Part Two: Early Bronx Memories (Woodycrest Avenue)

October 25th, 2015 § 0 comments § permalink

The year was 1935. Not a happy year for the HG family. HG’s older brother, the late Bernard F., had returned to The Bronx from the University of Georgia (where he was a football star). He had lost most of his right leg in a barnstorming airplane accident (His beautiful fiancee and the pilot perished). He was learning to walk again with the aid of an artificial leg. This was a bulky device, not the well engineered, light prosthetic limb in use today. Bernard’s misfortune caused HG’s Mom to have an emotional breakdown. HG’s father developed migraine headaches. HG’s late sister, Beulah Naomi, kept her cheerful disposition and was a source of love and comfort for little HG who was facing problems of his own. The HG family had moved to a three-bedroom apartment (Rent was $45 a month and the building had an elevator) at 1210 Woodycrest Avenue in the High Bridge neighborhood of The Bronx. It was located some 50 yards from Sacred Heart R.C. Church. The youngsters who attended parochial school there learned HG was Jewish and accused him of killing Jesus Christ. Little violence followed the accusation but the atmosphere on Woodycrest was unfriendly. (The comedian Lenny Bruce, when similarly accused, responded: “It wasn’t me. It was my cousin Milton.”) Little HG had two escapes from the tensions of Woodycrest: One, HG would walk to nearby Nelson Avenue and join a gang of tough Jewish kids who would war with the hated Italians of Shakespeare Avenue. Two, HG would find peace in the civilized bookshelves of the High Bridge Public Library. Here, something strange happened to the little fellow. HG became an idiot savant and developed a photographic memory. HG read history, all of the great classic studies, American and English. One glance at a page and it immediately entered HG’s memory bank and could be recalled at will. HG became a local celebrity. Sister Beulah’s friends would gather and ask him about obscure dates, treaties, wars. HG would close his eyes and recite the answer. HG expanded this capacity to include the listings, casts, etc, of movies playing throughout New York. This continued for some 18 months and then the memory feats disappeared, never to return. HG has never found a plausible psychological theory to explain the strange phenomenon (but did note, with joy, that Grandson Haru pulled off the same odd feat with an intensive interest in the Presidents of the United States — for months the little guy could recite the presidents in the order of their tenure and recall all of their deeds, and then, just like HG, the ability vanished). HG began his education at PS. 11 on Ogden Avenue (the school still exists). At birth, HG’s given name was “Jerome” (That’s what it says on the birth certificate). HG’s Mom and cousin, the late Anne B., walked along Ogden Avenue to register HG in first grade. The Great Depression was still raging. There were soup kitchens on Ogden Avenue and “Hoovervilles” (shacks sheltering the homeless) on the banks of the nearby Harlem River. Grim. Mom and Anne decided the name “Jerome” didn’t have a regal, aristocratic feel. They changed HG’s name to “Gerald” and that’s how HG was registered. Glad they did it. “Hungry Gerald” has more panache and élan than “Hungry Jerome.”

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Early Bronx Memories

October 24th, 2015 § 2 comments § permalink

HG’s earliest years were spent in a fourth floor walk up apartment on Prospect Avenue located on the eastern fringe of the Belmont neighborhood in The Bronx. Southern Boulevard was a few blocks away and the Boulevard was bordered by the Bronx Zoo. Little HG would sleep with the roar of lions in the far background. HG was familiar with elephants, rhinos, hippos, lions and tigers long before HG ever saw a cow or a sheep. Horses were familiar, however. They pulled the wagons of fruit and vegetables that were familiar in the days of the Great Depression. Horses also hauled the ice wagons in those pre-refrigeration days. HG remembers the iceman (Icemen were always sturdy Italians) carrying a burlap wrapped block of ice over his shoulder to the HG family apartment. (Legend had it that the iceman was the illicit lover of Bronx housewives. Given the very taxing schlepping that was the iceman’s job, it seems dubious that the guys had energy left over for amorous dalliance). The milkman drove a white truck and delivered his product in the early dawn. A bakery chain, Dugan’s, sold its product from a truck. The driver would park his car and shout: “Dugan, the baker!!” Doughnuts and raisin bread were the Dugan specialties. Jewish Moms bought bread and rolls from Jewish bakeries and Italian Moms would walk to Arthur Avenue for traditional Italian baked goods. Relations between Jews and Italians on Prospect Avenue were cordial. HG’s father would often swap his home distilled Vishniak (cherry brandy) for the robust red wine produced at home by Italian neighbors. (In those politically incorrect days, the wine was referred to as “Dago Red.”). Street vendors were omnipresent. In cold weather, they sold hot sweet potatoes (with a pat of butter) for two cents; hot roasted chestnuts; steamed chickpeas with chicken fat and coarse salt. Summer was the time for chunks of coconut and Italian ices. HG and his little pals would augment these foods by stealing potatoes and roasting the “mickeys” in fires set in empty lots. In the summer, HG and the other kids splashed in water from fire hydrants while parents sat on improvised seating in front of apartment houses. HG very much enjoyed the itinerant street singers. They would launch into loud song and appreciative housewives would shower them with pennies, nickels and dimes wrapped in paper and tossed from windows. Sentimental love songs and ethnic favorites (“My Yiddishe Momma”) were big hits. Loew’s Elsmere on Crotona Pakrway was the nearest movie theater. HG’s late sister, Beulah Naomi, took four-year-old HG (she was 11) to the Elsmere in 1933 to see “Dracula” with Bela Lugosi (The movie was released in 1931 but it took two years before it reached The Bronx). The movie visit was ill advised. HG and sister were paralyzed by the horror of the vampire movie. It left HG with a lifelong fear of bats (and, of course, sharp toothed Hungarians).

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Bronx Memories – Keep it Personal

August 28th, 2015 § 3 comments § permalink

HG has many fond memories of boyhood in The Bronx (a boyhood that took place more than seven decades ago). It was a very Jewish borough. Yes, there were substantial Italian, Irish and African-American enclaves but Jews were in the majority and the borough culture had a very Jewish tone. Affluent Jews lived on the stately avenue, The Grand Concourse (official name was Grand Concourse and Promenade). GC was the dividing line defining class and economic status. Working class to the east. Lower middle class to the west. HG always loved to walk GC from Kingsbridge Road to W. 161 st. Much to see. The little cottage on Kingsbridge where Edgar Allan Poe lived and wrote for a short period of time. Alexander’s Department Store on the corner of Fordham Road. Loew’s Paradise movie theater with its ornate interior and ceiling of sparkling stars. (It was near W.183rd and across the street were two culinary destinations—Sutter’s Bakery and J. S. Krum soda fountain and confectionary). Also on GC was the Ascot movie theater. It was an intimate movie house with a demure facade. It was here that young HG sat in the upper balcony, puffed cigarettes and watched great foreign films like “Grand Illusion” and “Blue Angel.” There was a lingerie shop nearby with window mannequins bedecked in fashionable bras and girdles (As can be imagined, young HG gave this enraptured attention). Further south were beautiful white brick art deco apartment houses (many with entry facades decorated with fanciful mosaics). There was also the dignified Andrew Freedman home for impoverished gentlefolk (fronted by a meticulous green lawn). Other landmarks were the lofty Lewis Morris Apartments where many doctors had their offices and the Concourse Plaza Hotel where teams playing the Yankees often lounged in the lobby before and after games. West 16lst Street concluded HG’s stroll. The striking art deco Bronx County Court House on GC and off to the west, Yankee Stadium on River Avenue. Nearby was the Earl movie theater (striking facade), the Jerome Cafeteria, the great Addie Vallins soda fountain and Nedick’s hot dogs. Excellent nourishment was always close at hand in The Bronx of yesteryear. The broad east-west shopping streets (Kingsbridge, Fordham, Mt. Eden, Burnside, W. 167th, W. 170th, W. 16lst ) contained splendid Jewish delicatessens, bakeries, “appetizing” stores (stores that specialized in smoked fish, pickles, olives, etc.). There were some good cafeterias (but few restaurants). And, of course, plenty of butchers, fish mongers and green grocers for the industrious home cooks. The Bronx was a borough of apartment dwellers. In the low rent areas, tenants treated the sidewalks as extensions of their living rooms. In warm weather, men in their undershirts played cards. Women chatted and overlooked the play of lively children. Little HG and his pals played relentlessly. Punchball. stickball, “association” football, “stoop” ball, ring-o-leevio, hide and seek, johnny-on-the-pony, kick the can. Later, there was softball, basketball and sandlot football. (HG was a sandlot backfield star and played in tough games throughout the borough. There was ethnic rivalry plus the teams bet on themselves, winner take all. The ref held the money. Many fist fights. A good preparation for the often rocky game of life that lay ahead). The Bronx was a Democratic Party fiefdom James J. Lyons was Borough President and Ed Flynn was “The Boss.” A smooth functioning machine that paid close personal attention to its constituents. An example: HG was a bright, obedient elementary school student, always receiving A’s for academic excellence and conduct. After the final term report card, HG’s parents would receive a letter from Borough President Lyons. It read in part: “Your son Gerald’s excellent school performance has come to my attention. You must be very proud. Congratulations. I am sure the fine home you provide has aided Gerald in achieving success.” HG’s mother treasured these letters and preserved them in a special folder (alas, destroyed in a fire years later). She would have walked over hot coals in order to get to a polling place and vote the straight Democratic ticket. During BSK’s years as a Colorado political strategist, BSK mentioned these letters to Democratic Congressman Ed Perlmutter. “Make it personal, Ed. Make it personal.” Ed followed her advice. He has never lost an election.

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New Yorkers (Part Three: Bess Myerson)

January 17th, 2015 § 2 comments § permalink

Bess Myerson was crowned Miss America in 1945, the first (and only) Jewish woman to win this title. These days, the Miss America contest exists on the fringes of the national consciousness — a relic (thankfully) of a more sexist era that is quickly going out of style. But, in 1945 Miss America was a big deal and winning the title meant instant celebrity for Bess Myerson. Unfortunately, anti-semitism was prevalent in the United States at the time and three of the five Miss America sponsors withdrew their sponsorships when Myerson was crowned; in addition, her national “crowning” tour was met with blatant anti-Jewish hostility at stops all across the country. She overcame all of this and, before she died at 90 last month, led a colorful, tempestuous, productive, tragic life. During HG’s New York public relations career, HG encountered Myerson at many public events. She was New York City’s Commissioner of Consumer Affairs. Very tough. Very effective. Before that job, she was omnipresent as a star of television game shows. A gifted pianist, she appeared with a number of symphony orchestras. HG found her imposing. She was well over six feet in heels. Very beautiful. Statuesque. She thought beauty contests stupid (she only entered Miss America for the college tuition prize). Myerson studied at Hunter College in New York (and like BSK) graduated with honors. She didn’t like to be complimented about her looks. Not surprising. She grew up in the Sholem Aleichem Cooperative Housing Complex in The Bronx (not far from HG’s Kingsbridge neighborhood home). This was housing built by Workmen’s Circle (“Arbeiter Ring”), an organization devoted to socialism and the mission of keeping Yiddish culture alive. The cooperative was named after the famous Yiddish writer, Scholem Aleichem whose stories were the basis for Fiddler On The Roof. The occupants of Sholem Aleichem Housing Complex were Yiddish-speaking poets, artists, musicians and intellectuals forced to make a living as garment workers and artisans. Books, brains and art were what counted, not physical beauty. Bess Myerson (who was fluent in Yiddish) was esteemed in the community because of her piano musicianship, not her looks. (Marc Chagall, the Jewish/Russian/French painter lived at Sholom Aleichem for some months after fleeing the Nazis). Myerson was an icy lady but she softened considerably when HG greeted her with some Yiddish phrases. Beneath that cool exterior was a woman of volcanic passion and that led to The Bess Mess and great public humiliation: When she was Consumer Affairs Commissioner, she fell in love with Andy Capasso, a sewer contractor who did business with the city. He was married and much younger than Myerson. The doomed love affair lead to indictments and criminal prosecution (Myerson and her co-defendants were acquitted). Myerson retired from public life. Battled cancer and dementia before she died. Whether Miss America or ordinary citizen, the third act is always tough.

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Movie Heaven — The Bronx Gets Slapped By Santa Fe

June 20th, 2014 § 0 comments § permalink

Depressing fact reported by The New York Times: The Bronx, with a population of 1.4 million, contains two movie theaters (multiplexes with a combined total of 23 screens). When HG grew up in The Bronx, there were scores of movie theaters ranging from palaces (Loew’s Paradise, The Interboro, etc.) to intimate art houses (The Ascot). Fordham Road, in a six block expanse, contained The Lido, The Concourse, Loew’s Grand, The Valentine and The Fordham. “Going to the movies,” like rooting for the Yankees and eating pastrami and pizza, was an integral part of Bronx life. HG/BSK are fortunate to live in Santa Fe. “The City Different” has a population of 80,000 which supports three multiplexes (and another in a nearby community) plus three cinematheques. In terms of movie going, it’s almost like living in Paris. Santa Fe also has opera housed in a spectacular setting; live theater, dance and concerts at The Lensic (a beautifully restored old venue); live music in lots of clubs ranging from the raucous to the sophisticated. And, of course, Santa Fe has art: A dozen museums and numerous galleries plus world famous annual Native American and Hispanic art markets. And, the weather is great. Plus you are never far from a breakfast burrito smothered in green chile sauce. Heaven.

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Bagels? Feh!

May 4th, 2014 § 0 comments § permalink

Mark Bittman has a nice opinion piece in the New York Times about the perennial Holy Trio (pardon the sacrilege) of Jewish comfort food: Lox, Bagels, Cream Cheese. HG is a bit of a contrarian and curmudgeon on this subject. HG loathes bagels. HG shares this dislike with his late parents, both Jewish immigrants from Belorussia. Every Sunday morning throughout HG’s childhood, HG and his father would stroll to West Kingsbridge Road in The Bronx. They would separate. Father went to the “appetizing” store for Nova salmon, sable, sour pickles, black olives, cole slaw and potato salad. HG went to the bakery for bialys, onion rolls (pletzels) and sliced Jewish rye bread. (Mom had gone to Daitch Dairy the day before for cream cheese and baked farmer cheese). HG picked up the Sunday Times, Sunday News and the Yiddish-language Jewish Daily Forward. Home for the feast at a table with a steaming pot of coffee, a pitcher of freshly squeezed orange juice and a bottle of Hennessy Brandy. A morning of down home Jewish culinary delight. And, not a bagel in sight.

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No Tip Trotsky

February 14th, 2014 § 0 comments § permalink

Last week, a philosophical HG posted his thoughts about defeat and the Denver Broncos Super Bowl debacle. HG quoted the Russian revolutionary Leon Trotsky’s remark about defeated adversaries and “the dustbin of history.” BSK, the love of HG’s life, said: “I am sure you are the only person in the United States who linked Leon Trotsky with Peyton Manning.” Made HG think about some Trotsky connections. HG’s acquaintance and dining companion, Bernard Wolfe, the late novelist and science fiction writer, was Trotsky’s secretary-bodyguard in 1937, some three years before Trotsky was assassinated in Mexico City by Ramon Mercader, a pick axe wielding Stalin agent. Wolfe wrote an interesting novel about Trotsky’s Mexico City exile: The Great Prince Died. In the novel, Victor Rostov (the Trotsky character) expresses regrets about some of his murderous acts following the Bolshevik rise to power. (HG believes the real life Trotsky was devoid of what he would term “bourgeouis sentimentalities.”). During a three month period in 1917, Trotsky lived on Vyse Avenue in the East Bronx, a few blocks away from where HG’s parents lived with their two year old son, Bernard (HG didn’t come along until 1929, an unwelcome surprise for his Mom). HG’s father saw Trotsky dining in a neighborhood restaurant. A waiter told him that Trotsky would not leave a tip. Claimed it would demean the waiter, a member of the proletariat, and turn him into a lackey. Trotsky was not a favorite of the restaurant staff. When HG was a youngster, HG and his father paused to listen to soap box (when was the last time you saw a soap box?) orators in Union Square Park. A fiery Yiddish speaker called Trotsky: “Ah mench mit ah goldeneh kup.” (A man with a golden head). HG’s father, a confirmed David Dubinsky/ILGWU/ labor union socialist, despised Trotsky and all communists. Remembering Trotsky’s murder, he said: “Trotsky was lucky a Bronx waiter didn’t stick a fork in his golden head.”

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Recalled Treats From a Schoolboy Past

May 24th, 2013 § 0 comments § permalink

Campbell’s Tomato Soup. Velveeta Cheese. My-T-Fine Chocolate Pudding. Aunt Jemima Pancake Mix. Have not had any of these supermarket basics in scores and scores of years. While certainly not gourmet treats, they were important elements of HG’s schoolboy cuisine. Little HG’s elementary school, P.S. 86, was just three blocks from home so HG would go home and enjoy a Mom-prepared lunch every day. A bowl of tomato soup (HG’s Mom used milk rather than water in preparing this excellent potage). A Velveeta-lettuce-tomato-sliced onion sandwich on whole wheat or Pechter’s pumpernickel bread with a goodly dollop of Hellman’s Real Mayonnaise. And, sometimes, a chocolate pudding for dessert. For some obscure reason, Friday lunch was Aunt Jemima’s pancakes with butter and honey. This cuisine enabled smart little HG to get a consistent string of A’s on the HG report card. The Principal of P.S. 86 would bellow at his students during the weekly assembly: “Concentration. Self Control. Obedience. Watchwords for future success.” In later years, HG proved deficient in two of these watchwords but excelled in “Concentration” when applied to food and wine.

Noshing Through Noir At The Ascot

March 7th, 2013 § 0 comments § permalink

At 13 years of age HG was a busy little guy. Following after- school punchball or association football, HG would cruise Kingsbridge Road in the Bronx and help the shopping women. “Carry your bundle, Lady?” said endearing HG and this meant trudging, while heavily laden with shopping bags, up five stories of an apartment house for a nickel or dime tip. A parental allowance was beneath HG’s dignity. HG had to hustle in order to indulge in HG’s Saturday afternoon aesthetic and culinary treat. This was the double feature at the tiny Ascot Theater on the Grand Concourse. HG would pick up some chunks of dry, garlic salami (“a nickel a shtickel”) at the Tower Delicatessen plus two sour dill pickles at a neighboring “appetizing” store (these pickles were plucked fresh from a barrel). Armed with food and a pack of war-time Rameses cigarettes (yes, HG was a smoker even then, a habit he cultivated for some 50 years), HG lounged (and nibbled and smoked) in a balcony seat and succumbed to the joys of European cinema. The Ascot played only art films, mostly French and Russian (and the occasional American film like John Ford’s The Informer.) HG was enthralled by the French “noir” movies starring Jean Gabin (Port of Shadows, La Bete Humaine). Gabin was HG’s favorite movie hero and HG was gratified to learn that Gabin, during World War Two, left a brief Hollywood career (and a blazing romance with Marlene Dietrich) to join the Free French army and fight with the Allies in North Africa. He won the Medaille Militaire and Croix de Guerre and was part of the first contingent to enter liberated Paris. HG’s two favorite films that he watched at the Ascot were Le Grande Illusion (directed by Jean Renoir and starring Gabin) and aforementioned The Informer (starring Victor McLaglen playing “Gypo Nolan.”). HG still recalls Gypo’s last words in the film: “Frankie, your mother forgives me!!”

Years later the Ascot stopped showing art films and devolved into a house of pornography which did not last for long. At last glance the glamorous Ascot was subdivided into a variety of retail spaces while retaining vestiges of its lovely terra cotta facade. In 1988 the writer Avery Corman wrote a nice piece about this stretch of Grand Concourse for the New York Times. It is still relevant today.

The Alternative Universe of Andy Hardy

February 4th, 2013 § 0 comments § permalink

HG grew up in the Depression era-Bronx. A Jewish-Italian-Irish population. Noisy. Rambunctious. Sporadically violent. HG’s family was immigrant Jewish. The language of HG’s parents was heavily accented English plus Yiddish, patches of Russian and Polish. The family atmosphere was emotionally intense and very noisy. Voices were always raised in order to give communication the proper emphasis. Suffice it to say that it was (despite its many wonderful and much missed qualities) a claustrophobic and insular world. HG’s knowledge of the greater American world was gained from the Andy Hardy movies (Mickey Rooney, Lewis Stone, Kay Holden, Ann Rutherford); the Jack Armstrong-All American Boy serial on radio (sponsored by Wheaties-Breakfast of Champions) and the mystery solving books starring the Hardy Boys. Of the three fictions, HG found greatest comfort in the alternative universe presented by Andy Hardy. Andy lived in a one-family home on a tree lined street in a small town. Not in a stuffy, big city apartment. Andy’s Mother and Father spoke to each other courteously. Andy called his Father: “Sir.” The home atmosphere was quiet, serene. Yes, Andy was sometimes guilty of naughtiness (very minor league, in HG’s opinion). When that happened there was no screaming or hitting. Instead, Andy’s father, Judge Hardy, said, in a low, stern voice: “See me in my study, young man.” Study. What a magic, resonant word. It carried connotations of great civilization that was sorely lacking in HG’s Bronx world. HG vowed that there would be a study in HG’s future. And, so it would come to pass. HG is writing these very words in HG’s study in HG’s quiet and serene New Mexico home. Damn. HG is living in a movie.

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