Tuesday, February 05, 2008

ABOUT ME: A mini bio (continued)

(I have published many posts on this blog under the title "Memoirs," in which I related various experiences in my life. I will try to avoid repeating myself in this chronological series of autobiographical sketches. Like others of my vintage, I have a tendency to repeat myself. It is an unfortunate habit that goes with geriatric territory.)
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During the late 1920s, when I was about three years old, my family moved from East Harlem in Manhattan to a five-story apartment house in the Bronx, where my parents continued to live for the next four decades. The building, which was at least 20 years old, was located on the corner of the Grand Concourse and Clarke Place, a block north of 169th Street.

The new apartment had two bedrooms, a living room/dining room, one bathroom, and a tiny kitchen. My maternal grandmother and my young, unmarried aunt shared one bedroom. I was an only child and slept in my parents' bedroom. After my aunt married, I moved into Grandma's bedroom. When I was about 10, I asked to move out of it so that I could enjoy "more privacy."

At that point, what had been a dining room was transformed into a living room containing a convertible couch, which served as my bed. Actually, it was Grandma who now had more privacy. But it had seemed improper to me that a growing boy should be sleeping in the same bedroom as his grandmother. I continued to use the window sill in my parents' bedroom as my "desk" where I did my homework.

Virtually all our neighbors in the building, which had about 90 apartments, lived in similarly crammed conditions. Many of the apartments had only a single bedroom, and some families had as many as four or more children of varying ages and genders.

I recall that there was one family in the building who were show business people. The father was a pianist in a dance band, a son and a daughter, both young adults, performed in night clubs, and the mother had been a chorus girl. Almost every day late in the afternoon, they would all go to work dressed in tuxedos and fancy evening gowns. The gossips in the apartment house--of which there were very many--always wondered where this family stored its extensive wardrobe in their one-bedroom apartment.

Our apartment's kitchen was so small that only two people could sit comfortably at the kitchen table. So we often ate in shifts. I rarely ate dinner with my father, largely because he usually came home late after work, assuming that he had a job. (He was unemployed during much of the Depression era or held temporary jobs.)

For the first few years, we had an "ice box" rather than a refrigerator in the kitchen. This meant that we had to depend on the regular delivery of ice. When we finally could afford to buy a refrigerator, it was so small that we installed a metal box outside the kitchen window in which my mother stored less perishable food.

In addition to a small table and a regular sink, our kitchen contained a tub in which my mother and grandmother did the laundry. They would dry the wet clothing by hanging it on a contraption that hung down from the ceiling. We often dined with wet laundry dripping down on our heads.

I entered kindergarten in P.S. 64, which I attended through the 8th grade. I skipped one semester in the 3rd grade because of what the school evidently considered academic excellence. As a result, I've always been handicapped because I never learned how to work with fractions. Actually, I was a very average student. Mathematics was always my weakest subject; my favorites were history and geography.

It took at least 15 minutes to walk to elementary school through very heavy traffic. For the first couple of years, my grandmother usually walked with me to school until I insisted on walking alone or with my friends. As an only child, I had the misfortune of being subjected to an abnormal level of protective cover.

We had to pass a Roman Catholic church located on the corner of Marcy Place and the Concourse on the way to school. A huge statue of Jesus or the Virgin Mary--I don't remember which one--stood in front of the church. I will always remember the look of fear on Grandma's face and her obvious discomfort as we passed the church. Often, she would quietly mutter "getchkeh" (the Yiddish word for "idol") as she glared at the statue.

Even after three blissful decades in this country, for my grandmother, the church symbolized the pogroms and repression, usually instigated by the church, that she and her ancestors had suffered in Belarus, where they had lived for centuries.

(To be continued)

5 Comments:

Blogger Karlo said...

It's always interesting to hear how times change. Sometimes it happens so gradually that people remain unaware of it.

Thursday, February 07, 2008 12:01:00 AM  
Blogger Chancy said...

Mort
I enjoy reading your childhood memories. I am of the same vintage as you and remember some of the same things but in the setting of a small Georgia college town. Athens,Georgia.

I loved it when the iceman came to our house and carried the big block of ice inside to the icebox. When he returned to the truck he would give all the children gathered around a sliver of ice. What a treat.

Life was filled with such simple pleasures.

Saturday, February 09, 2008 6:14:00 PM  
Blogger Mildred Garfield said...

Mort, when you wrote about the icebox it reminded me of the maintenance that was required.

My fathers job was to empty the shisel (the pan that captured the water when the ice melted.)

I'm an only child too and was overprotected also.
I could only use one rollerskate!

Sunday, February 10, 2008 9:08:00 PM  
Anonymous Claude said...

We never had an icebox, but I do remember our first refrigerator, a huge thing that didn't fit in the tiny kitchen of our flat and that had to be put in a small dark room where we usually stored suitcases and such!
Defrosting it was a difficult and lengthy job!

Monday, February 18, 2008 3:40:00 AM  
Blogger Peggy said...

"I want to do it myself!" Is a child's battle cry. I wonder if your grandmother missed walking you to school after you insisted on walking by yourself or if she was relieved.

Where we lived in Minneapolis there was a Catholic church every three blocks (did I tell you this?) One was built by French Catholics, the one nearest us was for Orthodox Ukrainians (we never went there) one for the Catholic Czechs etc. . . We went to the Irish Catholic church. Its not as colorful as your old neighborhood in NY, but there are similarities.

Sunday, February 24, 2008 12:27:00 AM  

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