Tuesday, January 22, 2019

Side By Side

       Sometime in the late nineteen-sixties,  Aunt Annie took her place by my father’s side at the second roll top desk at 170 Eldridge Street. Her four children were grown. It was a boom time in the city and my father needed extra help in the office. But even when the boom abated, she remained at the second desk. They worked together for the next thirty years.
Anne and Max sometime in the 1980s
 In some ways, she had always been by his side. When they were school age and both insatiable readers, she sometimes carried his books home from the library on top of her own, because she wanted people to think she was extra smart.  At nineteen, she married my father’s good friend, George Strassberg. Two years after that, when she wasn’t satisfied with her big brother’s choice of girlfriend (the unfortunate Betty), she dragged him to Schmulka Bernstein’s, ostensibly to buy a chicken, but in fact to make a match between him and her school friend Ida Bernstein, who became his one and only.
            But even when she was a married housewife raising her own family, Aunt Annie managed to be his help mate.  During busy seasons, particularly October through New Years, the Christmas rush, she hosted statement parties at her kitchen table on Sunday afternoons. Statement was the Atlantic Paper word for invoice.
            Statement parties consisted of her four children, my cousins, ages six to fourteen, myself age ten and my father, sitting around the table, writing out invoices, stuffing them into envelopes, putting on stamps and creating neat piles to go into the mail Monday morning. My six and eight year old cousins did the stuffing and stamping, while we, the big kids, over age ten, and my father and Aunt Annie did the writing. You can’t get more family business than this.
            Oddly enough, I don’t remember any of us, the children, complaining. Statement parties had a conspiratorial air, as if we, the kids, were getting away with something, pretending to be adult.  And we were rewarded by a few dollars each at the end of the afternoon plus shared portions of two half gallons tubs of ice cream, even though it was after five in the evening and our appetites would be ruined.
            My mother is the last person alive of that generation. She was born almost one hundred years ago and now spends most of her time watching re-runs of I Love Lucy in a diminutive Barcalounger. When I visit her in Jackson Heights, Queens and grow tired of television, I take walks along Thirty-Seventh Avenue.  It is the central shopping street for the neighborhood, called by the locals just “The Avenue.”
 The Avenue runs about a mile and a half from the border of Corona to the edge of the Brooklyn Queens Expressway. On it, a new generation of immigrant families have staked their claim on American prosperity with the same tenacity as my family.  First, I pass Monika’s Polish Meats, then Happy Kitchen Japanese Cuisine, Seba Seba, a steakhouse started by two Colombian brothers, then Esteban’s Café El Greco.  Two blocks later there is Bombay Bridal Boutique and Jaipur Emporium.   Also Taste of Uruguay and Urubamba, which serves up dishes typical of Peru.  And I am only naming a few here. Finally, on the corner of Eightieth Street, there is my favorite twosome: Kim’s Stationery, and next door Kim’s Brother Fruits & Vegetables. You can’t get more family business than that. 

Thursday, November 1, 2018

The One Who Stayed

      I am standing in the doorway of the tiny, messy former tack room turned office of Atlantic Paper Products. It is sometime in the nineteen-seventies.  My Aunt Annie, my father’s sister, is seated at her ancient roll top desk about to open the day’s mail.  She is wearing a cardigan over a muumuu she sewed herself, dark stockings, staunch oxfords. She is in her fifties, I am in my early thirties. 
A friend of mine, an acquaintance really, is doing a story about still functioning Jewish businesses on the Lower East Side, emphasis on still and Jewish. I have offered up Atlantic Paper Products as a perfect example and my Aunt Annie as a vivid storyteller. She has refused.   So I have come downtown to convince her, even though part of me knows it’s hopeless. 
             “They never get it right,” she says in explanation, referring to journalists in general.
Aunt Annie aged about 35
“But it’s for public radio,” I plead. “You like public radio. You listen to public radio.”
I really want her to do this interview because, even though I know it’s ridiculous, I want to earn some points from the universe for being part of the real thing, the authentic Lower East Side of yore and now. I want her to earn those points for me.
            Years later it occurred to me that I was asking Aunt Annie to change her first principle of living which was: Be safe. Never raise your head. Never stand out. Never put your name on a list because it might someday be used against you.
She shook her head again, no, and started opening envelopes, extracting a check or bill from each one, filing it and then taking the envelope and slicing it on either side so that it lays flat. These smoothed envelopes she placed to her left, on a pile that she used as scrap for her initial noting of a phone order. And since there was mail every day, the scrap pile remained at about the same height, a never diminishing totem to her and my father’s frugality.
Once, a few years earlier, I had tried to tease her about this pile.  “The ones at the bottom are covered in dust,” I said, “What are you saving them for?”
 She was hurt and shot back, “Would you stoop to pick up a nickel?”
A good corrective for me because, of course, due to the hard work she and Uncle Lou and my father put in, I never had to stoop to anything.
 Now we were at a stalemate about the public radio program and she kept slicing open the envelopes. There was a pause and then, in order, perhaps, to drive home her point, she told me about a customer of theirs who had been written up in some New York magazine.
“A real chiseler.”
 In the language of Atlantic Paper Products, a chiseler is only a notch higher than a complete deadbeat. A deadbeat customer never pays the bill.  You cut him off. A chiseler tries to wheedle out of some of the bill, so you usually argue and keep him on unless he (It’s always a he.) gets too aggravating.
“They made him out to be the nicest, the most charming person you could imagine. A real weasel.”
 My Aunt Annie was my only relative who spent her entire life on the Lower East Side.  She never wanted to live elsewhere.  It was fine with her to walk to work each day, east to west on Delancey and return by the same route each evening.   She liked to walk. It was good exercise. And with a shopping cart you could buy everything you needed on the way home. She was exactly what you imagine a Lower East Side aunt or mother to be: short, buxom, energetic and warm, with a good command of Yiddish when she wanted to use it.  Except she was that person when most of her generation had moved to the suburbs and were busy shedding, as fast as they could manage, the habits and tones of the old neighborhood.  Aunt Annie never wanted to and never did. 
She was devoted to the business with the same intensity as my father.  Regular customers usually phoned in their orders and answering these calls was her primary job. She was patient. Her voice, with its strong New York accent, had a sweetness, a youthful and lilting contralto, even into her sixties.  Sometimes when she was taking a phone order, the storeowner who was making the order would ask her out to dinner. When she refused, which she always did, being long married with four grown children, one or two tried to woo her with offers of expensive gifts.  
“Do you know how old I am?” She would reply and laugh.  And regale my father with the story later.  He, in turn, would tell it to us the over dinner in Queens.
         “Somebody propositioned Aunt Annie again today.” And our whole family would enjoy the joke Aunt Annie could play on the universe of New York retail.

As had happened at the butcher store, my adolescent attempt to work at Atlantic Paper Products one summer turned into a family drama.  The trouble started on the first day, after I had finished some filing and was about to go to lunch.
“Where are you going?” asks my aunt.
“Yonah Schimmel’s for lunch,” I reply.  Yonah Schimmel’s  was a knish shop on the edge of Houston Street, which also served excellent made-in-house yogurt in tall glass molds. It still exists.
 “I have plenty of food,” says my aunt. “ With Moishe’s pumpernickel. Isn’t that your favorite? Some nice peaches.”
            “Yonah Schimmel’s is that good?” Asks my father, who has clearly never been, a fact which confounds me since it’s only two short blocks away.
“I love their yogurt,” I say.
My father rummages in a paper bag, takes out a silver foil package, and unwraps Aunt Annie’s beautifully crisp baked farmer cheese loaf with its golden crust.  It is a culinary thing of beauty, and I often enjoyed it when we visited Aunt Annie and Uncle George on a Sunday.
            “Here. Look,” he extends it to me.
            “ But I want to go out,” I say, getting a little feverish, metaphorically speaking. “ I like to go out.”
This, apparently, has never occurred to either of them.  Of course, you go out to a restaurant for a special occasion, but just for a break? A break is when you’re finished. You’re finished at the end of the day.
            We had some version of this conversation at noon every day of my five day stint. I wasn’t fired. I just told them I couldn’t do it. And they, who did not expect much of me anyway in the way of work, were probably relieved. 

Wednesday, August 1, 2018

Love and Work, Love and War

       At age twenty-five my father has succeeded at his chosen occupation.  The paper business has its ups and downs: product is scarce, then marked too high, customers buy more then less. But these are incidents. He had met the major challenge.
            Still to accomplish is love, lasting love, intimate love. And since he is coming of age in the late nineteen-thirties and early nineteen forties, there is also war, and the draft.
            So it is love and war that run counterpoint to each other in the last two years of my father’s diary, from January 1941 to December 1942.   He dates one girl after another and notes one after another the movement of armies, or diplomatic threats and reprisals in Europe and Asia.
            In May of ’41 he receives a notice to appear before the draft board. He is afraid to let his mother know.
            She, in turn, is desperate to keep him safe and urges him to get married which will perhaps keep him out of action.  Get married, but not to Betty.  A doctor offers to get him a deferment for a problem with a strained ligament. But he is unsure what he wants. Part of him wants to fight.  Brave Daddy. “If not for Mom, I’d have enlisted a long time ago and been a second Looey.”
            In late June he has broken off with Betty for good and describes himself as “still searching.”
           Then the “U.S. is at loggerheads with Japan. Looks serious. The President wants to hold draftees longer than 1 year.”
            Max Abramowitz is a vigorous male, age 25, in perfect health. His draft classification is 1A meaning available to serve. 
            The Selective Service process is as follows:  First you receive a questionnaire, with a date to appear before the draft board. You appear with your questionnaire filled out.  You are given a physical, you receive your classification and a number.  Then, if your number is not called up immediately, this process is repeated a month, two months, five months later.
In January of 1941 the draft board is calling up number 900. My father is 2014. “May be called up soon.”
             In June the Germany army begins its invasion of Russia.  Russia  “isn’t holding out so well,” my father worries into his journal. “They may collapse.  Took my physical.”
            Then, on September 10, 1941 he meets his one and only, Ida Bernstein, except that he doesn’t know it yet. “She’s cute and smart and a good sport. Will see more of her.”
            In a month she has become, “My Ida.”
            Then a second questionnaire, a second visit to the draft board.  Ida has another suitor. He threatens to enlist. But he can’t bear to tell his mother that he’s considering it.
   January 1941, “We’re moving so rapidly toward a war that there doesn’t seem to be any stopping it – it seems so imminent…"
            April, “We’ll be in war by July…. There doesn’t seem to be anything I can do, so why worry. But I do.”
            And the reader, his oldest daughter, knows that all this is leading to the bombing of Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941.  My father knows something is going to happen.  Everyone, it seems, knows something is going to happen.  But not exactly what the climax will be.
             October 1941, “I hesitate. I forbid any mention of the future.”
            Finally, December 7, the dawn bombing of Pearl Harbor. “It’s come. Everything’s changed.”
  By the end of that same month, Ida Bernstein has become, “my darling Ida.”
            In January  1942 she is “the most wonderful, the most charming, the mostest of the mostest. I always dreamed it would turn out this way but I was afraid to hope.”
            His passion starts to embarrass me.  Finally I feel like the voyeur I have been all along. They go out dancing. They go to shows. Gifts are exchanged, a star sapphire ring, a friendship cocktail diamond, a gold wristwatch.
 “I’ve the right personality for the darling I’m crazy about. At last I can say I am no longer alone.”  

And there, the diary comes to a close. Blank page follows blank page. No more need to talk to a private book when one has a partner who wants to hear your thoughts and dreams.   The diary concludes in 1942 with entries that each consist of a squiggly line, indicating nothing to say. These alternate with one word cursive entries: Ida. Ida. Ida.
My father never did get drafted.   He lived in the three-room apartment on Eldridge Street with his mother and earned a deferment as “the sole support of a widowed mother.”   Two days before the Allied armies landed on Normandy Beach, on June 4, 1944, he married my mother.   “She’s mine, all mine,” my father told us he was thinking when they stood together under the chuppah. They really were well suited and lived happily.  Except for the trouble caused in later years by their radical and unruly oldest, high-strung daughter, yours truly, Michele Abramowitz Clark.
Max and Michele before she started to cause trouble.


Tuesday, May 22, 2018


Sometimes he is confident, sometimes not. Sometimes he knows his anguished days are just “the throes of an adolescent.” Sometimes he has no perspective.   Contented teen-agers, after all, do not keep diaries. When my father begins his daily record in 1933 his face has broken out in pimples, he has failed the first half of his college accounting exam and he is desperately looking for love: “Will it ever happen for me? Saturday evening is the hardest, when I see everyone else walking and myself just a bystander.”
The Great Depression grinds on. Brother Lou’s salary is cut two dollars, down to sixteen a week.  Franklin Delano Roosevelt is sworn-in on Saturday, March 4th and immediately declares a one week bank holiday to stabilize the economy.     Those caught with little cash are stranded, which means the small downtown businesses have a few bad days.   The fledgling wholesale operation of the Abramowitz family scrapes to a halt.
On a Sunday of this same month, my father meets Marie.  She is standing behind the bakery counter and smiles when she hands him the family’s usual five pound loaf of Moishe’s Pumpernickel.  The five pound loaf is the bargain loaf, the most bread for your money. The one I’ve told you about before that slowly dried out as the week progressed, so that by Friday morning a meat cleaver was required to make slices.  
When my father is doing something forbidden he frequently writes his diary using his high school French. So, a week after he meets Marie, he sighs into his diary:  “Voyez Marie et elle est plus beau que jamais.” I saw Marie and she is more beautiful than ever.  But she is not Jewish.
        Is she interested in him?  Just flirting?  Not even flirting?    Reading through the pages of 1933, I can’t tell.  For Christmas he sends her a bottle of perfume, “avec small hope for a return jamais.”  Even though he doesn’t believe in Christmas. Even though a few days later he writes that he is “ashamed of the many Jewish people celebrating this day.”  Such is the power of his crush.
Perhaps she responds to his gift because by April they seem to have something going. But, again, the diary does not give me enough information.  He loves “to watch her beautiful smile, all for me. If only she was Jewish, how much gladder I would be.”  Does she give him this smile when he enters the bakery every Sunday? When they go for a walk together?
His mother says he must give her up.   Then, in a Jewish immigrant mother’s form of a curse, she says, “It will serve you right if you marry an Italian.”  What about it will serve him right?  I don’t know exactly, but nothing favorable.
My father could regret marrying an Italian girl like Marie, but not all Jews are acceptable to the family either.  Oldest brother Lou is dating a Romanian.  Jewish mind you, but from Romania originally, or her parents are from Romania.   Romanians, writes my father “are two-faced and unfaithful.”  What will satisfy?  Galitzianyers -  girls from the Southern Poland are out. They are morally shifty. Poor Lou tries to get something going with one of those as well, but is dissuaded.  Only a Litvak girl, from the northern areas of Poland, Lithuania or Latvia will do.  Someone as much like themselves as possible.
Marie disappears from the diary, except once, a year later when my father writes, forlornly, “Thinking about Marie is like thinking about the millions I’ll probably never have.”  Besides pining for love, he pines for money, wishes he could be a player on the stock market.  “J’aime to daydream about fortunes and saving pretty girls. I wonder if I’ll ever grow up. Ambitions of adolescence to be a second J.P. Morgan.”
The aristocracy of my father’s world is the successful small storekeeper. So he starts dating Lillian Spieler whose father has moved his dry goods business into new, larger quarters, meaning he’s doing well. But Lillian is too temperamental.
Through the nineteen-thirties he searches for his “one and only.”
Janet Nelson?  First yes, then no.  Someone referred to as E.B. Yes, then no.  His mother thinks he can do better.  Mom prefers “the Smirnoff girl or Ruthie Block.”
            “The allies seem to be on the losing side,” he writes in May of 1940. “I will enlist.” France has fallen but the U.S. economy is improved, gearing up for the war most people know is coming.   European Jews are being harassed and persecuted. My father notes this and cries into his diary in relation to something he’s read in the newspaper, “Jews are usually so kind and intelligent. Why should they be tortured?  Is it because they’re the Chosen People? We really are chosen.” This last line, I think, is sarcastic.
But despite the terrible tidings around the world, a personal life goes on. Nineteen-forty is a good year for my father and he knows it.   “Have about broken out of my shell,” he writes. “I’m still emerging.”
In July he meets Betty:  “A very nice girl. Will be seeing more of her, I hope. She is very sweet and compatible.”
Later that month he records that Betty is “the nicest person I’ve ever met.”
 He asks her to go steady and offers an expensive marcasite pin to seal their attachment. Betty is delighted.
The pressure at home increases. Anne, his younger sister,  “isn’t satisfied. Not that she dislikes BP but says she isn’t my equal mentally and that I deserve someone better, more learned.” Mother agrees. 
Their harangues continue each evening, until my father loses confidence:  “At home they keep on at me about Betty  - until I don’t feel sure anymore.”
Poor Daddy.
Uncle Louis has managed to find a girlfriend who must be Litvak because no one says a word against her.  But it also appears that my uncle has learned not to talk about his romances at home. Good for him!
It’s a brisk, bright, cold day in New York City on Sunday, December 7, 1941.   On Oahu Island, people are drinking their morning coffee or tea or juice. The sky is clear there as well, and the breeze makes it a pleasant 73 degrees on the day that will live in infamy.