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.

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