When I think of my grandfather, I remember him walking. Preceding the fitness craze by a good few decades, ahead of his time, this old man from Russian-Poland, he would walk enormous distances. As a child it didn’t seem particularly odd to me, or otherwise incredible. Grandpa just liked to walk. In the city, were he resided in Brighton Beach with his widowed son-in-law and my two teenaged cousins, Grandpa used the boardwalk for his daily constitutionals. However, in summer, when visiting with us at the bungalow colony, he took to the road.
Grandpa, who was also called “Whitey” (the sobriquet attributed to the inability of my cousin Alan, as a toddler, to correctly pronounce the Yiddish word for grandpa, which was “Zaydah”—instead mangling it into a word that sounded like “Vitey.”) was a bit of a clotheshorse, a fair share of his salary designated for stocking his closet. He dutifully shopped at Maxie’s, a haberdasher of long standing in Williamsburgh, Brooklyn. The huge, corner store was on Broadway, underneath the el. Maxie and grandpa were friends, “lanzman” they called each other, though I hadn’t then a clue what the term signified. I only knew that inside the spacious store, Grandpa was treated like a favorite relative, and when the time came for my first “good suit”—a gray sharkskin—it was purveyed from Maxie’s extensive inventory, after much intense deliberation between my grandfather and Maxie himself.
Fleeing certain induction in the Czar’s army—a severely limited future for a young Jew—grandpa arrived in America immediately before the Second World War. Like millions of his generation, he spoke little English, read none at all, and enjoyed few if any prospects for shelter, let alone a job. Yet he managed to build a life here—marrying, establishing a family, providing an income, embracing a land and a tradition that in many ways would remain forever foreign. The language was always uncertain on his tongue, his conversation always a fusion of broken Yiddish and fractured English.
I digress, but only so as to flesh out a picture of the man. Whitey embraced much of the culture, developing deep affections for disparate icons of his time. He adored Lucille Ball, rooted for Willie Mays, and was a devotee of Jack Daniel’s bourbon and Dutch Masters cigars. He achieved citizenship as quickly as he could, and from that day until he was put into the ground, at age 94, he never voted anything but the straight “Democratic ticket.” He enjoyed television, and, in addition to his life-long love affair with Lucy, he was partial to Lawrence Welk, Red Skeleton and Jackie Gleason. I remember Whitey encouraging me and my brother to watch re-runs of “I Love Lucy” and the “Honeymooners”, not bad taste for a greenie whose only daily reading was the old Jewish paper, THE FORWARD, which, of course, he called, “The Forvitz.”
My mom used the week preceding Grandpa’s arrival in the country to fortify herself for his annual summer visit. His stay was always of indeterminable duration—sometimes two weeks, sometimes a month. In retrospect I suppose he departed just after either he or my mom had exhausted all tolerance for each other. Not that mom wasn’t fond of Whitey, who was my paternal grandfather—it’s just that with my grandmother gone all those years, he’d settled into his own ways, and he was intractable to any call for even the slightest deviation. He liked to rise early, often before the sun was up. He dressed in the darkened kitchen, quietly made up the high-riser, went to the bathroom where to take his teeth from the glass of “Efferdent” and re-fix them to his gums with “Polident,” and slipped from the bungalow while the rest of the colony slept. Then he took to the road.
I first realized how often and how distant Grandpa walked when I discovered the early morning treasures he often had with him on his return—fresh rolls, cookies, donuts and danish—were from Katz’s bakery on Broadway, in Monticello, a good three to four miles from our colony. Now, I had often seen groups of older men and women strolling along the shady country roads, but I’d never given much thought to just where they’d come from, or to where they were headed. That Whitey daily trekked over seven miles, often in his spit-shined cordovan loafers, was an enjoyable observation, but nothing more. If the old guy liked walking, so be it.
Upon his return to our bungalow, he ate an enormous breakfast—three eggs, a roll, cheese, tomato, onion, herring, juice, tea, danish. I can still remember sitting with him at the old Formica table, grandpa drinking his glass of tea—always in a glass, never a cup—a sugar cube tightly clenched between his false teeth so as to sweeten every sip of the golden liquid. Then he would adjourn to the porch to light up a Dutch Masters panatela and survey the colony from the comfort of a strap-rocker.
For the length of his visit my brother and I never lacked for sufficient change for pinball, or pool, or junk food. Contrary to my mother’s desires, Whitey instructed the concessionaires to allow us to charge anything we desired, so ice cream and french-fries, malteds and bubble gum became daily rituals. Often grandpa would return from his afternoon stroll with surprises. There were water guns, comic books, slingshots and Spaldeens. Sometimes there were those old, silly plastic lawn games, the ones with the net and the clicker that propelled forth a small ball that had to be caught by the other person, in their plastic net. There was the paddle toy, with the small rubber ball attached by the elastic cord. Once, just before the Fourth of July, he appeared with a tremendous bag filled with firecrackers, sparklers and roman candles. Had Whitey managed to walk all the way to Chinatown?
He’d worked many years in the huge commercial laundries, eventually rising to manager. His life had been checkered with fascinating anecdotes and colorful acquaintances, but I was too young and too self-involved to take the time to delve into his treasure trove of memories, and then, when it occurred to me to try, it was too late, because he was gone. I later learned, through an uncle, of his long, involved and fascinating flight from Russia to the US, where he hid out in basements and sewers by day, and traveled by night. I discovered several men whose names still live in infamy—Louis “Lepke” Buchwalter and Meyer Lansky—had befriended him. Lepke often used the laundries to stash firearms and contraband. Lansky sometimes discussed politics and sports with Whitey over tea and danish at a rear table at “Ratner’s.”
He’d been widowed in 1948, when my grandmother died from cancer, and till his death he never lacked for female companionship. He played a keen game of gin rummy, and casino, which he taught to my brother and me. He had a passion for auction pinochle, and if I close my eyes I can still see his thick, strong, gnarled fingers awkwardly shuffling the cards, dealing them out, slapping my hand whenever I made a misplay.
It’s interesting to speculate on just what is genetic and what is random and what is choice. I, too, loved Lucy, and the “Honeymooners.” While my friends worshipped “The Mick”, I was enamored of Mays. So was my brother, who I believe also inherited Whitey’s affection for fine and expensive clothing. I enjoy gin rummy, and play casino for high stakes, and to this day my drink is Jack Daniel’s.
Whitey outlived his wife and two children, and died at age 94, in February 1983, 9 months to the day before the birth of my first child. I miss him everyday.
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