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|The Second Avenue Deli School of Economics - Page 2|
I remember when Franklin Roosevelt, wanting to be president, promised to repeal prohibition, throw out the crooks, and give honest people the crooks' jobs. It sounded all right to me, and certainly to my father. He immediately designed and manufactured red triangular felt pennants, announcing in red and black letters "Beer Is Back." He expected the pennants would fly in every household in the land and we'd become rich. Well, beer came back, but those flags didn't fly anywhere. We remained broke as usual. Nevertheless, I remained heavily invested in the repeal of prohibition, mainly because I hated the stuff my father used to drink called "near beer," which tasted like the raw tobacco I once tried to chew that made me violently ill. Of course, I never told my parents.
Then there were cigarettes. My mother complained that they cost too much money. My father would send my brothers out to buy him Camels, without my mother knowing. But she always found out. It wasn't really the money that concerned her, I knew that. My father had been forbidden to smoke by his doctor, but since he'd been smoking since the age of 6 in Poland, where his father had run a saloon and tobacco shop, he was a poor candidate for rehabilitation. So being very self-righteous, I'd call out, "Mama, Papa is smoking," which may be why today I remain an admirer of whistle-blowers.
I remember moving a lot. Our first move was when I was 4. I remember it distinctly: standing in the doorway of 119 St. Marks Place in the Lower East Side, where I was born, and telling my friend Haikie, who lived on the floor below me, that I was moving to a strange new place. As I now know, we were part of the great upward mobility of immigrants, people like my parents, who were beginning to "make it." Like the Jeffersons, we "were moving on up" to the great new horizon—a suburb—Astoria Queens. Our first apartment was a whole floor in a two-family house. Six rooms, imagine that. But then . . . .
Five years later came the Great Depression, and we couldn't pay the rent. I remember moving from apartment to apartment, once every two years at least, sometimes in the same building, sometimes to an entirely different building, because landlords needed tenants and were giving two months' free rent. They called it a concession.
One year, we lived in an unheated bungalow in Coney Island, three blocks from the beach and the boardwalk. The bungalows were meant only for summer rentals for affluent families who could afford to move for the season and luxuriate in a cottage by the sea. Well, we luxuriated through most of the winter without heat or hot water, because we couldn't afford to move and the landlord looked the other way regarding the rent.
During those peripatetic days, I felt ugly and stupid, I was unhappy and hated school, but I never felt poor—it was just that we had no money. Not having money meant scouring the neighborhood for discarded milk bottles (yes, there were real glass bottles that could be redeemed for 2 cents). With enough bottles to redeem, I could go to the flea-infested movie theater with the roof that opened in the summer like a sliding door, and sometimes opened unexpectedly in the winter, and see a matinee for 15 cents. How else would I have managed to see Gold Diggers of 1933, with Ginger Rogers in beautiful satiny evening gowns and velvet-lined ermine wraps seducing Warren William, a man rich enough to finance a Broadway show starring Ruby Keeler and Dick Powell?
Anyway, as I said, I didn't feel poor. My father was an entrepreneur. He ran a small factory we called the shop on Astor Place in Manhattan, later on West 17th Street, where he designed and manufactured canvas bags for women. They were huge and nearly broke your shoulder carrying them—not so different from Prada or Ferragamo today. My father was definitely ahead of his time, because nobody bought them.