The Principal of Rivington Street
By Henry F. Mazel
He was an educated man. Today, no doubt, he would have been a university professor of some renown, but in those days a grade school teacher was more than respectable. Louis Bloom, through hard work and dedication, became the principal of P.S. 20 on Rivington Street. There, after the Great War, he made a career, and apparently was content. Why he chose to upend his life in such a way was incomprehensible to everyone except Bloom himself.
Now it so happens that Public School 20 had some illustrious graduates. Mostly, they were Jews who emigrated from Eastern Europe at the turn of the century to escape a pogrom, here and there, or fathers avoiding conscription into the army, or the general promise of a better life in America. Edward G. Robinson and Paul Muni, the film and stage actors; the future Senator, Jacob Javits; George and Ira Gershwin; and the journalist Harry Golden all attended P.S. 20 around the same time. Quite a graduating class.
Edward G. Robinson and others, well-known and not so well-known, were Rumanian Jews. They were congregants of the First Romanian-American Synagogue, Shaarey Shamoyim (Hebrew for Gates of Heaven), also located on Rivington Street at number 89. At its zenith, it had a seating capacity of over 1,600 people. And it was, if I may use the word, a Mecca for all the great cantors of the day, and nurtured the careers of operatic tenors Jan Peerce (nee Perelmuth) and Richard Tucker.
This dizzying proximity to such an overabundance of talent was most likely the cause of what they later called Louis Bloom’s deep descent. Certainly a man takes stock in his middle years, particularly a bachelor, but a career as a singer in show business? No, just not done. Intellectually, Louis Bloom understood he was an educator, but in his heart he was a hassan. Unfortunately for Bloom, the really bad part was he couldn’t sing, not a note.
Bloom had many fine qualities: A first-rate mind, a dedicated man who gave all his attention to the task at hand -- perhaps too much attention. These days he might even be called an obsessive personality. He wrote in a notebook every detail of life in his school: The number of seats in each class, the pieces of chalk sitting on the sills of blackboards, a count of the halls where chipped paint had become a problem; and most importantly, the names of the teachers’ wives and children, their ages, hair color, habits if any – and there was a special place in the notebook reserved for everything he could think of or notice about his students. In this way he hoped to be liked, to be paid attention to.
In the sixth year of his tenure as principal of P.S. 20, his diligence appeared to wane. He often was not available in the afternoon, and this was noticed by his staff. It was gradual at first. People thought perhaps he had become ill, but it became clear his focus was elsewhere – what had been a helpful obsession, that is his work at the school, had turned into another, darker, secret, magical obsession.
Once a week, later twice, and eventually even three times, he walked to Houston Street where he took the subway to the 42nd Street stop at Broadway, paid his admission, and was mesmerized by the singers, dancers, comedians and novelty acts at the Morosco theater. For weeks he would attend the matinee, delighting in the same acts over and over again. He was so engrossed that P.S. 20, for that period of time, didn’t exist for him. At a certain point, it became an absolute necessity in Bloom’s mind to meet and talk with the show people who plied their magic on stage.
On a sunlit November day, in the middle of the week, he stayed for four shows. It was a drab winter night when he finally left, but he did not go home. Instead he went to the alleyway behind the Morosco. He waited in the cold until a trickle of vaudevillians emerged. He tipped his worn, black felt hat to each in turn. The few women who emerged shuttled past quickly without acknowledging him, though a few of the men nodded to him.
Life turns on small points. And when Bert Savoy, the female impersonator -- who Bloom immediately recognized -- emerged from the shadows of the stage door, the scrawny principal straightened up as he had when called to attention in the 119th Infantry Brigade of the American Expeditionary Force. As Savoy, with a man’s swagger and the swish of a woman, came close, Louis Bloom spoke. It was more of a surprise to Bloom than Savoy.
“Good Evening, Mr. Savoy,” Bloom said, with surprising equanimity.
Slipping on his lambskin gloves, and without paying much attention to Bloom, Bert Savoy responded. “Good evening, good evening.”
He was well past the principal when Bloom almost shouted, “Wait, there is something important that I must say to you.”
“. . . Yes?” Savoy sighed audibly, stopped and turned around.
“First, I want to say how much I admire you and your great talent. I have seen you many times and am always enthralled . . . There is something I need to say, and I’m not sure where or how this entered my mind. Or who placed it there. I am not a wholly religious man, but I can only think it is He who placed it there.”
“Come, come, man, what do you have to say?”
“I fear for your life.”
Savoy blanched. “And why is that? Is it perhaps you that means me harm?”
“No, no, please believe that. It comes to me as a daydream, but more real. It is so hard to explain. I am not a criminal so you should have no questions about me. As I said, I admire your talent – and I, even at my age, wish to be on stage. But I am compelled to tell you this, even at the risk that you’d think me a lunatic.”
Savoy was outwardly calm, but he did not move on. He himself had had forebodings, which he was not about to share with Bloom. He was known on the Orpheim circuit, vaudeville’s most prominent, as someone who had an uncanny knack for prediction. Although he now worked as a single, his ex-partner, Joe Brennan, claimed Savoy was psychic. “What is your name?”
“Bloom. Louis Bloom, principal of school P.S. 20 on Rivington Street.”
“And what do you see about me, Mr. Bloom, eh?”
“I would not want to talk here,” Bloom said. “May I buy you a glass of tea?”
Savoy laughed a genuine hearty laugh. “Tea?! I’m a female impersonator on stage, Bloom, but that’s where it ends. If it’s gin you are offering me, that’s another story. I’ll hear you out and hope we both don’t have the same premonition.”
They walked to a nearby saloon in silence -- each wanting to speak, yet shards of anxiety kept them silent. Once inside the speakeasy, The Club Napoleon, a spectacular Beaux Arts mansion, Bloom was awestruck by the interior. Club Napoleon was quite a famous gin mill known to everyone, except, apparently, to Bloom. The principal’s eyes seemed to scan the place in two directions, one eye looking this way and the other taking in a wholly different portion of the plush, oak-paneled great room, with its portraits of the famous and the dead. Bloom, since he was a child, had had a thyroid condition that created the illusion, in times of stress, that he was looking in more than one direction at a time. His eyes also tended to bulge disconcertingly.
Even taking into account this disturbing continence, Bloom was completely out of place at the Napoleon -- both in his slightly disheveled appearance as well as his bearing. Yet Bloom was beside himself with excitement. This speakeasy, that Bloom had known nothing of, and would most likely cost him all the money in his pocket, was filled with entertainers and Broadway hounds. He thought he recognized half the crowd. “Is that George Raft?!” Bloom asked, half an octave above his normal speaking voice.
“No, it’s Sophie Tucker in a tux. Now sit down and order that drink you offered. And get something for yourself . . . and for Lord sake don’t order tea. My reputation is at stake here, Bloom.”
There were two gins delivered to the table, then two more, and after that another two. Louis Bloom was woozy drunk, which was a decided advantage for Bert Savoy, as long as Bloom didn’t pass out.
“All right, Mr. Bloom,” Bert Savoy said in a quiet determined tone, “what do you see for me?”
“Water? Are you too drunk to carry on a conversation? Would you like water?”
“No, I see water. I see you and water and darkness. Something very ominous and you are there in my daydream . . . and there is water and death.”
Savoy sat silent, staring at Bloom for quite some time. “How long have you had this daydream as you call it?” he finally asked.
“Long enough. Ever since I envisioned myself as singing at the Gates of Heaven Synagogue, and, of course, at the Morosco theater like yourself.
“This is all the world needs, another singing Jew. You would think Jolson and Cantor would be enough.” Savoy shrugged, gesturing that he meant no offense. “Well, that aside, Bloom, I want you to tell me -- how long has it been?”
“You mean my premonition, how long? Several months now.”
“And it always involves me? Always?”
“Yes. You and the water. I’m afraid so”
“Gypsies have portents of the future. Is it the same with Jews? . . . Bloom, I want you to sing for me.”
“What? Now? Here?”
“Yes, now. Maybe you are a lunatic. Sing. If you have some talent then my own thoughts about the future may be true after all. But I believe you have none and I am known for my intuition, Mr. Bloom.”
“Please, Mr. Savoy.”
“Bloom, Sing,” he commanded in his best stage voice.
“. . . Well, I do know Tea for Two.”
Savoy lowered his eyes. “Tea again. All right, go ahead and sing it then.”
By the time Bloom got to ‘Just me for you and you for me alone’ Savoy abruptly cut him off. His eyes lit up and he grabbed Bloom by the shoulders. He bellowed with great relief, “Bloom, I am right, you are a lunatic!”
“What, you didn’t like it? I am a little nervous with all the noise and George Raft is right there. Was it so bad?”
“Well, Bloom, let’s just say you’re not ready for the Morosco quite yet . . . and maybe not ready for premonitions, either.”
“I wish with all my heart that was true. The premonition, I mean.”
“Bloom, let me tell you something. In spite of myself, I like you. I just hope your premonitions are like your singing, tremendously off-key. But I must confess I’ve had my own uneasy feeling about the future, my future. Honestly, I couldn’t see one for myself. But now I’m relieved and all because of that lousy singing voice of yours.” He raised his glass and toasted Bloom with the last of the gin.
They were quite an unlikely pair, the flamboyant entertainer and the intense school teacher. Bloom continued to come to the theater, and Savoy was not particularly upset when Bloom was waiting for him at the stage door. They ate together on more than one occasion -- Bloom enthralled by the great female impersonator and Savoy smugly satisfied with pointing out the principal’s shortcomings.
Bloom was in Heaven, so close to show business. Burt Savoy even talked about the possibility of Bloom playing straight man to his former partner. “I want you to meet Jay Brennan,” he said, “then we’ll see.”
“When?” Bloom inquired.
“On a Monday, I suppose. The theaters are dark Mondays. That is if you can make it? And I’m not promising anything. You’ll just meet him and see how it goes.”
Although he had received two inquiries from the education board regarding his work, he brushed these aside. “In the late afternoons on Mondays, I can get away. Where will we meet? Will it be soon?”
“Slow down, Louis. Maybe in a few weeks. At Luna Park. Brennan’s a juggler on the promenade, temporarily of course, but he’s a gifted comic. He needs a stooge for his new act, Bloom, and you won’t have to do much.
“This means a great deal to me, Burt.”
“Don’t get soft on me now. If things go okey-doke, I’ll even treat you to one of those kosher hot dogs from Nathan’s Famous. And it won’t cost a nickel, either. Cantor, me and Durante lent Handwerker the money to open that place. I bet you didn’t know that.”
“You’re a good man to help Jews like that.”
“Sure, what do you think? We all worked at Feltman’s restaurant together before the war. . . And, besides, I’m helping you aren’t I?”
At first, Bloom was on top of the world, his heart filled with a joy he hadn’t experienced in years. Yet the principal found it difficult to sleep, and his daydream now invaded his non-waking hours. Nightmares with that water, and Savoy ending up badly. Bloom, a man of profound focus, found himself nervous and adrift.
On a morning a few days after the American New Year, Bloom realized what he must do. He would go to the Gates of Heaven synagogue and seek the advice of the Rabbi. He thought to himself, ‘the Rabbi is a wise man and will be able to help rid me of this fear, or at least explain what it all means.’
An imposing Romanesque Revival style building, the Gates of Heaven synagogue on Rivington Street conjured up thoughts of a medieval castle. Bloom stared up at the great stone archway, hesitated, and reluctantly entered. Inside, the synagogue was magnificent and elaborate. The sanctuary was extremely wide with a huge gallery extending deeply into the great hall. Magnificent stained glass windows and an intricate chandelier reminded a man to whisper in such a place. So Bloom, who viewed himself as inconsequential, quietly tiptoed into the study where Rabbi Yaakov Singer had agreed to see him.
There, behind a mahogany desk, the Rabbi looked up at Bloom and smiled. The gentle manner belied his Rasputin-like appearance. When he stood up, he was nearly a foot taller than the principal, and Yaakov Singer’s piercing brown eyes had the facility to call up biblical wrath when needed.
“Louis, I’m glad you’ve come. We so seldom see you these days.”
“I know, I know, Rabbi. I’ve been preoccupied.”
“Preoccupied how? Are you ill, Louis?”
“No. That is I’m not sure. I want to change my life, what I do for arbeit, for my work.” Bloom looked away. “And, I . . . that is . . . I also have a foreboding, a vivid daydream, that stays with me. This, I am hopeful, is your domain, Rabbi.” With that, Bloom proceeded to tell Yaakov Singer, in great detail, all about Burt Savoy, show business, and his great unease.
The Rabbi listened intently. When Bloom had finished he looked toward the Rabbi who remained silent. Finally he asked, “Do you have for me advice, Rabbi?”
“About these hallucinations, I have no advice -- but a caution.” His sharp brown eyes were now wide and his speech urgent. “This is fire that you deal with here, Louis, of which nothing good can come.”
It’s water, not fire, Bloom thought. “Rabbi, please.”
“Remember what I’ve said, Louis.” The Rabbi stroked his beard for a moment, then shook his head and softened, the gentle smile returned. “All right, all right. This I will tell you: These show people are not men like you and I. There is something in their minds that is quite different. They live for fame and attention. They have no understanding of the true life. They are incapable of contemplating His plan.”
“All show people?”
“Even the Jewish ones?”
“Especially, the Jewish ones.” He was expressionless for a moment, then laughed softly, placed his hand on Bloom’s shoulder and walked him toward the study door. “In the Talmud, if a man finds his father’s lost property and his teacher’s lost property, that of his teacher takes precedence. Although his father brought him into this world, his teacher -- who taught him wisdom -- brings him into the life of the World to Come. Fairstast?”
“I think I understand, Rabbi.” He did not, really. It’s water not fire, Bloom thought to himself again.
“Good. Then return to teaching, Louis. Resume your duties full-time. You will be at peace, believe me.”
Coney Island was especially warm for an early March day. It had taken Bloom just over half an hour on the recently built elevated BMT subway line to reach Surf Avenue, and the entrance to Luna Park. The entrance was directly on Surf Avenue and Bloom craned his neck in search of Burt Savoy. People of all sorts bustled past him, and beyond the entrance the crowd mingled with one another on the promenade. Bloom waited for twenty minutes and still no Savoy. The principal thought he must have missed him in the sea of faces around him. But Bloom was determined to wait. Burt Savoy was too good a man not to keep his word.
“Hello, Dearie,” a voice called out from behind.
Bloom turned around to see a woman in a flowered print dress, smiling at him. At first he didn’t recognize her, yet the face was familiar. In an instant, stunned, Bloom, made a great whistling sound as he swallowed a gulp of air.
“Yes, it’s me. What do you think?”
Bloom couldn’t speak. “It’s okay, Dearie, I’m out for a promenade,” Burt Savoy said, pressing his hand on Louis Bloom’s arm. The principal jumped back, ashen.
“Oh, come, come, Bloom, don’t be absurd. It’s a game we play, Brennan and me. Who can make the other laugh. He’ll show up and see me, and he’ll act as though nothing is out of the ordinary, as though nothing is different. He won’t show a hint of emotion. He won’t give me the satisfaction, but eventually he’ll crack up . . . or I will. So don’t get all tussled, Bloom.”
Bloom was all tussled, and didn’t quite believe Savoy’s story, a man he thought he could trust. All right, Savoy was a very tactile individual, but his touching and grabbing made Bloom extremely skittish.
“Well, where is he then?” the principal demanded.
“Who knows, I guess I’m not psychic after all. Louis, relax, consider me on stage”
“That’s fine for you, but I’m all new to this. And did it occur to you that’s the ocean there, the water?”
“I’m not going in for a dunk, Louis.”
“He never goes for a dunk. A bit too much lipstick, don’t you think? . . . Well, hello boys,” a neatly dressed man in a straw hat said.
“Ah, Jay, here you are. See Bloom, you have to admit this fellow has great timing. And you don’t know the half of it, Dearie”
“. . . Hello, Mr. Brennan,” Bloom said sheepishly.
Brennan gave Louis Bloom the once over, then looked over at Savoy. He let out a rollicking laugh. “You win Burt, you always win.” He was still grinning. He came close to Bloom, looked straight at him. “You want this green pickle to be my setup man?” Brennan placed an arm around both men and shook his head.
The clouds had rolled in so quickly no one really noticed. The sky became black. Bloom, for his part, was both embarrassed and angry, as angry as a mild-mannered principal was entitled to become. He grabbed Brennan’s hand from his shoulder and pushed it aside.
The last thing Bloom saw before the lightning strike was the look of surprise on Jay Brennan’s face. Lightning was quite unusual in March. Later, they said the principal lay on the ground for only a few minutes, but it seemed like hours to Bloom. He had felt the hair on his body stand upright, and a gust of something knock him to the ground. Not wind, mind you, but a force of energy that made him nauseous. His eyes bulged, and they said he scanned the emergency room in two discrete directions when he was treated at Coney Island hospital.
The principal was released late in the afternoon, pronounced in reasonably good health and told to rest for a few days. When he inquired about Burt Savoy and Jay Brennan, he was told matter-of-factly by the attending that they had been electrocuted instantly.
Bloom took to his bed for more than a few days. What had he done? Rabbi Singer was right. About entertainers. About fire. He had strayed from the path assigned to him. He had involved himself in depravity and had relinquished his responsibilities. Louis Bloom considered he had brought upon himself a catastrophe, and worse, a Holy wrath.
With this revelation, Bloom became a wholly religious man, an observant Jew. He spent time in synagogue and listened intently when Rabbi Singer spoke. The principal also contacted the education board. He told them he had been ill, was recently discharged from Coney Island hospital, and would resume his full-time duties at P.S. 20 in the following weeks.
It was close to the end of the term when Bloom returned. He confidently walked the halls of P.S. 20 as he had done for so many years before. He smiled at students and staff. He was resigned. And when he gazed upon those students who would soon graduate, it was not a look of pride, but of disdain. Who among them would sing at the gates of Heaven?
from the April 2009 Edition of the Jewish Magazine