Monday, March 16, 2009

Cliff's KV Notes, Part 10: Why, Some Of My Best Friends Are Jewish

Below: The Pike Street Synagogue, now a Chinese Baptist Temple, where Cliff's grandfather was one of the Cohens that blessed the congregation

Up until the second grade, I associated with Jews, because KV had a heavy Jewish population, and the kids in nursery school and in the kiddie playground were Jewish. I don’t remember any discussions in my home about associating or not associating with any particular group. So I had no preconceived bias when in the second grade I came in contact with Italians. They were a curiosity, and besides, they didn’t live in KV. They lived in the tenements on Monroe St. At first, I supposed they differed from Jews. But I was hard pressed to see any differences that mattered. There was George Martini, the only guy in class as short as I was. George and I were close—only because the class would have to line up in size place—alphabetical order being something way beyond our capabilities.
At the other end of the size spectrum was Anthony Baldimere, who seemed to be more “Italian” than the other Italians. Tony was a good guy. When the first Puerto Rican, a kid named Ephraim, joined our class, he was more of a curiosity than the Italians. I remember picking up snippets of conversations between the older kids about “Spics” starting to move into the neighborhood, and the term made no sense to me. But the impression I got was that they weren’t going to give them the Key to the Neighborhood. Ephraim had some problems with English, but I don’t think he was involved in any trouble (fights) because of his background. Sure, there were fights all through my years at 177, but they didn’t seem to be centered on ethnicity.
The thing that shocked me about Ephraim, was one day in class, the teacher asked each one of us what we had for breakfast. I guess it was a lesson on nutrition. All the answers were basically the same, OJ, eggs, cereal etc. When it came to Ephraim, he answered “coffee.” The teacher kind of freaked. All he had was a cup of coffee for breakfast, and coffee for kids in our house, was akin to feeding them booze or dope.
I forget what grade I was in, but the class was practicing for some kind of Christmas performance at assembly. We had to sing a couple of carols. Looking back, it’s pretty funny—a bunch of mostly Jewish kids singing “O Come All Ye Faithful.” The words didn’t mean much at the time. If we had been told to sing a song with a bunch of racial epithets, we probably wouldn’t have thought twice. The teachers were supposed to know what they were doing. They said. "Learn the song," and we learned it—and sang it. All except Marilyn Shore (Schorr?) She went along with the program, singing the hymn except when it came to the money line “Christ the Lord.” Then she clammed up. I always looked at her during practice and the actual performance. She just zipped at that line.
When one of the Catholic kids told me that Jesus Christ was the Son of God, it was a pretty startling revelation. And who better to share it with than my super Orthodox Jewish grandfather. Since he was more “Godly” than anyone else in our family, I figured this would be more up his alley. Jacob U. Rothman lived in BE6 and was active in the Pike St. Shoul. He was one of the Cohens that blessed the congregation. Our family would go to the shoul twice a year during the high holy days, and when it came time for the blessing, we were all supposed to bow our heads close our eyes. “Don’t look,” my father commanded, as if lightning would strike anybody peeking. ‘Course I couldn’t resist the temptation. There were maybe five or six Cohens at the front of the shoul, with their prayer shawls (Talis) pulled over their heads, reciting the blessings, and waving their outstretched arms around. It looked pretty cool (Whazzat, a thunderstorm brewing?)
In his apartment, my grandfather was into his prayer books most of the time. That was when he wasn’t arguing with my grandmother. It would have been a lot cooler had they argued in English instead of Yiddish so my sister and I could have understood what was going on. But we picked up the gist of things from tone inflection and volume. My grandfather would make little clucking noises aside from the normal prayer drone. He was really connecting with the Spirit and not just going through the motions.
So, I thought he’d be really excited when I told him, “Zeida, did you know that Jesus Christ is the son of God?” Yeah, he was excited all right. Now, If Zeida had been like most any other orthodox Jew, he would have settled the matter simply by throwing me out the window. Instead, he was pretty cool and said, “God never got married.” (Guess he didn’t buy into the virgin birth scripture.) And that was that. I had a sneaky suspicion that if I pressed the matter I would have received a good rap in the mouth (schmise in punim). He was pretty fast with a backhand, as I had learned on earlier occasions when I tested the limits of his patience.
One grandfather story: My grandfather once was involved in an altercation with a bus driver, who he believed had shortchanged him. My grandfather always carried a cane, although it was more for fashion than health. Anyway, my grandfather lost his temper, and in his rage, tried to hurl the worst possible insult he could think of at the driver. He shook his cane at the guy and yelled “You…you…PORK you!”
The first black (African-American—pick a label), in my class was also around the third grade. His name was Kenneth. He was a curiosity too—especially the shape of his head—slightly elongated. As a kid growing up, anything “different” was a curiosity, not a threat, or someone to be looked up to or down upon. For instance, There was a guy in the neighborhood, maybe in his 30s at the time, who must have had cerebral palsy as a child. He was spastic and kind of flopped around when he walked. And it badly affected his speech. He was a curiosity too. My mother used to slap me when I tried to imitate him at home.
I used to love prowling the streets and explore the buildings that were being torn down on Cherry St. opposite KV to make way for the Tanahey playground. I found a bunch of canceled checks and bank statements with the name “Moderano” in one. There was a girl in my second grade class named Geraldine Moderano, so I figured she was related. I brought the checks to school and gave them to her.
One of the buildings on Cherry that was being demolished had most of the first floor torn out, leaving a gaping black hole to the basement. I was curious what was in the hole, and not having access to a flashlight, returned with a compadre equipped with some Hanukkah candles and matches. We lit some candles (without saying the baruchas) and tossed them down the hole. Most went out, but a couple didn’t, and it showed us what was in the hole—paper. Lots of paper. We got out of there fast, and later heard the fire engines coming.
The Italians seemed to be a more adventurous lot than the Jews and some belonged to “gangs.” At the time, to the best of my knowledge, the gangs were just a group of guys hanging out together and not doing anything terribly bad. For some reason, I was invited to join Vinnie Gambino’s gang for a short period. I don’t know why, I wasn’t a tough guy or anything like that. Fighting wasn’t my thing because a guy could get hurt doing that. Maybe they found a Jewish kid to be a curiosity. Anyhow, the initiation into the gang was that you had to break a window when there was a cop in the vicinity.
The stores and buildings on Catharine St at the time were being torn down to make way for the Smith projects. The rear of the buildings were pretty much demolished, but the facades on Catharine were more or less intact. There was a shoe store near Madison that had a beautiful huge oval window.

I remember the store when it was still in business. Now all that remained of it was a ghostly storefront. There was a cop on the corner of Madison and Catherine. The gang approached the building over the rubble of bricks at the rear. One of the guys handed me a brick and pointed to the plate-glass window. Moment of truth. This was beyond Jewish-caliber playful “mischief.” This was Italian “trouble.” Like something you could get arrested for. There was a moment of indecision, but the pressure of “being accepted,” overruled my trepidation. I came up with a solution. The rule required a broken window, but it didn’t specify how broken. I lobbed the brick as easy as I could toward the window hoping to make just a little innocuous hole that would fulfill the requirement. Instead the entire window came crashing down all over the sidewalk. I couldn’t believe how loud it was. And the cop came running. The gang took off, and while I was not a particularly fast runner, my adrenaline helped put me at the head of the pack, with my feet barley touching the ground.
One of the perks in joining the gang was that one of the kids would make you a slingshot out of a piece of angle iron and a strip of rubber from an inner tube. It cost 20 cents. It was a great slingshot, with good range and accuracy. The kids in the gang could bust the syrup bottle on the ices man’s cart from maybe 30 feet away. The ices man had a block of ice that he kept covered with a piece of burlap. He’d make you fresh ices by folding back the burlap, scraping the ice, piling the shavings into a paper cup and pouring your choice of syrup over the ice.

My father saw the slingshot when I brought it home. I don’t remember the lie I made up as to how I obtained it. But he was cool with the slingshot until I snapped it in my sister’s face a couple of times. Then he took it away, never to be seen again. He didn’t know that I was a member of the Gambino gang. In the gang, if you did something that Vinnie didn’t particularly care for, the punishment was the “hot knife.”—a blade heated in a flame and then applied to your arm. When I got wind that I was going to be a candidate for the hot knife, I suddenly lost interest in being part of the gang. After all, Jewish kids didn’t indulge in this kind of "barbarous" behavior. They just punched. I was told years later that Vinnie Gambino met his demise in a horrific car crash when he went into a wall on Pike St., cracked his head open and spilled his brains. I was told that the priest from St. Joseph’s got sick and threw up while administering Last Rites. I was told that Vinnie’s family wanted to erect some kind of memorial in his honor, but they came up short on his socially redeeming qualities. I think as far as they got was that “He was kind to the children.” Which he wasn’t.

The next chapter of Cliff's KV Notes

The previous chapter of Cliff's KV notes

postscript from Cliff
I think I broke one of the big square windows in the shoe store--it wasn't the small one on the door.

postscript from me
I've heard that the crash that Vinnie Gambino was in took place on Pike and East Broadway near where there is currently a gas station and that it was a head on collision with another car at a high speed.

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