It is a bright and breezy day in Lexington. The AC is off and the screen door is open. After enjoying a nice lunch of tuna and plums, I settled on the couch to watch a rerun of my favorite television personality, Bear Grylls, trek through a Chilean rain forest. But I soon lost track of the man with too much testosterone, and my thoughts transported me back to a bright and breezy Brooklyn afternoon in July 1967.
I was born and raised in the Sheepshead Bay area of Brooklyn, New York. I lived with my parents and maternal grandparents, in a six storey, 76–unit apartment building, on Shore Parkway and East 14th Street. My parents and I lived in a two bedroom unit on the first floor, and my grandparents were in a one bedroom apartment on the third floor. Our apartment was on the corner, providing us with cross–ventilation, but we also had twice as much noise, because our living room windows were across the street from the Belt Parkway, and our bedroom windows were across the street from the Subway, which is elevated in that part of Brooklyn. In addition to the auto exhausts, we also gifted with bus fumes, because the B36 turned on our corner. Despite the pollution, we didn’t have an air conditioner for the first dozen or so years of my life, because we lived near the ocean, and its breezes kept us cool in the summer. The pollution wasn’t as much a problem as the noise, which caused pictures hanging on the wall to vibrate whenever two trains, traveling in opposite directions, passed at the same time.
The Old Country
I don’t remember much about my maternal grandmother, Fanny, who died of pancreatic cancer when I was four, but I have many fond memories of her husband, Max.
Max was born in Romania. He educated himself by reading, and became conversant in several languages from reading foreign newspapers. He never spoke about his parents, he only said that they both died in 1905. Shortly after his parents died, he said that Romania began conscripting all the young men they could find for 25 year terms in their Army. Grandpa said that most of the eligible men, including himself, left the country before they were drafted.
Coming to America
In 1906, when he was 21, he sold all his possessions, and boarded a boat for America and freedom. He met his wife on the boat, who was traveling from Russia with her Dad, and they were married by the Captain.
Like so many others, Max and Fanny arrived at Ellis Island, but Max had several advantages. He was big, he had some money, and most importantly, he spoke English. He said that he bribed one bureaucrat, so they wouldn’t have to quarantined, and then another, to obtain whatever forms he needed. He filled out the forms, saying that his last name was Weinstein, and that he was Jewish. An official told him, that he would have to wait, because their quota of Jews was filled, so he bribed him too. This person changed his last name on the form to “Itzkowitz” and his religion to Catholicism.
After leaving the ferry, Max, Fanny, and her Dad, David, walked along the docks and noticed a disturbance, where unionized workers were striking, and preventing boats from being unloaded. Max sent Fanny and David off to The Lower East Side of Manhattan, where many European Jews lived, and stayed on the docks, to become a strikebreaker. He said that once you fought your way past the Union workers, you had to stay there, and he stayed there for two weeks, earning $6 an hour to unload boats, and keep the Unions away.
The American Way
When he rejoined Fanny and David in Manhattan, he had several hundred dollars saved, and decided to invest it corned beef. He found a wholesale meat distributor, who gave him 25 pounds of corned beef free, for every hundred pounds he purchased. He rented a wagon and horse, and began selling corned beef to delicatessens. Since he could speak Yiddish, Italian, and Spanish, in addition to English, he sold enough corned beef to open a small restaurant, on Grand Street, on The Lower East Side, a few weeks later.
He needed references from Rabbis, to borrow money from Jewish moneylenders to open his store, and the Rabbis complained that there were too many delicatessens in the neighborhood, so he came up with a novel idea to win their approval. He opened a restaurant with two kitchens and counters. “M. Itzkowitz Ice Cream & Delicatessen” opened on Grand Street, on The Lower East Side, in 1907. Max’s restaurant included two kitchens, and two separate counters with stools for diners. One side served dairy, and the other side served meat.
In addition to selling meat, Max also made his own ice cream and fruit syrups, so this location provided him with an opportunity to have two businesses at once.
Although Max only ate Kosher food, he was a capitalist, and the next two restaurants he opened were both non–Kosher. He retired when he was 50. He said that he didn’t trust banks, and would never buy stocks, so he put all his money in safe deposit boxes, and his only investments were savings bonds. I always used to hear him complain that his money wasn’t worth as much anymore, but I never understood what he meant.
Diet and Exercise
Max was very particular about what he ate, and also about what others around him were eating. I never tasted a frankfurter while he was alive, because he forbid them, saying, “They’re made from the pieces that fall on the floor.” He rarely ate meat. The only red meat I ever saw him eat was tongue, from a Kosher butcher, which he claimed was “safe,” because it was boiled. He ate chicken occasionally, but it had to freshly killed, straight from a Kosher butcher, and it also had to be boiled.
Max believed that the only “safe” non–dairy food, was fish, and only fish that came directly off a fishing boat. Which is why we lived in Sheepshead Bay, walking distance from fishing piers. Max and I would walk to the boats several times a week, and he would select fish for us to eat. He didn’t trust the fellows on the boat to clean it properly, so after his wife died, he also gave it to my Mom to clean, which thoroughly exasperated her.
Max also believed that it was important to take long walks, and he never owned a car when I knew him.
Max disliked cold weather, and kept another apartment in Miami Beach for winters. He left Brooklyn after Thanksgiving, and returned for Passover. However, he was unpredictable, and sometimes returned to Brooklyn for a few weeks in the Winter, or went to Miami in the Summer.
In 1962, four years after Fanny died, he married Bessie in Miami. Bessie had a daughter in Brooklyn, and I was encouraged to spend time with her grandson. Charlie was about my age, but neither of us enjoyed our forced fraternization.
Bright and Breezy
During the Summer of ‘67, Max and Bessie decided to go Miami for awhile, so Grandpa was not around for Mom’s birthday in July.
Her birthday was a bright and breezy day, just like today, and I went out during the afternoon to buy her favorite cake, an Ebinger’s blackout cake.
I recall coming home on that bright and breezy day, standing by living room window, enjoying the refreshing breeze, and listening to some of our neighbors, ladies paying mah-jongg, who always setup a folding table directly beneath our window.
Birthdays were always unusual in my family. I had two brothers who died before I was born, so my birthday was special to my parents, and I always had a party, with guests, goodies, and favors, until I was about ten. But I was now a teenager, and the only thing I looked forward to was an envelope in the mail from my favorite Aunt, who used to send me a card, containg a dollar amount which matched my age.
Dad looked forward to his birthday, but Mom always bemoaned adding another year to her age. What was most unusual, was that all of our birthdays were only separated by a couple of weeks. Several folks have told me that our family was an astrological nightmare.
In any event, Mom was never happy on her birthday, and she always said, “I’ll be going through the changes any day now.” Max was the only person who could straighten out Mom, and I was hoping he would call soon, and cheer her up.
The telephone rang on cue, and I went straight for it, hoping that Grandpa was on the other end. Instead of him, it was Bessie, who Mom liked less than anyone. Bessie was about twenty years younger than Max, and likely to outlive him. So any mention of Bessie included, “She’ll get everything when he goes, and I’ll be left with nothing.” That much I understood. However I was hoping that he would call, because I enjoyed talking to him. I also missed our walks to Sheepshead Bay. Grandpa might have been old, but he was very sharp, and he always pointed out stuff during our walks that I would have missed. He was also full of stories about things that happened before I was born. Everything except my deceased brothers. They were only mentioned on their birthdays, which coincidentally, were nowhere near ours. Anyway, maybe Bessie calling was a good omen, and maybe Max was in Brooklyn, and I would see him later.
No such luck. Bessie called to say that he died. He had gone out for a walk, sat on a bench, and was discovered by a passer–by. Max was gone.
Dark and Dank
Birthdays were never the same after he died. Mom withdrew, and stopped getting dressed, and going outside. I mean really stopped going out. She didn’t even go to his funeral, even though the Rabbi came over, and everyone sat shiva in our apartment. Mom went outside less than five times for the rest of her life, and those few times were to go to a hospital. I will never know what Bessie said to her, or what Max meant to her, but she was never the same.
And nobody ever celebrated another birthday.