A Surprising Friendship

I wonder sometimes how much of what I remember is real. This is especially true of my friendship with Susan.


Me, in front of my house, at the time I became friends with Susan

I didn’t have many friends on my block. Somehow East 91st Street had an inordinate number of bullies and I was a target of their ridicule. Here are just a few examples: I was riding my bike when a couple of kids chased me thrusting a stick at my spokes hoping to knock me off, I was spat on as I walked home from synagogue on Rosh Hashana and my cat was mistreated (I wrote about that here). This was all at the hands of the Italian kids who lived at one end of our block. My brothers were occasionally called into service to scare them off. I knew enough not to generalize, after all, each of my brother’s best friends were Italian. But given all that I experienced, my friendship with Susan, who was also Italian but lived at the other end of the street, came as a surprise.

Susan was popular on the block and in my class. She was blonde and blue-eyed, with an up turned nose. She was rail thin. She was everything I was not. She could do a round-off, cartwheels and handstands. I will allow that I was athletic, but in a different way. I felt rooted to the ground by my thick bones and muscular frame. I could run and throw a ball, and my balance was good, so I didn’t feel clumsy, but I was unwilling to hurl myself into space to do any kind of gymnastics move. I didn’t have Susan’s grace or fearlessness, which is why this next part is so surprising.

Susan and I spent long hours teaching ourselves tricks on our bicycles. The street next to her house which abutted the weeds had very little traffic, so we would ride up and back endlessly, perfecting our moves. Starting simply by riding with no hands, ultimately, we were able to stand on our seats in an arabesque, one leg extended behind, our arms outstretched. I felt like I was flying. When we thought we were good enough, we invited our parents to watch our circus act. My mother was aghast. I think back and wonder, did I really do that? It seems so out of character. But, I did.

Susan loved horses and would draw them again and again. I came to share her enthusiasm, learning to draw them and reading horse-themed stories like Black Beauty and Misty of Chincoteague. She and I would gallop around her side lawn, her corner house had enough property to be considered a lawn, unlike the postage stamp we shared with our neighbors.

I’m probably around 15 years old here, but that is the ‘lawn’ we shared with our neighbors – the bane of my father’s existence.

Susan and I were in the same class at PS 272. In 4th grade there was something called a ‘slam book’ that was all the rage. It was book made up of looseleaf pages fastened together, each page contained a list of favorites. Favorite TV star, favorite football team, but it also ranked the cutest girls in the class, smartest boys, etc. It was a measure of popularity and caused me great anxiety. The book made its way up and down the rows of the class while our teacher, Mrs. Feinberg, faced the chalkboard. For a while this was a daily occurrence. Kids ranked things and wrote comments anonymously. I was always afraid what I’d find when the book arrived at my desk. I think once I made it to fifth cutest in the class. Susan was always in the top three. In choosing to be my friend, I felt anointed, touched by her popularity.

Everything was so different about Susan’s family. Her mother, Maria, reminded me of June Cleaver. In my mind’s eye, I see her wearing a dress, with an apron, kitten heels and pearls. Her hair styled, lipstick applied. My mom and my Nana wore housedresses and slippers.

I remember one time Susan and I had a plan to practice our bicycle tricks. I rang her doorbell and was invited into the kitchen where her parents were each enjoying a bottle of beer. I don’t think I ever saw beer at my house. I can’t recall a single time. I knew what it was, I saw enough commercials during baseball games, but I didn’t know anyone who drank it. Susan was begging her father to let her have a taste. He relented. She took two quick swigs and we went out to our bicycles. Susan joked that after drinking the beer she wouldn’t feel it if she fell on her head. She giggled. I was shocked.

Susan’s Dad, Tony, was the executive chef at the Carlysle Hotel on the Upper East Side in Manhattan. The same swanky hotel where Presidents, Prime Ministers and celebrities stayed when they came to New York. Which raised the question: why did Susan’s family live in Canarsie?  I don’t know the answer to that, but, not surprisingly, they didn’t stay long.

At the end of 4th grade, Susan’s family moved to Wycoff, New Jersey. It might as well have been another country. We did see each other one more time. My parents dropped me off at their suburban house where Susan’s mom served, among other things, sliced homegrown tomatoes and fresh mozzarella cheese, dressed with basil, olive oil and salt and pepper. I had no idea tomatoes could taste that good. It was a revelation. At the end of the weekend, they drove me into the city to meet my parents at the Carlyle. We were given a tour of the kitchen. I was too young to appreciate what I was seeing. I know my parents were impressed. That was the last time I remember seeing Susan. We lost touch. She went on with her suburban life, not just drawing horses, but riding them. I went back to Canarsie, read the rest of the Chincoteague stories, and tried to find a place to fit in.




The Wilds of Canarsie Revisited

Note: I originally wrote this piece about how I felt growing up in my particular enclave in Canarsie and posted it on the blog over a year ago. I have edited it with the thought that I would weave it into the longer narrative that I am creating. The edits are intended to allow it to follow the story of the haircut Nana took me to get (which is part of Nana’s Table).

I have added new material at the end that reflects on some of the insights that I have gained regarding perceptions of safety through my interviews of others who grew up in Canarsie. I have been reaching out to talk with others of my generation who grew up there. So far I have interviewed a dozen people. I hope to interview more. Please contact me if you would be interested in sharing your perspective.

The ‘x’ near Canarsie Park is the house where I grew up – so you can see it in relation to the rest of Canarsie

As a girl growing up in the late ‘60s in New York City, aside from the impossible beauty standards imposed by Madison Avenue and popular culture, I grew up in the shadow of the murder of Kitty Genovese. That story of neighborly indifference, of violence, of the callousness and danger of living in New York City, was part of the air that I breathed. I now know that the story is far more complicated than originally reported; there weren’t as many witnesses as the newspapers said at the time, calls to the police were made and a bystander did actually help her. [A recent documentary, The Witness, released in 2015, explored this ‘new’ information]. But, that wasn’t the story that was embedded in my psyche at the time.

Kitty Genovese was murdered in Kew Gardens, Queens in March of 1964. The legacy of that crime was that I believed that people in New York City wouldn’t get involved, and that New Yorkers took minding their own business to a dangerous extreme. Add to that the nightly litany of violent crimes reported on Eyewitness News, and my fear of victimization was palpable. Perhaps it became a self-fulfilling prophecy for all New Yorkers.

As a consequence, I never liked when my parents went out for the evening, unless Nana and Zada were home. I would hear creaking, rustling and other assorted sounds – the usual sounds a house makes – and I imagined someone was trying to break in. It was hard to distract myself though I tried by watching television with the volume turned up. Of course, some of the television shows, Hawaii Five-O, Mannix, Twilight Zone, played on story lines of break-ins and bad guys, so that strategy failed.

The feeling of menace was heightened by my physical surroundings in Canarsie. With the park on one side and “the weeds” on the other, it was easy to imagine sinister people lurking. “The weeds” were the marshy landfill that separated our block from the Belt Parkway. When I played with Susan, one of my two friends in the neighborhood, we would ride our bikes on the street that bordered the weeds. We would dare each other to run in and run out, a dare I was not willing to take.

Our neighborhood was also in the flight path to JFK. Airplanes would skim over our roof. If you were on the telephone you had to pause in your conversation because there was no chance of hearing or being heard. If you were watching TV you had to hope you didn’t miss a crucial piece of dialogue. If anyone slept over, the roar of the jet engines took getting used to. My cousin Ahri, who grew up in Manhattan (not exactly a bastion of quietude), asked me how I could stand it.

It wasn’t just the sounds of Canarsie that could be problematic.  If the wind was right,  from the southeast, it brought with it the smell of one of the city dumps. One might imagine the breeze carrying the scent of the ocean, since we were so close to it, and it did that, too. But, the dump was adjacent to the Belt Parkway, just east of our Rockaway Parkway exit, and the odors emanating from it trumped the fresh smell of sea air. The mounds of trash rose like a small mountain range on the south side of the Belt. Naturally I had a sensitive nose.

The dump also attracted scores of seagulls. The detritus and Jamaica Bay beyond were quite an attraction for all kinds of birds. The cries of the gulls were part of the soundscape of our Canarsie neighborhood. I needed only to see a few scenes of Alfred Hitchcock’s The Birds to make the frightening connection.

There was a fine line between the pleasures of the park, the beauty of the gliding gulls, the earthy smell of the marshes and ocean air, and the menace those same features held. All the elements, sights, sounds and smells, conspired to heighten a sense of foreboding, at least in my imagination.

Based on my interviews, so far, it seems that I was unusual in my perception of danger, my generalized fear of violence. Most of the people I have spoken to felt very safe in Canarsie. Some suggested that changed with the summer of the “Son of Sam,” which was in 1977, and introduced a level of fear that they had not experienced before. Some recounted specific instances of threats of being accosted, mostly at John Wilson Junior High School, or particular places they would avoid (for example, Seaview Park after dark, or particular bus routes where they felt threatened), but those didn’t shake their general feeling of safety in and around their block. Almost everyone I’ve spoken to commented on their strong sense of community, especially on their block or in their building in Bayview – that neighbors looked out for each other. I did not grow up with that sense at all. Fortunately, I had my grandparents, uncles, brothers and parents to provide that support.

In addition to discussing fears of violence, I learned a great deal from my conversations about race and ethnicity and perceptions of the boycott of schools over the busing plan.  I will continue to share what I’m learning as I go along. I also hope to put a piece together that summarizes it. I welcome comments and feedback either here on the blog or via email. Again, if you’d like to be interviewed, email me at lbakst.canarsie@gmail.com.

A Poignant Visit

Celebrating David’s 95th birthday last month

Gary’s mom and dad, Paula and David, will fly to Florida tomorrow accompanied by their son, Steven, and their live-in aide, Inna. The plan is that they will stay for three months. The fact that this is happening is a testament to David’s will and his children’s desire to make him happy. It isn’t easy given that David is 95, has health challenges (who wouldn’t?) and Paula is debilitated by Alzheimers.

Since they are leaving tomorrow, Gary and I went to visit them on Saturday. We drove down mid-afternoon to spend some time and take them to dinner. I brought the photo album from Leah’s bat mitzvah. Paula, many years into Alzheimer’s, may not recognize the people immediately, but she still enjoys looking at photos, being reminded of the people and events pictured and talking about them. It can be difficult to engage Paula in conversation otherwise, going through photographs is an activity she still seems to enjoy. Their apartment is lined with photos of family on all of the walls, which appears to bring comfort and pleasure to both of them. On most visits Paula and I will go through each and every one of them, sometimes more than once. I brought the album to switch things up a bit. David enjoyed paging through the pictures, too. It is bittersweet, of course. Some of the people in the album are no longer with us. But, as David pointed out, “that’s part of life.”

During our last couple of visits, to vary the routine, I have read blog pieces that I thought would interest them. I read Nana’s Table and Zada’s West Point story previously. This time, keeping with the Leah theme, I thought I’d read the post about her birth. That post included a portion by Gary, too. I didn’t remember that I wrote it in a prose poem style and when I saw it, I hesitated thinking that it might not be the most accessible choice. But since I didn’t have another one in mind and otherwise we’d be sitting numbly watching a meaningless football game, Gary doing labs on his computer, I plunged ahead. We turned off the TV, and I used Gary’s computer to read the blog post. Paula and David listened attentively. By the time I was done, there was one interruption for a phone call that David shortened by explaining that he had family visiting, it was time to go to dinner. Perfect!

It was brutally cold out, so we hurried to the car as quickly as we safely could. As we were pulling out, Gary jokingly said, “I won’t ask you which piece you liked better,” referring to the two accounts of Leah’s birth I had just read. David immediately responded, “You’re better off not because you won’t like the answer!” We all had a good laugh at that. I have to admit I was surprised and pleased – given that I wasn’t sure how he’d feel about the poem.

David asked Paula to remind him to call back Leon, the person who he cut off on the phone earlier.  “David, I won’t remember,” she replied. Paula is well aware of her memory difficulties. “We’ll remind you,” I offered.

We drove to the restaurant. Paula repeatedly asked where we were going and commented that it was a long ride. It seems that whenever things are unsettled, when we are preparing to leave the house or when we are in transit, Paula gets more anxious. Fortunately, the ride was only about 15 minutes and, as long as David was by her side, she was comforted.

During the meal, Gary explained to David his most recent medical test results, which weren’t perfect, but weren’t as bad as they could have been either. It wouldn’t interfere with going to Florida. Gary explained it in a straight forward way and asked if David had any questions. He said no, he understood that he would have the time that God provides. He added, “One thing we know, I won’t die young.” I started laughing – how perfect is that!?! We all agreed it was true. Gary expressed the hope that there would be more years ahead.

Funny thing is, David is younger in heart, mind and even body than many 30 years his junior. He stands straight, he walks with purpose, he watches the news particularly concerned about Israel, but mostly he wants to know that his children and grandchildren are happy, healthy and ‘on the right track.’

When the meal was winding down, Gary asked whether David had any objection to sharing his health status with extended family – Gary’s siblings were already aware. David said, “I’m not keeping it a secret.” Paula suggested that it didn’t have to be brought up as the first thing, but if someone asks, you can tell them. “Does that make sense?” she asked. “It makes perfect sense,” Gary replied, “good advice.” Paula smiled, satisfied. I nodded in agreement. Paula reached her hand out to me across the table, I took it, and we shook on it. I know it isn’t often these days that Paula gets to feel that she made a contribution in that way. Though she likely won’t remember, I’m glad she had that moment.

We finished the meal. Gary went to get the car warmed up. We took our time getting our coats on and walking to the car. We drove back to the apartment, walked them back in, gathered our things and said our good-byes. “We’ll see you in Florida – either later in February or maybe early March,” Gary reassured them. Extended hugs all around, and then we went back to the cold car.

We agreed it was a good visit.


Inanimate Objects

Do inanimate objects speak to you? Some of mine do. My bicycle, which sits dusty, tires flat, leaning against the garage wall, has been known to ask: Why don’t you ride me?  I spent a lot of money on that bicycle. I went through a phase where I rode it almost daily, but that was several years ago. I have every intention of riding it again. Not today when it is below zero and windy, but when the weather permits, I intend to hop on (key word: intend) and enjoy the view. For the time being, it sits silent. But, come Spring, it will start talking to me again. And I will feel guilty.

Then there is the treadmill sitting in the basement. Whenever I pass it, I hear it saying: do SOMETHING with me! The treadmill doesn’t work properly. We bought it years ago and it worked well for a while, but then it would just stop while you were in mid jog – which was less than optimal and maybe even dangerous. I had a service person come three times – replacing various parts –we even had an electrician put it on its own circuit. It still doesn’t work. I started the process of appealing to the manufacturer, but gave up. I didn’t have the wherewithal to force them to replace it. So, there it sits. A reminder of another thing I haven’t taken care of, left unresolved.

You might sense a theme here, but it isn’t just exercise equipment that speaks to me. The loose photos strewn about the study ask to be organized. My refrigerator screams that it needs a thorough cleaning, which reminds me of a story.

Photo credit: Today’s Little Ditty (blog)

Gary and I were living in Pittsburgh. He had just finished his second year of med school and he finally had a break. I was working full time for the City of Pittsburgh Finance Department. Since he had some time off from school, we had some visitors. First came Gary’s friend, Larry. They hung out for a couple of days, toured the city a bit and I joined them for dinner. Larry left on a Friday morning. Gary’s parents were scheduled to arrive later that same day. I left for work that morning telling Gary, “Please, just make sure you pick up the bedding in the living room before you leave.” Larry had been sleeping on one of our fold out chairs in the living room.

Our apartment was a nice size one bedroom, one bathroom unit, with high ceilings and big windows. It had a large living room that we divided with bookcases to create a spacious dining area. There was a small dining room off the kitchen that we used as a study. When our parents visited, we gave them our bedroom and we slept in the living room on the fold out chairs.

I left for work that morning with Gary asleep in our bed and Larry sleeping in the living room. I hoped Gary would leave enough time to straighten up before going to the airport to meet his parents.

In an unfortunate bit of timing, I came down with a heavy cold later that morning, it came on suddenly.  I was so congested my teeth hurt. I was nervous enough about Gary’s parents visiting, we were married less than a year at this point and they had not been to our apartment yet, without also having to deal with a horrendous cold. I left work early, thinking I could take some decongestant and maybe rest a bit before Paula and David arrived.

I opened the apartment door and took a quick look around. I saw the bedding still on the living room floor and our unmade bed. It looked like a mess.

To say I was in a rage is an understatement. One thing about fury, I forgot about my cold symptoms! I ran around the apartment like a lunatic. I put away the bedding and cleaned up the living room. I changed the linens on our bed and straightened up our room. I did the few dishes in the sink, wondering what the heck had Gary done all morning! It was good that Gary wasn’t home to hear me muttering epithets at him.

I heard the key in the lock and put a smile on my face to greet my in-laws. We gave them the grand tour of the apartment, which didn’t take long. While showing them the kitchen, Gary proudly opened the refrigerator. I have to admit, it was spotless. So that was how he spent his morning! It was true, the refrigerator was cleaner than when we first moved in, but it wasn’t that bad when I left in the morning!  That would not have been my first priority. Later, when I asked him about it, he explained that he spent the entire time cleaning the inside of the refrigerator – it took him hours. He didn’t understand why I was so frustrated with him.

I learned some Important lessons from that experience: Gary is a perfectionist, and his priorities frequently don’t match mine. This continues to happen today, with Gary digging a hole for a new garden when we already have a garden that seems perfectly adequate to me. In addition, if he takes on a project, it will take way longer than one would expect. It will be done very well, I will give him that.

As I was writing this, and given that my refrigerator was calling to be cleaned and I was tired of listening to it, I put down my pen (actually closed my laptop) and did it. I didn’t spend hours and it is not as spotless as if Gary had done it, but it will suffice. And now when I sit at the counter in the kitchen, I only hear the low hum of its motor.



Government by the People

If a politician runs on a platform that ridicules government, what can we expect of them if they are elected and take office? The first time I thought about that question, I was a state worker and George Pataki was running for governor of New York. His rhetoric at the time went beyond a belief in small government. I understood the notion that some thought that ‘government that governs least, governs best.’ I may not have agreed with the sentiment, but I understood it. And, as I saw it, that philosophy grew out of the streak in America’s history that idealized ‘rugged individualism,’ a belief in the primacy of individual effort and achievement. Pataki’s argument, though, struck me as qualitatively different. The statements he made demeaned state employees and made it sound like government was inevitably incompetent, that by its nature it was bad.

I felt personally insulted. While there were state employees who were lazy and inefficient, most that I knew were in it to do good things for people. I wondered what the impact of the rhetoric would be on people seeking to work for the state. Who wants to work for a CEO who seemingly doesn’t believe in the mission, or doesn’t have confidence in the workforce? It was demoralizing.

Pataki ran for governor for the first time in 1994 and he won. Since that time that rhetoric has become much more common, it has become ubiquitous and it has been amplified by social media. We elected a president who espouses those beliefs in the extreme. Trump has appointed personnel who are systematically dismantling their agencies. This raises a fundamental question: do Americans believe in government by the people, for the people? Or do Americans believe and trust in corporations?

I know what I believe. I don’t think either government or corporations are inherently good or inherently bad – both are made of people and people are people. There needs to be a healthy balance of public and private enterprise.

It used to be that we could argue about the size of government or the scope of the government’s role in regulating different areas of our lives (for example, health, housing, the environment); but not the basic premise that government could and should provide some services and oversee our safety. The differences between Democrats and Republicans, when I was growing up, centered on how active the government should be in regulating markets and in providing a social safety net. The pendulum swung back and forth a bit depending on who was in power.

Some elements of the culture wars of today were present then, too. There were differences in attitudes about reproductive rights and views of law enforcement, but it didn’t reach to the point of invalidating a role for government. Sometimes it feels to me as if the legitimacy of our government is at stake.

The incivility of the rhetoric is also markedly different. Personally, I am less concerned about that than I am about the beliefs that may underlie the incivility. Given the 24/7 news cycle and social media, people may need to be more outrageous to be heard. What is more concerning is this: do people really believe the things that they are saying/tweeting/posting?

Gary, my husband, has been talking about the damage Fox news has done to our country – he’s been pointing to that as a problem for years now. Former President Obama recently commented on the danger of living in different realities based on the media we listen to. It isn’t clear to me whether this is the source of the problem or a symptom of the problem. Are we listening to different sources of information because they conform to our ideas, or do those sources create our ideas? Either way, how do we change it?

Also, who will be willing to work for a government so disrespected, so disempowered? Who is going to get a degree in public administration if things continue in this vein? I believe we need professional, educated people to work for our government.

I have to believe that the tide will turn. I have to believe that Americans will not be willing to continue to cede power to Donald Trump, Steve Bannon and those who think like them. We can continue to debate the proper balance of public and private, of regulation and unfettered markets. We can argue about social issues, too. Those debates are healthy. I hope 2018 proves to be a turning point. I intend to do my best to make it one. We must move away from the rhetoric that is undermining the very foundation of our union.