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......


  1. I enjoys your writings. I too grew up on the "highway" as we used to call it. Also attended PS 197 [Mrs Altrowitz, not Mrs. Gerber for kindergarten] Remember our principal? Mr Brown. His license plate # was PS197. When I was in 6th grade, PS197 was still a k-8 school. The next term, when I should have been in 7th grade at Hudde JHS, Hudde opened a 7th grade annex on the top floor of PS197, and PS197 then only went to 6th grade. After JHS, Madison HS. I lived right across the street from Madison, diagonally from the tennis courts.

  2. Thanks for the comment! Brooklyn was a magical place to grow up- at least for me. Don't hesitate to e-mail me if you'd like- the address is at the top of the page... Like to hear YOUR story...