Tag Archives: memoir

I Used to Live Here Once….


(This post from May 2010 is being reposted to the front page in honor of Mittens Romney’s most recent outrage against America gaffe.  As you can see, the first couple of paragraphs explain how my family’s good fortune came about as a direct result of government programs hand-outs which helped them to get stuff like food, shelter, health care, housing, education etc. which made it possible for them to join the growing post WWII middle-class where they contributed to the economy in all kinds of ways including by paying income taxes. Feel free to explain to me why this was a bad thing, and how this “dependence” ruined our lives as I’m obviously to ignorant to “get it.”)

My parents grew up during the Great Depression when even in New York, rents were cheap — though no one could afford anything.  My mother was raised in Williamsburg, Brooklyn, on the Southside in cramped apartments –railroad flats mostly, four people in less than 400 square feet.  They’d move whenever her mother found a better deal.

Despite coming from poor immigrant families, both my parents were able to get college degrees while living at home and attending city colleges, which at the time had free tuition and great reputations.

They married during World War II, and when my father came home he was able to go to optometry school on the GI Bill which also provided a rent subsidy.  Plus the city had introduced its rent control program, so my parents could afford to start a family.  At one point, they lived in the Queensbridge housing projects along with many other returning veterans and young brides.  No one should underestimate how much these safety nets helped grow a middle class.

My father began his career working for another optometrist, but he bought some equipment and saw patients in his living room evenings after work.  Eventually, my parents bought a 3-family home on 43rd Street in Sunnyside, Queens, just a few subway stops from midtown.  My mother wasn’t thrilled with the house at first.  She wanted something on the more fashionable north side of Queens Boulevard, closer to the almost tony, Sunnyside Gardens, but the wide two-way street was more commercial and would work better for my father’s business which they planned to run from the home. Besides, the houses on the south side were less expensive.

Our family’s sleeping quarters were upstairs.  My brother’s bedroom had been a kitchen.  They left the kitchen sink and cabinets, which he used for storage.  The bed was placed where the kitchen table would logically have been.  My grandmother had the bedroom next to his.  My sister slept in what would have been the dining room had they used the upstairs kitchen.  There was no closet, and the only window was off an air-shaft. It was necessary to walk through my sister’s bedroom to reach my parent’s bedroom behind it.  My parents slept on a trundle bed, what they called “a high-riser”.   There was also a couch and a piano in their room which served as a living room as well.

Downstairs, underneath my brother’s room,  there was a working kitchen with an eat-in area.  The room directly below my grandmother’s was used during the day as my father’s examination room and at night as a family room. In addition to the examination equipment, it featured a large console black and white television.   The freestanding  glass-slide projector  for exams with its long metal snout  became a moving object of terror in my nightmares.  The examination chair which moved up and down was an enchanting as an amusement park ride.  The office, where the frames were displayed, was under my sister’s walk-through bedroom.   Years later, by the time I was old enough to have “sleepovers,” I would sneak down there with my friends to try on frames.  There was an arch with a hard plastic room-dividing curtain (usually kept open) that separated the office from the waiting room (which was of course under my parent’s then bedroom).  My father would sometimes host his weekly pinochle game in the waiting room, and on those rare occasions when we invited my cousins for holiday dinners, we’d open up a large metal folding table, put a cloth on it and turn the waiting room into a formal dining room.

Below the kitchen and examination room, there was a garage, barely wide enough for two cars.  We rented out one of the spaces and tried not to scratch the tenant’s car when we got in or out of our own.  There was a basement studio apartment more or less below the waiting room and office which we rented out to a single man with a cat.

Living room 12/2005
Living room 12/2005

After my grandmother was institutionalized, my sister moved into her bedroom. enjoying a brief period of privacy before I was born.  My parents then tore down the wall between her old room and the living room creating a large space separated by only by an arch that made it seem even larger.  They moved their trundle bed over to where my sister’s had been, added a hutch that served as their dresser but could pass as living room furniture. This  room had huge casement windows as well as parquet hard wood floors. Like the waiting room below it and the studio below that, there was  a nonworking brick fireplace decorated with  faux-fireplace implements and electric logs that glowed and crackled.

In need of more lebensraum, my parents evicted the basement renter.and the studio became a laundry room/play room/family room.  At one point in the early 1970’s, my then teenaged sister, painted the walls brown with royal blue doorways and ceiling.   It served the same function for her and her friends as the Foreman’s basement did for that group on  That Seventies Show.

Years later, after my mother was sure that my brother was gone for good, his room was renovated back into a kitchen and the downstairs upstairs-kitchen23kitchen became storage space.  This meant that my mother had to sacrifice her beloved Chambers stove which initially had been brought in with a crane and had required taking out the kitchen window.  Given that the upstairs kitchen window had a fire escape, there was simply no way to bring the Chambers up.  The Chambers sat  unused and ignored.  Here’s a picture of the “new” (circa 1973) kitchen as it looked shortly before the house was sold in 2006.

After I moved out, my parent’s bought a proper bed and a bedroom set and moved their things into the bedroom my sister and I had shared.   Now that they didn’t need to pull out the trundle bed every night, they bought a dining room set and placed it in the front part of the living room.

real-cool-checker-cab2During the mid to late seventies, my brother moved into the basement while he finished a degree and looked for a job.  A couple of years after he vacated, I moved into the studio while “between apartments”  for a few years.  Despite the  Too Close for Comfort vibe, it wasn’t bad, close to Manhattan, and walking distance from my job.  On very sunny days, at just the right time in the afternoon, if I opened the curtains and sat under the window, I could even read without a lamp.  I used the private entrance  by the garage, and was mostly left alone.  At one point, nursing  a slightly broken heart, I painted the fridge yellow with black and white checks, something I might not have dared to do if I hadn’t been close to the landlord.

As my parents grew older, they didn’t maintain the place as they should have. .  The waiting room furniture, mostly purchased in the early 1960’s including a sun-faded beige couch with clear plastic cover that was a hand-me down from the residence, remained long after my father retired.

During the final weeks of my father’s life, when he was bedridden, strange things began to occur. All of the air conditioners, except the one in his bedroom, stopped working.  When it rained, water would come through the skylight. The downstairs bathroom light shorted out and the electrician discovered a potentially hazardous  leak coming from the upstairs shower.  Circuit breakers popped constantly and windows refused to open or slammed themselves shut.

My father whose cognition was by then bit muddled became agitated and kept muttering something about the house and the “clockwork running down.”  He tried to give me instructions, but none of it was comprehensible.  I’d rub his bony shoulder and ask him if he wanted more morphine.

My sister and I  joked about the whole place imploding once he was gone.

As many of the relatives were elderly and could barely make it up the front steps, we sat shiva downstairs in the waiting room/parlor.   My sister scurried my mother to her Albany home within a week of the funeral.

A couple of months later, I was in the living room supervising two men helping me load a truck with the furniture that would go to my mother’s new apartment in an assisted living facility near my sister’s.  As they were bubble wrapping a glass tabletop, my father’s trumpet, which was sitting on a TV snack table in a far corner of the room, crashed to the floor.   There was no vibration or anything that could have accounted for its sudden movement.  I immediately apologized to my father and explained why we were taking the furniture and for whom.  The men, from a culture where talking to the deceased is not considered odd, waited patiently.

The house was sold in early 2006, when the market was still good.  With fancy luxary condos coming up in adjacent Long Island City, Sunnyside’s fortunes were rising.

I never stepped into the house after the sale, but passed by occasionally while they were renovating.  I knew the buyers were planning to fix itbasement-studio7 up, and rent out each unit.   From the outside I could see new walls and doors.  The plan was for both the first and second floor to be functional two bedrooms. They fixed up the patio even adding lawn furniture and built a front entrance for the basement.  I managed to find pictures of the renovated apartments in the rental listings on Craigslist.  The asking price for the wider upstairs apartment was $2,400 which seemed absurdly high, and who knows what they got in the end.   The bathrooms were redone, eliminating the distinctive stall showers with the glass doors which featured  both sideways and overhead sprinklers.  The kitchens were completely updated  and of course the Chambers was gone.   They kept the original parquet floor upstairs, and found the one downstairs buried below the ugly carpet.  They left the fireplaces.   There were no pictures of the renovated “ground floor” studio ($950 a month).  I wonder if the radiator still sits oddly on the ceiling, and hope they didn’t get rid of the original concrete floor tiles.

I still stop by the house from time to time though I neither live nor work anywhere nearby.  One day, when I can no longer stand it, I will knock on the apartment doors and ask to go inside.   I will avoid the temptation to tell them I may have left something behind.

About a car…

_1990-1991-ford-taurus__180-1Jack’s car was not exactly pampered, having a maintenance schedule that consisted of an oil change prior to inspection every August. Most of the time, the 1990 Taurus remained in the heated garage below and in back of the tidy two-family house in Queens — its only companion the Volvo kept lovingly by the garage tenant who lived in Manhattan but visited most weekends. Thanksgiving, Passover and maybe some other times when the weather was good, Jack and Dora took it up to Albany to see their daughter Anita and the grandkids. Occasionally, he’d use it to chauffeur Dora (who’d never learned to drive) and her Hadassah friends to some special event although as the years passed there were fewer, and Dora, easily winded, barely left the house.

Jack had kept his optometry office on the first floor of his home, so the Taurus had never known the rigor of the morning commute. The practice had stayed open long after many of Jack’s patients had died or moved away or been enticed to try the big schlock houses — Cohen’s and Vision Center — with their designer frames and fancy window displays. In the end, the rising cost of malpractice insurance outweighed his desire to keep busy, and so he closed up the shop. He and Dora had talked about traveling, but she’d complain that her neck bothered her after long rides. The grandkids were getting older too, Matthew off at college. The Albany trips became less frequent.

Anita hinted that maybe he didn’t need a car. After all, she pointed out, the grocery store and movie theater were down the block, and they were still capable of getting on a bus though Dora had trouble with the stairs on the subways. Trains to Albany ran often, and now that Andrew had a license, there’d be no problem with his picking them up at the station. Jack replied with an edge to his tone that was rarely heard, that he was not yet “decrepit.”

One spring, he found himself with even less energy than his wife who finally convinced him to see a doctor where he received the bad news with the quiet rectitude that characterized his generation. Soon after the diagnosis, he decided to visit Albany. His youngest daughter, Marion, a childless Manhattanite who didn’t own a car, offered to drive him, but he insisted on doing it himself. A few months later, came his granddaughter’s bat-mitzvah, and he allowed Marion and her husband to drive the Taurus as he sat with Dora in the back, offering instructions on the best route and reminding his son-in-law that this was not a NASCAR event.

He didn’t leave the house much after that, and a few weeks later, he died in his bed. The Taurus though it was 15 years old, still had under 55k and was needed as Dora had made a hasty transition to Anita’s home while on the waiting list for an assisted living facility close by, and many things still needed to be transported. Marion thought she would hold on to it at least until the house was sold.

It turned out that street parking in her uptown neighborhood was less of a chore than she’d anticipated, and the car came in handy especially for the visits she was obliged to make almost monthly to see her mother. Finally, a reasonably priced parking space at her co-op complex became available, and the car no longer needed to be moved thrice weekly to accommodate the alternate side parking rules.

While they did not mean to treat the car badly, Marion and her husband were not experts on its care. On a trip to Vermont, they were sideswiped by a truck resulting in a dent and some damage near the trunk. Due to its age, the insurance payout wouldn’t cover the repair, so they spent the money elsewhere, and only months later noticed that water had leaked into the trunk, pooled inside the wheel-well and froze solid. As it thawed in the spring, a mildew odor pervaded the inside of the vehicle. They drained the water, dried out the inside and used tape and plastic to prevent future occurrences. While this shouldn’t have caused mechanical damage, things began to go wrong. The car stalled on the road. The alternator and battery were replaced, but a week later it stalled again on a busy street apparently due to a corroded wire. They didn’t trust the Taurus after that and felt it would be better off with an owner who knew more about its needs.

On Mother’s Day, they took it for a final trip to Albany, joking that that was what Jack would have wanted. They stopped by Dora’s little apartment and she proudly introduced them to the new desk clerk as she signed out for the afternoon and they all went to Anita’s. When they dropped her back off, Dora — never one for sentiment — said, “Well you’re better off renting for all you use a car.”

The ad went out on Craigslist. $299 OBO. Despite its still low miles and relatively good condition, only one respondent – a teenager in Brooklyn — wanted it for other than its parts. His offer of $200 was accepted. He didn’t need a test drive, was willing to take their word that it ran, and would be by to pick it up on Saturday.

The day before, Marion walked over to the space to get out the last of their things which included all of Jack’s insurance cards stuffed in the glove compartment, along with a few old wrappers for the Nips candies he and Dora had liked, and a couple of pieces of paper faded, with handwritten directions in Jack’s familiar scrawl.

She went back to the apartment and searched for something on the Internet, printed it out, returned to the vehicle, sat in the passenger seat and began, “Yit-ga-dal v’yit-ka-dash sh’mei ra-ba b’al-ma di-v’ra chi-ru-tei, v’yam-lich mal-chu-tei…..

When she had finished the prayer, she said, “Jack, I’m sorry we didn’t take care of it as well as we should have,” she paused then continued, “but you were never much about things anyway. You know where we all are. You don’t need the car to get there. You need to leave it, now.”

She waited a few more minutes, and then feeling a subtitle difference that could have been entirely imaginary, she left.

How I got to tell that story….

So almost a year ago, I’m listening to the WBAI – my local Pacifica station or as the better-half refers to it – Commie Radio. It’s The Next Hour, a Sunday arts show, and there are these two men talking about their theater piece which is called Two Men Talking . These two men who had met in a private Jewish day school in South Africa when they were twelve, tell stories about their evolving friendship and their lives. The show though it always features certain core stories is always different. I liked what I was hearing. Plus it was, as it often is on BAI, a pledge drive and for $200, you could get two tickets to the show and one admission to their all day storytelling workshop and learn a little about how to do what they do.

I pay my $200. Go to see the show which the better-half and I both found very moving although to say much more would be to spoil it. Then came the workshop.

It was a beautiful Sunday morning, sunny, the sky was clear and it wasn’t too hot. I got to the building – a large studio complex in Greenwich Village where there was the smell of smoke and several entrances closed due to a fire that morning. The gathering crowd, the sense of “What the hell is going on?”, the weather, and the lower Manhattan locale all combined to remind me of that thing that happened a few years ago…. And if you were in the City when it did, you know what I’m talking about.

But we did manage to find our way to a spacious studio with a rooftop patio that with river views. The workshop was spectacular. Filled with really good storytellers, but the technique was challenging. Tell what happened. Sounds simple but when that means you can’t rely on your shtick, you can’t give an opinion or even tell how you felt, it’s tough. But the result was stories that flowed like conversation and allowed the listener to have his or her own experience. It reminded me of something I’d heard once about acting. It doesn’t matter if you can cry on a stage. The point is to make the audience cry.

I signed up for the 4-week advanced series. By the end, I felt like I had a handle on it and a few good memoir stories to tell and write. Then I got THE CALL. The two men were going back on WBAI and this time they were bringing some of their storytellers and I was invited. And so I got to tell a story on the radio. (I’ll upload it when I can find it and figure out how to do it. In the meantime, go here to see a written version.) All of the storytellers were radio virgins, we were sitting in a circle and it felt intimate and safe like the workshop.

After my story, Janet Coleman the host, asked Murry Nossel one of the Two Men, “How could she have screwed that up?”

Murray replied, “She could have told us how she felt.”

And that was the whole point of telling “what happened”. It’s a bit like saying “trust the reader” if you’re a fiction writer. If you tell how YOU felt, than you are telling the listener how to feel instead of allowing them to have their own feelings.

A couple of months later, I hear from Jerome Deroy who runs the business end of the workshops. He tells me that they are going to film some storytellers for the website and I’m again invited. I chose a more upbeat one than the one I’d told on the radio. It’s more upbeat than the radio story and a good one for aspiring writers and other aspirants to hear. Check it out!

Lunch Time Conversation

“They moved Betty to another table.”
“I’m sorry to hear that Mom. I know you like Betty.”
“They put this new woman there, Rosalie. Ugh, I can’t stand her. She’s always asking questions.”
“She’s new. That’s understandable.”
“She always wants to know, what’s going on here? What’s to do?”
“She takes an interest….”
“She’s always saying how wonderful everything is. Trying to get people to go with her when they have a shopping trip or sit with her at the afternoon movie. Everything’s ‘great’. ‘Oh your daughter is coming to visit! Isn’t that great!’”
“Ma, I gotta tell you, I’m not getting what the pro….”
“And she’s a Holocaust survivor. She won’t let you forget that. “
“ I told her my life was no bed of roses either.”


The house where I grew up was almost empty now, and I was feeling my father’s presence less. In the basement, all that was left was the old fridge with rounded edges like a 1950’s auto. I’d lived down there for a bit after college, and one weekend in a fit of post-breakup mania , I’d painted the thing yellow with bands of black and white checks like an old cab. Some frat kids who’d seen the picture on craigslist thought it would make the perfect beer receptacle and were coming to pick it up. I walked down the creaky steps almost catching my foot on the worn out carpet, and then as I switched on the light, I saw something out of the corner of my eye and felt a touch on my shoulder. Daddy?