. One day Hy told me that he had to go to another store for a few days that was just opening to help them get set up. The store was a few train stops away from school, so I didn’t mind because I was able to avoid the walk around the reservoir.
The platform and the train were crowded that day. I got near an open door and allowed myself to be pushed into the car along with the other waiting passengers. The ride began as uneventfully as any other until I felt a sharp elbow jab into my ribs. I looked to my side, there was a seemingly innocent old lady. I figured she had lost her balance and toppled into me unexpectedly, righting herself and her sense of balance with her outstretched elbow. She didn’t look at me and I figured she was embarrassed, so I let it go and thought nothing of it. A few seconds later I felt a hard pinch on my arm and this time I studied my attacker. She was small, about 5’ with a face full of lines, heavy red lipstick and red hair that could only come out of a bottle or from a cheap wig, sticking out of a small hat. She held my eye for a moment and then looked away without expression. I moved away from her as far as I could and noticed that she began to slowly move towards me. The train came to its stop and the person in front of me jumped out of his seat. I quickly sat down before the people standing next to me processed what was happening and I lost sight of my pursuer. “Just another day in NY,” I said, to no one in particular, and wouldn’t have thought much about it had it not been for events of the next day.
It was a day that promised snow: A yellow-gray cruel sky, the air, crisp and cold. I came prepared with raincoat, hat, gloves, umbrella as well as the usual paper-bagged lunch and book bag. Hy let me off at the same train station and I waited in silence on the station platform. Unlike the day before, just a few passengers were there, and when the train came, they boarded into different cars. I stepped through the opening door and noticed that the car was completely empty. Empty, that is, of people. Strewn newspapers were on the seats, discarded coffee cups on the floor and the walls were screaming with graffiti letting the world know who was once occupying the space. I sat down in one of the seats lining the walls of the car and pulled out one of my books to study.
As the train got rolling, the door connecting the cars opened and the same old woman, dressed for the weather with a long coat, hat and flowing scarves, came walking through. She quickly saw me and I thought I sensed an instant look of recognition on her face. To my surprise, she sat down next to me and began shuffling through her old woman things. I didn’t expect this, felt somewhat in control of the situation being that we were alone, and was curious at the same time. She became increasingly fidgety and began to move her arms and her legs to get comfortable. Her spasmodic movements brushed my arms and leg. She probably was waiting for my response but I gave none. What I didn’t notice was how she positioned her hands under her long scarf that fell off her shoulders. The train came to the next stop and other people came on and took seats scattered throughout the car. As the train started to roll forward, she gave me a long hard pinch on my upper thigh. I winced but said nothing. I realized I had lost control of the situation but also knew that if I yelled out in pain or yelled at this woman to stop in the moving train, I would look like an idiot and she might say I that assaulted her. Still she looked straight ahead without looking at me. The bottom of her lip curled in a mock smile. I was afraid and didn’t know what to do. Then she pinched me again. Long and hard. My stop was coming in soon and I came up with a quick plan. I waited when the doors opened. They were about to close when I jumped up quickly, jammed the point of my umbrella into the top of her foot with all my might. I felt it break the skin but did not wait to see the damage. I hurried out of the car with the doors slamming. I knew she wouldn’t say a word. I turned around and looked at her through the glass. She gave me a wide smile and I understood. She won. I resorted to violence and had become like her.