Saturday, January 30, 2016

It's Only Me - Chapter 1 - Roots

I was born and raised in Brooklyn, which believe it or not, is on the ocean- swim far enough and you'll hit Spain direct from Sheepshead Bay. Brooklyn is the largest borough in the City of New York, and with 2 and a half million people, would be, if it were a city unto itself, about the 6th largest in the country. It is filled with people from everywhere and is crowded and tumultuous and smells of 30 different ethnic foods (and people) all at once. You can buy the latest in knockoff Chinese goods, the best of the new Paris and Rome Fashions, fireworks by the crate just in from China , drugs, women, watches , everything but time.

I grew up in a Jewish, Italian, Irish area known as Sheepshead Bay/Gravesend. We lived in a 7 story apartment building with 70 other families. We had Jews, Italians, Germans, Irish and even Cuban exiles from Castro’s 1961 purge.

We observed one other’s holidays with respect; yet tormented one another over religious differences. We fought, laughed and lived in a crowded hodgepodge of humanity, where nothing was sacred or exempt from the strongest drug known to man-laughter. We laughed at everything-Jesus on the cross, Jews in the oven, it didn't matter. We were literally raised on comedy and laughter.

If I cut school we would take 15 cents, ride the subway and go into Manhattan. We'd walk around in the Village and look at the Hipsters and what was left of the Beatniks and even see a couple of early hippies (1965-6) We'd ride the ferry to the Statue of Liberty, which was never crowded back then at all. For 35 cents we would play on that island all day! The ocean breeze coming up the channel, or the cool North wind blowing down the Hudson River felt good to us. We were free.

Sometimes we'd take the bus and go the other way and be on the beach all day, laughing in the sand, looking out beyond the horizon and wondering where we were all heading. Eternal questions plagued us- Is the fog we see at night on the beach even close to the nothingness or great void that existed before creation took place? Couldn't be, nothing is nothing, fog is something. These are the things we talked about.

My family was a conglomerate of nationalities. We were Irish, Welsh, Russian and Polish. When they talked about the “melting pot” in school, I thought they meant my family!

My father’s side was composed of the Burkes and the Williams’. The Burkes were the first to arrive. Stephen and Ellen arrived with their 3 children. They were Thomas, James and Elizabeth. They were amongst the first wave of Irish to emigrate in great numbers around the time of the potato famine (1857). They first appear in the Census of 1860 and all subsequent ones through 1930.They were learning to read and write according to the 1860 Census and their chief health complaints were a sore foot for him and Rheumatism for her. He worked as a Wheelwright/Blacksmith.

The youngest daughter of their son Thomas, Mary Burke, married William Shone Williams shortly after World War I ended. She used to tell me about meeting my Grandfather William S as he walked by in his soldier suit in Park Slope Brooklyn. He turned back and asked if she could “go walking”. They married and had 6 children; Mae, Roy, my father William, Richard, Gloria and Gladys.

The Williams family were relative newcomers in 1900 and 1904 when they arrived, Isaac first, as a bricklayer and later Catherine and the children. They came from Wales by way of Liverpool and settled in the Park Slope Section of Brooklyn, New York. They brought with them their son William Shone and daughters Katherine and Marion. They were literate. Isaac had served as a Church Guard in Wales. He worked as a laborer and brick mason and is supposed to have worked on the Empire State Building just before his death in 1931.

His son, William Shone Williams was a decorated World War I Veteran, having enlisted at 16 years old. He served in France during the 2nd Battle for Verdun in 1918. He became a NYC Police Officer in 1921 and passed away on the job in 1946, leaving Mary Burke a widow at 45 years old with 6 children to raise. Known as a strict disciplinarian and a hard drinker, he was both feared and loved- a true enigma of a man. He was the epitome of the price paid by many World War veterans for the "War to end all wars."

My father, the 3rd eldest of the 6 children, went to Maritime High School in NYC aboard the SS John Brown, a converted Liberty Ship, graduating in 1947. He then joined the US Navy as a submariner , sailing aboard the USS Torsk out of Groton, Conn from 1948-50 as a reservist. Later he would be drafted into the Army for the Korean War.

Around this time, in 1947, he met my mother, Ruth Marcus while he was an usher at the Kingsway movie theater in Brooklyn.

The Marcus family was in the so called last wave of Russian Jewish Immigrants. William and Elizabeth arrived in 1911 with their children, Pincus, Sophie and Minnie. None of the family spoke English- they got in based on their skills- he was a tailor and she a Cutter. Pincus would go on to make and lose a fortune several times in the Garment Industry as a manufacturer of lingerie. He married Dorothy Henkin.

They had two children, Walter and Ruth, who was my mother. Dorothy left Max in 1929, the year of the depression and got paid with government bonds after catching him with another woman. Consequently my mother was well off during the depression. She took horseback riding lessons, piano, skating, art etc.

The Henkin family is somewhat of a mystery. We have no paper work showing who they were and where they came from. No one seems to know how or where and when they slipped into America. Nevertheless, here they were.

It seems likely that they came out of Russia and through Poland and then on to Italy. From there they would most likely have proceeded to Canada and then down to Philadelphia and finally to Vineland, New Jersey. This was a farming community of Russian immigrants and Uncle “I” claimed it was his birthplace. Some sources indicate Philadelphia as the correct place, but once again, there is no documentation to support this.

They were typical of the Russian immigrants of the time; rural and poor, but literate and Jewish. They left Russia largely due to persecution and economic hardship.

Max “Pops” Henkin (we think that’s the last name- again, no proof) had a livery stable in the “old country”. Very vague-somewhere near Kiev in the Ukraine region - Some small shetl that, no doubt has long been gone. But it would’ve been nice to know the name. “Pops”; everyone called him that; met and married Rebecca and it was there that he operated his livery stable. Rebecca’s maiden name is unknown.

Rumor has always had it that Max was involved in the sale of a horse that belonged to the Czars’ Army- Cossacks. This was to have a profound effect on the future of the Henkin’s family.

One day a man came in with a wonderful looking horse, well bred, fed and easily led- a mighty steed 14 hands high with a haughty manor. “Pops” could not afford him and he turned away. But the man made him an offer he could not refuse and so he became the owner of this prize animal. Accordingly, and expecting a great profit, he put the horse up for sale, advertising everywhere within a day’s journey of his shetl outside Kiev.

All hell broke loose soon after when he was charged with being in possession of a horse belonging to the Czar. He was released pending a trial in which he would have surely been convicted.

This influenced his decision to go to America where he would continue working with horses, first at a livery stable as a hand, later as a foreman and finally by 1920 he was in business for himself.

“Pops” had 3 children in America with Rebecca. They were Nathan, Isaac and Dora. Isaac was my Grand Uncle through my mom. He and “Pops” had lived with my grandmother Dorothy and her children throughout the World War II years. “Pops” died in 1948 and my parents married in 1950. They lived with Grandma Dorothy and her maid Mary until 1952 when they got their own apartment in the same building at 3619 Bedford Avenue. At that point Isaac moved into a hotel in Manhattan- where he would reside for the next 23 years, until he passed on in 1975. He was a Grandfather to me and no words can express the love I had and still have for this man.

Occasionally, he would stay over, especially if a game had gone into extra innings or overtime, depending on the season. He would sleep in my bed and I would take a folding cot in between my bed and my brothers. I would cover it with blankets and sheets and get underneath, pretending that this was my submarine. When I emerged I was always confronted by the sight of his teeth in a glass on my desk.

He was born, alternately, depending upon whom you asked, in Vineland NJ; Philadelphia or New York City. Though his birthdate is listed as Aug 15th- the year varies- 1893, 95 or 98- take your pick. He was old enough to collect Social Security when I was 5 but worked until a year before he died in 1975. And he was too young to serve in World War I- registering in August of 1918, just 3 months before the Armistice. He probably was trying to avoid detection as an illegal for fear of being sent back. His father had crossed the ocean to escape Europe and Irving had no desire to retrace “Pops” steps – he didn’t want to go back - as a deportee or a soldier.

He apparently worked for the American Railway Express Co and later went into the Garment Industry as a buyer of furs. He used to bring me samples and to this day I can tell real from fake chinchilla, mink, sable, rabbit even lamb. We had raccoon tails by the armload and attached them to the handlebars of our bikes and the backs of our hats, even flew one from the antenna of the old Plymouth.

When I was younger, he would take me and later, when I was older, I would meet him at the furriers where he worked on 7th Ave in the mid-fifties. This was the Garment District.
The skins, the cutters, the tailors and sewing operators treated me royally and I was fascinated by this aspect of my Uncles life.

Although he was already 60 when I was born, for 20 years he took me every Sunday to the beach in the summer, movies in the winter, ice cream sodas and walks on Friday nights, always regaling me with the stories of whom he had met in his business as a furrier and how everyone knew him all over the city.

The Friday night walks were the most special times I spent with Uncle “I”. In spite of his age he never failed to make that 1 hour trip each way to watch the news, eat dinner and talk a walk with me. By talk a walk- I mean that we would talk and walk. We would go to the candy store on Kings Hwy and 15th Street and he would buy me an ice cream soda and afterwards he would give me a Standing Liberty or Benjamin Franklin half dollar. And when magic time was done I would walk him around the corner to the Quentin Rd entrance of the BMT for his 1 hour train ride back to Manhattan They said he had nowhere to go, but I know better- he came to see me.

He took me to baseball games at the Polo Grounds, Shea Stadium, Yankee Stadium, to the circus at the Old Madison Square Garden, to Radio City Music Hall for the Christmas Show. He was Jewish to the core but the blue lit Nativity scene- complete with real Camels on stage- made him weep from the majesty of it. He knew every doorman, every usher, and every cabbie. We would go to the Stage Delicatessen on 7th Ave and he knew all the comedians, actors and characters there, including the owner, Max.

We would miss parts of first acts trying to get to our seats as he stopped to acknowledge greeting after greeting, mostly from the people that worked in the places we visited, but sometimes people already in their seats would call out to him, as if they desired his recognition , as well as to say hello. He was a gentle man, yet he seemed well liked and commanded some degree of affection and respect wherever we went.

He would go to Las Vegas every year to feed the slots and bring home the old solid silver Morgan Dollars from the 1880’s and the Peace Dollars from the early 1930’s. He never won, but he’d save those 2 dollars for my brother and I.

I still recall how, at least once every summer at Rockaway Beach, he would duck into a bar for a beer to catch the game for a peek at the score. He didn’t smoke or drink but he would order a beer and bum a cigarette. He’d smoke without inhaling, enjoying a moment of male camaraderie. It always seemed so mysterious to me, the bachelor world he lived in- hotels and restaurants. It was glamorous on the one hand and lonely on the other.

If I characterize this part of Irving’s’ life as mysterious, it is probably because I never once went up to his hotel room. I suppose he considered it improper or ill advised to take a child up to the room with him. But he gave the most important gift of all to me - his time.

To Be Continued......

Friday, January 29, 2016

It's Only Me- Chapter 2- The Early Years

As a child I lived in the shadow of World War II; an event so cataclysmic in its nature that it colored the existence of our daily lives even in the summer of 1957 when I was three years old and Mom lost the car and then hit the hydrant. It was the last time she would ever drive, although she maintained a current NY State Drivers License until the day she died some 28 years later.

Mom was challenged when it came to driving- she often misplaced the 3,000 pound Plymouth Belvedere; a black and tourquoise 1953 model that would have stuck out in an aerial photograph of Woodstock. But here we were, July 1957 , wandering the lot at Jacob Riis Park in Queens, NY.

The day had been the usual one of magic for my brother Mark and I, sandy sandwiches brought from home with thermos of cold milk. Bologna still only taste right to me if it has a little crunch to it. We would undress behind a towel that my mother would hold up to give us some privacy as we changed from our swim suits back to street clothes for the trip home. Dad couldn’t stand to have sand in the car.

But this day was not ending properly, I could tell by the worried look on her face. She had lost the car-again! My mother was an attractive, petite woman and soon we were riding in a police tow truck up and down the rows of cars looking for ours. It seemed to me then, and it seems to me now, that we started at the furthest point from where we had left the car. But Mom and the policeman seemed to be enjoying the conversation and I felt safe.

But let me get back to the War and how it colored our lives- not in an unattractive sort of way- but in a dark and romantic hue- borne of the tales my Mom told of the submarines sinking ships 10 miles off Coney Island, the oil washing ashore. The blackouts and the sirens, rationing coupons and Victory Gardens. And the Holocoust. This was the dark part- evidently there had been a German guy named Hitler who built big ovens and killed people who were Jews. Like 6 million of them! And this was something that we were reminded of each day, whenever we encountered one of the many refugees from the concentration camps, with their blue numbers tattooed on their wrists for all to see. The living remnants of “mans inhumanity to man..."
The war was everywhere- in the records my parents played- big band- Andrews Sisters- Don’t Sit Under the Apple Tree. My Uncles Walter and Roy were in the Army and Navy and were the family heroes. Walter was only in Alabama but Roy served at sea and saw plenty of action in the North Atlantic. He would go on to become a Captain and was stationed out of San Diego. Walter took a differnt path.

The ‘50’s are black and white in my memories- I remember getting our first TV in 1956when I was 2 and a half. This was also around the time I got my first bed. We put chairs alongside to keep me from falling out. Times have changed but some things remain the same. We did the identical thing with my daughter some 30 years later.

It was a time of "Father Knows Best" and "Ozzie and Harriet". " I Love Lucy" was THE show. I remember Uncle I being very excited about Sputnik. The first satellite was such a big deal that I remember it although only 2 or so at the time.

When I was about 3 my father caught pneumonia- one of the few times in my life that he would be sick. The next time was in 1964 when he tried the first time to give up cigarettes. He was like a junkie going cold turkey.

Dad had a bet with Dr. Frieri, who had delivered both my brother and I, as well as our Mom. He was old and wise. His full name was A.Francis Xavier Frieri- Italian for sure. He was a combat medic in World War II and had the letter from Eisenhower to prove it. His walls were covered completely with the pictures of the thousands of babies he had delivered. The bet was that if my dad quit for good he would not pay for the visits. My Dad won and Dr. Frieri smoked until he died at about age 90.

This was around the time I began to call my Dad by the unusual cognomen of “Bail”. I suppose it was a three year olds corruption of Bill, his first name. But I never have understood why it was allowed until about age 12. I realized then that it was weird and so I called him nothing until I was 19 and it took some time to become comfortable with calling him Dad.

Whenever my mother was ill, and this was around the time she began her long odyessy- Dr.Frieri would threaten my brother and I with locking us in the closet. If you put you ear to the wall you could hear the other kids that were locked in there for being bad. We were terrified. It was years before I realized that the closet backed up to the waiting room and I was hearing the crying of waiting patients.

My parents set up a chart that cast my brother Mark and I against one another at the age of 4. each week we would get demerits for fighting etc. The one that was the least badly behaved got a prize and the loser had to go along to the store and watch the other get his reward. This would affect our relationship forever.

All in all it was a secure, though strange childhood. I have great memories of going to the roof at 3619 Bedford Avenue on Tuesday nights and watching the fireworks from Coney Island- also nights that we went there and the embers would literally fall on the crowd standing on the beach.

On hot summer nights we rode the ferry to Staten Island just for the breeze- 25 cents for the car and the family. A bargain. One night we saw the water actually split by lightning! It doesn’t get better than that for a 4 year old!

Kindergarten began at PS 197 and I remember the switch from the 48 to 50 star flag in 1959- I think it was June in Mrs. Gerbers class. She wore silk stockings with seams and even at that tender age I was smitten with her.

Around this time my Uncle Walter went to jail for passing bad checks- he was a gambler like his Dad, only not as successful at it. He wound up beholden to the mob and ran the “skim” to Kansas City during the 70’s. The FBI would frequently come calling looking for him. H died in 2000 in Las Vegas. I remember him as a kind and gentle man who gave me rides on his knee and made my Mother very happy.

Grandma Marcus and her maid Mary and her husband moved to LA at this time, causing a rift that never healed. It was like the Dodgers leaving a couple of years earlier- very traumatic for my Mom. Her dad had deserted her before she was even born, and now her Mom was going away, taking with her the woman who had raised her.

First grade was at a Public School in Canarsie-somewhere near Ralph Avenue. We had taken a half of a two family home with the Dalto’s. It was at 1186 East 57th Street. They were Italian and he was a postman. It was a new development and built on swampland. We stayed a year and moved back to the Kings Highway area where we
settled in at 1310 Avenue R at East 14th Street- where I would spends the next 11 years growing up- or avoiding the same.

Desegregation and busing were the big issues of the day. My parents were both very liberal in their political views but we had moved to within 3 blocks of school so that my brother and I could walk there. Now we were going to be "bussed" to a different school and so we had a boycott of school for the first week. The school caved in and we were allowed to attend the schools in our own neighborhood.

Second grade was a time when I formed some freindships that have lasted a lifetime. On the first day of school the teacher called the new kids up front and introduced us to the class- there were three of us- Nadine Cohen, Seth Herman and myself. I'm not sure about Nadine but Seth has remained my closest freind to this very day.

Also in Mrs. Sanders 2nd grade class was Michael Held. He and I had a freindship that went well into our twenties. Seth and Michael were at my wedding in 1986 with Seth as the Best Man.

My first memory of Seth is of his having broken an arm,jumping or falling,with Seth it's hard to tell, from a garage roof. His was the first cast I had ever seen.I remember helping him on with his coat at lunchtime.

My first memory of Michael is when we had to send Invitations to our parents for the school play. He wrote "Hey ma, give me money for ice cream" on his and got in trouble for it. Looking back I'm thinking that it wasn't bad sentence structure for someone in 2nd grade!

So these were my beginnings. I would live at 1310 Avenue R until just prior to High School Graduation. My world consisted of Kings Highway between Ocean Avenue and Coney Island Avenue to the East and West and as far as Sheepshead Bay to the South.

Thursday, January 28, 2016

It's Only Me- Chapter 3- Odd Jobs and Fishing

Brooklyn was a great place to pick up odd jobs as a kid. Consequently I was never without some money- in addition to the odd jobs I had an allowance of $1 per week. I was 7 years old at this time. But still, at 15 cents a day for an ice cream bar times seven days a week I was still left with a shortage of 5 cents- and that was just for the ice cream! If I wanted to indulge in anything else- like a movie or comic book then I needed some form of extra income.

Living in an apartment building had advantages and so I struck a deal with the janitor and the doorman- I would sweep the halls for the janitor and collect the newspapers from the Incinerator Rooms, which would then be tied up for the ragman to pick up. I got a cut of the newspapers. It wasn’t much but coupled with the 50 cents from the doorman for wiping the lobby mirror I did okay.

As I got older I added to these chores by “minding” the Good Humor man’s pushcart while he went for a haircut or more often to the Off Track Betting Parlor on E. 16th Street. This was about 1966.

My first real job was delivering the NY Post by bicycle in the afternoons. First I went downtown Brooklyn to obtain my “working papers” and then to the local storefront the Post rented on Bedford Ave and Ave T to pick up my papers and deliver them. My route was in Sheepshead Bay and up Ocean Avenue. I would park my bike, locking it at each building, and take my papers in to leave at the doors. Collecting was much harder- no one was home on those days! Most of the money went for sodas and ice cream and records, so I usually broke even. It was an enjoyable job with my 6 transistor radio strapped to my handlebars and listening to “Light My Fire” and all the other hits of 1967. I especially liked “MacArthur Park” by Richard Harris and whenever I hear either one of those songs I am back in Brooklyn delivering the Post.

At 13 I got a job delivering groceries for Krauses on Coney Island Ave and Ave R. The deliveries were made on one of those old grocery bikes with a front wheel stand and basket. Some of those loads were heavy for me- I was always skinny but somehow I humped those boxes of groceries and made some good tips as well as the money Mr. Krause paid me. The best part of the job though was the deliveries themselves. Most women would order by phone and wait for the delivery boy (me) to show up.

Knowing I was coming over you would think these women would get dressed. But luck was on my side and they usually were attired in some sexy lingerie or a slip and bra. My love of sexy lingerie to this day can be traced back to these women and I can never thank them enough for sights both seen and imagined.

Life at home was a bit stressful- my Mom was sick all the time- with ulcers, colitis and later all manner of cancers. So the household was run by my brother and I. We each had an alternating list of chores- from making beds, vacumning, getting groceries and doing laundry. Of course we never did any of it well enough to suit my Dad but I always felt that I was doing my part to help.

Between 1962 and 1965 I was friends with Donald Solomon who lived on East 15th Street between Ave R and Kings Hwy. His family had a house! With a backyard garden! This was magic to me and we played there all the time. When my first turtle died at age 8 I buried him there in the flower bed. His Mom was one of the nicest women and always made time to talk to me and ask about my Mom when she was ill. She also made us lunch and generally treated me with an extra measure of kindness. This would become typical of most of my friends parents and something that I have never forgotten. Aside from playing in his yard, Donald and I went to the movies at least once a week at the Avalon on Kings Hwy and East 18th Street. He grew up to be a Realtor and we still speak- or write letters- about once a year.

Also around this time I was in Pack 40 I think of the Cub Scouts along with Mark Shorr and Gary Jetter to name a few. Somehow I talked my Dad into being Cub Master for the pack. Later, when I quit just after achieving Webloe status he was stuck with the job for an extra year- and he made me go to every meeting with him at the Avenue R Temple on East 16th Street.

When I was 11 my Great Aunt Katie died in Park Slope, Brooklyn. This was quite an event and I went on a rare trip to her house- a brownstone near Prospect Park in Brooklyn. The Williams family had settled there some 62 years earlier,in 1903.

The house was all Victorian, over furnished and very formal- I remember there was even a parlor with classic sliding doors. The whole place was trimmed in dark mahogany wood and I remember the place as always being dark. There was a player piano in the upstairs parlor and the kitchen and bathroom had all the old time sinks and tubs with claw feet. There was a very unique love seat which held the flag that had draped my Grandfathers’ coffin when he passed in 1946. He was a legend to me- having died before I was born.

But the item which intriqued me the most was a small octoganal walnut or mahogany box. It was hinged at the rear of the lid and emblazoned with the word Jerusalem on top in English and in Hebrew.

At this point I should mention that I was the product of a "mixed marriage" , as it was called back then, between my Irish Catholic father and my Russian Jewish mother. Hebrew wasn't all that strange to me. The thing that really puzzled me was how this box got to be in the home of an Irish Catholic family. Adding to this mystery was the fact that this side of the family was pretty anti-semetic at the time. My parents marriage was a problem for the family and so our visits to Aunt Katies were few.

The house was sold and the furniture divided amongst the living and I got the box. It sat in my parents house in Brooklyn for several years while I sailed the world and even got to Jerusalem several times. Each time I was there I thought about this box and the mystery of how it came to be in Brooklyn.

In 1986 I married and the box came to rest in Baltimore, Maryland. The box would disappear occasionally and without explanation for several months at a time. Then it would just as mysteriously re-appear as if it had never been gone. A genuine oddity….

Recently, while compiling a family history I found that the Williams family had a Jewish boarder named Phillipine Eckstein from Liverpool, England in the 1890 Census. Apparently she came over around the same time as my grandfather, who had emigrated from Wales through Liverpool. Ms. Eckstein came to live with the Williams family in Brooklyn. Now I am not saying that she is the source of the box- but it would seem likely.

Oh, and by the way- currently the location of the box is unknown.

My Mom and Dad were not the most encouraging of parents. For instance, at the age of ten I wanted a guitar and got one- but my parents said I would never be any good at it. When I wrote they would tell me that it was good but I would never make a living at it. So it is no wonder that, when I was 12 years old and planned to use my earnings from the delivery of the NY Post to go fishing, I was told that I would catch nothing.

Setting out early that day- at least by my standards- about 10 o’clock in the morning - I headed to Sheepshead Bay which is about 1 mile from where our family’s apartment was on Avenue R and East 14th Street. I had used my weeks earnings to buy a rod , reel and fishing tackle box complete with hooks, sinkers and lures.

I set up at the end of one of the piers along Edmonds Avenue and threaded my line with a hook and a fresh , live, wriggling worm. There was not, in my estimation, a fish in the sea that could resist this attractive piece of bait.

I sat for hours, hoping, indeed praying for a bite. I felt the sudden tug on my line several times and reeled in frantically to claim my prize, I was rewarded with a sucession of an old rubber boot, a large Horseshoe Crab, and other assorted non edible residents of the Bay.

Lunch had come and gone, I feasted that day on a bologna sandwich and a Yoo Hoo-But still no fish on the line. I was already dreading going home empty handed and listening to the “I told you that you wouldn’t catch anything” that I was sure to hear from my parents and the ribbing I would have to take from my older brother.

I was still sitting there with the weight of the world coming down on me at 3 PM as I realized that yet another dream was about to be dashed by the unrelenting forces of reality. At this time of day the fishing boats began to return to their piers, laden with fresh caught Tuna, Flounder, Snapper and the like, all underscoring my failure to catch something edible.

The merchants assembled on the pier to purchase the fresh catch, which they would then take back to the various neighborhood restaurants and fish shops for sale. I was devastated by my failure to make a single catch while all about me the boats were unloading tons of fresh caught beautiful, aromatic fish.

Slowly the crowds of buyers left the piers, bound for shops, restaurants and homes where there would be fresh seafood that night. The skipper of the boat nearest me was hosing down the deck and began tossing some things into the Bay, catching my attention.

Meekly, I approached the boat and standing dejectedly with my rod and tackle box in hand, I must have made a lonely and forlorn sight. “Catch anything?” asked the skipper, pausing in his cleanup. “No, no luck today, but tomorrow I’ll try again.” was the only reply I could make. “What ya using fer bait?” asked the man. “Worms” I replied. “Well, Hell’s Bells, no wonder you didn’t get nuthin’- you need some real bait.” With that he tossed me 2 fish, each about as large as my 12 year old hand. “Try these” he said and then returned to his work.

I contemplated trying them as bait when I realized the answer to my predicament was now right in my hands. Sitting on the edge of the pier I put hooks in the mouths of my 2 Behemouths and strung them to a short lead, just like in the movies, or like Opie and Andy on TV. Now I was ready to go home.

As I entered our apartment my Mom said from the kitchen, “Didn’t catch anything, right?” Now I had her, “As a matter of fact I caught two” was my reply. Surprised, she shot back- “ Well , you got lucky that’s all.” But there must have been some surprise that I had anything at all because my Dad arrived home a short time later and took a photo of me holding my prize catch. And then they threw the fish away, because they were probably “dirty” and not to be cooked or eaten.

But if you look closely at the picture , you can see it in my eyes and the smile on my face- I had 2 fish- no matter how I got them – I had them. And for years my parents kept that photo in a frame on the piano and would proudly exclaim “Look at the fish Robert caught in Sheepshead Bay!” I think that’s the part of the story I like best.

Wednesday, January 27, 2016

It's Only Me- Chapter 4- Juinor High

In 1967 I started Juinor High, or Middle School, at W. Arthur Cunningham Juinor High. It was about this time that I discovered, or at least I thought I had discovered, girls. They were hard to figure out- with lots of mixed singals to wade through.

I was 12 going on 13 when I met a girl in school that I really liked and we would walk home together every day after school, passing my own house and going the extra blocks to sit outside her building and talk for awhile. This was strictly a platonic affair- I was terrified at the prospect of rejection- but those walks and talks have stayed with me forever and are amongst the most pleasant memories of my early teens.

Her name was Iona and we were friends. We went horseback riding down at the end of Avenue U and to the Frick Collection in Manhattan. We even saw Monty Python live at City Center. We both liked films and saw "The Garden of the Finzi Continas" together-one of my first Foreign films. We remained close friends through most of high school and then went out into the world in opposite directions. And wouldn't you know it- 30 years later our friendship was reignited thanks to e-mails and As a matter of fact- she was the one who finally got me to put this all down on paper.

This part of my life was great. Juinor High was my first experience with changing classrooms for each subject. Each period between classes was an exercise in doing something wrong. At one point I made it my personal goal to remove all the light bulbs from all the stairwells. And when I say all- I mean ALL. So what do you do with about 200 lightbulbs? Lightbulb fights after school, of course.

Classes were organized along the lines of academic abilities. We had 7-1, the smartest; 7-2, smart but troublesome; 7-3, average and so on. I was always in the second category, smart but not quite right. So by the end of 7th grade, in a move that defies explanation, someone thought it would be a great idea to take the worst halves of the 2 smartest classes and put them together. We were called 8-2 and our homeroom was in the rear of the girls gym. The boys would race up that back stairwell to the gym just hoping for a peek at the girls slipping back into their clothes. We didn't see much- Mrs. Naholm and her assistant were ever on guard.

It was also about this time that I became friends with Jeffrey Goldenkranz and John DiStefano. We would remain close friends for quite some time until we drifted apart for about 20 years or so. I am happy to report that we are all in contact with one another again and we still relive some of our finer moments with the glee that only age and distance can supply.

Some of the activities we engaged in ranged from pitching quarters at lunchtime in the schoolyard to climbing the subway trestle on Avenue S where we would place coins on the track to flatten them. Somewhere in that activity was the hope that a large coin would somehow derail the train. Of course we never thought of hurting anyone- just wanted to see the train come off the tracks.

One memorable occassion involved me selling the Centerfolds from my Dad's Playboys in the school yard. While there was no explicit restriction for this activity- I knew it was wrong- after all, they were my Dad's. But I had an auction going- "How much am I bid for Miss September?" "I'll take that!" was the reply from Mr. Tohn- Boys Dean. I thought he was joking- or in need of a centerfold- but he hauled me away and called my Dad. I think I was punished for ruining his Playboys rather than my auctioneering.

Music had always been a big part of our lives- AM radio ruled back then- the playlists were varied and you would listen to Motown sounds and Beatle records alongside of Classical Gas and Dean Martin or Frank Sinatra records. I miss that diversity in todays' radio world. And this music had an effect on us- or rather brought out what was already inside of us. So we began to experiment with our ways of thinking and acting. We had opinions on everything. We started dressing differently and some of the boys were growing their hair long.

1968 was a pivotal year for the whole world. I was going on 14 and in that year we had the Tet Offensive in Vietnam, the assasinations of Martin Luther King, Robert Kennedy,and riots in France that virtually shut the country down. The times were indeed changing and we were pulled along in its' wake.

Politics and the War in Vietnam began to take up alot of our time and wreak havoc in our families. It had only been 5 years since President Kennedy had been killed in Dallas. And ony 4 years since the Beatles launched the "British Invasion." Up until then the world was black and white. They added the color. And now with the events of 1968 we were about to go stereo.

Tuesday, January 26, 2016

It's Only Me- Chapter 5- Friends and Adventures

Bicycle was the main means of transportation for me and most of my friends. This, coupled with a massive public transit system meant that there was virtually no place off limits to us.

Seth Herman and I were fast companions between 1969 and 1974 when he moved out of town for school and other adventures. But growing up in Brooklyn provided many small adventures which still give us both pleasure in the recounting.

We spent a lot of time together so we got into some mischievous things that are kind of comical and innocent to look back upon; especially when compared to the standards of today. But it is safe to say that we annoyed everyone in our paths. And I mean EVERYONE. We rode our bikes up onto the sidewalk and bore down on one poor old man with the brazen cry of “Move over old man, it’s a new generation!” (Seth’s idea- though I’m sure he will place the whole thing on my shoulders.)

We waited on the roof of my parents building at 1310 Avenue R on a cold January Sunday in 1969, with a 6 transistor radio tuned into the football game- I think it was the Jets- and at the appropriate signal from Seth- who knew about football- I cut the wire to the Master Antenna for the entire building. We then dashed down 2 flights of stairs to the 6th floor where we joined the mob surging to the roof to see what had blacked out their TV’s at the end of the 4th Quarter. If they had been carrying pitchforks and torches it would have been a scene right out of “Frankenstein.”

Another example of our ingenuity was riding the Long Island Railroad tracks at Brooklyn College off Flatbush Avenue. We actually would ride through the tunnel beneath Flatbush Avenue, reasoning that if a train were coming we would see the headlight and get out of the way. A foolproof plan- sure…. Again, this was entirely Seth’s idea though I’m sure he will tell you differently.

If we weren’t being a nuisance in the street we were at the movies. I believe that Seth and I saw every movie released between 1969 and 1974. One memorable occasion still stands out. We were at the Avenue U Theater watching I don’t remember- maybe “The Wild Bunch” with Ernest Borgnine and William Holden. A couple was seated in front of us and became very annoyed at our constant laughing, cursing and general antics. The woman said, “Bernie, make them stop.” Bernie turned around in his seat and said, “Shut the hell up.” Or something to that effect. We were both shocked into silence for a moment before Seth elbowed me saying, “You don’t have to take that crap.” He was right, so I said some thing like “What are you gonna do about it, Bernie?” as sarcastically as I could. Bernie turned around and smacked me in the head! That’s why I remember his name 40 years later.

We would take the subway to Battery Park and the boat to Liberty Island and climb the Staue of Liberty. 35 cents was the price of the boat and unlimited access to the island and statue. One day we were climbing those close, narrow, winding spiral stairs to the top. In front of me was a guy with an attaché case- who would probably be searched today- and the case kept hitting me on the backswing as we climbed each step. As if that wasn’t bad enough I had Seth behind me- pushing me up into the swinging attaché case- urging me to go faster. When we got to the top and looked back down that spiral stairway we could only imagine a bowling ball going down against the flow of people ascending. Oh and by the way the view was nice.

We answered public phones when they rang as we walked by. One day we were in the subway at Chinatown, don’t know why we were there, but we were. The phone rings and I answer it. Some Oriental voice asks for Chung Fung and I say, “Hold on” passing the receiver to Seth. All I heard was Seth going (in a Chinese accent) “You no get money from me- you fuck yourself!” and he hangs up. Next day they’re fishing a Chinese guy out of the river. I suppose it was Chung Fung.

There are almost no pictures to support any of these stories- cameras were not our main priorities back then. There were no cell phones or cameras to distract us from our daily fun of ruining other peolples days. The photo of Liberty Island was taken by Seth many years later and the brochure below is from my personal collection.

Seth was not the only one I traveled about with. John DiStefano and his brother Jimmy used to like to go to the Empire State Building. Aside from the great view they had a record machine up there- you could make a record in a booth- much like the photo booths of the time. We also liked to throw things off the 82nd floor observatory. Pennies, paper planes, bottle rockets. Didn’t matter. 82 stories is a long way and provided a lot of entertainment. The best part was walking back to the subway and seeing the dents in some of the parked cars and wondering “Did we do that?”

Mostly we just had fun, riding the subway and stradling the cars (one foot on one car and the other on the next produced a bouncy ride.) Walking the tracks from Kelley Park to the Kings Highway Station and climbing the platform to catch the train for free. (Saved 15 cents that way!)

We meant no harm and as far as I can remember we hurt no one. But a lifetime of memories were stored up during these years.

Monday, January 25, 2016

It's Only Me- Chapter 6- Politics, Working and Brandy

Kings Highway was an epicenter of political activity in the 60's. Every local as well as state and National hopeful was obligated to appear at East 16th Street and Kings Highway outside Dubrow's Cafeteria to make his case. (There were virtually no women candidates then.)

From 1964 through 1968 we greeted John Lindsay for Mayor, Robert Kennedy for Senator and later Hubert Humphrey for President. Humphrey appeared with Mahalia Jackson the African American gospel singer. Humphrey was lackluster but I remember that Mahalia Jackson shone! She could've done without the microphone.

Each candidate kept a local office where they stored the pamphlets and buttons that the neighborhood kids would clamor to get by the bagful and then hand out. Capitilizing on the free labor of mostly uninformed chidren was a staple of NY politics back then. But some of us were involved out of a sense of history, or a desire to belong to something that would invlove them on the periphial of the adult world.

Steve Solarz had an office around the corner from Seth's apartment and when he ran for Assembyman in 1967/8 I was up there most of the time. As a result of running back and forth for coffee and sandwiches at Arkins Luchenette I eventually got a part time job working there. The place was called Ruby's after the owner Rueben Arkin.

The place was your typical Brooklyn "candy store" with a newstand and magazine rack out front at the open front counter. Walking in was a delight. There was a rack holding candy and gum. Along the wall was a massive selection of comics and magazines from Popular Science to Mad and all the rest. And to top it off the whole place was done in wood and mirrors. It was the typical "candy store."

My job was behind the counter, washing dishes, cups, mopping the floor and making malteds and ice cream sodas. Eventually I was allowed to fry things and make sandwiches.

Overseeing the whole operation until about 3:30 each day was Ruby's mom- I don't remember her name but I do recall the face. She was a refugee from some European country- she had arrived befor the beginning of World War II. She wore dark glasses- I'm not sure why- but she could be mean as a snake. The dishwater was never hot enough to suit her taste and I always used too much ice cream in the malteds.I can still hear her saying, "You're going to put us out of business!"

Still, it was a wonderful place to work and Ruby had a secret life.

About the time of my working there, several of my friends and I had started smoking pot. At the end of the day when we would close the store Ruby would be listening to jazz on the Black Liberation Station WBLS which played the jazz that Ruby had loved so much in his youth. He used to go to the Cotton Club in Harlem as a young man to dance to all the greats. He saw Cab Calloway, Lena Horne,Duke Ellington and even Louis Armstrong play there. He also picked up some unusual habits for a man his age- so it was quite a surprise one night when he closed and went to the back for a moment. Coming out form the curtained storage area with a sly grin, he instructed me to "pull the front shade." Turning the radio up loud he looked at me and said-"Wanna smoke some reefer?" I was shocked- but not really- Ruby was an animated and very vocal person. I thought he was cool but had no idea he smoked. So this became a ritual- we would close- sometimes early- and smoke pot.

One day I asked him what he did on the days the store was closed. He told me- "When Francis and the girls get on my nerves I pull some tobacco out of the end of my cigar- press some grass in the end and light up. They never know the difference."
I often wonder if this little secret went to the grave with him, or if he eventually got busted by one of his kids.

Around this time and through my association with Ruby, I got a job with one of his customers, Murray, from Murray's Liquors, also on Avenue U. This was a strange deal in that Murray was Jewish and couldn't/wouldn't work the Sabbath. But it killed him to pass up the trade on one of the busiest nights of the week. So, in direct opposition to the Torah, he had another Jew, me, 14 or 15 years old, taking the money and selling the booze for him. I would sweep up and close, placing the money in a previously agreed upon place. I would take my share of the money and a couple of bottles of Hiram Walker Blackberry Brandy. This was my drink of choice at 14 and a half.

I shared my liquor with Mark Shorr and Jeffrey Goldenkranz. Mark and I used to meet at 7:30 in the morning and walk to James Madison High School, drinking about a half pint on the way. Then we went to gym class and then home. It was a good system.

Jeff and I would hook up later in the day, before I would go to work at Ruby's and have a drink. It was also around this time that we began to push each other in the direction of smoking pot. We were both keenly interested in it- partly due to the influence of the music, which was all slanted toward the growing "drug culture."

Sunday, January 24, 2016

It's Only Me- Chapter 7- Getting High With A Little Help From My Friends

Lately, a lot has been written concerning how "it takes a village to raise a child." There is some truth to that even in my own life. There were many times that I felt I was being raised by the wrong set of parents; somebody simply had gotten mixed up at the hospital and sent me home with the wrong people.

Now I am not saying that I inherited nothing from my parents in the way of integrity and tolerance. I am saying that there were other values in addition to those and that without the kind treatment of my friends’ parents these values might have gone unnoticed.

The late 60's and early 70's brought great changes to society in general. These changes wrought havoc in many a home. My home was not immune to these great shifts in culture and behavior. My friend’s homes along with their parents became my havens from the great societal battles being waged. The kindness and tolerance shown me by others outside of my family helped to shape me in many ways for which I will always be grateful.

Being a teenager is never easy. You are trying on “new hats” daily looking for “you”. If you’re lucky, sometimes you find yourself. Other times you can keep coming up against the proverbial “brick wall”. In my house, that “wall” was my parents. If ever a positive and encouraging word passed their lips, well, I’m afraid I wasn’t home at the time.

So many times I was amazed at the encouragement and tolerance that my friend’s found in their parents. Of course it is true that we never see our own parents, and they never see us, through the eyes of the rest of the world. I often wonder if my parents and I would have even liked one another had we met as strangers.

Now don’t take me wrong, my friends had their own dramas going on at home, to be sure. It was the way in which the dramas were handled that made the difference. For instance, this was the late 60’s and long hair was an issue in many homes. My father handled the dispute by dragging me into the bathroom and shearing my head with electric clippers. His point of view was that if there was no hair- there was no problem. My friends families were more realistic and understood the needs of a child to “fit in” as well as express themselves in dress and speech.

Jeffrey and Seth were 2 of my best friends (still are). There were no problems in their homes concerning these issues, beyond the occasional jibe by a parent or relative at holiday time. Of course the comment always came from a bald Uncle or an Aunt with blue hair. Actually, these comments were their own form of tolerance and acceptance.

Not so in my house,until I was 16 or so I actually had to wear dress clothes to school. So, I bought, with my own money, jeans and shirts which I kept in the carriage room downstairs. My Dad caught me changing there one morning and a big fight ensued. But I won the right to dress as I pleased so long as I paid for it. This was a big step for me and lead to my leaving a year later to live on my own. Seth and his parents were instumental in that move,but that's later.

Jeffrey,Seth and I were the first of our group to really get into smoking grass.We were all itching to try it and so it was only a matter of time until we did.

Actually my first time was the summer of ’69 with Gary Guadagno in the basement of Anthony Andreolli’s building on E.18th and Avenue T. They had a band and Anthoy’s Dad was the super- so they had a space to rehearse in. Actually they were pretty good- not pop and certainly not trying to be. They were actually trying to create something different. My brother was helping them paint and I was hanging out. A joint was passed and I smoked it with everyone. Don't know what I expected but what I got was -nothing. But I knew something was there so it was again just a matter of time and that time was with Jeff at his house. Seth had also by this time, started smoking.

Until this time my friendship with Jeff had revolved around old movies-particularly Cagney, Bogart and the like. We even made a short 8 mm film with John and Jimmy DiStefao for someones film class. It was a short version of the film Joe and we had a construction worker,played by John, killing the hippie, played by Jimmy,and then cut to a dummy of the hippie, mutilated and bloodied with ketchup as John beat it to death.

Anyway,we quickly progressed to smoking all the time in vast quantities. For better or worse, this would consume our next few years. Quite a few years.

Jeff lived across the street from me and so it was very easy to get together at any time and get high. Seth and I would get together in the afternoons before and after my job at Ruby's. Sometimes I went home red eyed and caught hell- other times I ate dinner at Seths' before going home. Adair, his Mom was a great cook and even after working all day could whip up a full dinner in a flash.

During this time Jeff was playing guitar, a Fender Strat that he worked on constantly, honing it to a fine instrument. At the same time he was growing some grass in his bedroom window and damn if it wasn’t growing so fast that we could actually see it getting taller by the minute! His parents, Steve and Betty were fairly liberal with their 3 sons, especially compared to my own home situation, which was to say the least, strict.

Another example of the tolerance shown in my friends homes was the time Seth’s parents returned from a weekend in Atlantic City to find me sleeping in their living room. I was comfortably ensconced on the sofa at the early hour of noon when they came home. Aside from the shock of an unexpected guest they showed no anger, rather they were extremely sympathetic to my having left home. This sympathy came in handy about a month later when they found that I had been sneaking in every night and sneaking back out every morning. The whole thing blew up one night when Lenny and Adair had company and someone discovered my toothpaste, deodorant, soap and etc beneath the living room table. And even then they extended me ample time to find an apartment.

Lenny and Adair were used to such surprises, having Seth for a son. There was the time when we were celebrating our Juinor High School graduation. It was the end of June in 1969. Seth’s sister Diane, a genius in gift selection, gave Seth a bottle of champagne. She will have to explain on her own where she got it as she was underage at the time. Well Seth and I had a drink or two, but Seth drank almost the entire bottle and very quickly. At that point, shredding the Sunday NY Times through the fan seemed like a good idea and so we did. It was like New Years Eve.

After a while Seth passed out (never could hold his liquor) and the phone rang. Not wishing to wake him I answered, only to discover that it was Lenny Herman calling to check in. There was no caller ID back then so I just answered blind. “Where’s Seth?”, he asked naturally. “He’s out",I replied truthfully. “What do you mean he’s out”, asked Lenny irritably. I mean he’ll be right back” I stated as evasively as possible. “You tell that little bastard to call me ASAP”,he said, or words to that effect,and then hung up. I woke Seth and he called his Dad. I cleaned the place up and when I left Seth was sleeping like a baby.

There were many calls to Seth’s parent’s. We were out to get me ballons one day. You know the kind, helium filled. You find them at zoos and circuses. We were 17 and Seth had just got his license. Completely on a whim and without permission, we took his Dad’s Buick 225 on a trip to Prospect Park. Our aim, as I’ve said was to go to the zoo and get a ballon. It was a wet fall day and the leaves were rife on the road as we took that turn in Prospect Park right into the back of some Puerto Rican fellow who wanted to strike it rich off this fender bender by a novice driver. They exchanged information and we went back to Seth’s house, minus the ballon I might add.
Seth called his Dad, who, though not pleased with this, came home and straightened out the other driver on what he wasn't going to get.

Weekends were the best, there were movie theaters everywhere and it seemed like they all had midnight showings of old movies. 4 Marx Brothers films or W.C.Fields or Bogart films would run from Midnight til 6 AM for a buck! And the sub culture was in full swing at these events with people selling pot and acid. This all added to the allure of the event and I loved every one of those nights, going home singing through the "naked streets at dawn." (Allen Ginsburg-"Howl")

We were discovering the beat poets and literature,trading new ideas and generally expanding our parameters of thinking.So this gives you an idea of the changes taking place at the time.This is all around 1970 and things would continue on in this vein for some time to come.