Decisions, Decisions

It was the summer of 1980 and I had just graduated from college. I would start graduate school at Columbia in the fall. I planned to work at The Perfumer’s Worskhop for the summer, the same place I had worked for the past three summers. The Perfumer’s Workshop was a company that created and distributed a few different lines of perfumes and essential oils, very high-end products that were sold only at the best department stores. Prior to working there, I had not even heard of these department stores. Suffice it to say that Princess Luciana’s Tea Rose, their biggest seller, was not offered at Alexander’s, or even A&S, and A&S was a fancy store, in my estimation.

tea_rose_range-490_h

I got the job through a friend of my father. I learned a lot in my time at The Perfumer’s Workshop. Aside from learning the names of the high-end department stores across the country (Nieman Marcus, Bullocks, Carson, Pirie, Scott, etc.), I saw a whole different world in that office. Mr. Bauchner, the owner, was always tan and dressed in the latest men’s fashion. He frequently jetted off to Dubai and Kuwait – exotic places I had not heard of until then. I hadn’t seen ‘air kisses’ before – visitors were greeted with pecks on the cheek that seemed to deliberately miss. Mr. Molyneux, the ‘nose,’ came to the office carrying his seemingly miniature Yorkshire terrier in his arms like a baby. (Note: The person who developed the scents at a perfume company was called ‘the nose.’) He had a light green velvet suit that he favored and sometimes he wore a beret.

It was a very small company; all the men were addressed as Mister. The office manager/controller was addressed by her first name, Eve. All the women, and there were only a few, were called by their first names. At the time, this seemed appropriate.

They offered me a permanent job, but I could not see my future there. I knew, and I was honest with them, that I didn’t want to be a bookkeeper and I had no interest in the world of high fashion and all that entailed. They were very gracious about allowing me to continue to come back for summers and school breaks.

In August of that summer the Democratic party was holding its convention at Madison Square Garden. My parents’ good friend, Sonya, was very involved in politics. She was, in fact, married to a congressman (Ted Weiss) who represented Manhattan’s Upper West Side. Sonya had connections and knew I was interested in politics, so she arranged for me to get an interview to work at the convention.

On a hot, humid July day I made my way from the Perfumer’s Workshop office on 57th and 5th to the interview at the Statler Hotel across from Madison Square Garden. I anticipated a swanky Manhattan hotel; it wasn’t. It had clearly seen better days. A threadbare carpet led me to a hotel conference room where I was briefly interviewed. It was clearly a formality. They told me they would be in touch with more specifics. I can’t say that I left feeling excited because I didn’t know what the job entailed, it all seemed pretty loose. The drabness of the hotel colored my mood. I went back uptown to the Perfumer’s office thinking that I couldn’t pass up the opportunity, despite being underwhelmed by the interview process. In the meantime, I would continue working at the perfume company until the convention.

During that summer, my brother, Steve, and his wife, Cindy, were temporarily living in London. They were there for six months and that summer was in the middle of their time there.

Cindy and Steve allowed me to ‘apartment-sit’ at their lovely place in Jamaica Estates in Queens while they were away. Living there cut down my commute time dramatically, compared to Canarsie, and not having to move back in with my parents after college was a big plus. Unexpectedly, it also provided an opportunity for Gary to ingratiate himself with my father.

One evening I was on the phone with Gary. He was at his parent’s house in Rosedale, another neighborhood in Queens. We were chatting happily when Gary said he needed to go (literally) and he would call me back. We hung up and I went about my business. I think about half hour or 45 minutes went by when there was a knock on the apartment door. “Who’s there?” I ask, as I looked through the peephole. I see Gary and I open the door. Not only is Gary there, but his brother, Steven, is standing to the side of the doorframe. They both have baseball bats!

“You’re okay?” Gary asked. “Yes. What’s going on?” I opened the door wide so they could come in. “You didn’t answer the phone!” Gary exclaimed, sounding exasperated. “What do you mean? It didn’t ring,” I responded. I went over to the phone and picked it up and to my surprise there was no dial tone.

Turned out, Gary, having answered nature’s call, tried phoning me continuously for ten or fifteen minutes, getting progressively more nervous when I failed to answer. We had been on the phone and he knew I had no plan to go out, or even get in the shower. So, in a move that sealed him in my father’s heart forever, he and his brother jumped in the car and drove (maniacally, if I know Steven) over to make sure I was all right – bringing baseball bats to mete out justice, if need be.

We surmised that something must have happened with the phone after I hung up and I didn’t realize it had gone out of service.  They were quite relieved to find that I was safe and sound. Gary and Steven went back home satisfied that all was well.

Steve and Cindy’s time in London provided the family with an opportunity to see England and there was discussion about visiting them. Pam, Cindy’s sister, wanted to go and we explored traveling together, but the timing didn’t work. I was betwixt and between because I needed to make money over the summer, so I didn’t want to cut short my time at Perfumer’s Workshop. I also wanted to work the convention and I would be starting graduate school early in September. But, how many opportunities would I have to go to London and have a place to stay for free? The trip would cost me only airfare and meals. But, how many opportunities would I have to attend the Democratic National Convention?

It was a tough decision.

After weighing the merits of each, I decided to go to London. I have vivid memories of that trip. I probably spent more time with my brother Steven during that week than I had in my life up to that point, or since. We took Brit Rail to Bath and saw Roman ruins and where Jane Austen lived. We went to museums and saw a play, Mousetrap. We also snuck into the second act of the play, Norman Conquests! I did some exploring on my own, too.

Most memorably, though, we took a one-day trip to Paris. When I arrived in London, Mark and Pam were concluding their own visit. (As mentioned previously on this blog, my two brothers married two sisters. Mark and Pam were engaged to be married in the summer of 1980.) We overlapped for one-day, quite an auspicious day. My plane landed at Gatwick, I took a train to Victoria Station and found Steven waiting for me. We went to their apartment, met Cindy, Mark and Pam and dropped my stuff off. We left immediately to catch a bus. We took the bus to the ferry to cross the channel (the Chunnel didn’t exist yet). We arrived in Paris as the sun was coming up. We had a little over 12 hours to tour Paris on our own before we caught the bus back to London.

I have a picture in my mind’s eye of us crisscrossing Paris, trying to see as much as possible in our limited time. My sister-in-law, Cindy, has very long legs and covers a lot of ground quickly and efficiently. Steven, with years of experience as her partner, matched her pace. I lagged behind them, but kept them in sight. Mark and Pam were quite a bit behind me. We trooped through Paris in that alignment. The Eiffel Tower, the Tuileries, the Pompidou Center, the Champs de Elysees, and the Arc de Triomphe. Mostly we just walked by the various sites. We did go into the Louvre. I couldn’t believe I was seeing so many iconic places.

It was exhausting! We met up with the others from the bus at a restaurant where we had dinner before boarding for our return. I sunk into my seat, beyond tired, barely able to keep my eyes open. Next thing I knew, there was a bit of a commotion and some male passengers, including my brothers, were coming down the aisle of the bus. It was pitch black as I looked out the side window, but there was a huge bonfire ahead of us blocking the road. There was some shouting in French. I didn’t understand what was going on. I heard my brother Steven explaining to the bus driver that he had previously traveled back to England through Ostend (in Belgium), which wasn’t too far. We were scheduled to get to the ferry in Calais in France, but we were thwarted. Steven was giving the driver directions so we could find another way back!

I came to understand, later, that French fisherman had created a blockade at Calais so that boats could not cross the English Channel. The bus driver was planning to ram the bus through the bonfire! Fortunately, the passengers, including my brothers, convinced him that going to Ostend was a better option. The blockade later spread to other ports. It was a dispute about fishing rights. We made it to Ostend and got on a ferry back to England. It turned out to be the last ferry for something like two weeks! We couldn’t believe it. Thank God Steven had a great sense of direction!

We got back to London. Mark and Pam returned to the United States. I slept for a day and then went about touring London and some of the surrounding areas. I didn’t regret my choice, though I believe that 1980 convention may have been the last time there was a contest on floor. Ted Kennedy challenged President Carter for the nomination, though he gave up after the first day.

A couple of months after I returned from my London adventure, I got this letter from Zada for my birthday. The letter included another story – his experience at the 1920 Democratic National Convention! In true Zada-fashion, it is a little off-color, but it was my 21st birthday, after all. I may have missed my chance to attend a convention, but, unbeknownst to me, Zada had attended one 60 years earlier.

October 3, 1980

Dear Linda,

At one time the age of maturity was ’21.’ Now I understand it is ’18.’ I think that you have matured a lot earlier. You have proven this not only to my satisfaction, but to everybody around you. We all are proud of the net result.

Although we will wish you the best in all succeeding birthdays, this one according to custom, is a check, that we hope you use to your advantage. I had vowed that I would send a check to grandchildren up to the age of 21. So far, I have lived up to my vow.

I promised you that because you missed the Democratic National Convention I would write of my experiences at the 1920 Democratic Convention that was held at the old Madison Square Garden, at that time situated on 23rd and Madison Ave. I will set the scene so that in your mind you will realize that this has happened 60 years ago. The morals and mores of the times then were a lot different than they are today…But if a U.S. president can say publicly, “I will whip his ass!”, what I have to relate is mild in comparison.

I was 16 years old, and on the street where we lived there was a young man who had worked with the Sells-Floto Circus. His boss there was in charge of the concessions at the convention. There was a need of hawkers (salesmen). So naturally he asked a few of us if we would be willing to work at the Garden in this capacity. And, as you know, I always possessed a yen for all kinds of adventure. I eagerly accepted. What I am going to relate is only one phase of all the important events I encountered. Some day, if fate decrees that we are together and if you are interested, I will recount the events that made such an impression upon me.

The delegates are assembled in the vast auditorium, there is a mixture of lady delegates, but predominantly they are mostly of the male species. As you know they have come from all parts of our great country. There has been a deadlock between Alfred A. Smith, governor of New York State and Williams Gibbs McAdoo, Secretary of the Treasury and also a son-in-law of President Woodrow Wilson. The battle raged hot and hectically. Neither one would accede to the other. It was necessary for the boys in the ‘smoked filled rooms’ to break the deadlock so they came up with an alternate choice which I will name later. As you have seen when a candidate is announced, all in his favor will start parading around the arena shouting and singing to the blaring music, the chant, We want Smith or whatever candidate is nominated. This repeated time and again for as long as their voices hold out.

The political ‘big wigs’ had come up with the governor of Ohio, namely James E. Cox. He was nominated and the band began to play an Ohio song (which I vaguely remember a few lines like “Round on the ends and high in the middle, that spells Ohio.). As they were told, the delegates arose with the cry, We want Cox! We want Cox! We want Cox! We want Cox! And above all the tumult, as if by prearrangement, all the male voices and the band stopped dead. All you could hear from the various locations, female voices shouting the slogan We want Cox! We want Cox! We want Cox! And with the same suddenness, realizing the double entendre of what they were saying, they ceased. And for a moment or two there was a complete hush over all of Madison Square Garden. Followed by gales of laughter emitting from the throats of 20,000 voices. You really had to be there to realize the impact of the occasion. So that is all for now. I promise that someday I will tell you little vignettes about Franklin D. Roosevelt, William Jennings Bryan, Secretary of War Newton D. Baker and Isabelle Jewett Brown of S. Carolina. All that I witnessed at the 1920 Democratic National Convention.

Have a happy birthday and a healthy new year.

Lots of Love

Laura* and Zayda**

*Laura was Zada’s second wife. He remarried when he moved to Florida. From that point on he always including her in the close.

**We called my grandfather Zada, a Yiddish term. I believe this is the only letter I have where he spelled it with a y. Since it not an English word, and Yiddish uses a different alphabet, there is no correct English spelling. Our family most commonly used Zada, but I have seen many variations.

Two Steps Forward, One Step Back (or is it the other way around?)

img_1636
Yearbook photo

My parents and I were at Seniors, a restaurant in Sheepshead Bay, to celebrate my high school graduation. The ceremony was earlier in the day. I started to say, “I feel really bad…” and my dad threw down his fork. “Don’t!” he said, “We’re celebrating your graduation. You have nothing to be sad about!”

“But…” I started to explain, but the look on his face shut me down. I fought back tears and concentrated on the food on my plate.

The end of high school was a strange time for me. I was so unhappy and lonely in junior high school and came to Canarsie High School feeling like an outcast. I was terribly insecure, between my eyes, my weight and general self-consciousness, I began high school in a hole. Things did turn around, but not like in a fairy tale or Hollywood movie. The ugly duckling didn’t emerge as a swan and float off happily ever after. Painstakingly, over the course of the three years, I dug myself out.

I started by joining some activities. I was in the chorus of Sing, a school show of sorts. I connected with some of the girls who stood near me in the alto section during rehearsals (some were friends from elementary school who went to a different junior high). I still had trouble knowing how to extend the friendships beyond the rehearsal, but I was making progress.

img_1637
Sing senior year (1976). I am the last person in the last row on the right (picture from our yearbook).

I tried out and made the girls basketball team. We were God-awful, except for one or two players, but I loved basketball and I was happy to be part of the team.

I wrote for the Canarsie Campus, the school newspaper, and by senior year I was the editor-in-chief. I started out doing okay in my classes and by the senior year, I was doing really well. The trajectory was headed in the right direction. I was voted Most Likely to Succeed by my classmates and had my picture, along with Alan Schick, in the yearbook commemorating the designation. I both enjoyed the attention and felt disconnected from it. Inside I still felt like the girl who sat in the junior high school cafeteria eating lunch alone, worried that I would be the target of teasing.

So, in June of 1976, I was in a much better place than in September 1973 when I entered high school. But, my newly formed self-esteem was still pretty fragile, and oddly enough the graduation ceremony itself delivered a major blow.

Canarsie High School held its graduation at the Loew’s Kings Theater in Flatbush, a huge old-time movie theater with some 3000 seats and ornate plaster walls. With more than 750 graduating seniors (there were more like 1100 students in the senior class, but the rest didn’t qualify to graduate) and their families, the high school auditorium couldn’t accommodate it.

I don’t remember who from my family came. My Dad drove our monster-size Chevy Impala, with my Mom and me (and perhaps others – it’s possible that Uncle Terry and Aunt Barbara were there), and dropped me off to gather with the graduates. They went to find parking.

Some students were invited to sit on the stage, those who were speaking, receiving an award or performing. I was receiving an award so I marched in and climbed up on the stage with maybe 30 other students. I was told beforehand that I would receive the Monroe Cohen Memorial Award, given in honor of Canarsie’s beloved representative to the New York City Council who unexpectedly died a year earlier. I didn’t know why I was being given the award, but I took my seat on stage and took in my surroundings.

The stage was huge; the whole theater was huge. I looked out and searched among the thousands of faces for my mother. I couldn’t spot her. My dad, who had been a dean at Canarsie High School but left to become chair of the social studies department at another city high school two years before, was invited to sit on the stage, too. He was seated on the other side with faculty and other dignitaries. I couldn’t see him either.

The ceremony proceeded in the usual way. Eventually they got to the presentation of awards. I heard our principal, Mr. Rosenman, announce the Monroe Cohen Memorial Award and I started to make my way to the front of the stage. Mr. Rosenman was saying something like, “Linda virtually single-handedly put together the school newspaper, without a faculty advisor and with very little funding.” I was standing next to him, smiling, one hand extended to receive the award and the other hand extended to shake his, when someone screamed out, “That’s not true!!” Despite the crowd, unfortunately at that moment it was pretty quiet in the theater.

I looked around, wondering, did that just happen?! Though the comment wasn’t repeated, I knew what I heard. It rang clear as a bell, echoing in my ears, “That’s not true!!” Mr. Rosenman paused briefly and then continued on as if nothing had happened. Finally I took the envelope with the award and found my way back to my seat on wobbly legs.

There may have been applause. I actually didn’t know what was happening because my head was spinning. I sank down in my seat, shaking like a leaf. I felt exposed. Everyone knew I was a fraud. I looked frantically around the theater to see if I could figure out where the comment had come from, but the words didn’t leave a vapor trail. There was no telltale sign, except in my vibrating body.

My friend Laurence, who was sitting a couple of seats down from me, reached over and patted my knee. He asked if I was all right. I nodded that I was, though I suspected that my face said otherwise. I’m sure all the color had drained from it.

I don’t remember the rest of the ceremony, but I kept breathing and made it through. I found my family afterwards. I don’t remember much about our conversation, other than my mom telling me that someone said it was a parent who yelled out. Maybe that should’ve made me feel better, but I was still in shock. My father, who was quite hard of hearing, was learning of it for the first time when we gathered after the ceremony was over. He dismissed it as sour grapes. I wished I could do the same. We got back into our Chevy and went back to our house in Canarsie.

It didn’t occur to me to be angry. I felt humiliated and it confirmed my worst fears, that I was undeserving. I hadn’t asked for the award and I didn’t write the comments Mr. Rosenman delivered.

At dinner with my parents, when I tried to bring it up, I think my Dad wanted to ignore that it happened and he didn’t want me to be hurt.

I couldn’t let go of it, but I had to pretend to.

All these years later, I remember the incident so clearly. I know that I went that night, after dinner with my parents, to celebrate at a bonfire at a nearby beach with friends. I don’t remember what my friends said. It is unlikely that I would have mentioned it because it was so embarrassing, but maybe I did. I don’t know if words of comfort were offered, but maybe they were. It is interesting, the memories we carry with us, and what we forget.

Letters from Zada: Graduation

For years I wanted to write about my family. When I started writing in a serious way a year and a half ago, I thought I would be focusing on my relationship with my grandmother, Nana. I have written about her, and I will continue to explore those memories and how they shaped me. I have been surprised, though, by how prominent my memories of Zada have been. Perhaps I shouldn’t be.

Zada was a storyteller. I remember running to the basketball courts in the park across the street from our house to retrieve my brothers, Mark and Steven. Zada was going to tell stories! Extended family was visiting our house in Canarsie and Zada was going to regale us with his tales of growing up on the Lower East Side and of his first car. Hearing that Zada was going to be sharing those tales, Mark and Steven set aside their game and came home immediately. Now that is testimony to how entertaining Zada was!

Fortunately, Zada wrote some of his stories to me in letters. I don’t have all of his stories, not by a longshot, but I have carefully stored the ones that I do have. The one I have shared below gives a number of insights into our family, including: (1) why the Spilkens speak so loudly 🙂 ; (2) why we prize our family so much; (3) where the emphasis on critical thinking began; and (4) how much education was valued. Perhaps you will find other insights.

img_1560
This is the letter that I have reprinted here. He alluded to stories ‘for another telling’ throughout this letter. Unfortunately I do not have many of them. I’m not sure if he actually wrote those other stories down. If other family members have them, please share!

Here in Zada’s own words:

June 1973

Dear Linda,

In a few days you will be graduating Junior High School. The first step in achieving a world of knowledge. It brings back to me thoughts of my own graduation and the indelible impression it made on my life.

I measure the fortunate circumstances in my life in milestones. The first milestone is becoming aware that you can read the printed word, and being able to imbibe and digest all the beautiful things that have been written. This also gives you the extreme pleasure in being able to formulate your own ideas and opinions.

All the other milestones are experiences that leave a lasting impression. With me it would be from the time I met my beloved, the thrill of seeing my firstborn and the satisfaction I had from the ones that followed. The sublime devotion they have accorded me. Becoming a grandparent and knowing the family will be perpetuated eternally. A boy growing up on the East Side of New York, and seeing Palm Beach for the first time (that is a story for telling later).

So now, dear Linda, I will try to tell you why my graduation affected me so that I carry the memory with me forever. My parents came to this country about 1905. For various reasons my father was forced to leave Poland (also for telling later). He left behind my brother Jack, Irving, and sister Lillian and myself, also most important of all, Mother. My father worked hard, long hours in order to make enough money to pay for our passage to America. Within two years he sent for us. We arrived at Ellis Island and were taken to our new home on Orchard Street, between Stanton and Rivington. This neighborhood was known as the lower East Side.

My father’s salary was meager, in order to supplement his earnings and allow us to exist, Lily and Irving went to work. My mother took in four boarders. In those days for $5 a week a boarder would get food and lodging. Now picture a four-room railroad flat, toilets in the hall, man and wife, three children (Jack came to America later) all in one flat. The fortunate thing was that my father and two of the boarders worked nights so that they were able to sleep days. In other words, it was quite a quiet household. That is why when I grew older instead of talking moderately, I shouted in order to make sure that everybody heard me.

Eventually things got better. Unions came into existence, more money was expended for salaries, my father’s wages were tripled. We were able to live in better quarters. We said goodbye to our boarders and moved to East New York, Brooklyn.

In the year 1915 East New York was the equivalent to what city people today think of as the mountains (the Catskills, that is). I must not forget to tell you that in the interim Bess, Ruth, Harry and Sidney became additions to the family. (We lost Ruth in our first year in East New York).

So now I am the oldest of the children going to school. In the year of June 1917 I am to be graduated from Public School 109, located at Powell and Dumont Streets. Finally the day arrives I am to be graduated and the only one of the family that will be present is my brother, Irving. Extenuating circumstances made it impossible for any others to attend.

Now let me set the picture of Public School 109. We did not have an auditorium, but an assembly room that at the most would have held about 150 people. There were about 60 students, and the like number of adults (the graduation exercises were held on a weekday morning accounting for such a small attendance).

Our principal was Oswald D. Shalakow. A real administrator and fine gentleman. There was no valedictorian, so our principal gave the graduating address. This is the problem he posed for us, and he expected answers:

A teacher leaves her classroom and forgets her wallet, it is open and money is in the purse. Two students enter the room individually. The first one sees the money and is tempted to take it, but he fights with himself, and finally he overcomes, leaves the room but does not take anything. The second boy enters the room, sees the money, leaves without giving a thought about taking the money.

The consensus of the graduating class was that the first boy deserves all the credit, because he had to battle his conscience and he had won.

But our principal explains to us that the second boy should get all the credit, because, his reasoning was that the first boy may someday succumb to temptation, and would not be able to resist taking the money. But the second boy is inherently honest. It never enters his mind to take anything that does not belong to him. It may be different today, morals being what they are. So form your own opinion as to who was right.

Now the diplomas are to be handed out, so the principal makes this request. Please refrain from applauding the individual, but when the last graduate is called, he would welcome a large round of applause for all of the graduates. Names would be called alphabetically and if people would applaud at the start they would get tired when it would come to the “Jays,” and it would not be fair to the boys that would follow.

The assembly room is quiet, the names are called, each boy as his name is called approaches the principal, receives his diploma, and returns to his seat. Now he comes to the “Esses.” He calls Charles Spilken. I rise, on my way to the principal. I hear a deafening clamor, take two pieces of marble and clap them together, that was what my brother Irving was doing with his hands. Understand that Irving had two very strong hands (more in a later telling). If the floor had opened up, and I fell thru, I would have welcomed that kind of calamity, I was so embarrassed. But years later when I looked back at that incident, I realized that all the emotion, all that happiness seeing his first graduation, especially that of his little brother, who was now on his way to becoming a somebody, because in those days to be educated was to reach the pinnacle of success. That he could not suppress the feelings within his heart, that he forgot everything, but to give vent to that pride.

That is really how my love of family originated. To love one another. To revel in each other’s successes, to be steadfast in each other’s adversity(ies). To have a ‘swelling pride,’ that cannot be subjugated by petty annoyances.

Then will I consider myself blessed, especially Dearest Linda if you can realize how proud you make your Zada, for being able to be present at the maturing of Linda Brody.

I’ll leave for West Palm Beach knowing that I am endowed with the best family a man can ever possess. May that feeling within me age, but never grow less.

Zada