I knew the price of opening those doors.
I grew up in the 1950s in a tenement in a poor urban area. Even in those days, everyone knew it was a bad neighborhood. We were one of the few white families that lived in the building—almost everyone around us was black.
Cookie and Candy were among the few black people with whom I had regular contact. The girls were probably about nine years old, but to me they were older kids, and thus had the prerogative of lording it over me. On warm summer days I watched them jump rope, fascinated by their rhythmic chanting, coordinated perfectly with the rise and fall of their jump rope:
Who stole the cookie from the cookie jar? Candy stole the cookie from the cookie jar!
My appreciation for the girls’ musical and athletic talents was not reciprocated. On many occasions, when I returned home from playing on the stone front steps of the tenement, I encountered Cookie and Candy. They resolutely stood guard, one on either side of the heavy metal front doors to the building. I knew the price of opening those doors. Every time I reached for the door knob, Cookie dealt a swift punch to my right arm. Candy followed with an equal blow to my left arm.
To my child’s eye, my home was just a place, like any other place. But it was a rough place to live.
My parents were recent refugees from Poland—-Holocaust survivors. They arrived with few skills and no knowledge of English. My father worked at a dangerous and filthy job and made little money. An inner city tenement apartment was all they could afford.
I remember happy times playing outdoors.
In the terrible summer heat, I would emerge onto the street to find that someone had opened the fire hydrant in front, turning our dusty concrete world into a water park. We kids loved getting into our swim trucks and splashing about in the gushing waters.
I was enchanted by the trolley bus that ran by our apartment. A pair of metal arms, like a giant praying mantis, glided along overhead electric wires. They sparked and sizzled every time the trolley turned a corner. Other times they sparked for no apparent reason. The rubber tires of the trolley buses ran along a street that was so well-worn that the asphalt pavement was gone along the path of the tires, revealing the cobblestone underlayment that must have dated from the turn of the century.
In retrospect, my youth shielded me from the harsh realities of the neighborhood. We lived in a second story apartment, up a steep flight of worn marble stairs. My mother found it too difficult to navigate my baby carriage up the steps, so she stored it every night on the ground floor below the stairwell. One morning she retrieved the baby carriage to find that someone had defecated into it.
The bar on the corner was a constant source of noise. More troublesome was the parade of drunks who passed into and out of the bar and along the street. I remember one very inebriated woman, lipstick streaked across her lips and onto her face. As she sashayed down the street, waving a too-large handbag, she lunged at my mother. I firmly clutched Mom’s hand for safety. “Whatsa matter lady, can’t you take a joke?” she screamed, as if we were privy to her private drama. For years afterward, Mom would repeat the drunkard’s fevered refrain, recalling the incident with consternation…or was it bemusement?
During summers, we were oppressed by the sooty, damp heat. Having grown up in small European towns, my parents were not accustomed to the hot weather. Their hard physical labor made it all the more unbearable. They foolishly bought an air conditioner—-a “two-tonner” they called it. It was a behemoth, probably the only air conditioner for blocks around. It was hardly adequate to the task.
To help things along, my father hung a rod and curtain to separate the kitchen from the living room, to reduce the amount of space the monster had to cool. This worked better in theory than in practice. Worse than the terrible rhythmic rumble of the machine, was its propensity to “blow the fuse” on the main panel downstairs. This meant replacing the fuse over and over again. But at least we were able to sleep on the most oppressively hot nights.
The saddest part of my memory is that my older brother Steven was with us then. I shadowed him as if we were attached by an invisible cord.
Our uncle built two identical wooden shoe-shine boxes, one for each of us. Steven wrote “5 cents” on his box. I wrote “10 cents” on mine. Unsurprisingly, Steven’s shoe-shine business fared better with the adults than mine.
Once Steven and I had a sober conversation about whether hula dancers wore underpants beneath their grass skirts. Every evening Mom gave us both a bath. We shared the same water and always followed Mom’s instructions to use the “kid’s soap” instead of the one made for grownups.
Steven always seemed to do the right thing. He was never mean when I broke his toys and I never saw him angry. When the pain in his legs kept him up at night, Dad began to sleep in the bed with him so he could massage Steven’s legs. I don’t know if that helped because Steven never complained.
I did not know then that a brother—-or anyone for that matter—could disappear at any moment. In my child’s world I believed we were all protected. I did not know yet that my grandparents and almost all my aunts and uncles had been murdered in Europe just a few years earlier.
Steven went into the hospital for his heart surgery. I did not foresee what would happen. I blamed myself for that. I have never shaken the feeling of self-blame. I could have warned the adults, if only I had understood the danger.
During visitors’ hours at the hospital, Mom and Dad went up to Steven’s room. I was consigned to sitting, alone, in the waiting area on the ground floor of the hospital—-no children allowed in the pavilions in those days. Mom said Steven asked for me. What did he want to know? I’ll never know because I never saw him again.
When Mom and Dad picked out the headstone, and again, at the funeral, I sat in the car alone until the adults finished their business.
When losses overwhelm all happy memories, we survive any way we can. My now very-small family decided the best way forward was to pretend Steven never existed. On the advice of a misguided, but well-meaning friend, Mom destroyed all evidence that Steven had once walked with us—his clothes, school books, and every photo save two. Why did she save those two? Like so many things of the past, I’ll never know.
Mom bounced back. Eventually she smiled again and devoted herself to me. On the other hand, Dad hollowed out. Steven was the sparkle in his eye. Dad lived with Mom and me, but he was a stranger on the margins. I still have a photo, taken on a visit home, years later. Mom and I sit on the sofa conversing, while Dad stands alone in the corner, grim, looking like he has just wandered into a stranger’s home by mistake.
Eventually my parents saved enough money to escape the bad neighborhood. After years of tough working-class jobs, they retired to a pleasant home in a clean and safe area in the suburbs.
Life went on. From the perch of my old age, that seems to me a blessing and a curse.