Commentary Magazine


From the American Scene:
"Papa"

When you come down to it, there was a consistent pattern in Papa’s life. It was a kind of rugged, stubborn independence, a lonely intransigence. An embattled little man, he would be beholden to no one; he would be taken in by no one. This was at once his strength and his weakness. It was what kept him from being a success in the new land. He wouldn’t even let the process of adjusting to the new country whittle down his freedom and independence. To the very end he had a deep distrust of the elaborate techniques of living in America. He marshaled all of his considerable intelligence to hold the new at arm’s length. He was always a child about business, some deep instinct warning him that it was corrupt and enslaving. A baker, he had a strong pride in his status as a workingman—he used just that term with its suggestion of dignity and flavor of the Knights of Labor—but he was suspicious of trade union bureaucrats. The nicest thing he could say about someone was that he was an “honest workman,” and he saw the honest working-man beleaguered by a host of crooked politicians and untrustworthy trade union officials.

He was stunned into an inarticulate respect for FDR, and I remember his going to vote for him, uneasy in a new suit. But he was contemptuous of politicians in general. He held Hoover personally responsible for the depression, and there were many winter evenings when, as if to reassure us, he would take out his bankbooks and we would go through the mummery—for we had done it so many times before—of adding up the grand totals. I remember it clearly, for it came to a little more than $6,000. That seemed like a strong fortress amid the depression. One of the jokes of our childhood was his rendition of the name of the city’s official greeter—“Grubber” Whalen he called him as if through some divine ordering the man had the first name he deserved.

You looked at him and saw a small, mild-looking man, not much over five feet tall. In his forties, he was beginning to go soft around the middle, but his body was otherwise compact and well knit. He had a worker’s arms—strong forearms, thick wrists, and bulging veins on large, clearly defined biceps. As a child, I always felt cheated by the fact that his biceps somehow had already gone soft: here were the muscles, and yet the power seemed to have evacuated them. A curious mixture of vanity and unconcern, he dressed indifferently or worse—old shirts with their sleeves cut off served him as undershirts—but always carried a small pocket mirror among the carefully organized junk-heap in his pockets.

A small, mild-looking man. But what a torrent of rage was in him! About many things: the barbaric behavior of motorists . . . the failures of his children . . . the stupid selfishness of politicians . . . the arrogance of bosses . . . the waste of coal through the excessive heating of our two-family house. And he would mutter curses softly and tenderly under his breath, and his feet would tap in a steady wrathful tattoo. The image of life he had was of a world of knaves and fools with only himself to stem the tides of rascality.

But there was also a furtive, self-effacing kindness in him. About many things: about his family most of all (he had six sons and two daughters); there was no sacrifice he would not make. This lonely man, for whom money was the ultimate protection, would silently give what was requested—for a business investment, for a trip, for anything. You only had to ask. And there was the money he sent to Europe in response to the routinely lugubrious letters from his relatives. (He finally sent them tickets for the trip here; they declined to come. Twelve years later they were marched to the crematoria by Hitler.) For the abandoned and the vulnerable he had a shamefaced tenderness. Once he brought home an old homeless German tailor—his name was simply and desolately Willie—with the quixotic idea that he would live in the cellar and serve as a kind of handy man. Cornered by poverty as we were—or thought we were, and it comes to the same thing—we saw this as a wonderful adventure. But it didn’t work out. Willie soon left. Then there were the mouth-watering meals Papa provided for our boarder, Robert Rose. He would come home early in the morning with a huge bagful, almost higher than his head, of bread and cake, the warm smells of soft rolls, of jelly doughnuts, of brown-crusted rye bread filling the kitchen. Then he would see Bob Rose shivering in the morning cold (he was a thin-skinned Anglo-Saxon, always complaining about the lack of heat: we found that funny). Shyly, Papa would ask him into the kitchen, where they would share a breakfast of warm rolls smeared with butter and cups of steaming coffee which my father prepared.

Our house tumbled with children and vitality, but we were a little ashamed of being so many in the face of the smaller families on the block, which somehow seemed more “American.” We looked with silent envy at the smug, tidy little families of two or three children, each one with his own room. All our names proved too much for Papa; when he called one of us he would rehearse the whole list and then pounce triumphantly on the name he wanted. As his hair grayed, he took to calling me, as the youngest, ben z’kunim (child of his old age), with a strange mixture of patriarchal pride and shyness. Actually, he was only thirty-eight at the time I was born, but that was a different world, and there was a different yardstick for measuring age.

He had a talent for simplicity. His was the timeless cycle of living—family, and work, and rest. These were the things he believed in. He was constantly inciting us to rest. “In bed is Gan Eden,” he once said to George, which was about as close as he ever came to expressing a philosophy. George, nineteen years of age and Broadway-smart, said, “Yes, aber nit allein.” My father turned away, scowling. (He was always very shy about sex.) He never abandoned a kind of peasant feeling that all time was one. An inveterate reader of Yiddish newspapers, he would fall behind, and the pile of unread papers would mount. However, he would not be hurried; there was no need to rush to catch up with the day’s calamities and follies. “Pa,” we would say tauntingly, “when are you going to read about World War I? Have they declared war yet?”

_____________

 

He hated businessmen, but he wanted his sons to become businessmen. He was agnostic, but he sent his children to Hebrew school and waved the “lukshen strap” menacingly if their report cards were poor. He had little sympathy with abstract ideas—his own bent was pragmatic—but he took pride in the higher education of his children.

In his forties, he began to attend the local evening school for foreigners. We roared triumphantly, getting our own back, at his comic mutilations of language, his thickly clotted malapropisms. The final irony came when he took his class photograph. There he stood against the solemn wardrobe doors, the specimens of Palmer writing and prize-winning compositions overhead; and beetling down over this determined little escapee from the ghetto was a classmate, a huge Slav at least a foot taller, looking for all the world like a fierce and unappeasable Cossack.

Intensely shy, he had no friends, and it was even an effort for him to socialize when his brother visited—“rich Uncle Jake” from the Bronx, who owned a car way back in the 20’s. He would fuss nervously in the bedroom, which he shared with us, and finally come into the living room, hardly daring to look fully at his brother. Later in life—we were told by his second wife—he joined the teeming discussion groups on the boardwalk at Coney Island. It was hard to imagine. We could see him only standing at the edge of some group, holding his Yiddish newspaper like a shield, listening with skeptical interest.

About one thing he was adamant: he didn’t want us to become bakers; and he was uneasy when we were around a bakery, fearful that through some alchemy of the blood we would be drawn back to the craft. As indeed we were. There were those fabled times when late at night we would deliver his meal—half a chicken and a pitcher of coffee—to where he was working, Spinrod’s or the place on 12th Avenue. We would walk through the empty summer streets, with just the soughing of the wind in the trees and the occasional car whooshing past—just Sammy and I bearing our burdens with dignity. Then we would go into the bakery through the back door and see our little father looking alien amid the flour bags and the huge-jawed ovens. He would be wearing a paper hat to keep the flour dust off his hair, and a white apron, and his arms would be coated with flour. The men would talk with the easy jocularity of workers. My father would take the food from us and shoo us out quickly. He seemed uneasy with us around. Once, only once, he let us stay briefly. It was Spinrod’s, and the owner knew our family. He took us to a huge, pulpy mound of dough, and deftly chunked out a piece of it and kneaded it in a flash into a roll. We stood open-mouthed. Then he took us to another mountain of dough, and shaped a bread with quiet efficiency. Soon he sent us home.

_____________

 

Jewish parents protected and protected their children. And it can only be because they themselves felt fenced in by terror, a terror they couldn’t control—the terror of the steerage, the terror of the streets, the terror of tonguelessness in a foreign country and, always and forever, the terror of poverty. The protectiveness took curious and stubborn forms. Only Papa had money; only Papa had strength; only Papa knew the way back from Delancey Street to Borough Park. The boys grew up. They were big, five feet ten inches, with shoulders pulled wide. There was furniture to be moved, a bed . . . a table. “Don’t touch,” he would shout, the curses streaming softly and tenderly. And he would seize the heavy bed spring or shove the resistant couch, while the young men stood, their arms hanging uselessly. Haunting him was the fear that one of them would get a hernia. He knew all about hernias. He himself was severely ruptured, and I can remember the huge, sweat-stained truss that he normally kept hidden in his room, but which sometimes hung, ungainly and monstrous, from the iron bedstead. It touched off half-buried memories of the hospital supply store in the neighborhood full of crutches and wheelchairs, which we passed as children with a guilty and protective sense of our own young wholeness.

How cut off this lonely man was! Even from his sons: for there was none of the self-conscious sharing of interests one finds between father and son today. He didn’t even sign my report card; one of my older brothers, better versed in educational matters, did that. At one time he gave us our haircuts, but we rebelled against that. He did, however, have one inalienable function. When Passover came, he took the four youngest boys to the East Side for suits. We would go to a dark, noisome clothing store on the very eve of the holiday and try on suits. Invariably, we would end up with similar weaves and patterns. Then the bargaining would begin. And here quiet little Papa would rise to unexpected heights of anguished eloquence. The four boys would stand around, well-trained but helpless actors in a drama whose outcome was clearly established. Papa would stage-manage us with a flick of his wrist, and out we would march suitless, the hassle over price still unresolved. The storekeeper overtook us before we had covered half a block. (Like Lot and his family we were enjoined against looking back.) He descended on us saying what a crime it was to give the suits away for nothing, but: “It’s a shandeh for such nice boyus not to have new suits, and it’s already erev Pesach.” And so we would get new suits, each one at least two sizes too large against future growth.

This was a timid but brave man. Once on the subway, in the drugged weariness of four in the morning, on his way back from a night’s work, he was approached by two thugs who demanded his money. He reached into his pocket, pulled out a single-edged razor blade he kept cradled in paper, and jumped at them with a curse. They backed away and then, scared by his determined short-legged pursuit, bolted to the back of the car and out the doors at the station. (They had timed it so that they could escape as soon as they had robbed their victim.) He told the story soberly and with quiet pleasure that morning in the cheerful warmth of a winter kitchen. (But there was also the morning he told us of the pretty dark-haired girl in his bakery—on Avenue X—who had three of her fingers sheared off by the bread-slicing machine.)

At home he ministered gravely to the needs of the house, washing the dishes, keeping the furnace going (though never warmly enough), forever going through the closets. But when he got out on the streets, he gathered himself into a tight fist of protest. Against everything: the fearful pace, the homicidal drivers, the thundering subways. Crossing the street became an act of daily insurrection. He would wait for no car. They had brakes; let them stop. Every day was pedestrian’s day. Drivers would bellow at him, “Whatsa matter? Wanna get killed?” and Papa would hurl back a choice Yiddish curse, the voice starting low, then building up, violently, and trailing off into choked and inarticulate insult. Once a young driver made the casual, meaningless threat of the traffic dispute. Papa rushed at the car, and only two of my brothers kept him from dragging the astonished young man from his seat.

The knowledge that my father was short was something that I stoutly resisted. He couldn’t be—that’s all. He was big and strong—he had to be. There was the legend that he had been in the Czarist army and had fought in the Russo-Japanese War. “How many men did you kill each day?” I asked him once as a child, as we sat on the bench in front of the house. “Nine,” he said blandly. And I had an image of him on that remote battlefield dutifully destroying his quota of Japanese each day with that same quietly busy air he had about the house. “Were you ever wounded?” I pressed further. He turned up one broad, work-coarsened thumb. He pointed to the deep line separating it from the rest of his hand. With the faintest play of a smile, he told me that the thumb had almost been sliced off by a Japanese bayonet. “But you killed him,” I insisted, convinced that death was too small a price for the Japanese soldier to pay for his offense. My father dutifully assented.

The truth was that he had fled Russia to escape military service. There was the story of the graft-procured papers and of the false name taken one stormy night from an unoffending tombstone in the local cemetery. When I heard this account, it pleased me. It was during the period, back in the depression, of the “peace strikes” and the militant student movement.

_____________

 

As the years advanced I could no longer hold back the knowledge of my father’s littleness. I would measure myself against him and then against my schoolmates with a sense of dismay. He was no taller than a twelve-year-old boy! Then more shameful awareness supervened—his fumbling, comic English; the absurd vanity of his hand mirror; the cut-down old shirts he wore for underwear; the steady, abrasive quarreling with my mother. Once in my last term in high school he had to come to school to sign some papers. As we walked through the halls, I saw lovely little Norma Smith approaching us. She was a girl for whom I had conceived a love of great purity and radiance—the kind of love you can feel only when you are sixteen. At that moment I hated my father, hated him for being there with me at that moment, hated him for being surveyed coolly and impersonally by Norma. (I had just lost her; she had become a school big shot by appearing in a varsity play.)

Some years later he spent a day with me at the reformatory school where I was working as a teacher and case worker. He had dressed carefully, and at this time of his life, with his violence abated, he was a pleasant-looking, solid, gray-haired little gentleman. We drove up on New Year’s Day. He was going with me to make sure that I didn’t fall asleep at the wheel, since I had been up all night at a party. It was a pleasant drive up, sitting snugly in the warm car, watching the gray early morning light thicken.

He stayed close to me at the reformatory, a little frightened but curious about the place. In the office, he acknowledged introductions, shyly waiting for me to rescue him from the threat of a social situation. When we went out to lunch it happened. As we crossed the yard, which was full of inmates insolently slumped on benches, one of the keepers called me. I left my father for a moment and crossed the yard. He, suddenly abandoned, felt a quick rush of fear, and came running awkwardly towards me shouting, “Davie, Davie, Davie. . . .” The inmates, quick to detect an opening, sat up, watched, and from scattered benches, there was laughter and the mimicking call of “Abie, Abie.” (For some reason, that is the way they had heard it.) I took my father’s arm and led him across the yard to the mess hall, full of fury at him for humiliating both of us, and at myself for having left him alone, bleakly aware that I had done so to avoid introducing him to the smugly Anglo-Saxon prison keeper. He was unsettled by the experience and remained tightly on guard during the meal.

He spent most of the afternoon in my office or in my room, resting and napping. When it was time for me to have supper, he declined to cross the yard with me. I averted my gaze. We both knew why he wasn’t going. When I put him on the bus back to New York that evening, it was with mingled relief and shame. I felt that in some way I had betrayed him.

He was not really a healthy man, but he followed a careful regimen which worked well for him. A cold bath in the morning, rest in the afternoon, and a small shot of liquor once a day (from a bottle that was endlessly and hilariously diluted) were the features of his program. He had a deep and abiding distrust of physicians. At twenty-seven, he had been told by one that he had a heart condition, and warned that he had only a short life ahead of him. A few years later the doctor in question died of heart disease. Papa chuckled bitterly over it. From that time on, he retreated from all contact with the medical profession, nursing his own wounds in the sanctuary of his bedroom, examining his crippling hernia with his own cool eyes, and keeping a steady stream of curses going at the heads of doctors.

Years after the long-dead physician had predicted it, heart disease did knock him down. He lay amid the sleazy furnishings in the Coney Island apartment, the Yiddish newspapers still to be read around him, his children gathered in a somber semi-circle around the bed. “Go,” he said in Yiddish. “It’s late. You can come back tomorrow if you like.” When they started to shuffle out of the room, he called them back. “Do you know which train to take? And a transfer . . . you can get one from the trolley on Neptune Avenue. . . .” They let him explain—he had been through this many times—and then they left.

He died the next afternoon. He fell into a coma while alone in the apartment. This was the final terror, and this, too, he faced alone.

_____________

About the Author




Welcome to Commentary Magazine.
We hope you enjoy your visit.
As a visitor to our site, you are allowed 8 free articles this month.
This is your first of 8 free articles.

If you are already a digital subscriber, log in here »

Print subscriber? For free access to the website and iPad, register here »

To subscribe, click here to see our subscription offers »

Please note this is an advertisement skip this ad
Clearly, you have a passion for ideas.
Subscribe today for unlimited digital access to the publication that shapes the minds of the people who shape our world.
Get for just
YOU HAVE READ OF 8 FREE ARTICLES THIS MONTH.
FOR JUST
YOU HAVE READ OF 8 FREE ARTICLES THIS MONTH.
FOR JUST
Welcome to Commentary Magazine.
We hope you enjoy your visit.
As a visitor, you are allowed 8 free articles.
This is your first article.
You have read of 8 free articles this month.
YOU HAVE READ 8 OF 8
FREE ARTICLES THIS MONTH.
for full access to
CommentaryMagazine.com
INCLUDES FULL ACCESS TO:
Digital subscriber?
Print subscriber? Get free access »
Call to subscribe: 1-800-829-6270
You can also subscribe
on your computer at
CommentaryMagazine.com.
LOG IN WITH YOUR
COMMENTARY MAGAZINE ID
Don't have a CommentaryMagazine.com log in?
CREATE A COMMENTARY
LOG IN ID
Enter you email address and password below. A confirmation email will be sent to the email address that you provide.