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Memoir Part 4: My Family

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I need to begin with my parents. Jack Heimoff and Gertrude Merson were both born in 1915, Jack in Manhattan, Gertrude, as I’ve mentioned, in Oklahoma, only seven years after it became a state. I grew up in close contact with Jack’s side of the family; my Heimoff cousins were like my siblings. Gertrude’s people, in the southwest, were distant, in an era when air flight was difficult and expensive, and so I never grew close to them.

Jack was Rose and Max’s youngest child. Lennie, his older brother, was their middle child; Ruth, born in Russia before Max and Rose emigrated, was the eldest. Ruth’s husband was my Uncle Teddy, a giant of a man, a legend in our family to this day—as my recounting of his bar mitzvah fisticuffs suggests.

Stories about Teddy abound. When the other dads drove Chevys or Fords, Teddy cruised around in a Lincoln Continental. Where others had to find parking spots on the crowded Grand Concourse, Teddy double-parked. He never got a ticket and we never knew why; an aura of mystery and power surrounded him. I never could figure out exactly what he did for a job. Larger-than-life, he would pick me up and throw me in the air, like a ball, and catch me on the way down. He only missed once; fortunately, I suffered no permanent damage.

Uncle Lennie was our family doctor, the success story, rising from the Depression to wealth and achievement. He worked on Gen. MacArthur’s anti-venereal disease program in the Pacific during the war, and returned home one of the most sought-after V.D. specialists in New York. He was president of the Bronx County Medical Society. To me, he was everything I’d ever wanted my own father to be. By the mid-1950s, Lennie could afford to move out of The Bronx. He bought a big, white, classical home in Teaneck, New Jersey, with a swimming pool and air-conditioning. We’d drive to Teaneck on hot summer days, so I could swim with my cousins. I hated the drive back to The Bronx, to our dreary little tenement, to the heat and humidity.

Unlike Lennie and Ruth (and my mother), my father never went to college. He could have, but chose, for some reason I never understood, not to. He never succeeded economically. Indeed, Jack’s financial struggles and drab career (he was a purchasing agent, with no pension) haunted my childhood, and grieve me to this day. He was a deeply unhappy man, aware of his inadequacies and ashamed of them. All the others of his generation, my uncles and aunts, were professionals who “made it” to the suburbs, to large homes with gardens and trees. Jack and Gertrude never got out of The Bronx, except for a brief stint in another apartment in Howard Beach, Queens (“Archie Bunker” land), to which they moved, in the late 1970s, because The Bronx had become dangerous. They finally retired to a condo on the poorer outskirts of Fort Lauderdale.

Lennie and his wife, my Aunt Esther (“Ettie”), had three girls, Maxine, Ellen and Rona, in birth order. I was very close with them. Today, Ellen, who lives in Malibu, and I remain close, but even closer, both geographically and socially, to me is Maxine, who lives just across San Francisco Bay from my home in Oakland. She is the one who convinced me to move to California, in 1978, at a time when my life was turbulent; that move changed everything, and I’ll get to it in due course. My three cousins on Teddy and Ruth’s side were Felice, Richard and Alan, again in birth order. Felice died years ago, the first of our generation to go, but then, she was older than the rest of us. Alan and I are close; Richard and I, less so. But those childhood bonds are strong, not easily rent.

Alan and Richard—“Ritchie”—were older and bigger than me, and a lot more worldly. When they lived in 760, we’d play under the stairwell in the dark rear of the building, where they taught me my first lessons in sexuality. We must have been five, six years old. It was all very illicit and secretive, and therefore exciting. This went on for years. I’m not saying they “made me queer.” Indeed, whatever happened was with my willing and eager participation. I would have been queer anyway. As for why I went gay and they didn’t–who can say?

At any rate, by the time I was eleven or twelve—before I reached puberty—I was on the hunt. For what? Boys. I knew in my heart and mind that I couldn’t be the only male in The Bronx who felt like this. Common sense suggested it had to be widespread. But how to spot a like-minded kid? Was there a secret sign? A wink? A head nod? For a while, I tried opening my mouth into an “O” and wagging my tongue from side to side whenever I encountered a cute guy. It never worked. Hundreds of kids in The Bronx must have wondered who this open-mouthed weirdo was.

I knew I was attracted to boys. Knew, also, that it was verboten, wrong, something to keep a deep, dark secret. This was my introduction to shame—emotional baggage I’ve carried all my life and tried, not always successfully, to overcome. An incident involving Barry, Elsie and Dave’s son, showed me the necessity of secrecy. As I wrote, he was six years older than me, a tall, lean, good-looking kid with sharp cheekbones. Barry and his gang of friends allowed me to hang out with them in front of 760, where they’d lean against cars, or throw a Spaldeen around, talking about sports and girls. I’ll never forget the time Barry told them a story.

He was in high school, failing a class. He went to see the teacher. “Is there anything I can do—anything—for you not to flunk me?” Barry asked. Why, yes, as it turned out, there was. The teacher, a middle-aged man, told Barry he’d give him a passing grade if Barry let him suck his cock.

“Oh, wow,” his friends gasped. They reacted with shock, horror, revulsion. “That’s disgusting!” “Somebody should lock that old faggot up!” I may have been a dumb little nine-year old but I wasn’t stupid. “That’s what I am,” I thought. “A faggot.” I might have substituted “leper” or “Communist” or “murderer.” I instantly understood that I must never, ever, under any circumstances breathe a word of this to anyone. It had to be my secret; to reveal it was to risk being rejected, hated, beaten up. That was the moment I stepped into the closet, slammed the door and locked it shut from the inside. There I remained for the next twenty-five years.

One Autumn day in 1959, at thirteen, the magic moment came: Puberty! Jonathan had reached it first and told me about it. One afternoon, alone at home, I tried humping a pillow. Bingo! Oh glorious feeling, oh exalted physicality, oh most amazing pleasure, oh my God, this life-affirming thing a boy could do! I had discovered Mr. Happy.

* * *

My sexual life sped up. The Bronx teemed with boys and young men, not just Jewish, but Irish, Black and Puerto Rican; and the Ricans were my first “lovers,” to use that term generously. I really liked the Puerto Ricans. So did my mother (although for vastly different reasons), who taught them in her Junior High. She’d say to me, “I wish you were as nice as my Puerto Ricans.” They had a sweetness, a vulnerability that was non-existent among my Jewish friends. This is probably why, to this day, I feel such a close connection here in California to Latinos, and Mexicans in particular (and is another reason why Mexican-bashing Republicans so disgust me).

It was easy to meet Puerto Rican kids. A connection could happen in the bushes of Franz Siegel Park or, more likely, on Sheridan Avenue, above the train yards, where at night the streets were deserted, while the New York Central trains chugged and clanged below. Years later, I learned that what I was doing was called “cruising.” It came instinctively. I’d tell my parents I was going out at night to play with friends—a form of the truth, if you think about it. Gertrude and Jack didn’t care, as long as I was back by, say, ten. I’d go down to Sheridan Avenue and walk the street, watching, cautious, ready. A boy or man would pass. Eye contact. One of us would lead the other to a darkened place. It was dangerous, hell yes. But the danger was part of the excitement, a frisson of sexual thrill. I’ve never understood this connection between risky behavior and sexual heightening. On the downside, I’ve never managed to achieve the trusting oneness of couples who have been together for a long time. When I think about what I’ve never had—and I often do–I feel sad. But you can only play the cards you’re dealt, and make the best of them.


Memoir part 3: My early teen years: A bar mitzvah, and questioning authority

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In the 1950s nobody locked their doors. In 760, every kid could go into every apartment—well, nearly every apartment—and find a home away from home. Unlike my mom, most of the housewives didn’t work, so you’d go to your friend Irwin’s apartment, or Donald’s, or Bobby’s, or Kenny’s, or Howie’s, or Ricky’s, and there’d be a mom there. “You want something to eat? A sandwich? Milk? Eat! You shouldn’t be so skinny.” The adults had their little feuds (and occasional affairs), but we kids didn’t know about that. What we knew was that we were special: part of a gigantic herd of Jews that extended beyond 760, across The Bronx and New York and America, through war-ravaged Europe down into Israel. And while we kids weren’t well-versed in the details of World War II and the Holocaust, we understood that the Jewish people had suffered terrible things, and that the only reason we were here was because our parents had survived. Our parents never talked to us about what had happened; they were notoriously reticent about anything having to do with the war. It was almost as if, by not mentioning it, it hadn’t existed.

My parents sent me to Hebrew school starting at the age of seven. I went three times a week, after regular school. Hebrew school was in our synagogue, Congregation Hope of Israel, about three blocks away. I enjoyed Hebrew School, but there was a troubling aspect that influenced my later attitude towards religious dogma. We had a young instructor from the Yeshiva, Rabbi Saperstein. He was teaching one day about the age of the earth, which he said was 5,715 years (in 1955), according to the Jewish calendar.

Of course, little Stevie the troublemaker just had to raise his hand.

“Rabbi, at the Museum of Natural History, they say the dinosaurs lived 100 million years ago. So how can the world be only 5,715 years old?”

Rabbi Saperstein had the answer. He launched into the story of Piltdown Man, one of the most infamous scientific frauds in history. Someone in the early 20th century claimed to have dug up skull fragments in northern New York State and declared that the long-dead creature was the “missing link,” the fabled connection between apes and humans. It turned out not to be true; the bones had been chemically doctored. “So,” Rabbi Saperstein triumphantly announced, “as you can see, all these so-called ‘fossils’ are fake.”

The troublemaker was having none of it. “But Rabbi, just because Piltdown Man was fake doesn’t mean that all the other fossils are fake.” Poor Rabbi Saperstein didn’t know how to deal with an obnoxious, stubborn kid who wasn’t afraid of him. He ordered me to stop asking questions, which is why, to this day, I am intolerant of religious fanatics who reject science.

A story: In 1996, I went to a wedding in Manhattan, and decided to take the subway up to 161st Street to visit the old neighborhood, which I hadn’t seen in 25 years. I’d forgotten all about the synagogue. I was walking towards 760 when I passed it. Wow, still there, I thought. I opened the creaky front door: the same dimly lit vestibule, the same musty old smell. I peered inside: empty, silent. Then, from someplace out of sight, an old man’s voice in a thick Yiddish accent.

“Who is that?”

I quickly thought to myself, “He heard me enter. The neighborhood is Puerto Rican now. He’s frightened.” I yelled, “It’s okay. I was bar mitzvah here. I came to visit.”

From the darkened stairwell slowly emerged a human being, rising like a submarine from the depths: an old head of white hair beneath a skullcap. Wizened face with glasses. A dark suit. A white tallit draped around his shoulders. The apparition gazed at me. “You were bar mitzvah?”

“Yes!”

“Here?”

“Yes!”

The apparition steps towards me, grabs my elbow with claw-like fingers, and tugs. “Come.” I let him guide me down the stairs.

Below, in a large, brightly-lit room, a crowd of perhaps thirty people, men, women, children. A table laden with Jewish food: rugelach, hamentaschen, challah. The people have gathered for Minchah, the afternoon service, but in order for it to be legal according to Torah law, they need a minyan: a quorum of ten adult men. They had only nine. “We prayed,” said the apparition, the rabbi, “and God sent you.”

* * *

I took my bar mitzvah shortly after my 13th birthday, in late June, 1959. Generations of Jewish boys have had similar bar mitzvahs. First there’s the religious ceremony, with the ritual services and prayers and singing of the Haftorah, for which I practiced for months. Then all the guests go someplace for the party. It wouldn’t be a bar mitzvah without a party! In our case, this was in a rented event space under the old Jerome Avenue “el”, next to Yankee Stadium. There was an ice swan (don’t ask me how an ice swan is part of Jewish tradition), tables laden with lox, bread, cold cuts, chopped liver, tuna salad, roast beef, chocolates, cake. Tons of liquor: Jews love to drink. We had a band. People danced, drank, ate, socialized, drank, danced, ate, gossiped, drank, came over to pinch the cheek of the bar mitzvah boy and hand him an envelope containing a U.S. savings bond. When the inside pocket of my suit jacket (fitted by old man Fox) was stuffed with envelopes I went to the bathroom, sat inside a stall on the toilet, and added up my loot. Then it was time for my speech. The band stopped: I went to the microphone and thanked everyone. My cousin Rita, a former Miss Texas, was married to a very good-looking guy named Richard. Richard was drunk. He grabbed the microphone from me and gave his own speech.

“Stevie.” His words were slurred. “You think all these people are here to celebrate your bar mitzvah? Wrong!” Ears prick up among the Jews. Vas ist das? “They’re here to eat your father’s food and drink his booze!”

Mayhem. My father, Uncle Teddy and Uncle Lennie took Richard down. Teddy, all 6’4” of him, clobbered Richard with a right hook; Richard fell backwards like a chopped tree into the arms of my father and Lennie. The three of them carried him out into the lobby and threw the unconscious body onto a couch. The party went on.


Memoir Part 2: The little gay boy

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Some people think of The Bronx as a crime-ridden, dangerous and decrepit place—possibly this is the result of movies like Fort Apache, The Bronx (1981) and Wolfen (1981), which portrayed the Bronx as a dystopic nightmare of werewolves living in gutted apartment buildings, slurking around at night to tear people apart.

But The Bronx was a great place when I was a kid. The Grand Concourse was an attractively wide boulevard, modeled after the Champs-Elysée, with a flower- and tree-lined median. Sidewalks were studded with deciduous trees: red maple, honey locust, red and white oak, birch, sycamore. Across the street from 760 was Franz Siegel Park, 16 acres of rolling meadows, thickets, ball fields, flowering bushes and trees, fountains and winding pathways meandering beneath stone arches. George Washington is said to have used the granite cliffs facing west to keep an eye on British troops camped by the Harlem River. To a little boy, the park was a wonderland, a place to escape the pavements, laze on the grass on hot summer days, play touch football, or pretend to be a famous archeologist or explorer. Facing the Grand Concourse were wooden benches where in the afternoon, moms and grandmas sat and gossiped, rocking baby strollers and smoking cigarettes.

And how many kids there were! It was not called a “Baby Boom” for nothing. The millions of dads who had been away at war, or who worked in war industries on the home front, reproduced like rabbits once the war was over. Unemployment was low; everybody had a job, not always a great one, but it paid the bills. Things were cheap, and there was no inflation. My middle-class parents even had a small summer bungalow in a charming little town in New Jersey called White Meadow Lake. America was at peace. The New York City public schools (my mom taught junior high school in Spanish Harlem) were the best in America. In 760 alone there must have been 20 kids my age. On the surrounding blocks were additional thousands. Friendship was easy to come by for a young Jewish kid in The Bronx in the 1950s.

Memories persist. I mentioned the Yankees. In those days baseball players were not the multi-multi millionaires they are today. Most of the Yankees lived, during the baseball season, in a hotel, the Concourse Plaza, three blocks up from 760 Grand Concourse. On any given day, you’d see them walking around, doing their thing like anybody else: Mickey Mantle waiting for the light to cross 161st Street, Whitey Ford in line at the G&R Bakery, Don Larson buying groceries at the A&P. Many of us kids were autograph hounds. I had a little album signed by all the great Yankees of the decade. My parents threw it out during my first semester away at college, a treachery for which I never quite forgave them.

Memories: riding our bikes to the George Washington Bridge and onto the span itself, spitting into the Hudson River far below. Stickball games, played on hard pavement, with our moms’ sawed-off broomsticks for bats, and the little orange balls we called “Spaldeens” because they were manufactured by the Spalding Company. Those balls cost 25 cents apiece. We lost a lot of them; a foul would invariably stray into the Grand Concourse, where collision with a car would send it careening. We were little criminals: it was a lot cheaper to steal a Spaldeen from Feldman’s variety store than to buy a new one. Mrs. Feldman, Mr. Feldman’s childless wife with her hawk’s eyes and hatred of us urchins, knew we stole. There was nothing she could do about it except glare.

Next to Feldman’s was Dave Buch’s butcher shop. Dave was my father’s best friend and pinochle buddy, a handsome, dark-haired man with a mustache. He and his wife, Elsie—the beauty of 760, blonde and buxom–lived next door, in apartment 6L to our 6M. They had two kids: Barry, who was my sister’s age, six years older than me, and Ellen, my age. Ellen was my best friend when we were little. We would hide behind a sofa and pretend to kiss, or drink milk sweetened with Nestlé’s Quik chocolate powder as we sprawled on the sofa watching T.V. shows like Gunsmoke or Medic. The latter, starring Richard Boone as Dr. Styner (a Jew?), was about a doctor who, every week, had to diagnose a new disease. When I began showing weekly symptoms of leukemia, multiple sclerosis and plague, my parents forbade me to watch it anymore.

Down 156th Street from Dave’s was the grocery store. Next to that was Fox’s tailor shop, a place I had no reason to frequent, except once, when old man Fox fitted my bar mitzvah suit. At the bottom of 156th Street was Sheridan Avenue, named after the Union Civil War general, Phil Sheridan. (Many Bronx streets were named after Union Civil War generals.) Across Sheridan Avenue was the vast, third-of-a-mile-wide railroad junction where all the trains came and went into and out of New York. Known today as the Oak Point Yard, it’s the second largest railroad yard in New York. Trains rumbled throughout the day and night. Having lived with that racket since birth, I didn’t even hear it anymore, but once, one of my cousins stayed the night with us and couldn’t sleep.

Our public school was about a mile away from 760. We kids would gather every morning throughout the school year and file into the yellow school buses which dutifully delivered us to P.S. 35, built in 1898 and even sixty-five years ago falling apart. But our teachers were remarkable; I still remember many of their names (Mrs. Streng, Mrs. Sabatini, Mr. Cooper with his halitosis). I got a fantastic education, and adored learning. That love of education, of acquiring knowledge and discovering new things, also is part of my Jewish heritage. I did well enough to be selected as the smartest kid in my grade level by the teachers every year through fifth grade, in an annual competition that couldn’t possibly happen nowadays, when no child is permitted to feel inferior. That halcyon period ended in sixth grade, when a new Jewish kid, Harold, moved into the neighborhood. He was a lot smarter than me, and grabbed the prize that year. I was pissed. Turns out I’m competitive.

When we weren’t in school, we thrived on sports. I mean the boys: girls didn’t do sports in the 1950s, they played with dolls. Stickball and touch football were our standbys, depending on the season. On cold winter Saturdays and Sundays, even when it snowed, I couldn’t wait to round up the guys for football in Franz Siegel Park. I’d be on the phone by 7:30 in the morning: “Hey, let’s play ball.” Those were some of the high points of my childhood. I loved my friends, loved being with them, loved playing ball with them, loved joking and laughing with them. In retrospect, I can see that this enormous affection for my male friends might have been an early expression of my sexual orientation. But, of course, in the mid-1950s, I had no way of knowing about that, nor did any of the other little queer boys of America. That didn’t start to change for another 20 years.

I mean, look: there was no such thing as homosexuality back then, not in the middle class Jewish neighborhoods of The Bronx. I guess our fathers might have known something about it, especially those who had been in the Army. But no one talked about it. If you’re a little kid, how can you know about something that doesn’t officially exist?

Still, kids do pick stuff up on the streets. I think in some inchoate way we had an inkling. There was this guy who lived on the next block. He was slightly-built, about 30, and even we kids who lived in dungarees and T-shirts could tell he was “a fancy dresser” from his long white scarf and pleated trousers. He was said (by whom, I can’t remember) to be something called “an interior decorator,” and we’d often see him, sashaying (an accurate description) down the street walking his two giant Afghan hounds—beautiful dogs, but who the hell had Afghan hounds in The Bronx? Somehow, we “knew,” without knowing, that he was different, and it had to do with “sex,” which was this mysteriously secret world the older boys inhabited and we did not. I would watch as he passed; it was like looking at a strange life form, not exactly alien, but exotic; and in a way I couldn’t put my finger on, there was recognition: I think I know what’s up with that. But that’s as far as it went.

My best friend, whom I still know albeit only through Facebook, was a kid I’ll call Jonathan. He was the supreme athlete of the neighborhood, a slugger who could hit a home run, snag a high fly ball, grab a football out of the clouds and run like a deer for the touchdown. Jonathan was wiry and cute, with red hair and tortoise-shell glasses and a taut, muscular body. I was in love with him from a very early age. I have memories of us playing on the bed, out of sight of our parents, when we were only five or six, and me getting a hard-on. (I doubt if Jonathan felt the same way; he was entirely straight.) During those same years, I’d visit Grandma Rose, and she would let me play in her bedroom. I’d rifle through her costume jewelry, trying on necklaces, brooches, tiaras. Grandma had a dowry chest, an exquisite old Russian trunk she’d brought with her from the old country, filled with the most beautiful silk bolts of every rainbow color. I loved to wrap myself in them, wearing the jewelry, imagining myself a Russian princess. How could no one have known about this odd little boy? How could no one have explained anything to me? But those were the times.


Memoir Part 1: My Early Years: The Bronx

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I come from Russian Jews–Ashkenazi Jews, the Jews of Northern and Eastern Europe, as opposed to the Sephardic Jews of Mediterranean Europe. I don’t know how my distant ancestors came to live in Russia. Historical evidence suggests that Jews like them, after being driven out of Palestine one or two thousand years ago, had migrated to Western Europe. Most likely they found life there, as the Dark ages metastasized into the witch hunts of the Inquisition, increasingly difficult. If it wasn’t Muslims or Huns trying to kill them, it was Christians. Always, somebody hated on them: somebody in power, which may be why I have issues with abusive powerful people to this day.

My four grandparents, all born in the 1880s, hailed from what is today’s Ukraine, near Odessa, although for large parts of its history it had veered between the Russian and Polish empires. I know very little of my mother’s parents. Both died well before I was born, on June 14, 1946. My maternal grandfather, Harry, co-founded the first synagogue in Oklahoma, when it was still Indian territory. I’m sure he and his wife, Reva, left Russia for the same reason millions of others did: to avoid the pogroms everyone knew were coming. But why they settled in Oklahoma (of all places) is a complete riddle.

My father’s parents, Max and Rose, moved to America in 1913. The both lived long. Grandpa Max died around 1953, when I was seven. Grandma Rose lived until 1968 or 1969. I was very close to both. They never fully lost their Russian immigrant ways. Both spoke English with thick accents. The furniture in their small apartment was old-fashioned Victorian, with doilies on the tables and anti-macassars on the chair backs. They kept kosher, but were not otherwise particularly religious. I remember walking with Grandpa to the kosher butcher, on the other side of the tracks in the South Bronx where we lived. He would select a live chicken, which the butcher would ritually slaughter, then throw into a sack, feathers and all. Grandma made wonderful chicken soup, the best I’ve ever had; she insisted the secret was to include the chicken’s feet in the broth.

I remember, too, when Grandma got very old and had dementia. She lived by herself, a sweet lady, content in her gathering darkness. I visited with her in the late 1960s. Grandma sat in a chair and I in another. Neither of us said anything for an hour. Afterwards I kissed her goodbye. It was the last time I ever saw her.

Aspects of my grandparents’ Judaism have pervaded my life and thought. While they were not observant, they were culturally Jewish; they could not escape their past—the past of the Torah, of the wanderings of the Jewish people, of centuries of shtetl life and persecution, living and working with their own kind, always with an abiding faith in the value of education and hard work. They were a people apart: and that sense of being “the other” has haunted me from birth. No matter where European Jewry scattered in the early decades of the 20th century, they maintained this self-identity, this common bond: and nowhere in America, perhaps, was the Jewish diasporic experience more apparent than in The Bronx.

The borough, connected to the U.S. mainland unlike Manhattan island, was first settled by the Dutch in the 1600s, as a kind of northern suburb. It was a leafy, country place of rolling hills, surrounded by rivers teeming with fish and forests bursting with game. Manhattanites with money built summer places there. Jonas Bronck, who had emigrated to the Dutch New Amsterdam in 1639, established his farm, across the Harlem River from upper Manhattan, around 1640. Visitors were said to have been “to the Broncks’,” whence The Bronx got its name.

Max and Rose and their three children moved there sometime in the early 1930s. My generation of the family bitterly regrets having asked so few questions of our grandparents and parents while they lived. There is so much we don’t know, and never will. Why did Rose and Max move to The Bronx? Undoubtedly they’d begun life in America in New York, after going through Ellis Island; from there, there’s little doubt they went on to the Lower East Side, although we have no definite knowledge of that. We know that, after a while, they moved to Manhattan’s Upper West Side, to Riverside Drive. But why they made the schlep to The Bronx is a mystery, although they weren’t alone. When I was little, it was said that The Bronx contained more Jews than the State of Israel.

They made their home in one of the thousands of six-story brick tenement buildings erected in the borough to house the enormous influx of new residents. In our case, the address was a famous one in our family: 760 Grand Concourse—“760” for short–a place known to this day by the fifth generation of my relatives who may never even have seen it. At one point, four generations of the family dwelt there; The Bronx exists in my cultural DNA as strongly as does my Jewish heritage. 760, which still stands, was a few blocks from the 161st Street subway stop of the D-Train, where Yankee Stadium was and is. The New York Yankees are also an indelible part of my childhood.

[This is Part 1 of a new memoir. I’ll publish future parts on an occasional basis.]


Happy Thanksgiving!

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I’m alone today, the first time I’ve ever been alone on Thanksgiving.

For decades, the Northern California branch of the family made our way down to Malibu, to eat and be with the Southern California members, plus whoever happened to be visiting from other parts of the country or world. Sometimes cousin Loretta would fly in from New Jersey; sometimes Rebecca and Jesse would fly in from Hong Kong; sometimes cousin Alan would make it here from his base in South Carolina, or my niece Janel and her family from their home in West Seattle. At times, we’d have at least twenty people, which meant my cousin Ellen, our hostess at her home in the Malibu hills, had her hands full preparing a massive feast with all the trimmings.

But over the years, our numbers diminished. People died. Those who didn’t die succumbed to the ravages of age, which makes traveling difficult. Families moved away, raised kids, and began their own Thanksgiving traditions; they didn’t have to go to Ellen’s anymore. And now, here we are, Thanksgiving 2019, and, as I said, I’m alone for the first time on turkey day.

But not lonely. “Alone” doesn’t automatically translate into “lonely.”

There’s a meme in the media that says people who are alone on Thanksgiving or Christmas are especially to be pitied. It’s said that being alone on these family-oriented holidays is a horrible fate, that those of us who are destined to be alone must pine away in our solitude, depressed and, in some cases, suicidal. To such suggestions I can only say: Bah, humbug.

I see the advantages of not having to participate in a huge Thanksgiving bacchanal. It’s certainly healthier: I won’t have to stuff my body with thousands of calories and hundreds of grams of fat. I don’t have to drive 400 miles one-way, and—this being rainy season in California—let me tell you there’s no joy in negotiating the 101 Freeway in a drenching gale. I like most of my relatives, but the truth is—can we talk?—that three days of forced cohabitation can result in bruised feelings, with old spats resurfacing and new frustrations arising.

There are practical difficulties to sharing the holidays with our families. I’m an early-morning person; most of my family aren’t. I’m an early-to-bed person; my family stays up late, watching T.V. and talking. The noise keeps me awake and is irritating. It’s not personal, but anyone who’s ever tried to drift off to sleep while loud noise is seeping into the bedroom knows the feeling. You bury your head under the pillows, but the blare still permeates your brain. And don’t even get me started on shared bathrooms!

So I’m chill with being alone. I get to do all the comforting, bland things I enjoy in my dotage: cuddle with Gus, watch some good T.V., write, plan for tonight’s dinner alone, shop. As I write these words at 8:30 a.m., I’m thinking of taking BART into San Francisco—only three stops away. Do a little Christmas shopping, grab lunch someplace (probably sushi), check out the store windows around Union Square—alone. Gus is fine for six or seven hours without a walk; he’ll be glad to see me when I get home, and vice versa.

So feel not sorry for me! Our culture, I think, puts too much emphasis on connecting, on social activity that can be frenzied, on parties and activities. In insisting that the busy life is the only one worth living, we forget the obvious: that we were born alone and will die alone (no matter how many others surround us at that moment). Being alone is, in fact, a blessing: time to retreat and retrench, to gather stock, to let the nerves relax and enjoy the feeling of Just.Being. Imagine that: Just be. You don’t have to do. You don’t have to talk, or amuse anyone, or be amused. You don’t have to do anything, just be, the way your soul just is, undistracted and undivided.

Am I grateful? Yes, but no more today than on any other day. I don’t have to set aside a day a year to remind myself that I’m healthy, able to support myself, and reasonably active at the age of 73. I have a roof over my head, the companionship of my dog, a few close friends to confide in, and a wider range of acquaintances whose company I enjoy, but from whom I can part ways when and if their company grows tedious. I have a comfortable life—not an affluent one by any means, but one that gives me enjoyment and peace. That’s something to be grateful for.

If you’re reading these words on this Thanksgiving Day, I extend to you the peace of the season, and wish you a happy, safe holiday.


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