What Is the Bronx? Are You Kidding Me?


I read the article in New York Magazine. Let me help the writer, Wallace-Wells, out.

The Bronx represents the essential goodness of the TRUE New York City experience. You come here, from wherever. You gain employment. You raise a family. You aspire to better things and yet stay true to yourself. You live in a real community.  You toil — often in obscurity — with pride and quiet dignity.

The Bronx is more like what New York City USED TO BE. That is, before the creation of massive, half-empty condos that blot out the sun. Before poseurs from Podunk, subsidized by parental funds, drove up rents and co-op prices, in their search for the optimal artisinal pickle. Before tacky bridge chairs littered Times Square, so Velveeta-eating lard butts from Butte can rest after shaking the shkeevy hand of Cookie Monster.

Here in the Bronx, a writer creates a borough-wide writing program, open to all, without fanfare. Here in the Bronx, the daughter of a cop invents a walking tour company, and brings people to The Real New York. Here in the Bronx, a guy digs into the core of the city, and creates a powerful blog that is being quoted by “mainstream media” far and wide.

The difference? Here, it’s done with quiet dignity, grace, humility.

The Bronx? It’s the last vestige of the Real New York, the steward of true NYC values. The bogus do not survive here. For that alone, the rest of the city should bow down and kiss our feet.

Yankee Stadium – Opening Day


The new Yankee baseball season marks the mental close of another hard winter. The daily temperature plummeted into the twenties, and stayed there until St. Paddy’s Day. There was not even the usual New York City “February Thaw” to melt the sooty old snow that lined our city’s sidewalks for months.

This new season lies ahead like a kid’s summer, full of promise and so much time—unlike the summers of adult life that flick by like a page on an iPad.

The Yankee home openers of my youth were always midweek day games against Detroit. The Opener was an event. The entire neighborhood would make plans to play hooky from work or school. We’d take the number four train down to 161st Street and run down the “el” stairs and down River Avenue to get on the ticket line for our non-reserved upper deck nosebleed seats.

Leader of the pack was Big Larry. Larry, our building superintendant so long ago, died late last year, at eighty-nine. He mumbled when he spoke: my name is Marty—he would call me “Moh.” I think back and remember him swabbing our hallways on Sunday mornings, his hair and white tee-shirt drenched with sweat. I remember the tattoos on his forearms, of faded blue-green anchors.

He was in the Pacific in the Big One, double-ya double-ya two. Sometimes, when we were lucky, he would take time out from his labors, open the door to his rent-free, basement apartment, take out the Japanese sword he “found” during his tour in the Pacific and let us do dangerous things with it. He turned a blind eye to our boisterous behavior when we took the sword outside, waved it over our heads like maniacs, screamed in made-up Japanese words, and scared the bejesus out of neighborhood dogs, little kids and old ladies wheeling their shopping carts home from Gristedes.

My dad had it tough in the European Theater but even he admits that the guys in the Pacific had it even tougher with malaria, booby traps and crazies charging at you, shrieking like banshees. Add Japanese Zeros, kamikazees—no thanks, I’d take The Bulge too, like my dad.

Big Larry’s kids were our best friends. His son, Lawrence, was my buddy. We called him Larry. His sister, Janet, was best friends with my sister. The baby of their family, Colleen, was the hapless tag-along.

Big Larry’s day job was on Forty-Eighth Street, Music Row. He repaired musical instruments. He got his son a full set of Ludwig drums, Johnny Cash style, that is, one piece at a time, “out the back door”—a mismatched set. Across the basement hall from their apartment was an empty stroller storage room. Big Larry would slip Lawrence the pass key and he and I played drums loudly, and badly, along with the radio.

I loved their apartment, and I was there at least as often as I was in my own joyless home, upstairs. There in Lawrence’s place, we played mindlessly, and dreamed of the larger world and of a time when we’d have it all. Money! Girls! Corvettes! We ate sandwiches on the Formica table without plates, we ate spaghetti until our stomachs burst—not boring old pot roast like my mom served us at our home.

We talked sports, we talked about the Yankees and, in time, we talked about girls. Ensconced in Lawrence’s bedroom, we’d worship the poster of Sophia Loren in Boy on a Dolphin, which he taped to the wall.

Time stretched before us and every spring Big Larry would take us all to the Big Ballpark in the Bronx. We were kings high up in the grandstand, surveying the subway, the Bronx County Courthouse, the Concourse Plaza Hotel (which wouldn’t let black ballplayer Elston Howard in, my father would always remind me). In our hands were pennants, pretzels and hot dogs. The grownups tossed back cups of Ballantine beer. We kids looked forward to the day when we, too, could call the beer guy and order a round.

Big Larry was hardly rich—he probably couldn’t afford to take a gang to the new Stadium these days—but he was always generous. Wherever that family went, I was invited along. Peach Lake, Jones Beach, Yankees opening day, I was always invited. I felt proud, and loved, when—finally one year—he knew I was finally strong enough to help push-start his cars, which were always fifty-dollar clunkers.

My friend Lawrence would shrink in shame as we pushed his dad’s bombs down Webb Avenue until we built up enough speed for Big Larry to pop the clutch and turn the ignition key. When the engine caught, plumes of thick black exhaust smoke spiraled up to the Bronx heavens.

Once underway, Big Larry would push the buttons of the radio until he found a song he could snap his fingers to. “Toe-tappers,” he’d call them. He’d lean back, and say to his wife, “Annie…light me up a Lucky.” Annie, my surrogate mother, would light up two in her mouth and pass one up front to her husband. Cool.

Annie passed away just weeks after Big Larry.

Big Larry always worked hard, and he knew how to enjoy his money, when he had it. He’d spend a fortune on Christmas presents for the kids. For Easter, they all had spiffy new outfits.

When their relatives came over, the party was on. Big Larry would play Eddie Albert or other popular country crooners on his hi-fi. Everyone would dance and dance, shouting and drinking until early in the morning. I marveled at the magic, as before my very eyes cases and cases of Rheingold would disappear over an afternoon and evening of good cheer.

The real magic, however, was how my sullen demeanor would brighten once I went down to their place, from my joyless, top floor apartment. No matter that it was a dark, dank basement flat. There, I’d join in the merriment with Big Larry, Annie, Lawrence, Janet, Colleen and the rest of their clan. We kids would watch the grownups dance and drink in a swirl of cigarette smoke and raucous laughter. One time, Lawrence’s Aunt Agnes got really drunk and, glass in hand, slowly bent to sit on her chair, only she missed it by a good two feet and ended up plopping down hard on the bare wood floor. We all laughed right along with her, because it was a holiday and we were having good mindless fun. Who cared if she laughed so hard she peed herself, right there on the bare wood floor—which made us all laugh even more.

The new Yankee season has begun. Winter is finally over. Just yesterday, I heard birds chirping across the street and I actually drove with the sunroof open. And, with the temperature finally moderating, I recalled how my mom would yell at me for tramping mud through our old top floor apartment after coming home from the ball fields in early spring. Lawrence’s mom, Annie? She never yelled. She’d just laugh at us, all caked in filth from head to toe, dripping with little kid sweat and grinning from our pleasant exertion. She’d smile, call us jerks, get a broom and a dust pan, ask us to leave our muddy sneakers out in the foyer. Together, we cleaned up our mess.

Goodbye, Big Larry. Goodbye, Annie. I miss you. Rest in peace.



This story is excerpted from my collection of short fiction, “Home Front” published by Sock Monkey Press http://sockmonkeypress.org/wp/?p=142 


I Liked It Better When…

I liked it better when the music came in vinyl, with double albums and plenty of pictures and liner notes by famous rock writers, that you’d read and re-read and re-read because you were high after cleaning your dope and rolling joints on said double albums.

I liked it better when when planes were flown with precision and landed safely, and not into buildings, and there was more to eat on a flight than a salted peanut or two and you could keep your shoes and belt and coat on.

I liked it better when the people with all the money were older well at least 50 or so — or were, maybe, politicians, wheelin and dealin in smoke filled back rooms (who cares what they did I mean they were politicians.)

And when, if you were in a far right wing group like the John Birch Society, or some such, you were roundly pilloried for being a heartless anti-working class scumbag and oddball an outkast an outlier a liar a thief in the night a stealer of dreams not a mainstream hero with actual political clout and a blog a column a tv show.

I liked it better when a wacko’s only hope for notoriety was a soapbox and megaphone on the corner, or mimeographed fliers that you’d smell the chemicals off of and pretend it got you high like when you did for the girls in grammar school when the homework assignments were passed back from the teacher.

I liked it better when you just took the fookin job and when the HR person started talking about benefits about healthcare about sick days about paid holidays you drifted into the twilight zone because hooray hooray you were young and gonna celebrate because you got the job and who cared about all that other malarkey.

And when weekends were free from emails and texts and beeps and boops and noises of all manner that keep you shackled keep you tethered keep you harnessed but good every minute even the mornings with the industrial strength tequila hangovers that threaten to split your skull like a broad sword.

And when kids held doors for their elders because they were told to, that’s why, and when the kids didn’t die from anaphylactic shock from smelling someone ELSE’S peanut butter sandwich at lunch and their idea of fun and mischief was to put green peas on the snap locks of their attaché cases and release the catches so the peas would fly high to the next table and onto the heads of friends during school lunch.

And and and

I liked it better when these same kids played outside with all the pent-up energy that is kid-dom and oh the non-stop screaming and squealing and ball throwing and chasing and grabbing and laughing, oh

it’s the laughing that I miss most.

A Real New Yorker Falls

As I write this, the rain falls on a cold and dreary day and that, I suppose, is as it should be, for a Real New Yorker has fallen.

There is no great tragedy when a person dies at 85 — at least that is what some would have you believe.  The common wisdom is that the death of a child, or young adult is, somehow, sadder, because of all the promise that lays ahead in life and because the pain of the parents resonates so fully.  Children should not pre-decease their parents.

But what of the 85 year old who never really “gets old,” who never stops learning, or living?  We know so many who suffer from “Glory Days” syndrome, to borrow the title of the Bruce Springsteen song.  That is to say, those who reached life’s pinnacle in high school, or on the gridiron, oozing with the power and vitality of youth.  Too many of us willingly accept the diminishment of the years and comfortably curtail our ability — and desire — to keep learning, growing, staying in the game — and giving to others.

Not Elaine Katz, though.  

If it’s trite to say she was “one of a kind” then so be it. I never met anyone like her. She was a relentless ball of energy, with a bad eye and a bad back and who knows what else.  She was more than 20 years my senior yet when I was felled by a serious back injury, suddenly a cane appeared at my apartment’s concierge desk, with a note saying it was from Elaine.  She explained later that it had been her husband’s and she described a story involving the cane, a nasty cab driver, and lots of screaming and hitting — directed at said cabbie.

I knew her through the Riverdale Temple, which my wife and I joined in 2010, after 25 years of living in Brooklyn.  Here, we knew not a soul. But in short order, we were taken under the wing of the congregation’s leadership.  Elaine, it was clear, was one of the ringleaders.  She, too, was from Brooklyn, which I could tell from her sharp-elbow verbal approach and salty humor.  A scene with Elaine brandishing a massive horseradish root in a particularly funny way comes to mind.  (Use your imagination.)

At Board meetings, in adult ed classes, and during special events, she was a force of nature.  Her eyes sparkled as she texted away during activities, which were often interrupted by the strange steamship ring tone of her mobile phone.

I guess the technical term for Elaine would be “piece of work.”  Where my own parents eschewed the Internet, and allowed whatever native intelligence they possessed to metastasize, Elaine welcomed today’s technology and reveled in her expertise on multiple communications platforms.  Where my mother-in-law — herself a force of nature back in her prime — descended into a diminished life, compulsively obsessed with the most routine matters, Elaine carried on expertly, well into her 80s.

As her son Rob so aptly said in his poignant eulogy, “even in her advanced years, she never become an ‘old lady.’”

And that, my friends, is the key to life.  We all go sometime and we don’t know when or where.  The key is to keep pushing, every day.  Keep learning, growing, and soaking it all in like a sponge.

I was a late bloomer and I readily admit that I only started to hit my stride in my 30s.  Still, my attitude about the gifts I had been given was that there was always another year to build upon, always another decade to make my mark, always “all the time in the world.”

And then, 9/11 happened.  I ramped it up.  And then, in 2007, I received some abrupt, chilling, and fortunately, incorrect news about my health.  I underwent test after test at Methodist Hospital and, then, Memorial Sloan Kettering Hospital, and was enrolled in a cancer treatment unit and given a blue wallet card embossed with vital information.

When, ultimately, I was deemed fit and my problem resolved, I kept the card.  Now, to some that might seem strange.  But, it is there, in my wallet, to this very day. I keep it as a reminder: life is precious.  Life is short. “Cut the crap,” the card tells me every day, “and keep pushing ahead.  DO NOT WASTE YOUR TIME.”

Yes, it is raining today, and cold, and dreary.  The pelting rain will knock the leaves to the ground below, where they will enrich the soil and allow new growth in the months ahead.  We need the rain, for nourishment, for sustenance.  And as for the cold, and the shorter days, well, this is what it is, here in the northeast United States.  It gets cold, and then colder, and then warmer, and then hot.  Finally, it will cool again.

We will miss Elaine and feel sad about her loss.  But I can’t mourn her life.  Not really. She lived it to the fullest, and overcame the horrors and challenges — and welcomed the joys — that a long life surely brings. A life force like hers lives on, in the memories of all those she has touched.

I’m looking at the rain now, and the window is wide open.  It is cold in here.  The rain splashes the sill.  I feel it on my hands as I type.  It feels good.

Really good.

Taylor Swift, Global Superstar, Is Our Global New York Brand Ambassador

We Real New Yorkers are lucky to have Taylor Swift as our city’s global brand ambassador.  This seven-time Grammy winner, a cross between Gwyneth Paltrow, Gomer Pyle and Olive Oyl, will now represent us to the global travel and tourism community and entice travelers the world over to come here, buy stuff, stand on line for Grimaldi pizza and Shake Shack burgers, drink Bulleit rye in Williamsburg and, ultimately, move here.

Why not?  Since the days of the Dutch West India Company, New York (formerly New Amsterdam) has always been about making money.  We’re a trading post.  Always have been.  Always will be.  And Tay Tay is hot hot hot, arguably the world’s biggest pop star (for now).  The 25-year old New Yorker (yep, she lives in an eight-figure Tribeca condo) can move the merchandise.

So if she can get more suckers, er, tourists, to come here and part with their sheckels, why should you, or I, care one whit?  I mean, come on, don’t we Real New Yorkers have more important things to worry our pretty little heads about.  Ebola.  Joblessness.  ISIS.  Midterm elections.  Eurozone stability.  Global warming.  Crumbling infrastructure.  God-awful professional sports teams.

Excuse me while I channel my inner Lewis Black.

Taylor Swift is the sugary, artificially colored, maraschino cherry on top of the whipped cream confection that has become our beloved New York City.

Taylor Swift has NOTHING to do with New York, or the life Real New Yorkers live.  Does she take the subway?  Has she ever had to work the system to get a kid a seat in the local school?Or been gentrified out of an apartment? Or lived through a blackout (or two?  or three?) or a sanitation strike?  Or been stopped-and-frisked?  Or been stuck in an ER for 10 hours, waiting for a simple X-Ray?  Has she stepped outside of Manhattan, fer crissakes?

IMHO, she is even too frothy, too lightweight for our new millennium city, which has methodically been transformed into a Disneyfied, shrink-wrapped luxury product, filled with three-quarters empty zombie condos owned by offshore interests, a Broadway laced with jukebox musicals and theaters filled with Velveeta-eating lard butts in cargo shorts and newly-purchased “New York: We’re Not In Kansas Anymore” tank tops and a Brownstone Brooklyn that has become a caricature of what it was just a few short years ago.

It is said that Taylor Swift’s new single, “Welcome to New York,” is infectious.  Less so than ebola, folks.  The tea bag that started with Sinatra’s version of “New York New York,” and that was dunked again with Alicia Keys’ “New York,” has been dunked to death with Swift’s weak tea of a paean to her adopted city.  Question: can a person adopt a city if the city does not want to adopt that person?

Unless…maybe today’s New York City and Taylor Swift actually DESERVE each other. Have we come to the point where the craven commercialism that underlies all we do here finally has hit rock bottom?  Have we really become that bland?  That boring?  Are we such weak tea that even a born-and-bred NY’er such as Lena Dunham (ugh, I shudder to utter the name) is passed over by NYCgo.com?

Taylor Swift, in her nycgo.com video, teaches the world how to properly pronounce Houston Street.  She dutifully and earnestly explains that “bodegas are our friend.”

What pops into my head?  The old Wayans Brothers skit, “mo’ money, mo’ money, mo’ money.”  Check this out: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=c7AL44keDZw

Because a huckster is a huckster is a huckster, right Tay Tay?  To quote George Orwell, from his classic, “Animal Farm“: “The creatures outside looked from pig to man, and from man to pig, and from pig to man again; but already it was impossible to say which was which.”


1970: The Year It All Went Wrong

Fall and, in particular, Rosh Hashanah, is a time of quiet contemplation.  As I creakily lurch from middle age to late middle age, to old age, I think about things.  Kind of like Michael Corleone in Godfather III, in his chair, pensive, dead leaves skittering across the yard, thinking about the past.

What do I think about, as I stare at the ceiling, 3 o’clock in the morning?

  • Would the world be better off without the Internet?
  • Who’s better: the Stones or the Beatles?
  • Is there such thing as Unconditional Parental love?
  • When did it all go wrong, here in this country?  When did it REALLY start to metastasize?

Recently, I saw “The Roosevelts” on PBS.  And President Obama was right, although it was not expressed particularly gracefully.  “Messy stuff always happens.”  No matter when you look in history, bad stuff was going on.

So what was the tipping point, for me? I think about it and think about it, determined to find fault, point my finger in blame.  Here’s what I come up with: 1970.

Yeah, 1970 was the real pivot point.

Here’s a snapshot of life in 1970:

  • Air travel was glamorous
  • David Crosby sang “Almost Cut My Hair” — and we took it seriously, with nary a trace of irony
  • Organized labor was a force – and had to be, since the go-go economy of the 60s started to sputter, as the cost of prosecuting the Viet Nam war fueled inflation, which put pressure on buying power
  • Unions came under tremendous pressure, blue-collar buying power began to erode
  • Social mores in the 60s changed.  The so-called greatest generation, and younger blue-collar workers, got their knickers in a twist and their frustration escalated to “acting out.”

Unions wielded great power.  Here is a brief list of labor strikes nationally and right here in New York:

  • NYC Teachers Strike ‘68
  • U.S. Post Office ‘70
  • GM ‘70
  • NYC Police ‘71
  • Longshoremen ‘71
  • UAW Lordstown – Chevy ‘72

That year, 1970:

  • Nixon was president
  • The Viet Nam war dragged on.  It was a war we saw in our living rooms, every night.  Body bags, body bags, body bags, on evening news.
  • Here in NYC, white flight and block-busting took off. White ethnics fled to the first ring suburbs: Long Island, NJ, Westchester.  Blockbusting was rampant, as brokers bought a couple of houses, sold them to blacks, and BAM! It was a race of the whites as to who could get out the fastest. There were moving vans in the area every day.
  • Crime and drugs in the inner city became more prevalent
  • Panic in Needle Park came out in ’71.  Pacino’s second picture.  Where was Needle Park?  Picture 72nd and Broadway – that was “needle park.” An open air smack bazaar.
  • The first draft lottery had just been conducted in December of ‘69
  • Yes, we had a military draft: only for men.  If you were 19 years, 2 months and 1A status, you got a letter from your Uncle Sam.  When you passed your induction physical, you were in, for two years.  Drafted.
    • For some, your country has called.  You go.
    • For others, you worked the system.
      • American Friends on Rutherford Place
      • School draft counselors
      • Canada
      • National Guard
      • Labor was for Nixon’s Viet Nam war, even as Republican support of labor eroded
      • George Meany and his AFL-CIO were vehemently anti-communist and supported US involvement in southeast Asia.
  • Rank and file was split; their sons were the ones going; not those who had student deferments
    • Here, locally, Peter Brennan was president of the Greater NY building and construction trades council.  A strong supporter of the war.  He had been a strong Democratic supporter and fund raiser and now supported Republican candidates, as support for skilled labor unions ebbed.  The deal was, Brennan helps Nixon and, come ’72, he’d become Secretary of Labor
  • U.S. military deaths in Viet Nam
    • 17,000 in ‘68
    • 12,000 in ‘69
  • In 1970, the rift between the left and right exploded
  • May 1: U.S. Troops invade Cambodia
  • May 4: Students at Kent State Protest Incursion into Cambodia – 4 students shot dead by National Guardsmen
  • May 8: New York City Hardhat Riots

The hard hat riots.  Right here in NYC.  “Bloody Friday.”

I was too young for college (16) and had flunked out after two years, and reclassified 1A, from 2S.  My draft lottery number was 86.  Very bad number.  I remember I wanted to buy my first car.  A four year old, ’66 VW Karmann Ghia, $635 dollars.  I saved up the money from working in the Mount Vernon sectional center of the Post Office, from 3  p.m. to 11 p.m. (after classes, which ended at 1:30 p.m.). I was making big money, $170/week, but it was no wonder I flunked out.  I was exhausted and could care less about my studies.

My father, a WWII vet, said, in his typically sensitive way – sensitive as a toilet seat — “Whatta gonna buy the car for?  You’re gonna be drafted.”

He was almost right.  Given my 1A classification, I got a letter to report at 7 a.m. on, you guessed it, May 8th, 1970, for my pre-induction physical  I felt like this was a death warrant.

I also felt quite conflicted.  At 19, my father was fighting in the frozen snow of Belgium, in the Battle of the Bulge.  At 19, I was petrified of getting shot to death in some rice paddy in southeast Asia.  On some level, I wondered: what the fuck was wrong with me?  If my dad could do it, why couldn’t I?

I was at the famous 39 Whitehall Street induction center, a joyless old building in the financial district.  It even looked mean.  The windows on the ground floor had slits, like mean eyes staring at you.  It was designed that way, to prevent attacks from angry mobs.

Being a mature and responsible young adult, I closed the Teepee Inn, a bar on Jerome Avenue and Kingsbridge Road, the night before.  I overslept my 7 a.m. appearance time for my physical and la-dee-daa’d in at around 8:45 a.m.  I figured my goose was cooked so, you know, WTF.

I sat and watched tv in the waiting room.  Cartoons were playing, Looney Tunes.  So there I sat, still totally drunk, awaiting the inevitable, as the Porky Pig “that’s all folks!!” sign-off mocked me.

As instructed by the soldiers there, I stripped down to “shorts, shoes and socks…” and went from station to station, from inspector to inspector.  Imagine lines and lines of draft-age men snaking through an interior of pea green paint, each one at some point being instructed, “Turn your head and cough.” Cough. “Again.”

At some point, later in the morning, I heared loud chanting from outside, screaming and chanting.  It seemed to get louder and louder, even as the southern sergeant drawled, “Mr. Kleinman, I am sorry to inform you that you are unfit for duty in the armed forces of the United states of America.”

I got a 4-F form and two subway tokens.

I went outside, into a maelstrom.  It was a whirlwind.  Like the ending of the novel “Day of the Locusts.” Just frenzy.

These construction workers were US!!!  They were union guys, the little guy!!! How did they get so bamboozled? Why did they want to physically hurt us?

These guys were like the older brothers of friends of mine, in NY’s City College.  We were hardly elites.  We were strivers, trying to get just a bit more up the rung than our parents, who were first generation Americans.  All our grandparents, whether from Italy, Ireland, Greece or, in my case, Lithuania, were non-native English speakers, self-taught, with funny accents.  We all wanted desperately to assimilate fully.  In retrospect, this may have accounted for the passion of our elders to be “American” and embrace the flag.

What I remember most, was the feeling of terror.  The beating given out by the construction workers, as the cops just stood there.  The horses, all in a line.  Sooo big.  The screaming.

The mob headed east, towards Wall Street and the Treasury building.  I actually walked back into 39 Whitehall to wait a while.  Then, I went out again and hopped onto the uptown 1 train, and hoped no one came after me.  The train came, up from South Ferry.  I took it all the way up to 207th street and walked all the way across the bridge, up the steep hill, to my Bronx apartment.

First thing I did was call the cute nurse who was selling the VW and told her I was ready to seal the deal.  Then, that very afternoon, I filed for re-matriculation and registered, late, for two summer school courses.  I aced them both, got my ass in gear, and got re-matriculated and, ultimately, graduated.

I stay up at night, thinking about these things. And more.  To wit:

  • Greatest Generation: were they really?  Discuss…
    • Yes, they survived the Depression
    • They beat Hitler, that bastard
    • And then, any critical thinking skills they may have had seemed to have stopped
      • America, love it or leave it: that’s what they had to offer
      • No flexibility, no desire for change
      • They turned on their own sons and daughters, so easily, so handily
      • And social issues carried the day with them to the point where, to this day, they voted against their own best interests: union guys, rust belters in declining industrial areas, family farmers

So this, for me, was the marking point of where America went off the track: the Hard Hat riots of May 1970.

And what I’m saddest about, on a personal and a macro level, is that I saw upfront and personal, that Unconditional Parental love was not a given.  Not by a longshot.

The good news of all this: I learned the value of respect, kindness and open-mindedness towards opposing points of view and, when I did become a parent 17 years later, I made damn sure that I remembered those 1A days, when generation was pitted against generation, and class warfare ruled the day, fueled by crafty politicians making lucrative backroom deals.

What Happened to My Brooklyn?

All politics is local, or so the saying goes.  And all local issues are personal.

Today’s issue of The New York Times, includes a finely observed piece about the changes and similarities of “The Brooklyn Experience”  – comparing the 70s with today.


About 80 percent of his tale is in congruence with our experience there over 25 years. I lived in Park Slope from ’85 to ’10. When we announced our move to Brooklyn, my grandmother looked at us as if we announced we were moving to a death camp. She was scared for our safety. It was sketchy, but we had stars in our eyes, and we made a family, and built a life.

We moved for a variety of reasons. One of the biggest was that we felt we no longer belonged there; it was time to give the space to a younger family of greater affluence. Departure was bitter sweet. It was a lovely neighborhood, and our hearts still ache for all the good times and friends we had there. But time has passed and I firmly believe that there is a proper place to be, for each stage in life. It is unnerving to consistently be the only person in late-middle age at every restaurant.

We are, still, amazed by the velocity of change, whenever we visit. New York is always about the “change” — but it was the quicksilver movement from “balanced” to “uber-wealthy” and “very young” that told us it was time to decamp. If you want to visit us now, we’ll see you not at Elora’s or The Gate, but at Estrellita Poblana and An Beal Bocht. At ABB, there is — by design — no tv, plenty of free live music and theater, and lots of multi-generational conversation. The drinks are generous and the beers on tap varied and in good shape. In short, balanced — unlike the Park Slope I left.

The Big Game (excerpt)

Do you remember that moment in time when you, as a little kid of 10 or younger, realized the full implication of the fact that your parents were alive and had a life — a real back story — before you entered the world?  That time of life has such poignancy.

It’s what I wrote about in my new story, “The Big Game.”  Here’s an excerpt, which I read at New York’s An Beal Bocht  the other night.  Enjoy and please share and comment as you wish.

THE BIG GAME© – excerpt

By Martin Kleinman

“Good eye, baby, that’s the eye, good eye!” the Rotstein’s team chanted, as Dad, who was batting third, picked up three bats and went to the on-deck circle to warm up.  I heard his knees snap as he bent over to get the bats and again as he straightened up.  He swung the bats tentatively, and I knew he was babying his bad back.

As he slowly moved the practice bats through the hitting zone, I thought for sure I detected more wrinkles on his face and less hair on his head and my heart sank.  With Uncle Max out, the team was counting on Dad and Ducky to win the game.  We simply HAD to win the game.  There was no other way around it, for the outcome of games, along with the health and well-being of our favorite players, were of life and death importance to us, as kids and for years to come.  Just the year before, Stevie burst into tears, out of pure emotional relief, when the Yankees won the World Series.

Just then, we spied Uncle Max, who walked, slowly, back up the drive, a bulky ice pack taped around his right eye.  His left eye had swelled and turned blue-black, but was already partially open.

Joel looked over at Max and smiled, as the Rotstein’s supporters gave him a comfortable seat and patted his back.

Mustache rubbed up the Clincher, looked over at first base, and fired the ball home.  Joel hit it right on the button.  The ball screamed back to the mound with such velocity that it hit Mustache right smack in the forehead before he could raise a glove in self defense.  Myron’s big lead allowed him to scoot all the way around to third base, with Joel easily making it to second base before the pitcher was able to compose himself, find the ball, and check the runner at third.

An angry pulsing knot formed on Mustache’s brow.  He turned to Joel, who idly kicked second base, and pointed his gloved hand.  “You’re a dead man,” he said.  “You watch.  See what happens.  Just watch.”

In the on-deck circle, Dad took his last practice swings, throwing aside one practice bat, and then a second.  He gingerly stepped to the batter’s box.  Second and third, nobody out.

Mustache turned to his outfield, raised his hands over his head and waved them back.  “Keep going, keep going,” he said as his teammates jogged backwards to the outfield perimeter.  “This guy can hit.”

Stevie and I looked at each other, shook our heads and sighed.

“What’s the matter?” asked Butchy.

“I’m afraid,” said Stevie, his head down.  “I think I’m gonna puke.  I can’t look.”

“Me neither,” I said.  In fact, I had never fainted, but the way I felt at that moment, lightheaded and unable to focus, I figured that this MUST be the way you feel right before you faint.

Stevie held his eyes with both hands, peeping through his grubby fingers, like he did watching Vincent Price’s “The Tingler” at the RKO Fordham.  I looked over at Dad.  He tapped his black high-top Keds with the barrel of his bat, loosening clods of dirt, and took a few easy practice swings.  Then I looked over at Mustache.  His face had transformed into the essence of mean.  He turned to his infielders and grimly nodded.  The infielders returned to their normal positions; the shift was off.

“C’mon Bobby baby, c’mon, you can do it,” Uncle Max screamed at the top of his lungs.  As the entire Rotstein’s contingency picked up Max’s chant, Dad tightened his grip on the bat and readied for another blazing fastball from Mustache.  Mustache peered at his catcher, began his now-familiar windmill windup, and let the ball fly.

Only, instead of the usual heat, Mustache used the same fastball motion but uncorked a floater that seemed to take forever to reach the plate.  In his anticipation, Dad swung far too early, and wildly, nearly corkscrewing himself into the Swan’s batter’s box.

The torque of the swing caused him to shout out in pain.

“Dammit!” he screamed, as his brother Max did earlier in the game.  “Dammit to hell,” he shouted, dropping his bat and clutching his back.

Mom bolted from her aluminum folding chair and ran to her husband.  “Honey, your back?  Is it your back?” she cried.

Dad looked at her and cringed.

“I’m OK,” he said, still rubbing his lower back, backing away from the batter’s box.  “I’ll be fine.”

Mom picked up his bat and handed it to him.  He swung it gingerly as the Swan’s team began to razz him.

“C’mon, play ball, ladies,” fat Seymour screamed from right field.

“Cut the crap already,” Mustache said.  “Batter up!”

Dad slowly bent backwards and side to side, testing his back.  Mustache turned to look at his infielders while, on base, Myron and Joel started to chatter as they took aggressive leads.

“You got him, baby,” Myron said.

“C’mon, baby, c’mon, Bobby boy, you can do this,” Joel said.

Dad stepped back into the batter’s box, as Mustache rubbed up the ball, figuring – as we all did – that Dad’s bad back was no match for his heat-seeking missile of a fastball.  Mustache gripped the ball and went into his motion.  His fielders inched forward on the balls of their feet.


I have never seen anything like it since.

As expected, Mustache reared back and fired his fastball, intent on causing Dad to scream out in pain, miss badly and strike out, humiliated, after an errant second swing.

But Dad, ready for the heater, swung beautifully and powerfully, lofting a high, deep, arcing shot that caused both teams and their supporters to tilt their heads impossibly upwards, their eyes wide at the majesty of this positively Ruthian blast that easily cleared the ramshackle cabins forming the outfield boundaries.  Myron jogged in to score, followed by Joel, his gangly arms high overhead as he trotted in.  Dad, oblivious to his pain, danced around the bases, tipped his cap provocatively to the opposing players as he rounded the infield, jumped high, and stomped with authority on home plate, greeted by me, Stevie and Butchy, Mom and a good 20 of the Rotstein’s fans, all screaming deliriously.

Predictably, Stevie burst into tears.  “We did it, we did it, we did it, we did it,” he screamed, pogoing up and down, tears streaming down his dirty face.  “Oh man!  Oh man! Oh man! OH MAN! My daddy WON THE GAME!!!!”


(Note: for more stories of this type, you may wish to check out “Home Front,” my recent collection of New York-centric short fiction, www.sockmonkeypress.org.)

Siding With Scarlett

I’ve been a Scarlett Johansson fan for years, starting with her role in The Horse Whisperer up to her recent stage performances.  And why not?  She’s a local kid made good, a product of local public schools.  Her mom hails from The Bronx, her forebears fromMinsk.  We’re  landsman.

So when, in January 2014, Johansson resigned from her Oxfam position after facing criticism for her promotion of Sodastream, whose main factory is based in Ma’aleh Adumim, an Israeli settlement in the West Bank, I was puzzled at first.  I didn’t understand the issues around it, and had only just seen the TV ads featuring Johansson.

Oxfam opposes all trade with Israeli settlements. Johansson said she and Oxfam “have a fundamental difference of opinion in regards to the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions movement.”

Confused, I turned to my rabbi for enlightenment.  And here is what Rabbi Judith Lewis, of Riverdale Temple, Bronx,NY, had to say:

“I love my Sodastream!

“I’ve had one of those Sodastream seltzer machines for about 10 years – I think I bought it right when they started marketing it in the United States.  And yes, part of the reason I bought it was that I liked the idea of supporting an innovative Israeli company.  I did not know that the factory was located in the West Bank.  But it’s been a part of my culinary life too long for me to part with it now.  In fact, I am chagrined to admit that I bought my sister and brother-in-law one this year – just weeks before the Scarlett Johansson flap.

“I didn’t realize the factory was in the West Bank until then.

“But I’ll say it very clearly – I’m glad I bought it.  And I’m glad Scarlett Johansson stuck with ‘us’ instead of Oxfam.  And this is coming from someone who prides herself on being liberal, who avoids the West Bank when she visits Israel, and who would like nothing more than to see a peaceful and secure resolution to the Israeli -Palestinian conflict, even if it means that some of my favorite spots in Israel will once again be difficult, if not impossible to get to.

“I remember riding down the Red Sea coast of the Sinai Desert when it was Israel- while I was in rabbinical school, which means sometime between the fall of 1975 and the spring of 1976.  We explored the Sinai confidently – climbing the peak that was identified as Mt.Sinai (after having slept at the base of it, outside of Santa Katarina Monastery, on the ground, no tents, nothing – in the middle of the desert).  I remember swimming off Dahab, wearing a pair of swim goggles, no fancy mask, and being so overwhelmed by the beauty of the coral reef that I could hardly breathe.  That was, in fact, the beginning of my love affair with scuba diving.  I had never seen anything like it, and now I cannot see enough of it!

“We drove all the way down to Sharm-el-Sheikh, and then I remember being able to see sharks quite clearly, swimming  in swarms through the Straits of Tiran as we stood on the high vantage point of Ras Muhammed.

“Then I remember, about 20 years later, traveling to Nuweiba, on that same Red Sea coast, on a bus with 40 other reform rabbis, so that we could take an overnight ferry to Aqaba.  Yes, you can walk to Aqaba from Eilat now.  They are contiguous.  You just have to have patience while you navigate the red tape of both sides of the customs authorities.  Back then, one could not leave Israel for an Arab country and return through the same location.  Nor could one go back and forth between Jordan and Israel.  You could go one way, but not both.  The peace treaty with Jordan was brand new.

“As we schlepped down to Nuweiba to catch the ferry, I asked our tour guide – actually the owner of a fantastic tour company in Israel called ‘Da’at’ — how it felt to be in the Sinai now that it was no longer Israel.  He said something like, ‘it wasn’t ours before, then it was, and now it’s not again – but we have peace.  I’d rather have peace if I have to make a choice.’

“Now, about 20 years after that trip, I think about Israel and her neighbors.  You can still walk across the Jordanian border and the Egyptian border, but the Egyptian border isn’t recommended these days.  Certain Israeli orthodox leaders are saying that Reform Judaism isn’t really Judaism.  Certain women are still struggling to liberate the Western Wall from the Haredim.  Certain vice presidents are warningIsraelabout what the public relations effect will be if she remains recalcitrant on the settlements.  And certain American academics are boycotting any products made in the West Bank, or inIsrael– it’s not always clear.  Three cheers for Scarlett Johansson.

“I am not a fan of the settlements.  Never have been.  I am a fan of certain neighborhoods in Jerusalem that were once Jordan.   Heck, I’ve even lived in some of them.  I am a fan of Israel- the IsraelI dream of, but also the Israel that exists today, even though I hate some of the things that go on there.  But if I’m not ready to vote with my feet, I have to focus on the things I do like.

“Lately we have begun to hear more and more about the technological innovations that consistently come out of Israel- even snow making for the Sochi Olympics – how profoundly ironic can you get? Israel helping Russia make snow!

“But Israeli innovations also spring from every aspect of the digital world, medicine, agriculture, and even yogurt, as I learned from Ari Shavit’s book, “My Promised Land.”

“I don’t think the greatest threat to Israelis from its neighbors, notwithstanding the possibility of a nuclear bomb in Iran.  I think Israel’s greatest threat is from herself; from a failure to nurture what makes her great, and a willingness to turn a blind eye to the things that make her not so great.

Yes,Israel hassles Palestinians when they try to get from one place to another.  Ever heard of stop and frisk?  Yes,Israel continues to build settlements where public opinion would indicate that she should not.  Have you ever heard of misuse of eminent domain?  Redlining?  Yes, Israeli Palestinians do not really enjoy the same benefits of citizenship Jewish Israelis do.  Have we overcome the effects of slavery in this country?  Do all minority citizens of the United States really enjoy the same benefits of citizenship that white, Anglo-Saxon Christians do?

“I wish that Israel could live up to the standards and ideals that created the state.  I also wish that the United States could live up to the standards and ideals that created it.  And so, surprising myself a bit, I have finally come down squarely on the side of those who say that criticism of Israel– when done in isolation and not in the context of criticizing all nations who fail to respect human rights, justice, fairness, etc. — is outright, blatant anti-Semitism.  There, I said it.

“Now I think I’ll go make myself a bottle of seltzer.”

I’m still sorting out what Rabbi Lewis told me, but I guess I’d say: “Yeah, what SHE said.”  And, for Oxfam, the net takeaway?  Scarlett — New York City-kid-made-good — is “just not that into you.”

She Brings the Bronx to You

Anna Ortiz-Irving brings today’s Bronx to the thousands of ex-pats who long ago left the Borough of Universities for other pastures, greener and otherwise.

Every day, no matter the weather, the 63-year old single mother of five walks the streets of the Bronx’s Fordham and Kingsbridge neighborhoods, in the 52nd, 46th and 50th police precincts, and takes pictures of apartment buildings, private houses, stores, alleys, step-streets and more – all on behalf of former Bronx residents eager to see what their old haunts look like.

She then takes cell phone photos and posts them on her Facebook group “Fordham Road Yesterday & Today” https://www.facebook.com/groups/410381689001622/.

As an added plus, she posts the occasional photo essay, such as the timely “New York Blizzards, Then & Now,” or a look at early ’60s Bronx bars.

“They see their old homes, and it takes them back, yet they are so surprised,” Ortiz-Irving said.  “They’re surprised at how GOOD it looks.  It’s like a shock to them.  They’re expecting burned out buildings, like a scene out of ‘Escape From New York’ or ‘Fort Apache, The Bronx.’”

The former Verizon service technician is comfortable walking anywhere in the area, day or night.  And she is comfortable dealing with building supers, allowing easy access to the back alleys that connect many Bronx apartment buildings.

Ex-pat Bronx people seem to be everywhere, based on a visit to the Facebook affinity groups that abound, with names such as “Grew Up in the Bronx in the 1960s,” “Bronx People Who Have Moved Elsewhere,” “Born, Raised & Schooled on Da Streets of Da Bronx,” “You Grew Up in the Bronx When…,” “Bronxites Now Living in Southern California,” and “Fordham Area Bronxites.”

Many long-time residents left in the era of high crime and economic collapse, and headed for first-ring New York City suburbs, as well as Florida,Arizona and California.

And then there is Ortiz-Irving, born in Morningside Heights and a Bronx resident since she was a baby.  She has never left the Bronx’s Kingsbridge area, except to take an infrequent, domestic, vacation.

“Why should I?” she said.  “People are surprised that I didn’t run.  I tell them, ‘This is my home, my neighborhood – it’s where I belong.  Why should I run?’”  Her mother, on the other hand, was sometimes terrified for Anna’s safety back in the day, as her teen-aged daughter would leave for parties around the city late at night.

Anna was unfazed.

“I never got in trouble,” Ortiz-Irving said, referring to dangerous situations.  “The Bronx was, and is, beautiful.  And I’m comfortable everywhere I go.”

Many of the former Bronxites who regularly post on Bronx-related Facebook groups have a lot invested in maintaining their image of theBronxof their youth.  “It used to be so nice,” is the phrase Ortiz-Irving commonly hears from ex-Bronxites before seeing the current photos of their birthplace.

In fact, NYPD Compstat Unit statistics show that felonies are down 75.67 percent from 1990 in the 52nd Precinct, 81.13 percent in the 50th Precinct, and 80.70 percent in the 46th Precinct. http://www.nyc.gov/html/nypd/html/crime_prevention/crime_statistics.shtml

The gentrification that has changed vast parts of Brooklyn and northern Manhattan is still nascent, at best, in isolated sections of the south Bronx, as reported in cool blogs such as Ed Garcia Conde’s Welcome2TheBronx show www.welcome2thebronx.com/wordpress/.  And, according to many longtime residents, a wholesale revamp of the borough may not be desirable.

Nevertheless, recent newspaper articles, such as this one in The New York Times, point out the aesthetic and financial appeal of Ortiz-Irving’s neighborhood http://www.nytimes.com/2014/02/16/realestate/attention-priced-out-shoppers.html.

“I show them their old apartment buildings, the lobbies, the parks, schools and they’re amazed,” Ortiz-Irving said.  “They can’t believe how nice it looks, how elegant the buildings are, how blue the sky is.  They marvel at the green grass in St. James Park.  Yes, we have grass in the Bronx!

“They’ve left and they’re older now – they won’t come back.  So I bring their Bronx to them.”