I'm 74 and not all that well;
its time to start writing it all down.
I didn't have a boring life, even before I was
born. My folks were WWII Holocaust
Refugees from genocidal Germany. My mother
arrived by steamship as an illegal immigrant at
Ellis Island Customs and Immigration at the
height of the war.
I was conceived in celebration
of the end of the war like millions of other
baby boomers. We lived in a linoleum lined
tenement, in the late 1940s, in Uptown New York
City which at the time was a huge refugee
Community of some 500,000 Jewish-German families
with several hundred thousand little American
born kids running around babbling in
Germ-English. Things were simple.
There was no air conditioning and in winter
there was coal fired steam heat. In 1947 a
two bedroom apartment with a living room and
kitchen cost about $20 or $25 a month.
And so it was, I was a stinky
little toddler running around the linoleum
floors in pajamas most of the time; babbling in
German which was my family's language and my
first language. Then, we assimilated in
the mid 1950s by the time I was 8, after I spoke
English learned in school, with an accent.
We moved way out to suburbia on Long Island, to
a town named after a long gone Native America
tribe, massacred in the late 1800s. It was
quite a culture shock from having lived among
thousands of families just like us. Our
new neighbors called themselves 'Eye-Talien' and
were Catholic. What had happened was that
someone made a mistake. In those days, in
the 1950s in the 'liberal north', there were
unspoken and unwritten real estate rules and
'restricted neighborhoods': you did not show
homes in white towns to Black families, Hispanic
families, nor to Jews or other 'undesirable'
people. Well, we looked white and didn't ask the real estate agent if there were
kosher shops nearby. So, it was assumed
that we were proper ordinary white Christians.
We bought a house, moved in, mowed the lawn and
all was well. Until friendly neighbors
showed up to welcome us to the neighborhood and
cheerfully ask if we'd be at church on Sunday. OOops!
"Er noo, we're Jewish......" The
neighbors' eyes widened momentarily in horror,
and then they remembered their manners and
smiled a bit awkwardly. No one threw rocks
into our windows, these gentiles were too
genteel for that. Nothing happened.
Some folks even bragged, "We even have Jews
living next door."
Life in suburban Long Island was paradise
for a little kid. It was a great place to
grow up. Back then, it was supremely safe.
Nothing ever happened. There was fresh
salty sea air
galore! People from the City would come
out to visit on weekends and say, "De ayah is so
fresh out heah!" I loved living 'out heah'
where the air was so fresh. I spoke three
dialects: my carefully crafted 'Lawn Guylind'
accent, which my parents called 'Lunk
Gailandt.' and broad flat Noo Yawkeese. In
1957 you could buy a 3 bedroom, two story Cape
Cod house with front and back lawns and an
attached garage for $20,000 and take 30 year to
pay for it. Today, the SUV in the driveway
costs three times that much.
And I learned all about 'Lawn Guylind lawn parties.' A common thing on a
Sunday afternoon, the whole neighborhood could
come to a very informal lawn party which
featured three very clean garbage cans full of
ice. One held cans of soda for the kids.
Another held cans of beer for the men. and
the third can was full of raw clams! The
guys would stand around talking baseball and pop
open the clam shells with butter knives and let
the slimy clam goo slither down their throats.
It was the most disgusting thing I ever saw! Children
would run away to find someplace to throw up!
It wasn't kosher either. These were not
rich folks out in the Hamptons eating steak and
lobster; they were ordinary middle class factory
I lived the assimilation
experience. Although I was born here, I
didn't speak English until first grade. I
spent my tween years assimilating and learning
to be American. On top of that, I spent my
teen years learning how to hide being a Gay
American. So, even after assimilating, I
was still and outsider.
After having served ten years in
America's armed forces and growing old, I became
a gay veterans' advocate and began giving
speeches at universities and even being invited
to speak in high schools. A high school
teacher contacted me asking me to speak to her
class about being a Vietnam Era veteran. I
explained that I'm also gay and generally speak
about being a Gay Veteran. She said that
was even better. She noted that she
teaches in a New York City 'Newcomers high
school.' All of her students were immigrant teen
agers. New York has so many immigrant
children that it has eleven Newcomer high
schools! When she wondered how I would
reach their reality in life, I said that I was
the child of refugees, no worries, I could get
their attention. So, I was introduced as
an America Vietnam veteran who was gay. I faced
a roomful of rather hostile young people with their arms
crossed over their chests, signaling that they
were not about to let me contaminate them with
my queerness. They expected me to talk
about war. Instead I began by telling them
that my parents were refugees from a country
that arrested and murdered people because of
their religion and so they fled to America.
I said my mother's first job in this country was
cleaning other people's toilets. BOOM, now
I was one of them. The crossed arms came down, I
was talking about their own experience.
So, even more than 70 years after being an
immigrant's kid, I'm still connected to that
experiential reality. I was born here, but
with just a few years difference, I might have
been a 'Dreamer' brought here illegally as a
child and might have spent my life as an
outsider with legally limited opportunities.
I'm and old man now. Yet, even 60 years
after the 1950s, being a child of refugees is
still very much a part of my core being, my
identity, who I am. I grew up here, lived
my whole life here, served for a decade as a
patriotic member of our American armed forces
leaving as a sgt first class. I'm American
through and through, its all I know. And
yet, there's a part of me that cannot forget
having been a foreigner, a stranger in my own
country. As a baby and toddler, I got my
nursery rhymes and fairy tales in another
language. And American holidays and
rituals were as much a mystery to me as they
were to my parents. We got Halloween all
wrong, for example; totally ass backwards.
I thought I had to give away candy as a 6 year
old. I had a wonderful time doing it,
shouting "trick or treat" without a clue what it
meant and handing out pretzels on upper
Broadway. But, when I heard other
'American kids' happily talking about 'all the
candy they got last night,' I realized that I
wasn't really an American, even though I was.
I can laugh about it now all these years later;
but a part of me still burns with the memory of
having been a stranger in my own country.
Am I in favor of welcoming
immigrants? You betcha. We are the
lifeblood of this country. My mother was
held on Ellis Island for two months and then was
issued a Resident Alien Green Card giving her
official permission to live and work here.
On the day she was released she was also issued
five cents to pay for the ferry ride across New
York harbor, past the Statue of Liberty, to
begin her new life in America. That nickel was
the only welfare she ever received during her 60
years of life here. Her first job was as a
cleaning lady. Then she entrepreneurially
started her own business.
While we still lived in the
uptown slum tenements of New York City, when I
was seven, my older brother put me on the
handlebars of his Schwinn and we rode across the
George Washington Bridge to the Dairy Queen on
the other side in Ft. Lee, New Jersey where he
bought me and ice cream cone. At least I
thought he did. Really my mother gave him
the money for his and my cone to bribe him not
to throw me to my death into the Hudson River
below. For me, the big thrill was stopping
in the middle of the bridge where a fat blue
line was painted, marking the border with New
York painted on one side and New Jersey on the
other side. I straddled the border and
jumped up and down with the thrill. It
didn't take much to get me going in those days.
We lived in what we called 'Vashington Heights.'
And our baseball team, just across the river in
the Bronx, was the 'Jen-kiss.' It wasn't
until I grew up that I learned the neighborhood
was named after George Washington, and the team
was the Yankees. Absolutely everyone spoke
German from the little kids, their refugee
parents, to the refugee grocer in his shop on
the corner on Broadway. If someone was
heard speaking English on upper Broadway, the joke
went, a crowd gathered to see what was going on.
The entire Upper West Side was
made up of refugees in the 1940s and 50s.
On our uptown block there must have been
something like 100 or more kids of all ages
filling the apartment buildings lining the
street, with mothers leaning out of the upper
floor windows watching us play on the street
babbling in a German-English mish mash.
Among us refugee community kids 'inclusiveness'
was play rule number one. Winning a game
was irrelevant; what mattered was that every kid
should have fun. So, if we were playing
stickball, even a teenaged batter from the
opposing teem would gently bunt the ball to a
six year old guarding the infield of parked
cars. It didn't matter if it bounced or
rolled to him; everyone shouted encouragingly,
"Eli, pick it up!" Then, the six year old
held up the ball ecstatically, shouting,"I
caught it, I caught it!" He had no idea
what to do next, but again, everyone would
shout, "tag him out, tag him out" as the
teenaged batter jogged slowly towards him to get
himself tagged out. It was the teen batter
who was the hero, of course; but six year old
little Eli was having the time of his life, and
that was what it was all about on our uptown
block of refugee kids.
I began first grade in public
school around 1952 way uptown where all the poor
folks lived. There were three minorities
there back then, German Jewish refugees, Puerto
Rican migrants, and Black folks from Harlem.
To the rich school board people downtown, we
were all trash, so they didn't segregate us from
each other and they forgot to tell us not to
trust each other either. So, there we were
on day one, a big bunch of six and seven year
olds thrown together and not being able to
understand a word we spoke to each other.
We were fascinated with each other and wanted to
play, so we melded our Spanglish, Deep South
dialect, and German to make up our own uptown
kids gibberish that no one over seven could
understand. Lunchtime was the most fun,
when we eagerly traded our homemade ethnic
lunches with Paella, German meatballs, and fried
chicken flying back and forth across the table.
It was a huge mess, but every kid was smiling!
Our teacher, a young white Lutheran lady from
Wisconsin had only the 'Dick, Jane and Sal\y'
books to work with, but she used them to invent
ESL on her own and we all learned to speak
proper mid-western American English.
Because of her early effort, many of us went on
to college a decade later.
To my young eyes, the early
1950s uptown cityscape was coal soot grey.
You could smell the sooty air. Then we
moved 60 miles out to the fresh air of Long
Island and suddenly I discovered beautiful
color. There were green trees everywhere,
the ocean down the street was shimmering blue,
all the little private houses where covered in
clean bright white shingles instead of grey
dirty brick buildings, oh my, I was in heaven.
I inherited my brother's hand me down Schwinn
and could ride all over town without a care in
the world. In those days out there,
an 8 year old could pop out the front door of
his house on a hot summer morning wearing his
bathing suit and ride off to the beach cove and
not be seen or heard from till dinnertime and no
one was worried because it was so safe. I
could drop my bike on pile by the beach
and not worry about it at all, everyone had a
bike. I could buy a hot dog and a coke for
lunch from the beach shack, hand over the
quarter in my pocket and get a dime back in
change! In the afternoon, I could ride
across town across the tracks to the new library
and spend hours browsing the books and get back
home back by the seaside in time for dinner.
Oh sure, there was trauma.
I wasn't one of the cool kids. I was a
nerd. Like all the other nerds I rode my
bike in the evening to the slot car palace in
town and raced my little toy car around the
table tracks. Incredible, because back in
the City it wasn't safe to go out after dark!
In Junior High school you had to participate in
extracurricular activities. So, being a
nerd, I joined the Audio-Visual Squad. By
my senior year, I was the student director of
Audio-Visual services with a squad of 12 nerds.
On that November 1963 morning that Kennedy was
shot in Dallas, I was sitting with my feet on
the desk in my windowless AV office watching TV.
When Walter Chronkite announced that the
President was dead, I suddenly realized that I
was the only one in the school who knew the
news. I hesitated for only a second and
then ran down to the principal's office, burst
in the door and shouted, "The President's been
shot" The principal was NOT amused.
He thought I was being nuts. I said, "nooo
no, Turn on your TV!" I turned it on for
him; every station had the same news on.
He said, "OK, don't move!" He called the
county superintendant and they agreed to close
the schools. He said, "OK, fire up the PA
system." That was part of my job as AV
impresario. I handed him the mic, and he
announced the news and shut down the school.
My squad of nerds abandoned my precious
projectors all over the school. I spent
the next two hours collecting them and locking
them up in the AV room, I knew we wouldn't be
back for a week at least. The principal
and I were the last to leave, I got into my car
in the student parking lot and drove home.
Yeah, out in suburbia every senior had a jalopy
car. THAT was my generational marker: 'The
Day Kennedy Was Shot!' People my age
always ask each other, "what were you doing the
day Kennedy was shot?" Now you know.
More to come.