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Confessions Of A Bookworm
By Fred Skolnik
I was born in the Bronx in 1940. We lived at 1420 College Avenue, in a six-story apartment house in the middle of the long block between 170th and 171st Streets, bordered on the opposite side by Teller Avenue and Claremont Park. The adjoining building faced 171st Street and was separated from ours by an alley, or rather two alleys. The alley that belonged to our building led down to the basement, where Mr. Ham, or perhaps Hamm, a German with a German accent, presided. When he come to our apartment, Apartment 6R, to fix something, he'd get a shot of schnapps and a small tip from my mother. He always smelled of schnapps and must have been always drunk, or near to it. On the other side of our building was the Young Israel Synagogue and then, separated by another alley, a row of stores extending to 170th Street. The alley led into a parking lot where we used to play ball after school and on the weekends and which we called, by extension, simply the Alley. Of the stores I remember a Chinese laundry, a candy store, a grocery, and a luncheonette on the corner. The stores were housed in a three-story residential building, the first of a row whose entrance was around the corner on 170th Street and which ran up to Teller Avenue. I could see the rear windows and fire escapes of the entire row of three-story buildings on 170th Street, bordering the Alley, from my own window high above the street. From this window, looking across to Teller Avenue, I also saw the tops of elm trees in a little, fenced-off area next to the Alley - someone's backyard - as well as the rear of the six-story building on the corner of Teller and 170th Street, whose windows we occasionally broke when we played stickball in the Alley, and the steep, grassy incline of Claremont Park.
Claremont Park was quite large, running from 170th Street to Mount Eden Parkway, about five city blocks, and then down to Clay Avenue. It had big playgrounds, ballfields and basketball courts and endless green fields where we played rough games of football. Taft High School too, occupying a full city block one street over from College Avenue on the other side, along Morris Avenue, had a big playing field, a sandlot until the early Fifties where we sometimes played baseball but then asphalted with a track and basketball courts put in too. Farther up was the Luxor movie theater, the Grand Concourse, and down the other side Jerome Avenue and the El. The stretch of 170th Street between College Avenue and the Grand Concourse was the commercial axis of the neighborhood. Between College and Morris we had another candy store, a catering hall, a haberdasher, a poolroom, a bakery, a supermarket, a dry cleaner, a fruit and vegetable store, a butcher, a barber shop, a drugstore and the Sugar Bowl, where we bought sundaes and banana splits, egg creams and cherry cokes. Farther up there was a delicatessen, a Chinese restaurant, the movie house, and the bookstore where I bought a Tarzan book occasionally. When you crossed the Grand Concourse you were already in a somewhat unfamiliar environment. I remember a bank but little else. Later I would streak down 170th Street from the Concourse on my Raleigh racer on the way to the Highbridge Public Library, where I took out the novels of James Fenimore Cooper and Jules Verne week after week. I attended P.S.70 in those years, just a block or two from the Park on the Mount Eden side.
These were the horizons of my childhood world. Though part of a city, the neighborhood was like a village. The world for someone growing up on Morris Avenue, though attending the same schools, playing on the same ballfields, going to the same movie theater, would have felt just a little different, with a different frame of reference, orientation, ambiance. This ambiance was the very special way the world felt to a ten-year-old when he stepped into the street.
Later our horizons would expand, in ever-widening circles. We discovered Fordham Road, the Paradise and RKO movie theaters, beyond that Van Courtland Park. We discovered Manhattan too. Ultimately, we felt at home everywhere. We were New Yorkers. Nothing surprised us.
My parents came from Poland, my father from Eastern Galicia when it was part of Russia. He arrived in America in 1920, I believe. One of his brothers had come first. He became a sewing machine "operator" for a subcontractor of fairly expensive ladies wear in the garment district. The Alert Dress Company, it was called. But he was also an amateur boxer, a ladies' man, and afterwards a union man, an activist, and the Communist Party's candidate for the state senate in 1934, endorsed by the Prospect Workers Club. That was the atmosphere of our home: The Daily Worker, bound copies of an English-language Soviet magazine, a bust of Lenin which we painted gold every spring before returning it to its place in the closet. Before he was married, my father had fought in Spain, was wounded and a hero, and met my mother on crutches in 1938. My mother was from Bialystok, from a rabbinical family active in textiles, but herself a Communist too. They met at one of the "functions" continually being organized in the circles they moved in. My mother had arrived in America in 1934, with her mother and sister, six years after her father and half-brother. My grandfather's first wife had died in childbirth and he had soon married Sheine Beile, somewhat older than he, my grandmother. They lived in Brighton Beach, on 5th Street, two blocks from the Boardwalk and the sea.
My father's sojourn in Spain was the great romance of the family. He had told his mother he was going away on his annual vacation and the next thing she knew she was receiving a postcard from France just before he crossed the Pyrenees into Spain to fight with the Lincoln Brigade. He sent dispatches in Yiddish to the Morning Freiheit from the front in addition to fighting and was written up for his heroics:
"Take the story of Abraham Skolnick [sic], a dressmaker from New York. Skolnick fought through all the fights of the 26th, 27th, and 28th of February . On the night of the 28th he was relieved of duty. However, he volunteered to go out and bomb machine-gun nests on his own hook. Loading down his puny 120-pound body with twenty Mills bombs, he crawled over the top and returned in the morning with two bombs, saying he could find no more machine-gun nests."
As my father told the story, he was the only one to survive the mission, because the others stood up and ran after throwing their grenades and were cut down while my father wisely crawled back to his own lines. Later, still defending Madrid against Franco's forces, he was hit in the back of the thigh by shrapnel and would have bled to death if the freezing night air had not coagulated the blood. The Spanish doctor at the hospital wanted to amputate his leg but a French doctor there said he would try to save it and had my father evacuated a short while before the hospital was bombed and destroyed by the Fascists. The leg was saved and thus my father came back on crutches to meet and marry my mother,
I vaguely remember a doorman and an awning at 1420 College Avenue. That must have been in the war years or immediately after. Afterwards there was only the skeleton of the awning. Not that our neighborhood was rundown. It was a typical middle-class Jewish neighborhood. It could not be called teeming or colorful in any way. It was really rather quiet, the only life in it being generated by children like myself, who tended to be like children everywhere, rowdy, uncontrollable.
If our neighborhood was like a village, our building, with over 100 families living in it, was like an ocean liner - an ocean liner where no one was on speaking terms, and this despite the fact, or perhaps because of it, that people lived there forever, as the building was rent-controlled. The people who didn't have children despised the people who did because of the noise the children made. The people who had children despised the people who didn't because they were always shouting at the children. And of course people despised each other for reasons that had nothing to do with children after a lifetime of neighborly living, or simply didn't know each other, living on different floors or at opposite ends of the hall. Friendships were rare. We spoke to four or five families at the most. All others were ignored, getting at most a nod in the elevator if they were from your own floor. This was New York after all.
I myself had just one really close friend in the building, another in the building across the street - "the new building," as it was universally called, having been built, I suppose, shortly before the war - and a third who lived in a basement apartment across the street - the super's son. On the other hand, from the fifth or sixth grade on I had a fairly large circle of friends and acquaintances outside the block, from the schoolyards and playgrounds and school itself as my reputation grew.
We lived in a three-room apartment. Naturally enough, each of the rooms had a name: kitchen. living room, bedroom. The hallway was called the foyer. The first right off the hallway, two steps from the front door, took you into the kitchen; the second right, two more steps down the hall, took you into the living room. The foyer was a dead end, terminating after another two steps, in the narrow, built-in closet where we kept the bust of Lenin and the Soviet magazines. Immediately to the left of the built-in closet, at a right angle to it but leaving enough space to get to the dumbwaiter beside the closet, was a cedarwood closet where my mother kept her fur coat - mouton, I believe it was - and which smelled very strongly of mothballs. Next to it, along the wall opposite the doorway to the living room, was a small bookcase which housed my few children's books and some Communist literature. In this little space I played basketball, using a basket hooked on to the door of the built-in closet.
At the other end of the living room there was a little vestibule leading to the bedroom on the left and the bathroom on the right, and between them another built-in closet where my father kept his Spanish Civil War mementos in a metal toolbox. As we had just one bedroom, I slept with my parents. They had their double bed and I had my single bed just a step away. At ten, when my sister was born, I was transferred to the living room and she took over my place.
The kitchen was of a reasonable size. A hot water pipe that always made gurgling sounds - the radiator, stoked by Mr. Ham or Hamm down at the basement furnace - ran from floor to ceiling in the far corner. That was where my father sat at the kitchen table when we ate. My mother sat opposite him and I sat between them with my back to the opposite wall. After my sister was born a high chair was installed behind the place where my mother sat and the refrigerator occupied the niche between the high chair and the doorway. Along the opposite wall there was the stove, sink, and cupboards. At some point a small washing machine was installed in front of the sink, jutting out into the middle of the floor. My mother spent a great deal of time in the kitchen, though there were only the three of us until I was ten. In retrospect I find it difficult to imagine how she filled her time. I suppose she cleaned up a bit after my father and I were out of the house in the morning. Somewhere between nine and ten she would go out to shop. This must have been a daily ritual. She would go to the butcher and select a cut of meat. Then she would go to the vegetable store to buy some fruit and vegetables, though there was also a fruit and vegetable man who came by with a horse and wagon sometimes, and finally she would go to the bakery and grocery store. I don't think she used the supermarket. Getting back, she would make lunch for me, as I came home from school on the lunch break, and at a certain point, perhaps after reading the New York Post for a while, and particularly Max Lerner but also Leonard Lyons and Earl Wilson, she would begin preparing supper, which was an elaborate affair which she considered the heart and soul of homemaking. She thought of herself as a gourmet cook, the equal of the finest chefs, though aside from what she called petravas, and later, when she was a little more Americanized, "treats" - things like knishes and even pizza pie - I remember these meals as quite mundane: mashed potatoes, a green vegetable, meat dishes like London broil, veal cutlets, lamb chops or liver, and a baked apple for dessert. There was always a bottle of seltzer on the table, delivered to our door. My father would occasionally comment on the food, saying things like "geshmok" or "fehlt epes."
The living room had the day bed where I slept after my sister was born, a sofa and an easy chair, all grouped around first the radio-phonograph and later the television. Behind the sofa, in a separate section of the room, my mother had her Singer sewing machine built into a special table and I had my chest of toys. In the small space between the two, closed off by the sofa, my father and I used to box every Sunday morning, going three rounds with 16-ounce gloves. First he would go down to buy the Sunday Times, then I would read the sports section and then we would box, and then we would have our "brunch," which sometimes included bagels and lox and sometimes included my mother's petravas. Then I would go down to play ball with my friends. Occasionally on these Sundays I would listen to my father's classical records or Russian music.
The bedroom was full of heavy mahogany furniture and another cedarwood closet. There was a jagged pane of blue-tinted glass that I remember. The story was that when I was an infant a bullet had smashed through the window and landed beside me on the bed. Why my parents had kept the broken glass I'll never know.
The floor of the kitchen was covered in oil cloth which was relaid every few years. The bathroom floor was done in small white tiles, perhaps hexagonal. The other floors consisted of wooden floor boards that were periodically waxed. The walls of the kitchen were covered in wall paper. The rest of the house was painted in various pastel shades, some quite dark, every three years or so.
For the gourmet food and other necessities my father gave my mother $35 a week. This was called "table money." In the late 1940s and early 1950s my father was making around $90 a week at the "shop," as it was always referred to. His cut was $5 a week ("pocket money"), for carfare, cigarettes and newspapers. There was nothing else he spent money on. The papers included, in addition to the Daily Worker, the Morning Freiheit and the New York Times. My mother bought the Post out of the table money. My cut, an "allowance," was at some point ten cents a week, then a quarter, and in junior high school, $1.25. Rent was fairly low: $40 - $50 - $60 a month, probably including utilities. There would have been the phone bill and the seltzer bill of course. The rest went to "payments." Our television for sure was bought on the installment plan. Then there was a tape recorder and my bike and probably a few items of furniture. My father occasionally complained about these payments, for after them little or nothing was left. During the war, I understood, he had been earning around $250 a week, in "defense" work, that is, sewing work for the military. As he tells it, he had sewn a leather jacket with a fur collar for an airforce general who was so pleased with it that he let my father sew one for himself, which, though in tatters, still hangs in my closet.
My parents never went out together, except to the very rare "affair," which I imagine was somewhat grander than the ordinary "function" and at which times my mother wore her mouton coat. Once in a very great while my mother stepped out with some girl friends - for lunch and a movie in Manhattan, maybe even a play once or twice. My father frequently attended meetings in the evening, generally related to his ILGWU local but also, I suppose, to the American Labor Party. I remember hearing him on the radio speaking for Vito Marcantonio and in '48 he campaigned for Henry Wallace. In our house Churchill was known as a "warmonger." I suppose this was his official designation in Soviet English-language publications in the early Fifties, which was picked up by the Daily Worker and thus filtered into our household as well. In 1952 I was the only kid on the block who was for Stevenson, "the best of the worst," and even got into a fight about it, though I can't remember what Eisenhower's official designation might have been in our home. Long into my adult years I could never remember Wallace Stevens' name, until I discovered the source of the problem through some Freudian free association.
For all the noise made about Communists in America in the McCarthy era, the truth was they were already dying out at the beginning of the postwar period as the perceived divisions in America began to shift away from the classic labor vs. capital conflict and the oldtime Jewish immigrant working class rank and file, those true American idealists, moved up the social ladder and even began to share in America's postwar prosperity. My father bought the Alert Dress Company in 1955 with another "dressmaker" in his shop. They didn't do too well, but that's another story.
For continuation, go to Page Two
from the December 2011 Edition of the Jewish Magazine
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