From the American Scene: 'Twas a Dark Night in Brownsville
The study of Brownsville here published represents the end product of a rigorous, often painful process of selection; so much had to be left out, in fact, that Mr. Poster now plans to start work on a book-length treatment of the subject.
In the 1920’s, when I was very young, every New York Jew could feel certain about one thing: he was superior to anyway living in Brownsville. There was a kind of bilingual folk ballad about this Brooklyn Kasrilevke that we Brownsvillians learned to anticipate from a certain gleam in people’s eyes. It began, “’Siz geven a finstere nacht in Brunzvil”—it was a dark night in Brownsville—and it was always accompanied by uproarious laughter. Whenever a Brownsville boy ventured outside his home district, some variant of the following dialogue was inevitable:
Where ya from?
Uhhuh. What section?
Yea. ’At’s what I said. What section?
So what section of Brooklyn d’ya come from?
Ahhh, whaddya boddering me for? It ain’ exactly a section. Besides, yuh wooden know nuttin’ even if I tole yuh.
I wooden, huh? So tell me an see already. What section?
Well, its kinda near East New York.
Ahhh, stop stallin’, willya! What street?
And as you let the answer trickle slowly forth, you would involuntarily brace yourself. “Ahah!” the inevitable eruption would begin, “dat’s in Brownsville. You live in Brownsville! Brunzvil, hah, hah, hah, hah, Brahnzvil. Noo? Hahz everything in Brahnzvil? Hahz Peetkin Avenue? Huh? Hahz Belmont Avenue? Hah? Dey still trown duh gobbidge outta duh windows? I heah dey’re buildin’ sooers dere now. It’s gettin’ classy. Yeah! Hah, hah, hah, ho, ho, ho. ’Siz geven a finstere nacht in Brahnzvil.”
The formula never varied, and I never saw anyone from Brownsville clever enough to lie his way out of the predicament. A kind of shamefaced loyalty or sense of identity, coupled with a peasant-like inability to pick up social affectations, forced the admission every time. As we grew up, we became accustomed, if never really adjusted, to the fact that we were living in a social zoo: so firmly entrenched was the world’s opinion that the Brownsvillian had no choice but to accept it as a mystic, final truth.
Indeed, we found ourselves frequently employing it against each other, boasting about a married sister in East Flatbush, proclaiming how far from the center of Brownsville we lived (I myself, however, lived at its very hub), using every possible means to inch our way out of the mire. And when one of our school teachers in an explosion of rage informed us that Brownsville was one huge cesspool of illiteracy and hoodlumism, and that she had narrowly escaped being demolished by a flying bag of garbage that very morning, we all hastened to agree with her.
When we were about to be graduated from Brownsville’s Groton, PS 66, rumors were as plentiful as nuts on Passover. No use trying to get into the choicer high schools—we were told and told each other—because the name of “Sixty-Six” was anathema to every principal in Brooklyn. We were all on a special Board of Education blacklist Maybe the best thing to do was just to get our “workin’ papers” and comply with the law by enduring the brief purgatory of “continuation school,” after which society might leave us in the sodden untutored peace we felt was our natural condition. After all, didn’t our parents assure us, as we came streaking up from a punchball game covered with grime and sweat, gobbled our food, and rushed off to one of a hundred feverish nocturnal activities, that we were all bums, gangsters, truckdrivers, “expressmen,” grubjankes (coarse louts), boolvans (brainless bullies), paskudnyaks (sheer vilenesses), accidents of nature who would doubtless end up murdering their own parents?
But publicly sensitive as we were to the opinions of our teachers, relatives, and outsiders, to ourselves our habits and morals seemed not only pardonable but perfectly natural and even praiseworthy. Once back in the inner world of Brownsville boyhood, we were content with being what everyone else reviled, and ardently desired to be even rougher, tougher, dirtier, more ill-mannered, more foul-mouthed, more vicious, more uncompromisingly opposed to every kind of law, order, and authority. True, boys in all the lower-class New York neighborhoods took pride in their toughness; but in Brownsville, somehow, we worked at it full time.
Built up nearly overnight on rundown farmland, Brownsville, in the 20’s, had come to occupy an area of about two square miles set apart by such natural boundaries as the IRT El on Livonia Avenue, the BMT El on Junius Street, the junction of Pitkin Avenue’s macadam with the greensward of Eastern Parkway at Howard Avenue, and the Liberty Avenue trolley. It was, I believe, the largest solidly Jewish community in the city. Other reputedly Jewish sections may have contained more Jews than Brownsville’s two hundred thousand, but they were likely to be strongly Jewish for only a block or two and then give way to a mixed ethnic pattern. Brownsville was a Jewish island. I would guess that the population was about ninety-five percent Jewish and four percent Italian, with a handful of Negroes and a few Polish janitors making up the remainder.
Up to the age of twelve or so, a Brownsville child scarcely saw any members of other groups except for teachers and policemen, and never really felt that the Jews were anything but an overpowering majority of the human race. I don’t think my contemporaries and I believed that the figures who loomed largest in our imagination—say, George Washington, Nathan Hale, Tom Mix, Babe Ruth, and Jack Dempsey—were actually Jewish, but we never clearly thought of them as anything else.
In a period when most of New York’s Jews were striving desperately to become Americanized, perhaps Brownsville’s solid Jewishness alone was enough to account for the section’s lowly status. But there were other factors. For one thing, circumstances seem to have attracted a specific type of Jew out to Brownsville: I have the impression that the great majority came from the regions of Russia around Minsk, with relatively few of Polish, Rumanian, or any other origin. By and large, they were an energetic, hustling, robust lot, but rarely possessed of any but the simplest material ambitions. The desire for respectability or elegance must have been weak in them to begin with, and Brownsville scarcely supplied the soil on which it could thrive. Essentially, the district was the New York center of the pruste yid, the “plain Jew,” remarkably level-headed, and rarely noteworthy for imagination or lofty aspirations. Most of the older men had their occupations in the neighborhood; they were storekeepers, real estate men, peddlers of fruits and vegetables, the auxiliaries of these businesses, and those professionals indispensable to the community.
The most prosperous merchant of Pitkin Avenue and the poorest potato peddler were likely to live in the same house or adjacent ones, and to buy most of their food, clothing, and furniture at the same stores—if only out of lack of desire or time to do otherwise. Brownsvillians, in general, were either so busy or so unimaginative that “conspicuous waste” or snobbery of any kind was minimal: when one of them finally did get the idea and had the leisure and the cash, he migrated to another section. But as long as he stayed in Brownsville, he remained subject to its prevailing egalitarianism of tone and manners. Likewise, the children all went to the same schools, and played together in packs in which the children of the fairly affluent (like myself) were indistinguishable from those of pushcart venders and junkmen (like most of my playmates).
In appearance, too, Brownsville was egalitarian, with no very distinguished residence within its confines, and the streets pretty much littered and grimy everywhere, though there was considerable space inside and about the buildings, and it did not at all resemble the congested, malodorous slum districts of Manhattan. The dwellings were of every variety and looked as though they had been dropped chaotically from the sky, while the business establishments gave a curious appearance of systematic arrangement: seven blocks of furniture stores on Rockaway Avenue, so that a walk down that street was like a girl’s domestic daydream of plushy sofas and gleaming mahogany bedroom suites; five teeming, pungent blocks of pushcarts, groceries, and “appetizing” stores on Belmont Avenue; men’s and women’s clothing and similar emporia on the ten busy blocks of Pitkin Avenue. A huge six-block square of junkshops, tinsmithies, stables, garages, and miscellaneous small enterprises surrounded these main arteries. How it all rang and clattered and hammered and buzzed and smelled! There wasn’t a quiet square yard in the whole district.
For all its reputation, Brownsville in the 20’s was scarcely a poverty-stricken neighborhood. The merchants of Pitkin Avenue had prospered in the postwar boom, often accumulating enough surplus capital to open second or third stores or to dabble in real estate (a Brownsville passion). Belmont Avenue flourished on a largely deserved reputation for cheapness and quality that drew customers from a wide area. And while selling vegetables from a pushcart may not have looked very elegant, it was often amazingly lucrative: one peddler was reputed to have three cellars and a fleet of four trucks devoted solely to stocking his cart—which was, indeed, always surrounded by a large group of chaffering weiblach.
Junk, rag, and paper dealers, who had gone into business with nothing but a horse and wagon, their bare hands, and inexhaustible patience, expanded their lots, acquired trucks, and even ventured into manufacturing. Stables gave way to garages—alas for the children who in the early 20’s could still watch the blacksmiths at their forges and stuff old pocketbooks with horse manure for the unwary! The owner of the local barber shop replaced his flyblown minors, hired an extra helper, and to the consternation of the conservatives installed a zoftig blond manicurist. The tailor, who could be seen in his undershirt sweating over the pressing machine, hired a regular delivery boy instead of luring us from our games with the promise of big tips. The gabbling flock of carpenters, painters, plumbers, and masons that used to swarm on the comer of Stone and Pitkin Avenues dwindled noticeably on weekdays.
Unemployment, the great blight on the prosperity of the 20’s, could not have been too great in Brownsville because nearly everybody was in business for himself. Good food could be had cheap and rent was low. Many families lived in two- or three-story houses that were sturdily constructed, relatively spacious, and comfortably, if primitively, heated by wood or coal stoves and gas radiators. Free of the high costs of social conformism and ostentation, Brownsville didn’t fare badly.
I once read, in a local newspaper, a series of statistics purporting to show that Brownsville had the lowest mortality rate of any community of similar population in the country. The claim seems plausible. Though ridden by its sense of inferiority, Brownsville was at bottom free of many of the inhibitions, tensions, and pretensions that are among the most lethal factors of modern life. Heedless of medicine, dentistry, manners, child psychology, balanced diets, and social distinctions, Brownsville roared, worked, played, ate, and slept. The major problems of human relations were settled by a yell, a laugh, a shrug, or a slap. There were, surely, heartaches and headaches of every variety, but I think that the people of Brownsville knew in their bones how little one actually needs to cushion oneself against the shocks of life.
In an odd way and for a brief period, Brownsville fulfilled the age-old Jewish need for a sanctuary, an escape from the consciousness (if not the fact) of being a minority in exile. To a child, at any rate, Brownsville was a kind of grimy Eretz Yisrael without Arabs. Living in a world all Jewish, where no alien group imposed its standards, he was secure in his own nature. What social shame he did feel was simply for his own lack of shame when, outside the boundaries of Brownsville, he ran up against those for whom a nervous consciousness of the opinions of the world had become a badge of superiority.
True, his first vision of the real state of affairs was apt to produce something like a traumatic shock. Indeed, to reach maturity with anything like a normal relation to society was difficult for Brownsville’s second generation. All that remained functional to their parents out of the wreck of the European heritage were some simple physical and prudential precepts and a few copybook maxims. Maturity alone constituted the power of the parent over the child, for the reciprocal relation by which parents derive strength from conventions and conventions derive strength from parents was shattered by the break from Europe, by social change and the facts of life. Too often the children were the guides in matters of American language and custom, and the parent could never be certain that even the most outrageous adolescent behavior did not issue from some mysterious American norm that his child understood better than he. The amazing thing, then, was not that Brownsville produced some criminals, freaks, and barbarians, but that so many did manage somehow to obey the laws, attend school, and go on to become proper or even distinguished citizens.
When he first awoke to purposeful consciousness, at about the age of five, a Brownsville boy found himself an integral part of what he called his “gang,” a group of boys with a whole network of rules, aims, and standards. The gang consisted of twenty to thirty males of approximately the same age. They had names not only like Irv, Joey, Dave, but also Yookie, Doodie, Cockeye Sidney, Cripple Natie, Gimpty, Roobs, Bensie, Baby, Abie Kabibble, Koko, Meetsgah, Knockout, Avrum, Blowie, Moish, Gyp, Heshie, Yushkie, Brownie, Blackie, Whitey, Punk, Zigzag. There were no tomboys in the gang. Until puberty, a Brownsville boy studiously ignored the existence of girls his own age except when they turned up playing jacks on a handball court, in which case the jacks were summarily kicked into the gutter, followed, if necessary, by their owners. Older girls were eyed with fanatic hostility: we bombarded them with ash-filled snowballs, chalked up their coats on Halloween, shouted abuse at them, and elicited screeches by nipping their ankles with our nails while making cat-noises or dropping dead mice in their paths.
Inclusion in the gang was absolute, and human relations outside it were cut to a minimum. Even its territory was staked out with minute precision. When two Brownsville kids who were strangers had some contact, the first question was, “What’s your block?” and the answer established identity. A gang might not inhabit a full block but only a specific sector of it. Thus “my block” was Osbome Street between Pitkin and Glenmore Avenues, and the region my gang regarded as its domain took up one-third of this area, starting from Pitkin Avenue. Our territory ended where a small group of Italian families and their offspring took over. The section of the block nearest to Glenmore Avenue belonged to a second Jewish group. Small as the area was, the three juvenile clans were as tightly contained as primitive tribes.
Competition was intense between the two Jewish gangs; the punchball games between the two, with every cent we could muster bet on them, were the gala events of the block. There was, I believe, a real difference between the two gangs, a difference perhaps imperceptible to the outsider but crucially important to the boys themselves. The Glenmore Avenue boys were a little taller, cleaner, and more refined, and they could make us feel awkward and stupid by their sneers and by the greater precision, control, and clarity of their language and action. We were cruder, noiser, more energetic. The punchball games expressed this difference, and it would be hard to say who had the edge.
But such was the disorder of juvenile Brownsville that nobody ever really won anything at all. Whenever a game or contest tended to a conclusion, the party in danger of defeat simply smashed up the system of conventions and rules that made the game possible; it was a deliberate technique of planned anarchy. Whether at checkers, marbles, arguments, fights, punchball games, you simply refused to acknowledge a defeat and developed every possible stratagem to obliterate even the marks of victory. In order to win at marbles, for example, you not only had to have superior skill, but often the ability to beat up your opponent, out-argue him, enlist the sympathies of onlookers, and hang on to your booty and the sensation of victory against every conceivable psychological attack, including the ultimate “OK, dogface, you win, pick up duh marbles’ go home to your mudder.”
Suppose you won all the marbles and pennies of one of your opponents in a game that included four players. He would promptly insist on a loan, with the support of the other two if they happened to be losing. If the game ever dwindled down to two players you could maintain your right to quit, but the loser made sure you never did. After the first loan, one altercation succeeded another and you were lucky if you finally got away with one-tenth of your legitimate winnings—with sneers and catcalls following you for being a quitter (the loser never quit). And at home you were met with a bawling-out interspersed with slaps for being plastered with mud and three hours late for dinner. How could you explain that you couldn’t quit if you were losing and you couldn’t quit if you were winning?
Punchball games got under way only after a half-hour of skullduggery connected with choosing for first turn at bat, and frequently a game never reached the second half of the first inning, the side at bat either preventing a third out from being called by trampling on the first baseman, or else refusing to admit it when it was called. If the game survived these obstacles, then the losing side would stall till darkness enabled them to enter a claim of no decision, or would break the game up in a brawl in which the stakeholder (if anyone could be persuaded to fill that perilous post) nearly got torn in two.
Between the Pitkin Avenue gang and the Italian clan in the middle of the block, relations were slight, consisting of brief, jittery moments of sociability, and bursts of warfare in which, despite a considerable inferiority of numbers, the Italians maintained equality. We were physically stronger, I think, and won our share of individual fights, but their group fighting tactics were much more advanced than ours: they stuck together like a unit of the Maffia, swooped down on us suddenly while we were dispersed in twos or threes, feinted frighteningly at our testicles, batted us over the head with stockings full of ashes, and sometimes even succeeded in taking our pants down. By the time we could get organized to counter-attack, they would have disappeared into their lairs. Once we went to a lumberyard and armed ourselves with thin twelve-foot lances with which we kept them off the streets for days, but they soon procured lead pipes of equal length and wreaked havoc among us. There were also occasional flurries of ash, garbage, tin-can, stone, and bottle throwing.
The Italian group included the inevitable displaced Jew, and in my gang there were two Italian brothers called Frankie and Brownie, as well as a Polish boy called Petey. The Jewish boy among the Italians was known as Yushkie. He was an unusually tall, thin boy, rather bitter, grim, and distrait in appearance. His bitterness probably came from the fierce baiting he was subjected to for being foreign-born—a “mockey.” We regarded him as a renegade, and, since he used Italian fighting tactics, felt towards him a mingled respect, hatred, and horrified repulsion. We never spoke to him or included him in our games, and he was likely to be the special target in any clash between the two gangs.
Frankie and Brownie associated with us simply by preference. Their parents were somewhat more Americanized than the other first-generation Italians on the block, who scarcely spoke English at all, and Frankie and Brownie were perhaps a trifle more refined than the other Osborne Street Italians, who were a very rough lot indeed.
While we were very “race-conscious,” once someone was inside the gang we completely forgot about differences except when the inevitable problem of chalking up boxball boundaries on the Sabbath came up. Many religious precepts were flouted with next to no concern, but writing in public on the Sabbath was an infraction we all avoided because it had become amalgamated with our more fundamental preoccupation with prestige. The taboo was so powerful that even Frankie, Brownie, and Petey, as well as the most irreligious Jewish boys, would refuse to violate it because of the lowering of status that would ensue. We usually bullied Cockeye Sidney, the lowest-ranking member of the gang, into doing it, and then excluded him from the game he had made possible. If necessary, with a few kicks in the seat of his pants.
Despite his inward anarchy, the life of a Brownsville boy was as regulated, definite in its objectives, and ritualized as that of a member of a primitive tribe. Whenever he could wrench himself free from such chores as eating, sleeping, school, and homework, all of which he had to be coerced into by force or the threat of force, he got together with the gang, from which he could never be excluded unless its psychological or physical hazards were more than he could endure. And as long as he had sufficient strength to participate, he was relieved of some of the worst terrors of childhood. All kinds of attitudes were fixed and ordered for him: the limits of his territory, his position within the gang, his relations with strangers and with boys of different ages.
Age groups were marked out by a mobile but definite system. No matter what a boy’s age, there was always a group of boys younger than himself which he called “duh liddle guys” and an older group which he called “duh big guys.” And he himself to his juniors was a “big guy” and to his seniors a “liddle guy.” A cluster of rights, prerogatives, and attitudes was attached to this relation which had so powerful a grip that even when one saw a “big guy” some ten or fifteen years later, some of the old feelings were automatically revived.
Among the “big guys” were to be found all one’s “big brudders” and among the “liddle guys” were to be found the “kid brudders.” It was an absolute obligation of “big brudders” to protect “kid brudders” and redress any physical injury to them, even if it was inflicted in fair fight with a peer. At some desperate point in a fight between two boys of equal age, the one who was losing would threaten his opponent with the might of the older males of his family. This tactic was orthodox and did not lessen the status of the individual using it, beyond the natural drop in status resulting from his defeat. A skillfully used “big brudder” was an advantage paid for by receiving numerous raps on the head, while a “kid brudder” was on the whole a liability, useful for errands and menial tasks and as a source of admiration, but altogether too likely to subject his protector to the gratuitous perils of fights with all the “big, guys” whom he happened to antagonize.
If the hazards of gang life were great, there were many compensations. To its members the gang gave a wide variety of skills, a set of functioning attitudes, and a highly specialized language. If you talked in the right tough style you wouldn’t get thrown off a handball court or have your checkers stolen; in fact you could push other boys aside or steal their checkers. A fashionable idiom, used audaciously, served, as it does in many a society with different values, to conceal weaknesses. Humor and wit were also great values, enhancing one’s position directly by attraction or indirectly when used to degrade someone else. Words were also intoxicants.
At the age of three or four, boys held hands and pivoted rapidly until they got dizzy, shouting: “Sailor boy, sailor boy, go so slow, sailor boy, sailor boy, go so fast. . . .” Soon afterwards they learned serious and humorous threat language: “I’ll mobbilize yuh,” “I’ll kick yuh teet’ down yuh t’roat,” “I’ll spit down yuh appetite ’n’ charge yuh for a seltzer.” They learned how to get the proper snarl into phrases like “gidduhhellahtaheah” and “go tell yuh mudder yuh fadder wants yuh.” They picked up a score of different chants for choosing who was to be “it,” and a number of jingles and songs, usually obscene.
The earliest game I recall playing was also verbal. It was called “Milkman.” The “milkman” went to each player and took an order for bottles of milk which he delivered in the form of slaps on the hand. He then came to collect for the milk and the “customer” refused to pay in the most insulting fashion possible. The “milkman” asked for an explanation. The “customer” informed him that he had found some horrifying object in the milk such as a rat’s tail or a lump of horse manure. The “milkman” then asked a series of questions to all of which he got the same answer:
Waddya eat every morning?
A rat’s tail.
Wot’s your fadder?
A rat’s tail.
Wot time is it?
A rat’s tail.
Waddya use for brains?
A rat’s tail.
The “milkman” gesticulated wildly and made weird faces while he asked the questions. If the “customer” broke into laughter or gave any other answer but the original one, he paid a forfeit by doing something difficult or painful, such as “goin’ troo duh mill”—crawling rapidly on hands and knees between the straddled legs of all the other players, who paddled his behind as hard as they could (there was always one wise guy who held the crawler between his knees until he got up and started a fight).
Before we were twelve, my friends and I had learned not only what we were required to do in school and an enormous number of physical games and feats, but also a considerable amount about all the local businesses and the society in which we lived. We had learned a score of fairly complicated card games including poker, casino, rummy, pinochle, hearts, blackjack, fantan, banker and broker, and an Italian game called “brisk.” We shot dice, placing our bets according to a close approximation of the true probabilities—an intellectual feat beyond the scope of many well-educated adults. Between the ages of nine and twelve, we also read, I would judge, no less than fifteen hundred novels—Merriwells, Nick Carters, Ted Strongs, Tom Swifts, and Baseball Joes—as well as innumerable issues of Sport Stories, Detective Stories, and Amazing Stories.
There was not a fence, hole, wall, lot, or cellar in the block that we did not use for some childhood purpose, and as we moved towards adolescence our knowledge spread to take in the entire section and then beyond it to Coney Island, Ebbets Field, and the big Brooklyn parks and movies. We also organized half-uniformed athletic teams that participated erratically in interborough competition—though nearly all sports and social organizations were short-lived, breaking up in bitter conflicts over questions of power, privilege, and obligation.
In fact, the battle for status was the chief determinant of our lives. Status came from skill in fighting and in such key games as punchball and basketball, but also from a certain indefinable quality of personality, the gift of making others accept and conform to one’s style of behavior. Even fighting was not so simple an affair as it seemed on the surface, and success in fighting was not altogether a matter of sheer physical skill. The question of who could fight whom was constantly on our minds, and hardly a day went by without someone trying to put some newly conceived opinion of himself to the test. The boys at the very top were more or less unchallenged. Those at the very bottom were likewise immune so long as they accepted the humiliations and insults which were their daily lot. But for a boy lodged precariously in the middle ranks, life was a tornado of fists and faces, the faces he was out to damage on his way up or the fists that were hammering him down to the nightmarish, infra-human realm populated by Cockeye Sidney and his similars.
We hunted and fished, too, though making the true metropolitan conversion by which all the quarry tracked down by human beings throughout the ages is reduced to the glittering tokens of civilization.
Mallard and teal the fowler downs in fall.
But season is always open for green game.
All weapons used; hand or enchanting hair,
Instructed dice or dynamite or flame.
pipe of organ some in chapel tread,
Others in alley with a pipe of lead.
(John Frederick Nims, “Dollar Bill”)
The cellars of many buildings in Brownsville went out some distance under the sidewalk and were covered by grates. Peering through the grate you could spy, some twenty feet down, a tangled mass of papers and heterogeneous objects among which, at all times, there might be a coin. A boy who was of a speculative turn of mind would steal a long, thin stick from the lumber yard and then lie flat on the sidewalk, gimlet-eyed, probing the mass of junk. If, after probing perhaps for hours while pedestrians cursed him, shopkeepers threatened him, and other kids sneered and goosed him, a coin emerged, he would go into action. After careful consideration of the ratio of investment to return, he would attach a wad of chewing gum to the end of the stick, and then a tense struggle began. It took an absolutely sure hand, a keen eye, and perfect technique to attach the coin without losing the bait in a mass of papers. Insecurely attached and as willful as any fish, the coin usually wriggled off before it was reeled in. When an elevation was successful, it still had to be gaffed through the narrow bars and defended against possible onslaughts. But any sum from a nickel to a half-dollar went a long way, buying handfuls of sticky candy, soda, flavored ices, chances on a punchboard, or a trip to the movies.
We hunted also in the empty lots, for bits of brass or lead we could sell to the junkyards, frequently stripping decorated panes of glass of their lead linings or scraping the precious metal from milk cans and boiling it down to lumps. We needed money for a hundred different commodities and were always on the alert for every penny, clipping dimes from grocery bills, chiselling from older members of the family, betting, thieving on a small scale from fruit markets and local shops and trading with what we stole. We worked, too—running errands for tailors and printers, stacking boxes for the Pitkin Avenue merchants, shoving fruit cases around on Belmont Avenue, or unloading bananas.
It was in the area of work that the difference between the poor and the affluent began to be felt. The poor boy was usually required to do some work at a very early age, and by the time he was twelve, he worked in the family store or helped around the pushcart and got regularly paid for it, usually by the hour. Thus he quickly established adult economic relations with his parents. The “bourgeois” kids, on the other hand, were held down to the smallest allowances possible, because their parents figured that the less money they had the less trouble they would get into. Thus it was the children from more affluent homes who, in the world of boyhood, were “poor”—and they bitterly envied the poorer children their usable wealth and grownup airs.
Indeed, “workin’” and the maturity and independence it implied held in our eyes an immense glamor. Gathered around a stoop for our nightly philosophical and educational sessions, we spoke passionately of our desires to become plumbers, bricklayers, carpenters, or businessmen. A few romantics wanted to be star athletes and a couple of little cynics wanted to be bookies or gangsters, but I don’t think I ever heard anyone express a longing to be any kind of professional or even to go to college. The traditional Jewish passion for higher education as well as many another “Jewish trait” simply fell apart under the violent impact of street life. Out of the hundred or so boys I knew best in Brownsville, I don’t think more than ten got to college, despite fairly good opportunities. And many sons of fairly affluent parents never got past grade school, the lure of punchball, movies, and “workin’” proving stronger than parental authority or desire.
Unloading bananas was the biggest working thrill of all, because we were selected primarily for strength and actually worked with grown men. It also had a sensuous appeal that nothing else quite matched. The banana wagon would come clattering slowly down Osborne Street, and when it got about two blocks from its destination the drivers would begin to bawl in loud, hoarse, singsong tones: “A load! A looooaaaaaad!” Punchball, handball, and boxball games would melt in its path. The chant was echoed and re-echoed with every variety of musical and verbal adornment by scores of kids, and by the time the wagon reached the cellars, a midget army was running after it and clinging to its sides. The drivers would climb majestically down from their perch to inspect the crowd of anxious small-fry desperately displaying their muscles and standing on their toes. I was rejected frequently, until one day by weaseling through the pack, stretching myself till I nearly split, and croaking loudly in the weird imitation bass I used in order to keep from being assigned to the soprano section of the music class (a fate worse than death), I got myself hired.
It was not an unmixed pleasure. The huge green stalks weighed nearly as much as I did and it was touch and go from the moment one was handed to me till I got it (or it got me) down the steps and onto its hook on the ceiling. I suspected the older men of laughing at me and was frequently warned to beware of “tearantoolas,” huge poisonous spiders with a sting that made you turn purple all over and die in agony. You had to work fast and the ache in your muscles became more and more painful and your hands got cut to ribbons by the strings. The ordeal lasted about four hours and I got through it out of sheer pride and fear of ridicule. The pay was about two dollars, which along with the tremendous rise in my self-esteem, was just enough to compensate for a broken back.
The Brownsville juvenile was, to be sure, only a special variant of the genus boy, produced out of a variety of conditions: American democracy; the confused, rambunctious energy of Brooklyn; the isolation of a part of the Jewish heritage—its physical, practical component divorced from its spiritual perspective—partially cracking in the long, convulsive effort to maintain the natural continuity between generations despite the actual vastness of the gulf that yawned between the European-born parents and their children.
The relation between generations is basically always the same—the old connections have to be maintained, and at the same time they must give and expand to accommodate growth. But what strains the machinery was subjected to! What wrenching occurred as out from under the tremendous corpus of the centuries-old Jewish development lying motionless as a whale cast up on the strand of the great continent, crept the children, breathing a bewildering mixture of the heavy, humanity-laden air of the Old World and the thin atmosphere of the New! Nature itself seemed to have lost track of its norms, and groaned, baffled by the problem history had set for it. Relations between children and parents reached an extreme of imbalance, not only among the Jews but in all of an America that was going, at different rates, through a prolonged crisis of transplantation in which scarcely anyone has had more than an inkling of what is to be preserved or destroyed, what will grow and what decay. There were cleavages between the generations that were too abrupt, too mental, with an insufficient quantum of the fertile human plasma carried over; and there were continuities that were too fertile, too rich and stagnant to permit the necessary “adjustments.”
Everywhere in New York, Jewish children were under the double compulsion of securing an extraordinary amount of protection from their parents and erecting unusually strong defenses against them to preserve their relation to the present. The result was that certain elements in the personalities of the children remained almost statically identified with their parents while other elements were so sharply divorced as to make for excessive conflict. In Brownsville—and this, I think, was true of Brownsville especially the struggle between children and parents was almost purely on a physical and practical level. Intellectual and spiritual independence came easily to the Brownsville child—too easily, perhaps, so that it was never really acquired and always undervalued. But the right to breathe freely, to use one’s arms and legs and voice forcibly, to own personal possessions, to take up residence away from home—all these privileges had to be conquered inch by painful inch. Brownsville’s parents, unsure of their tradition and how to transmit it to their children, could not do battle in the realm of the spirit; but they devoted correspondingly more energy to the bitter struggle for mere physical obedience: be on time to dinner, go to school, go to bed, stop hollering!
Meanwhile, all the street life of Brownsville fought against them to develop in their children the most immediately necessary qualities. The weak were simply despoiled of all rights and privileges and every shred of self-respect. Pity, charity, remorse were nearly non-existent emotions among Brownsville’s male juveniles, and even the weakest of the underdogs would rather have had his face pushed in the mud than be made the object of such mawkish feelings. The incredible Brownsville intolerance of weakness and ineptitude often brought out the necessary qualities by sheer compulsion. And, indeed, I have often thought, perhaps with some of the crustiness typical of those whose early experience has been rough, that the reformist epithet “underprivileged children” should be reserved for the offspring of the wealthy and genteel—it is they who are deprived of the natural endowment of children: the rich physical life, the concealment from adults, the instinctive awareness of the lawless, unacculturated state of man. How can anyone finally accept the restraints of society without resentment unless he has experienced something like the opposite? And how can any society recreate its institutions unless it obtains from somewhere a glimmer of what lies beyond them?
There was also a solidarity among the boys that was quick, instinctive, and very often heroic. Once, when I was about eight years old, I went adventuring on the BMT elevated lines with two boys who were slightly older than I. We had used up our money and had waited on one of the platforms so long that we thought no trains were coming and decided to cross the tracks to the opposite side. My friends hopped up on the other platform easily. I tried desperately and couldn’t make it, and was still stubbornly and stupidly trying to clamber up when a train roared over the horizon. I would have been ground to cinders if one of the other boys had not leaped down and simply shoved me up on the platform while the other pulled me. He then clambered up a cinema second ahead of the train. It was quite an exhibition of agility, the result not so much of courage or nerve as sheer, unhesitant animal instinct.
The peculiar thing was that nobody thought such acts in the least praiseworthy, or expected or received gratitude for them. I was in this case absolutely furious with the boy who saved my life because he had had the temerity to think I wouldn’t have made it without help, and both the other boys baited me vindictively for my clumsiness for days afterwards.
On another occasion we were all playing “follow the leader” on the roof of a six-story building. We were prancing ostentatiously but cautiously near the edge when one of the lesser wits of our group, a boy we called “Abie Kabibble,” stumbled and started to fall backwards off the roof. One kid grabbed his sweater. The sweater tore and there was a wild scramble and a series of grabs and Abie wound up hanging from the roof by one hand while two of us held the other and the rest held on to whatever portions of his clothing they could grasp and to each other. None of us ever did figure out how we got him back up without going over the edge ourselves, but we did.
About a week later one of the kids who had helped to rescue him fast-talked Abie into betting a dollar on his ability to hack off his own finger at one blow with a knife from a butcher shop in which he did odd jobs. Abie lost the bet by a shred or so, but came so close to winning that he had to be taken to a hospital for repairs.
“We are all much more simply human than anything else,” Harry Stack Sullivan wrote some time ago, and since the statement was probably meant to apply to psychiatrists and schizophrenics, it will serve, I hope, to de-emphasize the writer’s necessary exaggeration of the uniqueness of what he has seen. There were, indeed, dark nights in Brownsville, nights when we ran or hid in secret places, acknowledging no law but our own, hurling each other and being hurled against the concrete from every possible angle, caught in an endlessly tormenting, endlessly exhilarating game with little or no human knowledge we found acceptable to light our way into the future. But so it must have been in many another comer of America, cut off as ours was from a working central culture, from any principles of authority and conduct sufficient to contain life as it is really lived and guide us into the age when animal exuberance would be inadequate, when we would need something more and would find instead only a blank wall that spins us like balls back into the youth we should have long since outworn.