It was no more than a coincidence that the commencement of teen years was accompanied by the recognition of my coming of age in a religious sense—my bar mitzvah. I had already had some grounding in the basics of Hebrew study, but to be prepared for my confirmation required that I be coached in the special chanting of a passage from the Torah, which was to be read on that particular day, not counting the blessings to be sung immediately before and after that reading. In addition, I was required to commit to memory and deliver before the regular synagogue congregation, as well as invited family and friends, two addresses—one in Yiddish and one in English. I was to repeat these speeches at a reception later that evening in my honor, where a catered meal was to be served to the assembled guests. It was also customary on such occasions to supply band music, and this we had in good measure, together with much of the strenuous, fott-stomping dances customary of Jewish festivities.
Leading up to that memorable day, my father enrolled me in a Hebrew school, presided over by a Mr. Cutler, a recent emigrant from Russia. Here, for a couple of years, I attended classes after my regular school sessions. Needless to say, this restraint on my free activity, during daylight hours after school, was unappreciated, and I and my classmates chafed under this restriction. Nevertheless, we had to persevere at “Cutler’s Academy,” the appellation that Abe L. had coined for the name of our heder (Hebrew school).
This “academy” was on the first floor of Mr. Cutler’s residence, a small row house on Redfield Street, some two blocks distant from where we dwelt. Here he had removed the partition separating the living room from the dining room, and placed as many banks of desks as could be accommodated within that space.
At the front end of this room, overlooking the scholars at their desks as could be accommodated within that space.
At the front end of this room, overlooking the scholars at their desks, a table covered with oilcloth had been placed. Here sat Mr. Cutler and his most advanced students, of which his two sons were among the four or five so honored. For the others in his class, these were given only a modicum of attention, until such time as he felt it necessary to begin instruction in the bar mitzvah exercises.
Mr. Cutler’s wife was also involved in this exotic institute of learning as a teacher of Yiddish, having for her text the daily Jewish newspaper. For our stint in this course of study, we were required to repair individually to the kitchen, where this lady taught her subject by sitting next to each student, and overseeing and amending his reading of the news stories.
Mrs. Cutler was a fine-looking woman, with honey-blonde hair neatly tied up in circular braids against each side of her head. Ordinarily, it would have been a pleasurable experience to be instructed by her, but she had a disagreeable predilection: She loved to snack upon garlic bread. Thus, whenever I was called upon to be taught Yiddish, it became for me somewhat of an ordeal for, being so close to me, I had to hold my breath whenever she spoke, to keep from inhaling the noxious fumes which issued from her mouth.
To pass the time away between Mr. Cutler’s insipid assignments and Mrs. Cutler’s Yiddish lessons, the least studious of our group, among which I was one, sat in the back rows of the room and whispered and giggled together. At other times, we whiled away the period by drawing graphics of one sort or another. The height of amusement during such an interval was provided by Mutsy S. and Jack F., who competed in comparing penis lengths, after stimulating these organs through masturbation. Mutsy had a singular method of elongating his instrument: He would slap it against the hard surface of the compartment beneath the desk, and, rather than paining him, he seemed to enjoy such flagellation. It should be recorded, in any such contests, Mutsy was usually the clear victor.
Within six months of my thirteenth birthday, Mr. Cutler began to give me instruction in the portion of the Torah I was to chant on the Sabbath when my bar mitzvah was to take place. This was done when no other students were present, and involved the pronunciation of many tongue-twisting Hebrew words, in addition to the liturgical melody accompanying them. It was an exercise which lasted some ten or fifteen minutes, not counting the blessings which were sung before and after the reading.
About a week prior to the celebration of these solemnities, I was taken to the synagogue where they were to be performed, and shown the actual section to be read in the Torah. Here the words were in ancient Aramaic, which was also Hebrew, but without any symbols as a guide to pronunciation. This was of little concern to me, however, for I knew the entire passage by rote.
The greater concern I had was with my voice, for it had started to change in timbre and depth with the onset of puberty. Oftentimes, without warning, when I was practicing the traditional chants, my voice would go off track, as it were, like the needle which leaves its proper groove on a recording, giving off a sound like the braying of an ass.
Mr. Cutler trained me very diligently during these sessions, for, as I later learned, the quality of my performance would be the determining factor in assessing the amount of any gratuity he might be expected to receive. Thus, he never brooked any nonsense while coaching my in this exercise, nor was he averse to administering corporal punishment if my attention lagged.
I was to be made aware of this propensity when I aroused his ire one day, either through inattention or some other reason, and he suddenly raised his arm and direct a karate chop at my head. Had I not ducked under the blow and scurried over and around the tiers of desks, he could have inflicted a painful injury upon whatever portion of my anatomy he contacted. But, being more agile than he, he soon tired of chasing me, and, with his temper cooling after a few minutes of such sport, the lesson was resumed.
I never told my parents of this incident, for I wasn’t quite sure whose side they would take. However, I was not to witness another such outburst from him during the balance of our time together. And, when the memorable day of my bar mitzvah arrived, the performance I agave went off smoothly, my voice not even cracking once.
As a result of my bar mitzvah, I received many gifts, mostly money, and a written report of the festivities, including my picture, was included in the pages of the Jewish World, a now defunct daily, which was then widely among the Jewish population. As to the money, Pop put it in the bank for me, with the expectation that the account would grow until such time that it would be expended in furtherance of my education. Alas, that expectation was never realized, for the Great Depression of the Thirties intervened, and the money was used up for such mundane needs as food and rent.
The September following my bar mitzvah saw my entrance into West Philadelphia High School. Here the wide diversity of subjects and the greatly expanded facilities available proved confusing at first, but, after a short while, I became accustomed to my new routine. Here, also, I feel easy prey to the sense of tradition associated with the school, and, in short order, I was as partisan as any other student in cheering on the football team in its competition with others squads in the Public high League.
West Philadelphia enjoyed little renown in the scholastic achievement of students, nor was she exceptional in the prowess of her athletic teams. But she could point with pride to the large number of graduates who had made their mark in the adult world. Such names as Jeanette MacDonald and Paul Douglas in films, and Ted Weems and Les Brown in music, spring readily to mind.
Probably because of my assiduous reading of the Dick and Frank Merriwell stories, as well as my own involvement in sport with my neighborhood friends, I looked forward to the prospect of joining some of the high school teams as an active participant. I know I spent some time in reading books and studying techniques with respect to track and field, as well as baseball.
However, when I tried out for the freshman track team, I found my short legs put me at a disadvantage in the running events. Even where I thought myself rather adept in the skills associated with properly clearing the low hurdles, my lack of speed on the straightaway before the finish line held me back from making the team.
I even assayed the pole vault, but I couldn’t quite get the knack of raising my body up the pole in order to clear the bar.
Next, turning to baseball as a sport where I might be enabled to take some part, I soon found that my skills with the glove and bat were wanting, as compared with those who were accepted on the team.
Finally, I decided if I was to have a hand in the sporting activities offered by the school, it would have to be in a managerial capacity. Thus, I joined the varsity football team as an assistant manager. The advantages which flowed to me out of this situation included a clear view of the game from the sidelines, as well as a free admission to the field. The disadvantage to the position was that it had nothing to do with management; I was merely a glorified waterboy, who ran on to the field whenever a time-out was called to refresh the players with a drink of water. Such was the extent of my relationship with sports during my first year at W.P.H.S.
The following summer, I prevailed upon my father to allow me to go to a camp, instead of taking the usual jaunt to Atlantic City. Our local YMHA had such a resort in the vicinity of Collegeville. It was called Camp Arthur, and I spent two weeks there. I could have stayed longer, had I wished, but the unfailing routine caused my interest to pall, and I begged to be allowed to go to the seashore, despite my antipathy for the place.
Although I only stayed in the camp for two weeks, I was considered to be the premier athlete there. Of course, I was among the older boys, but still it was some distinction to be made the anchor man on the relay team in swimming and the cleanup man on the baseball team. In addition, when there was a decathlon competition, I was the only one to pass muster in all ten events.
I was also well-liked by the other boys, and could have made some enduring friendships. But there was something in my character which rebelled against regimentation, and I had to leave.
There was one agreeable fallout as a result of my stay at the camp: my acquaintance with Paul Keebler, a counselor there, who, I was pleasantly surprised to find when I returned to school in the fall, was a gym teacher at WPHS.
When Keebler was given the post of gymnastics coach, I tried out for the team. But I could only do the required or preliminary exercises with any degree of skill; in the optional, performances I was sadly deficient. While I worked out with the team, I never participated in any league contests.
Since my abilities were not of a sufficiently high standard to make me acceptable for team competition, Coach Keebler persuaded me to accept the post of team manager. Thus it was in my senior year that I was designated Manager of the Gym Team, but the only substantive matters which occupied my time in that position, aside from keeping track of the team members and their records, was to telephone the results of our league contests to the newspapers. I have always been interested in gymnastics since this early experience with that sport, being especially pleased at the great popularity it enjoys today, after the dismal public interest encountered when I was active in it.
Throughout my early teens, I had a constant interest in developing my strength and agility. I think this interest had its inception from the frequent visits I made, during our stays in Atlantic City, to a boardwalk establishment devoted to the promotion of strength and health through exercise and natural laxatives.
On one such visit, I was induced to purchase an 18” length of ¼” thick rubber elastic, which, through a series of demonstrated exercises, offered the prospect of increased muscular development and strength. At first, I found it took a good deal of exertion on my part to make the elastic stretch beyond its normal limits. But, through persistent and progressive daily exercises for several months, I did feel myself growing stronger, with a commensurate gain in brawn.
After a period devoted so such exertions, I felt fit enough to demonstrate a feat of strength to Ray Freedman. I remember placing one end of my rubber exerciser between my teeth, and had Ray pull the other end with all his might. He must have stretched the elastic some six or seven feet, but I held on with a tenacity which was even surprising to me. Actually, I was taking a bit of a risk in exhibiting this tour de force, for Raymond could easily have let his end slip from his grasp, causing my nose to be knocked out of joint.
From this auspicious beginning, I graduated to other contraptions which I ordered through periodicals devoted to the enhancement of strength and muscularity. Most of these instruments depended upon the tension of tight springs for the expansion of such powers. There was, however, one instance where I was able to exercise with a pair of five-pound dumbbells, acquired from the same source. I would have loved to do lifting with heavy weights, but I was afraid I might injure the flooring in the house. Besides, there was the consideration of price at a time when such an expense would have been frowned upon.
It was also from a reading of the aforementioned magazines that I gained knowledge of the art of muscle control. I soon became adept at willing the movement of bicep, tricep, calf and thigh muscles, and could easily adjust their movement to the rhythmic sounds of music. I became so proficient in this regard that I could move both pairs of calf and thigh muscles at the same time.
Another feat of muscle control I learned to perfor4m was the sucking up inw2ardly of my abdominal muscles, so that the underside rim of the rib cage becomes exposed through the cavity so produced. Once having mastered this exercise, I found it not too difficult to do the “Rope,” a maneuver which is somewhat of an extension of the prior movement.
In this, the stomach muscles are contracted and pressed forward, while the balance of the abdominal wall is drawn in, thus giving an almost three-dimensional aspect tot hose muscles. Before proceeding to this result, it is necessary to suspend all breathing momentarily, after expelling one’s breath, and press downward against the base of the abdomen with both hands together. Of course, the definition and constriction of the “Rope” is heightened by the degree to which an absence of fatty tissue is observable. Such a condition can only be achieved through regular exercise and a restricted diet.
In addition to the aforementioned activities, I augmented my interest in bodybuilding by subscribing to a course of instruction in the art of wrestling. As with the exercise equipment I had purchased, this service was also discovered in the pages of a magazine.
The preceptor in this course of study was a former professional wrestler who had operated under the sobriquet of “Farmer Burns.” The printed matter he forwarded to me provided pictorial representations of the various holds commonly used in that sport. Also, as an added bonus, there was instruction given in methods of disarming or rendering impotent individuals who were aggressively maleficent.
However, the most memorable lesson I ever received from Farmer Burns was the one in which he introduced me to the “wrestler’s bridge.” This is a stance one assumes in wrestling, when it seems likely that an opponent may be able to press one’s shoulders to the mat, thereby achieving a “fall.” By the expedient arching one’s back, with only the head and feet supporting the upraised body, an opponent can be prevented from gaining a “fall.” Of course, the strength of the neck muscles is crucial to the success of such a maneuver, and I regularly exercised in that position in order to build up those tissues.
Indeed, as a result of this constant exercise, my neck muscles became so strong I felt able to challenge a number of my friends to attempt choking me. However, of those who accepted my dare, none could penetrate the muscular shield I set up to protect my windpipe.
I once demonstrated my unusual strength in the wrestler’s bridge by inviting three or four members of the Reamer household, living next door, to sit upon my body while I was in this position. When they accepted, I found I could easily support the four or five hundred pounds representing their body weights.
Somewhat later, during this period when I was absorbed in bodybuilding, I managed to procure a spring exerciser which was shaped like a horseshoe. The object in working out with this implement was to develop the arm muscles in particular. And, after a short while of assiduous application to such exercises, the muscles of my arms became so strong that I could tear apart the city telephone book. I even tested my powers upon a small horseshoe which Mrs. Loughead had hung in her rooms for good luck, and the U-shaped metal broke apart in my hands. I was truly surprised at this, for I certainly would not have attempted the feat had I thought such an outcome would result.
And yet, despite all the powers I managed to generate within my body, I seemed unable to put those forces to use in athletic competition in high school. The problem, as I now recognize, was that I was easily discouraged by failure, and, once rebuffed, I never tried again. Of course, my stature and relative youth may have had something to do with my lack of success in those fields. On the other hand, my insufficiencies in those aspects had much to do, I am sure, with my lack of success vis-à-vis the opposite sex in school. I never had a date with any girl I met in school, probably because I was inordinately shy. But then, I could see, most girls preferred older boys as dates.
Throughout the four years I attended high school, I was accompanied in my home room and some of my other classes by the same individuals: those whose names were at the tail-end of the alphabet, such as the R’s, S’s and T’s. For all of that time, I was usually bracketed by my cousin, Sara, and Edna Tiskowitz, a lively, curly-headed girl, who was active in sports and many student functions. In whatever class I was seated, I seemed always to be surrounded by girls, and forced to listen to their constant prattle, especially from my cousin, Sara.
There were, of course, many boys in my classes, as well, but I know of only one who really distinguished himself in later life: George X. Schwartz, the President of City Council, here in Philadelphia, and a practicing attorney. I heave heard of no other classmate rising to a position of eminence in the outside world, aside for, perhaps, Ernie Messikomer, who became a basketball coach, after a distinguished playing career at Temple. Of course, many could have moved away to other places, and most of the girls could have gone unrecognized because of name-changes due to marriage. And yet it is surprising to discover, from the advantage of hindsight, how the movers and shakers of my high school days seemed unable to achieve similar roles in adult affairs.
At the time of my matriculation at WPHS, in 1928, Herbert Hoover, a famous mining engineer, was elected the presidency of the nation. The story of his romantic career had the effect of firing me with the ambition to emulate him in his profession.
With this goal in mind, I enrolled in a Mechanic Arts course, instead of Liberal Arts, with the mistaken impression that the former was more in consonance with engineering than the latter. Although I later learned that a Liberal Arts program would have been more preferable if I intended to go on to college, I still had sufficient majors to make me acceptable to most universities. The only difference in my course of study was that I had mechanical drawing and instruction in shop practice. This curriculum was designed, I suppose, for those who meant to go into vocations, instead of higher education, but if that was the case, none of the training I received served any useful purpose in that regard.
Of the teachers who instructed me, only a few made any imprint upon my consciousness. Only one, Dr. Partridge, had anything that I believed to be significant to say, and that precept has remained with me throughout all my years. “You cannot hope to contribute anything,” he said, “to the sum total of human knowledge in any field, until you have first learned everything there is to know about a particular subject beforehand.” This statement had the effect of making me feel humble in confronting the vast learning process concerned with any study within the scope of our knowledge.
I also remember my Spanish teacher, Senor Reveiro, not for anything remarkable about his teaching, but for his practice of addressing the class while standing on one leg, while the other was raised upon a nearby bench. In this position, my eyes were constantly drawn to the outline of his genitals because of the unusual length.
I can still recall his opening statement in Spanish to us, probably one of the few recognizable to me now in that language. “Espanol es un lengua mas fonetica,” he said. Translated into English the phrase would become “Spanish is a most phonetic language.”
I also recollect Miss Kollock, the head of the history department, who once conducted one of my classes in social studies. She was a dried-up spinstress with baggy sacs beneath her eyes and a beaklike nose. However, it was not for her appearance that I remember her particularly, but for an incident which transpired in the classroom.
She had posed a question: Which sex is less conventional—men or women? I raised my hand to answer that I believed men to be less inhibited than women, because they were not as hidebound by accepted dogmas as were they, and, whatever new concepts have been introduced, men have almost always been their originators.
However, before I was called upon, a female classmate was chosen, and she pointed out that men almost always dressed alike, while women dressed in any manner that suited them. She neglected to add: “within the bounds of prescribed fashion.” Miss Kollock accepted this observation without further question. “Of course,” she said, as if the matter were closed. She never allowed any consideration that ideas were also unconventional, and her finality in putting down any other argument to the contrary, made me decide not to pursue the point. Still, I have never forgotten her brusque manner of closing off the subject.
There were a number of other teachers I remember by name, but not because of anything they had said or done. Of course, I cannot forget the coaches who were associated with sports, particularly Paul Keebler of the Gym team, but I do not count them as representative teachers.
During my first years at WPHS, Pop had contracted to do the brickwork for two apartment buildings close by the school. In 1928, he worked on the Admiral Apartments, directly across the street at 48th Locust Streets. I still remember the warm feeling of self-importance which came over me when I rode the hoist to visit my father on the upper floors of the building. I thought all eyes were upon me then, but, sad to relate, no one seemed to have taken note of my comings or goings, for no mention was ever made to me of being observed at the scene.
The following year, Pop worked on the Sheldrake Apartments at 49th & Spruce, and I again had the opportunity to flaunt my connection with the construction of that building, with the same unrewarding result.
After the Stock Market Crash of 1929, the extended boom in building ran out of steam. The unending succession of contracts during the 20’s, which seemed to be my father’s almost for the asking, and the resultant euphoria induced by that state of affairs, quickly evaporated, as investors no longer could see a profitable outcome from investment in new construction, when prices were dropping almost daily.
Because of this economic catastrophe and the consequent drying up of building activity, the ready cash in Pop’s bank, which had always seemed to be available up to then, quickly evaporated. Without new work coming in to pay for the obligations accruing from prior contracts, Pop soon saw that the assets he had been collecting over the years were only evanescent things, supplied to him for a time as a loan, as it were, and now the leaseholder was demanding back his property.
But Toll Brothers had sizeable resources in tools and equipment which were lying idle. Although the firm had no money to finance contract work, it had the means to run a job, if funds were provided by a builder or general contractor.
Eventually, after about a year of piddling work and borrowing from friends in order to maintain some semblance of the standard of living to which he had become accustomed, Pop was able to secure a contract for apartment houses in Upper Darby from David Magen, a wealthy hardware dealer. The price for the brickwork was $44,000, a sum, which, in today’s terms, would be equal to a quarter of a million.
As it turned out, the profits from this work only provided the brothers with a bare living wage for the four months of effort expended. But for Pop it was all worthwhile, because he was involved in a large enterprise again and actively pursuing his profession.
This was to be the last contract in which Toll Brothers was to operate as a viable entity. After this final undertaking, the partnership was dissolved, and each brother went his separate way in trying to earn some sort of livelihood. With the completion of the work, the heavy hand of the Depression settled down over everything. It was to be another five years before Pop was able to secure work as a contractor again.
To add to the difficulties of maintaining our household in the presence of diminishing revenues, we lost the income from our upstairs tenants, the Lougheads, who moved out of their rooms, in the spring of 1930, to a home of their own in the Northeast section of the city. The move resulted from younger daughter Mildred’s graduation from high school and her subsequent procurement of gainful employment as an office worker. With the combined income of both daughters, the Lougheads felt reasonably assured of being able to afford the expense of the upkeep of their own house.
I remember the occasion of Mildred’s graduation quite vividly, not for anything which transpired during those ceremonies, but for the discomfort I endured when being transported to the scene of those rituals. The time of year was February, and this was a mid-year commencement being held at Irvine Auditorium on the University of Pennsylvania campus.
Dorothy had recently acquired a small coupe, which only seated two passengers in the interior of the vehicle. However, there was additional seating for two others in the rumble seat behind. Never having enjoyed a ride in such a conveyance before, I was unprepared for the chilling excursion which was to follow.
To give you some idea of how it felt to undergo that open-air drive, at its conclusion, my face had taken on the complexion of raw hamburger. After that experience, all I can say is that one should ride in a rumble seat or similar arrangement only when the temperature exceeds seventy degrees. Below that reading, one should be equipped with a ski mask and a parka to fend off the frigid winds.
The house our former tenants purchased was located off Summerdale Avenue, in the Crescentville section of the city, only a block or two away from the first house we purchased on Carver Street. I and my parents visited them there shortly after they moved in. Its doll-like quality had the appearance of the gingerbread house in the Hansel and Gretel fairytale. It was to be the last time we were to see Mrs. Loughead alive. Our next visit with the family was a funeral parlor for her wake, some ten years afterward. Mildred had married and had children, and was living in Delaware County. Dorothy was still single, and had taken a position with the State Department in Washington. For a time afterward, Dorothy wrote to us from London, and then, when Israel was established as a state, she joined the American embassy in that country.
A year or two before Pop passed away, Dorothy visited him on Larchwood Avenue. She had always had a great affection for him. Pop had been to her almost like a surrogate father. She had doubtless asked to be assigned to Israel because of her fondness for him and her wish to be near the people whom he represented.
According to Pop, Dorothy gave a favorable account of Israel, its energetic inhabitants and particular reference to the beauty of its women. From that time forward, she settled into a position in Washington. After that last visit, I was not to hear from her again.
We had a succession of tenants after the Lougheads, none of whom stayed longer than a year or two with us or became entwined in our lives as did they. The next occupants of our upstairs quarters was an elderly widow and a maiden daughter, who was already in her thirties. They brought with them a grand piano, which Mom was glad to have placed in our parlor to bring a touch of elegance to the undistinguished décor of that room.
The mother displayed an air of unwarranted solicitude toward her plump and awkward daughter, Rosa, acting in a suspicious manner toward any gentleman friends she brought home, or, indeed, anyone of the male persuasion who looked upon her in the mother’s presence, including me. In her mother’s eyes, Rosa was a dazzling beauty, as well as her only support, so she viewed all men as a threat to her survival. I still recall the exquisite curl of her sneering lip when she defended Rosa’s loud playing and singing against my complaints.
If her daughter’s face and figure were not quite as lovely as her mother imagined them to be, she was not altogether unpleasant to look upon. But Rosa’s choice of fragrances were so strong and replant that I could not bear to be in the same room with her when she chose to be so aromatized. These had the sickening-sweet, confectionary aroma of Sen-Sen, and she must have bathed in the stuff, because the odor was quite pervasive and cloying.
It was with inexpressible gratitude that I eventually learned of their intention to vacate the premises. With what relief and joy did I relish this intelligence! No more would my ears be assaulted by Rosa’s infelicitous playing and singing at the piano, no longer would my eyes have to witness the ugly and brooding features of her mother, nor my nostrils be irritated by the reek of Rosa’s toilet water. The only regret I felt at their departure was the sight of the empty space which had formerly been filled by the piano in the parlor. It had, after all, added a touch of glamor to an otherwise drab interior.
After these two, the rooms were leased to a single woman of Italian extraction, who stayed with us less than a year. Her cohabitation with us, as I recall, was singularly free of untoward incident or annoyance, as compared with that of her predecessors. Every weekday morning she went to work, and every night she returned to her rooms. I do not recollect that she ever entertained visitors during the period she dwelled with us, nor did she ever seek to become unduly familiar with her lessors.
There was only one occurrence concerning her which stands out in my memory: I surprised her once as she was perched upon the commode in the bathroom, in the act of expelling some elements of body waste. It was quite accidental, since I was not aware that the room was occupied. In fact, she had neglected to lock the door. Thus, as I pushed the door aside and saw her sitting there, I quickly excused myself, but she was so taken aback that she jumped up at least three feet from her squatting posture, a feat she probably would be unable to duplicate without the impetus of surprise.
Regarding the exposed portion of her lower anatomy that I was able to see in the fraction of a second available to me, I can only report that her legs and buttocks were unattractively lean and sinewed, and not softly rounded as befits the female body. I cannot aver with any degree of certitude that our embarrassing encounter led to this tenant’s desire to seek other accommodations, but I concede that it is more than likely, considering how abbreviated was her term of residence.
Our next tenant was an elderly widow, Mrs. Salodky by name, whose spryness belied her advanced years. She was always gadding about somewhere to occupy her time, often visiting her son’s family in Mayfair. Thus, her presence was hardly noticed in the house. But there was on incident which occurred during her stay with us which was for me particularly memorable.
To fully appreciate what I am about to relate, it is necessary for me to set the state, as it were, so that the events which follow may be perceived in their proper context.
Our house on Larchwood Avenue, as I may have described before, faced upon a tree-lined street of medium width. The open porch in front looked out over a small plot of grass enclosed by a privet hedge. Because we were situated on the sunny side of the street, Pop attached an awning to the roof extending over the porch. On a warm, summer’s day, in the shade provided by the awning, I used to delight in swaying upon the wide, wooden swing-seat suspended from the ceiling or gently rock upon a rocking chair. In this condition of suspended animation, I used to read or vacantly scan the activities of my neighbors.
Oftentimes, the street would echo to the happy voice of children playing loudly there, often to the exasperation of older heads who yearned for quiet. But aside from such annoyances, there was an amity and responsiveness between neighbors, which, I believe, was fostered by the contiguity of the dwellings.
The rear of the house was quite different in character. Here the building was indented and narrowed to afford light and air to the middle rooms on each story. This peninsular space was attached to the larger yard beyond, which was itself enclosed by a high fence built of tightly-fitting floor boards.
The fence had the virtue of sealing from view a narrow alley made unsightly and malodorous by the presence of garbage cans. These were placed here beside each gate by householders so that the scraps of each day’s provender might be readily removed by the Jersey hog-farmers who contracted with the city to perform such services.
Although most residents kept lids upon their cans, these coverings were not proof against the band of stray cats who inhabited this other world of the back alley. Such receptacles were easily overturned by these skillful felines, and, because of the constant battering administered to them by the rough treatment of the garbage men, the contents were never safe from depredation.
Thus, whenever a container was upended, the slop within was usually strewn about. This dispersal of effluvia had the added virtue (from the cat’s point of view) of exposing the more desirable comestible available, but it did nothing to enhance the appearance or smell of the alley. In addition, to compound this stench of offal, the incontinent passerby donated his urine to that potpourri of odors.
But it was at night that the alley truly entered into a world of its own. Then with the high fences deepening the gloom, except for the vapid glow cast by a couple of gas lamps, it seemed especially sinister in aspect. Whenever some noise aroused me from slumber during the night, my boyish imaging saw frightful creatures striding through that slender passageway, testing gates or cellar doors left unlocked, with the intent of gaining entrance into homes in order to rob or kill the unwary occupant.
Combined with the shadowy terror outside my bedroom window was the sleep-spoiling racket of garbage cans being overthrown or the wailing chorus of amorous felines, interspersed, at times with their angry hissing and battle cries when locked in combat.
It was in the midst of this environment that I was awakened one night from a deep sleep by the furtive sound of a window being opened nearby. My body stiffened with fear, as I strained to hear if the faint noise which aroused me would be followed by additional ones, thereby giving evidence that some intruder was indeed attempting an entry into our home.
My bedroom window on the second floor commanded a clear view of the entire sideyard, as well as the gate which opened onto the alley. But I was too frightened to move. I wondered if Mrs. Solodky, who occupied the two rooms adjoining mine, had heard the sound as well. But I soon dismissed the notion, for she was over seventy and her hearing was not too perceptive.
I lay as quietly as possible upon my bed, hardly daring to breathe for fear that the squeaky springs beneath my mattress might make known to the unseen stranger outside that I was awake and had knowledge of his presence.
There then followed a grating sound, as though of metal on stone, from the yard outside. Is my unwelcome interloper, I thought, now trying to pry the sash loose from the masonry surrounding it, or, Heaven help us, is he sharpening a knife blade with which to dispatch his victims? I trembled at the idea, as I lay immobile upon the bed, my heart pounding so loudly I could scarcely hear anything else.
And then another sound issued from the yard, more unbelievable than the one before: a slow dripping of water, as from the spigot outside. Why water? I thought. What possible use could my burglar make of water, unless he was using it to prepare some evil potion to render his victims impotent or worse?
I tried to exert every effort to arise from the bed without the usual complaining squeal of the springs beneath my mattress. Carefully, I stepped to the window and peered into the yard outside, straining to see some movement of the intruder, who I assumed to be near the outdoor tap located at the entrance to the sideyard. However, I could see nothing in the gloom, for it was a moonless night, and the shadows between the adjoining houses intensified the darkness.
Since I found it useless to try to observe some activity in that opaque purview, I stealthily returned to bed and waited for further sounds to indicate the stranger’s presence. I had not long to wait before I heard a window being raised or lowered, I knew not which. My body became rigid with fear as I listened for the expected creak of a footstep on the floor below or on the steps leading to my bedchamber.
I must have lain thus, without movement, for what seemed like an hour, until, exhausted, I fell off to sleep again. When I awoke in the morning, I could find nothing missing nor any signs of a forced entry into the house.
The ordeal I had undergone the night before must have had the effect of triggering my subconscious to awaken me the next night at precisely the moment of yesterday’s distressing experience. For, just as my eyes opened, the same sequence of sounds ensured that I had heard before, with the same subsequent feelings of terror and helplessness. Again, afterward, I found no evidence to indicate an attempt had been made to break into our home.
The following night saw another recurrence of this same episode. Was I going mad, I thought, to be thus awakened, night after night, just at the moment before these noises began? Or were these repeated incidents merely repeated dreams, which seemed real because they were so vivid.
Resolutely, I cast aside my fear and sprang from the bed, its springs whining with annoyance at my sudden departure. Despite this courageous action, no other sound was heard, and no sign of movement either, although I stared intently for some time into the darkness outside. Again I returned to bed, frustrated and confounded.
It was only by accident that I came upon the solution to my dilemma. I happened to overhear Mrs. Solodky complain to my mother about her insomnia. Apparently the old lady saw nothing remarkable in spading the soil and watering the plants in her metal window box in the middle of the night. Perhaps only her heart knew that she was merely reaching out for another living thing to be near in her loneliness when she was unable to sleep.
After Mrs. Salodky’s term of tenancy, a mother and daughter leased our upstairs rooms for a short period of time. The mother was one of the ugliest crones I have ever beheld, with a face like a withered prune and almost as dark. Her features bore an unremitting frown, contorted always into an expression of despair and dismay. Indeed, I believe the perpetual scowl she wore could well have caused the muscles of her face to sag into that forbidding contenance.
The mother probably had good reason for her anxiety, for the daughter, Yetta, as lovely as her mother was not, had a form and carriage which attracted men’s eyes and inspired erotic feelings.
One day I overheard the mother complain to Mom that Yetta was suffering from the delusion that she was engaged to the son of her employer. Her mother’s concern was borne out that evening, when Yetta spoke to us of her engagement with bubbling enthusiasm, while her mother stood nearby and dejectedly shook her head.
Being young and inexperienced, it seemed inconceivable to me that Yetta could imagine the happy situation she described. Yet she probably had shown signs of this mental disorder at previous times, for, within days of this incident, we learned she had been dispatched for treatment to “Byberry,” which is now known as the Philadelphia State Hospital.
Since Byberry was some twenty miles distant from our neighborhood, the mother moved out to that area in order to be near Yetta. For several weeks thereafter nothing more was heard about the pair. However, one night, about three in the morning, I was awakened from sleep by a gentle rapping on the front door. Without hesitation, I arose and descended the staris. Looking through the glass of the door, I was surprised to see Yetta standing there.
“What are you doing here,” I asked, as I opened the door.
“Please let me come in and sleep on the couch,” she begged.
To me she seemed quite normal in every respect, not at all like the raving maniac I had expected.
“OK,” I said.
Yetta lay down on the couch, and I returned upstairs to my bed. This unexpected encounter seemed not to have affected me overly, perhaps because my senses were still partly numbed by being awakened so abruptly, for I quickly fell asleep again, so deeply, in fact, that I was not aware that Yetta had let herself out of the house before I awoke.
When the episode of the preceding night was related to my parents, they must have thought I had been dreaming. And I am almost persuaded this might have been the case, since we never saw Yetta or her mother again to verify that she had indeed escaped from the asylum.
However, the details of the incident are so clearly etched in my mind that I am positive I was awake and an actual witness to what transpired. As to my lack of fear at allowing a lunatic entrance to our home, I put that down to my lowered consciousness at being aroused from sleep so suddenly.
The final tenants to occupy our upstairs rooms were an aged mother and her divorced son. He was perhaps forty years old and was able to find employment only infrequently. In his leisure moments, he used to loiter at the corner with the teenage boys of my acquaintance. Indeed, I recollect that he once introduced a number of them to the entertainment of a bordello in Chester.
Due to her advanced age, the mother could barely move about, and her eyes were a good deal less than serviceable. It was her obvious ineptitude as a housekeeper which undoubtedly contributed to the pestilential outpouring of bedbugs and roaches which invaded our premises upon their arrival. There is no doubt these unwelcome animals had been transported here to our dwelling from their prior habitation by our newly-found tenants within their bedding and other belongings. I say this is so, because no such infestation was discernible before their coming.
Mom had difficulty controlling this onslaught with the mild insecticides at her disposal. Even after this pair was prevailed upon to find other quarters, the crawling residue of their former presence remained to haunt us. Following this experience, Mom no longer sought tenants, even though other sources of income were not readily available.
In the early fall after my graduation from high school, I made an attempt to register at Temple University, hoping that a way might be found to finance my enrollment there. One of the registrars interviewed me, but I received little encouragement from him toward receiving assistance in the costs of tuition.
You have to remember, when I was going to high school, programs to benefit the poor who wished to go on to college were only limited to students of exceptional ability, and the idea of receiving financial assistance for that purpose by banking institutions would have been considered ridiculous, considering the state of the economy.
Since I was without means to further my education, it became necessary for me to seek some means of employment suitable to my aptitude and knowledge. With this end in view, I became an avid reader of the want ads in the newspapers and a constant visitor of employment agencies in town. But, wherever I applied, the standard question always seemed to arise: “And what experience have you had?”
When I replied in the negative to such inquiries, the matter of a job became a moot affair. It was useless to proclaim that I was a rapid learner or that I would work for less than the going wage. Ultimately, I had to recognize the fact that were so many were unemployed, employers had the choice of those with the greatest skills and experience, when so many were available who had spent years in a given area of expertise.
Faced with such discouragement in seeking employment, I began to avoid the hopeless business of applications and interviews. But I still had to keep up the appearance that I was actively pursuing a job. To foster this impression, I would still go into town each morning, but, instead of calling upon agencies and employers, I would pass the time away in the court rooms of City Hall. Then, following lunch, I would usually while away a few hours in one of the nearby movie houses.
This is how I spent many of the days during the months following graduation. At the very least, the cinema offerings I viewed had the virtue of making me forget momentarily the discouragements I endured and the visible evidence of hard times all about me: the vendors at every corner with their shiny red apples and the many dejected and seedy seekers of work, of whom I seemed to be the least worthy to be employed.
The center-city theatres, especially the larger ones, offered superior entertainment to their patrons during those times. For not only was there a film presentation, but a stage show as well, with a full orchestra playing in the pit. Most of the live performers on such programs were star headliners, like Frank Sinatra and Milton Berle, or big-name bands like Tommy Dorsey and Glenn Miller. To be enabled to see such shows before one o’clock was an excellent bargain, for the cost of admission was only 50 to 75 cents. At such prices, the theatres soon were crowded with the unemployed who were tired from seeking work.
Such diversions were available at the Fox, the Earle and, if I remember correctly, at the Stanley, as well. But better than any of these was the Mastbaum, a magnificent edifice, newly erected, which attempted to match Radio City Music Hall in New York both in sumptuous furnishings and grand stage presentations. Before its opening, the management of the Mastbaum advertised for ushers, and I thought to try out for such employment. But when I arrived there, I found such a mob of young men crowding the streets around the theater that I have not seen since. However, word was soon passed around that the factor of height would be an important consideration in the making of selections. Since I was just about five foot eight, it seemed hopeless for me to wait around for an interview, and I soon departed.
During the next four years, the only gainful employment I enjoyed was an overnight stint in a large commercial bakery and a week as a soda jerk in a drug store.
The bakery job was gained through the good offices of one of Pop’s lodge brothers, who was employed in the main office of that company. In my work I was required to assist the regular personnel in preparing the kneaded dough for baking, as well as helping to load the ovens with the raw loaves. Not being accustomed to working during the hours when I usually slept, I was not particularly energetic in performing my tasks. Additionally, after some hours devoted to the monotony of performing the same operation over and over again, I began to feel like Charley Chaplin, who portrayed the factory worker in his movie, “modern Times,”—a veritable automaton.
I might have been able to complete the hours of work assigned to me had I not been required to stand across from an individual who chewed tobacco as he manipulated the dough before him and expectorated upon the floor with disgusting frequency. This revolting vision, in combination with lack of sleep and the usual tedium of the work, made me feel ill and faint. When I felt I could no longer continue, I begged to be excused from further work. Thankfully, I was relieved from duty without difficulty and allowed to return home. Also, although I did not complete the hours fro which I had been scheduled, I was paid in full for my labors—the munificent sum of five dollars.
With what relief did I breathe in the fresh morning air! I was to know from that time forward that I cannot endure work of a monotonous nature. I think I would rather starve than undergo such an ordeal again.
My second job was also acquired through the good offices of my father. He had learned from the proprietor of the store across the street from the Boslover building, at 7th & Pine, that he was in need of a young man to tend his fountain and run errands. The salary was to be five dollars a week.
I learned the procedure for preparing sandwiches and sundaes without too much difficulty, but was unprepared for the other aspect of my job, which was the requirement, once or twice a day, that I deliver into the hands of certain customers, mostly physicians, bottles of Overhold Bonded Rye.
To appreciate the significance of this practice, you have to understand that this was a period during which the 18th Amendment to the Constitution was in effect, forbidding the manufacture and sale of alcoholic beverages, except for medicinal purposes. Since this lawful liquor could only be acquired through prescription, his pharmacy was, in effect, a bit of a liquor store, as well.
On these excursions from the drug store, I was to note, with great satisfaction, that most customers would press a coin or two into my palm as an expression of gratitude. From this experience, I naturally came to expect similar generosity from all such patrons.
In particular do I remember one old, crotchety physician, who received the benefit of my services on a regular basis, yet who seemed to be disinclined to proffer any of the gratuities I had come to expect. After some few of such oversights, I suggested to him, quite baldly, that it was the usual practice to offer monetary perquisites to the deliverer of such parcels. The good doctor received this intelligence with very poor grace, I thought, for with a scowl and curt rebuke he sent me on my way, in the same impoverished condition as when I came. This was to be the last errand in my short career with the pharmacy, for the doctor had undoubtedly complained to the druggist regarding my rash behavior, causing me to be cashiered by the end of the week.
Following the unfortunate history of my brief encounter with remunerative employment, I felt an impelling urge to enroll in a course in journalism, then being offered by the Charles Morris Price School at 13th & Locust streets. The principal occupant of the building at this location was the Poor Richard Club, a well-respected advertising association.
I think this interest in journalism was kindled by a viewing of the film, “Front Page,” a melodrama which portrayed the hectic Bohemian existence of certain newspaper reporters and editors. The aspect of their profession which particularly appealed to me was the surprise and novelty usually associated with the seeking out of facts connected with news stores.
The class to which I was assigned met three times a week in the evenings, and was presided over by the Real Estate Editor of the Inquirer, Raymond Nelson. We worked from a textbook and were given writing assignments, which were edited and comment upon by our teacher. Also, on various occasions, certain colleagues of this would be presented to the class. These practicing journalists spoke to us of their experiences in the newspaper profession, exploding, in the process, a number of myths surrounding their work, which were contrary to the conceptions fostered by movie or stage plays.
At a time close to the conclusion of these sessions, a young man, surnamed Tennant, was introduced to the class. He appealed to as many as could spare the time to join with him, as volunteers, in a quest for information concerning the advisability of establishing a community newspaper in the township of Upper Darby. To garner such data, we would be required to call upon householders and perspective advertisers in the area for their views as to the practicality of such a venture. The inference from all of this was that if we found there was a need for such a journal, we would be employed by Mr. Tennant as members of its editorial staff.
I and a number of my fellow students responded affirmatively to this appeal, and an appointed timed was set for the next day to meet at offices occupied by Mr. Tennant’s father in the Terminal Building at 400 N. Broad Street.
I recall the disapproving look of the elder Tennant when our group descended en masse upon his offices. But his son, with the zealous intent of a true crusader, was apparently dissuaded by parental objections. From there we took off to test the ramparts of Upper Darby.
We spread our number thought that community, ringing bells and knocking on doors. However, when we met together for lunch and compared notes, none of us seemed to have any worthwhile news to report. For myself, the expedition was a complete disaster, for each householder I tried to engage in conversation, thought I was trying to sell something, and answered my inquiries with a curt “Not interested.” I was to learn from this disheartening experience that I could never be a door-to-door salesman. I was too introverted for that sort of business, becoming discouraged and frustrated as each door was closed in my face.
There were only a few other occasions when we met together with young Mr. Tennant. I, for one, enjoyed his company, and would have gladly joined him in whatever enterprises he might have proposed. But too few people were interested in his ideas, and the despairing attitude of the times made it difficult for them to feel otherwise.
When the school term for my journalism classes terminated in the spring, I turned to the only one I knew who might be of help to me in securing a position as a reporter—Mr. Nelson, my teacher. I remember going up to visit him at his office in the Inquirer Building with the trepidation and anxiety of one who is lacking in assurance in the presence of strangers and uncertain of his true abilities. However, Mr. Nelson greeted me pleasantly and not, as I had feared, with the vexed attitude of one who is disturbed at his place of business. At this, I felt encouraged to seek his advice and good offices in securing some newspaper position.
The only opening he knew to be available at the time, he said, was the job of night copyboy on the paper. The duties of this employment were to carry copy and run errands for members of the editorial staff, some of whom might be only a few years older than I. He stressed the youthfulness of those who might order me about, being so persuasive in depicting the abasement and subservience in connection with the work that I felt I would lose all sense of pride had I undertaken the position.
If I had only known then that another four years would elapse before another job was forthcoming, I would have snapped up the offer without question. But I was only seventeen, and the thought of working under such circumstances was repugnant to me.
I did not discover until much later that many reporters graduate to news writers from the status of copyboy. Mr. Nelson never mentioned such a possible eventuality. He only inferred that I had been trained as a journalist, and it would be unbecoming for me to start out in a lesser position.
Thus was a dear ambition defeated for lack of encouragement and overweening pride. I now console myself that I was, perhaps, unconstitutionally suited for that type of work. I could never have been aggressive in the manner of the reporters on “Front Page,” and I knew from my interviewing attempts in Upper Darby that my ardor was easily cooled by the rebuffs of those with whom I sought to speak. Therefore I have finally concluded that my early lack of success in the field of newspaper work was a result of my own ineptitude. Even had I been accepted for the position then opened, I probably would not have lasted long, considering the unusual hours and the demeaning activity involved. In fact, Mr. Nelson was undoubtedly testing the strength of my desires in his interview with me, and since these were not overwhelming, it was I alone who defeated the purpose I had in mind.
Coincidental with my enrollment in the Charles Morris Price School, Pop had managed to secure for my use a second-hand portable typewriter, probably from the pawn shop of his friend, Emanuel Richman. The machine had been necessary for submitting news stories required by my studies. However, once this special education was concluded, I did not allow the typewriter to gather dust. While I was not engaged in any gainful employment, and there was little likelihood of securing such work, I set myself a daily regiment of study and writing.
In the beginning, my studies were conducted by writing significant passages from the books I borrowed from the public library. These were mainly concerned with philosophical subjects, as treated, for the most part, in essays by Emerson and Carlyle. I also engaged in like studies of writing which enlightened the reader concerning the craft and art of authorship in its many forms.
From this undertaking, I hit upon the idea of compiling a “Synonymy of Words, Phrases and Allusions,” designed to serve as a tool for writers, much as a thesaurus, except that my efforts were aimed more toward the novice in the uses of diction, because each word in my lexicon would have a phrase or sentence to illustrate its proper application.
I had a vague notion that the result of my efforts might eventually prove salable, but the initial impetus in falling to this task was to prepare myself, by the vocabulary acquired through this work, to lay the foundation for writing skills which might ultimately prove to be marketable.
The dictionary I used in compiling my synonymy was not unabridged, and I only concerned myself with words unfamiliar to me. Thus, the scope of my undertaking was somewhat limited to begin with. In addition, a great many terms of obsolete or mainly British usage crept into my work, because of my readings in Shakespeare, the Bible and the English poets. But I did read the Sunday New York Times regularly in those days, and many of the words which I found in that paper were not included in my dictionary. This made it necessary for me to make many trips to the public library to look up such words in the unabridged editions available there.
Since unfamiliar words were constantly cropping up through my reading, I saw no end in sight for the completion of my synonymy. Besides, if the work was to be of easy use to anyone, it would have to be cross-indexed, with every nuance of meaning detailed throughout. Thus, after a year of grinding application to this task and almost four hundred pages as a result of my endeavors, I gave up the job as a hopeless enterprise, and went on to other things.
Those other things were just as time-consuming and, in retrospect, as of little use as the synonymy. The first of these projects was a rhyming dictionary, which I assumed would serve a useful purpose in the composition of rhymed verse. I turned to the task of cataloging word sounds, from my dictionary, with renewed zeal. However, while I found this effort to be of some use to me in writing a good deal of inadequate rhymed verse, my better compositions of this sort found their rhyme ending almost in a spontaneous fashion. Indeed, whenever I have relied too heavily upon the rhyming dictionary, my meaning usually tended to suit the rhyme, thus defeating the original purpose I had in writing. In addition, my labors were of little value in helping me get my work accepted, for most of the poetry being printed now, as then, is in the form of blank verse.
After this latter exercise in futility, I turned to the compilation of a lexicon of technical terms and phrases, covering every subject found in my dictionary. This time-waster was of even less use to me than the rhyming dictionary, for, aside from certain medical terms, I have had few occasions to glance through its pages.
During this period of my occupation with lists of one sort or another, all meant to prepare me for authorship, I came to discover that I was only doing such work out of a fear of facing my own inadequacy—the fear of putting my own words to paper and finding them to be unworthy.
Yet, at the very least, as a result of these endeavors, I had done a substantial amount of reading in the classics and elevated my vocabulary knowledge to a great degree. In these respects had I educated myself to become a writer, but to write something worthwhile was still to be accomplished, and to be paid for such work was almost a dream beyond realization.
Thus, seeing no practical benefit accruing to myself from all these labors nor finding opportunity for gainful employment as s result of my meager education and experience, I decided to train myself in a field where there might be the greatest possibility of success—the construction field, in which my father had earned a good reputation and livelihood over the years. Although the condition of the building industry, in general, was in a poor state, I could see no other alternative to my condition.
The Spring Garden Institute, then located at Broad and Spring Garden, was offering a course in plan reading and estimating during the evening hours, several times a week. I enrolled in this course with the hope that I could become skilled in the art of estimating, thereby enabling me to bid successfully on brickwork for commercial and industrial builders.
After attending these sessions for several weeks, I found the course to be a waste of time for me, since much of it was taken up with aspects of construction in which I had scant interest or concern. Seeing little of value to be gained from attending these lectures, I dropped out of the class about midway in the term. Instead, I began to teach myself the skills of estimating through the study of books relating specifically to the craft of masonry. To test my knowledge, I would work out material quantities from old blue prints of jobs already completed and compare them with the actual materials supplied. In addition, I taught myself a form of bookkeeping to cover the special needs of the subcontractor. This I adapted from illustrations of accounting methods geared toward the general contractor, which I found in a construction magazine we were then receiving regularly.
In the interest of accuracy, it should be noted that the events relating to the course on estimating and subsequent activities actually took place in 1936, when I was 21, and not during my teen years, as I first supposed. The reason for this correction to the foregoing account is that I came upon records which fix the actual time just as I had completed these remarks.
The hesitancy I had felt in putting my own words to paper gradually dissipated, and I began to write—mostly poetry, and this mostly in the style of the classic English poets with whom I was familiar.
The original impetus which set me to writing poetry was probably induced by the warm feelings experienced at receiving affectionate attention from a young lady of my acquaintance. I know I wrote a series of sonnets at the time in the Shakespearean mode, as well as other poems in a similar vein. When I found a writers’ magazine which listed publications that accepted verse, I sent off my compositions to a number of such journals, with the hope and expectation that my offerings would be seized upon as the work of a veritable genius. What disappointment ensued for me when each was returned with a standard rejection notice! That is to say, all but one, and this was from a poetry magazine printed here in Philadelphia.
The poem I had submitted for publication was entitled “I Mused Beneath an Apple Tree,” a sixteen-line verse in rhyme. Later, I discovered the idea was a repetition of one used by Tennyson. Of Course, at the time of its composition, I certainly believed the theme was altogether my own. But I had become so steeped in the poetry of the English bards that, apparently, my subconscious provided the substance and the style when called upon.
I should also mention that I tried to disguise my name somewhat, my reason being that I did no wish it to be bruited about that I was engaged in the writing of poetry, an occupation to which was then attached some stigma of effeminacy. I also wished to avoid any possible notoriety for myself which might follow as a result of such activity. This disguise was accomplished by the addition of an “e” to my surname, so that, for literary purposes, I was to be known as “Bernard Tolle.” In addition, I felt the added letter bestowed a touch of elegance to my pseudonym.
Soon after the acceptance of my poem, I was surprised and delighted to receive a communication from the editor of the magazine, Herman Grossman. He invited me to call upon him at this residence at 5th & Tasker, in South Philadelphia.
Readily acquiescing to this invitation, I discovered that Grossman lived with his parents behind an auto supply store, which also dispensed gasoline to passing motorists. I found, also, that he was about three or four years older than I, was unmarried, and had a civil service job at the post office.
Grossman greeted me upon my arrival with unmistakable cordiality. It was likewise made evident to me that my presence was unwelcome to his parents and the other members of his family. The reason for this antipathy toward me became apparent when I learned of the proposal he had in store for me: He wished to invest in the publication of his own poetry magazine, and he wished me to assist him as editor.
I can understand the feelings of his family toward the expenditure of his savings for a product of such limited appeal. But aside form the possible loss of a few hundred dollars for the printing of the magazine, the editorial work would cost him nothing, since I was to assume this burden without remuneration.
Actually, the subject of payment for my work never arose, for to edit and write for any publication was an employment beyond imagining for me at that stage of my development as a writer. To me the work was of paramount consideration, and I readily assented to his proposal.
The objective of the projected magazine was to provide a medium for desiderative poets and to pay them for their work, an unheard-of idea at the time, even though it would only be a token honorarium of one dollar. However, only the work of members of a “Poetry Forum” would be acceptable for publication in the magazine, “Golden Verse,” a quarterly. As a member, the aspiring poet would, if his offering was rejected, receive a critique of his work, or be supplied with the names of other magazines which might look with favor upon his efforts, in addition to the subscription to Golden Verse.
The criticism offered by the Poetry Forum was its most worthwhile feature and a true bargain to for the subscriber. I know this, for I sometimes spent hours in untangling the inverted verbiage in the verses submitted. Also, instead of receiving a pro forma rejection slip, the writer was given the objective thoughts of a person who had taken the trouble to consider and review that which had been tendered. For this service alone Grossman could have asked for five or ten time more than was initially requested. But then he did not realize how much of my work was involved, and, since he did not have to pay for it, he undervalued it, as did potential subscribers.
All in all, however, the concept involved was, I believe, a good one, and what we had might have eventually paid for itself or even shown a profit, if there were not disagreements between us which caused our association to end after only two issues. There was one other issue that I know of, and this, I think, was the last of Golden Verse.
Our first edition was well received by other publications in the field, who commented favorably upon our efforts, after being sent gratuitous copies of the magazine. We even had a good review in a major newspaper—The Hartford Times, whose poetry editor wrote “the short reviews of current poetry (books) were the marked feature of the first number.” I took special pride in that notice, for this was my own work.
There were twenty-two poems in that first edition, but, because we did not have a sufficient acceptable verse from our members, we padded the issue with some of our own work, most under pseudonyms. I inserted five, two of them with my own name attached, while Grossman had three, two under his name and one assumed.
I think our primary disagreement concerned editorial policy. That, and the unconscionable work load I had assumed, altogether without compensation. That part of my work which had to do with criticism consumed a great deal of my time, because I sincerely wished to help out writers. But some of the manuscripts submitted were altogether ungrammatical and disconnected or illogical in thought. My efforts with these kinds of offerings took much time to unravel them, and probably discouraged the writer rather than remedied what he wrote.
Most of the difficulties I experienced as editor had to do with Grossman himself. He was altogether without talent as a writer, and his pretensions in the field of poetry were entirely misplaced. And yet it was undoubtedly this desire to express himself in poetry which impelled him to publish the magazine in the first place. But, by obtruding his insipid verses into every issue, he derogated the selective judgment of the editor and reduced the qualitative value of the magazine.
To give you some idea of Grossman’s facility with language, he wrote in the foreword of the first issue: “This magazine is published for the welfare of readers of good, clean, imaginative verse.”
“Good” and “clean,” as opposed to what? Pornographic material? He might just as well have been describing good and clean underwear or good and clean dishes; I can hardly envision the use of such terms in connection with poetry. By such application, he is implying the existence of verse which is “bad” and “dirty.” If that was the case, he could only have been referring to verses like those embodied in racy barroom ballads or earthy sailors’ chanties. Even these, although “dirty,” as probably perceived by Grossman, can be “good” as well. Thus, from my perspective, “good” and “clean” should never have been allied in qualifying poetry. The only reasons he could have had for placing them in such inappropriate conjunction is that they formed part of a cliché which had attached itself to his subconscious, and he never troubled to analyze their proper usage.
As to his use of the term “welfare,” this bespeaks a state of being more applicable to the public at large. “Interest” would have been more appropriate to use, since it can be related to a smaller, more specific group.
Whatever Grossman wrote for publication in the magazine bore the imprint of this mediocrity and his unfamiliarity with the nuances of rhetoric. This is not to say that what I wrote was outstanding, but I must confess my amazement, from this vantage point in my life, to observe the command of language I enjoyed at the age of nineteen.
After my disassociation from Herman Grossman, the critical reviews I had used in connection with the Poetry Forum became the nucleus for a 15,000-word manuscript, entitled “Art & Poetry.” This met with as little success with the publishing media as anything else I have written, but there was a thought in the back of my mind that it might some day serve me as the basis for a critical service of my own.
It might be of some small interest, at this time, to relate an incident which took place during the period of my acquaintance with Herman Grossman. It was also a period when I was employed, at odd times, by Cousin Herman Toll to serve subpoenas upon recalcitrant witnesses in connection with litigation in which he was involved as an attorney. For this work, I earned a few dollars for each summons I delivered into the hands of a potential deponent. I also learned something of judicial proceedings by accompanying Cousin Herman to some of the court rooms in City Hall where his cases where coming up fro trial.
It was while I was in Cousin Herman’s company so frequently that he proposed that I, and any friends I chose to join me, spend a number of days during the week of that summer at a rustic cabin located near the Rancoacas Creek, not far from Mt. Holly, New Jersey. Cousin Herman and several of his law colleagues had rented the cabin for the season, and he saw no reason why it should not be used by me and my friends when no other lessee was in residence there.
Readily acceding to this kind proposal, I invited Grossman to join me, and he asked to have a friend of his come along. I did not mind the additional company; besides, he had a car which could convey us to the cabin more expeditiously than by bus.
The day was warm when we set out, and, upon our arrival there, we were pleasantly surprised to discover that a number of young girls were occupying a cabin next to ours. Since these young ladies were on holiday, as were we, and since none of us was accompanied by members of the opposite sex, it was inevitable that we should gravitate toward one another.
That first day in the pristine hinterlands of New Jersey, what with swimming in the cold cedar waters of Rancoacas Creek and frolicking with those agreeable females, was a pleasurable experience for us all. In fact, when night had fallen, we were invited to join the girls in their cabin to partake further of the enjoyment of their company.
While I do not recall the exact particulars of that evening’s soiree, I do remember relishing the attention of one special young lady, and it seemed our stay here, at least for me, was destined to hold forth a continuous round of fun. But, said to relate, however, on the very next day were dispossessed of our paradise, when Cousin Herman and his friends, who were co-tenants of the cabin, together with female companionship, arrived upon the scene.
I was pleased to note Cousin Herman’s excellent choice in the lady he was escorting—a lovely, willowy blond. As for the others, only one stands out in my mind, and he took to drinking heavily and constantly grousing about the perfidy of this lady, who had committed the egregious sin of becoming indisposed because of the onset of her menses, thereby denying him his expected pleasures of the bed.
As to my own romantic encounter, it went for naught. For by being so suddenly dislodged from these idyllic surroundings, I forgot or neglected to get the address or phone number of the maiden with whom I hit it off so well. I consoled myself, however, with the belief that what I had prized in bucolic environs would probably diminish in my esteem once placed in the drawing rooms of civilized society.
Unlike my father, I have never been one to form a lasting friendship with many members of my own sex. I suppose it must have been my introspective nature which precluded such relationships. And yet, I think I would have dearly loved to find some alter ego to whom I could impart my innermost thoughts, who would provide a sounding board for ideas, who would generate and stimulate perceptions, evaluate judgments and give wise counsel, when needed. Since I have never found such a person, I have, by writing down my thoughts and impressions, found within myself that silent voice which responds to my concerns and sometimes lends stimuli to the recognition and communication of ideas.
As a child and during my teen years, I enjoyed many “street” friendships, but that is all they were. I rarely socialized with these companions, beyond the games we played and the street corners where we gathered. However, when we began to show interest in the opposite sex, there were some occasions when one of our number would include me, among the others, in joining an informal party or “gathering” at some girl’s house. But, aside from these rare social episodes, among my comrades there was little visitation in the homes of each other, nor were any of us invited to attend family celebrations, which true friends would ordinarily tender to each other.
Actually, I have had only one person who might truly be considered a life-long friend, in the respect that I could depend upon him for help in a cr3isis: and that would be Ray Freedman. However, intellectually we are worlds apart. The only true interests we share together are the cordial ties between our wives, Fay and Hilda, and a common interest in baseball and football games. Otherwise, we are totally incompatible.
Raymond and I were both board the same year in June, within five days of each other, he on the second and I on the seventh. And, from infancy onward, we were constantly thrown together because of the close friendship between my parents and his. Just as there is a baby picture of me upon my mother’s lap during a summer’s sojourn at the farm in Monroeville, there is a similar one of him, with his mother at the same farm.
There was also a common family circumstance which had the further effect of cementing our relationship: I was an only child, and he was much younger than the other siblings in his family. Thus, we could easily relate to each other through kindred conditions of loneliness.
During my boyhood, it was almost a ritual, every Saturday evening to drive a familiar route to 10th & Jackson Streets, in South Philadelphia where the Freedmans lived. Here our fathers and other friends whiled away the time playing poker, while their ladies chatted away the evening in another room. I and Raymond amused ourselves as best we could.
The neighborhood in which Raymond lived during those days was among the roughest in the city. On those occasions when I stayed overnight with him, it was not uncommon to hear the crack of gunfire disturb the normal stillness when we retired to bed. This was especially so when New Year’s Eve arrived, for then it was difficult to sleep because of the numerous guns being shot off throughout the early morning hours.
The gathering spot for the rowdies of the neighborhood was a poolroom located at the corner of the street. The son of the man who operated this establishment was Willie Schwartz, a blond boy of German extraction, who was one of Raymond’s street friends. Through the aegis of this relationship, I was taken once or twice through these sleazy, smoke-filled environs where the sporting types of the area congregated.
I recall once being taken aback at the sight of a young man who was suffering horribly from the effects of drinking bootleg liquor. Raymond and I fond him seated on the stone steps leading to a house next to the corner poolroom. No one attempted to alleviate his distress nor was there any indication that the police or rescue services had been notified. Spectators merely stood about and watched his contortions as though he was performing a bit of stage business for their entertainment.
Under the influences of such an environment, it is not difficult to understand how some susceptible individuals could be induced to lead a life of crime. Such was the case with Raymond’s older brother, Sam. I do not think it worthwhile to dwell upon the circumstances which led to Sam’s arrest and subsequent imprisonment. I know I never broached the subject in Raymond’s presence, so my knowledge of that incident would only have been sketchy at best. Suffice it to say, I do not believe I ever saw Sam in person, for he always seemed to be out of the house when I was visiting Raymond, and I never saw him later, for then he had been consigned to the penitentiary. After his release from prison, he supported himself by tending bar. But, because of a serious heart ailment, his years of freedom were of short duration, and he died while still quite young.
Raymond, on the other hand, was always inclined toward schoolwork and study, with little interest in joining any neighborhood gangs. I do not think he was even interest in active participation in sports.
His greatest influence at this time, I think, was Milt Mitosky, who lived next door to him on Jackson Street. Milt was several years older than Raymond, and had been crippled by polio as a child. I still recollect the knickers he wore and the long black stockings that covered his legs behind the braces which supported them. But, to my mind, the most striking impression about him was the porcelain-like cast of his features, which were almost as transparent as the finest china. This unnatural pallor was no doubt intensified by his dislike for venturing out-of-doors. This inclination was probably attributable to his difficulty in walking and his sensitivity to being observed by others while struggling to move about. Thus, most of Milt’s time seemed to have been spent in his bedroom among his books.
Being himself interested in mathematics and scientific subjects, it was inevitable that Raymond should be stimulated in those pursuits by his bookish neighbor, who was himself addicted to such studies.
I never shared Raymond’s fondness for technical matters. In fact, our relationship was incompatible for the start. When we were together, he never wished to enter into the childhood games I used to enjoy with my neighborhood friends. Whatever would have normally interested a young boy seemed unimportant to Raymond. It appeared as if I was always making suggestions or attempting to initiate activities which fell upon deaf ears. If any course was to be pursued in overcoming the boredom of a static coexistence, it always to be on his terms or not at all.
While, during our boyhood, I did not totally appreciate Raymond’s company because of his selfish attitude and there seemed to be little common ground between us, the fact that we were constantly thrown together as children produced a lasting, though tenuous, attachment between us which induced us to seek each other out for companionship during the lonely and difficult times of our teenage years.
I had a number of other friendships during my high school days, but none were as intimate as was my relationship with Raymond. Almost all of these were “walking buddies” whom I acquired on the mile and a half stroll to West Philadelphia High School.
Norman Davidson was the most interesting of these. He lived on Larchwood Avenue, near 56th, and he had an absorption, at the time, in magic and prestidigitation. I found it to be delightfully entertaining to be in the company of one so talented. I think he told me he had been accepted into the company of an organization of magicians, but whether he ever pursued this calling into this later life, I have no way of knowing. On many occasions I accompanied him into a magic shop located on 52nd Street, where he sought out new tricks to add to his repertoire. Although nothing came of our friendship, it was pleasant to walk to and from school with him.
Another friend with whom I formed an attachment during this period was Leo L. He had an odd rolling gait when he walked and a constant look of amused incredulity upon his features. These, for me, were his most remarkable characteristics, but he also exuded a sort of insouciant charm which girls seemed to find irresistible.
I could never understand why Leo sought out my company, unless it was to act as an audience of one in observing his skills in manipulating the young ladies of his acquaintance. It was during my senior year in high school when I was privileged to witness this master at his work.
Leo’s first performance took place one evening when he stopped by my house and invited me to accompany him for a visit to a young lady who lived on 56th Street. I thought it likely there might be another girl for me, but such proved not to be the case; only one girl welcomed us into the house. The only other occupant was the girl’s mother, and she was blind.
Because the mother could not see, Leo, I felt, exceeded the bounds of hospitality by assuming a horizontal position upon the couch. The girl, uninhibited by her mother’s presence, sat by Leo’s side, her elbow lightly resting near his sexual organs. Sitting thus, she freely accepted his caresses, while I, sitting across from them, sat like a spectator at a pantomime.
As I watched those two perform their love scene for me, I was struck by the unreality of my situation. Here were a boy and a girl, engaged in which should have been a private affair, fondling each other before an audience of one. While this was going on, these two spoke of matters entirely unrelated to their actions. At the same time, the girl’s mother, a silent and unseeing witness to this travesty, was pattering about some twenty feet away in the unlit environs of the kitchen.
After some time had elapsed with this sort of dalliance, I noted the upthrust of an erection near where the girl’s arm was resting upon Leo’s leg. At this, he smiled at me, as much as to say, under different circumstances, he would have been prepared to administer the coup de grace to the subject of his erotic intentions. To be agreeable, I smiled back at him. The girl gave evidence that she was aware of this excitation in Leo, as well, but she did not remove her arm; she merely smiled knowingly, but never met his leering stare.
Then Leo did something which was altogether typical in his relations with the opposite sex: he abruptly decided that he had business elsewhere, and, accordingly, we took our leave, never to return again, at last, as far as I was concerned.
Another time when I had occasion to be with Leo in the company of young ladies was at the home of their number. This was, as I recollect, in the southwest sector of the city, and this time there were two girls present. It was in the afternoon, following classes, that Leo deemed it appropriate for this visit. I think he meant for me to charm one of these two into a boy-girl relationship, but, instead, I spent the afternoon listening to a tiresome debate between them as to which was better liked by Leo. In this unreal situation, Leo fielded their questions and insinuations with bland non sequiturs and deprecating banter.
At the end of that short visit, I was more than glad to be out of the company of such moronic females, but, before long, I was again inveigled into their presence. This time we met after school at Cobbs Creek Park, where Larchwood Avenue abuts into that preserve of trees and grass. Here again I was subjected to the theme of our former meeting, with similar feelings of inadequacy and superfluity. The only way I can account for allowing myself to be hooked again in such stagnant waters was my desire to be seen in the company of any attractive female, whether she was interested in me or not. This was a matter of pride with me more than anything else. I think I felt my standing in the community would be enhanced if I was seen with one or more of such exciting, mysterious members of the opposite sex.
We sat in the grass while the familiar discussion went on, I lying on my stomach, my head just above the turf that covered the greensward. While the girls were trying to elicit form Leo the determination which of the two he most preferred, my eyes began to itch and water, and there was a feeling of irritation in my nose which caused a rheumy discharge to flow therefrom. I did not learn until some months later what had induced such a reaction in me, but the itchings and catarrhal symptoms in my eyes and nose refused to subside. With this discomfort, added to the ignominy of being ignored by Leo’s friends, I took my leave as graciously as I could and wended my way sadly homeward.
From that day forward, and for many years thereafter, I have suffered, in the early spring and, much later in my life, in the early fall, from the effects of hay fever or rose fever, as it was then called. The worst siege of all was during that first spring; for days I could only find relief by lying flat on my back. Later, I discovered, after undergoing numerous tests to determine my reaction to various irritants, that I was allergic to tree and grass pollen. Over the years, these symptoms have gradually subsided in their severity, and, in my latter time of life, I have passed through spring and summer with little evidence of this disorder.
After my unhappy experience with Leo and his girl friends, our paths never seemed to cross again. And yet, although Leo only seemed to use me as a foil or as a witness to his exploits, I did learn from him the valuable lesson that females admire competence in a male most of all, and are easily disenchanted or disenamored of swains who fall beneath their spell. When in their company, Leo never gave a hint as to his true feelings, and, when there was the likelihood that his emotions might succumb to a rival in this competition between the sexes, in which was to be decided who would cry yield first, he managed to retain his composure and decorum by leaving the field to fight again some other day. Being thus able to dominate and control his female foes through a fine indifference and studied disregard for wounded feelings, he seemed never to lack for their company.
With my graduation from high school, those boys who were my companions when I attended classes seemed no longer to find a need for continuing such a relationship, once the tenuous ties of attending school together became severed. I had never been aggressive in seeking friends, and those who easily came my way seemed not disposed to continue those fragile ties, once the reason for our association had lost its viability. Thus I never went out of my way to resurrect past acquaintances. Indeed, there seemed to be a tacit understanding among young men of my age that the process of growing up required that one should dismiss prior connections and seek for other and different associations.
Since I was without gainful employment during the latter period of my teenage years, I found release for my energies through writing and reading. But there was still the need for human companionship with those near my own age. To fill this need, I used to gravitate, during the evening hours, to the neighborhood corner hangout. Or, if no one was in attendance there, I would usually visit the Reamer household next door, which was always populated by an oversupply of inhabitants.
During those adolescent years, I never felt loneliness so much, or missed more the companionship of brothers or sisters. But, to go next door and to be enveloped by the activity of the tenants there, with the constant babel of their voices, was for me to be restored and revived through the warmth of the congested humanity I found living there.
The Reamer house was no larger than our own, with four bedrooms, but it provided accommodations for the six Reamers, as well as the four Schwartzes, the orphans of Mrs. Reamer’s dead sister. The Reamer children were all much younger than I, with the exception of Sam, the eldest, who was a year or two younger. But the three Schwartz girls were of a closer chronological age to mine, and, what is more, they were sympathetic to my loneliness and my need for warmth and understanding.
Since I did not, at that time, enjoy continuous female company, such as I might have acquired through social gatherings or dates, the Schwartz girls seemed always to welcome my presence in their home. I was especially grateful for their acceptance of me when I was overwhelmed by the emptiness of my own house and felt the need to be close to others. I always found these young ladies to be singularly free of the pretensions and shallow vanities of more fortunate members of their sex. Where most girls were much like those two who pestered Leo and ignored me, these girls were as approachable and friendly toward me as any other human beings I have known. I shall always be thankful to them for filling a void during a particularly unhappy period of my life.
Originally, two Schwartz brothers came to live in the Reamer household, but Herman, the eldest, soon married and moved out to establish a separate domicile for himself and his wife. The younger brother, Sam, remained behind with his sisters.
Sam was a couple of years old than I, but he still loved to participate in street games, which I and others of my age deemed to be unbecoming in ones so advanced in years. Sam, however, was untroubled by such considerations, and would even play with much smaller children when the opportunity arose to join in one of those games.
It was a sight to behold Sam running the base paths during a baseball game, his body angling forward, arms cutting the air with short, chopping strokes, and his long prominent nose, with a scar running down the length of its bridge, cleaving the ozone in advance of the other members of his body. The sparseness of his frame, together with his manner of racing about, earned for him the sobriquet, “Streamlined Sam,” and this name stuck to him for many years.
There was a time, as I recall, when Sam developed an interest in hypnotism, and he prevailed upon Howard Fast, who lived in the house next to mine, opposite from the Reamers, to subject himself to Sam’s influence while in a hypnotic trance. I was a witness to these proceedings and assisted Sam in this experiment.
To induce the required somnolent state, Howard was instructed to lie down with his face up upon the couch. Standing just behind his head, Sam produced a bright coin which he caused to spin, so that its facets caught the light and glittered as it revolved. Lying on his back, Howard was asked to look upwards and towards his rear and to concentrate his vision upon the spinning coin. After some moments of this exercise, Sam spoke to Howard in a low monotone, and suggested to him that his eyelids were becoming heavy and that he was rapidly falling asleep. In a little while, Sam assured his subject that he was, in fact, fast asleep. And, indeed, from what we could observe, Howard truly seemed to be deep in slumber. We were ecstatic. Sam induced an hypnotic state!
To prove that Howard had been truly mesmerized, Sam suggested to him that his body was as stiff as a wooden board, and that it would not sag under any weight that was put upon it. After speaking those words, Sam and I placed Howard’s body between two chairs, his head being supported on one seat and his feet on the other, with nothing to prop him up in between. Then we both of us sat upon his inert form.
I could feel Howard’s body grow rigid beneath us, as he felt our weight upon him. Surprisingly, he held us both without drooping, a feat I do not believe he could have accomplished under ordinary circumstances.
We performed a few other experiments with Howard, none of which I now remember. When we had completed these, Sam prepared himself to remove Howard from his trance. “When I count to three,” he said, “you will awake, and you will feel fine.”
“One, two, three,” Sam intoned. He snapped his fingers. “You are now awake.” Howard did not move. His eyes remained shut.
We were starting to panic and beads of perspiration, induced by worry, began to flow rather freely.
“One, two, three!” Sam’s voice was louder and more insistent. Still Howard gave no sign of compliance. We stared at each other, seeking for answers to our dilemma. Finally, I said: “let’s try to keep calm. Speak to Howard without excitement, and go over the routine once again.”
Sam agreed. His gaze met mine, seeking reassurance. He cleared his throat.
“Howard, can you hear me?”
“Yes,” Howard answered. We both smiled to hear that he was still conscious of Sam’s presence.
“Now, Howard,” Sam continued, enunciating each word with guarded precision, “I shall count to three, and when I reach ‘three,’ you will open your eyes, and will be awake and feel refereshed. Do you understand, Howard?”
Howard nodded in assent.
Sam paused to allow the significance of that word to sink into Howard’s consciousness.
“Two!” There was a trace of concern, as Sam called out the second number.
Howard gave no sign of awakening.
“Repeat, ‘three,’” I said, “and snap your fingers.”
Sam did as I suggested, and Howard’s eyelids fluttered for a moment and then opened.
“How do you feel, Howard?” Sam asked anxiously.
“I feel wonderful,” he said.
I thought I detected a smile of amusement play about Howard’s lips as he spoke, although he never gave any indication afterward that he was not in a hypnotic trance. And yet I have often wondered if Howard had been enjoying himself at our expense when were unable to arouse him his manifestly mesmerized state.