The Bronx? Yes Thonx!

 

A heated neighborhood rivalry between the Seabury Pawnees and the Minford Marauders came to a halt when Joey yelled,

“Hey Jerry, get your mother off the field, this is an important punchball game!”

“Cut it out Joey, Don’t talk about my mother like that. Did I ever say anything about your mother?”

“Mom, please get off the field, we’re playing a game. I’ll have the milk and cookies after the game.”

Mom left preaching her usual sermon.

“The game. The game. All day long you play the game. If you did your homework like Walter does, instead of punching a ball, I wouldn’t have to see a teacher every week.”

It was a warm April afternoon.

The boys retired to their dugout, their clubroom, a parked car’s running board.

Eddie broke the silence.

“I heard that Bill Dickey could tell where a foul pop-up is going to go once it leaves the batter’s bat.”

“You heard. You’re always hearing things Eddie. The FBI could use you.”

“No Marty. He’s too stupid.”

“Stupid? Tell me, who failed last week’s spelling test?”

The running board’s hard rubber embossed strips began to squeeze into Eddie’s rear.

He stood up rubbing his rear end.

“Let’s sit on to the curb near the fire hydrant, my ass is killing me.”

Marty wasn’t happy with this suggestion.

“Dogs piss on the hydrant. I’m staying.”

They were nine-years-olds. They haven’t as yet graduated from punchball to stickball. But that’s OK, the field is smaller and the cops didn’t grab the sticks.

What did nine-year-olds do after school? The smarter ones did their homework. Fun was the name of the boy’s game.

Jerry, the unelected leader of the group suggested,

“How about roasting some mickies tonight? I’ll meet you after supper and we’ll go to Jennings Street Market. Me and Joey will get the potatoes, Eddie and Marty will get the wooden boxes.”

“Great idea. But what if we get caught?”

“Get caught? How many times did we get caught, Marty? Boy, are you a fink.”

“I’m not afraid, I just think the mickies are dirty when we take them out of the fire.”

“Eddie, did you ever get sick from a mickie?”

“No, and they’re really good.’”

After dinner the boys met outside Nick the Shoemaker’sstore. Together they walked the

three blocks to Jennings Street Market.

Jerry lifted the nailed-down canvas cover of Miller’s fruit and vegetable stand.

“Uh-oh, watch it Jerry, that man on the corner. He looks like a detective.”

“Detective my ass. That’s Mr. Pasternak, my neighbor from the second floor.”

Eddie slipped his hand under the cover and removed four potatoes. He joined Jerry for their three-block walk to the corner of Seabury Place. In the distance they could see Joey and Marty struggling with four wooden fruit boxes.

 

The boxes were stacked. To be used for kindling, Marty was about to crush a Daily Forward newspaper.

“Stop!” said Eddie. ” You can’t burn that. It’s a sin to burn a Jewish newspaper!”

“Who said so?”

“My grandfather, and he should know. He goes to synagogue every Saturday.”

“My father doesn’t go to synagogue added Jerry, so I’ll burn it.”

When the wooden boxes began a slow burn, Eddie threw in the four potatoes.

“They only become mickies when their skins turn a crusty black,” advised Jerry.

Now a mass of flames danced above the potatoes. The boxes were a glowing blaze, and then began to collapse.

“Hey guys, shouted Jerry. “It’s Hitler’s house!”

A roar of “Yay!” bounced off the bedroom windowpanes of Seabury Place.

In about ten minutes, an anxious Marty asked,

“Are the mickies ready, Jerry?”

“Yeah, but how do we get them out of the fire?”

“I brought a fork.”

“OK, but don’t burn your hands.”

With the mickies wrapped in the remaining newspaper, the four sat on the curb dining on their stolen dessert.

“Eddie, what are you doing this Saturday? We’re going to Brighton Beach.”

“Brighton Beach? It’s so far. By the time you get there, you’re ready to go home. The last time I went there I was sunburned so badly that my mom took me to Bronx Hospital.”

“So, where are you going this Saturday, Joey?”

“I’m going with my brother to Crotona Park pool.”

“Nah, my father says people piss in the water there.”

“So, don’t you think people piss in the ocean?”

“Crotona pool is like a bathtub compared to the ocean.”

 

Games continued on the asphalt street of Seabury Place. Punchball was passé. The boys graduated to stickball. A mop stick was a poor excuse for a broomstick for stickball. But who had a corn-fibered broom? Jack saw a broom tilted on a second floor fire escape.

“It’s Mrs. Stein’s broom,” said Marty.

“She doesn’t need it, we do,” replied Jack.

“How do you know she doesn’t need it?” asked Joey.

“I was in her apartment yesterday to tell her she had a phone call at the candy store. Her floors dirtied my sneakers.”

It was agreed that we needed the broom more than Mrs. Stein, but who was going to climb the fire escape?

“Jack, when you’re in the playground, you climb like a monkey. You get it.”

“Hey! It’s in front of the building. Everyone could see me. I’m not going.”

“Then we’ll have to use a mop stick.”

“Maybe we could ask the big-fellas if they could loan us a stick?”

“I don’t see any of the big-fellas.”

 

The boys retired to Mrs. Baretz’s bench outside her candy store on Boston Road considering their next event.

“Let’s put a penny on the Boston Road trolley track and see what happens.”

“OK Marty, put your penny on the trolley track and we’ll see what happens.”

“It isn’t worth it to me. I could buy a Hooten square of chocolate for the penny.”

“Then shut up about putting a penny on the track.”

In spite of Jerry’s mom, games continued. Homework took second place.

Fifth grade began with thin spellers, thick math books and a thicker reader. Mr. Minin distributed mending tissue (precursor to Scotch Tape) to students who received books with torn pages.

 

The boys were at the threshold of puberty, but girls were still formless creatures that

occupied classroom seats.

“Hey guys. Did you ever see Rosalyn Fox come to school? She looks like her mother washed her then starched and ironed her before she came to class. If neatness counts, she scores a touchdown every day. I can’t stand girls who….”

 

“Holy shit! Wow! Look up in the sky! Wha’, … What’s that thing?” trembled Marty as he edged closer to Eddie.

“Get off’a me dummy. How should I know?”

The boys squeezed closer together. Shoulders pressed against shoulders, knees coupled with trembling knees, their mouths were agape. They were stunned. The bright summer sky was eclipsed by the sinister appearance of a huge oval object. Seabnry Place was blanketed under a giant shadow. It was an airship that seemed to be suspended by strings like a marionette.

“Why wasn’t it moving like the airplanes that pass by every day? I don’t like this. I’m gettin’ outta’ here,” shouted Joey.

Jerry, although startled was as anxious as the rest. He had seen the Hindenburg in the newsreels, but who expected it to hang over Seabury Place? On its rudder was a black swastika in a circular white field and encased in a red square. This assured Jerry it was theHindenburg.He wondered,

Could it have come here all the way from Germany? Were there Nazis inside? What would they do to us after they land? Where is it going to land?

Eddie, shaken with fright sputtered,

“I’m going upstairs.”

Marty, who was just as anxious as Joey, put on an air of bravado,

“Oh, scardy-cat is going upstairs to his mommy.”

With that, Joey said he too was going upstairs to ask his mother if she knew anything about the Hindenburg.

“How would she know?” asked Joey. “You don’t buy a newspaper.”

“We don’t buy one either,” replied Eddie. “Mr. Suslow gives it to my father after he finishes it.”

“Oh yeah. I’ll bet he doesn’t know that the Hindenburgflew over Seabury Place today.”

“When he comes home, I’ll ask him.”

Rapidly beating hearts and wobbly legs stumbled for home.

Jerry opened the door to his apartment to find his mom stuffing a chicken skin’s neck to make helzel(stuffed derma).

“Mom, did you see the Hindenburgfly over Seabury Place this afternoon?”

“How can I see anything when our kitchen window shows me Mrs. Koletsky’s kitchen? Wait until Pa or Izzy come home.”

Izzy was Pa’s bachelor brother. He moved into the apartment and became a barnacle for zero dollars a month, food and laundry included.

Pa soon dragged himself into the apartment and Izzy soon followed. Jerry ran to tell him about the Hindenburg.

“What? A swastika?” he said. “Nazis? How could it be?”

He approached Jerry’s brother, “Harold, did you see it?”

“I didn’t see it. I was in the apartment doing my homework.”

Izzy joined in,

“WhatHindenburg? Wasn’t he a German general? What was he doing here in the Bronx?”

“Yes,” Pa said sarcastically. “He came here to draft you for the German army.”

After dinner the family gathered around their small, Gothic Emerson table radio. It was

 

Thursday, May 6, 1937. An excited Gabriel Heatter delivered a special report. The Hindenburgdrifted slowly over New York City. At 7:45 PM, upon approaching its mooring at Lakehurst, New Jersey, it exploded killing 35 of the 97 people aboard. A member of the ground crew was also killed. Herb Morrison, a reporter on the scene who described the disaster was in a state of sobbing hysteria.

 

The excitement of theHindenburgwore off in a couple of days and the boys returned to the asphalt of Seabury Place. June was coming to a close. No more math tests, no more spelling tests, no more fountain pens and no more inkblots. A new adventure awaited the boys as they prepared to enter Herman Ridder Junior H.S.

 

 

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An Eighty-eight Year Old Goes to the Gym

Why was I running five miles daily on the track at Spring Valley H.S.? What brought me and my sneakers five miles and back on the the asphalt of Route 45? Since I played football for Doc Weidman at James Monroe H.S., physical fitness was my signature.

Now, 70 years later, I am at Blink Fitness Center being grilled by a member,

“You’re 88? Cut it out. You probably forgot your birthdate.”

“I forget a lot of things. Ask my wife. But my birthdate is firmly fixed in my mind.”

When I turn on the overhead light in my bathroom, the glow skids off my baldpate and forms grotesque shadows in the folds and furrows of my face.

Powders, creams or cosmetic surgery can’t deceive Mother Nature. She is aware of all these deceptive tactics. So I joined a fitness center to try and rescue the remaining shards of a once well-toned body.

A combination lock, a phone, a pint of water, and a towel are in my backpack. I’m off to the gym. I select a locker adjacent to a wall in order to get maximum support when I slip into my gym shorts then I’m off to the stretch area.

A chorus of “OOs”s, “Ows”, “Oys” and “Ahs” fill the air as members try to unlace the knots that have accumulated in their muscles.

After I had a quadruple bypass, my cardiologist warned, “You are to lift no more than 10 pounds.”

The weights lie neatly in their cradle. Behind these weights is a mirrored wall where young men stand, turn and flex. Next summer, will one of them be the Adonis on the beach? This mirror also reveals the familiar furrows and folds in my knees that litter the surface of my face. No cosmetic surgery Danny, just get longer short pants.

OK, so I lift 10-pound weights 40X, 30X then 20X.

It gave my biceps a good workout, but is there any piece of equipment that will challenge me?

An innocent-looking apparatus is standing between a group of ellipticals and treadmills. Most members pass it by unaware of its function. After I became familiar with it, I was convinced that in spite of its innocent appearance, it was probably designed by a sadistic engineer who was inspired by the demonic torture tools of the Spanish Inquisition.

It has two bars, approximately 5’ tall, connected by a wooden-backed inflated cushion. Five-inch tall hand grips are in front of two forearm pads extending outward. Connected to the bars, 6” from the floor is a footrest. To get maximum abdominal muscle workout, the forearms are placed on the pads, grab the grips then remove your feet from the footrests and hang suspended. If my mother saw me lifting my legs at right angle to my torso, she would yell,

“Stop. You’ll become a cripple!”

After a few years at the gym, I am able to complete this torture 40X, rest, 30X rest, and finally 20X. After a wipe down of the pads and back, I go for a “ride” on a recumbent bike for 20 minutes at resistance of 5.

For dessert, the choir is gone. I do my solo of “AHs” and “OYs” then the curtain comes down.

On the trek back to my locker, I try to memorize the combination to my lock. When my memory fails me, I lean against a treadmill and lift my right leg to find the combination I had inscribed at the side of the heel on my right sneaker.

Upon my return home, my wife asks, “How did it go?”

It’s usually “Swell,” or “As usual,” but my body knows the truth.

I collapse into my comfortable recliner in an attempt to recover. Next Wednesday Blink Fitness Center will greet me in my sneakers and shorts. Why? Throughout the years, in spite of pain or fatigue, I have always pushed myself to complete a physical task.

I leave the high school track to the students. The soles of my sneakers are no longer abraded by the asphalt of Route 45, and I have successfully memorized the combination to my new lock unless I forget it.

 

This torture device was inspired by the Spanish Inquisition

 

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Laundry in the 1940s

Laundry in the 1940s
Alas Mom. I could still picture you stooped over the bathtub, kneading our clothes against the corrugated metal washboard while its shaky legs swayed to the rhythm of your stroke. Then rinsing the clothes for our family and the free-loading border, my uncle. I could imagine the awful graphic impressions the floor’s mini-marble tiles left on your bended knees. Of course, the operation didn’t end with the rinse. What about the whites? The whites got their special treatment. The bathtub was refilled, and then two little bags of bluing were dissolved in it. The whites became whiter than white. Finally, you placed all the wash in a wooden basket, and then carried it to the rear window of our apartment where our clothesline hung and waiting for a new batch of wet, washed clothing. When all the wash was hung, the whites, fluttered wildly in the wind, as if they were superior to the others.

Who was The Lineman that climbed up that tall, knotty pole to replace worn clotheslines? He appeared as if he stepped out of the cornfields of the show, Oklahoma! He made his way through the backyards of our tenements with clothesline rope spiraled around his shoulder. He was a tall, lean, thirtyish man, handsome and apparently of Anglo or Nordic stack, not familiar in our neighborhood. A freshly washed pale-blue denim shirt, dungarees, and a navy-blue knit hat complemented his rugged persona.

His signature call was, “Line!, Line.!” A tenant’s frazzled clothesline and the shout of her apartment number brought him up the steps and to her door. He opened her window then connected her old rope to his new line then guided it through the far pulley connected to the pole. When it

returned to the pulley connected to the window jamb, he fastened the rope. The knot resembled a hangman’s noose. All this for five dollars. No haggling.
At the end of World War II the launderette came upon the scene. The Lineman marched off with the other entrepreneurs who slowly vanished from the parade that passed by my ground floor window. Upon discharge from the army, I was given 200 dollars. Mom was still bending over the bathtub, on her knees, doing the family wash.

This will never do. With the 200 dollars in my pocket, I went to Master’s discount store and bought a Norge washing machine as recommended by Consumer Reports.
I came home from college few days later. Two men coming down the steps were struggling with a large cardboard box with Norge emblazoned on it. Norge raised my antenna.

“Is this for Apartment 11?”
“It was, but the lady said to bring it back. She doesn’t want it and she didn’t need it.”
I gave them two dollars and told them to return it to Apartment 11.
No sooner did the apartment door close behind me than my mother dropped the knife she was paring potatoes and subjected me to a back- room precint grilling.
“Did I ask for a washing machine? Do I need a washing machine? I’m a society lady all of a sudden. You have nothing to do with your money?” “Ma, I can’t stand watching you do the wash. I paid for this and it’s not going back.”

She was left speechless. The washing machine remained. It was hooked up to our water supply. Meanwhile, the shaky old washboard remained under the tub waiting to be drafted for small skirmishes or washing machine malfunctions.

The photo below indicates the typical clothesline in the East Bronx and the poles that supported the lines.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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Crotona Park Lake

No, it didn’t freeze. What’s going on? We had cold weather for the last two weeks and the lake hasn’t I frozen, It was frozen, but to a depth where skating was not permitted. I’ll go to the Crotona Park Lake and see what’s going on.

While crossing cobble-stoned Boston Road, for good luck I made sure to step on the four trolley tracks at the center of the road. That should bring on a freeze.

Now I was alongside my alma mater, P.S. 61. Trotting along its raised playing field, a right turn onto Charlotte Street. led me to Crotona Park in the Bronx.

The monkey bars in the playground to my left beckoned, but it was too cold for bare fingers. Why bother? A short jog will bring me to the lake.

A “parkee” was turning a drill bit into the ice.

“How thick is the ice?” I shouted.

“Four inches. It’s not thick enough for skating. We need six inches,” he replied.

On my way home, I wasn’t concerned about tomorrow’s important spelling and math test. The lake wasn’t frozen that’s what bugged me.

When Dad came home he turned on the radio.

The German army, after defeating Poland was deep into Russia. This news was for older people, I was ten years old and I wanted the lake to freeze. But, at the end of the program came the good news, a cold wave was coming.

A few days later the lake froze. High above the boathouse’s flagpole, a white flag with a red circle at the center announced that skating was permitted.

I was prepared. Two pair of woolen socks, a sweatshirt, a windbreaker and I was off to the lake. All the skaters changed from their shoes into their skates at the benches circling the lake. My worn woolen socks were patched by my mother’s thick darning needle. Any color will do. As Jacob had his multi-colored dream coat, I had my multi-colored socks. This was an embarrassment for the best speed skater on the lake, so I changed from sneakers into skates at a stall in the boathouse bathroom. Laced up and gloves on, I stepped onto the lake on par with the crowd.

From a distance the shoes of my Hans Brinker-era figure skates appeared to be made of a beautiful suede leather, but as one approached, he realized that the nap on the leather had pealed over the eons leaving a rough surface. The blades were a ¼ inch wide thus allowing a learner to manage without turning an ankle.

In spite of all these impediments I wove through the skaters on the lake with gusto.

There was one kid I couldn’t stomach. Whenever I left my friends to scoot around the lake, this annoyance was right behind me. There was no problem in getting rid of him. After a few rounds around the lake, he dissolved into the crowd.

Now, how do I contend with this gale of a wind that had unexpectedly swept over the lake? Many of the skaters left soon after it had arrived.

With the wind at my back, I achieved a speed I had never experienced, but, when I made a turn, and I moved my legs, I remained fixed to the ice.

Time to go home. No, I wasn’t going into the stall in the boathouse to remove my patched socks, and slip on my sneakers.

I cleverly unlaced my skates, placed my fingers underneath the top of my sock and lifted my foot, leaving the sock in my sneaker. I left the lake for home on par with the crowd.

The year is 2018, I am in good health, and have a vigorous walk. I attribute this to my genetic inheritance and my annual trips to the frozen Crotona Park Lake.

 

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Skunk Hunt

Korea 1952

The sun remained in its permanent position, frozen, but not a single cloud could find it. Battered branches of leafless trees provided little shade on this brutally hot July day in Korea.

As if my clammy, unwashed, two-month-old skivvies and fatigues feared of being removed, they clung to me as if they were riveted to my skin.

Sgt. Danny Brown walked through our trench line to visit his men of the 2nd squad of the 2nd platoon.

“Meet me on the reverse slope at 2:00 AM.”

We gathered under the scattered shade of a crippled tree.

“You probably heard that Sgt. Rutledge was killed by a sniper yesterday. Last night Sgt. Massengale, returning from a patrol, found Chinese propaganda leaflets scattered along the free lane. Battalion thinks that a sniper might be hiding in our area. We are going to make a thorough search. Fill two canteens, bring four magazines for your weapons, and put them on lock. Meet me here in a half an hour. The sun was firing for effect and I felt that I was its target. I removed my helmet. I swore that I could fry an egg on the top of it. My armored vest was an excellent insulator of heat, so I unsnapped it, left it in my bunker and returned to the reverse slope where our men were gathered.

“OK men, follow me.” Danny Brown led us down the reverse slope, but that was the end of “down”. Is there any flat path in this area? Why were we always plodding uphill?

We stepped on long patches of green grass. Quite a contrast to the drab we met when we left our bunkers and the serpentine wall of our trench line.

Our raids and patrols were only conducted at night. On these missions we were alert for any unusual sounds. Now in the broad daylight and the intense heat the only sound we wanted to hear was, “Let’s return to our bunkers.”

“Piss call! Button your flies when you are through and take a long drink of water.”

Wayne, my bunker buddy and platoon medic took a substantial drink then removed his helmet and drenched his head with the remainder.

“Wayne,” I said. “Go easy on the next one. We don’t know how long we’ll be out here.”

The search continued and so did the sun’s rays.

Lancaster drawled, “Back home we call this a skunk hunt, but the South Carolina sun never broiled my butt like this.”

The Chinese were masters at camouflage. The only life we saw was green grass, an occasional bird, or an annoying fly.

“Halt!” came from Danny Brown. “I don’t want any of you to get dehydrated. Take another long drink and we’ll be on our way.”

Wayne removed his helmet. His face was a glistening red. He gulped down a few swallows then doused his head from his second canteen.

“What are you going to do when you want more water?” I asked.

“I have enough water to last for this patrol.”

The search and the blazing sun continued. Danny Brown added a bit of relief to our drained men.

“We’re nearly through. Take your last swigs.”

Halizoned Lister bag water never tasted so good. Wayne was left standing, watching, as our men took their last drink while two empty canteens hung from his garrison belt.

Like a father trying to teach his disobedient son a lesson, at his boots, I poured out the rest of the water from my canteen. I shall never forget the hurt and perplexed look that came over his face. He soon realized what I was trying to do and we remained buddies.

We returned to our bunkers without a sniper, but Lister bag water took on a new meaning for me after this skunk hunt.

 

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Our Kitchen Table

Mom served her meals on the surface of our heavy, baked enamel tabletop; a legacy from the previous tenant in our tenement apartment. A pattern of linked royal blue, one-inch diamonds ran along the outer edge of the top and also formed a large diamond at the center. Dad color-coordinated it by painting its legs and apron along with his fingers and naked scalp to match the blue diamonds. We had to sit a foot and a half from the table because a yard of wooden apron descended from the tabletop, preventing our legs from fitting under the table. After a meal, our pants resembled a Jackson Pollock abstract. Fortunately, we wore cotton, washable pants which Mom washed in the bathtub. Not a garment in our house ever went to the dry cleaner.

Mom didn’t have a problem in getting her knees under the table. She never sat there. Like a waitress in a diner, she served the meal then waited. Perhaps there might be a request for ketchup, mustard or her homemade horseradish. The remainders from our meal supplemented by the small portion of the entrée she left for herself was her dinner. A glass of tea, brewed from yesterday’s tea bag, along with a sugar cube lodged between her cheek and molar, was her dessert.

The large blue diamond at the center of the tabletop was the bulls-eye for Mom’s flatware blitz. She strafed the table with a heap of cutlery before each meal. We selected our forks, knives and spoons from somewhere within the scattered mass.

One day a replacement table became a possibility. Mrs. Suslow from apartment 3 burst into our apartment with the news. “Macy’s has a sale on kitchen tables!”

But if we bought a new table how would we get rid of our Blue Diamond Beast? We could hardly budge it. The layers of paint caked on its legs and apron throughout the years, supplemented by my Dad weighed more than our oven. Schlepping it down four flights of stairs would require the service of two world-class weight lifters. Nonetheless, when the new table arrived, my father my uncle (our permanent border), my brother and I somehow managed to slide the monster down four flights of stairs leaving a trail of blue paint chips.

Without knowing its pedigree, someone adopted it before the Department of Sanitation came the following day.

I knew that Mom’s concept of setting a table didn’t conform to Amy Vanderbilt’s, but why disrupt a flow that streamed so nicely over the years?

Many months later, Sheila, my fiancé, was invited to dinner. She took me aside to ask why there was a mound of cutlery at the center of the table.

“So we can use them,” I replied. She stood bewildered.

Our new, maple-legged, brown metal table begged for napkins and a proper table setting. Fortunately, Sheila, who earned an A in Home Economics at James Madison High Schoolin Brooklyn answered the call.

 

 

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Jennings Street Market

It was a multistage theater with performances in each venue as unique as the performers. Each act had a single booking, because it was impossible to replicate. Cecil B. DeMille’s spectaculars could not compete with the dramas played out daily on the sidewalks of the Jennings Street Market in the Bronx.

The curtain opened to reveal a red-cheeked gnome, tightly wrapped in a white starched apron. Jake the Pickle Man was the despot of this East European bazaar, the undisputed czar of the Jennings Street Market. He had no store; he merely rented a patch on the sidewalk, approximately six by eight feet, from which he, his wife, and five barrels confronted his audience.

Each of three barrels had a different degree of fermentation—from bright green half-sour to olive drab completely sour garlic pickles. A fourth barrel held green tomatoes, and the fifth, shredded cabbage. all undergoing the same process. He coordinated the fermenting flora like a maestro on a podium to produce the most delicious sour pickles, sour tomatoes, and sauerkraut in the Bronx.

The year was 1939; I was nine years old. Going to Jake’s on Friday was as routine as tenants hiding from the landlady on rent day. One day when my mother was next in line waiting to be served, a friend distracted her from across the street. Ma’s slight delay before making her request was unsatisfactory to Jake. His beady eyes glared, and his thin voice shrilled, “Nu, did you come to your big decision?”

Ma was sensitive. She was not willing to be addressed in that aggressive manner. After that exchange, the pickle jar was passed into my hands. Since every mother in the neighborhood bore at least one scar from Jake’s blistering tongue, a queue of their offspring would form alongside his barrels waiting for him to fill their jars and send them off to their Sabbath meal. Inexplicably, Jake loved children. The respect he should have shown to the ladies, he showered on the young ones. He squeezed every pickle he could into their jars.

“Only pickles for Shabbos [the Sabbath] can fit into this jar. Your mother doesn’t have a another one?” He told me to bring a bigger jar next time and sent me on my way.

Ma wasn’t the only patron to nurse the bruises of Jake’s slings and arrows. A woman in front of me announced, “Ah full jar mitt pickles right up to da top. End you should give me a good price.”

“You came mitt an empty jar; you go home mitt an empty jar. No pickles for a chazer [a pig]!”

In another incident, a woman a few places in front of me declared:

“I vahnt sour pickles but dey should be hard vuns. Da lests time you gave me pickles, dey fell apart on mine fork!”

“You vahnt a hard vun? Go esk your husband. Maybe for Shabbos, mitt some mazel [luck], he’ll give you a hard vun.”

At that time I didn’t understand what he was saying but I could tell by the oys, veys, and tsk tsks from the women around me that this was a gem worthy of storage.

It was a very busy day before the Jewish New Year. Jake was besieged by the usual horde at this time of the year. As I was about to leave with my pickles, the woman behind me presented him with a jar that had a very narrow neck.

“Dis is a jar for pickles? Your hahldz [neck] should be as narrow as this jar and you should have a geshvirr [an abscess] in it.”

Most of the women tolerated his insults as the toll paid for his wonderful pickles. Jake’s generous portions were determined by an eyebrow—his wife’s. As soon as it gained altitude and described an arc, he stopped stuffing the jar. Aside from her eyebrow, I could not determine her role in the operation. She never held a jar. Her hands were constantly marinating in sauerkraut juice or among the pickles, turning them down and around like a convection current. When her hands emerged, a sparkling emerald-cut diamond on her ring finger glistened in sharp contrast to the drab brine and pickles surrounding it. This, of course, led to all sorts of rumors about Jake’s wealth. Some women claimed he owned all the real estate on Jennings Street. Others said he earned the money for the diamond from his other enterprises, which were much more profitable. This was ridiculous. The man spent his entire day and a good part of the night tending to the inventory in his oaken barrels.

Late in the evening, behind a wrought iron gate, he could be seen in his laboratory, his backyard. His pink, cherubic Rubenesque face was bathed in the yellow glow of a single low-wattage bulb as he checked his barrels of newly fermenting pickles, tomatoes, and cabbage. He sampled the brine in each barrel, dropped in some bay leaves, or perhaps added dill, salt, or garlic. When he was satisfied, he pulled the string on his lightbulb and went up to his apartment to rehearse his tirade for the following day.

World War II veterans, who benefited from the GI Bill of Rights, abandoned the neighborhood. The suburbs were blossoming as our neighborhood withered. On weekends, the vets made a pilgrimage with their children to the czar—Jake of Jennings Street. They parked their shiny cars along the curb opposite the familiar oaken barrels. Their once leaky jars were replaced by rubber-gasketed Mason jars sealing in the smells and nostalgia of the old neighborhood. I’m sure these vets shared their Jake the Pickle Man stories with their wives and children.

While Jake was spicing the atmosphere with his pickles and verbal lashings, a shochet (ritual slaughterer) in a flapping white but bloody apron shlepped through the streets with a freshly killed chicken, displaying its rear end while directing prospective customers to his stand in one of the many indoor markets. Freshly killed still-warm chickens were waiting to be plucked, eviscerated, and then roasted in the oven.

One indoor market was directly across the street from Jake’s pickle stand. As soon as you entered, your salivary glands began working overtime as the intoxicating aroma from the heartburn-inducing fare at Feuer’s Appetizing overwhelmed your nostrils. Squeezing past his barrels of salted herring, trays of pickled herring, slabs of smoked salmon begging to be sliced, platoons of smoked whitefish, and tubular salamis aligned like artillery shells, you came upon the chicken stand. It consisted of a long white-tiled counter with a cash register at the left end. Prone and limp lay the warm, recently slaughtered, feathered carcasses. A woman at the far right of the counter sat on a wooden milk box. Unaware of carpal tunnel syndrome, she placed her wrists in overdrive as she plucked the feathers from a chicken for 10 cents.

“Good morning. How are you, Mrs. Wolfe? How did you like last week’s farmer cheese? Did you use it in your blintzes? It was a new brand.” Unlike most of the market’s entrepreneurs, whose single corrosive insult could dissolve all the rust on the George Washington Bridge, Mr. Beer, at the dairy counter, was a gentleman with a refined vocabulary. His veined gray marble counter was on the right as you entered the indoor market. Behind his counter were three refrigerated sections enclosed by vertical sliding glass doors. Through the glass, Mr. Beer’s entire inventory was exposed to his customers. Two large wooden tubs filled with bright, golden yellow butter beamed out at the patrons.

“A half-pound of butter, please.”

It always amazed me how he was able to plunge his trowel into the butter and remove a portion of precisely the requested weight.

In front of the wooden tubs were two twelve-inch rectangular wooden boxes holding Breakstone’s cream cheese. Cream cheese then was not available in neatly folded aluminum foil eight-ounce packages. With his trusty trowel, Mr. Beer sliced off the amount requested and then placed it on shiny translucent paper he ripped from a bulky roll at the end of the counter. I thought his deft folding of the paper was a trade secret. As soon as I came home, I tried to duplicate the folds. Somehow, the package never closed.

The third refrigerated section burst with color. A bright gold-toned five-gallon tin can, tipped at an angle like a cornucopia, contained gleaming white pot cheese whose curds seemed to flow out of the can. At either side, a round cheese wrapped tightly in red cellophane prevented the can from rolling sideways. I think Mr. Beer positioned them solely for support and color effect. I never saw anyone buy a wedge of that cheese.

I was familiar only with Mr. Beer’s cream cheese and farmer cheese. The cream cheese was like mortar between two slices of a bagel. For twenty-three consecutive years, my father’s daily bialy roll for work held a square of farmer cheese between its two halves. All the other cheeses in Mr. Beer’s medley were either too expensive or too foreign to test.

Stepping out from Beer’s dairy and to the left, at the corner of Jennings and Wilkins Avenue, resided the market’s trophy fruit and vegetable stand, Miller’s. Possibly Matisse’s brush could have done justice to the yellows, oranges, purples, reds, and greens exploding from various angles. The beautiful fruits were lined up in the morning as if they were awaiting inspection by a general on the company street. Then the customers came, squeezing, examining, fingerprinting, and replacing the fruit in mounds of disarray. An elderly employee rearranged them as he cursed out the women digging for prime fruits. By the end of the day, a few lonely pieces were left in front of the brown paper bags displaying the prices.

To show off the brilliance of the fruit’s colors, Mrs. Miller removed the thin, soft, translucent papers in which some fruit was wrapped. She saved the wrappings in a brown paper bag for my mother, who collected them on Sunday—the day she bought her produce, because the prices were lower. We used these papers as toilet tissue.

At the intersection of Jennings and Charlotte Streets was Ruby’s junk store, a poor man’s Woolworth’s. It was cluttered with merchandise, much of which neither he nor his patrons could identify. Regardless of the season, the odor of camphor permeated the store. If OSHA had existed, it would have condemned his store as unsuitable for human respiration. Ruby’s entire inventory could be found on the floor in open cardboard boxes or scattered on a long wooden table at the center of the store. Nearly every piece of merchandise was buried in a box of sawdust. So, it was potluck when a customer’s hand dove into the shavings prospecting for a bargain. The specialty of the house was mismatched dishes made in Japan. Today, with a genuine pre-war “Made in Japan” stamp on the bottom, these dishes would be collectibles.

Running a close second to the dishes in quantity were sheets of long brown oily camphorated paper. In summer, we lined the clothes closets with this paper to prevent damage to our pathetic woolen garments. A moth with all her faculties would think twice before she deposited her eggs in our clothing. Her larvae, feeding on the fibers, would either expire or suffer from terminal malnutrition.

Shoe polish must have been held in awe by Ruby. This was one of the rare items that perpetually occupied the same area at the left side of his front window for years. After purchasing liquid Shinola and finding its dauber frozen in dehydrated solution, I discovered that Griffin wax shoe polish was the wiser choice. Legislation requiring expiration dates was forty years in the future.

Ruby was a congenial man with a ready smile. Usually, he could be seen walking around the tables with a mysterious object in his hand trying to determine how it could serve his customers.

In later years, Ruby’s merchandise was still in demand—but in demand at the point of a knife or a finger on a trigger. After a few such incidents, Ruby shut the door on his landmark.

Another entrepreneur was my mother’s tomato man, Benson. A thin sheet of plywood, about three by five feet, supported by two milkboxes was the showroom for his merchandise. One section held overripe tomatoes, another ripening green tomatoes, and, at stage center, the crown jewels of his inventory, the firm ripe red tomatoes. Since he was a landsman (someone from my parents’ shtetl), he saved the not-quite-overripe tomatoes for my mother and charged her overripe prices. The difference was only a matter of pennies, but these were years when a penny bought a blank stamped postal card.

A voice that had a Parkinsonian effect on every shopper within range came roaring down the hills and over the moguls of a display of oranges, grapefruits, lemons, and tangerines. It emanated from the resonant vocal cords of Milton, the Pavarotti of Jennings Street Market, performing his aria on a wooden skid, surrounded by nature’s bounty. Its magnetic field drew shoppers like the Piper’s fife drew mice. Further confirmation of his operatic talent came from the fact that hardly anyone knew what he was shouting. Many years later, while he and I were reminiscing about the old neighborhood, my friend Al Lakind, whose dilapidated house was opposite Milton’s stand, decoded his refrain. It was in Yiddish: “Zetz uhp di mimeh!” This can have two entirely different meanings: “Beat up your aunt!” or “Have intercourse with your aunt!” The shoppers had their choice.

Behind Milton and a few stores to his right was a small store that eventually evolved into a supermarket chain. A large green sign with white lettering let the East Bronx know it was Daitch Dairy. Its logo, “The Symbol of Quality,” was painted below a sparkling diamond. Inside, compressed twelve-inch, parchment-wrapped farmer cheeses were stacked like bricks near a scale, waiting to be mortared into a building.

“Get a half-pound farmer cheese, and ask them to cut it from the thick side.”

Inevitably, the piece was three-quarters of a pound.

“It weighs a little more than a half a pound,” the counterman informed me.

“Why doesn’t it ever weigh less than a half a pound?” I asked.

“Could I control the knife? Sometimes it goes this way, sometimes it goes that way.”

I left with the cheese in a white paper bag knowing that Pa would be carrying that white bag to work with his bialy and cheese the next morning.

Across Jennings Street from Miller’s fruit stand and about fifty feet up the street was the neighborhood culinary institute, Meager’s Bakery on Wilkin Avenue. No insults, just the best-tasting rolls, rye bread, cornbread, and onion rolls that ever slid off a wooden paddle from the oven. My relatives would return to Montreal with a canvas sack full of cornbreads, telling each other “Don’t drop them. They might split a tile or brer toe.”

The neatest and most immaculate store in the market was the pork store. A large, ceramic head of a smiling pig dominated the center of the window display. Not a welcome smile to most of the passersby, who kept kosher homes. A heart bypass could have been performed here without the risk of infection. It looked as if Mr. Salerno threw fresh sawdust on the floor every fifteen minutes. All his merchandise was refrigerated in a sparkling glass case. Commercially packed and store-sliced meats were neatly aligned behind one another like rows of dominos. Silence from within came roaring at you when you passed the store. Quite a contrast to Brodsky’s, my mother’s butcher shop. Its proprietor held a seminar with each incision he made on the torso he hauled from the refrigerator. When my mother asked him to remove more fat and gristle from the chuck roast, Brodsky replied, “Mrs. Wolfe, I’m only a butcher; I’m not a surgeon.”

His store was the official source of neighborhood gossip. With his steel sharpening rod, he divined a shidach (marriage match) for a worried mother. Phone numbers were exchanged, and Mr. Brodsky announced news of its progress.

We knew Miller’s fruit and vegetable stand was on the corner of Wilkins Avenue and Jennings Street. We knew Jake was cursing out the women in the middle of Jennings Street. We knew Milton was straining his vocal cords opposite the intersection of Charlotte and Jennings Streets, but where was the Newspaperman? He could be somewhere between two fruit stands or in front of a closed stand in the evening. His newspaper stand consisted of a plywood board suspended over two empty milk boxes. Nervous—or, as my friend the Creep called him, Noiviss—related this Jennings Street story:

On a chilly wintry evening, the fruit and vegetable vendors were blanketing down their inventory with heavy canvas tarpaulins. Jennings Street Market was being put to sleep. There wasn’t a soul in the market but the Newspaperman. Under a rock and flapping in the breeze were the few remainders of the Daily News, Daily Mirror, and Forward.

I left Steinberg’s Bakery with my hands in my pockets and a rye bread under my arm when I noticed the Newspaperman hunched over his stand, his hands in his armpits and a wool hat pulled over his ears.

“It’s an empty street. It’s freezing. The stands are closed. Why don’t you go home?” I said. [This was highly unusual for Nervous, who rarely spoke to anyone he didn’t know.]

“Listen, shitass, don’t give me a weather report,” said the newspaper vendor, while bouncing from one foot to the other. “I’ve been at this long before you were born. Who are you to tell me how to run my business?”

So the Newspaperman was another voice contributing to the congeniality of the Jennings Street Market. Even a casual vendor was sure to sustain the belligerent reputation of the street.

As a precursor to the demise of Jennings Street Market, Jake’s wife passed away. After a period of mourning, Jake returned to his barrels. A few months later, barbarians broke into his apartment. They forced a hand towel down his throat. The czar was dead.

Today pickles can be purchased in sterile glass jars at the supermarket, but will your change be spiced with an insult to make shopping for these poor imitations an event? String beans can be purchased at Balducci’s, where they are called haricots verts, but will Milton’s vocal cords mesmerize the air? A plucked and cleaned free-range chicken can be purchased at Lobel’s Meat Market, but will its feathered rear end be launched into your face for evaluation?

The immigrant families of the Jennings Street neighborhood inculcated their children with a love for learning. As the members of this first generation succeeded, with the help of the GI Bill, they moved to the suburbs. The vacuum created by their departure brought radical change to the neighborhood. The clamor was was silenced by crime. The Jennings Street Theater played to an empty house. The curtains closed, the pageant was over.

Rent paid for the surrounding apartments did not cover the cost for the repair of vandalism. Landlords abandoned the buildings. They were burned. The somber shells of the structures stood like ashen gravestones inscribed with illiterate graffiti in an abandoned cemetery.

In 2004, my friend Alvin and I returned to Jennings Street, looking for the market. A wall two blocks long confronted us—a gray, cinder-block, graffitied wall that resembled the cold, gray Berlin Wall. I saw a man sweeping the sidewalk in front of his butcher shop, the only store that had survived. The chipped facade cornice above his store was a pathetic vestige from the past. I asked him if he had owned the store when this was a bustling market. He had no idea what I was referring to.

Today, the shards of Jennings Street Market lie only in the fading memories of residents who once made it a community.

 

It is September, 2017. The author is an 87-year-old decorated combat veteran from the Korean War. With the aid of the GI Bill he was graduated from the City College of New York. He has written three books:

Seabury Place: A Bronx Memoir

Cold Ground’s Been My Bed: A Korean War Memoir

Coming Home: A Soldier Returns From Korea

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A Lump Called Trump

 

Six foot two

Weighs two-thirty-nine

Is this an Adonis

Or a malodorous swine?

 

Two-thirty-nine?

His ass weighs that much

He didn’t pass his physical

Does this hog need a crutch?

 

“He’s 4F “ said his doctor,

“He has a bone spur in his heel

Vietnam is treacherous

Like a pig he will squeal.”

 

“He looks OK to me,”

Said an old codger

But everyone knows

The pig is a five-time-draft-dodger.

 

The vets from Vietnam

Would like to know

Was there really a bone spur?

What did the X-rays show?

 

The X-rays showed nothing

Just an army of lies

Can you picture his fat ass

Among this group of GIs?

 

All gave some

Some gave all

What has he given?

Nada, nothing, nothing

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An Intrepid Hero

A young vet on a float waved in a smiled at me at a recent Memorial Day parade. I smiled and waved back. He carried me back sixty-six years when I was with Company L, 15th Regiment, 3rd Infantry Division in Korea.

Our company was in the rear awaiting replacements for our casualties. It was a brutally hot and sunny day in June when a short, thin, freckle faced kid named, Wayne Caton came to replace our platoon’s wounded medic. After we exchanged our biographical data, he anxiously edged towards my cot and whispered,

“I don’t know what I’ll do when we move up to the line if I’m scared shit here, in this squad tent.”

“All of us are frightened, I replied.” It’s normal. After you meet our men you’ll feel more comfortable.”

Wayne and I became inseparable. He was Catholic, I was Jewish. He didn’t finish high school, I planned on going to college, yet the gel that bound us during the early days evolved into cement as the days had passed. But as we went through our training, I noticed that Wayne had lost his zest.

“Dan, I haven’t heard from my girlfriend since I came to Korea. She’s a cute cheerleader. She’ll have no trouble finding other guys.”

“Let me help you write to her. Maybe you’ll get an answer.”

We wrote: When I shave and look in the mirror I see your pretty face, not mine, and I’m very careful to avoid cuts. Since I haven’t damaged you, would you please write me?

No response. He didn’t expect one.

Wayne performed well in our training exercises. He became an integral part of the 2nd platoon.

Lt. Sidney, our company commander, was ordered to move the company up to the MLR (Main Line of Resistance). Wayne and I occupied a bunker overlooking the Imjin River in the Chorwon Valley. It was a peaceful landscape marred by mutilated trees overlooking a carpet of barbed wire.

After a few days of relaxation, Company commander Sidney assigned the 2nd and 3rd platoons to attack the Chinese-occupied Hill 121.

Our dry run the previous night convinced us that the operation would be a walk in the park.

We stomped through a hidden path towards our jon boats scattered along the bank of the Imjin River. Charley, our point man pulled on an overhead rope bringing four men to the opposite bank.

What am I doing here? Going to a hill to kill Chinese? Why should I try and kill them? Who will return? Will I return?

We sat and waited for all the men to cross the river, and then we assembled around Lt. Sidney.

“The valley is wide. We should have no problem getting there. Make sure your weapons are on lock.”

A Centurian tank fired its cannon then showered the hill with .50 caliber bullets. A forward observer was accurately zeroing in the 105mm howitzers

As we approached, a searchlight company illuminated the hill to make it appear like a mangled wedding cake. What’s going on here? This wasn’t in our dry run. We’ll be flickering like Sabbath candles when we attack the hill. Which of us will be blown out?”

We came to a halt. I fired a flare; a signal to cease the supporting fire. Lt. Sidney moved his fist forward to attack. Wayne and Sgt. Flaherty were ahead and to my left. We gave each other a “thumbs up” then crawled up the hill.

A concussion grenade exploded where I thought Wayne and Sgt. Flaherty might be. I anxiously waited for the area to clear, and then I crawled to the ditch but no one was there.

“Hey Gus. Did you see Flaherty or Caton?”

“Caton’s probably treating the wounded down the hill. I didn’t see Flaherty.”

Lt. Sidney signaled to withdraw. When I reached the bottom of the hill I saw Sgt. Flaherty lying on a litter. His jaw, resting on his chest, resembled a bloody sock.

Where was Wayne? I ran for the jon boats that brought us across the river. To my far right Ed Heister was carrying a mortally wounded Truman Bastin on his shoulders. Upon reaching the jon boats, I was relieved to see Wayne. He was in a heated dispute with the GI in charge of the jon boats. Truman, unconscious and bleeding heavily was draped on Ed’s shoulders. Wayne asked the GI to release a boat so that Truman could get across quickly.

“I need three more guys before I release the boat.”

Wayne removed his pistol from its holster, placed it into the GI’s gut and said,

“If he doesn’t get into the boat now, you’re a dead man.”

Truman was quickly ferried across.

Our platoon returned to the battalion headquarters tent for a debriefing.

A roar of a truck brought me running out.

“Hey Gus, did you see Wayne?”

“No, but he might be on the next truck.”

There was no next truck.

Mrs. Caton received a telegram that Wayne was Missing In Action.

Two years later, when the truce was declared, Mrs. Caton sent photos of Wayne to the repatriated prisoners. Perhaps they could identify him. No one could identify him.

Fifty-three years later, prodded by Wayne’s niece, I called Ed Heister.

“Ed. Do you remember the night you carried Truman to the jon boats?”

“Yes and the GI who was assigned to the jon boats told me to wait until three more men came to fill up the boat.”

“Do you know what happened to Truman?” he asked.

Yes, I said. Truman was ferried across the river and, after three years at Walter Reed Hospital, he was discharged. He lived until he was 79 years old.

“But what happened to Wayne?” I asked

“He went back to Hill 121 to see if any wounded were left behind,” said Ed.

Wayne was declared Killed in Action three years later.

That was Wayne, a selfless INTREPID HERO who, unfortunately was never recognized for his heroic valor.

Wayne’s photo rests on my night table. We were so young; now I am 88.

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Look At Him!

 

My Marty was on the Dean’s List

Straight A’s through college

Put on your raincoat girls

He’s a fountain of knowledge.

 

All the women adore him

His mother loves him the most

Try and seduce him girls

You’ll smolder like burned toast.

 

He’s a doctor, my son

The best in his profession

He’s a proctologist by trade

But he’ll check the flip side as a concession.

 

He’s looking for a girl

Just like me

Creamy and delicious

Like crackers with brie

 

She should sauté him a paella

My Marty’s gourmet thing

And I’ll flush down the toilet

Her nasty chicken-a-la-king

 

She should be sexy

With a high bust if you please

Mine reached to my cheekbones

Now they’re down to my knees.

 

He gets manicures and haircuts

I pluck the hairs on his nose

He gets laser for the fungus

That grows wild on his toes.

 

He brushes his teeth daily

Briskly twice each day

So his teeth sparkle like mine

And drives the halitosis away

 

I won’t allow tattoos

Maybe a heart with “mother”

Anything else

With a pillow I’ll smother.

 

Do you know a nice girl

Who is anxious to wed?

I’ll check out her details

Maybe she’ll meet us in bed.

 

I’ll pick a king-sized bed

For the honeymoon

But if she thinks I’m an intruder

Then cock-ihr-oon.

 

But if she marries my son

She better dress classy

Her diction should be precise

And her digestion not too gassy.

 

 

 

 

 

 

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