The boys would be woken suddenly by their hysterical mother in the black Peekskill night during the Depression. They were probably already up because there was a loud ruckus going on, voices yelling, thumping, glass shattering in the hall over their heads. Their mother would send them out into the street with an urgent “gai roof Eli!” — go call Eli! The little family at 1123 Howard Street didn’t have a phone, so the boys would be sent sprinting to Eli’s place a few blocks away.
I can picture the little urchins running down the empty street, their feet slapping on the pavement. While they ran, a drunken Jew was screaming at their father, sometimes more than one. These indigent, itinerant Jews were sent over to board overnight by the synagogue. They probably paid my grandparents a nickel or dime to stay there, or maybe the shul paid.
My grandfather would regard the snarling drunken Jew with two eyes, a nose and a mouth, as if to say “why are you doing this? What kind of person doesn’t know you don’t shit in a paper bag and throw the bag out the third story window? That you don’t piss off the side of the bed you’re sleeping in. Why are you acting like you’re crazy? Just walk down the stairs and use the toilet, like a normal Jew. How in the world can you be such a jerk? ” His face, which carried almost no expression, would not be judging them, just mildly registering his incomprehension.
Eli told me that my grandfather Eliyahu was a big, strong man, well over six feet and well-built, but he was no fighter. Eli was small, and broad, and had been fighting since he could stand, would be straining against his restraints and fighting from his death bed eighty-six years later. It was nothing to Eli to throw somebody down a flight of stairs, if the situation absolutely demanded it.
So when Eli showed up, mad as hell from being woken once again, he’d bark and the Jewish drunks would grab their gunny sacks and get the hell out of the house. From time to time they’d put up a fight, and Eli would be happy to hold up his end.
I can only imagine what his two little first cousins must have been thinking on those occasions.