EXCERPTS FROM STANLEY YOKELL'S BOOKS
These are the opening paragraphs of Drugs and Death
Marcy Livia parked her bike at the east end of the Big Rock Mall and started her early Sunday morning run. She planned to run to the west end where the mall ended, and continue up into the foothills. When she ran far enough uphill, she would turn around and run down to the mall. Then, before riding home, the restaurants would be open and she could have her Sunday breakfast of a toasted bagel with cream cheese, and lox, and a mug of coffee with sugar and cream.
She paid no attention to two women lying in the grass near a bush on the lawn in front of the county courthouse. It was not unusual for Big Rock’s homeless to sleep there during warm weather. However, on her return, she noticed the same women lying there as if they had not moved. Curious, she tiptoed over to look. Each had a hole in the back of her head. There was very little blood.
With trembling hands, Marcy took her cellphone out of the fanny pack, she wore when running, and dialed 911. When the operator responded, Marcy could hardly speak. She whispered “They’re dead, with holes in their heads.”
“Ma’am, who is dead?” the operator asked, “where are you?”
“Two women, uh, on the mall in front of the courthouse,” Marcie could barely get the words out.
“Please stay right where you are. Don’t touch or move the victims. The police will be there shortly,” the operator instructed.
This is the first page of A Little Book of American Haiku
God spoke to Moses.
High in Sinai’s dry desert.
Gave ten commandments.
Have no gods but me.
Said the jealous creator.
Or suffer your fate.
Make no golden calves,
Or other brazen idols.
Say not vainly God.
His name is holy to all.
Punished are swearers.
No work on Sabbath.
Six days work; rest the seventh.
Keep Sabbath holy.
Honor mom and dad, Who brought you into the world,
And loved you always.
You shall not murder,
Except perhaps during war.
Can you kill guilt free?
Only one spouse permitted.
You shall not steal things.
Stealing is sinful to God.
You end up in jail.
This is the first short story in the book Short Stories and Sketches.
In the Dark of the Night
In the dark of the night, Morley Hunt woke from dreaming of his beloved. He reached out to caress her. But she was not there.
Tears wet his checks. Death had parted them. He thought, Her presence will always be with me until I lie beside her in the earth.
Awake in the dark of the night, Hunt recalled what he accomplished in life with satisfaction and what he failed to do with dissatisfaction. He told himself, There is no starting over. We have only one life.
In the dark of the night, his mind wandered. He thought, If any youngster asked, I’d say, ‘Follow your heart’s desires and pursue your dreams, lest you suffer pangs of regret in your old age. Living a good life means loving wholeheartedly, not doing evil, living graciously, and doing unto others as you would have them do unto you. To have a good life you must live in consonance with nature, wild creatures, and appreciate the arts of music, sculpture, painting, and dance.’
In the dark of night, he bragged to himself about things he had done. He put out of mind what he hadn’t and reminded himself that, although one person can make a difference in the world, civilization develops through the cooperation of individuals.
In the dark of the night, he was wary of leaders who make false promises in their lust for power that leads to tyranny. He wondered how people are so easily misled to support what is harmful to their best interests.
He closed his eyes and hoped for the temporary oblivion that renewed his energy. The sun shined into his window. A new day began. The night’s dark thoughts faded, and life went on.
During his morning swim, he began the day’s dialogue with himself. He wondered if other sentient creatures—dogs, cats, horses, cows, mice, birds—think about their lives. He had no answer. He thought of fear and courage. He had hidden many fears behind bluster. But he did most of what he wanted to do even when afraid.
Was I courageous? Or just persistent? he wondered. Did he follow his dad’s constant admonition never to lie? Perhaps he lied to himself. But not to others.
The swim over, he went to breakfast.
An Excerpt from the Foothills Mystery
Tom Campbell, a doctoral candidate in mathematics, woke up at first light. His live-in girlfriend, Lucille Tueur, lay next to him snoring gently. He eased himself quietly off the bed very carefully so as not to wake her. He went into the bathroom, closed the door, attended to his morning needs and showered. He looked in the mirror and decided that there was no need to shave.
Quietly he slipped into the anteroom where he kept his climbing gear. A glimpse out the small window in the west wall showed a clear sky. The foothills reflected the first rosy rays of sunlight off the flatirons. He muttered to himself “Today’s the day I’ll solo free climb the Risky Route. If I know Morris Beard, he is too busy with Karen Betryger to climb this early. I wonder if he knows that we get it on now and then. Lucille might not think she is such a good friend if she knew too.”
Campbell sorted through his climbing gear and rubbed moisturizer into his feet. He pulled on a pair of thin white socks and tight rock climbing shoes. He slipped into his climbing shorts, under which he wore no undershorts, and fastened them with a belt, pulled a tee shirt over his head, and picked up his climbing helmet. He walked down to his ancient Volkswagen and left for the foothills.
Not another soul was in sight when Campbell parked in the fenced-off enclosure that the Big Rock’s Parks commission had set aside for climbers and hikers. His tight climbing shoes caused his toenails to turn black, but Campbell considered it a small price to pay to feel every toehold.
Hobbling over to the Risky Route, he recalled having climbed its three pitches many times with Morris Beard, one leading and the other belaying. But this would be his first attempt at a solo free climb.
Campbell had used binoculars to plan for the solo free climb, picking out every hand- and foothold on the way up. He had memorized the location of each bucket and crack. He took a few moments to visualize the whole climb. After the ascent, he planned to climb out to the meadow above the rock and hike down the steep side footpath to the lot where his Volkswagen was parked.
Campbell’s advance planning made for a smooth problem-free climb. Nearing the top, he congratulated himself on his skill and daring. As he reached for the rock slab at the top of the climb, he looked up and saw a familiar face.
“Hi, he said, “nice to see you. You’re out early for you on a Sunday morning. What brought you here?”
“Just a hike in the quiet before the foothills get crowded. I took the side path up thinking this would be a good day for you to try a solo free climb and came to see if I was right.”
“Do I smell coffee?” Tom asked, his fingers curled against the rock outcropping at the top of the climb. “Just give me a minute and I’ll get a leg up.”
The hiker poured hot coffee into the plastic cup that capped a thermos taken from the backpack, took a sip, and with hard-surfaced hiking boots stamped on Campbell’s fingers.
The cup of coffee finished, the hiker capped the thermos, put it into the backpack and began walking down the steep side path to the parking lot near the start of the trail. After arriving at the lot, the hiker drove home, showered, dressed and went to church.
 Solo free climbing is climbing without ropes or protection devices. It is the fastest and most dangerous way to climb a rock face.
A Story from the book 100 Short Stories
There was a tavern on Utica Avenue that could be seen from the upstairs, rear bedroom windows of the house in Brooklyn where I lived as a boy. It was the custom in our neighborhood for parents to send a child to the tavern with a pail to get beer. No parent complained when the kid sampled the beer on the way home.
But, when fifteen-year old Jimmy Flanagan came home from the tavern, drunkenly swinging the pail, his father Mike’s Irish rose. He set the pail down on a table in the den and his brow darkened, “Did you have a drink at the tavern?” he demanded of Jimmy.
“Yes, Dad,” Jimmy responded, “I told bartender Schultz, that I ought to have a free glass of beer for buying a big pail full.”
“It must have been a mighty big glass of beer to get you so drunk,” Mike shouted.
“Well, Sean O’Shaughnessy was sitting at the bar and he told Schultz to make it a boilermaker and he’d pay for the shot of whiskey,” Jimmy answered.
“Oh, he did, did he,” Mike growled, “It’s no wonder his slut of a daughter Bridget, can’t walk a straight line most days.”
He poured himself a glass of beer from the pail, got out of his chair and told Maggie, “I’m going to tell that son of a bitch O’Shaughnessy off. And while I’m at it I’m going to let Schultz know that he shouldn’t be serving liquor to kids. I’ll be back for supper.”
Maggie answered, “Mind your temper, Mike. That Sean can be mean. He’s been in jail for assault and battery.”
“Assault and battery, you say?” He raised his fist, “We’ll see who does the assaulting and who gets battered.”
He put on his cap and jacket and left for the tavern. When he got there, O’Shaughnessy was at the pool table in the room off the bar. Flanagan confronted him. “Put down your damn cue stick. I’m talking to you,” Flanagan roared.
“Sure now, I thought I heard a loud fart,” O’Shaughnessy retorted, “what’s got your bowels in such an uproar?”
“Did you give my Jimmy a boilermaker when he brought a pail for some beer?” Flanagan demanded.
“Sure, and I did. I was congratulating him,” O’Shaughnessy answered.
O’Shaughnessy’s answer stopped Flanagan cold.
“What the hell were you congratulating my boy for?” Flanagan wanted to know.
“My Bridget told me that she and Jimmy are a couple. So, I thought that was worth a drink,” O’Shaughnessy answered.
“He never told us he’s taken up with that slut,” Flanagan said.
“Did I hear you call my daughter a slut?” O’Shaughnessy asked with rising anger.
“If you’re not deaf, that’s what you heard, Flanagan responded.
“You’ll pay for that,” O’Shaughnessy said raising his cue stick,
Flanagan struck first with a fist to O’Shaughnessy’s eye. O’Shaughnessy dropped the cue stick and swing from his heels with his fist landing on Flanagan’s eye.
Bar owner Schultz intervened. He picked up a baseball bat he kept under the bar and said, “Outside, you bums. You got something to settle, settle it outside my place.”
He brandished the baseball bat. Johnny O’Reilly sitting on a bar stool shouted out, “Fight, fight, three to two on O’Shaughnessy.”
The tavern emptied as the customers went into the parking lot to watch. O’Reilly’s odds were soon taken.
Flanagan and O’Shaughnessy went at it. Each had a black eye. They swung at each other, mostly haymakers. Soon their lips were swollen, and their noses dripped blood. They kept swinging at each other. When one was knocked down, he got up and knocked down the other. The tavern customers were divided over who they cheered, depending on how they bet on the fight’s outcome, which looked like a draw that wouldn’t end until one of the combatants was unconscious.
Bridget O’Shaughnessy and Jimmy Flanagan approached holding hands. Bridget shouted out, “Will you two quit battering each other like a couple of kids?”
“Yeah dad. Quit it,” Jimmy shouted.
The crowd wasn’t pleased. Bloody fights were an amusement that they didn’t have very often, what with the police cars driving past the tavern on Utica Avenue.
Bridget and Jimmy walked between Mike Flanagan and Sean O’Shaughnessy who were too exhausted to push them out of the way.
Many years later, Mike Flanagan and Sean O’Shaughnessy would argue over who won the fight as they dandled Bridget and Jimmy’s children on their knees.
An Excerpt from the Murder on the Mall
The Colorado foothills town of Big Rock is noted for its brick-paved mall that begins on the eastern end of Ruby Street and ends just before Ruby Street becomes an asphalt-paved, tree-lined street of restored old homes with a few small, funky stores and a few small businesses.
The Ruby Street Mall is a major attraction for tourists visiting Colorado and the parents of students who attend the university. Jugglers, mimes, musicians, and other performers show off their skills to appreciative crowds, who compensate them by dropping coins and currency in hats or open violin cases. The Ruby Street Mall is often home to concerts sponsored by various organizations, street fairs, and other excitements. Rock City’s finest patrol the Mall with good humor, but are rigorous in seeing to it that small-changers are not aggressive, and that some young ne’er-do-wells keep apart from the more sedate visitors to the mall.
Residents of Big Rock can easily tell the difference between their neighbors and visitors by the girth of their waistlines, size of their backsides, and their patronage of the ice-cream and candy stores. The many benches and resting places in shady and sunny locations and the beds of flowers are an additional attraction to visitors.
Big Rock accommodates the elderly in several retirement facilities such as Plato House and its sister facility, Briar Rose
Big Rock is populated by the young and fit along with not-so-young, middle-aged people who aspire to the fitness of the young. Many of the latter came to Big Rock to study at the university and remained because of the beautiful surroundings and free and easy culture. The nearby foothills are filled with steep slopes and crags that attract rock climbers.
Like most public schools in Colorado, the Big Rock fall term begins in August. When the first day of school let out on Monday, three South Big Rock high school girls—Sharon Wilson, Sally Springer, and Labelle Vistin—and two North Big Rock high school girls—Winnie Frist and Annie Shuster—went to the Seven-Eleven on Arapahoe Avenue in response to an ad that announced a new machine for shaved ice-syrupy drinks.
Labelle was one of the few African American girls in the school. She and Sharon were best friends. Both girls were pretty, slim, and animated. They had played soccer on the same teams and had joined the South Big Rock cheerleading squad. People would admire the two lovely youngsters when they saw them together. Sharon’s peaches and cream complexion, naturally blonde hair, and deep blue eyes and Labelle’s lovely skin color and flashing black eyes emphasized their differences. Both were good friends with Sally Shuster.
Eddie Hickok sat on the bench outside the Seven Eleven, sipping coffee from a plastic container. He eyed the girls, taking special note of the blond, blue-eyed Sharon Wilson and the sparkling black eyes and lovely color of Labelle’s skin and their slim, graceful figures and budding maturity.
Eddie took a drag on the joint he was smoking and spoke to them, “Hi,” he said, “school let out?”
“Yeah,” Sharon responded, “it’s a drag being in school while it’s still summer.”
“Which school is yours?” he asked.
“South Big Rock’s our school,” she answered, “We’re best friends.”
Pointing to Winnie Frist and Annie Shuster she said, “Those girls are from North Big Rock. I wish I was still on vacation like you.”
“I’m not on vacation,” Hickok said, “I work nights. I make movies at a studio out on the east end of Ruby Street.”
“Do you make documentaries for PBS?” Labelle asked.
He laughed, “No,” he said, “just commercial films. We’re always looking for new young actresses.”
He said to them, “You two might just fit in one of our films. We could use a blond, blue-eyed pretty girl like you, together with a beautiful African-American girl like you. It could make a great scene.”
Sharon had often dreamed of becoming an actress and starring in love stories.
“Would you really put us in one of your films?” she asked.
“If you can get out tonight, I’ll be glad to try you out,” he responded.
The girls’ faces fell.
“My mom and dad think I need to study cause my grades fell off last year,” Sharon said.
Labelle said, “My dad won’t give me permission to go out after dinner unless it’s with my mom or him.”
“Too bad,” he said to Labelle, “I could make a great scene with the two of you.”
Sharon thought a bit and said, “I could tell my mom and dad that I’m going to Karen’s to study and sleepover. Could I be in a scene without Labelle? How would I get to your studio?”
“Give me your address. I’ll park my car across the street so when you leave for your friend’s house I can pick you up,” he said.
“Cool,” Sharon said.
Labelle looked envious and distressed.
Excitedly Sharon squealed. “I’m going to be in a movie.”
Very quickly the other girls were asking Hickok if they could act in his films too.
“Well, I’ll need to get your names, addresses, and cell phone numbers and ask you some questions,” he told them, taking out a memo pad and pen.
He noted down the five girls’ names and the answers to his questions. That night he picked up Sharon and drove her to the Baddyflicks studio.
The Big Rock town council had converted Ruby Street from one that was lined with stores that served the remnants of the mining community and a restaurant with cuisine that reflected miners’ appetites to a gentrified mall of hokey and expensive stores and restaurants of kinds that miners would never have dreamed of patronizing.
On a hot Tuesday afternoon during the last week of August, Stanley and Edith Israel, residents of Plato House, drove to the west end of Ruby Street. Stanley parked his car and they held hands as they set out for a walk on the Ruby Street Mall.
They went there to see the beautiful beds of flowers that they knew would soon be gone once the cool September weather set in. They were just getting started at the west end of the mall traveling east when a woman accosted them. She had a gap in her front upper teeth, a sun-burnt nose with some skin problems, sad eyes, and wore a nondescript dress. She mumbled something. Israel said, “Please speak louder and more clearly. I’m very hard of hearing.”
She mumbled again. Finally he caught on to what she was saying, “I’m Sheila Cartwright and I’m hungry. Can you give me a dollar for some fried onions?”
Being well fed, Israel felt guilty about a poor person telling him she was hungry. “I’ll buy you some food. Just tell me where you’d like to eat,” he said to her.
Cartwright said, “I came from California for a job. I can get fried onions at the Rock City Bar.”
She started to walk east, faster than Israel’s wife Edie could walk.
“We’re old and can’t keep up with you. Slow down and we’ll go into the bar with you,” he said.
She did—just barely.
He took out a $20 bill, handed it to bartender Mack Murphy, and said, “Give me $15 change back and give this lady whatever five dollars will buy in the way of food.”
Murphy looked at Israel. “You sure you want to encourage this?” he asked, "a hamburger?"
“I don’t want a hamburger. Just some fried onions,” Cartwright said.
Murphy shrugged. He said, “That will be $2.15.
“OK,” Israel answered, “See what other food she wants that fits the remainder of the five.”
“I need money for the bus fare to the shelter,” Cartwright objected.
Israel sighed, “Bartender, give her the rest of the money from the five dollars.”
“OK, boss,” Murphy said.
She dug into a worn purse. “I had a roach in here. I need a smoke,” she said.
Edith looked appalled. She turned to Stanley, “Why is she looking in her purse for a disgusting cockroach?” she asked.
He kissed her on the forehead. “Sweetheart, you are such a sweet innocent. She’s not looking for a cockroach. Roach is street talk for the remnants of a marijuana cigarette.”
Murphy told Cartwright, “Lady, Rock City is a no-smoke town. If you want to light up one of those funny cigarettes, you gotta do it outside. But you better watch out for the uniforms.”
Israel turned to Cartwright. “I know the rules at the shelter, and if you show up high they’re gonna boot your booty out,” he said.
“I really need some crack,” she muttered, “but this is all I’ve got.”
“Oh, you don’t want to do crack,” he said.
“Can’t help it, I’m hooked,” she responded.
Israel was still working as a consultant from an office in his apartment at Plato House. He dug into his wallet and took out a business card and wrote on the back of it.
“Sheila,” he said, “if you want to get help to straighten out, call Doctor Josh Ginsburg at the number I wrote on the back of my card. He is an old friend who is retired and spends his time helping people straighten out. Give him a call.”
She took the card, slipped it into her purse, and sat down at the bar to eat her onion rings.
Murphy wiped the bar. He said more to himself than to Israel, “Takes all kinds and I seen them all.”
The old couple walked slowly on, hand in hand, marveling at the numbers of mostly young people strolling on the mall in various costumes, from short shorts to long skirts. There were many tattoos and beards and various kinds of musical instruments being played, with the occasional biker breaking the law by riding on the mall.
Edie asked, “What day is today? Is it Saturday?”
“Tuesday, sweetheart” he answered.
“Why are these people here? Shouldn’t they be working?” she asked.
“Honey, it’s been like that ever since the mall was constructed,” he answered, “and I don’t know how these people get the time to spend their time on the mall. I guess most people don’t work the long hours I always did, so we’re not used to seeing people not working during the middle of a week day.”
They walked on. As they walked slowly east they came upon the Falafel Queen restaurant. Falafel is a combination of chickpeas, onions, flour, and spices, rolled into balls and deep fried in cooking oil. Israel hadn’t had falafel since he was in The Hague around ten years ago to present a short course on heat transfer. A smile broke out on his face.
“Hon,” he said to Edie, “Do you know anything about this place?”
“If I did, I’ve forgotten it,” she answered, “I don’t remember much of anything anymore.”
“Remember when we went to Israel and we were the guest of a young Arab in Jericho?” he asked her.
“Oh, that was so long ago. Yes, I remember,” She said, “We sat in a garden and had a salad.”
“Do you remember that we had falafel in Tel Aviv, and again in Jericho?” he asked her.
“Sort of,” she said.
“Well at the time you remarked that the Palestinians and the Jews could at least agree on what tastes good,” he said.
She smiled, “Yes, I remember that.”
He explained, “Well, when we got back home, one day I decided to walk over to the Ruby Street Mall from my office and get some lunch. I didn’t know what I wanted so I strolled down the mall. When I saw the sign in English, Hebrew, and Arabic on the window of the Falafel Queen I decided to have some falafel and a piece of the lamb they call shwarma. So I went in and stood in line to order.
“While I was waiting I started to talk to one of the owners. I asked him if he came from Israel. Before he had a chance to answer his partner shouted, ‘Palestine!’ and they began a loud argument with the Israeli partner calling his Arab partner a raghead and the Arab partner calling the Israeli an occupier. I thought they were going to kill each other until they both began to laugh. So I asked them what all the fuss was about. All the other customers standing in line were listening.”
“Did they explain?” she asked.
“The Israeli guy—his name is Avraham ben Moshe—and the Arab guy—his name is Ibrahim bin Musa—kept interrupting each other, telling me that they’re Israeli-Palestinian partners and they came here to get away from the fighting. They said they had been friends since they were kids playing soccer together and when ben Moshe got out of the army they decided to come here together. They have the same name except one is in Hebrew and the other is in Arabic. They put on that act so people will remember the Falafel Queen and come back again.”
Edie said, “Wouldn’t it be nice if more Arabs and Israelis were friends?”
“Maybe it will happen someday,” he replied.
He had a sudden urge to have some falafel. They went in to the Falafel Queen. Ben Moshe and bin Ibrahim were too busy cooking and serving for any conversation. Edie stood at his side as he ordered. There was a sudden crash. He grabbed Edie, terrified that she would be knocked down. On the floor was a big, young man. Israel put his arm under him and helped him up.
“I Eddie Hickok and I sick,” the man said.
Israel helped Hickok sit down and gave him some water. He said, “Eddie, do you want me to call a doctor?”
“No doctor,” Hickok said, “he’ll take away my needle.”
Israel took another business card out of his wallet and wrote Dr. Ginsburg’s phone number on it. He slid it into the pocket of Hickok’s obviously expensive shirt and said, “I’ve got a friend who’s a retired doctor. He helps people get clean. If you want to get clean, you call Doctor Josh Ginsburg. I wrote his name and number on the back of the card I stuck in your shirt pocket.”
He said to his wife, “I don’t think Josh is going to thank me for the favors I’m sending him today.”
He waited while the falafel cooked. There was another loud crash. Hickok was again on the floor with the chair he had been sitting on and the table overturned. Mindy Smith, the young cashier, asked Israel, “Should I call the Police?”
He answered, “It might be a good idea to call 911 instead.”
Bin Musa took Hickok into the back of the Falafel Queen. Stanley and Edith went out to sit at a table where he munched the falafel. It wasn’t as good as he had remembered. He said to her, “At this age, hardly anything is as good as I remember it.”
Edith was tired, and after Stanley bought her a frozen yogurt they walked back to where the car was parked and drove back to Plato House. The next morning he picked up the Big Rock Daily that he had delivered to his doorstep each morning. He and Edith went down to breakfast. He slipped the paper out of its plastic wrapper. The headline on the front page screamed, Man Found on Ruby Street Mall Beaten to Death.
The short story, reported by Jack Armstrong, read, The Big Rock police are investigating a gruesome find on the Ruby Street Mall. A man identified as Eddie Hickok, a resident of North Big Rock, was found on the grass in front of the county courthouse, the apparent victim of a brutal beating. Marie Quizno, Big Rock’s chief of detectives, is conducting the investigation. The police have withheld any details of their investigation. This reporter is following the story. The Big Rock Daily will provide more information about the alleged murder as it becomes available. It is our understanding that the county coroner is examining the body at the morgue.
Excerpts from Old People 2nd Ed.
The Rest Place is a retirement home in Boulder, Colorado that caters to a group of old people as they live out their sunset years. Boulder lies just east of the Rocky Mountains foothills. Unlike most other retirement facilities in the area, it has just seventy-five apartments for residents who are able to fend for themselves, for some who require some assistance in getting around and for some whose, spouses or partners can care for ones not fully capable of caring for themselves. It is one of the best of its kind.
In its years of operation, there has been nothing but praise for the Rest Place from the residents and their loved ones. It carefully vets caregivers who help old people in need, checking their health and training, and monitoring their visits to the facility. And it is thoughtfully designed to make its residents’ last years as pleasant as possible.
In this effort, the managing director, Gary Pointe, and the operations director, Shirley Peake, work closely with a resident’s council elected by the residents. The resident’s council hears questions from residents and discusses them with Gary and Shirley at monthly meetings that precede a monthly meeting of the old people who live at the Rest Place. On the staff is Cynthia Montana, who has the title, Community Life Director.
Bittersweet Gambia was visiting her mother, Alice, who was a resident not yet in need of a caregiver. Alice was repeating a story that Bittersweet had heard many times.
“A few moments of excitement and pleasure, and then I was knocked up. That bastard wouldn’t use protection – ‘The church doesn’t sanction birth control,’ he said. Then, when I told him I was carrying you, he wouldn’t dream of an abortion. He said the Church prohibits it. He told me to go away until you were born. I did, and when I came back, he pressured me to give you up to Catholic Charities for adoption. Well, I didn’t and I raised you without any help except my mother’s. So that’s how you got here. And here you are. Who does a priest confess to anyway?” Alice Gambia asked her daughter, Bittersweet.
“Oh mom, we’ve been through this a hundred times,” Bittersweet answered, “I know that’s why you named me Bittersweet, not because it’s your favorite shrub.”
“I named you after my favorite shrub” Alice insisted, “If you don’t like your name change it.”
“Mom,” I’m not about to change my name. I lived through all the teasing and jeering about bitter and sweet, and I’m happy with my name. If I ever get married, I won’t even change my name from Gambia,” Bittersweet answered.
“Why don’t you just accept things as they are?” Bittersweet asked, “I pay a lot of money for your care in this lovely retirement home. The Rest Place is one of the best in the area.”
“Yes, you pay,” Alice answered, “I was a mother and father to you, patched you up when you got hurt playing, slaved to keep you in pretty dresses, made sure you ate right, got you to the doctor, lived with your shenanigans when you were a teen ager, and paid your way through college and graduate school so you could become the star of that computer company of yours. Yes, Miss president, you pay, and you visit me if it fits your schedule. So here I am alone in this place waiting for the candle in front of my picture and the memorial service.”
“Oh Mother, I do my best to see you. I call you just about every day. You won’t use a computer where we could see each other on skype when I’m traveling. If’ you’d let me buy you a nice Mac notebook, we could see each other even when I’m in Europe or Asia or South America. How about it?” Bittersweet asked.
“Computer, comshmooter,” Alice responded, “It’s enough I have a fancy cell phone. Who needs to take pictures and make videos with a telephone? I’m not one of those kids in those foreign places, protesting, and putting pictures up on the Internet. Go ahead. Change your name if it bothers you.”
A tear ran down Alice’s cheek, “Now it’s ‘Oh, mother, and not ‘mom’ you always call me mother when I annoy you.”
Bittersweet changed the subject. “There are so many nice men and women at The Rest Place, all around your age. I know you eat at the community table most nights, and you eat at the small tables with some of the other ladies sometimes. And they are all so friendly.”
“Yes,” Alice said, “They are very friendly and nice people. They are acquaintances, but friends they are not. They’re mostly a bunch of dried out sexless old women, who wear so much jewelry it could knock your eyes out. All they talk about is their children, their grandchildren, and their great grandchildren. But I can’t brag on mine. You haven’t seen fit to make me a grandmother. And the men are a bunch of old farts, always talking about what they did in the wars. If I hear another ‘When I was a boy,’ I’ll go stark raving mad.
Bittersweet tried again, “The Rest Place has all kinds of activities. There’s a gym and swimming pool, a book club, discussions of current events, concerts in the auditorium, and celebrations of all the holidays. Why don’t you take advantage of what they provide?”
“Who goes to the gym at my age?” Alice asked, “What am I, an old athlete? And the only ones who use the pool are like that old Sam Small, who gets his exercise walking in the water. I think he wishes he could walk on the water.”
She laughed at the mental picture of the fat old man walking on water. She continued, “And that Sam Smart brags that he has the pool all to himself and swims so many laps. Who wants to hear about it? Besides, I’m too saggy and baggy to wear a swimsuit where somebody could see what I look like.”
Bittersweet looked at her watch, “Mom, I’m late for an appointment. I have to go right now,” she said. She kissed Alice’s cheek and was out the door. All the way to her appointment she wondered how to make life pleasanter for her mother and what life would be like when she got old.
When Bittersweet was gone Alice asked herself, Why can’t we just have a pleasant conversation without my complaining?
She sat in her lounge chair and ruminated, talking to herself aloud about times long past before falling asleep.
Living through the depression must have been terrible for Mother and Father. It’s a good thing they paid off the mortgage before the office furniture factory where father worked closed. He was out of work so long.
When the gas company turned off the gas and the electric company turned off the electricity, I thought they’d go out of their minds. President Hoover made radio speeches about prosperity being around the corner. He talked about a chicken in every pot and a car in every garage, but all the men in father’s company were out of work. The veterans marched to ask for a bonus, but they didn’t get beans. If father hadn’t done all kinds of odd jobs, we would have starved. As it was I was hungry all the time.
I thought father would have a heart attack when he got the tax bill and didn’t have the money to pay the taxes. His face got so pale. And me – I was ashamed to go to school in the same clothes every day. The one bright spot on our street was the magnolia tree down the street that bloomed every spring.
Those nuns at St. Catherine’s Parochial were so strict. The used their snappers like weapons to keep us in line. Separate entrances for boys and girls – not like today where some schools have coed dormitories.
Every Sunday we went to early mass. Everyone was poor. The kids used to put cardboard in their shoes when the soles wore through. I was lucky to get the job at the Board of Health. Father wouldn’t take a penny of what I earned. He was too proud – typical man. So I bought savings bonds, except for what I put in the plate Sunday mornings
She thought about the priest who fathered Bittersweet.
That Sunday morning, after the visiting priest said mass, he came over to shake my hand and tell me how pretty I was. That’s how he began. He was so young and handsome. I didn’t know what he meant by tickling my palm with his finger when he shook my hand. But he educated me. And that’s how I got pregnant with Bittersweet. The bastard wouldn’t help me. He just wanted me to put her up for adoption. Well, I didn’t and I’m glad I didn’t.
Father wanted to throw me out of the house. But Mother saved me. I never expected her to fill in for me at the Board of Health when my belly got too big. She sent me away to her cousin in Wisconsin and she took my place until I came back with Bittersweet. She looked after her after I went back to work at the Board of Health job.
It was better after Roosevelt got elected. Father’s factory opened again to make things for the army. Then the war came along, and all the good men were gone. Bette Davis sang ‘They’re either too young or too old’. How’d it go? Oh, yes, ‘They’re either to grey or to grassy green. The gravy’s in the navy. What’s good is in the army. What’s left will never harm me. They’re either too young or too old.’
She laughed to herself as she hummed the tune to the lyrics before she continued with her meditation
So no one asked me to marry him. Who’d want to marry a woman who had a little bastard? So I called myself Mrs. Alice Gambia and I told anyone who asked that her father had died in the war. Well life is full of lies. I was so afraid Bittersweet would be teased.
I wonder what lies Bittersweet tells the men she sees. She never says anything about her personal life. Is it right for a daughter not to share her life with her mother? It’s not right. Wait until she visits again. I’ll let her know how lonesome and depressed I am.
Rose Diamond's son Isadore visited. He had her her complaints before.
“One mother can raise five children but five children can’t take care of one mother,” Rose Diamond told her son Isadore.
“Here I am living alone in this little apartment in Boulder, miles away from where you and your brother, Levi, live in Longmont. Your brother, Berryl - he lives in Colorado Springs, too far for quick visits. And your sister, Richelle - she lives with her no good husband, that stinker, Sam, in my house in Miami Beach, Florida. So, here I am all alone.
Your dad died too soon. It’s a good thing Marty left me enough money to live on. When I go to Florida for the winter, your sister never confides in me. She goes to see her friends but she doesn’t take me along. Richelle thinks I don’t know that that no good husband of hers has girl friends on the side. That stinker thinks he’s God’s gift to women.
And your brother Berryl? His harpy of a wife, Jane, won’t let him drive here to see me. She says it’s too much a strain on his heart. How about the strain on my heart?
And your Brother Levi’s wife, Cynthia, hates me. Every time Levi does anything for me she complains that he spends all his time with me. He hardly comes once a week. She’s prejudicing my granddaughters against me.
It’s a good thing I have one dear daughter-in-law. Your Ava is as sweet a wife as she can be. She must have got it from her mother, Sonia. Sonia is such a sweet lady. She sees good in everybody. You know, she told me we should get you to convert your recreation room into a kitchen-dining room, so both of us can move in with you.
Poor Sonia - she lives alone in that cold Denver apartment. She has a caregiver who comes to cook and clean for her, and to see she takes her medications. Evie’s brother, Darryl, visits her every day. It drives his wife, Sybil, crazy. Sybil keeps him on such a tight rein. She won’t let him eat deserts, and she serves him just enough food to survive. No wonder he’s so thin,” she said with disapproval.
She went on, “But there’s one thing Sybil can’t control. Darryl is a good son, and he’s like a brother to you. Their sister, Raina, - Feh! What a name Sonia gave her – such a high-priced lawyer. With all her clients she’s too busy to pay attention to her old mother. Her snooty apartment is not suitable for Sonia to live there. The doormen might object if she sat outside in the sun.”
She complained again, “So just like Sonia, here I am all alone. But thank God I don’t have a caregiver. No one even asked me for Thanksgiving.”
She began to cry and repeated, “One mother can take care of five children but five children can’t take care of one mother.”
Isadore had heard this complaint many times. He answered, “Mom, you know you’re coming to our house for Thanksgiving. You know Berryl and I flew to Florida to look for a good place where you would be with other people your age and have activities you like, like painting and working with ceramics, but you wouldn’t even look at the place.”
“So you will come and take me to your house for Thanksgiving?” Rose asked, paying no attention to what he said about a place for her in Florida.
“Yes,” he answered, “Just like I do every year since dad died, you’ll come to our house and stay with us over the Thanksgiving weekend.”
“How should I know? You didn’t tell me. A daughter-in-law like your Evie is a blessing. She is so nice. And she doesn’t make me feel old and not wanted. But she never lets me give her anything, not even a piece of jewelry. And she turned down the mink jacket I wanted to have made for her. Why?” she asked.
“Mom, I don’t know how I got so lucky to get Ava to marry me. The first time I saw her, I knew I wanted her to be my wife and the mother of our children. She is a wonderful wife, friend, and lover. She is so independent. She never has her hand out like my sisters-in-law,” he said with some bitterness.
“But why won’t she take a gift from me?” Rose asked.
Isadore sighed. He took a deep breath. “Mom,” he answered, “You know I always speak my mind. I was like that even as a boy. That’s why every time I spoke up you said I should only have a son like me. And I did – two of them. Whenever you complained that I was fresh to you because I spoke up, Levi and Berryl pounded my shoulders to teach me a lesson. But they were never honest enough or had the guts to tell you straight out what they thought.
So now you trust me to take you to your lawyer when you want to change your will. And you ask me to look at your stocks and bonds and checkbook. So I’m gonna to tell you straight out. You’re the one who makes the trouble in the family. You manipulate everyone with gifts. If you think someone isn’t respectful, or doesn’t pay enough attention to you, you withhold a gift. Or you give a larger one to someone else’s child. The only ones it doesn’t work with are Evie and me, and that’s because we’re not trying to get anything from you. Besides, if Evie wore a mink jacket in Boulder the animal rights people would be up in arms.”
He added, “My boys, Marty and Ben, always hug and kiss you, and they get along with all their cousins because Evie has inoculated them against envy. She teaches them to be happy with what they have and to try to help kids who have less.”
Rose began to cry. “You certainly know how to hurt my feelings,” she said, “I don’t manipulate. I just give gifts to people who are nice to me when I feel like it. And I don’t want to go live in an old peoples’ home like the Rest Place you’re always talking about. Marty and I took care of our parents when they were old. Why can’t my five children take care of me?”
Isadore thought, it’s no use trying to reason with her. She did her best to be a good mother and I love her. But she lays a guilt trip on me every time I see her. Ava puts a backpack on her back and goes in to see Sonia every week, and her brother Darryl sees her every day and pays for a caregiver to stay with her. But they both want to live with their children and that’s just not feasible.
He responded, “But mom, grandma didn’t live with us.”
“What are you talking about?” Rose asked, “Your grandma had seven children. They all helped support her and your grandpa. And when he died, your Aunt Fay stayed with Grandma. It’s a good thing Fay wasn’t married. So why would we have her live with us? With me it’s different. All of my children are married.”
She added sarcastically, “Your sister Richelle and her stinky husband, Sam, are kind enough to let me visit in my own house when I am in Florida. It so nice that they let me live in my own house with them. When I ask her why I can’t go out with them when they go to see their friends, she says I’ll be bored. I know she means that I would embarrass her. As if I didn’t know about the kind of things that no good stinker, Sam, and the rest of them do. It’s a shame what goes on there.”
She began to sob again. “No one cares about me in my old age. It’s terrible to be old when nobody wants you,” she cried, “It’s like the song says; 'Nobody loves you when you’re old and grey.'”
“Mom,” he said, “You know we all love you.”
“Such love my worst enemies should have,” Rose answered.
Isadore changed the subject, “Mom, why won’t you let me take you to see The Rest Place? It’s got everything you like. You’d have lots of company. You’d never have to eat alone. The food is good and nutritious. We wouldn’t worry that you’re not eating right. If you don’t feel well, there’s a nurse on call. They make sure everyone who lives there takes their medications. And they have a book club, and movies, and concerts, and van trips.”
“And who’s going to pay for a place like that?” Rose asked, “Such places are not cheap, you know.”
“Dad left you enough to take care of yourself and then some,” Isadore responded, “If you run short, I’ll pick up the cost.”
“I should take a handout from my child?” Rose asked indignantly, “I want to leave something for my children when I go. Your sister already needs help because that no good husband of hers is too light for heavy work, and too heavy for light work, and too lazy for anything in between.”
Isadore had heard this many times. He persisted. “Mom, let me take you to look at The Rest Place. See if you’d like it. If you don’t, you can always just stay in your apartment in North Boulder,” he pleaded.
Rose began to cry again. “It’s just like on that British TV program, Waiting for God. You just want to shove me off to an old people’s home and forget about me. Who wants to be with a bunch of old men and women, with their diapers and canes, walkers, and wheelchairs?” she asked.
Isadore had no answer. As he got up to go, Rose asked him to replace some burnt out light bulbs. It was a typical last minute request to get a few more minutes of his time. When he left he asked himself, What will happen to me when I get old?
Eventually Isadore convinced Rose. She fit seamlessly into the life there, telling everyone who would listen about how wonderful her Isadore was.
Soon she was fast asleep. She woke with a start. She looked at her watch. Oh, it’s time for dinner, she said to herself.
She put on her bracelets, earrings, and a string of pearls, picked up her cane and went to the dining room.
“Hello girls,” she said cheerily to Betty Halloran and Cindy Jackson, “Can I join you for dinner?”
“You not only can,” Betty Halloran answered, “but you may.”
Smartass, Alice said to herself as she pulled up a chair and sat down. They all ordered glasses of red wine. There was the usual discussion of the failings of the politicians in Washington and the state capitol.
When dinner was over most of the diners went to the community room to watch a rerun of Marx Brothers comedy. Everyone laughed over the silliness of Duck Soup. When they left the film, as people lingered before going to their apartments, the talk was of children, grandchildren, and great grandchildren. Betty asked Alice, “How is your daughter doing? I heard she is now the chairwoman of her company.”
“Yes she is. She is doing just fine. She visits me all the time and calls me almost every day. And she keeps pestering me to get a Macintosh computer and skype. But who wants to spend time looking at a little screen when you can watch TV on a big one? And I wouldn’t know what to do with skype” Alice responded, “Will you girls be at the book club?”
The ladies parted. They agreed to join the discussion of the latest book.
Excerpts from Becoming American
Both families were appalled when the Tsar’s secret police arrested a young friend of Ivan’s for the crime of looking like a wanted radical. He was thrown into jail and held without trial
despite the protests of family and friends. When the Tsar’s secret police discovered that they had the wrong man in jail, they summarily booted him out, without apology and without returning his identity documents. His family nearly bankrupted themselves to pay the bribes necessary to recover his passport.This made the Abramovich and Yankelovitch children doubly careful and reinforced their belief that the system under which they lived was unjust and corrupt.
In 1905, there was an uprising throughout Russia. The Tsar’s troops repressed it with gunfire. The streets of Tula ran red with blood when the soldiers fired on demonstrators demanding bread. The Abramovich household was in terrible fear for Fanya who had not returned from school. It was a great relief to them when a breathless, rosy-cheeked Fanya opened the door to say that she had been helping the wounded. She told her family the story. Everyone listened intently. Pyotr exclaimed, “Tsarist murderers. We must take action.”
Abramovich, fearful for the safety of his children, and suspicious that the secret police had been watching them made up his mind to leave Russia for the golden streets of America.
Vlad worried. I’ve never seen so many black people. I hope no one will bother me. The Jewish kids in school call them Schwartzers, which I think means blackies. Pyotr had warned him to get a haircut. With the warm weather on the way, he decided on a crew cut, knowing it would please his father.
Adjacent to the pet store was a barber shop. He went in. All the barbers were black. The head barber asked him “Boy, you sure you want your hair cut in here?”
“Yes sir,” Vlad replied.
He couldn’t understand why the barber broke into a big smile after he answered. Later it dawned on him. I said yes sir, like dad tells me to do to grown up men. But I don’t think white kids sayyes sir to black men. He was right.
Vlad acquired a worn copy of the King James Bible that he read to satisfy his curiosity, and for its stories, blood and gore and salacious content. He read about Abraham destroying
his father’s false gods, his travels with Sarah and deception in calling her his sister, when she really was his cousin and wife, Abraham’s near sacrifice of Isaac, and Jacob’s 14 years of servitude
for Rachel. He could not figure out how he could go in unto Leah on the wedding night thinking it was Rachel. Didn’t
he look at her face? He asked himself.
Even the most prestigious newspapers published articles that gave credence to some anti-Semitic ideas. Two regular Sunday radio broadcasts had a special impact on Jewish boys’lives. These were hour-long tirades against Godless, international communist Jew bankers, roated by Protestant minister, Gerald L. K. Smith, and Catholic priest, Father Coughlin.
Ever curious, Vlad bought an English translation of Hitler’s “Mein Kampf ”. Zeta was horrified. “That monster thinks we are inferior. How can you read that piece of trash?”
She wanted to throw him and the book out of the house because of its treatment of Russians and other Slavs as Untermenschen. She relented when he told her. “To deal with an enemy it is necessary to know what he is like.”
Mein Kampf was hair-raising. He thought about the Jewish kids in his class I bet that if he got people following him in the U. S. of A., it would be hard on them.
The ship arrived off Leyte on October 24th. Nobody aboard had ever seen such an array of ships. There were battleships, cruisers, destroyers, destroyer escorts, aircraft carriers and just about every kind of amphibious craft imaginable. Later they learned that there were nearly 740 ships in the operation. The crew went to general quarters. The flashes of gunfire and sounds of shells passing overhead from the battleships, cruisers and destroyers firing at the Japanese defenders over the heads of the American troops, and the answering boom of Japanese artillery was a constant cacophony. Some aircraft flying overhead were Japanese, but most were American. The two LCVPs (Landing Craft Vehicle Personnel in navy speak) were lowered. Advance party troops filled these craft. The coxswains brought them to the beach and returned. They stayed alongside awaiting orders. Soon after, the ship headed for its first combat landing.
Sev and Mes Ami were in the back because the seat next to the driver had been removed. Following Mes Ami’s directions, they were soon in a less damaged suburb. Suddenly, she cried out. Vlad looked around to see what happened. Sev had his erect penis out of his pants and was trying to pull down Mes Ami’s. Quickly, jamming on the brakes and pulling over, Vlad put a stop to the attempted rape.
Never had he seen such horror in another person’s eyes as
he saw in Mes Ami’s.
The first newspaper available was the San Francisco Chronicle. Vlad laid his raincoat and beat up steaming cap on the seat next to his, put his feet up on the sea-bag and Valpak and read every page including the one with the obituaries. The need to sleep overwhelmed him.
When he woke up, his raincoat and cap were gone. He commented aloud, “So much for the welcome home of a beribboned veteran.
Vlad was home at last. The boy was now an American man. Little did he know that in the years to come, he would be called a member of “The Greatest Generation.”
Opening Chapter of Stories of My Boyhood
I was born in a two-story house on Albany Avenue in Brooklyn, New York. The street was bounded by Linden Boulevard on the north and Church Avenue on the south. The southern end of Albany avenue ended at Holy Cross cemetery, which maintained privacy by a row of high, dense hedge bushes.
The city posted a sign on the south side of Church Avenue that said Dead End. The sign caused much laughter. Boys cut Y-shaped sections from the hedges to make sling shots. They used cut sections of used inner tubes for the rubber that propelled stones.
At the Church Avenue end of the street there was an apartment house with a front garden that the owners filled with flowers. At the very corner was another apartment house that had a glass windowed grocery store on its first floor. Kids would play a game with a soft rubber ball on the bottom molding of the store’s windows until the grocer came out with a broom and chased them away.
The area was rural. Italian immigrant farmers grew fruits and vegetables on property not far from our home. Some had green houses. Boys often fired stones from slingshots at the greenhouses, breaking green-house glasses.
When the crops matured, the farmers came onto our street with horse-drawn wagons to sell their fruits and vegetables. A vivid memory is of a farmer, with a load of watermelons on his horse-drawn truck calling out, “Watermelon, sweet as sugar, cold as ice, a penny a slice.”
The street in front of our house was unpaved. There were sidewalks on both sides of the street that was lined with maple and plane trees. Halfway between Church Avenue and Linden Boulevard was a magnificent Magnolia tree that shed blossoms to the sidewalk each spring. Later the city paved the street making it a good place to roller skate on and for us boys to play roller-skate hockey, using manhole covers backed by empty egg crates as goals.
Linden Boulevard was a wide main street with a separate lane on each side for cars and parking. The central section was covered with hedges. Church Avenue was a paved central street that had a trolley car track down its center.
My grandparents, Goodman and Cheni Segal Jokel occupied the upstairs apartment. My parents, Max and Rose Beatrice Diamond Yokell, older sister, Ruth, and two older brothers, Eugene and Bernard, lived downstairs.
My aunt, Manya Jokel Gersen, who lived in the Adirondack Park village of Elizabethtown, New York, about three-hundred miles north of our house, came to her mother’s home in our upstairs apartment to give birth to her third child.
She gave birth to Edith Helen Gersen on January fifth, 1922. The following May ninth, my mother gave birth to me in the downstairs apartment.
Kids played stoop ball on the front steps of our house, sat on them to sing on warm summer evenings, and used them as gathering places. There was a small garden in front of the house in which my parents planted as many hydrangea bushes as it would hold. To one side of the front stars, each spring my dad put concrete vases of geraniums on flat places next to the steps.
My dad, Max, who was a pigeon fancier from his time as a boy in Riga, Latvia, had a pigeon coop on the graveled, flat roof of our house. He flew his flock of fancy pigeons every evening after dinner. We three boys went up to the roof to be with dad when he flew his pigeons. When my older brothers were grown and married house holders, each had a large pigeon coop where they kept homing pigeon flocks and raced their prized birds.
At the northernmost corner on the west side of the street was Saint Catherine of Genoa church and parochial school. The priest was a jolly man who ran a bazaar in the church’s large yard every summer. It was at a church bazaar that my sister Ruth met her future husband Stanley Stern. At the time his name was Sidney, but Ruth got him to change it to Stanley.
Nuns ran the parochial school and were very strict with the students, my mother, said, “When the parochial school lets out, it’s like uncorking a bottle of fizzy water.”
A coal-fired steam boiler heated our house. Early in the morning of the first cold day of the year, dad lit a fire in the boiler, using kindling wood, followed by pea coal, then coke, and finally a layer of anthracite. The boiler generated steam that hissed through pipes to radiators in the upstairs and downstairs apartments. Dad went to each radiator and bled the air out of it through a valve. Before bedtime, dad banked the fire. Next morning, he opened the damper and shoveled in more coke and anthracite.
Dad shoveled the ashes from the burnt coal into a galvanized steel barrel, that he took to the street for the garbage men to collect. If the sidewalk was icy, he shoveled some of the ashes onto the icy spots to prevent people from slipping.
Mom cooked hot cereal, usually oatmeal, while dad tended to the boiler. She made sure each child had washed and brushed her or his teeth and dressed in school clothes.
The kitchen had an icebox. As the smallest son, it was my chore to empty the melt water. An Italian man named Casino delivered ice, using large tongs. His son Dominick, who barely spoke English, was a classmate.
The kitchen stove stood on four legs above a tiled section of the floor. When I was small, the space under the stove was a favorite place for me to nap with our dog Beauty. Our bathroom had one bathtub in which each family member bathed Saturday afternoons.
Six days a week, dad collected our across-the-street neighbor, Julius Penziner, (later he called himself Penzner) who, like dad, worked in Manhattan, and drove across the Brooklyn bridge to his factory on East 28th street in Manhattan. That part of the city had only direct current electricity. All dad’s machines were direct current ones.
Some Saturdays, riding with dad the signs for Domino’s sugar and Squibb pharmaceuticals could be read as we crossed the Brooklyn Bridge. Saturday was a half day.
After lunch, when the workers went home, dad and a few friends would play poker in his office. I watched with awe seeing dollars on the table in dad’s office. Games that lasted too long led to mom’s recriminations after we came home and tears that wound up in hugs and kisses. My parents loved each other but argued a lot.
The across-the-street neighbor’s wife, Mrs. Penziner, grew beautiful irises in their backyard. They had two daughters, Edith and Selma. Edith was an accomplished violinist with whom my oldest brother Eugene competed. She was a better violinist because she practiced willingly, and my brother preferred playing sports. My sister Ruth took piano lessons and became proficient, playing on our upright Steinway piano.
The Penziner’s younger daughter, Selma, was a fat, stupid kid. We played together. She was her dad’s darling. That ended after we entered elementary school and met other kids.
Our house’s basement had three compartments for pea coal, coke and anthracite. Coal men, with faces blackened by coal dust, delivered the coal, pouring it from trucks through chutes that they placed in windows of the compartments.
The main basement room held a sink, a clothes wringer, and a wine maker that dad used to make illegal spirits that he called Vishnick. Although the Volstead act criminalized producing alcoholic beverages, it was common for people to make home spirits that some called bathtub gin. Mafia-run speakeasies abounded.
When my parents bought an electric refrigerator, they had the old icebox moved into the basement near the sink. It became my storage cabinet for chemicals bought from the drug store. I bought glassware and a Bunsen burner to equip my chemistry lab. No store-bought chemistry set for me!
My sister Ruth and two older brothers Eugene and Bernard attended and graduated from PS 135, a multistory school eleven blocks east of Albany Avenue. Because it had no outdoor space, it had a rooftop play area enclosed by chain-link fencing.
Kindergarten and my first grade were at PS135. We walked to the school on Linden Boulevard. Sometimes my brother Eugene took me there in his pushmobile that he built from a two by four beam, a vegetable crate and a disassembled roller skate.
Walking home alone after my first day, mother found me half-way home when she set out to get me. Thereafter it was a solo walk home for lunch without being called for.
At the end of my first grade, the city transferred some of us to a newly built school, nearer to our home, PS235. It was a one-story building, with a large outdoor area, some of which was devoted to recreational activities, and a part set aside for vegetable gardens that students planted. The school had windows that opened, clean boys and girls bathrooms, desks without names carved into them with inkwells, and drinking fountains. In PS235, the school skipped my class a year into 2b grade.
My third-grade teacher Mrs. Langbein was a monstrous disciplinarian. She had a son who attended the school. She forbade him to drink directly from the drinking fountains and made him carry a collapsible aluminum cup to fill with water from a fountain when he was thirsty. You can imagine how the kids made his life miserable.
On a sunny afternoon in 1929, dad’s evening papers told of the stock market crash that was the start of the great depression. It told about the suicides and had cartoons associated with the depression.
My dad suffered from setbacks. But through hard work, he survived them and prospered. He was widely known for his integrity, honesty and charity. He was the example to follow throughout my life.
In 1933, my granddad Goodman died after some operations to deal with his prostate cancer. My parents thought me too young to go to his funeral but said not to go to school that day. Left alone gave me time to wander over to the school yard and spent my time in the school’s gardens. I picked a kohlrabi was my snack to eat walking home.
At the time, mother was pregnant with my younger brother, Arthur. Aunt, Olga, uncle Yaakov, and my cousins Kitty and Evie were living in the downstairs apartment rent free. My uncle was not liked in our household because of his supercilious, superior ways. My aunt was a gossip (Mother called her Yenta Tolabenta) who suggested that my mother abort the baby she was carrying. Mother was appalled and carried my baby brother to full term.
Because of some gossip about my sister’s husband, Stanley, my parents asked my aunt and uncle to leave. They went to Chicago, and I didn’t hear from the again for some years.
The day my little brother was born, my sister was in our sunporch crying with our dog Shep lying nearby to comfort her. I asked, “What’s wrong?”
She answered, “Your mother had another God-damned boy.”
My mom came home with my baby brother named Arthur Leonard (his Hebrew given him at the Briss, or circumcision ceremony was Avram Loeb, my maternal grandfather’s Hebrew name). I thought he was beautiful and loved to watch mother bathe him on the bathinette.
Our dog, Shep that we got from the Bide-a-Wee do-not-kill kennels, took it on himself to be the baby’s guardian. He would lie on the floor nearby when mother bathed the baby. As she had done with her other children, mother dressed the baby warmly and put him out in his carriage near our front steps. Shep laid down near the carriage. He allowed people he knew to pass to the front door. But if a stranger approached, Shep would growl a warning. Foolish tradesmen that paid no attention to Shep’s growls soon found their ankles clamped between Shep’s jaws.
Shep accompanied dad each Sunday morning as dad went to buy his Sunday Forwards and New York Times. He kept a short distance in front of dad. No one would dare confront dad with Shep guarding him. If dad stopped to talk with a neighbor, Shep would stand next to them. With Shep nearby, dad was safe. On their return, dad rewarded Shep with a milk bone.
Shep was an austere dog. He refused to play pull the towel or chase balls that we threw. He accepted food only from me and growled if anyone came near his dish when he was eating. After an incident with my aunt’s chow, called Wookie, we gave him to a farmer in the Catskills.
My mother and her three sons took another trip to the Bide-a-Wee kennels. We returned home with a dog, that we also named Shep. He was a friendly happy dog that became my companion.
Later that year, the city opened an experimental junior high school, Winthrop Junior High School. Teachers from various Brooklyn schools fifth grades selected their brightest students to take intelligence and achievement tests to determine if they would be accepted. Along with a couple of classmates, my teacher selected me as a candidate. After scoring well, and the city sent me to Winthrop.
All books bought directly fromthe author are priced at the Amazon.com price plus shipping and handling. They can be paid for only by check or PayPal. To pay by PayPal, send a request for the book using the form below. Make sure you include your email address. We will send an invoice and request for money.