Later when we would drive in from our country house along Bruckner Boulevard in the Bronx or out to visit a friend on Long Island and we'd drive through Queens, after tunnels or bridges, after streets of warehouses and factories smelling of glues and yeast, we'd pass the small two-family attached houses that lined the road before the city would slide into suburb. We'd see the striped awnings on each little brick house, the chairs on the porches where flowerpots vied for space with barbeque grills, the small iron gates, behind which blue and white painted statues of the Virgin watched as the cars going or coming from Manhattan flowed by. From rooftops Santa Claus sometimes waved and near the garage door ceramic spotted deer grazed on closet-sized lawns. My mother would be smoking, ashes falling in her lap, she would be sitting on a cushion so she could see over the driving wheel. She would be wearing her dark glasses to hide the puffiness of her eyes, the circles beneath them. She would drive slowly so she could look at the houses carefully. Cars would honk and pass and some would open their windows and yell at her. "Get a horse," "Woman drivers." Then my mother would sigh, a deep sigh, "If only your father and I lived in one of those houses and we worked together in our candy store, then maybe — " and she would sigh again. "If only I lived like this," she would say and wave her hand across the Bronx or over Queens. But she didn't. We, my father, my mother, my brother and I, our nurse, Greta, our cook, Emma, our maid, either Bernice or Ingrid, or Bridget, lived in apartment 8C at 1185 Park Avenue. Blanche Phillips Roth, daughter of the late Isaac Phillips, of the Phillips Van Heusen Shirt company, and her husband, Eugene Frederick Roth, had moved into the building, right after their honeymoon trip. The year was 1931.
In the last days of the nineteenth century the New York Metropolitan map marked the place as Goat Hill. There were a few farms, shrubs, fences, and animals with long tails brushing away the flies in the summer heat. Then as the city pushed at its edges, as the rich and the poor found their appointed places it became the almost falling-off far end of Park Avenue: a broad elegant street, the kind you saw in Paris, in Rome, more sedate of course, more sober, fewer gargoyles, stone angels, wreaths and marble inlays. The almost simplicity of the buildings, their dignified height, their white stone, their red bricks, their portly girths, their well-groomed awnings of dark green and dark wine supported by gleaming brass poles suited the American burgher's need to hide the transparent immaturity of his land.
By the late 1930s a commuter train to the new suburbs in Westchester ran night and day beneath the iron-fenced center islands that were planted with ivy to disguise the access grates. Sometimes the boys waiting for a school bus would run into the middle of the avenue and leap over the iron fence. Lying down on their stomachs, with the cars passing on either side, they would peer down into the ground watching the cinders floating upward, staring at the soot-blackened wooden beams, at the ash-stained walls that plunged way down to the tracks below. They would hear the sound of metal wheels, the rush of sparks, a constant pulse from the trains passing out of or returning to Grand Central Station. A few blocks farther uptown from our building, the railroad tracks appeared in the open air, and every so often a train would rumble out of the ground following the uphill slope till it became an elevated train from which its passengers could stare into the windows of the tenements that lined this part of the never aptly named Park Avenue. Then the sun would light the dusty train windows or rain would splash down on the interlocking chains that held the railroad cars together leaving pools of dirty water around the darkened railroad ties.
Standing on the overpass on 97th Street you could look back at Park Avenue or ahead to the tilting fire escape laced four-story, laundry-flapping, cabbage-smelling buildings that pressed against the stone walls that lifted the tracks into the sky. The overpass was a line drawn in cement. It marked the formal end of Park Avenue and the true beginning of Harlem. The children from Park Avenue knew never to cross that line.
In the 1930s buildings along Park Avenue stood firm no matter what befell their inhabitants. Doormen with white gloves and gold braid on their hats opened the taxi doors. Elevator men with Irish names and shining shoes pushed levers forward or backward and the elevators, made of burnished wooden panels, trimmed in shining brass, rose and fell, rose and fell, like yo-yos on an invisible string. In the large windowless basements with gray stone walls Negro laundresses washed clothes by hand in white enamel tubs and hung the clothes on wooden racks. Behind the tubs rows of long ironing boards sat like so many coffins after a disaster. From eight in the morning till six at night the steam rose from the heavy pressing irons, ten, twenty laundresses at a time bending, standing, the smell of human sweat mingling with soap powders hanging in the wet and heavy air.
German and Irish nannies carefully pushed stately carriages, English prams with shining silver wheels and dark blue wood sides in and out the doors. Babies slept on monogrammed linen sheets and leaned their small heads against lace pillows propped against the gray canvas hoods. There were closets full of Spode and delft, of gold-handled water pitchers and silver platters etched with portraits of nymphs and satyrs gamboling beneath laurel trees. There were draperies on the windows of velvet and damask. There were Chinese screens and tapestries brought back from trips to France and Belgium. There were dark green walls and deep red walls hung with landscapes or still lifes or ringed with silver Aztec designs. There were black and white marble squares across the foyer floor and candelabras with their golden arms extended outward. There were crystal chandeliers hanging from the ceiling. There were jade picture frames on the pianos. There were Chippendale desks and art deco bowls. There were Bauhaus chairs, silver lilies around the mirror frames, vases from Tiffany's, glass from Steuben. There were shimmering silk nightgowns trimmed in Swiss lace in the drawers and monogrammed and hand-embroidered tablecloths from Belgium in the cupboards.
1185 Park Avenue took up the entire block of 93rd Street to 94th Street. There were three pairs of Gothic wedding cake gray stone arches at each of the entrances. There were three long thin columns supporting each arch and the arches formed shadowed aisles, an intentional echo of the mighty cathedrals of Europe. The main arch led to a dark cavernous courtyard that was half a city block deep. At the center there was a water-splashing stone fountain encircled by plantings. The sun did not reach down there and the pachysandra and ivy would die, would need to be replaced again and again. Heavy gray cobblestones formed a circular path around six entryways each with its own eighteenth-century sconces and an iron-worked marquee. All of the lobbies were decorated with green and white marble squares, art deco mirrors, and vases filled with fresh flowers resting on skinny black tables with legs shaped like bent lilies. There were geometric shapes on the wallpaper. Chauffeurs drove their cars inside the courtyard to pick up passengers. All deliveries were made through the basement's long corridors with entrances on the side streets. Maids and cooks, window washers, grocery boys, and nannies also used the basement to come and go.
This was one of the few buildings on Park Avenue where Jews in the early thirties could rent and so they did in large numbers. It was also the only building on the street that looked like a mock fortress, a combination cathedral and castle, secure, imposing, a tribute to American engineering. On duty there were always at least two Irish doormen at the front and one at each entryway, their uniforms similar to police uniforms and at their waists they carried billy sticks, and around their necks hung silver whistles. Every elevator had its own white-gloved attendant whose duties included ferrying tenants up and down and maintaining a perfect polish on the mirrors and the decorative brass. After midnight the black iron gates with their sharp points at the top were closed tight and locked across all three arched entrances.
The apartments contained long hallways, dining rooms and dens, built-in bars, sewing rooms and music rooms. In each there were maids and cooks who lived in the narrow divided area behind the kitchen. The servants shared a small bath and from the ceiling in the back of the apartment above each of their beds a bare bulb hung down from a chain. The heating pipes were exposed in those rooms and you had to be careful not to touch them in the dead of winter or else you might get burned.
Farther downtown on Park Avenue the Episcopalian non-Jews lived inside their own buildings. Their children went to their own kindergartens and they had their own hospitals and pediatricians, orthodontists, orthopedists, stockbrokers, funeral homes, and charity balls. They drove up on weekends to their own country clubs. Their city clubs were furnished with shabby overstuffed chairs that had been used for many generations. Their oriental rugs had worn patches from resting under a great aunt's piano or a grandfather's parlor table. Their sons spent an afternoon or so each month marching in the Knickerbocker Greys, pretending to be soldiers while practicing for future roles of leadership. Their daughters rode horses at private stables in Long Island and Connecticut. They had coming-out parties and predance dinners for offspring of those who knew someone who had gone to school with the far-from-admired Franklin or Eleanor Roosevelt. They had a polo club in New Jersey. They had a Junior League with a membership whose names were all listed in The Social Register that did good works for the poor with the funds received from their annual Christmas bazaar. Their summer homes were in East Hampton, Newport, or Bar Harbor Maine. They belonged to the Harvard Club and the Yale Club and their sons went to Groton and Exeter and Andover and St. Paul's. They wore the same clothes as everyone else but not quite. They didn't wear socks with their moccasins. They knew each other instantly on sight.
If society is a pyramid in which the top comes to a point, they were the point. They did not so much cast a shadow over the rest as provide a source of constant anxiety for the others. That is the place where you weren't wanted. That is the restricted hotel on this block. That is the hospital that doesn't allow Jewish doctors to admit patients. That is the school you won't bother to apply to. "Them" was the word spoken with a touch of awe and a spark of anger. Who are "they" really to think they own the world and are so much better than "us"? The big businesses, the big banks, the big fortunes, the big givers to charity, the big owners of boxes at the opera: all of them were "them." They didn't want "us." Who cared. In America who cared. And besides one could imitate them or at least try.
What they had, what they looked like, what they owned from a kind of haircut or color, to a kind of stock, to a kind of nose, to the shade of their eyes, is what everybody else desired. Of course you can't have a decent social pyramid without an equally decent shimmer of envy rising like transparent heat waves from its base.
Although we were on the Harlem end, the falling-off end, of Park Avenue Jews had a few of our own apartment buildings. Just as nice, maybe nicer because we made sure the lobby was redecorated every few years. We occupied nearly the same geographic space, but not exactly. Certainly two Park Avenues side by side coexisted if not with particular grace or kindness or mutuality at least without significant outward disturbance.
Several blocks farther east over on Second Avenue the chimneys of Ruppert Breweries spewed great swirls of smoke into the air. On a day when the wind was blowing off the East River the heavy sour sulfurous smell of malt floated up from the boiling vats inside the fortress-thick factory and drifted over Park Avenue. Then even in summer the maids would rush to close the windows and pull the drapes and the residents would put handkerchiefs over their mouths as they went in and out.
Downtown (you could ride there in a double-decker bus on Fifth Avenue or take the Third Avenue El) at the end of the 1930s in New York there were communists endlessly arguing on campuses and German intellectuals at the New School and socialists with stars in their eyes and a grim set to their lips. There were artists in Greenwich Village drinking and brawling. Edna St. Vincent Millay was burning her candle at both ends. The unions were building apartments for their workers over in the west twenties and union organizers shouted from soapboxes in Bryant Park behind the 42nd Street Library. Uptown there were jazz clubs in Harlem and across the bridge Irish pubs and Italian clubs in Queens. In Yorkville on 85th Street there were weekly bund meetings, swastikas on raised arms right there, in the Jaeger house tavern. There was a Father Divine preaching at 125th Street and on the radio a Father Coughlin blamed the entire litany of social ills on the greed of Jewish bankers.
This was a city that knew how to have a good time: tickertape parades down Wall Street, smoke from the Camel billboard on Times Square, ice skating at Rockefeller Center, bonnets at the Easter parade, tourists at the Empire State Building, bad guys, wannabes on the make at The Stork Club, 21, The Little Club, The El Morocco, drinking the night away watching the Copa girls lift their long legs, greeting the morning with cheesecake at Lindy's.
The city brimmed with mafia and gamblers, enforcers and astrologists all admired by columnists who crawled the clubs at night and told the public who was spotted where. There was no lack of ministers or loansharks. Broadway was lit up like a hopeful whore and she did good business. You could sit at a drugstore counter and sip a chocolate malted. You could meet a date under the clock at the Biltmore. Sardi's was where you went after theater. Damon Runyan told the truth but made up his happy endings. No one had ever heard of a theme park. Hollywood was where you went to sell out.
On our Park Avenue the men wore fedoras and left the house each day with a clean white cotton handkerchief in their breast pocket. The women wore hats with veils and Chanel suits and tight corsets and their silk stockings were held up by garter belts that left raw red marks on the upper thigh. They played mah-jongg on card tables fitted with a green velvet cloth. Their jewelry was gold. Their coats were mink. They lunched at the Plaza, they drank martinis after five o'clock, and on Saturdays they hopped in their cars and played a round of golf at their clubs in Westchester or New Jersey.
Off Park Avenue there were communists not just under the bed but on top of it too. There were Stalinists and Trotskyites who black-balled each other and carried on in the pages of small magazines and big publishing houses. There was Clifford Odets and Martha Graham. A person could have been reading Henry Miller and James Joyce.
At the end of the thirties the Abraham Lincoln Brigade was off fighting for justice in Spain and some people (no one I was related to) would not cross a picket line. But where I lived the uniformed doormen tipped their hats, the governesses wrote letters home, the elevator men drank beer in the basement. Yes, in other places there was a lot of talk about class society and the evils that followed in its wake but the people at 1185 were almost united in the belief that industry was our destiny, that money was the root of all good living, and the absence of money was the pit of despair, the face of the monster everyone feared. Anyway my parents didn't actually know any real communists. Later they did know a pinko or two.
On Park Avenue, a single generation away from the streets of Lvov, Lublin, Odessa, Vilna, Kiev, no one considered whether the children might be better off if the servants were fewer. Most of the men played squash or cards at their clubs. All the women had their hair done, permed, dyed, set in curlers, and dried and combed out twice a week, and a lady came to the house to wax their legs and a traveling salesman came to the door with his suitcase of fine linens imported, who knows how, from war-torn Europe. Eugene and Blanche Roth lived at 1185 Park Avenue in New York City all during the depression when wind and dust drove farmers to leave their homes and migrate to the edge of America and workers sold apples on street corners and banks closed and even the gangsters met with hard times.
But don't forget poor King Midas who couldn't taste the juice of one sweet pear.
Somewhere else in America a Saturday Evening Post Norman Rockwell child was baiting his safety pin hook with a worm and leaning over a brook. He had a big golden dog by his side and a fishing pole made from a whittled-down branch of a tree. He intended to bring a fish home for dinner.
Copyright © 1999 by Anne Roiphe
In December 1935, in the middle of a sorrowful decade, I came into the world.
After several miscarriages, before the Nazis had invaded Poland and Czechoslovakia, but after Marie Bonaparte had arranged for the safe transport of the elderly Freud and his wife and daughter, after the Rising Sun shone down on Manchuria my mother gave birth to my brother in a private hospital in New York. It was August 5, 1939. The baby was drugged and slightly blue at birth. In accordance with the common practice my mother had been given a large dose of anesthetic so she was unconscious throughout the delivery. As was the custom my mother stayed in the hospital for the full twelve days, recovering, visiting with her sister, propped up on lace pillows brought from her own linen closet. Slowly she regained her physical strength. Her breasts were bound tightly but despite that they ached until the milk no longer flowed. The baby was not to be fed from the breast. It wasn't done. It wasn't advised. The nurse would take over the chore of feeding the infant. Breast feeding was considered a holdover from primitive times unsuitable for a woman who lived on Park Avenue in the city that everyone knew was up to date. Science meant you could flush the toilet, flick on the light, shut your door, ride up to the top of the Empire State in an elevator, order your groceries over the telephone, and you didn't have to nurse your own baby. Baby at the breast, baby with mouth at the nipple, how sanitary could that be? Baby at the breast was altogether too close to the dust of the barnyard. Women who had won the vote were not cows.
Big puffed-up breasts were for grown men to dream about not for babies to claim as their own. Thank God, psychologists had learned that it was better to feed your baby exactly every four hours and never pick him up till the schedule called for it. The crying infant was always in danger of being spoiled. From the first pull of air into the tiniest of lungs, each child must learn discipline, order, its place on life's assembly line. The nursery like the factory ran on reason, causality, science marching forward to make life better and better. (If only the stock market would behave as reasonably and the unions pipe down.)
My father had not been in the delivery room, had not spent his days watching his son in the newborn nursery. He sent his wife flowers and kept his appointments, went to his club and played squash and had a massage. He behaved in a perfectly usual way attracting no attention, revealing to no one but his wife a certain indifference, a chronic restlessness intensified by the embarrassment that the physical necessities of birth evoked, with its disturbing reminder of the raw, the barbaric, the uncontrollable, the feminine realm of blood and ooze, ripeness and eruption.
We were sitting on the steps that August, waiting for the baby, my baby brother, to arrive. She was wearing a white uniform and a net covered her hair. A Victorian ivy-covered house had been rented for the summer near the beach in a town called Lawrence on Long Island. The woman in the uniform was Greta, my governess, a German woman who had tended most of my elder cousins until their teen years, a woman who despite her fifteen years in this country mispronounced words like onion and windmill, who kept a small brass cross on the wall behind her bed and prayed to Jesus every Sunday at early mass, kneeling on a cold stone floor, while the light strained through the blues and reds of the rounded glass window that showed St. Francis feeding the birds.
At least twice a month I went with her to the post office and waited in a long line. She was sending packages home to her family who lived in Bavaria on a farm. She was sending gloves, woolen socks, caps, thick stockings, shoes, needles, thread, yarn. They needed everything. They were not lucky. That she told me.
Greta believed in washing. She washed her hands and my hands after each visit to the bathroom. She washed doorknobs and bed frames. She washed in the cracks of the body where bacteria might hide. She washed with strong soap that smelled of turpentine and stained the skin yellow, purifying down to the bone. She used alcohol products, disinfectants, household lye. Germs were everywhere, on bathroom doors, on money exchanged at the store, on the surfaces of sinks and only exceptional vigilance, perfect cleanliness, personal hygiene could hold them at bay. Polio and pneumonia, mastoid infections, rheumatic fever, scarlet fever, meningitis, diphtheria, danced in the air. In a world without antibiotics germs, invisible germs, were eternally poised at the foot of the bed, on the thumb that wandered into the mouth, multiplying freely, they overran, they overreached, and like low-flying pilots strafing suitcase-carrying men, women, and children along the long roads, they knew no mercy.
In front of Greta on the steps was a white wicker bassinet. Greta had a large roll of satin blue ribbon in her lap. Her hands did not have dark red fingernail polish like my mother's. Her lips were free of artificial color. Her shoes did not have heels or small straps around the ankle. She wore no gold jewelry. She worked the ribbon carefully through the ridges in front of her. She had knitted a blue blanket that was folded at the end of the white sheet of the bassinet. I was not allowed to touch the ribbon, not allowed to touch the new blanket, not to touch the white bassinet. I was to sit still and wait. The blue ribbon was the color of the afternoon sky. Like a robin's egg it was smooth and sleek. Could I have a piece of ribbon for my hair? I could not. Blue is for boys. Blue is for the brother coming home from the hospital. Blue is the color of desire. Blue is my favorite color. Blue is not for girls. The ribbon caught the sunlight and turned pale and shimmered in the air, more than just silk, gift of worms from China, the ribbon was the sacrament, an offering for the holy child.
The time passed. How long a time? In a child's mind it was months, in reality an afternoon. I felt uneasy, as if the distance between me and Greta had grown immense. I sat on the top step of the familiar porch. Down the street a dog in a yard barked. The cook was sitting at the kitchen table fanning herself with a newspaper. There were beads of moisture on the water pitcher. I watched an ant make its way across a long step. I appeared to be an eager older sister, three and a half years old, waiting patiently for the arrival of her younger brother, but in my small heart erupted the first shoots of toxic envy, the first blossoms of warm guilt, the rudimentary design of my soul, bending itself to circumstance, trying to be good, but knowing that love, the love you should feel for your baby brother, stings, brings tears to the eye. If a passerby had seen on that porch a woman in her mid-thirties, a plain-faced uniformed woman, a large mole on her chin, with her charge, a little curly-haired girl, sweet in a red polka dot pinafore, white sandal shoes and white socks folded just so to the ankle bone, a red plastic barrette in the shape of a bird on the left side of the part, anchoring down the brushed and shining thick brown hair and said to himself, the child looks like an angel, he would have been entirely mistaken. The angel was falling and would soon fall further.
After Kristallnacht, after the Anschluss, but before the St. Louis had been turned back from the New York harbor, before the closing of the gates of the Warsaw Ghetto, before the Japanese ambassador in Riga had issued as many visas as he could to the stateless horde who waited outside his office, who clung to the running board of the car that was taking him to the train, at a time in America when young men knew that courage might not be a personal choice, my brother came home from the hospital and Greta held him in her arms, her new responsibility, a thin baby, frail perhaps, a baby to kept away from drafts, a circumcised boy, with the same name as his father.
This was not the custom among Jewish families, who by tradition named their children only after the already dead, but was done now because this family, members of the Inwood Beach Club on Long Island, the Oakridge Country Club in Scarsdale, The City Athletic Club on 54th Street in New York City, determined to be American, new world, a part of things, not set apart as they had been before, modern as my mother's Camel's cigarette ashes continually in nervous flight around her. Greta placed the baby in the bassinet with the blue ribbons running round the sides.
Life — wheezing, excreting, sucking, urinating, blemished, eyes blinking, pulse in the scalp beating, sour smell of regurgitation, legs useless, too large head that hangs on a bony blue-veined body, dried brown fragment of a cord pressed against a belly button, a blood-red scratch from a fingernail on the cheek, eyes puffed and barely open: a miracle. Eugene Frederick Both Jr. wrapped in a blue blanket slept while his older sister watched but was not allowed to touch for fear of germs and his nurse rocked the bassinet gently. Hope in defiance of the facts ran high as it always does at the beginning. The baby was called Johnny so he wouldn't be confused with his father.
There was no formal bris, there were no Hebrew prayers said. The circumcision was for reasons of health and because a Jewish boy could simply not be a Jewish boy with a foreskin. This was removed to remember Isaac bound on the altar, demonstrating the perfect faith of the father. Also, according to Freud, the offering of the piece of the baby's skin was a comment on the murderous impulses that yo-yo back and forth between father and son. The ritual of snipping the tiny penis was created to subdue and control, admit and deny the impulse to human sacrifice. Of course Freud was spinning his own tales and all we know in fact is that the baby boy loses his foreskin to honor the covenant with his God who once in time past demanded a cruel and excessive loyalty but did indeed substitute a ram at the last minute, or so it was said and said again, down through the generations by those whom this American generation would humor while passing on to other more pressing and certainly more scientific and urgent matters.
The toilet was not presented when the child showed signs of understanding the process of waste and its removal. There was no gentle forgiving of accidents or respect for independence wishes. Children were trained by shame and force and usually soon after their first birthdays. Disobedient children were wrapped up in their soiled sheets and left in their beds for hours. Disobedient children could be enclosed naked in a closet. You trained a child the way you trained a puppy. This was not cruelty. This was common practice, considered to be good for the child.
A stork, Greta told me, had brought my brother directly down from heaven. Freud after all, although he had evaded the Nazis in a last-minute manner that revealed that he might not have taken his own aggression theories as seriously as he ought, had not yet become as much of a household word as Jack Benny or Dick Tracy or the Rockettes. Children in America were not to be improved by truth; they were to be protected from it. There was an algae growth of shame, a murky brew of embarrassment over the entire matter of procreation. You did not look a child in the eye and speak of copulation. If a child's hand strayed down to a genital you slapped his face or shook her till she pleaded with you to stop. On the matter of the stork I had my doubts. I had seen many babies but not one stork except in a picture book. Even the baby Jesus was brought to his manger by a stork, Greta told me.
Euphemism made for mystery and mystery convinced most of us that pain and blood, grief and horror surrounded the body, leeched onto its surface, shadowing the more ordinary matters of the day. As if they were ghosts in a cemetery, the facts of life, the reality of the body grasped at us with fog fingers, waiting for the moment we would sink and become prey.
The summer sky over Lawrence, Long Island, was deep blue, the nearby ocean lapped at the sand near the cabanas of the beach club, the purple hydrangea that erupted in gardens August after August as if they, mere root and stem, eaters of sunlight, dwellers in the dirt, understood that time was both longitudinal and Cyclical and history was made from variations on form, curved their petals upward. But God, who perhaps authors all things or all good things including the good things we don't understand are good because we are mere mortals, was there when my brother came home from the hospital or was not. If it is true that God is the creator, if Adam was the first man and Eve was made from Adam's rib then God was present at my brother's birth. If all that is mere fable, human inventions meant to keep away the evil eye about whose existence there really is no doubt, well then God was not present.
In the fall we returned from Long Island to 1185 Park Avenue to a new larger apartment 8C, in the front of the building. Our mother's brother, Sy, also lived with his wife and two children at 1185 Park. They had the apartment 9D on the floor above and our mother's sister Libby lived ten blocks downtown at 944 Park Avenue and her sister Sylvia lived in an even larger apartment at 1095 Park.
My mother's source of support was the family shirt business, which had just survived a depression-era comeuppance, and was at the time of my brother's birth beginning to recover. Our father was the lawyer for the company. He was awarded that position when he married my mother.
The Van Heusen, Phillips Jones shirt business had begun as our maternal grandfather with his father, our great grandfather, in dire need, rented a pushcart on the Lower East Side. My brother and I were the great grandchildren of a man named Moses Phillips who had studied in a yeshiva in a small town in Poland, come to America and worked as a sexton, a janitor in the house of worship, until with his more enterprising but never attending school ten-year-old son he began to sell shirts, to make shirts, to become a real American, or so my mother told me.
We have pictures of Moses Phillips dour and black hatted, a long shapeless black coat covering his body, a sad oval-faced man trying to stay erect while a great wind is blowing. The picture comes from the breaking of ground for the new Beth Israel Hospital downtown in the year 1912. The family was one of the major contributors to this hospital that promised kosher food for the sick and a place for doctors of Russian Jewish origins to admit their patients. A portrait of Moses's son Isaac hangs in the lobby today. They did not forget, this grandfather and great-grandfather of ours, that they belonged to the community, the endangered community. They knew that Cossacks on horseback had driven their people to flight, that laws had prevented them from owning land, living where they would, making and growing in the old country. They knew that even here in the new land they were despised for being themselves, that each moment was perilous and the only way to survive was with your people, to care for them as well as yourself. They did not behave like outlaws or criminals or free agents. They gave to the community, a place for the elderly, the Daughters of Sarah and Jacob in the upper reaches of Manhattan, a medical clinic for the poor.
But to give you have to succeed. Your balance sheets must read well, your employees must do their job, and you must make the right decisions season after season, to expand or contract, to save or to spend, to open a new factory or to fix up the old. The strain of the decisions broke hearts, damaged vessels, brought shoulders into a permanent shrug, made each day a potential disaster, meant you had to be bold or lose everything, you had to be right more often than wrong. It wasn't as easy as it seems to the generations that followed. More than one kind of Cossack can trample you underfoot. It was enterprise not poetry or music or scholarship that roiled in the family DNA.
We came from people who did not wait for time to improve their lot but made the crossing, suffered from dislocation, confusion, fear, lack of secular education, loss of what and who they knew, but still prospered, because prosperity is what America offered even if you had to sell your soul and work on the Sabbath and eat strange foods with customers and your children didn't care or know about the law and all that mattered at the end of the day was the shirts that were left in the inventory and the shirts that were gone, and the sound of the hum of machines in the loft, the cutters closing and opening the blades of their scissors and the sewing treadles moving up and down.
Isaac had died early, suddenly. His two older daughters, Libby and Sylvia, had married well, one an owner of a bank, the other of a paper company that possessed a town in Vermont and acres of timber that stretched across New England, fingers of land reaching out, holding tightly to America. His two sons were in their early twenties and to them he left the business itself. To his wife and his younger daughter Blanche, just twelve, he left all the stock in the company. This is why she was considered an heiress in certain circles. That is why it was an act verging on scandal when she married a man without capital, whose good looks were the only fortune he brought to the wedding canopy.
This is a story of men and women, children who wanted for nothing, who because they were Jews in America survived like fish in a flood the events that carried into oblivion those who had delayed, who were a generation or two generations, a decade, a year, a month late in leaving. If in 1939 my brother had been born in Sulvalki Poland where his grandfather spent the years of his early childhood he would have died before his second birthday along with his sister and all other relatives within reach of the occupying German army. So in a sense he was lucky. But this reasoning is as full of pits as the moon because if he had been born a prince in the fourteenth century in Florence he might have died of the great plague and if he had been born in the Congo, son of a river boater, he might have been bitten by the tsetse fly and turned to dust and bacteria before he crawled. All possibilities are not genuine possibilities. We are what we are, like it or not.
Copyright © 1999 by Anne Roiphe
A Match the Matchmaker Wouldn't Have Made
Due to financial good fortune I came to know my mother gradually, more slowly perhaps than most other children. Our time together was limited and generally, especially in the earliest years, measured by a daily quarter of an hour but my eye was always on her, watching, stalking perhaps. Can a child stalk its mother? If a kind of mental hovering, a note taking, a quiet waiting by a chair, by a phone, by a table, outside a closed door, defines the word, then yes, a child can stalk.
Her favorite brand of cigarettes was Camels but if the pack had been finished, nothing left but the crumpled tin foil liner, she would smoke any brand that was offered. Often there was a shred of a tobacco leaf stuck on her lower lip and occasionally a blur of red lipstick on one of her teeth. She carried white gloves with pearl buttons at the wrist with her everywhere although she was always leaving them in cabs and restaurants and the ladies' room of The Plaza or The Pierre. In her satin pocketbook she carried a lace handkerchief with her monogram on it. The handkerchief was usually stained with powder and smelled of perfume, night cream, and Life Savers. On her right arm was a bracelet of thick links from which a golden heart dangled. At the center of the heart a small ruby, a mere blood drop, blinked like a fish eye in the sunlight. On her ring finger was a large square diamond, her engagement ring. She would never take it off. She had a wedding band too. A circle of tiny diamond chips. No matter how hard I begged she would not let me try it on.
Our mother, my brother's and mine, was a small woman, not five feet tall. This is significant because my father who was a little over six feet tall in all sincerity admired very tall women. He found long legs on a woman a particular delight. So why did he marry my mother who was the very opposite of his ideal?
In a more perfect world it would have been because he fell in love with her soul, with that fragile, insecure, curious, sharp, not quite regular, soul that caused her to pull the covers over her head at the sound of a police siren, at every screech of brake to imagine car crashes that mutilated loved ones, to refuse to enter automatic elevators that might go through the roof or plunge into the basement or light gas stoves that might explode or cross bridges that might at any moment fall on their splitting steel pilings. In a more perfect world he would have fallen in love with the way her lipstick smeared across her upper teeth, the way her glasses were always catching in the web of her veils, the way her mascara would run down her cheeks, the way her slightly too large nose with the not quite fortunate bump in the middle was always in need of powder, the way she dropped everything, the way cigarettes burned in ashtrays all around her like votive candles in a church and he would have liked the way she could do the New York Times crossword puzzles in fifteen minutes flat, even though she hadn't gone to college. He would have liked the way she devoured mysteries and romance novels. He would have liked the way the powder spilled from her compact and flecked her black pocketbook. He would have liked the smell of her perfume, depilatories, bubble bath, nail polish, beauty creams. He would have admired the way she won at mah-jongg, oklahoma, and canasta. He would have watched her play backgammon (always a Band-Aid over one of the long dark red nails that had broken) and seen that her mind could calculate odds in a flash, card-count with the best of the Las Vegas regulars.
In a more perfect world he would have married her because he wanted to take care of her, cherish her against the wear of time, count the spill of brown freckles on her pale skin, watch her plump thighs move under her lace-trimmed silk slip, but he truly preferred tall women and he married her because she was rich.
He was smooth and dark and trim. His features were perfect. "You should be a movie star," more than one girl had told him. He was straight of spine, washed and shaved, his black hair sleeked down with gel and parted sharply as if by surgeon's knife on the left side. There was something of Rudolph Valentino about him, something of the Riviera jewel thief. He had earned his way through college by working as a lifeguard at a hotel in the Catskills in the summer. Through the long summers women would brush against him, the girls would bring him ice cream. As he sat in his high chair above the pool the rays of the sun would stream toward him and he would stand and flex the muscles in his calves for those he knew were watching.
My mother, when she met him at a fraternity party when he was in his last year at Columbia Law School, feared he would never look at her, a man like that who could have any girl he desired.
His neatness, the olive tone of his skin, the small nose and the slightly hooded almost Tatar eyes, the well-made clothes pressed in perfect vertical creases, made him seem like a royal or a diplomat, one who was so powerful he didn't need to smile or ingratiate himself with servants. Every night he hung his trousers carefully on a wooden valet. He placed his polished shoes beneath it. His wallet, his keys, his tie were placed just so, left to right, each time. He ate three prunes for breakfast each morning. He suffered from migraines. He loathed the greasy smell of Chinese food. He exercised every day. He walked each morning to his downtown law office whose major client was his wife's family shirt business, muscles coiled and springing forward and coiled again. He moved down Park Avenue like a sleek panther pretending to ignore the antelope that might pass by on their way to the watering hole. At a time when virility was marked by concealment, control of emotion, he was, without doubt, a man with a future.
Except sometimes his temper broke through and he would howl and rage. Where was his comb? Who had put his blue socks together with his gray? Sometimes he would grind his teeth and slam doors on his way out of the apartment. He came home very late, after hours at his club which did not allow women past the outer lobby except on Thursday nights, cook's night out, when they were permitted into the dining room. On weekends in the warm seasons my father went to his club in Scarsdale where he would play golf or tennis. He would be gone all day.
He had many political opinions. He read the papers carefully. He would pronounce and he would predict and he would argue loudly with anyone who disagreed with him. He did not debate, he simply called the other person a fool, an idiot, a dummy. He shouted. He suffered from an unabating righteous passion. Other people grew quiet when he began his speeches. He was a Democrat, a Roosevelt fan but he despised the weak just as if he were a Ford or a Mellon. If someone argued back he might punch them in the face. This happened at parties and at restaurants. My embarrassed mother would weep. My father would apologize because society demanded it but there was never any apology in his heart. In his sleep he ground his teeth or clenched them together so tightly that during the day his jaw ached.
My father was also a self-taught swimmer. He had learned in the East River in those hot city summers in the early part of the twentieth century when the boys ran under the Third Avenue El, hitching rides on the back bumpers of the trolley cars that rattled and sparked along the street. He and his friends threw stones at the horses that drew the carts bringing blocks of ice to the laundry-flagged tenements of the East Eighties in New York where the Jewish immigrants from Hungary had gathered, kind seeking kind, paprika in the stores and a language spoken that made them feel if not quite found at least less lost. There the latrines stank in summer and from May to September a child would sleep on a blanket on the fire escape, breathing whatever the air offered.
My father had been brought to these shores at age nine. His father had been a secretary to a mill owner in the low-lying mountains that belonged to Hungary, sometimes to Czechoslovakia and other times to Austria. My father's father had spoken German which marked him as an educated man. He was ambitious for his family and perhaps a dreamer, eventually a chronic gambler. He made sure that his wife and her sister dressed the children every day in starched white shirts, in jackets and small ties and their shoes were shining. They were not riffraff so he said, so he intended. They were not like the poor Jews of the town from which he had fled. He had a round face and a round body and a barrel chest but his wife was built like the Statue of Liberty, long of limb, hair piled high in braids, full breasts, and empty blue eyes. She was nine inches taller than her husband and proud of her height. It was the single asset that marked her out in a crowd. Her height was a comfort to her when nothing else was.
My father would never talk about his childhood. He spoke English only and that perfectly. He claimed he could not understand German. He said he knew no words of Hungarian. He claimed he had never in his life heard any Yiddish. He had erased everything. He was not sentimental about the old world. When pressed he said he couldn't remember the name of the town he had lived in or the nearest city. It was as if he had no childhood but had arrived at adulthood like a Golem, made from dust.
Not a few Jewish families changed their names so they wouldn't be turned down for jobs, schools, or a place to rest their heads while traveling. My father wasn't the only one seeking amnesia.
Their children were certainly not learning Yiddish at local Y's. If they had been despised in the old country for who they were here they could live disguised, without particulars. For the most part they wasted no time on nostalgia. If they went to a Yiddish show on Second Avenue it wasn't because they wanted to remember anything. It was because they wanted to understand the jokes. They were in a hurry to blend, to succeed, to put their feet on someone else's neck. They were forgetting and forgetting as fast as they could. There was no passion in those days for roots. There was in fact an anti-roots mania, and a common assumption among many that America was a land that cleansed of uncomplimentary specifics and would allow a tough boy like my father to become the scriptwriter, the director, the hero of his own movie, a presence without a communal past, without neighborhood, religion, clean of cultural baggage, rather like a wind-driven man riding a horse on the open plain, headed out with the big sky overhead.
So it was my mother who repeated this story which she heard from his sister, Bea, before she stopped inviting her to the house: when the boat landed in Manhattan and my grandfather, not yet thirty, and his wife and his wife's sister and his three children rode the El up Third Avenue, through the canyon of wooden and brick tenements packed with people and smells of all kinds and he looked carefully at the real America where the streets rushed and tumbled, the wheels screeched, whistles blew, he got off at the stop where he was expected at a cousin's apartment and walked his family to the other side of the train tracks and carrying all their worldly goods in suitcases closed by rope led them directly back on the El and returned to the pier. He wanted to go back to Europe, back to Hungary. Once there standing in the heat of a July morning, wearing their winter coats, his family waited outside the ship's office. The father's shoulders slumped and his skin turned gray. The mother's eyes filled with tears. The children were frightened but did not show it. It seemed that they could not go back. So once again they mounted the stairs to the El and in a sense arrived twice. There had not been enough money for the return fare.
What if a merciful stranger had lent it to him? Would that have been an act of kindness or cruelty?
Another story about my father's father. Shortly after arriving he walked the streets looking for an apartment to house his family. He wandered over to Fifth Avenue and saw a For Rent sign and he looked at the grand building and the doorman with gold braid on his jacket and he asked the rent. He was told $250 and he rejoiced. He was right to have come to America. He went back to his cousins and gathered the children and his wife and his wife's sister and walked with them carrying all the suitcases and bundles to Fifth Avenue. Then the doorman, pointing his finger at the greenhorn family, laughed and said, $250 a month. My grandfather had thought the rent had been for the entire year. "Ah," he said to the doorman in his heavily accented English, "it won't suit us after all."
Pride goeth before a fall so they say but pride also is a prod to success, a track to the future. Humiliation of course is a motive too. In the gutters of the streets, on the fire escape ladders, down in the latrines, along the window cracks, stuffed into mattresses, ironed into clothes, hidden in the mops and brooms, folded into the hair with pins, carried under the brims of hats was the ever present shame of those came off the boats, who knew they were not wanted, who knew they did not have the right manners, their accents were wrong, their poverty a stigma, their religion a mistake. For some boys, for some men and women this smack of shame — not to be top but to be bottom — cut to the quick, marked with a slice across the heart, caused grinding of teeth, a narrowing of arteries.
In the old country each man's place was ordained but here your position was your own responsibility. In my father this created an inner geography whose climate was never temperate but either boiled over with flaming lava covering everything in its path or else was transformed into a lock-jawed cold, a blue-white breath holding over an ice-cast tundra, one that permitted no entry, a self all sealed off, nontransversable. This was a climate that spawned pretenders, opportunists, princes without papers.
And so into the crowded tenements came Eugene Frederick Roth another aspirant, another climber, another boy who wanted up and out and onward and who quickly took to carrying a knife to school like the others. He had been called Fritz by his family. Where they had come from that was a good choice, it was the Hapsburgs and their mignons they had intended to please with such a name. But on the eve of the First World War, in the city of New York, Fritz was the enemy, and he had to fight each day, taunted on the winding school staircase. He stole a knife from a table in front of a store. He took the knife to school and cut the forehead of a boy who pushed against him in the yard. He called himself Gene. He no longer listened to his mother. He no longer listened to his aunt who would occasionally try to touch his check or pat his shoulder. He wanted no tenderness. He gave none. He had hooded eyes, snake eyes that gave away nothing, pupils growing small or large depending on the light but never changing, alligator eyes turning round in their sockets searching the reeds for movement.
His father, finally through a relative — everything in the immigrant world was arranged through the bloodlines, marriage lines (pity the orphan, the one who did not have a relative in need of a new employee) — became a salesman for a pharmaceutical company. He traveled to drugstores up and down the east coast. His English improved. His spirits improved. He began to bet on the horses and to play cards for high stakes. He lost as much as he made. Often his family waited for him to come home with the rent money only to have him deny, joke, and flee the apartment once again as soon as possible. His wife grew morose and refused to learn English. She relied for all matters of commerce on her sister, my father's Aunt Minnie, who was the one who signed report cards, talked to the landlord, read the English papers, and fixed supper. My father's mother was one of those who did not jump into the new world, abandoning herself to adventure, pioneering, learning, pushing. Instead she held herself aloof, shy, proud, and sealed off into an ever-hardening shell where the noise of the streets, the sound of the radio with the big bands, the call of the children who sat at her table became ever and ever more remote.
You'd think you might die early if you lived like that but in fact closeted as she was, still dreaming in her native language, afraid of America as she was, she lived into her late eighties, retired in Florida, still trusting only her sister, still in contempt of her daughter-in-law, my mother Blanche, who was, she said in Hungarian to her sister, a midget, a dwarf, hardly a woman at all. Or so my mother told me.
I have a photograph of my parents on their honeymoon in Venice. They are standing on St. Mark's steps with pigeons all around, one lighting near my mother's free hand, the other buried in her muff. They are a handsome couple bundled against the cold. But something in the stiffness of the pose, in the unsmiling gaze they cast at the camera warns us that all is not well. My mother stands before the Gothic arches as if she herself might take flight along with the beady-eyed birds hobbling about on thin crooked legs pecking at the crumbs at her feet. There is a gray cast, a spreading of shadows from the doors of the cathedral as if the stone gargoyles were not as inanimate as they appeared.
My mother told me that on her honeymoon my father would leave her at night and go for long walks along the boulevards of Paris or Rome or Venice, wherever they happened to be. He said he needed exercise. He said she walked too slowly to keep him company. He came back with the odors of perfume and sweat on his clothes. She looked at his perfect face, at his strong back, at the contained movements of his legs, at his shoes perfectly shined and there in the darkness of his narrow eyes, in the hard flat stretch of his body, her desire for him swelled and throbbed. She was afraid of his anger, the turn away of his head, but these also excited her, the faint glimpse of danger at the edge of the bed, the rawness of her ache for his hand on the small of her back, these were confusing but not unpleasant. She considered her bittersweet love a triumph over the more ordinary possibilities she had been offered.
But on the overnight train to Paris she cried because marriage had not transformed her as she had hoped. When she misplaced the first-class tickets for London he said she was clumsy and everyone laughed at her on the dance floor. He called her stupid for the first time when they were buying china on rue de Rivoli and she couldn't remember the exchange rate. He did not like her to wear her glasses but she couldn't see the paintings in the museums without them. She couldn't read the menu in restaurants. He was sick of going to churches. They both wanted to go home. They sailed for New York from Le Havre with trunks full of linen and dresses purchased from the best houses in Europe but my mother understood on the return trip what had not been less clear as they set out. He would never forgive her for being short.
Whatever was she thinking? Perhaps because her father had begun in life with nothing but his boy's hand on the long arm of the pushcart, she wanted a man who also had nothing, who had the leanness of the hungry, the outsider looking in. Perhaps if her father had not died when she was still a girl she would have not have tried to find him in her mate. Perhaps she felt that this smooth unsmiling man with the Tatar folds at the corner of his eyes would carry her through life lifted high in the wake of his forward motion. Perhaps it was something more subtle than that, an attraction to harm, an itching of an old wound received in the bosom of family life.
Perhaps she accepted his hand in marriage because she wanted a man more beautiful than the receding-chinned, round-faced, sad-eyed, bulbous-bodied but wealthy men who had married her sisters. Perhaps it was simply a childish delight in the surface of things or was it an attempt at flight, at starting over in America without giving up any of the gains?
Sometimes what we call love is just a settling of old scores, or a seeking of forbidden pain, or a circuitous path to the kingdom of cruelty, or she may simply have confused lack of capital with heroism while searching for rescue without knowing from what.
Possibly she turned toward my father believing that she was no more than a paper doll who might be thrown away in a careless moment, torn or discarded at will. She must have believed that this man could fill in her disappearing lines, color her with his cold determination.
Is it really true that he married my mother just because he had been told she was an heiress? Yes and no. He would certainly not have married her if she were of more modest means. But he must have given himself other reasons. He must have said his vows with the common hope for contentment, affection, lifetime partnership, joy, and sexual contentment. He must have convinced himself that his free choice was a choice made out of love however we twist that word and employ it to disguise from ourselves other less seemly motives. Surely at first my mother must have made him feel special, chosen, respected, and held in awe. Her nervous, anxious, fearful need to please must have made his manhood seem more secure, healing deep wounds to his pride that he was unaware were bleeding him dry. Her gratitude for his attentions would in turn have created in him a simple pleasure in being so admired. This could be confused with love or at the very least create an alibi for other less acceptable calculations.
Was this marriage blessed? Could this couple spend the rest of their natural lives together? Did Cupid fall out of the sky laughing?
Copyright © 1999 by Anne Roiphe