Zada, my cello and me

 

 

I was lugging my cello to the bus stop, finally bringing it home from Bildersee Junior High School so I could practice over the weekend. A familiar mustard-yellow Toyota Corolla pulled up to the curb next to me and I saw Zada, my grandfather, roll down his window. “Lindele, let me give you a ride home,” he called out.

“Thank you! How’d you know I’d be taking my cello home?”

“Your mother mentioned it to me, so I thought I would see if I could catch you on my way home from work.”

Zada was coming from Danilow’s, the commercial bakery where he worked, wearing his uniform: a white short sleeved shirt, white pants and black belt. Hunched over the steering wheel, he was nearing 70 years old.

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I carefully manipulated the cello into the back seat and climbed in the front, relieved not to have to manage the cello on the bus – actually two buses and a long walk across Seaview Park to get home.

“It’s going to rain,” Zada told me. I saw no sign in the sky, so I asked, “How do you know?”

“I feel it in my bones. Uncle Michael told me he felt it in his leg this morning, too.” I harrumphed dismissively.

“What? You don’t believe me.”

“You can’t tell the weather with your bones,” I said, choosing to put my confidence in science instead.

Uncle Mike had badly broken his leg the previous summer and according to Zada (his father), it would function as a barometer for the rest of his life.

“Wait, you’ll see, you’re young,” Zada said.

Conversations with my grandfather often went this way. I could argue about anything with him, including the weather, but I usually didn’t make any headway and neither did he.

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The Lived Experience of a White Girl (circa 1966 – 1976)

I have lived a mostly segregated life. It’s not that I wanted that for myself. At least I didn’t consciously make choices that would separate me from people of color, but it has worked out that way.

I have always been interested in the lives of other people. From a single trailer seen in passing from my car window as we drove through a desolate part of Wyoming to looking at the tenements from the elevated LL passing the New Lots Avenue station in Brooklyn, I have wondered what life was like for the people living in those places. That curiosity led me to books, but it didn’t lead me to friendships.

I think I would have had to make conscious decisions to seek out relationships with African-Americans or other people of color in order to reach across the barriers. When I thought about making that effort I wondered if it would come across as disingenuous, like George Costanza in the “Seinfeld” episode where he decides to find a black friend.

I think back to my experiences in elementary school in Canarsie. Classes were grouped ostensibly by academic ability. There was only one or, at most, two black students in my class in any given year, and they were boys. Curtis (not his real name) who was in my fourth, fifth and sixth grade class was very smart but was frequently getting into trouble for talking too much and he was regularly accused of instigating other kids to misbehave. In frustration, one day our fourth grade teacher asked for a volunteer to sit next to Curtis. I raised my hand eagerly, and I was selected. I don’t remember what I was thinking at the time. Did I think I could befriend him? Did I think I could rescue him (as if he needed rescuing)? I honestly don’t recall how it turned out – whatever happened, it wasn’t dramatic enough to make a lasting impression. I can only imagine his humiliation. This was not a strategy used with any other misbehaving student and it certainly didn’t help to bridge the divide.

In 1972 the New York City Board of Education adopted a plan to bus black students into the two predominantly white junior high schools in Canarsie. My mother supported busing and I did, too. How else would we achieve integration? The plan, though, was received with tremendous hostility by white parents in Canarsie. It resulted in a boycott. Parents kept their children home from Bildersee (my junior high school) and John Wilson (the other junior high school in Canarsie) in protest.

 

This went on for a couple of weeks. I was literally alone in my 9th grade classes, just my teacher and me. I remember enjoying the one-on-one time with Mrs. Cohen, my English teacher. I also remember walking in the main entrance through a path laid out by the police and their sawhorses. Adults stood behind the barriers, yelling epithets at the few of us who went to school. (The picture above is actually of John Wilson JHS, but this scene was repeated at Bildersee. I don’t recall the policeman blowing his nose quite so ostentatiously.)

My dad was the administrative dean of Canarsie High School in those years so he was in charge of discipline. He was aware of the troublemakers in the neighborhood and had connections with the police. On one particular day Dad got wind of a planned confrontation between a group of Italian and African-American kids, so he found my brothers in their classes and sent them home. When there were threats of violence during the boycott, I stayed home from Bildersee, too.

The upshot of the boycott was that the busing plan was implemented and my relationship with one of my closest friends, Pia, was irreparably damaged.

Like many who lived in Canarsie, Pia’s family had recently moved from East New York to benefit from the better schools and escape the violence that plagued that neighborhood. The plan to bus black students signaled the beginning of the end to them, they believed white flight would certainly follow. I was more hopeful. While nothing was ever said directly, Pia never invited me to hangout at her house again and she was distinctly cool to me at school.

By the time I got to high school in 1973 racial tensions were at a fever pitch. The way the education system was structured there were very limited opportunities to interact across racial lines. Phys Ed, Health and some elective classes brought us together, though that was all pretty superficial in the scheme of high school life. The thing we could really bond over was rooting for our basketball and football teams. Fortunately Canarsie High School was very competitive. My senior year thousands of us went to the PSAL (Public School Athletic League, New York’s city-wide) basketball championship game between Canarsie and Lincoln High School at St. John’s Alumni Hall. That victory provided a moment of transcendence. While there were other moments, mostly connected to sports, it seemed to me that most of us lived our lives amongst our own.

It is ironic that my children, who grew up in an upper middle class suburb of Albany, New York, had genuine friendships with people of color and more opportunity for interaction than I did growing up in Brooklyn.

A “Fantastick” Sweet Sixteen

My mother’s parenting approach can best be described as laissez-faire – not the adjective one tends to think of to describe a mother. My brother says we grew up with a Jewish mother, just in our case it was our father.   He was the one who checked to see if we were wearing a hat before going out into the cold. Although Mom’s parenting was not always a great fit for me as a sensitive and insecure child, she got many things right.

One muggy August night in 1975 I was tossing and turning, feeling nauseated, my heart pounding. As I lay sweating in my bed in my room the size of a closet, my thoughts were flitting from one unhappy topic to another; taking a mental inventory of everything that was wrong in the world. From the latest crime wave in New York City to more personal worries about Grandma being in the hospital with something serious, but as yet undiagnosed. Earlier that week my father’s friend, someone he had known and played poker with for more than 20 years, committed suicide because of gambling debts that no one suspected. I had also come home earlier that month from a job at a sleep-away camp because it seemed to me everyone on staff was getting high and I wasn’t. All in all I was feeling unmoored, the ground under my feet was shifting.

I lie in bed looking out my window at the bricks of the house next door and felt the world closing in. After trying to manage alone for a while, I woke my mother up.

At first she thought I might be physically ill, but after going over my symptoms it became clear that I wasn’t, so she took a different approach. She started a different kind of inventory – reminding me about the good things in my life. My brothers were fine, she and dad were okay, too. I was entering my senior year of high school and would be applying to college soon. Exciting possibilities awaited. Of course that was scary, too.

Mom had an idea to distract me. She suggested that we plan a sweet 16 party. I would turn 16 in early October. Between having a birthday late in the year and having been part of a New York City program that combined three years of junior high school into two, I was young to be a senior in high school. I had gone to many sweet 16 parties the year before and I thought people would be tired of them. As my mother talked I found myself getting excited in spite of my doubts.

“You promise people will come?” I knew it was a silly question even as I asked it, but I couldn’t help myself.

“Yes,” she said with assurance, “we’ll come up with something really great. Maybe a ‘mystery bus tour’? “

Hmmm, I thought, that sounded interesting.

Going out on a limb, she said, “I promise it will be a success. And, we’ll have fun planning it.”

She convinced me.

Fortunately, the rest of the summer passed without further tragedy.

We chose the off-Broadway show The Fantasticks as the destination for our mystery bus ride. Mom arranged to rent a yellow school bus. I could invite 20 friends. We would have fried chicken from Chicken Galore on the bus and make-your-own sundaes back at the house after the show.

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Amazingly enough, I found an invitation among my memorabilia
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Yes, I drew a bus on each invitation!

We still had to find something for me to wear, no mean feat given my self-consciousness. After combing the aisles of A&S, we managed to find dressy corduroy overalls. Who knew such a thing existed?! I lived in overalls so it was perfect.

Now my main worry was about the party once we got back to the house. I actually explained this to my parents: at virtually every sweet 16 I attended, people left the house, went for a walk and came back high. I didn’t like the idea of being alone at my party waiting for people to come back stoned. Of course, if they did, they would be especially appreciative of the make-your-own sundaes.

My parents reassured me as best they could.

The big day arrived. Friends and family arrived on time. We boarded the bus and had a little contest with everyone guessing where we were going. The Empire State Building? A bowling alley? A museum?

Everyone managed to eat their chicken dinner without too much difficulty. I wasn’t wearing my dinner – a personal victory! We arrived at the Sullivan Street Theater in Greenwich Village. I remember worrying about the seating arrangements, but in the end just gave out the tickets and enjoyed the show.

Afterwards we piled back on the bus and returned to Canarsie. So far, so good.

To my surprise, the guy I had a crush on gave me the album The Divine Miss M by Bette Midler. He suggested we put it on. The song was Do You Wanna Dance. He asked me to dance! I had precious little experience slow dancing. But, I managed. It was awkward and thrilling.

Some people did disappear and came back high, but it wasn’t a mass exodus.

And, I was actually happy at the end of the night! Not all that common of an occurrence in my teenage years. I sat on the couch in the basement, reviewed the night with my mom and read the kind messages in the sign-in book and smiled. My mother made good on her promise.

 

Side by Side on the LL

Reading was an essential part of my growing up. My parents were both teachers and voracious readers. During the summer we went as a family to the library at least once a week. Wherever we were, Brooklyn, Champaign-Urbana, Worcester, we frequented the library. I remember particularly loving biographies. I believe there was a series specifically for children and I read them all. I was inspired by the stories of Frederick Douglass and Harriet Tubman, drawn to stories of heroes who overcame fear and danger to find freedom. Though my life bore no similarity to them, I wanted to be heroic. I wanted to be part of the fight for freedom and justice.

As I think about it now, there were a number of strands that came together to fuel this passion. I was aware that my paternal grandfather had lost his parents and sister in the Holocaust. My grandfather, Leo, came to this country alone when he was 17, in 1921. He had a cousin here, but left his family behind in Austria. I think he immigrated with the assumption that at some point the rest of the family would join him. He married and established a life for himself in New York. During World War II he received a letter written by a priest from his hometown informing him that the Nazis executed his family. This was not spoken of in the family, it was simply too painful for my grandfather.

I was also aware of the larger story of the Holocaust. I don’t know how old I was when I learned about it; it seems to have been part of my entire conscious life. Between that, the protests against the Vietnam War and the civil rights movement, I was preoccupied with the injustices in the world. I turned to books to try to find hope and maybe answers.

As I got a little older, I moved beyond those simple biographies. I was in the sixth grade when my oldest brother, who was in high school, was reading Down These Mean Streets, a raw and graphic memoir by Piri Thomas about growing up in Spanish Harlem. I picked it up, I was shocked and fascinated by the sex, drug use and violence and I couldn’t put the book down. It gave a glimpse into a life that was foreign to me. I was acutely aware that I was living in the same city as Piri Thomas, but leading such a different life. I tried to understand how our worlds could coexist.

I knew that Canarsie sat next to a really dangerous neighborhood, East New York. One of the ways to get to the city from Canarsie was to take the LL (now called the L) train. The LL traveled through that neighborhood above ground so you could see the pigeons perched on the fire escapes of the tenements that abutted the subway line. I would watch the subway doors open and look at the people who got on the train from those stations. I wondered how it was for them to live in a neighborhood with so much crime and poverty. Here we were, side by side in one sense, but living in such different worlds.

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From the NYC Subway collection circa 1970s. This is how I remember the train looking – in the “good old days.”

One time I got on the LL to go to downtown Brooklyn to apply for my learner’s permit. There was only one DMV office to service all of Brooklyn and the DMV was spectacularly inefficient so you had to plan to spend hours there. After I got on the train, I realized I had forgotten my birth certificate. I was too afraid to get off the train at any of the stops until Broadway Junction where I would normally get off to change trains anyway. I wouldn’t turn around at 105th St., New Lots, Livonia, Sutter or Atlantic Avenues. Each time the subway stopped and the doors opened, I looked at the platform and thought, “Should I risk it?” Each time I decided I wouldn’t.

Another time I was riding the LL in mid afternoon when there was an announcement over the PA. Those announcements were usually so garbled and static-y as to be indecipherable, but this one came through quite clearly. “Move away from the windows! There are reports of gunfire. Move away from the windows!” There weren’t very many of us on the train at the time. Most of the people looked incredulous, a few moved to the windows to see! Some ignored the message entirely. I shifted down on the bench so the wall of the subway car was behind my head. Fortunately nothing happened – at least not in the car I was riding in.

It is amazing to me that some of the areas served by the LL have become hot real estate today. Some of the neighborhoods have gentrified, unfortunately I think the poverty has just moved. Still people live side by side, riding the L, the haves and the have-nots. I’m still reading, trying to understand.

The Wilds of Canarsie

A brief aside before continuing with my stories:

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In order to better understand some of the events I’m describing, especially for those not familiar with Canarsie, I thought a map might be helpful. The small ‘x’ at the bottom is where my family lived – the small enclave jutting into Canarsie Park. When I was growing up we called it Seaview Park. This map shows that the park abutted the Belt Parkway. While it may have been parkland when I was growing up, it wasn’t in anyway improved, there were no ball fields or playgrounds; it was simply ‘the weeds.’ Now back to the story…..

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The general zeitgeist of the ’60s, and the sights and sounds unique to my neighborhood made for a childhood woven with strands of anxiety.

If you were a girl growing up in the late ‘60s in New York City then you grew up in the shadow of the murder of Kitty Genovese. Perhaps not everyone was as affected as I was, but 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. 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 we believed that people in New York City wouldn’t get involved, that New Yorkers took minding their own business to a dangerous extreme. Coupled with the incredibly high crime rate, this made for a fear of potential victimization and perhaps it became a self-fulfilling prophecy; a story we told ourselves.

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 of that era, Hawaii Five-O, Mannix, Twilight Zone, played on those story lines. My brothers weren’t helpful in comforting me. I likely didn’t share my fears since Mark in particular would look for any and every opportunity to tease me.

It was a time when once it got dark, we stayed inside. For as long as we lived in Canarsie, if an event or activity was going to end after dark, I had to have a specific plan for getting back to my front door. Since we had only one car this often meant that my father drove far and wide to pick me up. Fortunately, he did this with good humor and generosity. I’m pretty sure those limitations didn’t apply to my brothers.

The feeling of menace was heightened by our surroundings. 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 ran along side the weeds. We would dare each other to run in and run out, not a dare I was willing to risk.
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 any of our cousins slept over, the roar of the jet engines took some getting used to. My cousin Ahri, who grew up in Manhattan (not exactly a bastion of quietude), asked me how I could stand it.

If the wind was right, coming from the southeast, it brought with it the smell of one of the city dumps. One might imagine it carrying the smell of the ocean, since we were so close to it, and it did that, too. But, the dump was located along side the Belt Parkway, just past our 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 Parkway. 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 another constant part of the soundscape of our Canarsie neighborhood.

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, would often conspire to heighten a sense of foreboding, at least in my imagination.

Location, Location,Location

Our house was located in a small enclave in Brooklyn, situated between a park on one side and the Belt Parkway on the other. An expanse of weedy marsh separated the Parkway from our street. Our neighborhood was made up of four small residential streets that were closed off from the main part of Canarsie.

It was a long walk to school (PS 115). After second grade they redrew the district lines and I was moved to another elementary school (PS 272), also a long walk. In both cases there was a major, busy avenue to cross.

The importance of the distance was two-fold: One, I couldn’t go home for lunch, which left me in the chaotic cafeteria or tagging along like a lost puppy with a classmate who invited me home; two, it was difficult to play with kids from my class after school or on weekends. I had only two friends on my block; the other kids were downright mean. They were the type that when they got old enough to drive would triple park, dare you to honk to get by and, just for good measure, flip you off when you finally did hit the horn.

I wasn’t the only one in our family that dealt with the consequences of our physical location. As a child I didn’t understand how difficult the move to Canarsie was for Nana. Nana and Zada had lived above their store on Rochester Avenue for over twenty years, in a neighborhood where stores and friends were in close proximity. Nana’s arthritis, diabetes and bunions made walking painful and difficult. Fortunately for her (and for me), her many friends and family didn’t abandon her to the wilds of Canarsie.

On any given day, my visit with Nana might have included one of her friends from her old neighborhood. Like Nana and my mother, they relied on public transportation or a car service.  But still they came, trudging across Seaview Park.

Alex, the tailor, who had one leg shorter than the other and wore a clunky orthopedic shoe, made the trek. Alex repaired the holes in my winter coat pockets by replacing them with a colorful, satiny smooth fabric. I loved the orange and yellow fabric so much I wished I could wear the pockets on the outside to show them off.

Dora, Yetta and both Goldies made the trek to Canarsie, too. They climbed the stairs to Nana’s second floor home and settled in at the marble table, like I did.

Invariably they would bring a small trinket for me, a large chocolate coin wrapped in shiny foil, or a miniature stuffed animal. Nana smiled as they gave me my small treasure. I would sit with them at the table. After asking me what grade I was in and if I liked school, they went on to speak to each other as if I wasn’t there. They talked about their disappointments, but they laughed and gossiped, too. I listened.

It seemed that Nana was a collector of lost souls. Some had physical problems, some would be considered spinsters, but no matter, they had a place at her table.

Not all of Nana’s friends were lost. There was another group of friends that she and Zada socialized with – who had cars, the women coiffed, perfumed and made up. I was fascinated by the beauty mark on Jewel’s face (yes, that was her name), trying to figure out if it was real or applied.

But as much as Nana collected friends, she was even more connected to her family. Her younger brothers, Jack and Morris, and their wives, were at the house all the time.   Uncle Jack and Uncle Morris took sincere interest in my brothers and me. With all of these visitors, I didn’t need friends my own age.

Well, actually, that wasn’t true. I wanted friends my own age. I wanted to play with the kids from my class. I imagined that they, who lived in the Bayview Projects or on the blocks that surrounded the school, were always together having fun. On weekends if I went to my parents and said I was bored, my father often replied with, “Bang your head against the wall.” A singularly unhelpful suggestion guaranteed to keep me from bothering him again. My parents, like most of their generation, felt no obligation to entertain their children.

My mother encouraged me to make plans with the kids from school. I didn’t know how to do that. I was too afraid to ask for fear of being rejected and laughed at. She would tell me, “Call a friend from school. You have their phone numbers. Just try it.” I didn’t know what to say on the phone. Rarely would I muster the courage to do it. Mostly kids just went out to play, maybe rang the doorbell of a kid down the street – not a good choice for me. It was more comfortable to sit at Nana’s table.

Nana’s Kitchen

After renting various apartments in Brooklyn, my mom and dad took a leap of faith and bought a new house in a new neighborhood, built on landfill, in Canarsie, Brooklyn in 1964. They were not at all sure that they could afford it on my Dad’s teacher’s salary. We, my parents and two older brothers, moved into the two-family semi-attached house on East 91st Street, a street that had yet to be paved. Every time it rained the street was awash with mud, puddles and rocks. Nana, Zada and my two uncles, who were teenagers at the time, would take the apartment upstairs, leaving their home in Crown Heights.

Zada, my grandfather and master bread baker, bought Miller’s Bakery on Rochester Avenue in 1941 and the family lived above the store. His challah and rye bread were outstanding, in fact he had trucks delivering his product across the borough. One of my first memories is of standing in front of the display cases in the bakery, eyeing the goodies. I took my time deciding: a brownie? an éclair? a large chocolate chip cookie? Nana waited patiently. She took a break from waiting on other customers to give her grandchildren their chosen treats.

By 1962 the neighborhood in which Miller’s sat was changing. Zada thought that the new people, mostly from the Caribbean, would buy his high quality rye, pumpernickel and challah. But, they didn’t. He didn’t change his product and he didn’t follow his customers to Long Island either. So, for the second time in his life, he lost everything – he went bankrupt. (The first time was in the hurricane of 1938 in New London, Connecticut.) At the age of 61 he went to work for a commercial bakery, moved his wife and two teenage sons and rented the upstairs apartment in our Canarsie home.

Though it was a two family house, with separate apartments, I lived in it as if it was one. The door to Nana and Zada’s apartment was always unlocked. Each day when I came home from school, I dropped my stuff off in my bedroom, climbed the stairs that separated our apartments and let myself in. Nana sat at a small, round marble table. The gold threads in the marble caught and reflected the light from the amber glass fixture suspended above it. The marble table top sat on a black cast iron pedestal. Both were unforgiving on misplaced elbows and knees.

Nana sat with her arthritic hands wrapped around a large teacup with steam rising from it. “Hello, Sunshine,” my daily greeting. She lifted herself from her chair and shuffled across the yellow linoleum floor toward the refrigerator. I settled into a chair next to hers.

“Zada brought home a chocolate crème pie. Do you want a piece?” She was already removing the pie from the refrigerator shelf, getting a plate and fork – she knew my answer.

Zada often brought home surplus goods from the bakery – large black and white cookies, corn muffins or assorted pies. It is no wonder that everyone in my family struggles to this day with their weight.

A small black and white television set sat on the table, tuned to the Dinah Shore show. The Mike Douglas Show came shortly after. I ate my pie. Nana sat back down. We talked about our days, her aches and pains, the performers on the shows. Occasionally I would adjust the rabbit ear antenna so we’d get better reception.

“Lindale, bring me my aspirin,” Zada bellowed from the back bedroom.

Another part of my daily ritual. Zada worked an early morning shift and was resting in bed while I visited with Nana.

“Coming!” I would get a glass of water, go into the bathroom and pour three aspirin from a huge bottle and bring it to him. Zada was propped up in bed, his long legs crossed at the ankles, wearing his sleeveless t-shirt, boxer shorts and horn-rimmed glasses, reading the Daily News. He took all three pills at once and washed them down with a gulp of water.

“Did you have the chocolate crème pie?” Zada asked.

“Yup, it was delicious.”

“Good.”

I took the glass back and returned to the kitchen. The four o’clock sun streamed through the slats of the shutters of the window. I sat in my golden cocoon with Nana until my mom called me down for dinner.