Walking down the street where I grew up

Strolling in Queens the other day I turned the corner and walked up the hill to the little house I used to live in [1].  As I walked up the incline Michael Siegel or I used to sprint down chasing a ball that got away, or where we made our networks of twig and blossom dams to try to halt the flood from the sprinklers in its race to the Turnpike, I was thinking of that old cliche ‘you can’t go home again’.   My childhood house was right there, tastelessly retooled, with a car that left muddy tracks on the sidewalk parked at a rakish angle on the unkempt lawn.   “Classy,” I thought, as I snapped a picture for my sister.   The lawn is now mostly dirt.

You can’t go home again, unless you want to be arrested for breaking and entering.   Even then, of course, nothing remains of the home you once knew.  The people are strangers, the ones you shared the home with once now mostly dead, the decor is completely different, the smell of the place is unrecognizable.  A pointless exercise looking at what has become of your former home.  Home, of course, is kept in your heart, in the memories of the time you lived there.  The comfort you felt there you can feel anywhere, in a way, as the entire world is now your home.    

The little house my father grew up in was a place of abject misery.   His rough uncle Aren owned the house and paid the bills.  My father’s father had two eyes, a nose and a mouth, and tried to keep an unaccountably mischievous expression off his face as he shrugged through a life of extreme poverty.    There is a hint of that expression in his eyes in one of the two existing photos of the man I am named for.  

The photo is taken in the dark sanctuary of the First Hebrew Congregation of Peekskill where he worked as an unpaid janitor.   He wears a suit and a fedora, stands next to the wife, wedded to him in an arranged marriage, who hated him, his younger son on the other side of the wife, also in a suit.  My father must have been off making the world safe for democracy when the photo was taken.  That elusive expression on Eliayhu’s face, close to breaking out into a chuckle, but well-practiced in holding it together, one of the only clues I have about my grandfather.

There is no hint on my grandfather’s face that this is a man capable of rage.   It certainly was not allowed him, that much is clear.  I would imagine that only my grandmother screamed in that house.  In the little house I grew up in we all screamed at each other.   Progress, I suppose, if you want to think of it like that.  

I stood in the street between my old home and the Gerwitz house, and smiled to see the little jockey, much tinier than I remembered him, still holding his arm in the pose that he used to hold the lantern.  A wooden sign with the address, minus one digit, has replaced the lantern.  Gerwitz was a rich man, my father told me, but his former home, a showplace at one time, in the old parlance, has fallen on hard times. Like the American Dream itself, I thought, as I took out my phone again to immortalize the joint in a photo and share it with friends and strangers on a website here in Cyberia.


Pretty shabby looking manse for the richest guy on the block.   Of course, during my childhood, having a million dollars made you a rich person.  Nowadays that’s like having a quarter.  Chump change.  A million dollars will hardly buy you membership and annual dues at Mara-Largo, if you intend to do anything else with your money.  Back when Gerwitz was rich a Cadillac cost $6,000, same as a year’s tuition at Harvard, at the time America’s most expensive university.   Nowadays… forget about it.  I don’t know where Sam Gerwitz got his great wealth, he may have been a lawyer, or possibly in advertising.  The source of his fortune is a mystery I have I no worries about.  Sad, though, to look at the shithouse his once-majestic showplace is now.

If you are born to a family with enough money, and you do nothing to get disowned, all you need to do is grow up, inherit it and watch your fortune grow.   You are entitled to feel entitled because you don’t rely on entitlements like the poor people, parasites who grow fat like tics sucking on the wealth of others.  

Back in Germany at one time these “takers” (as opposed to ‘job creators’)  were classified as “useless eaters”, they lived their lebensunswertesleben (“life unworthy of living”) until the state made the arrangements to be done with them.   The German State in the late 1930s started its infamous mass killing program with eugenic euthanasia, gassing mentally defective German citizens, clearing their madhouses and asylums of people who did not deserve to eat.  

The family members of the murdered were lied to about the cause of death of their random institutionalized defective.   Few others in Germany knew or much cared what happened to a weird and unproductive group of chance mutations, Mongoloid teenagers, demented men and women in their forties, fifties and sixties, the retarded, schizophrenics, adolescent catatonics. 

Civilized people, moral people– informed people who learn about a program to kill ‘useless eaters’ — people with feeling human hearts, of course, largely would not agree to their government rounding up, roughing up and killing society’s most helpless citizens.  It is a historically high bar, though, this simple morality.   When angry, desperate people are whipped up enough, and pointed at the enemy, as often as not the blood of the weak will run in the streets.



[1] The Little House I Used to Live In is also the title of a beautiful instrumental by Frank Zappa, a wonderful version of which he played on the Live At The Fillmore album I was in the audience for back in 1971.


Moral Dilemma

I have gone on at length here about the damage done by concealing crucial information, in pubic and private life both.   It is impossible to make sense of a situation when the underlying events are secretly redacted, classified, above your need-to-know pay grade.    This obfuscation of what actually happened, what used to be quaintly called “the facts”, can be found in virtually every situation where somebody is brutally, or even gently, fucking somebody else over.   Withholding key information is necessary for the proper functioning of every abusive situation,  every betrayal and scandal, personal, political, environmental, what have you.

Removal of transparency has been institutionalized by the powerful corporate players who sponsor candidates for the legislature, it is now also the rule in the government unlimited free speech money has largely purchased.   It would not do, for example, to have the facts known about the effects of the toxic waste being produced by a fabulous company employing thousands and making billions.   Public relations firms are employed to humanistically spin the work the friendly corporation does, to direct people’s fleeting attention away from the murderous externalities the corporation seeks to conceal. 

An energetic public relations firm has been at work for Koch Industries in recent years, showing actors playing women, black people, minorities of every kind, happily employed in important jobs by beneficent, forward looking Koch Industries– making a better tomorrow today and shit.   

There is obviously no hint in these feel good Koch pieces that the toxic sludge they are piping from the Alberta tar sands they own, across the entire width of the U.S., to refineries in Houston, is the most toxic form of fossil fuel left on earth.  Or that it’s flowing sluggishly (with at least one massive spill so far) across more than a thousand miles of the American watershed.   Forget, for a moment, the raped wasteland the ‘harvesting’ of this toxic prehistoric sludge leaves behind on the Canadian lands owned by the Kochs.  The Americans who are protesting the pipeline are beaten up by privately hired goons, set upon by dogs, by Trump, strip searched and imprisoned for carrying signs stating their case about protecting the water supply.  Nothing to see here.  Koch, making the future bright, for winners.  Whatever else you can say about piping this toxic sludge, the profits it will generate for the two Koch boys will double their already incalculable fortune.

Or as you will immediately learn by googling Keystone XL: 

The Keystone XL oil pipeline will be the safest and most advanced pipeline in North America, providing U.S. jobs, energy security and economic benefits.

Wealthy criminals who are actually prosecuted can avoid admissions of guilt by signing lawyerly agreements where they pay a sum of money without an admission of guilt.  Trump and his dad did that, thanks to the rabid genius of the unscrupulous Roy Cohn, who countersued the government for defamation when the government prosecuted the Trumps under The Fair Housing Act.   Trump Inc. who had been systematically violating the Fair Housing Act long before it became law, admitted no wrong-doing and agreed to have its rental policies and practices monitored to ensure no future violations, but the government blinked.  Trump never had to admit their policy and longtime practice of not renting to brown skinned low-life motherfuckers, no matter how respectable they appeared to be.  Nothing to see here, bitches.  You didn’t prove shit and we didn’t admit jack.  Fuck you!

Political and business obfuscation is ubiquitous, too common to even talk about.   Rule one: never admit shit.  Rule two: when accused of violence, punch the accusers as hard as you can in the face, repeatedly, while kicking them in the balls.   Rule three: no disclosure.  Make me.  I know you are, but what am I?

“Yeah, we violated all 371 treaties we made with Native Americans, so?  They were fucking Stone Age savages who thought the earth itself was a god.  Fucking losers, they didn’t even know how to smelt metal.  Plus, a handful of the survivors became very, very rich, filthy rich, with those tax free casinos.  What are they bitching about?   You can’t bring back the dead.  Fucking losers….”

The moral dilemma I referred to above is in the personal arena.  It is an almost daily torment to me.   Hitler did a nice job trimming my family tree back in 1942 and 1943.  Of what would have been dozens of relatives today, from a once large family, I am left with a tiny handful, most of whom I haven’t seen in years.   The work that Hitler wasn’t able to complete, well, there are other ways to do it, yo.

“There you go again with the hyperbole, Elie,” said the skeleton of my father, popping up randomly, as he often does.  “You’re going to lose a lot of readers with this Hitler shit.  Hitler, yeah, not a nice man.  Mass murderer, twisted fuck, fine, most people know Hitler was no goddamned good.   You’re not shedding any light here by dragging his hideous face into this conversation.  My suggestion: leave fucking Hitler out of it.”

After a long pause, that included a shower, lunch and checking on the progress of Aaron Judge’s recovery from shoulder surgery, I agreed with my father’s skeleton that the best way to explore this moral dilemma was with a piece of fiction.  A lie, as Picasso put it, that reveals the truth.  And remember, total darkness is the best cover for abuse and shame.

The first time Jim met the man, the man said that Jim was a pussy, a man who lacked the balls to “confront” his girlfriend’s father.  “Confront the bastard!” he told Jim militantly as Jim’s girlfriend smiled and slightly cringed.  Jim felt no need to confront the girl’s father. He’d had dinner at his table, the man didn’t particularly like Jim, and as the father of a young woman who had middle class expectations, Jim thought the man was well within his rights to be wary of him.   Jim was idiosyncratic, disconnected from the general ambitions of the world, though smart.   Jim and his girlfriend’s father got along as well as they needed to, and the romance between his daughter and Jim was going along very amicably, in Jim’s opinion.  Jim told the man he always kept his word to the girl’s father, had her home by the hour he promised, and that preserved the peace and made everything much easier.

The guy who was lecturing Jim about having no balls was trying to convince Jim’s sister, who he’d met weeks earlier, to quit her excellent job, pack her things and run away with him to Arizona.   He was fleeing a failed marriage, it was complicated, he was deeply, deeply in love and he had no intention of meeting the parents of the pretty young woman he was trying to abscond with.

“Phew… that’s some ripe, eh, fiction,” said the skeleton.   

You can’t make this shit up, dad.   From that twisted exchange, an unneeded moral lecture to Jim about something he himself was incapable of doing, the rest followed in a straight line.   A long con game.  Soon he’d lost his job, asked Jim with a smile if he could borrow some money, just for a short time, a couple of months.  Jim was generous, Jim was foolish.   The man took advantage.  Jim became the subject of mounting anger on visits to his sister.  He was cursed as the “fucking Jew” who, years later, still came every month, driving a six hour round trip, just to collect the monthly payment they never mailed to Jim.  

The man was always more comfortable blaming others than taking responsibility for his frequent mistakes.  It is only human to make mistakes, it is inhuman not to forgive, preached the man who did many bad things without ever once apologizing to anyone.

The skeleton of my father nodded from his grave, very satisfied. 

“Nicely turned, Elie,” he said.  “I love that you didn’t even mention the many old friends he ‘borrowed’ money from who eventually abandoned the lying fuck, the several times, that we know of, that he embezzled from a boss who loved and trusted him, the year or more that he pretended to go to work every day while he was fraudulently drawing his ‘pay’ from his dead father’s credit cards.  The $10,000 he borrowed from mom and me towards the downpayment on a home he was pretending they were going to buy, two or three days before he declared bankruptcy.  Particularly heroic, on your part, not to mention the time he threatened to murder his children, his wife, me and mom, and then himself.  Like all desperate, murder and suicide threatening cowards, he could have saved everyone a lot of grief by just snuffing himself first.  So I salute you for not going there.”

Why would I go there, dad?  You know I always take the fucking high road. 

“Just one more reason you sometimes feel so fucking alone, Elie,” said the skeleton, wanly.  “I’m just sayin’… Try not to brood on lost nieces and nephews, eh?”

Learning fear or resilience

Neither of my parents ever learned much about resilience from their parents, something I can easily understand the reasons for.  My mother’s parents were the sole survivors of their two large families, the last of their 12 combined siblings survived hell only to be marched to a Ukrainian ravine on the edge of town where they were each shot in the back of the head one August evening in 1943. 

My father’s parents experienced something similar, my grandmother and her older brother, my tough, intrepid great-uncle Aren, were the only two survivors of their family, from a hamlet in the marshes south of Pinsk that cannot be found on any map of the world.  There was an aktion, a coordinated massacre of virtually all the Jews of the Pinsk area and, as in many areas the Nazis overran, little Jewish towns were erased from history.   

Like my mother’s parents, my great-uncle and his sister came to America decades before the mass murder.   I know nothing of what happened to my paternal grandfather’s family, or even where they came from in Europe.

You learn that powers arose not long before you were born who decided your entire family needed to be exterminated, and then rolled up their sleeves and did it.  It’s an unsettling thing to learn as a kid.  What the fuck? you think.  I still think that.  Like slavery, like seven year-old American prostitutes, like a century of public lynching, the genocide of Native Americans, like all unspeakable things done by certain humans to other humans, all you can wonder is ‘what the fucking fuck?’.   Nothing unique in any of this evil, the history of humanity is still being written in our blood, on endless scrolls, by killers who believe they are doing what must be done.

The new field of epigenetics studies the genetic changes produced in survivors of severe trauma, genetic changes that are then passed on.   Having your entire family massacred is surely a severe trauma, even if you weren’t there to see it.   Passed along with these changes in the body’s DNA are traits like fear and resilience.  Some, in the face of terror, resolve to be brave, to fight, to hide, to survive, to live to take revenge by thriving.  Most, in the face of a mob of murderers coming to kill them do not fare as well.

In the 1970s certain right-wing American Jews seized on the slogan “Never Again!” to unite in a hard-nosed organization to smash the stereotype of Jews going meekly to the slaughter.  I understand the impulse, I really do, but unless you want to become a violent bully so that you won’t be bullied, more context, as always, is needed.   

Take any group of bookish, peaceful people who have no guns, lie to them about their destination, give them false hope of survival as you shepherd them toward their slaughter and– well, you can see that determined men with guns will have no problem getting folks like these to line up anywhere they are told to line up.    There were young Jews who, once they saw what was happening in places like the Warsaw Ghetto, took up weapons and killed a few Nazis, but they mostly died as anonymous martyrs, leaving behind many thousands killed in reprisal.  Your classic no-win situation: outgunned by a trigger-happy enemy only too happy to kill a thousand for every one of them killed.

My family never discussed any of this history directly.  My grandfather was a frightened man, understandably so.  My grandmother was the tougher one, but she also drank increasing amounts of vodka as she got older.  My grandfather, I learned to my surprise, was also capable of downing huge draughts of vodka. I observed this once, unseen, toward the end of his life.   He picked up the bottle and drank it like he was drinking water.  He didn’t even wipe his lips afterwards, just screwed the cap back on and put the bottle away.   

My father’s parents I never met, both died before I was born.   I visit their graves when I visit the cemetery north of Peekskill where my father and uncle are also buried.   I knew their son very well, my father, and though he took a few principled stands over the years, it is hard to see him as a resilient man.  He took things hard.  He locked his fears inside of himself.  He suffered mightily from severe psoriasis, which grew more inflamed whenever he was under stress.  He raged as an over-the-top tough guy in the safety of his little family.  He felt bad about these things as he was dying.

I can’t say where I fall on the spectrum between despair and resilience.  What I have learned of resilience I have had to learn on my own, my parents knew little about it.   I’m remembering my father’s advice when I asked him about becoming a member of The National Lawyers Guild.  This would have been in the year 2000, when I was admitted to practice law in New York State.

The Lawyers Guild, founded in 1937, is a progressive legal organization with roots in labor struggles, anti-Klan activities and The New Deal — also some more radical strands.   My father, as a college student after World War Two, was drawn to Communist ideas.  After all, why should certain people continue to be born booted and spurred to ride the rest of us?   Jared Kushner?   Really?   His feces emit no bad odor, reportedly, but he is, in virtually every way, very much like a duller version of you or me, is he not? 

My father was raised in extreme poverty, during the Depression and FDR’s New Deal, he came by his egalitarian beliefs honestly.   He believed in the struggle for justice, even as he was hampered by the terror instilled in him early.  I will never know if he attended the 1949 Paul Robeson/Pete Seeger concerts outside of Peekskill.  He would have been a student at Syracuse University by then, or possibly just starting graduate school at Columbia.   

My uncle had a copy of Howard Fast’s account of the bloody mass assault that prevented the planned benefit concert for the Civil Rights Congress from happening.  I first saw the brown paperback on a bookshelf in the apartment he shared with my aunt in the assisted living facility in Bethesda.  My uncle had already passed away.   I asked my aunt, quite dotty by then, if I could borrow the book.  I read it and have it still, but by the time I read it there was nobody alive who could tell me if my father, or my uncle, had been at the ill-fated concert, or the one held a week later, with increased security provided by labor unions and American communists.  These events are now collectively known as the Peekskill Riots .   

Paul Robeson, former All-American college athlete (he played two seasons in the NFL while at Columbia Law School in the early 1920s), lawyer (briefly), actor and singer, was an outspoken black man who, after a political awakening during the Spanish Civil War [1] eventually found himself at the center of the Cold War.   He may or may not have been a member of the American Communist party (which was never legally banned, that I know of).   I recall he visited the Soviet Union in the 1930s and afterwards, and advocated peace with The USSR, a place where he was never called ‘nigger’.   

But for all the racists and reactionaries in Peekskill and its environs, there was no doubt that this black commie troublemaker should be strung up as an example to the others.   They burned crosses and lynched him in effigy the night of the first concert, the one that didn’t happen. During the month I was born the House UnAmerican Activities Committee was putting the last nails into the outspoken Robeson’s professional coffin, for being critical of American racism, and economic exploitation, and praising the Soviet experiment.  The U.S. government really fucked Paul Robeson up, but the Klan and American Legion thugs who converged on the planned concert north of Peekskill never got their hands on him.

The haters had to content themselves with ambushing, stoning and beating up people who came to the concert, as the cops looked on in amusement.  That Pete Seeger, a local white guy who’d be blacklisted as a possible commie a few years later, was among the performers there made it irresistible for local racists, antisemites and other authoritarian types to go to the  outdoor concert grounds to break  heads.

The following week the brotherhood crowd were better organized.  Thousands of young idealists in t-shirts formed a human wall around the perimeter of the concert area.   The concert, to raise money for a civil rights group, was held.  It was only afterwards, in nearby Cortlandt, on the narrow road near my father’s grave, now called Oregon Road, that elated concertgoers on their way home were ambushed and pelted with rocks the size of fists.  The gauntlet they had to run went on for miles.

I’ll never know if my father was there either night.  What I learned shortly after he died was that he had spoken to Parent/Teacher groups in New York City public schools about Brown v. Board of Education, the 1954 Supreme Court decision that stated the obvious about the destructive nature of racial segregation.  In New York City the man who’d soon become my father was pelted with crap, cursed at, snarled at by white parents and teachers appalled by the speaker’s support of the landmark, and largely symbolic– it must finally be said– Supreme Court ruling.  He went to the next school with a police escort.  These strike me as brave, principled actions, but I will never know any more details about them than what I learned from my mother as I was preparing his eulogy and have written just now.

It was 2000, I was looking for work as a new lawyer, and I was somewhat half-hearted about it.   My father, in a stream of lawyer jokes he sent me during law school, included the one about why they were using law students instead of rats in lab experiments.  The NIH defended the practice as follows:

1. The lab assistants were becoming very attached to their little rats. This emotional involvement was interfering with the research being conducted. No such attachment could form with a law student.

2. Lawyers breed faster and are in much greater supply.

3. Lawyers are much cheaper to care for and the humanitarian societies won’t jump all over you no matter what you’re studying.

4. There are some things even a rat won’t do.

I’d wind up practicing subsistence lawyering  for ten years, maintain my license to this day, but it was ten years of bitterness, I can assure you.   Early on I heard about the National Lawyers Guild and called my father to discuss joining it.   I rarely sought his advice about anything, as he always pointed out on the rare occasions that I did, but I called him about joining the Lawyers Guild.   

His fear came directly through the phone, even as he applauded everything the Lawyers Guild did and the principles they advocate for.  He was worried, though, that by joining the Lawyers Guild I might be putting myself on a blacklist that would prevent me from getting paying work.  Cheney and Dubya Bush were already president and a dark day for America, and the world, was starting to fully dawn.  Our nation was about to head to the dark side, to do what must be done, in the shadows, as the evil Mr. Cheney told the mass media, with his characteristic smirk.   

I did not join the Lawyers Guild.  I didn’t get involved in the legal fight against encroaching tyranny, nor did I water the tree of liberty with so much as a drop of my blood.  I am thinking now that had I been given a few lessons in resilience, I might not have been as susceptible to my father’s paranoia, understandable though it was.   Just ’cause you’re paranoid don’t mean they ain’t trying to kill you, as the great Satchel Paige observed. [2] 


[1]  Robeson: “The artist must take sides. He must elect to fight for freedom or slavery. I have made my choice. I had no alternative.”[158]

After the mass lynching of four African Americans on July 25, 1946, Robeson met with President Truman and admonished Truman by stating that if he did not enact legislation to end lynching,[184] “the Negroes will defend themselves”.[184][185] Truman immediately terminated the meeting and declared that the time was not right to propose anti-lynching legislation.[184] 

[2] Jeeves ascribes this observation to Joseph Heller, in Catch-22, to wit:   just because you’re paranoid doesn’t mean they aren’t after you.



Visited with cousins of my father’s yesterday, the only ones I know of.  Gene is closing in on ninety and we hadn’t seen him and his wife for over a year.  He used to call my mother “you old bag,” although, it turns out, he was three months older than her.   He called my mother an old bag with love, they’d been childhood friends, growing up in the same building on Eastburn Avenue in the Bronx.  The old bag made it to eighty-two, by a day, and always smiled benignly whenever Gene, now a much older bag than she lived to be, called her an old bag.   

Gene was in a pivotal position to observe the events that eventually lead to my life.   If not for his mother and my mother’s mother being good friends, and Irv being Gene’s cousin … forget about me, my parents would never have met.

Gene’s mother, Dinch, at 15, had come over on the Korfus die Grosse, with her cousin Chava, the 17 year-old who’d later become my father’s mother.  This was right before World War One, on the ship’s last voyage before the war, according to Gene.  Chava used to visit her cousin Dinch in the Bronx, making the long trip from Peekskill with her two boys.   

Dinch was married to Stamper, a man I’ve seen pictures of, always nonchalantly referred to by my mother as a Communist.  They never had much money.   Gene told me that his family moved often during the Depression, apartments were plentiful and landlords would give a couple of months free rent as incentive to move in.  For some reason, (providence, most likely,) they wound up settling in that apartment on Eastburn Avenue, the place Gene and my mother called home.   If not for Dinch living in the same building as my mother’s family, my young father never would have seen my mother, perched haughtily in her kitchen window that overlooked the courtyard on that doomed little Avenue.

Doomed because a power broker in New York City hated poor Jews and other poor people and said “fuck these people.” Little Eastburn Avenue, three blocks long in its prime, as Gene told me last night, was cut down the middle by Robert Moses and his Cross Bronx Expressway.  That expressway gouged down the middle of the working class borough destroyed the Bronx, most people agree.  It certainly fucked up Eastburn Avenue.

Gene, proud of the many accomplished Americans from his Bronx neighborhood, was a large man in his day, over six feet tall with large hands and feet and, for many years, an ample belly.   Some kind of very aggressive cancer, possibly stomach, slimmed him down tremendously twenty or more years back, maybe thirty.   He is quite gaunt to this day.   My mother was very worried about Gene, the prognosis for him was dire.   On the other hand, my mother’s fatal diagnosis came something like twenty years before her death.  Yesterday, Gene was noticeably smaller, which happens when you live long enough.

“When your father went to Columbia he’d come over every week or so for a good home cooked meal.  That’s when he saw your mother,” Gene told us last night over vegetarian Chinese food in Teaneck. 

During these visits his cousin Irv spied the dark haired Evelyn who, for her part, wanted nothing to do with the hayseed from Peekskill.   She was still angry with her mother, who, in her typically overbearing way, had broken up a relationship with a dashing fellow named Art Metesis.  Art had a nice car, dressed well and was a stylish high roller who loved to dance, and drink.  The young woman who would become my mother was crazy about him.  They got engaged.

My mother’s mother, Yetta, would not have her daughter marry somebody like Art Metesis, under any circumstance.  As had happened with my father a few years earlier, the strong-willed mother busted up the romance and that was that.  Art did not take it well, he was apparently not very stylish with his rage when Yetta told him not to let the door hit him where the good lord split him and to take a long fucking hike and leave Evelyn alone. 

The engagement to Art over, my mother brooded, naturally.  Yetta suggested she take Gene’s cousin Irv up on his invitation to go out.   My mother wanted nothing to do with the bumpkin from Peekskill.  Eventually she relented and Irv won her over.   I told the bones of this story at my mother’s memorial, and my uncle, at the start of a short, heartfelt speech, introduced himself, endearingly, as the other little bumpkin from Peekskill who used to visit their cousins, Evelyn’s upstairs neighbors, in the Bronx.

Sally, Gene’s wife, when the subject of what I’ve been doing the last year and a half came up (“are you making a living?” Gene asked, as always), asked me if I was interviewing people about my father’s life.  I told her that most of those who knew anything about him were gone.  She nodded with a sad, knowing smile.  Over the years Gene told me most of what he knew, all interesting, but not terribly much.  It occurred to me last night that Gene may have met that mysterious grandfather of mine.   

“Oh, sure, I knew your grandfather,” he said, slowly working on a tiny corner of the bowl of noodle soup he’d take home.  “He could never make a living, Aren used to support them.”

As far as I could make out, from the moment or two of gentle follow-up that followed, he was likely merging long-ago memories of my grandfather, Harry, with my great-uncle Aren.  It seems likely that Aren would have driven his little sister and the boys down to the Bronx to visit their cousins Dinch and Gene and Gene’s little sister.   It doesn’t seem certain to me that Chava would have invited her detested mute husband along on these visits. 

I told Gene about Eli’s poetic description of my father’s father: “two eyes, a nose and a mouth” with a zip of the finger across that straight line of a mouth.  I told Gene Eli said my grandfather was totally deadpan all the time.  Gene had nothing to add to that, actually didn’t even reply to it, though he did recall visiting Aren at his Nelson Avenue Garage in Peekskill.  We talked about Aren for a moment and then went on to other subjects.

I’m thinking about context a lot nowadays, even more so now that we’re all living in an ever more distracted, desperate nation in decline where context has been abandoned for blind, knee-jerk, red hat/blue hat partisanship.   This limited man we have as our current president does not seem to know about anything that happened before, is not curious about anything but what makes him feel like a winner.   A sad symbol for a nation where millions of its hypnotized citizens do not seem at all concerned about, or even aware of, the erasure of history itself.

Last night was not about researching my father’s life, it was about visiting with and listening to an old couple who have lost just about all of their friends (as well as their younger daughter, Emily, who died young of cancer).  Their need to talk was palpable and Sekhnet and I have known, and hung out, with several people over ninety and there is no discomfort in it for us.   We were pleased to listen, and I knew the evening wouldn’t lend itself to the ideal interview.

There are a few details above that need to be folded into any account of my father’s life, or mine.  I am trying to make intelligible things that are not really intelligible, as my grandmother Yetta might have said, if she had known the word ‘intelligible.”  A life may or may not make any sense, but a book about that life can be made to make a certain amount of sense.  That’s my sense of it, anyway.


Screaming Bloody Murder

My grandmother, Yetta, a dramatic, creative woman, was fond of the phrase “screaming bloody murder”.  Her husband, my grandfather Sam, who we always called Pop, was more subdued.  He referred to the same thing as “belly aching”.   Both phrases are evocative, but ‘screaming bloody murder’ resonates more at the moment, the moment when so many are inclined to belly ache, and often for very compelling reasons.   There is ample reason to scream bloody murder at this moment in time, when the habitable earth is being destroyed so that the profits of the insanely greedy can remain undisturbed.

I’ve been over the slaughter of my extended family several times in these pages the last few years, the six siblings of my maternal grandmother, the six siblings of my maternal grandfather, the three siblings of my paternal grandmother, probably all of my paternal grandfather’s, and I get why, on a subconscious level, my grandmother was so drawn to the phrase ‘screaming bloody murder.’   That was the reason for the banging of the drums that airless August night in 1943, and the dented, out of tune brass instruments, the drunken songs sung full-throatedly, to drown out the cries of those screaming bloody murder.   

The mostly Christian town of Vishnevitz knew it was bad for the Jews when the SS arrived in the area, when the Jews were forced to construct a ghetto barrier around the small Jewish area, when the bodies of starved and diseased Jews, the occasional dead by shooting,  started to pile up.  The ghetto, behind barbed wire and crude fences and walls, stunk of death, but there was probably more crying and moaning, more belly aching, than screams of bloody murder.   

History teaches us that where there is systematic starvation, rampant disease, filth, despair, violent intimidation, occasional murder, a dominant group turning a blind eye to the organized suffering of a despised minority, it is only a matter of time until the screams of bloody murder begin.   That was the reason for the marching band, the drums, the singing and yelling — to cover the screams of bloody murder of the surviving wretches being marched to the ravine to be bloodily murdered that humid summer night.   Nobody in Vishnevitz wanted to hear those screams.

 “Not so bloody,” says a 95 year-old SS man dismissively.  “First of all, most died from a single gunshot to the back of the head.  They went quickly and there is not much bleeding from this kind of wound, nothing to compare to a decapitation or disemboweling.  In any case, they were quickly covered with a layer of dirt and lime that absorbed whatever blood there was. Also, Jews were more likely to wail and keen when lined up to be shot, than to actually scream bloody murder.  Don’t forget, these Jews had also been demoralized, starved and occasionally murdered at random, for quite some time before we marched them out to be done with it and move east to deal with the more serious numbers we were up against.   They were weak and had lost all will to resist.   I think ‘screaming bloody murder’ is more a myth than a reality for these people.”

Still, I thought of my grandmother saying “he was screaming bloody murder” the other night, maybe in a dream, and it struck me.   They had every right to scream bloody murder, those who had grimly survived only to be marched to a hillside scooped out to serve as a mass grave. 

The bones of my great aunts and uncles, their spouses, children and everyone else they ever loved, are still in that ravine.   There is a plaque there now, I understand.   I read a piece in the New York Times written by a woman who traveled to Vishnevitz years after this mass murder.  She visited the ravine.  It was during a dry season.  As the wind blew, sandy top soil blew off the side of the ravine, tiny fragments of bone skittered by.

We are helping out with this kind of thing in Yemen right now, where mass death from cholera and increasing starvation of innocent civilians are the ongoing result of massive bombing and a Saudi-led blockade of food and medical supplies.  The Saudis, our allies, need our help, there are rebels in the country of their poorest neighbors.   Freedom for the Saudis is at stake, we do not hesitate.  We sell them powerful weapons and refuel their warships in the air.  What are friends for?  Besides, here in America, we do not hear the victims screaming bloody murder.

As the wind blows in that arid land, sandy top soil blows off the side of a ravine near a bombed out hospital, tiny fragments of bone skitter by.

How You Do It

“What difference did it make to Azrael?” I asked him, when he told me how upset Azrael had been when an insect drowned in hot water while he was running a bath.   

“I asked him that after he came out of the bathroom,” he said.  “He’d been running hot water to rinse the tub when a bug he realized was alive a moment too late to save it died a horrible, plunging, drowning death in the pipes.    What he said to explain it to me was so simple it still strikes me.   He said ‘picture your own moment of death — would you like it instant and painless or prolonged and painful?’  I always think of that when I kill a bug, to this day.  That bug desperately swimming for his life away from the sucking drain could have instantly been put out of his mortal terror and unavoidable death by a merciful finger.  

“Azrael had been too slow to react when he saw the bug, at first he didn’t realize it was even alive.  Then he saw it struggling to swim in the hot water away from the drain.  Then he’d watched the bug get swept over Niagra Falls to die an agonizing death by drowning in the churning, unbearably hot water.  It impressed me how awful he felt about not sparing that bug such a miserable death.”  

“Instant and painless or prolonged and painful,” I said.  “I like that.  A no-brainer for a marketing/branding scheme exploiting that no-brainer:   ‘Quick/no pain or slow/maximum pain, your choice.’  It’s appealingly philosophical, too.”    

“Of course, life is not so black and white,” he said.  

“Exactly, which is why such idiotically phrased choices are so irresistible, anyone who’d choose the wrong choice is so obviously wrong.   I like the phrase, and I think we can monetize it, I think it’s a good choice phrase,” I said.  “Plenty of imagery and punch, the rubes will love it.”

“The phrase is fine, monetize away, I’m just sayin’,” he said.  

“You know, it’s not like Azrael was exactly into Ahimsa or any ascetic religious practice that would have made him so sensitive to a bug’s soul.  He ate meat, he’d curse, he was always rough breaking up a fight,” I said.   “He certainly didn’t shrink from hurting anybody.”

“He didn’t, but when you say Azrael ate meat, that’s funny, yeah, he ate meat.  He lived on meat, ate almost nothing besides meat.   He was a shoichet’s assistant, at a place down the street from the butcher’s, from shortly after his bar mitzvah, if I recall correctly, until he started working at the delicatessen,” my brother reminded me.  

“He was one tough son of a bitch,” I said.  

“Yiss,” he said.  

“And he always kept a dog.”  We both remembered Azrael’s dogs.

“Yiss,” my brother said.

Tempus Vug It (Part Two)

“But wait a second,” said the college kid, a bright young man with an inquisitive mind, “if you already got this old man the deal that anyone would have wanted you to get for him, why is this judge busting your balls?  Is a judge allowed to just do that?”    

I was impressed by how simply he stated this question of fundamental fairness.  

“Well, actually, strictly, legally, no, not really, a judge can’t just randomly dance on a lawyer’s balls, beyond a certain point.  It would be an abuse of discretion for the judge to give the lawyer more than a little bit of shit, even worse in  the case where the lawyer had provided his client with the highest degree of professional service.  So, the plain answer to whether a judge is allowed to just do that?’ is ‘no, not allowed.'”

The young man looked up at me quizzically, his expression confused, open-minded and ready to laugh.  

“I understand,” I said, “I know that sounds confusing, because I am a lawyer, I’d done my job diligently, and I was getting random shit from some snippy young cloaca of a judge, something the judge is not allowed to give to an attorney for no real reason like that.   Here’s the thing: as a Guardian ad Litem, even though I am a lawyer, I am in court in that instance not as a lawyer but as a friend of the Court, someone to advocate on behalf of the respondent who cannot adequately advocate for himself.  Strictly speaking, I appeared in those cases as the tenant, not the lawyer for the tenant.”  

“OK,” said mother and son in unison, neither of them grasping the fine, somewhat mad, legal distinction I was talking about.  

“I have to give you a bit of history.  Does the name Eleanor Bumpurs mean anything to you?”  It didn’t, the young man hadn’t been born when the tragic New York City story had been in all the papers, his mother had been living in California at the time.

I told them the terrible 1984 story about the agoraphobic Brooklyn woman with severe mental problems shot to death in the front hall of her NYCHA apartment by the law enforcement officers who were trying to evict her.  She’d been summoned to court for nonpayment of something like $100 in monthly rent.  She may have missed two or three months rent by the time they summoned her to court.  She never appeared in court, so she lost automatically and they sent her the paperwork telling her she had to leave or be evicted.   She’d been refusing to pay because, among other things, Reagan’s people were leaving cans of human feces in her bathtub.  

After Ms. Bumpurs was killed, and the settlement paid to her family, the city brass put their heads together.    There is no legal allowance for a right to free court-appointed counsel in eviction cases.  This is based on a peculiar, legally attenuated, definition of the word ‘jeopardy’.   Jeopardy, for purposes of a constitutional right to counsel, is when you face the possibility of imprisonment for a year or more.  Homelessness is considered a bad roll of the dice, constitutionally, not ‘jeopardy’ for purposes of triggering the right to court-appointed counsel.

“That’s very fucked up,” said the young man.

Yes, but they found a work-around, in the wake of the Eleanor Bumpurs shooting.   The Chief Administrative Judge summoned the wisest minds of the new New York City Housing Court, bastard step-child of the New York City Civil Court.   They came up with an excellent work-around for the usual right to counsel business that would protect tenants like Ms. Bumpurs from her arbitrary and capricious state killing under cover of law, or at least from homelessness that could be prevented.  It was an excellent decision.    

They created the deeply flawed Guardian Ad Litem (“protector for the suit”)  program,  a good program that had a series of distracted, part-time, ineffective administrators.  The judge would appoint a “GAL” to stand in the shoes of a person not able to adequately defend themselves against an eviction attempt.   In the early years, lawyers did most of the Guardian ad Litem work and it saved Housing Court judges from a great deal of grief, dealing with lawyers instead of mad tenants.   The program also had the effect of providing capable court-appointed lawyers for indigent, vulnerable tenants facing eviction.  

Initially most of the Housing Court GALs were lawyers, but I believe that presently no GALs are lawyers.  There is no requirement that a GAL be a lawyer, and as time went by, and GALs were treated by the court with less and less respect, and paid a modest flat fee for an often enormous amount of work, sometimes including multiple Orders to Show Cause and a dozen court appearances, it became untenable for lawyers to act as Housing Court GALs.  A list of modestly trained free-lance citizen GALs took over for the lawyers, and problems with the program began multiplying.

“Yes, OK., but, in court, aren’t you still a lawyer?” said the college boy with a smile.

I tell the boy that I am, indeed, but that de minimis non curat lex, as they say — the law shits on your little troubles.  I then recount the story my mother told me of a man she had some business with.  She’d asked my legal advice, and I’d given it to her firmly and simply as I could.  I told her exactly what she needed to tell him.  She somehow told him exactly the opposite of what I’d coached her to say.   She protested that her son the lawyer had told her to say exactly what she had said.   “Your son must be the dumbest lawyer in New York,” said the man, not unreasonably.   Now, in the context of that story it’s up for debate, in the context of my life story, he has a pretty strong case.

I described how virtually all of my work was standing in the shoes of tenants deemed unable to adequately defend themselves against eviction.  I am in court not as their lawyer, but as them.  They have already appeared in court and the judge has decided, or an inept agency called Adult Protective Services has moved the court that the tenant cannot effectively advocate for themself.   It may be because of some mental problem, or a strong personality quirk, or physical infirmity, advanced age– it just has to be an articulable suspicion that the person needs someone else to play the part of them for the legal proceeding that could render them homeless.

So, at any given time, I am standing in the broken backed, smelly, perforated shoes of twenty or thirty such poor devils.  I’d say 75% truly need the help, and appreciate it, 15% are too crazy or otherwise debilitated to connect with and the other 10% are professional grifters who get thousands in back rent paid on their behalf every few years so they can spend all their money on booze, or prostitutes, or whatever it is that makes their lives worth living.  

One crazy old guy, who loved cocaine, lived with a crack addicted hooker and the two of them, for whatever reason, moved their bowels into plastic bags that were left all over the vermin-infested apartment.  In court, the part of this insane bastard, who was not required to show up in court at all, was played by me, over the course of many months.   My pay for this court-appointed role play was a flat $600, whether I appeared once or a dozen times.  Most often I had to show up at least four or five times.   

As a result of this quirky system that required me to do an ongoing tap dance in front of judges while the overwhelmed agency dithered, and the interminable delays in Adult Protective Services providing services, which caused me to appear month after month after month on most of these sad cases, some judges regarded me with a certain distaste.  Articulate, capable and despicable.  In the way that certain bitter people come home after a bitter day and kick their cringing dog, lawyers that were in my line of court-appointed work were available for booting, whenever the pressure mounted on certain of these judges, those least endowed with what we think of as judicial temperament.  


“So you’re telling me that you are unwilling, are refusing, to go see the tenant, to meet and consult with your ward?” demanded the judge, at 12:42, as the clock was running out on my poor mother’s plans for lunch.  

This was right after he asked me why I took the case if the tenant only spoke Spanish and I spoke almost no Spanish.  He didn’t it like him when I told him his court attorney had assured me the language issue was not a problem.  At any rate, I had to speak to his worker at Adult Protective Service to work on his case plan anyway.   Whatever I did for him in court was based on what APS would be able to eventually do on his behalf.   There were only so many ways these cases turned out: pay the money, cure the nuisance, get an Article 81 guardian.

He didn’t like any of that at all, that I kept having all the damned answers to everything he threw at me.   He could not afford to look bad in front of those two law students, I suppose.  He told me he would not sign the stipulation and that he was adjourning the case to allow me to go visit with the tenant and then report back to the Court, which is how he referred to himself, with legal precision if not humility.  This is the way a judge did it, he demonstrated to the law students.    Josh put a hand on my sleeve, regarded me sympathetically, urged me quietly to remain calm as snarls began forming on my lips.  He put his hand on my shoulder as we walked out of the courtroom at 12:45.  

It was at best 50/50 that I’d make it down to the NYCHA Part in time to find who I needed to adjourn that last case.  By 12:40 people started heading off for an early lunch, though the courtroom was technically open until 1:00.  I had visions of not getting out of court until 3:00 or later, because this immature weasel of a judge had made me wait ninety minutes to force me to do something unnecessary, something that could not help my client in any way.  It would, of course, show that he covered his ass with the letter of the law, which is no small thing I suppose, and there was nothing I could do about it anyway.  

The top of my head blew off just as I reached the door of the courtroom.  Shoving the door to the hall open I snarled to Josh, not using my inside voice at all, “why is he being such a fucking dick?!!!”  Josh, a man built like a bull, quickly pushed me into the hall and pulled the door closed behind us.

(to be continued, as tempus fugit)