SHELLAC IN HIS VEINS
On April 18, 1942, I was born Seymour Steinbigle, the only son of Dora and David. Considering my life's obsession would be to get there first, it's funny how late I arrived. Mother Nature's stork dropped me down the chimney just as the biological clock was closing in on midnight. My forty-one-year-old father was the last Steinbigle, who'd almost given up praying for a son to carry the ancestral name. My only sibling, Ann, was already six years old and might have already resigned herself to being an only child.
My birth was greeted with sighs of "At last!" The question was, would I last? I was born with a cardiac defect, a hole between the left and right heart chambers. In those days, they called it a murmur. As we now know, that little heart kept beating like a drum all the way to the pages of this autobiography, but who'd have bet on it? It was my destiny to begin life as the fragile boy, the defective model, exempted from sport and spoiled rotten by a mother who always heard a time bomb ticking in my chest and did what any mother would have done in such a situation. She held my hand tight, hoped for the best, and tried to savor every precious moment.
It had been the gloomiest winter in living memory. Since Japan's attack on Pearl Harbor the previous December, America was in a state of shock watching the whole world sliding irreversibly into war. The very day I was born, however, marked the turning point when finally, Uncle Sam stood up and hit back. Literally hour for hour, while my mother went into labor in a Brooklyn hospital, sixteen B-25s took off from USS Hornet, an aircraft carrier in the West Pacific. To avoid radar detection, they had to fly fifty feet above sea level for a nail-biting eight hundred miles. Off the Japanese coast, they split into squadrons and bombed ten military and industrial targets in Tokyo, Yokohama, Yokosuka, Nagoya, Osaka, and Kobe.
Throughout life, my mother always joked that the tremors from those bombs were what made me turn out crazy, but what always struck me as insane was that after they'd dropped their bombs, all eighty airmen couldn't turn back and had to keep flying west. By the time they reached the coast of Free China, it was dark and turning stormy. Some planes managed to crash-land on airstrips, but most of the raiders had to bail out into the paddy fields and let their unmanned planes crash. Three died, and eight were captured, four of whom were executed. One plane with a leaky fuel tank was forced to take an early right turn to Russia. About sixty airmen, however, managed to get home with the help of villagers, guerrillas, and missionaries.
The chief pilot behind this ramshackle adventure sported the unlikely name of Jimmy Doolittle. He got home to discover that every last target had been missed, and he was expecting to be court-martialed. But it's a measure of how depressing our situation was in the first months of the war; the sheer daredevil heroism of this "Doolittle Raid" was a direct hit with newsmen and succeeded in lifting American morale off rock bottom. In the end, the powers that were awarded Jimmy Doolittle the Medal of Honor.
It was the stuff of comic books in an otherwise terrifying reality. Unfortunately, smiling Doolittle and the American public had no idea what kind of wasps' nest he'd just rattled. Gripped by national panic, Japan's imperial forces traced the wrecked and abandoned bombers scattered around coastal China to a trail of parachutes, cigarette packets, coins, and aviation gloves that the American raiders had given locals for their help. With hitherto unimagined levels of extreme violence, the Japs began torturing, slaughtering, and raping the entire region. They burned down every home, destroyed every farm, and even flew in biologists to poison wells with the bacteria of plague, anthrax, cholera, and typhoid. Within weeks, the Pacific front was plunged into a steaming hellhole of terror, starvation, and disease.
Meanwhile, across Eastern Europe and deep into Russia, something was happening on a scale that my Jewish ancestors couldn't have imagined in their worst nightmares. All four of my grandparents had emigrated from Galicia just before the turn of the twentieth century, a rural region that had formed the northeastern edge of what used to be the Austro-Hungarian Empire until it was broken up into Poland and the Ukraine in the interwar period. Annexed by Stalin in 1940 and then invaded by Hitler the following summer, our ancestral land had just disappeared behind a deathly silence.
I was too young to remember anything of the war, but as any war baby will tell you, its shadow is stamped on your identity for life. A thousand times in my adult daydreams, I'd be sitting in a plane or a hospital waiting room, and get caught by that "1942" on whatever visa or medical form I'd be filling out. It's like a giant tombstone staring back at you, and yet, it's weirdly empowering, almost like the terrible truth you learned as a teenager was still being shot at and avenged by the little boy's comic book hero.
I've long wondered how so many genius originals were born during the war. Never in the history of music have so many heavyweights come from the same crop: Brian Wilson, Bob Dylan, all four Beatles, Jagger and Richards, Jimi Hendrix, Jim Morrison, Aretha Franklin, Joni Mitchell, Paul Simon, Smokey Robinson, Arthur Lee, Ray Davies, Jimmy Page, Pete Townshend, Roger Waters, Jerry Garcia, Otis Redding, Janis Joplin, Curtis Mayfield, Sly Stone, Randy Newman, John Denver, Scott Walker, Carole King, Neil Sedaka, Stephen Stills, David Crosby, Eric Clapton, George Clinton, Donna Summer, Dr. John, Captain Beefheart, Ian Dury, Diana Ross, Leon Russell, Robert Wyatt, Frank Zappa, Neil Diamond, Neil Young, Tammy Wynette, Bob Marley, Lou Reed ... all war babies. Coincidence? I doubt it. We were born under a giant black cloud that I think made us run faster through life to wherever the lights were brightest. I obviously can't compare myself to all these artists, but I do know that I went through life feeling intensely lucky, and maybe that's what made me take so many chances.
Luck isn't solely about timing, of course; it's as much about being in the right place. When the credits roll at the end of my journey, the top of my thank-you list has to be the city where it all began — Brooklyn. Forget the hipster suburb it's since become; the Brooklyn of my childhood was such a human zoo, it's fitting that almost every cartoon character of my generation spoke in Brooklynese. Bugs Bunny, Popeye, Tweety Bird, Porky Pig, Daffy Duck, Heckle the talking magpie, Fred Flintstone, Barney Rubble. In fact, Popeye's famous line "I yam what I yam and dat's all what I yam" laughed me through a thousand embarrassing situations in adult life. Anytime I was made to feel like a halfwit from the gutters of the Third World, I used to pull that line out like a water pistol.
You see, as well as every other quirk and irregularity you're about to discover about me, I was a natural-born klutz. The hole in my heart caused me serious health problems later on, but what made me a playground misfit was my clumsiness. I had ten butterfingers attached to a jittery, left-handed nervous system. I was the red-faced kid who got so excited telling you all about his latest obsession, he tripped on his own shoelaces and accidentally squirted mustard down your shirtfront. To put it another way, I was the kind of boy that only a mother could love. I was difficult, impatient, I needed attention, people got dizzy just looking at me. Theoretically, my life should have been the thundering disaster that I physically am — but try defining "normal" in a place like old Brooklyn. We weren't polite, we weren't pretty, and we definitely weren't up our own asses.
What Brooklynites didn't have in wealth, beauty, or education we made up for in character. We were the world's most multicolored, multicultural multitude of mutts whose only common denominator was that just about everyone was working class and had an immigrant background. We had Puerto Ricans, blacks, Asians, Irish, and at least a million Italians, but I don't think there was anywhere like Brooklyn outside the new state of Israel. We had every flavor of Ashkenazim — Russian, Polish, Baltic, Romanian, Austrian, Hungarian, German, and Czech Jews, including about fifty thousand survivors from the concentration camps. We had lost Jewish tribes you didn't even know existed — Syrian, Iraqi, Persian, Yemeni, Ethiopian, even some Sephardic Jews whose family trees had curled through Spain, North Africa, the Middle East, and South America. I'm sure any unsuspecting goy driving through Brooklyn on a Saturday afternoon would have seen all the black yeshivish hats and lumped us together as one big, unhappy family. But among ourselves, each Jewish community was distinct, often with its own native food and language.
We even had our own time zones. For example, Galicia hadn't been on any school atlas since my parents were children, but many thousands of families like ours never said they came from Poland or the Ukraine — that dubious honor was generally reserved for camp survivors. When my Yiddish-speaking elders immigrated to America in the nineteenth century, neither Poland nor Ukraine existed, and in those days, Ukrainians were an ethnic group called Ruthenians. It's no secret that our Galician ancestors steered well clear of those vodka-swilling, pitchfork-poking schlubs of the east who, in the bitter end, evolved into the Ukrainian nationalists that lined up to do Hitler's dirtiest work.
No, thank you — we wanted nothing to do with the Ukraine. We were proud Americans descended from Galicia, a specific time and place under the respectable Hapsburg kings of Vienna. The old Galician cities like Lemberg had been the birthplace of the Haskalah, or the Jewish Enlightenment, a century when Jews embraced science, literature, art, and the liberal professions and even filled the ranks of the Hapsburg civil service. There's not a lot that Jews value more than noble kings and prosperous times, and Galicia was a word that expressed so much without having to explain.
The Italian community of Brooklyn also had its own tribes and clans pocketed around different neighborhoods. The thing to remember, however, is that Brooklyn and New York, although joined as one metropolis back in 1898, were still distinct, especially as you moved east toward the coast. Unlike the Brooklyn Heights and Williamsburg side, which looked at Manhattan, the bigger half of Brooklyn from Bay Ridge, Dyker Heights, Bensonhurst, and Sheepshead Bay down to Coney Island had its back to New York and faced the ocean. Most inhabitants either worked locally or wanted to live near the beach — which in those days was clean, spectacular, and the place to be in summer.
We lived in a small, two-bedroom apartment on Dahill Road, just off King's Highway near a predominantly Syrian corner of Bensonhurst that was otherwise Brooklyn's Little Italy. By trolley, we were twenty minutes from Coney Island and Canarsie, where my grandparents Benny and Esther Weisberg ran an Italian-American grocery and Grandma's elder sister Rose had a similar store nearby on Cropsey Avenue. Their brother, my great-uncle Morris, was the family bigwig who ran a successful olive oil importation business. Maybe I've watched too many Al Capone movies, but for a Jewish guy who made it on Italian turf during the thirties and forties, old Morris always struck me as suspect. I shouldn't judge because it was Uncle Morris who helped his sisters set up their grocery stores, which in turn put great food on my plate and provided a key part of my education.
My mother had grown up above my grandparents' store on Neptune Avenue, between Fifteenth and Sixteenth Street, and still considered Coney Island as home. Visiting my grandparents, which we did all the time, you could almost smell the Atlantic Ocean getting nearer just by the avenue names — Neptune, Mermaid, Surf. You'd see the Wonder Wheel, the Parachute Jump, and Cyclone from three or four blocks back. Europe wasn't just over that big blue horizon; it was visible everywhere in our daily lives. But to simply call Brooklyn a melting pot, as so many do, is a terrible insult to the high standards of cooking. We were gourmets. Our store imported every delicacy known to Roman civilization. We had every type of pasta and olive oil, we had a hundred condiments and those scary-looking dried cod, or baccalà, hanging off the ceiling like giant mummified bats. For a start, when you pushed open that heavy glass door into the store, you'd get knocked backward by the smell of cheese. We stocked every imported variety of obscure, steaming formaggi that could practically follow you down the street if you whistled.
A few doors down was Totonno's, the most famous pizzeria in Brooklyn. Like a great pop record, a world-class pizza is a deceptively simple art, and Totonno cracked a hit formula in 1924 that's been drawing a loyal audience ever since. He was a dark, burly Neapolitan who spent his life in a white tank top because whether it was winter or summer outside, a hardworking day was always oven temperature. He was an opera fanatic who applied the same level of passion and perfectionism to the science of dough and handmade mozzarella. Always freshly kneaded — never refrigerated — he sourced only the tangiest, firmest handmade mozzarella. He tray-baked his fifteen-inch pies sprinkled with fine olive oil so thin and crispy, the slices crunched between your teeth in an explosion of divine savors.
Totonno's masterpiece pizzas drew, and still draw, crowds of drooling Italians from all over Brooklyn and New York. His eldest son, Jerry, was taking over the restaurant by the time my legs were dangling off their seats, but their whole family was constantly running into our store for supplies because, as I learned only recently, my grandmother gave them credit, which wasn't something the Italians always accepted among themselves. In return, we were welcome to grab a pie whenever we wanted. Tabs would be divvied up and paid on Fridays.
In Brooklyn, Jews and Italians didn't just work side by side — we actually liked each other. I think they respected our family values, but there was our self-discipline, too. Jewish men generally didn't drink to excess, didn't beat their wives, and most of all, we minded our own business, literally. My grandmother Esther was a tough cookie, but she was innocent in the way that ladies were supposed to be in those days. I remember her chasing Puerto Rican kids away from the store with a broom because she thought they stole. However, when it came to her beloved Italian customers, she never knew what it really meant that some of them were distinguished representatives of the local garbage union. Grandpa knew but didn't want to. His name was Benjamin, and he was the quiet one, especially when it came to other people's business. Whenever he saw a gang of Italians kicking some poor fella around the pavement, he'd pick up a newspaper or disappear into the stockroom.
I remember these rough-looking Sicilian characters who once pulled up and bought some groceries. A minute later, two cops ran in. "See anyone suspicious getting into a truck?" "What truck?" said Grandpa. When the cops ran off down the street, he turned to me and smiled. "If your grandmother were here, she'd have given them the license plate."
And for us, the Italians had by the bucket-load the one quality neither the Yiddish nor the English languages even had a term for — arte di vivere, which translates as "the art of living." It wasn't just their cooking, the way they sang their hearts out while they worked, the way wore their fedoras and Sinatra-style suits. They were the original Brooklyn hipsters. We forget how decades before Jews built Hollywood, America's first entertainment superstar was an Italian opera singer, Enrico Caruso, who, along with Sinatra, Perry Como, Dean Martin, Tony Bennett, Vic Damone, and others in my time, taught the twentieth century how to sing. Pop music owes so much to black people, of course, but we must never forget the Italians who brought high culture to our streets.
Their lady-flirting, pleasure-appreciating attitude to life certainly took a lot of the stiffness out of whatever Waspy Victorian culture dominated nineteenth-century America, and I'm certain it had a profound effect on Jewish immigrants, too. I can just picture all those Coney Island Jews, still carrying all their Ashkenazi baggage, pickled in centuries of fear and sorrow. How they must have suffered in kosher torment resisting Totonno's pepperoni topping. They mostly gave in, of course. "Go thy way and eat bread with enjoyment" — Ecclesiastes 9:7. Peace at last between the Romans and the Jews.