Chaika (later Anglicized to “Ida”) Kopkind Freeman, HG’s Mom, was born (late 1880’s, precise date vague) in the tiny town of Plestyanitz in present day Belorussia. When she was a little girl, a traveling circus came to town. The star was a black African. You had to pay extra to see him and for an additional tiny sum you could rub the man’s arm to prove the ebony color wasn’t painted on. Mom arrived in the United States in the early 1900s. She and her female roommate would often leave their tenement for a stroll on The Bowery, then a lively entertainment center. “What a country!!,” Mom would marvel,” Here there’s no charge for looking at black people.”
Many years later, Mom lived in The Bronx with husband and three children. The energetic woman cooked, cleaned, mended, washed and, blessed with nimble fingers, made shirts, scarves and dresses. During the last stage of the Great Depression (around 1938), African-American women from Harlem would line up on major Bronx streets in middle class neighborhoods and be hired for a day’s domestic work. Their pay was very modest and angry leftist newspaper columnists derided it as “Bronx Slavery”. At some point, HG’s older brother persuaded Mom to hire a woman for a day so she could have some rare leisure time. Mom was a Socialist and an early union member. She had friends who died in the tragic Triangle Shirtwaist fire. Suffice it to say, she was very uncomfortable with the idea of hiring a house-keeper (even for a day). Before the cleaning woman began her work, Mom cleaned house. “You want a stranger to think we live in a dirty house?” Mom didn’t quite get the idea. Filled with guilt, she made the bemused African-American woman a sumptuous lunch. Tuna salad and salmon salad. Lots of fresh vegetables and bread. A big fruit cup for dessert. “Bronx Slavery” ended as the war boosted the economy. That was Mom’s last experiment with having a servant or “help.” To little HG’s distress, when heavy cleaning was necessary Mom called on HG. Left HG with a lifelong aversion to domestic labor of any kind.
Harlem is making a comeback. In a big way. Marcus Saumelsson’s Red Rooster restaurant is a hit. (HG used to drink at the original Red Rooster bar on the Lenox Avenue site during HG’s college days. Then it was a hangout for Harlem intellectuals and artists). Harlem brownstones and condos are selling for millions. Gentrification isn’t happening, it has happened. HG remembers a much older Harlem. The main drag was 125th Street anchored by Blumstein’s Department Store. Harlemites didn’t go uptown to shop. They went to Blumtein’s even though the store didn’t hire African-Americans. It took a vigorous campaign by Adam Clayton Powell Jr. and Benjamin Davis Jr. (forgotten Communist New York City Councilman) to get Blumstein’s to integrate its workforce. The star restaurant on 125th Street was Frank’s. For most of its history, Frank’s wouldn’t serve African-Americans (with the exception of a few politicians and well known entertainers). Joe Louis, the great heavyweight champ (and a onetime publicity client of HG) changed all that. Louis would go to Frank’s with a big crowd of friends and hangers-on. Frank’s couldn’t say no to The Champ. HG lunched at the integrated Frank’s often in the 1950’s. Great steaks.
It may be forgotten, but New York was a viciously racist city in the 1950’s. HG was a journalist at that time and remembers riding with a police official on Central Park South. The policeman spotted an African-American man walking on the street. He pulled over the car and shouted at him: “What are you doing here? You don’t belong here. Get back to Harlem.” The humiliated man walked away rapidly. Did ultra-liberal, leftist HG protest? No. The cop was a top source. So HG kept his mouth shut. HG is still ashamed.
Chicken thighs for dinner. So much better than flavorless chicken breasts (and cheaper). Here’s how HG and BSK do it. Make a marinade of olive oil,lemon juice garlic, ginger, cumin, turmeric, cayenne, coriander. Add a tablespoon or two of Greek yogurt. Mix well. Give it a light dusting of Goya adobo. Marinade in the refrigerator for two or three hours. BSK is going to barbecue and serve with canned white beans (enriched with a garlic and parsley sofrito) plus BSK’s unique mix of zucchini, corn niblets (frozen corn does just fine), New Mexico chile powder and a bunch of fresh herbs from the BSK garden. HG and BSK will eat outdoors on their terrace, sip chilled red wine and watch dusk make beautiful patterns on the surface of Las Barrancas, the colorful bluffs located on Native American lands. Sounds good? It is.
June 16 was Bloomsday a day of celebration and commemoration of the life of the writer James Joyce and his extraordinary novel, Ulysses. The day refers to the June 16 in the novel. The day in which all of the action takes place during the one day peregrinations throughout Dublin of its Jewish hero (or anti-hero), Leopold Bloom. HG was introduced to the wonders of Joyce in his CCNY college days by Prof. Theodore Goodman, a legendary figure at City College. Goodman taught a course devoted to writing short stories. Students wrote stories. Read them aloud. These were then criticized by Goodman and fellow students. Criticism was withering. To say the least, punches were not pulled. The class text was Joyce’s collection of short stories, Dubliners. The Joyce stories were meticulously analyzed under Goodman’s direction. We leaned there were no accidents in these stories. They were pieces of prose architecture, each word essential in the total framework. It was a humbling experience for embryonic writers. Goodman was elderly and in frail health. Sometimes he missed a class. HG and his mates waited outside the classroom hoping that he would show up. There was a feeling of dread. We loved him, even though he was no Mr. Chips. He was tough and his one-to-one conferences with students could be a scalding experience. Goodman lived through his class with HG and gave HG an “A.” Whenever experience lowers HG’s self esteem, HG remembers that “A.”
In a recent review in The Economist of a Joyce biography by Gordon Bowker, the reviewer noted: “The hero of ‘Ulysses’, Leopold Bloom, was born out of Joyce’s affection and fascination with Jewish culture; which would lead him, in turn, to help several Jewish men and women escape Austria and Germany during the second world war.” It would have been appropriate for HG to celebrate Bloomsday by accompanying a bialy with cream cheese with a glass of Dublin-brewed Guiness Stout. But, in the absence of bialys in New Mexico, HG had to be content in raising a snifter of kosher Slivovitz to the memory of Joyce, a gifted (and difficult) man.
Later this year, during the Christmas season, HG and BSK will watch The Dead, the John Huston cinema version of the longest story in Dubliners. In HG’s opinion, this is the finest cinema version of prose fiction ever achieved.
There’s a dish that HG and BSK often enjoy but never serve to guests. Too ominous. Too scary. HG refers to linguini with sauteed squid in squid ink sauce. Very black. HG and BSK first encountered the dish in Venice many years ago. The Venetians used seppie (tender little cuttlefish plentiful in the Venetian lagoon) and seppie ink. Love at first bite. Here’s the way HG and BSK do it. Saute garlic and shallots in olive oil. Add some cumin, oregano and cayenne plus a bottle of clam broth. Simmer. Add some crushed canned tomatoes and a jolt of tomato paste. Simmer until sauce thickens slightly. You’ve got a nice, seafood based red sauce. Add a packet of squid ink (available online through Amazon.com ). Stir. Magic. You’ve got a jet black sauce. Add to it a pound of cleaned and cut up squid (tubes and tentacles) that you’ve sauteed over high heat for just a few minutes. Toss your cooked linguini in the pan. Mix it all up. Have plenty of napkins available.
When HG was a kid it was possible to have a very good time in Manhattan for little or no money. The best of all bargains (a five cent fare) was the Fifth Avenue double decker bus which ended service in 1953. The upper deck (where HG and his late beloved sister, Beulah K., always sat) was a sunny, open space — an absolute panacea to packed urban streets and over-crowded apartments. The Fifth Avenue Bus was an Irish enterprise. The driver and conductor had rich Irish brogues and piously crossed themselves when they motored past St. Patrick’s Cathedral. HG and sister would clamber onto the bus at Ft. Tryon Park at the northern tip of Manhattan (this was preceded by a visit to The Cloisters, the wonderful museum of medieval art in the park). From the the top of the bus, you could take in lovely views of the Hudson River and the New Jersey Palisades. From our Ft. Tyron start, the bus would journey along upper Broadway, east on 110th Street to Fifth Avenue. Ah, upper Fifth Avenue with Central Park on our right and the homes of plutocrats on the left. Then, Tiffany’s and the fashionable shops. On a sunny spring or autumn day there could not be a better trip. Last stop was Washington Square Park with its colorful crowd of Moms, kids, bohemians, eccentrics. A stroll through Greenwich Village to Little Italy and a vast (25 cents) bowl of spaghetti and meatballs in robust red sauce. Hey, you don’t need a million dollars to live like a millionaire. At least, not then.
Elevated trains still rumble through The Bronx, Brooklyn and Queens. None in Manhattan. This wasn’t the case when little HG was growing up and the ELs (as they were called) ran along Second Avenue, Third Avenue, Sixth Avenue and Ninth Avenue. Noisy. The El made Second Avenue a low end street, furtive with shadows and subway grime. Sixth Avenue was devoted to middle class shopping and the train took you directly to Macy’s on Herald Square. Ninth Avenue was a manufacturing street. Third Avenue was lively. Many restaurants and scores of Irish bars. Loved the various stations on the Third Avenue line with their little cupolas for the change giver (the comedian Jackie Gleason’s mother was one of these ladies) and the pot bellied stoves where you could keep warm while waiting for the train. HG and his late beloved sister, Beulah K., would take the El at Fordham Road in The Bronx (fare was five cents) and take a downtown trip. Exciting. We looked into countless tenement windows (witnessed some entertaining scenes), backyard gardens of brownstones and, best of all, the huge copper pots of the Jacob Ruppert Brewery in the 90’s. We exited at Chatham Square. Chinatown. A big lunch. Wonton soup. Roast pork (or barbecued spare ribs). Shrimp chow mein. Almond cookies. Lots of tea. Lavish lunch for 25 cents. Strolled to Union Square Park on 14th to hear Communists, Anarchists, Socialists, Trotskyites harangue crowds from soapboxes. No Fascists or Capitalists. Free speech, yes. But, there were limits.
Spent a delightful hour chatting on the phone with Miranda Wolfe, daughter of the late Bernard Wolfe, an extraordinary writer who wrote just about everything: novels, short stories, journalism, ghosted Broadway columns, television, screen plays and customized pornography which he produced for one reader — an Oklahoma oil zillionaire (Wolfe was in good company in this customized porn business as the eccentric Oklahoman also hired, amongst others, Henry Miller, Anais Nin and Gene Fowler. What they all had in common was a need for quick cash). Sorry. Don’t want to emphasize the pornography. This was just a miniscule portion of Wolfe’s output (and he found it distasteful). Make haste and read BW’s works.. A good start would be Really The Blues which he wrote with jazz musician Mezz Mezzrow. (This book heavily influenced influenced the Beat Generation of writers — Kerouac, Ginsberg, etc.. For a treat, listen to some of the music forgotten Mezzrow made with Sidney Bechet. Check it here!). The Late Risers defined the cool Broadway hipsters of many decades ago. The Great Prince Died is a historical novel based on the Mexican exile of the great Russian revolutionary and anti-Stalinist, Leon Trotsky. Later, the title was changed to Trotsky Dead. At one time, Wolfe was bodyguard/secretary for Trotsky (he wasn’t present when Trotsky was pickaxed to death by a Stalin assassin).
Wolfe had quiet sartorial elegance and a well stocked mind. Unlike many writers, he excelled at both talking and listening. HG enjoyed some memorable dining with Wolfe. Bernie’s favorite restaurant (and HG’s) was Fornos. a happy Spanish place that flourished on West 52nd Street many years ago (here, BW was formally addressed as “Senor Lupo”). The excellent food was preceded by classic Margaritas and ended with Banana Daquiris. Very hard to leave sober. Bernie liked the Oak Room of the Algonquin hotel where he would compose his meals carefully and creatively after some knowledgeable consultation with the waiter and captain. Alas, the composition of a meal is a skill that has virtually disappeared in New York (but, not in Paris).
In the 50s and early 60s Russian and Iranian caviar was cheap (If you listen closely you may hear the sound of teardrops falling on HG’s keyboard). HG recalls a caviar feast HG (and his ex-wife) hosted at their town house apartment in the Gramercy Park neighborhood. Some two pounds of Beluga (from Caviarteria) were devoured with thin, buttered white toast and washed down with abundant, icy Polish Wyborowa Vodka. In addition to Bernie, the other guests were screenwriter/painter/novelist Fred Segal and his then wife, Sandra. The caviar was followed by cognac and Upmann Brevas cigars, Maduro leaf. Not exactly an homage to healthy living. HG and his ex-wife survive. The others, sadly, are gone. Miranda Wolfe is busy working on Bernie’s voluminous and distinguished literary legacy. Hopefully, many gems will be reissued. Pornography has been described (by the French, of course) as books read with one hand. HG will be reading the reissued Wolfe works with one hand. The other will be clutching a glass of ultra chilled Polish vodka.
In 1930s New York, many apartment buildings, shops (and restaurants) were designed in a streamlined, modernist style — a kind of Art Deco for the masses. While true Art Deco (which reached its height in Paris of the 20s and 30s) was very elegant and seriously luxurious, the young American designers who piggy backed on the Art Deco style were a bit more egalitarian. Their best efforts, in terms of major structures, can be seen in the apartment houses that line the Grand Concourse in the Bronx and the glorious hotels of Miami’s South Beach. Smaller design gems were the chain bakeries that flourished in all of New York’s neighborhoods. The aim of all the “streamlining” was to give shoppers an optimistic lift in the gloom of the Great Depression. The “streamlined” bakeries were Cushman’s and Hanscom’s. The famed industrial designer Raymond M. Loewy designed Cushman’s and Horace Ginsbern designed Hanscom’s. (Ginsbern, then fairly young, later became one of New York’s most prominent apartment house architects. Ginsbern was born in 1893 and died in 1969. Scores of his buildings exist in Manhattan’s Upper East Side).
The architect Robert A.M. Stern has commented on the Loewy and Ginsbern bakery designs: “They brought a relatively high level of International Style Modernism into virtually every New York neighborhood.”
Cushman’s had white porcelain facades; nautical, oval windows and the name was spelled out in a curving, gold script. Hanscom’s had apple green porcelain facades and the name was formed with blocky, super- modern letters. Stern described the entire architectual composition as “Constructivist.”
In the Bronx you had Jewish Bakeries and Italian bakeries. The Jewish bakeries had elaborate butter cream cakes and, of course, bagels, bialys, rye and pumpernickel bread, etc. These were jammed on Sunday mornings with Dads buying bread-stuffs for brunch (The casual tweed and camel hair jackets many of them wore were known as “bagel coats”). The Italian bakeries, in neighborhoods like Belmont, had, of course, sublime bread, delicious cannolis, pignoli cookies and other Italian specialties. There was plenty of cross pollination. Jews liked the corn muffins and cookies at Cushman’s and Hanscom’s (which were generalized as goyish bakeries) and there were plenty of bagel and rye bread fanciers among the non-Jewish population. And, of course, everyone loved their Italian baked goods. Some Jewish bakery survivors in Manhattan are Moishe’s Bakery on 2nd Ave, Streit’s, which bakes and sells matzos, macaroons, kichel and other stuff from a 47,000 foot factory on Rivington Street and Kossar’s which bakes and sells bialys and other traditional good stuff from a location near the Essex Street Market. SJ sent HG a batch of Kossar’s products a few months ago producing moans of delight. The eminent food writer, Mimi Sheraton, a woman who knows Jewish food, says a Kossar’s bialy is the only true bialy baked in the United States. HG agrees.
Interestingly, HG’s Mom never called a bialy by that shortened name. She paid appropriate homage by calling it a Bialyosteker Kuchen.
During the 60s (and into the 70s and 80s) HG and BSK were known to puff some mind altering substances. And, this habit led to a desire for sweet baked goods. Fortunately, Manhattan was well supplied with wonderful family owned bakeries (many staffed by European immigrants who brought their pastry skills to the New World). On the West Side was the Eclair Bakery and Cafe on W. 72nd Street and a great bakery (name forgotten) on the southeast corner of Broadway and 79th Street. On the East Side was Mrs. Herbst’s Strudel and Rigo Hungarian. William Greenberg Jr. Desserts was (and remains) on Madison Avenue and purveyed (and still purveys!) sticky buns from heaven. A cheap treat for potheads was the caramel popcorn aptly named Screaming Yellow Zonkers. Screaming Yellow Zonkers were, in fact, one of the first mainstream products that absolutely focused on the Pot Head as consumer and employed psychedelic illustration, absurdist copy and, of course, sweet-salty crunchy goodness to lure Pot Heads. (They succeeded in this endeavor. HG noted, while in the queue at the Ziegfeld Theater to see Stanley Kubrick’s mind bending ” 2001: A Space Odyssey”, that everyone was carrying Screaming Yellow Zonkers or enticing blue and white boxes of Entenmann’s chocolate donuts). Ah, those were sweet times, indeed.