Those Very Early Years

Those Very Early Years

​I was born January 27, 1928. From the date of my birth to the day I left to go into the army I had lived in only 4 locations … each only a few city blocks of each other. The first 22 years of my life took place almost entirely within a one square mile area. This included schools, home, synagogue, movies and playground … what else was there? At age 18 I did begin to travel … well sort of … a 90 minute trip daily to and from Brooklyn College.

During these early years everybody I knew lived in an apartment building. These structures could be 5 or 6 stories high and most did not contain an elevator. To reside in a building with an elevator was an indication of success. I did have a few aunts and uncles who lived in rural areas such as Newburgh, New York or Newton, New Jersey. Apartment buildings as I knew them were non existent in these small towns. Surprisingly I was never jealous of my cousins who lived in single family homes … it just never occurred to me to compare.

Apparently every 5 years or so it was time to have the apartment painted and moving was much less of an inconvenience … or so my mother once explained. However the last Bronx address we had, 1696 Topping Avenue, contained several bedrooms, one of which was occupied by my maternal grandmother. I believe this last site was chosen to avail her of a room. After the death of my grandfather she lived with three or four of my aunts … a few months at a time with each. A bit more about this extraordinary woman a bit later. 

As a side note, I must admit, I have no recollection of ever having our apartment painted … in fact I do not even recall any “move” … I merely went to school one day from one set of rooms and came home to another. This was indicative of our family lifestyle. While there were considerable quantities of love and affection, along with a balance of discipline, it was sorely lacking in any memorable dialogs or family events. I never took a vacation with my father and only once with my mother. There was that one Sunday afternoon when dad took both Jerry and I to the Worlds Fair in Flushing, Queens. The fearful Parachute Drop Ride still lingers in my memory.

Indeed my parents and I spoke often, but we seldom talked. My mother’s full time job was cooking, cleaning, and caring for her flock. Not until I was 16 or 17 years of age did my father begin to have serious discussions with me, mainly on world events. This took place primarily because he was concerned of my liberal views of society … worried that I would get into “trouble”. This was towards the tail end of World War II and I had begun my evolution from a carefree teenager to one who was had become conscious that a world did indeed exist outside of my one square mile of the Bronx.

Our first apartment, the one to which I came to a few days after my birth was on Eastburn Avenue. Sometime during 1933 or 1934 we moved to 1685 Topping Avenue (across the street from where we ended up a few years later). This was a single bedroom apartment and of course my parents occupied this prized room. I slept on a cot or as it was called “a daybed” positioned a few steps from the front door. The single exception was during my serious bout with pneumonia in 1938 which lasted several months … and being bedridden during this period I temporarily advanced in rank and occupied the cherished sleeping quarters. One of my earliest recollections is having a nurse at my bedside who taught me the game, “Yes, No or Not”… which should ring a bell with some of the readers of this site.

I do recall a weekly event … when my uncle Leo, who had a Fruit & Vegetable store across the street from my father’s, would visit. They were partners and shared revenues and costs from both businesses. This event was known as the “Figuring” night and took place both in the Eastburn Avenue and the first Topping Avenue apartments. I would be stationed crouched on the floor beneath the kitchen table. As the money was counted, some of the pennies that fell to the floor were mine. I do remember those early times of having reaped a fortune … but not knowing what to do next. My father did ask periodically if I was saving my money.

As can be seen from my early report card I was absent from school quite a bit. Twenty three days during a 90 day period is a bit high. I suspect my mother was overly cautious and on bad weather days I merely stayed home. My parent’s bedroom was an outside room and on these days, I would position myself on the window sill, a blanket protecting me from the cold glass. Our apartment was on the 5th floor. I just stared away for hours counting the cars traveling below … and I didn’t have to count very high … cars were far and in between. I must have had deep thoughts during these events, but none are retained. Most likely I was just staring out into space. What else was there to do … TV had not arrived, the children’s radio programs did not start until 5 pm, nobody read books at that age, and to visit with a friend was not in fashion … counting cars sufficed.

Sometime during these years my parents decided I was to be a violinist and off I went. Once a week a teacher would come to the apartment and give me a one hour lesson. How and why my parents initiated this is beyond me. Certainly it was a financial drain, these being Depression years. I am also sure it became apparent very early on that talent was sorely missing and certainly I was not enjoying this assignment. Nonetheless, I was taught weekly and reminded by my mother each day to practice. I can still hear the threat, “…or else I will tell daddy.” … and under such circumstances, practice I did. 

Somehow I ended up in the school orchestra. Should anybody be interested I can be found standing behind Mr. Tuttleman. We performed at every school graduation, playing “Land of Hope and Glory” while the graduating class marched into the auditorium. This was at most a five or 10 minute piece of music taken from Elgar’s Pomp and Circumstance March. We merely repeated the music without a pause, over and over, until the last student was at their seat … only parental love kept the audience from leaving. I then sat with my violin on my knee listening to a variety of speakers. Mr. Tuttleman, our teacher/conductor, had warned us to stay alert and look interested … by far one of the most difficult task ever placed upon me. Finally, after an eternity of lectures about the many advantages of living in the Bronx and the merits of the NYC education system, we were called upon to play once again and the graduates would exit, and of course once more at a snail’s pace. My parents were always in the audience. Since these events usually took place during morning hours, (in PS 70) my father merely removed his store apron, (thankfully so), and walked the 1 block to the school … a bit under dressed for the formal occasion but soaked with parental pride.

Before I leave PS 70 there are 2 memories which I retain to this day … neither is pleasant but perhaps worthy of noting. The public school had an indoor swimming pool … located I believe in the basement. On those occasions when the boys went swimming it was necessary to undress … I am uncertain if we changed into a swim suit or swan as is … but undress we did. I was embarrassed because my ankles were always dark and soiled. I recall quite vividly applying saliva to my hands and rubbing off the accumulated dirt. This maneuver of course had to be performed privately so I lagged behind, getting disrobed very slowly. This allowed me some privacy before entering the pool area. I always had a fear of being caught.

Then there was that grab-bag event in 5th grade … I recall the grade because the teacher involved was Mr. Tuttleman, my orchestra leader. It was towards the end of the term and we were taking some classroom time off to participate in more jovial activities. We were to bring into school an appropriate gift for a fellow student, properly packaged anonymously and placed into a basket. The students then took turns selecting a parcel to keep for themselves. The evening before my mom took a used ink pen point and holder, inserting these into an egg box container and wrapped it with newspaper. Apparently Mr. Tuttleman was paying attention to each of the submitted packages. At the end of the morning event he turned to face the door and explained he had something to say but didn’t want to face the class while speaking … not wanting to look at any one individual … and then proceeded to describe one particular gift as being hastily and thoughtlessly put together … and the student who submitted this should be ashamed. Indeed I was the culprit and felt humiliation for the very first time in my life … and that taste still lingers.

I could not have been more than 8 or 9 years old when one afternoon, after school, my father walked me up a hill to a little store … no more than a block away from his store. This was a Hebrew School where I would be going three times a week. As you walked into this single room “school” you were met with several long rows of wooden benches each with a long table serving as a common desk. It was a dimly lit and depressing room. My dad took me to the “Rabbi” and left. This was a most frightening individual, with a gray beard at least 1 foot long, and a stern cold stare. “Here is your book” he said, “sit down, pay attention and learn.” A few years later as my 13th birthday was approaching I transferred to a more modern school. The East Concourse Hebrew Center, Topping Avenue and 174th Street, which was the site of the next phase of my education as well as my Bar Mitzvah ceremony.

The celebration event took place in our living room and I performed with my violin accompanied by Mrs. Grossman, my teacher. I did receive one present that stayed with me for a long time. In fact it is the only gift I remember receiving. It was a Kodak Brownie Box Camera with a flash attachment. Jerry Sussman, a neighbor in the next house had a darkroom set up with developing and printing capabilities. I fancied myself as having some potential as a photographer and took many photos, one of which I have attached. Jerry and I even processed a few ourselves. The Sussman family soon moved away and there went my photographic future … or so I thought. 

Shortly after my 13th birthday violin lessons ceased. However for some unknown reason I stayed With the orchestra all through Wade Junior High School. The musical tasks were now a bit more advanced and I had absolutely no idea what I was doing. Many times I merely lost my place and raised my bow above the strings to avoid making any sounds. Recognizing I was lost was easy. I merely had to peak at my associate violinists whose bows where almost always going in an opposite direction from mine. Finding the proper place ….the point in the musical score where the rest of the orchestra was playing from … well this was something else. Performing brain surgery might be easier. However I was never fazed. When I was playing I scratched away miserably. Loosing my place and raising the bow had to be a marked improvement. The teacher/conductor, Mrs. Secor never once admonished me … enough said of her skills.

On rehearsal days I would be returning from school an hour late. The most direct route from Wade Junior High was right down Eastburn Avenue. This was the hang-out street for all my friends. To be seen carrying a violin case would certainly have initiated suicide by nightfall. Self preservation, always being a prime concern of mine, prompted me to take a longer round-about course home to avoid any such catastrophic encounters. What could be worse than a 12 year old stickball player being seen carrying a violin. I would never again be picked for a choose-up game.

Most activities held in the streets or school yard required two teams. The procedure was that the two best athletes present would “choose” and decide who had first choice. Picks were then announced alternately by these leaders. If two teams of 6 were to be chosen and there was a remaining pool of twelve to pick from, obviously two were left out. These were fearful moments and usually ended with a young athlete or two being hurt. Many a tear was shed internally.

It would be a terrible omission if I did not say a few words about stickball. This was for many years our major pastime. Up until age 14 or so, the local school yard was mostly under the sole possession of the older neighborhood boys. Baseball and basketball were activities available there. If a baseball game was in progress basketball was off limits. We, the younger group, were left to fend for ourselves and the street became our playground. A local backyard was our summer time punch ball field, measuring about 20 x 100 feet. An empty lot, minus grass and loaded with trash and stones, was our football field. Many years later I discovered this lifestyle was quite common throughout the city. It was even many more years later than that when I realized I might have been classified as an under privileged youth. An exaggeration I thought since we were never hungry and more important we were never unhappy. I remember reading someplace, “Happy people don’t necessarily have the best of everything … however they are able to make the best of everything they have”.

However, stickball was stickball … after school, nothing else mattered … and especially so during summer vacations. The equipment was quite basic. Somebody would “find” a broom, rip off the straw and behold a long thin bat was created. A pink Spaldeen ball had to be supplied by one of the players. Bases were equally simplistic… a manhole cover would be home plate … when chalk was available this would define the other three bases. Should this material be missing a rag would be used … or if necessary someone would always volunteer a handkerchief, or even a jacket or shirt. Needless to say these were stepped upon frequently during a game. Perhaps our priorities were not all that they could be. Should a car be located by 1st or 3rd base, the appropriate fender and tire would be used. One common procedure required the batter to be pitched to with one bounce. Most often however in our games the batter merely “fungo” hit, which required him to toss the ball in front of him and swing away.

Should a ball be hit onto the sidewalk without a bounce in the playing field (the gutter), it was a foul strike … 2 strikes and you are out … as well with 2 missed swings … any ball hit onto a rooftop was out. My god, nothing was worse than striking out while an audience of unemployed parents and local girls looked on. My “girlfriend”, Cynthia Osherow was almost always watching. I still feel the stomach muscles cramping as I approached the plate to take my turn at bat.

When a ball was hit onto a rooftop, the batter had the responsibility to go up and retrieve the ball. The dreaded building superintendent had to be avoided at all costs or there went the afternoon game and possibly the well being of the retriever as well. Utility poles, tree branches and parked autos were accepted interferences. No time outs except when some outfielder would yell, “CAR COMING”. It was not unusual to have enjoyed a 7 inning game with only 1 or 2 of such time outs. By the way, it was customary as a car would drive by to see how close one could stand next to the moving vehicle without having the tires go over his feet. Mostly we succeeded however occasionally our distance judgments were off and amazingly there was no serious damage.

The spaces between manhole covers were referred to as sewers and were a measure of batting skills. My current estimation is that this unit equates to about 150 feet. A one sewer person was an acceptable skill level, two sewer strengths were reserved only for the best. I never saw a ball hit 3 sewers. Me, you ask … I was happy when I merely hit a ball straight away … had records been kept I might have been the strikeout king.

A similar popular pastime was punch ball. This had almost the same rules but was played on a much smaller scale. This game took place when we were unable to locate a “stickball bat” and we resorted to punching the ball. Fortunately on our block there was a series of 6 or 8 private homes. Our group frequently played punch ball behind these houses … actually in their “backyards” and surprisingly we were never told to leave.

As we got a bit older we graduated to the P. S. 70 school yard where baseball and basketball occupied our free hours. Personally I never took to baseball … but was quite an avid basketball player.

Some quick notes about nicknames is in order. Nobody was called by their legitimate name. Norman Brotman was “Nonny”, Marvin Weisberg (my cousin) was “Weisy”, Seymour Ginsburg was called “Peewee”, and another member of the gang, whose legitimate name I do not recall, was affectionately named “Stoogie”. It was Stoogie’s task to fetch everything … especially our only Spalding ball when it rolled down the corner sewer. He was small enough to fit through the curbside opening. I must confess we had no fears while we held onto his feet as we lowered him away. He never did fall in, but most probably did acquire a rather peculiar odor. Me, I was named “Herk”. I always bragged this was short for Hercules, but somehow I do recall being called “Herk the Jerk” … referring I believe not to stupidity but silliness … I was known as a happy person.

Stoogie also served another valuable purpose. He was on our football team and periodically we would challenge other teams from nearby. These games were played on one of several available empty sandlots. Under certain circumstances, during a game, when short yardage was needed we just gave the ball to little Stoogie and two of the strongest backfield men would grab him by an arm and a leg and toss him over the scrimmage line. This was always good for a couple of yards. It was used only once per game and it was our secret play … and probably a very well kept secret … perhaps this may explain why I never saw it used in professional games.

By 1939 we had moved to the 1738 Monroe Avenue apartment which turned out to be a disaster. While we did have a second bedroom for Jerry and me, we also had to endure the unwanted company of household pests crawling around day and night. The uncontrollable onslaught of roaches was a source of humor for the male members of the family … but not so for my mom. By mid 1940 we had moved out and into the Topping Avenue two family house. We occupied the lower level and a family named Schneider lived above. Their daughter Sandra was one year younger than me and during our high school years, was the most sought after girl in school.  How lucky could a guy get? More important World War II was about to be upon us but I was oblivious to any of the national or world events.

My brother Jerry and I had very little interaction. This was probably due to the four year difference in our ages. When he was about 9 or 10 and if I was not obliged to work in my father’s store, he would accompany me and my friends to the Saturday afternoon movie. He merely tagged along. On one such occasion, at the Fox Crotona Movie, I held the lucky ticket stub and won a new two wheel bicycle. I accepted the prize and quickly went straight to the manager’s office to store the bike until the show was over. No way was I going to give up 2 main feature movies, at least 2 serial chapters, as well as a few “selected short subjects”. A Saturday afternoon movie was a minimum 4 hour marathon. Unfortunately going home required climbing some of the steepest hills in the Bronx and nobody knew how to ride a bike. Maneuvering this package took considerable effort and time. Once home my mom began a lecture on coming home so late. This quickly turned to glee once she heard about our new bike.

My services to Jerry would also be called for if some kid’s older brother would become a threat to him. It was incumbent on me to pick up on this challenge. I would seek out the elder enemy and if need be engage in fisticuffs. I do have some memories of these events, saying to myself as I waltzed around making like Joe Louis … “What am I doing here?

Jerry was always a problem student and with 20-20 hindsight I can say today he was severely “Attentive Deficient”. In today’s world this would have been recognized and special classes or aid would be available. Instead, the root causes of his shortcomings were never addressed and he struggled through his entire life just trying to have food on his plate and a roof over his head. My parents, and myself in later years, continually gave help. However these tokens were nothing more than band-aids, no real solutions were ever forthcoming. 

His Bar Mitzvah occurred in 1945 and times were better for our family. The celebration was in a catering hall much different than mine. Seated from left to right in the photo are, Uncle Max, myself, my maternal grandmother Sarah, my mom, Jerry, my dad, and his parents, Morris and Frances, known to me only as Grandma and Grandpa.

My brother’s first marriage (he had three) was in 1953 and lasted about 4 years. Some time in 1956 I got him a job in the sales department of Pavelle Color which he held only for very short time. My parents bought him a taxi driver’s permit, but this job evaporated quickly as well. His second marriage finally broke apart and Jerry joined the Navy. I kept track of him primarily through my parents. Occasionally he would call. I am not certain just how many years he did spend in the service but by early 1990 I began to hear from him on a regular basis. His third wife, Claudia was very supportive. He struggled with financial and health problems till his death in 2003 at age 71. There was little happiness in his lifetime. A sad life indeed.

Friday nights were always a special event during my younger years … we could have dinner with dad. This was a non-school night so my brother and I were allowed to stay up late. Regardless of the hour nobody ate until my father was seated at the kitchen table. He knew we were anxious for his arrival and would alert us by emitting a special whistle as he entered the 1685 Topping Avenue courtyard 5 stories below. I hear it clearly at this moment … one long whistle followed by eight short shrills. Interesting, I remember only the whistle and the waiting, nothing else about the event other than the chicken served at dinner. My dad, Jerry and I all wanted the leg and the persistent joke ad nauseam was, “When will mom find a butcher who sells 3 legged chickens”.

I am not certain that we have left our children with any memorable dinner memories in Spring Valley … sorry.

The other commitment I was chained to was Sunday afternoons. This was not always an enjoyable event. First and foremost, as I became older, this obligation took me away from my social activities. During the World War II days my father no longer worked on Sundays and this was then decreed his day or family day. Like it or not, Sundays the Stein family of four would be together. The usual agenda was a bus trip up to Fordham Road and the Grand Concourse. If time and wallet permitted a visit to J Krums Candy store for an ice cream soda was a big treat.

The Paradise movie theater was indeed a masterpiece … and the place we mostly aimed for. As you entered the lobby you were greeted with plush carpeted floors, a wide winding staircase up to the 2nd floor rest rooms and balcony seats, and a magnificent live goldfish pond. Inside the darkened seating area the ceiling was a very close replica of an evening sky with tiny flickering stars accompanied by slow moving clouds. This was luxury indeed and a big change from our daily environment.

My memories of this theater go way back. My very first “date” was with my cousin Harriet Brody and included a visit to this establishment. During pre-war days only one film was shown which was followed by a live vaudeville show. One Sunday evening in September 1939 as we exited the movie house, the next day’s newspapers were stacked 2 feet high ready for sale. This was not unusual but the headlines on this day were momentous … the German invasion of Poland. The village where my father was born and raised was located in Poland near the Russian Border. He was near tears. It had to be about 18 years … certainly no more than 2 decades … since he and my grandfather left their small village for the USA. There is however a discrepancy here which I can not explain. On checking a 1939 calendar, that Sunday fell on September 3, which would be two days after the invasion … perhaps the headlines were more about the official starting of the war, England declaring war on Germany that day. Regardless this was my introduction to the war years … mine and millions of others horribly more unfortunate than I.

On any Sunday afternoon, half of the Bronx wanted to enter the Paradise Theater. I recall standing on line in the very back area with my mother and brother while my father pushed his way into a location considerably further forward and would then yell to us to come join him. A vicious beating would have been a welcomed alternative.

Quite frequently on many other Sundays my mother’s family would get together. Out of the six sibling’s homes mostly our house was the meeting site … or perhaps it just seemed that way … or perhaps for convenience since we never did own a car enabling us to travel to other locations. All aunts and uncles with all the children would start arriving about noon and stay way past dinner. In general these were pleasant days and I did get to know my cousins.

As I previously indicated, from time to time my maternal grandmother would be staying with us for long periods at a time. This was a very unique person. Quiet and unassuming, I can picture her now in the kitchen with my mom preparing the evening meal. Removing green peas from their shells or scraping away at a plate full of potatoes were her chores. She read profusely and it was my assignment to get her a fresh supply of books from the public library. At a certain time late in her life she was advised by a doctor to reduce her reading. Bear in mind this woman had little if any formal education … and what she did have was in a foreign tongue. At age 65 or so she had mastered the English language enough to read “Little Women”.

Saturday mornings she would sit herself down in our living room with her prayer book. We never once found her in the way or a burden of any kind and always available for a conversation. Unfortunately, I only realize now what a fabulous opportunity I had, but never took advantage of … to reach out and learn about her past.

The two stores owned my uncle and my father were located on 174th Street and it had been determined that a major roadway was to be constructed in the vicinity. The north side, my father’s side, was to be demolished. Although this did not occur for several years the business partnership was dissolved … my uncle Leo, my father’s sister Regina, and my three cousins moved to Saratoga Springs, NY … my father abandoned his store and relocated to the other side, 236 E 174th Street. For years thereafter I heard the complaint that my dad got the short end of the deal … but he will overcome. My father and his sister Clara, who lived 2 blocks away, were the only senior Stein siblings not living in Saratoga Springs within walking distance of my grandparents.

Perhaps once or twice a year an occasion came about requiring a visit to Saratoga … other than for a special holiday, I never knew why we went. My cousins were a pleasant bunch but we never had many opportunities to develop any rapport. My uncles and aunts had little interest with any children other than their own. My grandparents were equally aloof. Shamefully I have absolutely no memory of any conversation or interaction with my grandparents. Much later on, as adults, Florence and I would call on my grandmother and did have some intriguing conversations. She was by far the warmest of the Saratoga Steins. Additionally we were always impressed that a woman in her 80’s or 90’s could be as alert as she was.

World War II did bring some semblance of prosperity to our household. Previously, on several occasions, I had to take the bus up to Fordham Road and get to the Dime Savings Bank before 3:00 PM. I was a given a paper bag with money that had to be deposited that day to cover checks written. Other than these events I never heard of any financial difficulties … not once was I ever told, “We can not afford this”. I didn’t miss going to camp because I never knew about camps, and likewise I never craved for a family car because nobody in our little world owned one.

My father had a sunshine and ice cream personality. He was perpetually joking and joshing with store customers. Similarly when at home he was always a source of humor … his type of humor perhaps … but the intent was always to bring joy into the house. At the other end of the spectrum was my mother. She was the worrier of the family … forever preventing illnesses … and should one of us get sick … her reaction was akin to squatting a fly with a sledge hammer … a cough coupled with a few sneezes and out came the dreaded enema bag and positioned onto the shower curtain rod. I will refrain from detailing this procedure and leave it to you to “google” or research it.

My dad may have had some rough edges for sure. Regardless he was a hero to me as a youngster and more so in later years. I was always amazed how smarter he became as I got older. He and his father came to this country in the early 1920’s with a bare minimum of assets … at most they had an address of a cousin living some place in New York City. I can not picture myself arriving in a foreign country, not speaking the language and setting out to pave a path for the remaining family members to follow. Of course I never had to, my dad however, was not so fortunate. Throughout his adult life he only allowed himself 2 primary focal points … work and family … unfortunately work occupied most of his hours … hobbies and vacations were not in his vocabulary. 

We were home that infamous Sunday afternoon on December 7, 1941. Glued to the radio we tried to decipher what was happening. Pearl Harbor had been attacked from the air early that morning. The local fire departments had their engines on the streets with sirens blasting away … were we also about to be bombed? I attended school the following day and heard our school principal speak on the school loudspeaker. He spoke of how this was a sad day for our country and somewhere during his speech he described the enemy as “Japanese bastards”. I had never heard a curse word uttered in public before and was shocked. As a safety precaution we were sent home almost immediately but my mother would not allow me to go outside. As a token of compensation she gave me some money to go to the corner Candy Store and buy a game. I came back with a Gilbert Chemistry Set No. 1. My career was now set in motion.

The chemistry set I purchased on that day stayed with me for a long time. The smallest room in the house, the equivalent of a Boca Raton walk-in closet, was set aside as my lab. From money I had accumulated from working in my dad’s store I would purchase other paraphernalia and soon I was performing all sorts of miracles within small test tubes. I played with chemistry for several years, but eventually exchanged this pastime for real friends on the street.

From age 13 or so I always had to work in my father’s store. My services were required during busy times. While the busiest day of the week was Saturday I did not work every week. It depended on just how busy it was to be. Sometimes my father’s predictions were wrong. When such a crisis occurred he would hunt me down wherever I might be playing and I was informed in no uncertain terms that I was needed. My dad never had the occasion to play basketball or stickball and was unaware of the inherent sorrow of quitting in the middle of a game. But one holler is all I needed and away I ran. None of my friends ever said a word. Immediate response to a parent was understood by all. My mom as well worked in the store during these occasions.

In addition to busy Saturdays there were also certain days before religious events such as Passover or the High Holidays which were very special. Religious observance required the store to be closed … in fact even the Italian shoemaker and barber shops would close their doors on these events. The days prior to the holiday our store was extremely busy and my services were required. My assignment was to deliver the purchased packages to the customer’s apartment. Tips were mostly 2 cents, occasionally a nickel … often I received an empty soda bottle which had a credit value of a few pennies. Many times I received nothing. There was no salary. I remember using an old discarded baby carriage to transport more than 2 packages at a time … pushing the contents up those mountainous Bronx hills. The good news was the return trip. Sitting on the carriage edge I would coast down these same hills with no means of steering and only my sneaker to use as a brake. I did indeed achieve a respectable speed. Amazingly I never had a fall.

Unfortunately Saturday afternoon was movie day for all my friends. The guys would meet the girls in the Surrey or Mt. Eden theatres and fool around. I was one of the more fortunate guys to have a “girlfriend”. Her father owned the local fish store and this was the basis of continuous ribbing by my father. My greatest fear was that I would lose Cynthia some Saturday to one of my friends. This was 1940 or so and girlfriends did not mean dates … just an occasional meeting of the eyes during stickball or some other activity the local girls were watching. We did have some conversations on the street but always within a large group … never one on one. To compensate for my lost Saturday movies occasionally I would go instead on Friday afternoons … alone however. Nothing eventful ever occurred during these events other than I did learn how tasty Goober’s Chocolate Covered Nuts can be.

There was one occurrence that almost always took place … the memory is still with me but I really do not know what significance it has. On this Friday afternoon journey to the Park Plaza Movie Theater my path took me through a tunnel about 40 yards in length. The walls were constructed from natural large stone. For some mysterious reason I would leave a penny on the edge of one these stones and seek it out on my return trip. It was always there for me to retrieve. I do not have the slightest idea why this took place … if there are any suggestions please forward your thoughts to me.

Unbeknown to me another event was taking place just a short block away from my 1696 Topping Avenuehome. Sometime during 1940 the Grauer family moved into a 3rd floor apartment at 1650 Topping Avenue. No elevator building I am obliged to point out. Dave, Jack, Millie and Phoebe, along with their parents took residence in a 2 bedroom apartment. The baby of the family and I didn’t meet for another 8 years … but more on this event later. Meanwhile she was here and becoming a young lady.

I was never a good student. At Wade Jr. High … age 13 – 15 … I would hold a record for the most complaint cards ever received during a semester. When caught doing something bad, a card was issued to the culprit, which had to be returned the following day signed by a parent. I will admit forgery crossed my mind more than once but was never executed. My mother was the softer of my two parents and I sought her out when such a signature was needed. My conduct was bad, my desire to learn was non existent and homework almost never performed. My mother was called to school more than once to be informed of my poor behavior. This had little effect on me. My claim to fame was being one of the boys.

I should make mention of one event which led to some notoriety at the time. These were the years when puberty was being reached by members of our age group … especially by the girls who developed very appealing chests. Suddenly these creatures became very popular and would catch the eyes of all the boys in the classroom. Hilda Bach was a skinny girl who suddenly one day blossomed. As she walked to the closet in the back of the classroom to hang away her coat she caught my eye. I followed as if I had forgotten something from my coat. It was easy to push one of sliding doors a bit, move towards this innocent prey and grab a feel. I received a combination of a sour faced rebuke and a giggle. I quickly returned to my seat and then observed Hilda’s return. Unfortunately cotton was used to improve upon her natural growth … and a poor grade of cotton at that I surmise … one side of Hilda’s chest was now flat. Sadly she soon received a nickname which made reference to her appearance but I will not detail it. After this event I immediately was raised a notch in the esteem held by all the other boys in my class. A major accomplishment.

Another example comes to mind … this event occurred in High School. Several of my friends and I were being held after school closing by a music teacher for being unruly during class. As she pushed the piano (apparently on coasters) into a closet I got up and locked the door. She began to scream and certainly was heard throughout the corridors, if not the entire borough. My friends and I were undecided what to do … free the teacher or leave … within a few minutes we heard a rescue effort on the way, the school monitors (students who acted as miniature guards and policed the school seeking out violations … a sorrowful group indeed) were about to be upon us. They were heard shouting and asking “We’re coming”, and “Where are you”. The decision had been made for us. Escape it was and I led the way … opening the window and out we went … down one story to the sidewalk using available clinging vines where available or jumping if necessary. We headed down one short block and into Claremont Park, running across the grass lawns being chased by those dreaded monitors. It was no contest; we knew every inch of this park and were never caught. The next day we all received disciplinary action but the identity of the primary culprit remained a mystery.

I was required to study a foreign language in High School and French it was. While a difficult chore for some, impossible for any student with my lack of ambition. My last year of French was with Mr. Rosenthal. He had the worst reputation of any teacher in Taft. All students feared him. I sat in class hiding behind the student in front. The plan was simple … if Mr. Rosenthal did not see me he wouldn’t call on me. Naivety or perhaps just stupidity on my part, it matters less … he found me when he wanted. I barely survived this class being caught unprepared very often. This was by far my most dreaded class. Mr. Rosenthal was a terror … shouting and belittling students appeared to be a favorite pastime of his.

To receive credit for taking courses New York State Education requires all students to pass a state-wide comprehensive 3 hour exam covering all facets of the subject material. These were known as the Regent Examinations and they were tough. I had completed three years of French. The first was in Wade, the last two in Taft. I had already begun my transformation becoming a serious student and some of this material may have been absorbed … but not very much. Low and behold there I was taking this French Regent Exam and coming upon the section that required translation and comprehension. The strategy employed was to read the entire paragraph in French and try to get a glimpse of what was being said … and then describe what was written.

So away I read and I caught certain key words … “Paradise” … “Saint Peter” … “Heaven”, and some activity about entering and finding one’s way. My god, how easy this had become. I knew “Paradise” quite well … unfortunately, mine was located on the Grand Concourse and Fordham Road … not exactly the same location the originators of this examination had in mind. In my version Peter was the usher showing patrons to their seats. “Heaven”, well I already have described those heavenly skies in the Paradise movie theatre. So, away I wrote. By some miracle I passed the exam with a 65 and French was over for me … or so I thought … until much later in life when the language resurfaced … thank you Vero.

I became very close friends with Ray (Lefty) Rothman … my best friend indeed for several years. It was he who opened my eyes to a life beyond the school yard. He was an outstanding athlete and a serious student. Together we read books and discussed these in detail as well current events. As I look back, I am amazed at some of the discussions we held on the street corner of 174th St and Topping Avenue … the spot where our remaining paths home diverted … Lefty living on Clay Avenue. We could be heard talking, “Parallel lines did meet, but at infinity and what this really means to society”, “Unity of Opposites” and how this affects human life, Capitalism and what will happen to Europe after the war. And just one year earlier I had locked a teacher in a closet.

A newspaper to read daily became as important to me as food. I was attentive in school and finally performed well. My last three semester grades averaged in the 90’s. Unfortunately my first three semesters were in the 60’s. All of which came back to haunt me a very short time later.

Lefty and I would play handball on Sunday mornings and occasionally after a quick lunch travel down to Carnegie Hall to beg for tickets outside and attend the concert. We were never unsuccessful and were very fortunate to see some of the outstanding artists of our time perform. Books and classical music were not an acceptable pastime to our friends. When dressed for these special occasions we would avoid any contact with the gang by taking a special route to the subway for the trip downtown, essentially avoiding the PS 70 school yard. Eventually we actually minimized our time with “the Guys” and made some different friends.

Another example of how the two of us were quite unique for a couple of 17 year olds … there was that one winter when all we read about in the papers was that Christmas day was about to be … we decided that we would take in a Christmas eve mass in Saint Patrick’s Cathedral and see what this was all about. We found the cathedral much more exciting than the service … so much for intellectual safaris.

We began to attend a teen age social-political organization where we able to combine athletics and intellectual activities. It was there I met Jack Kaplan. We were part of a basketball team which played in different areas of the city. To this day we still maintain contact with Jack and Elaine Kaplan. Our friendship is at least 62 years old at this writing and still being maintained.

Handball became my primary sport. At age 16 I was playing twice a week, usually with adults down the hill in Claremont Park. Lefty was my partner and we did quite well. Eventually handball led to paddleball which I began to play in Jackson Heights, and this was followed with racquetball. Ray and I went on separate paths towards the end of our college years. He had a steady girlfriend before I did and was already speaking of marriage. Sadly we never touched base again. A real loss I believe now.

During my college years, my father decided to spend the summers in Saratoga Springs with my mother to oversee the rental of rooms from their newly acquired 24 room house. My uncle Abe Bell worked with me in the store, in spite of the fact there wasn’t enough for one person to do daily. The fruit & vegetable business had fallen off miserably and I was merely a temporary fill until my father would return.

Each day I had to wake at 5:00 AM and walk to the Bathgate Avenue Market Place where fresh items were purchased to replenish an exhausted stock. Previously my dad had trained me in this regard. The most important feature was to recognize a good buy … a crate of 220 Sunkist oranges costing $5.00 could be sold for 39 cents a dozen and a reasonable profit would be realized. I was amazed when he performed these mathematical calculations virtually instantaneously … time after time … with cucumbers, cantaloupes or potatoes. I confess I never acquired that skill and went to the market carrying my college slide ruler, the only portable calculator of its kind in those days. Certainly there had to be many comments offered behind my back. 

By this time I was enjoying an active social life and always closed the store on Saturdays in time for a quick shower and change of clothes. Usually I would head to a dance or if we were lucky some house party. Occasionally we would head over to Hunts Point Plaza and find a wedding reception taking place. We were usually dressed appropriately with shirt, tie and suit jacket. Getting in was easy, the trick was to locate and dance with any singles we could find and not be discovered as outsiders. This required discovering very quickly which side of the family your dance partner was from. Aside from Lefty and myself, Dan Pliskin, Cal Rieman and others would join in. 

If I was not substituting for my dad in his store, each weekend day during the warm weather months we would play handball in the mornings. This would be followed by a series of trolley car rides to Orchard Beach. This was at least an hour ride. I had known several girls who were merely very good friends, others I dated occasionally. The beach during the summer months was our hangout … specifically, Beach 13. Both Doris Rubin and Norma Golagorsky, while part of our group, were very special to me. Whenever the gang was together I would usually end up as a pair with one or the other. However I never really had a steady relationship with any one girl. Little did I know that moment was fast approaching?

Many of my Saturday night activities were in the east Bronx … not visible on my Bronx map. If I were returning home after 11:00 PM the trolley cars would run far and in between. So walk I did and when approaching Crotona Park a decision had to be made … walk around or right through. Although I was a bit apprehensive, walk straight ahead I did. A very unlikely occurrence today. I will confess that I did look over my shoulder a few times.

There is one last recollection of my High School years worthy of mention. The summer of 1945 I attended summer school taking two courses. By this time I had realized I had to improve my school record and an extra course in Physics would help. I am not certain, but I believe I repeated my last French semester having received quite a low grade. Both classes were available on the same afternoon so it was not much of an interference with work. My father approved. At any rate, this was the summer of the atom bombing of Japan. Our Physics instructor, recognizing the significance of this event, circumvented the curriculum and spoke only of the new Atomic Age. What an eye opener. This teacher, standing in front of me in our classroom, was more than just personable and studious … he was in fact a virtual human encyclopedia. A new era had just begun and my instructor was already well versed in all details. I had no concept of the relationship between matter and energy. How unprepared I was … how tiny I felt. I would never again be so unprepared. 

I began to think about college during my last high school term. On many an afternoon after school I would ride my bike to the High Bridge Library where I found a bookcase filled with college handbooks. I spent hours perusing these … even going as far as mapping out class programs. Although I knew I was limited to where I might attend, I searched out various possibilities using chemistry or architecture as major aims. 

College indeed was my next logical step. I graduated High School with a 74.5 average. The City College of NY, located in upper Manhattan was ideal for me. Free tuition, a fine scholastic reputation, outstanding basketball team, and I had many friends attending, including Lefty. However, a minimum H.S. average of 75 was required to take the entrance exam. Brooklyn College was not so severe … only a 70 average was required. I took the four hour Brooklyn entrance exam and fortunately passed and was accepted. The plan was to attend BCNY for one year and then transfer to CCNY. At Brooklyn the college grounds were magnificent … grass lawns, study benches by a pond, and relatively new and clean brick buildings. I never made the transfer. Daily I walked from our home to the IRT train Station at Jerome and Mount Eden Avenues, probably close to a mile away … and then a 60 minute subway ride followed by a 10 or 15 minute walk to the campus.

Undoubtedly this was a most productive period of my life. I soaked knowledge at every opportunity and thoroughly enjoyed each day … final exam week perhaps not as much. Shamefully I will admit there were some non-technical courses which were required and where I took some shortcuts. I had registered with Chemistry as my major only because it made the most sense from an employment perspective … and after all I did conquer Gilbert Chemistry Set No.1. For some unknown reason architecture and math were on my list as possibilities as well. The warning I received was that every student planning to attend medical school would be a “chem major” and the competition would be tough. I was not swayed. I had great classes with equally great professors. My only regret when graduating was that there were several intriguing courses I was never able to squeeze in. One big problem with being a chemistry major is the required laboratory time. A typical four credit analytical course required 3 hours of lecture and 6 hours of lab and absorbed an inordinate amount of school hours.

If I had an 8:00 AM class I had to be at the train station no later than 6:30 AM … which meant leaving my house at 5:30 or 6:00 AM. My mother never missed waking me up and preparing my breakfast. Without her support I would never had made it. I always rode the first car and knew where to stand on the platform positioning myself exactly where the train doors would open. The first 60 minutes or so on the train I would do homework or study. A change of trains was required someplace in Brooklyn and this last segment took about 10 minutes with a handful of local stops.

Returning home, the plan was to catch up on sleep. After changing trains I would find a seat, knowing once again exactly where to stand on the platform to meet the opening doors. This is an absolute necessity if you want to get a choice seat with a make-shift head rest. Sitting with a mere window behind your head made sleeping very uncomfortable. When leaning back and placing your head on the window, the vibrations were extremely annoying. Only glass which protected an enclosed advertisement section was relatively “quiet”. So, with my books on my lap off I went … sound asleep. Fortunately, this train ride was almost entirely underground. It surfaced and became an elevated train at the Yankee Stadium, 161st Street, which was a mere 3 stops before my exit station. The change in noise pitch always woke me. Other than on one occasion I never over slept my stop.

The Bronx is full of hills and as a result there are some unique structures. For example, 174th Streetrunning east and west goes under the Grand Concourse. In between these roadways lies the Independent Subway. How this got squeezed in, I have no idea. The station entrance was on the north side of the tunnel and after going through the turnstiles one has to go up the stairs to ride the underground subway … strange indeed. I walked through this tunnel daily … to and from college … at this point I was about three quarters of the way to my elevated train station on Jerome Avenue. 

No matter what time I got home from school my mom always had dinner ready … after which I went right back to school work. I had access to an ugly piece of furniture called a “Secretary”. It contained a glass enclosed bookcase in the upper section and a swing down lid which became a small desk. This was located in our living room which also contained a radio/record player. I would always have music playing in the background and at midnight the “Milkman Matinee” went on and that was my clue to pack it in.

I  was taking mainly math and science classes and during my second year I was in need of a Slide Ruler. I was always reluctant to ask my dad for any extra money unless absolutely necessary. I had received $10 or $15 for new semester text books and went to the local book store. I decided to buy all used books and would then have enough left over for my slide rule. Some may refer to this instrument as a “Slide Ruler”. I am not certain which is correct but the pronunciation always used was “Slide Rule”. This was the “Calculator” of the day … enabling the owner to perform complex multiplication and/or division operations quickly … as well as determining logarithms, sine, and cosine values, etc. In reality it was more than just a tool to solve problems. It was always carried on top of your books, and you now made a statement, “I am a future scientist” … a proud moment for me.

Interestingly at home I was perpetually organizing my time … writing out on tiny slips of paper, “Calculus-45 minute; Periodic Tables review – 30 minutes”, etc. The only item I never allocated time for was the allocation effort itself. Strangely, or perhaps not so, my son Larry to this day has been seen writing his own little reminder notes. Talk about genes.

During the summer of 1948 I was put in charge of my father’s store … he was upstate NY doing his summer thing in Saratoga Springs. Each morning I stood by the store entrance taking in the parade of girls going to work. I made conversation with most using a bit of fresh fruit as bribery. There was a cute little chick that really caught my eye, her name was Florence. By summer’s end we had an appointment to meet at some neighborhood church for a Saturday night dance. (I wonder to this day if her mom ever knew of these arrangements.) We met and for some unknown reason I ended the evening taking her cousin Millie Sauber home. It was common practice back then, if you hit it off with a girl, you escorted her home. Of course there were times when this chore just couldn’t be avoided.

Florence and I spoke again the following week and made another date. The plan was to join her friend Rita who had just become engaged to Fred. They were celebrating big time with a Broadway show in Manhattan. We were to meet them after at the Havana Madrid club. This was a night club I had frequented several time before … only as a single sitting at the bar with my friends looking for unaccompanied girls to dance with. We loved Latin dance music and I must admit I handled myself quite well at this effort, I think. Note, I had never sat at a table at this place … only at the bar with a beer, which cost about a quarter. We managed to drag out a glass for a good 2 or 3 hours … we had learned early on that adding a little salt to a glass of flat beer brings on a head and makes it look like a fresh drink.

My father, who had returned from Saratoga by this time, had given me $5.00 for the evening activities. Subway fares and movie tickets took its toll. When we met up with Fred and Rita, I had three dollars and some change left in my pocket. As we sat down a little sign on the table caught my eye,”$5.00 minimum per couple”. I confess I was never concerned … on several previous occasions I had encountered similar circumstances where the bill was more than I had … off came my watch and in lieu of payment it was offered with a promise that I would return next week to retrieve it. But this was a “date” with an audience.

The evening went well, we all had a good time, the bill arrived and the girls went to the powder room to do their thing. I merely apologized to Fred stating I was a bit short and if he could handle this I would get back to him and pay my debt. No problem.

Fred and Rita took the A Train to Washington Heights, Florence and I rode the D train to the Bronx. During this trip back I informed her of what happened and she was mortified. Sometime during the following week she found Rita paid off my debt and I have been repaying with interest ever since.

We saw each other several times during the remainder of 1948 and into 1949. By the summer of 1949 my father’s store was sold. My mom and dad concentrated on the renting of rooms from their huge house. During the summer months I was working with my dad full time in Saratoga Springs where he had started a wholesale Fruit and Vegetable business catering to hotels and restaurants in the area. Occasionally Florence would take the train upstate to spend the weekend with me. This was a 4 or 5 hour ride for her and we were engaged to be engaged so to speak. I recall going to the Spa Diner for a hamburger and ice cream and walking down Broadway figuring where our future lies … peering into a children’s clothing store window I would propose that perhaps this might provide a sound future for us.

In between all these events I found time to complete my college senior year. My final semester was completed in December 1949 and formal graduation was held on June 11, 1950. Needless to say my parents and my future wife all attended.

The plan was to be formally engaged on her birthday, March 12, 1950 and get married in December. Indeed the engagement took place on schedule and a hall was reserved as planned. However Uncle Sam interfered and called on me to serve our country. I was ordered to report to the Army at Whitehall Place in lower Manhattan on September 27. The Korean War was raging and the U.S. forces were pinned to a remote corner called the Pusan Perimeter.

The wedding date was pushed up to September 17, 1950 to take place in a very small hall on Burnside Avenue. While many people were invited to the ceremony only uncles and aunts were asked to stay over for the festivities. My cousin Edith, who had been staying with us for a long period of time assumed she was part of the family and remained for the meal. I was given my first “married” assignment and was chosen to be the one to tell her she had to leave. It probably was good training for my Army life which was about to begin. 

The Crestmore Manor, where we tied the knot, was anything but glamorous. A flight of narrow stairs stood between the street and the room where the ceremony and celebration was to take place. The Hall held no more than 30 or 40 people … but after all it was a rush arrangement. Every person attending knew I was to leave for the Army in 10 days except one. Florence had been convinced, primarily by her mother, that it was certain that I would shortly be drafted and the family did not want to take the chance that we would have to postpone the wedding. Such a postponement was a bad omen and had to be avoided at all costs.

After the wedding celebration we were driven by a family friend down to the Hotel Lexington in Manhattan. The hotel bill is attached and indicates a total charge of $12.76 for room, tax, phone call and morning breakfast. The next day’s airplane ticket to Niagara Falls is also attached. We stayed at the Honeymoon Cottages and spent 6 days sight seeing and having a ball.

The Family Roots photo taken at our wedding is the only time our parents and surviving grandparents were all together (missing were my maternal grandfather and both of Florence’s paternal grandparents) … 11 out of a potential 14. From left to right, my Saratoga grandparents Morris and Francis Stein, mom’s mother, Sarah Weisberg, my mom and dad, Florence’s mom and dad, and her grandparents Anna and Morris Jacobson.

During one evening dinner in Niagara Falls, towards the end of the week, I informed Florence that I was off to the Army in a few days. On September 25 we began our journey back home via train, first stopping over in Saratoga Springs for the evening. My parents had returned to Saratoga, which was their primary residence at the time. The following day the four of us returned to the Topping Avenue apartment. 

The next day, September 27, 1950, we went by subway to lower Manhattan where I had to report. This was a cool September day and both my mom and my bride were concerned I would be cold. Florence took off to buy a sweater for me, which she did. Sometime late in the afternoon I bid farewell to the sad threesome. It was a distressing bus trip for me and I did not get much sleep.

I had spent many months looking for a job after my January graduation and was quite unsuccessful. So here I was … an unemployed chemist and husband off to war. This twist of fate was never in my plan … not knowing what was in store for me was bad enough … but having no control was even worse. The bus ride took about 8 or 10 hours and sometime in the wee hours of the night I heard somebody say, “Welcome to Fort Devens”. Little did I know that in about one year I would return.

Before I close this section I am reminded of an event I carried with me during my entire career. It occurred during my job hunting days after graduation. I had completed college in January of 1950 and spent months unsuccessfully looking for employment. This included countless hours in employment offices, completing applications and being interviewed by obnoxious people who showed no interest in my plight. To say the least this was a very degrading experience.

One day I had a lead. A friend of the Grauer family had an acquaintance, who had a son, who was a real live working chemist. He was in charge of a lab somewhere in New Jersey and would be happy to see me. Off I went … a subway and two bus rides later I was in his office. We had a very pleasant conversation but I was soon informed there were no openings at this time. Another rough moment indeed. He offered me a plant tour which I declined explaining he had to be busy. When I got up to make my departure he held my coat. Yes, that’s all … just held my coat as I slid my arms into the sleeves. I felt completely rejuvenated … indeed I was part of this human race after all. I can not tell you how many jackets and coats I have held for prospective employees over the years.