Return to My Life

Fresh Off the Boat (1953-1956)

1953 Pontiac Catalina

Our new home in Sea Gate was an attic in an old mansion at 4120 Manhattan Avenue.  It had the same sloping ceilings as our old place on Feststrasse in Frankfurt, but it was only two flights up, a great improvement.  I had a little cubbyhole of a room, and soon decorated its walls with pictures of American cars cut out of magazines.  The Hudson riverfront was underwhelming, but American cars were fabulous.  They were the most vivid and undeniable manifestations of this new and different world.  They were huge.  They were shiny.  They had chrome everywhere.  Some of them — the Pontiacs and the Cadillacs — had visors over the windshields!  Visors were stunning!  I soon forgot my earlier infatuation with jeeps.

My first report card, PS 188

After a day or two of getting our land legs back, my mother popped me immediately into P.S. 188, into the sixth grade class led by Mrs. Lehman.  There were some words of explanation that I was a German and couldn’t talk yet.  Somebody said I must be a Displaced Person, and so I was OK.  All the Sea Gate kids were Jewish, and they never said a nasty word to me about being German.  On the contrary, they were very helpful.  After school, they tutored me in the language:

“No, it’s not ‘fook’!  It’s ‘fuck’!”

“No, not ‘fahk,’ it’s ‘fuck’!”

And so on, until they had honed my accent to local standards.  After I mastered the f-word came the s-word.  They worked and worked with me, with great hilarity on all sides, until I had the essential boy’s vocabulary down.   To this day, Brooklynese is the base layer of my English.  Later, as I moved around, I overlaid that with strata of English from New England, the Midwest, the South, Canada, and finally California, which I speak now; but if you get me in a room with speakers of Brooklynese, I’m back there in a New York minute.

Next door lived a well-off family with a boy named Tony who had a television in his bedroom.  It had a screen about the size of a filing card, with a plastic magnifying lens in front of it.  I had seen TV sets in Germany in store windows but had never sat down in front of one to watch a show.  In Tony’s room I got introduced to Kaptain Kangaroo, the Mickey Mouse Club, Howdy Doody, and endless Disney cartoons.  They were funny but we didn’t stay glued to the set for long.

No part of Sea Gate is far from the water, and our place on Manhattan Avenue was divided from the row of beachfront villas mostly by an abandoned streetcar right of way, then overgrown with weeds and shrubs and dotted with piles of trash.  Here we kids built club houses with rusty tin advertising signs, chased feral cats, played hide-and-go-seek and king of the mountain.

Since I didn’t talk much yet, at least not to grownups, some parent thought I was probably retarded, and paired me up with a boy who had Down’s Syndrome.  He was not bad company.  He liked to beachcomb, so we did a lot of that.  We saw a lot of horseshoe crabs, fascinating armored creatures with dangerous-looking sharp tails.  There were stranded jellyfish to avoid, because they gave you electric shocks.  My friend wanted to fish, and brought a gigantic hook with a curve the diameter of a golf ball; he explained to me, as best as I understood it, that if you brought big hooks you would catch big fish.

Me posing with baseball bat in Sea Gate 1953 or ’54

The neighbor kids and I played ball for hours.  The essential equipment was a Spalding, pronounced “spaldeen.”  They were molded of pink rubber, filled with air, and had a good bounce when they were new.  That usually wasn’t long.  If you hit one hard with a broomstick, it would split in half.  That was cause for cheers and moans; cheers because it was a powerful hit, moans because now you’d have to find the money to buy a new one. You used a broomstick as bat when you played stickball.  One boy pitched, the other hit; if there were more boys, they played the field, and if they caught a hit on a fly, they were up next.  You had to have a sharp eye to hit that ball with a broomstick.   Every once in a while you would get lucky and get a Spalding that could take a hard hit and not bust right away.  You’d hang on to a ball like that and brag about it.

We also used the Spaldings to play stoop ball.  Most of the houses had stoops, and you threw the ball at the stairs.  You kept score by counting the bounces, with fewer bounces being better.  If you hit the forward edge of the stairs and the ball came back to you on a fly, that was like a home run.  If you hit the pocket and the ball died and rolled back to you flat, you were out.  This could go on for hours and involve up to a dozen players.

You got money by collecting empty Coke and Nehi bottles.  They were worth two cents at the grocer’s.  In this neighborhood, they were gold. If a grownup sat on a stoop drinking a soda, you’d have any number of kids hanging around, creeping close, claiming rights, jostling each other to grab it the second it was empty.  I think six bottles got you a new Spalding and one Tootsie Roll in change, but I forgot the exact numbers.

There was a vacant lot a few steps away across the street where in summer we would play real baseball.  The kids had gloves and bats and there was always an extra that I could borrow.  Nobody wanted to play catcher so I got that job.  I got to like it behind the plate and would often play that position in pickup games in later years.

The Dodgers were still in Brooklyn then.  Whenever school didn’t interfere, I would glue my ear to the radio for the play-by-play.  At least twice I got to go to Ebbets Field and see the team play.  I can still remember most of the lineup.  Roy Campanella, Gil Hodges, Junior Gilliam, Peewee Reese, Jackie Robinson,  Duke Snider, Carl Furillo  — I only forget the third baseman, Billy Cox.  Of the pitchers, I remember Johnny Podres, Clem Labine, Preacher Roe, Carl Erskine, and the great Don Newcombe, who I learned much later was a recovered alcoholic.  The “Boys of Summer,” they were called, not without sarcasm, because year after year they folded in the postseason.  That is, until 1955, when we finally took the Series from the hated Yankees.

When the ownership moved the Dodgers to Los Angeles, it felt like the breakup of a love affair.  Even though my mom and I had moved out of Brooklyn ourselves by that time, my veins still bled Dodger blue.  It was clear — all the commentators agreed — that the motivation for moving the team was money.  “Baseball isn’t a sport, it’s a business.”  I think that was when deep in my heart I became a communist.  I didn’t have words for it then, I’d never read any Marxist literature, I didn’t know and didn’t care that Stalin had recently died, but I felt with a child’s moral certainty that a system where money could take the Dodgers out of Brooklyn was outrageous and deserved to be overthrown by any means necessary.

Me with the doomed parakeet, Sea Gate 1953

My mom worked in Manhattan at a brainless job, tabulating receipts on an adding machine.  It was what she could get as a new immigrant.  She had a long subway ride coming and going.  To keep me company while I was alone, she bought me a parakeet.  I loved that little bird.  I taught it to eat seeds from my lips.  I let it fly free in the apartment.  That was a mistake.  It loved to sit and take naps on the tops of open doors.  One day I closed the door, without looking up.  When I opened it again, there was a soft plop on the floor.  I cried for hours.

My mom was still a believer and looked for a church to go to.  She tried different flavors of evangelical churches, maybe because the German Protestant church is called the Evangelische Kirche.  My first summer, she sent me off to a camp on a lake in upstate New York, run by one of those denominations.  It was a Bible camp.  They had picked out and highlighted a set of Bible quotes, and then the game was to match the quote with the citation.  So, if the leader said, “John 3:16” you were supposed to recite that verse.  Or if the leader recited a passage, you were supposed to shout out the book, chapter, and verse.  Then in the evening there were revival meetings and you were supposed to come forward, confess that you were a sinner, and be saved.  It was thrilling at first but it wore out pretty quickly, and the food was bad.  One afternoon, I and another boy who was as bored as I was “borrowed” the camp’s rowboat and set out straight across the lake, a good mile or so, to make our escape.  We were just a couple of hundred yards from a camp on the opposite shore, and it was starting to rain, when counselors in a motorboat from our camp caught us and towed us back.

My confirmation certificate

My mother finally settled on the Episcopalian church as her spiritual home in America.  We attended the Church of the Epiphany at E. 29th St and Avenue M.  (My confirmation certificate is on the right.)  The priest there was a very kind elderly man, Bob Bailey.  Occasionally I had the opportunity to ride with him in his car as he pursued his sideline job selling little plastic statuettes of brides and grooms to bakeries.  I was surprised that a priest would have a second job.  I learned that parish priests get paid poorly and their pensions are too low to live on.

The Coney Island Boardwalk

Father Bailey remained a good friend of our little family as long as we remained on the East Coast.  Among his other good deeds was connecting me with a family who had a spare bicycle that they painted and fixed up for me.  With that bike, I could roam outside the walls of Sea Gate and cruise up and down the famous wooden boardwalk of Coney Island.  I saw all the rides and attractions in winter when they were closed.

One time we kids saw a gap in the fence by the House of Mirrors, and an open back door.  We tiptoed in and saw that the place had been vandalized.  The broken mirror glass on the floor made the place even more bizarre.

I don’t remember ever going on the big wooden roller coasters, the Tornado and the Cyclone.  They were giant rattling, roaring, shaking contraptions, you took your life in your hands.  I certainly never went on the parachute drop.  The rides were for the tourists, and anyway they cost too much money.  Careening with our bikes on the boardwalk was our ride, and peeking down through the wooden slats at the couples convulsing between blankets on the sand was our thrill.  With the bike I was also able to go to playgrounds outside Sea Gate and meet other kids, and there I encountered and smiled shyly at a Puerto Rican girl named Rosa.

Me with Lego set (?) in Sea Gate 1953

Report card from I.S. 239, 1954

In the fall of 1953 I went to I.S. 239, the junior high school a few blocks away from the elementary school.  By this time I could talk quite a bit, and I was getting good marks in English class, but I was a first-generation immigrant and so I was put in the vocational track.  I am grateful for that to this day.  We were introduced to the basics of woodworking; you made a lamp with a pump handle for a switch.  We had electrical shop and learned about wiring, soldering, batteries, light bulbs, electromagnets, and motors.  I took more shop classes in later grades.  I got to work with 19th-century printing equipment, pulling cold type letters one at a time from lower and upper cases, inserting them in a handheld composing stick, locking them in a chase with a quoin, and running a proof.  In sheet metal shop, I learned how to use tin snips, punches, and the brake.

Shop was a marvelous education not only for the hands but for the mind.  Shop was good, of course, for the hands to learn the heft and texture of the tools and the materials, for the eyes to learn inches and their fractions, for the ears to learn the speech and music of tools, but it was much more.  After shop, when I saw furniture I could begin to imagine the work that went into making it; when I saw print on paper, I could smell the ink, hear the press, and smile knowingly at the typographical errors.  Shop made the man-made physical universe around me come alive and be familiar.  Thanks to taking shop, I’ve always been curious about how things work and how they were made.  I’ve seen in my imagination the hands of all the people who made a thing and brought it to me.  I’ve never been afraid to walk in industrial neighborhoods, to go into plants and warehouses, to talk to the people who work there; and much later, in the middle of my life, when I was in a deep hole, shop allowed me to climb out again.  But I’m getting ahead of my story.

One incident in junior high school sticks in my conscience, and perhaps if I write about it it will go away.  One of my classmates had a fountain pen that I much admired. It had a little snorkel that emerged from under the nib for refilling it.  One day he lost it in the schoolyard, and I found it.  Instead of giving it back to him, I used some plastic-model paint I had to paint it a different color.  Some time later he saw it and recognized it as his. I made up a lame lie (“Oh really?  I didn’t know it was yours!”) and gave it back.  I still blush with shame when I remember the incident.

I.S. 239 was on the edge of a big park, and in the winter this was the scene of great after-school snowball fights.  Here my early training in Switzerland was priceless.  Unlike most of the other boys, who wouldn’t handle snow except with their woolly gloves on, I dug into the snow with my bare hands and I could make and fire three firm snowballs before they could pack one.  In snow, my hands got red and hot and steamy, perfect for the purpose.  I loved leading the charge against a boys’ snowball fort, dodging the incoming missiles, jumping forward, dipping and firing, jumping, dipping and firing until I was up on the ramparts rubbing the defenders’ noses in the snow.  If I happened to see a movie or read a story about soldiers charging a machine gun nest — a stock scene in war stories — I was there in my fantasy, and of course I always triumphed without a scratch on me.

Graduation from 7th grade in Mt. Vernon CT in 1955

In the Spring of 1955, my mother fell ill.  I remember vaguely something to do with “heart,”  and that it was so serious that she could no longer take care of me.   I believe, without being sure, that she went to live with the Neumanns; he was a physician.  I went to a foster home in Rockville, CT, just north of Hartford.  The woman who took me in was large and kind and treated me well.  I lived in the bedroom of an older child who had moved away.  I had to leave my bike behind in Brooklyn.  The neighbor next door to my foster home was an Explorer scoutmaster and recruited me.  I enjoyed the camping and the crafts and the companionship with other kids, but the neighbor turned out to be a creepy predator and I stopped going.  Father Bailey came up once or twice on his bakery rounds and looked in on me.  I attended the 8th grade in the elementary school in the nearby town of Vernon and graduated there in June.

Sometime  in the late summer came the good news that my mother was better.  We were reunited.  For reasons I don’t remember, we moved to Cleveland, where my mother got a job as a secretary.  We lived on an upper floor apartment with a big screened-in porch in Lakewood.  I went to Lakewood High.  After school I had a job delivering papers in the neighborhood for the Cleveland Plain Dealer.  At first I walked the route with a big canvas bag, folding and tossing the paper up on the porches.  Then the paper had a contest for signing up new subscribers, and I went door to door, signed up a bunch, and won a bike.  I signed up even more subscribers and won an electric drill.  I was a star delivery boy.

One of my school friends was Wally (Vladimir) S., the son of immigrants from Russia.  He lived a mile or so away near a sprawling old factory with the huge letters EVEREADY BATTERIES on the front.  He was an electricity whiz and built a Van de Graaff generator and a Tesla coil in his bedroom.  His house had a big honeysuckle hedge in front and on summer nights we could catch dozens of fireflies and put them in a jar and shake it to make them light up.   We would wander through the factory’s sprawling weed-filled back yard and look for discarded carbon electrodes and other interesting junk.  Because he was a F.O.B. (Fresh Off the Boat) like me, Wally and I clicked easily.  He later became a medical doctor and I still hear from him, but he became very conservative and we don’t have much in common any more.

Me in Cleveland 1956

In Cleveland I briefly had a dog.  We got him from the pound.  He was frisky and friendly, but he had a problem, he couldn’t stop running, indoors or out.  Nothing could stop him. After just a couple of weeks, we had to take him back to the pound.  They said there was something wrong with his heart.  Here’s a collage of pictures of me in Cleveland, one of them with the unfortunate dog.

A very sad thing happened in Cleveland.  One afternoon I came home from my route and my mother was fast asleep on the couch.  This was very unusual and I tried to wake her up.  She only responded in a groggy way.  With a shock I noticed an empty bottle of pills and an empty bottle of wine on the coffee table.  Somehow I knew — maybe I had seen this situation on TV or in a movie — to phone for an ambulance.  They took her to the emergency room, pumped out her stomach, and saved her life.  The next morning neither of us said anything about the incident.  I never found out for sure what drove her to do it, but I came to suspect that she was in love with someone (possibly “Uncle S.”) back in Germany and had received a “Dear Margot” letter from him.  My mother and I never ever discussed this incident, and I was not able to tell anyone else about it until forty years later.

The incident gave me a queasy feeling in my stomach.  I had very nearly become an orphan, and this time there wasn’t a foster home to go to.  The most important person in my life had almost abandoned me.  However, life went on, and appearances had to be kept up.  I went to school, did my paper route, played with Wally, got a weekend job working concessions at a lakeside park, and pushed the whole bad incident out of my mind.

As with the schools in Germany, my classroom experiences in Lakewood left no traces in my memory.  My only vivid school memories happened at lunch and in gym.  At the lunch table there was a big older boy who was a bit of a bully.  In those days we brought sandwiches to school, wrapped in waxed-paper sandwich bags.  When done, we would blow up the sandwich bags like balloons and pop them with our fists, with a loud bang.  This was of course against lunchroom rules, and therefore irresistible.  The older boy demanded we blow up our bags and let him pop them.  I happened to have a little brown pocket knife with me, with a one-inch blade, and I stuck this inside my bag, pointing up, with about a quarter-inch of the blade peeking through the paper.  I dared the big boy to pop this one, thinking he would see the blade and hold back.  With contempt at my dare, and without looking, he hammered his fist on the bag.  After a cry of pain, with all eyes at the table on the bag, the knife, and the bloody hand, a teacher approached, and in the blink of an eye the knife and the bag disappeared, the injured hand went into a pocket, and we all pretended that nothing had happened.  The big boy wore a bandage on his hand for several days.  The following week in gym class came my punishment.  Three boys pushed me down on a gym mat, yelling “Dog Pile!” and then a dozen or more boys piled on top of me and each other, flailing and kicking, until there was a tacit consensus that justice had been done.  I wasn’t hurt and felt relieved that the matter was settled.  Nobody mentioned it again and my social standing at the school wasn’t impaired; but then, as a newcomer to the school, the city, and the country, it couldn’t have been much lower.

(Continued:  Kansas)

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