In November 1932, our bi-annual lease expired at 59 Vernon Ave. and again Papa and Irene went apartment hunting. For some reason or other, the Pragers wanted to make a radical change in neighborhoods so, consequently, after many years we moved from Bedford-Stuyvesant to Ocean Hill, north of Brownsville, at 411 Howard Ave. corner of St. Marks Ave.
Moving to a new neighborhood at the age of 14 changed my life considerably; namely, socially and athletically. Not having to attend school from 8 am-8 pm at the Yeshiva afforded me time to indulge in many activities outside of school.
Directly across from my residence on Howard Ave. was P.S. 144, whose large playground was my athletic home for the next four years. I, and my new friends, would play softball, association football and handball each and every Sunday and very often in the afternoons after school hours. Quite often, we played association football at night under the lamppost lights. Unable to afford regular footballs, we wrapped old socks with rubber bands to simulate a football and played for many hours until it was time to retire for the night.
As we grew older, we played softball for money against other teams in the very large playground of P.S. 178, several blocks from my home. We formed an athletic club called the Condors- the largest South American bird- and purchased jackets whose colors were blue and gold. Although I was the youngest member of the club I was elected president and team captain.
My friends came from diverse backgrounds, although poverty was the common denominator. Of course, none of us considered ourselves poor as that was relative. From the very beginning, I was attracted to Itchka Shapiro who remained by best friend for many years. His father was the Rosh Yeshiva (principal) of Yeshiva Rabbi Chaim Berlin. He was born in Europe and immigrated to the U.S. at a very young age. Although he rooted for the N.Y. Giants baseball team and I was a rabid Brooklyn Dodger fan, this fact never altered our strong friendship for each other. He attended Alexander Hamilton H.S., the archrival of Boys High my alma mater.
He did not go on to college. At the age of 19, when I worked during the summer for T&P Optical Co., I was able to obtain employment for him at T&P where he remained for many years until he was drafted into the Army during World War II. After his release, he went to work for the U.S. Post Office where he worked nights for many years. Late in life, he married a woman who suffered from depression and never had children with her. I would hear from him, or from his brother who I would meet in the street from time to time, about once or twice a year. Gradually, our relationship ended when he ceased calling me and, not knowing his new address or phone number, I was not able to contact him. It bothers me immensely that to this day I don’t know whether Itch is still alive.
My next closest friends were two brothers, Jack and Sandy Wasserman. They both attended Samuel J. Tilden H.S.; Jack went to college at night and I don’t recall in which field he majored. Sandy did not attend college and went to work for a company that manufactured dresser sets, which consisted of trays, mirrors, hand brushes and combs. On weekends he was a soda jerk in his brother–in-law’s pharmacy in the Bay Ridge section of Brooklyn. Jack died about 15 years ago; Sandy remained a close friend till his death 4 years ago.
The other friends that I had at this time remained close to me till about the time that I married; then, I lost contact with them. They were, in no order of importance, Harry Wiskopf, Maxie Eisenberg, “Goldy” Goldberg, Gellman, and “Belinda”. Harry was on the heavy side with curly blonde hair and a NY Yankee fan. He did not attend college and I don’t know what was his occupation. Maxie attended Brooklyn College as a pre-med student and became a physician. “Goldy” went to CCNY uptown and became an academic teaching history on the college level; he was an excellent student. Gellman attended Brooklyn College and was a math genius and went on to teach either physics or math in college. “Belinda” – blind in Yiddish – was quite a character who made his living panhandling. His wearing of very thick eyeglasses helped him in his trade pretending he was blind and a palsy victim. He did quite well financially.
Our favorite hangout was in front of Talmud Torah Tiferes Hagra which was adjacent to my residence. TTTH had 3 steps in front of one of its doors, which afforded us room to sit and schmooze for hours.
One incident I recall around this time is worth mentioning. I was around 15 and on one Friday night we played a game in front of TTTH, which required rapid running from one sidewalk to the sidewalk across the street. I was dressed in my Sabbath attire, which included a pair of new shoes with leather heels, not particularly fit for running. On one of my dashes to the other side, I slipped and fell. Instinctively, I stuck my hand out to shelter the fall and landed on my wrist. I was sure that I had broken my wrist since the pain was excruciating. I immediately went up to tell my parents what had occurred and, not having a family doctor, I decided to go to St. Mary’s Hospital which was 2 blocks from my home. I don’t remember whether an x-ray was performed that night or the following morning; be as it may, I was hospitalized and spent the night. The x-ray showed a severe sprain.
On the following morning, a priest went through the large ward where I was lying and went from bed to bed giving each patient a blessing. When he arrived at my bed he said “I know that you are Jewish and, instead of giving you a Christian blessing, I would advise you to keep the fifth commandment to honor your father and mother.” I never forgot his compassion and those words. In the afternoon, I was released and sent home.
It is quite possible that my choice of professions was triggered by my weekly computation of my father’s wage. Papa worked for Meyerson Mfg. Co. a contractor of men’s trousers. Since he worked piecework, his pay was calculated by the number of trouser pockets he sewed by machine multiplied by a rate agreed upon by management and the Amalgamated Clothing Union headed by Sidney Hillman, an advisor to Pres. Roosevelt. Papa would write the number of bundles of trousers he sewed for the week in a small notebook. I would add up the number and, after my calculation, would tell him what his earnings were for the week. I don’t remember his wages ever exceeding $40 per week. Our love for him was never predicated on his business achievements or his financial acumen. We admired and loved him for the values he inculcated in us.
Although I enjoyed playing ball and socializing with my boy friends reaching the age of 15, my libido kicked in and I found myself looking at the opposite sex with new interest; similar to the way I stared at the girl on Vernon Ave. when I was 13. My modus operandi did not change as I now found myself staring at a beautiful, blonde girl of around my age or a few months younger. She lived around the corner on St. Marks Ave.
This infatuation lasted almost for a year and, believe it or not, I never had the guts to speak to her and for all I know it is possible that she never knew that I existed. I must add that after a while I noticed that she was slightly cross-eyed which did not lessen my liking for her.
On the top floor of my building lived Dotty who was not particularly pretty but had loads of personality; a characteristic that I always admired in people and still do. I liked speaking to her but our relationship never went beyond friendship. My only physical contact that I had with her was my teaching her to swim in Coney Island. She would lie down on her chest across my outstretched arms and my feeling her tiny breasts gave me quite a charge; this being the first time that I felt a girl in a prohibited area. Suffice it to say, I became a swimming instructor whenever I had the opportunity. I never went to parties with her nor indulged in kissing games i.e.: spin-the-bottle. My friend Itchka always carried a torch for her but never related his true feeling towards her. To this day I don’t know if Dotty ever knew that Itch cared for her.