Autobiography, Memoir, Personal Essays

Stuyvesant High School

Welcome to the fifth installment of my ongoing autobiography project, posted every Friday to my blog. 

Stuyvesant High School was the best academic school I ever attended. It was also, in another sense, the worst school I ever attended. It was located in Manhattan, isolating me, an already shy loner, from my fellow Queens neighborhood high school students who mostly went to Jamaica High School. Jamaica was co-ed, Stuyvesant was all male. When I reflect back on my twelve years of former schooling, starting with Stuyvesant, the educational institutions I attended were almost all male up through medical school (although there were four women in my medical school class of 150 students). Those twelve years spanned the time when the most erogenous drives flourish in a young male’s body. I wasn’t given to homosexuality, rather to vicarious fantasies with any attractive-enough female who might cross my path. Summer jobs at hotels and camps provided ripe seasonal sexual contacts as did fraternity life at Union College. But it was never enough. Women, until later in my life, remained sexual objects, their thought process alien.

Of interest, Stuyvesant went co-ed in 1969 when Alicia De Rivera sued the NYC School Board for discrimination against women and won on unconstitutional grounds.

Stuyvesant was the equivalent of a magnet school. It was located in a building constructed in 1903, between 1st and 2nd Avenue on 15th Street in lower Manhattan. My family lived in Queens so, as a 13-year-old, I set out each morning, walking two blocks to the Utopia Parkway bus stop to catch the Q-17A bus to the 169th Street Station of the IND subway line – a fifteen minute, standing-room-only trip. The bus made at least fifteen stops in those fifteen minutes, each with the threat of flinging strap-holders to the floor of the bus. Many were saved such a fate by slamming into other, sturdier strap-holders in the overcrowded aisle.

Subway pass in hand (New York City public school students who required taking public transportation to school were given free passes), I zoomed, two steps at a time, down three flights of stairs to the train platform to catch the E-train to Manhattan. How many fellow subterranean travelers did I jostle, cut off, intimidate? I don’t know, but it was certainly a lot.

The E-train started its Manhattan-bound run just one stop before 169th Street. Many riders took the E “backwards” to board the “empty” train in order to get a seat. My tactic was to position myself on the 169th street platform at the exact location that I knew the train door of the next-to-the-last-car would open and, hoping for a seat, I would charge the moment the door was sufficiently cracked. If none was available, it meant more practice at staying upright during the raucous thrashing of the E as it stopped, accelerated, lurched and rocked back and forth on its odyssey to Manhattan. Within two stops, the train was packed solid. Physical intimacy was forced on everyone, with most people maintaining psychic separation. On lucky occasions, I was beset by a young, hot female body squeezed against mine, gyrating into me by the train’s motions. Usually the body was that of a sweaty, tie and suited businessman.

The subway, especially at rush hour, was the great homogenizer. All varieties of humankind were stuffed together in one car and then mixed up and mashed into each other. If you despised or feared a specific ethnic group, you were more then likely to be obligated to share physical space with one of “them,” share the breathed air with one of “them,” share sweat with one of “them,” voluntarily give up your cherished hard won seat to a crippled one of “them,” and, if you were so inclined, be lucky enough to get personal with one of them, to feel their humanity. It was impossible for prejudices to exist after a time. “Here you go sir, you need this more than me,” I remember addressing a rickety senior, barely balancing himself upright. He nodded thanks as he crumpled into my seat with a sigh. “I am going to get to heaven before you son and I will save you a seat up there,” he replied.

I got so good at riding the rush hour sardine can upright that I could even do my math homework on other people’s backs, on a moving train!

Stuyvesant’s subway stop was 14th Street and 1st Avenue, on the 14th Street line. I could reach the 14th Street line by at least three different routes and I liked to mix it up to avoid boredom. I was fast and a great broken field runner. Many connections between train lines often meant two or three-block walks. My friends and I ran. The best though, was when I returned to the 169th Station on my way home. By determining which door on the first car of the E-train was closest to the staircase that provided a clear shot to the surface and the bus, I could charge up the three flights of stairs two at a time and, two days out of three, be the first one on the bus. This was no mean achievement, as at least fifty other determined souls were always on my heels. To this day, I still run up stairs, two at a time. One at a time seems unnatural and difficult.

Those long trips became easier with time. But my first few months at Stuyvesant High School were intimidating, due to a combination of shyness and a totally new student body. No old faces to cling to. Academically—and Stuyvesant was all about academics—I felt unsure of myself. I hesitated to answer questions, to raise my hand in class, to be seen.

Then, about two months into the school year, with my first grades sunk in the 70s, I felt bold enough to dare to raise my hand to answer a question in biology class. No one else seemed to know the answer, so I figured I’d try. And I got it right!

The very next day, in the biology lab, I discovered a pair of single-celled critters who resembled pink-tinged paramecium under my monocular microscope. They were mating by means of a cytoplasmic bridge between the two conjugants and streaming nuclear material. Going in both directions, this sexy bridge was a rare phenomenon. My discovery, once again, gave me star status and confidence. It also gave me a chance to reflect on the fact that while we all know single-celled beings like amoeba reproduce by dividing in half, they also, on occasion, indulged in sexual practices. There were sharing DNA, enhancing the species’ vitality, making love!

After my twin social successes, I flipped gears and became an extravert and biology student high achiever. My final grade that semester was a 95, up from its original 75! I also found my sense of humor and my delight in pranksterism.

Stuyvesant’s student body was characterized by overachievers, mostly the children of poor immigrants who came to the United States to give their children a chance to succeed through hard-work and academic achievement. I was sort of in this camp. My four grandparents were Jews transplanted from Polish Shtetls to New York City in the early 1900s. As a youth, my father aspired to be a pharmacist after occasionally filling in for a pharmacist who suffered severe depression. He had no pharmacy training. When confronted with a problem, he would refer the customer to his buddy, Doctor Kirschenbaum, who needed the business. My father’s occupational dream did not stand a chance. His father, a poor tailor, was forced out of the house by his wife, my grandmother. It left my father, the third eldest of five children, thrust into the role of the family’s main breadwinner at age 16. The Great Depression of the 1930s didn’t help matters much.

My mother dreamed of becoming a nurse, but a relative counseled my grandmother not to allow her daughter to enter into the lascivious, gentile world of nurse’s training. She remained a housewife, mother, neighborhood poker shark and part-time piano teacher the whole of her adult life. True to her father’s side of the family, she passed on to her children the joy of swimming as a prime recreational activity.

How poor Shtetl immigrants from Eastern Poland became voracious swimmers, I never figured out. I liked to claim that my maternal stock came from the Polish Riviera and that’s where they learned to swim. Of course, that was absurd. We all know there is no Polish Riviera.

My mother, on a daily basis, performed unrehearsed theatrical performances as part of her daily routine. The simplest conversations would be dramatized with flashes of anger, bursts of laughter, eyebrow-raising, head-knocking, vituperative innuendo, condescending insults, or spectacular self-pity. I suspect this is why, as a grown man, similar behavior in my friends and patients and wives is acceptable, normal—no, even desirable to me.

At Stuyvesant, I excelled, eventually ending up with a 91.66 average, which placed me in the top 15%, of my class—not bad, considering all my competitors were the “chosen.” I won a state scholarship and a merit scholarship honorable mention, as well as two letters in swimming, even though I hated working out to improve my pool times. Back and forth, back and forth, too boring. So I never swam more than the 50-yard sprints and in no record time.

Stuyvesant had no pool, so the team trained where one was available. For a while, we swam at the Salvation Army pool on 14th Street, two blocks from Stuyvesant. A thick cloud of chlorine gas hung over the saturated water. If you didn’t wear goggles, the chlorine gas rapidly turned your eyes bloodshot. It was a reminder of who the Salv’s usual clientele were in lower Manhattan. While the chlorine may have stung, it also comforted—not even the vilest of street vermin could survive it.

Another pool that we trained in was two subway stops north of Stuyvesant on the J line. Our subway passes didn’t allow us to ride the J line, so when we practiced there we walked the mile or so to the pool. One day, we decided to sneak onto the J train. Four of us hid behind the token booth until the uptown local pulled into the 14th Street station. Then we jumped the turnstiles and headed for the open train door. We never made it—a plain-clothes officer was also hiding in wait. He nabbed us all. I felt a rush of shame and helplessness. I had been caught committing a premeditated crime. Would I be put in jail? The officer had the right to punish us as he saw fit. I flashed back to when I had been nine or ten-years-old and went to the local supermarket with a neighborhood associate, a casual friend. Once in an aisle where we were alone, seemingly out of anyone’s view, he began grabbing candy bars and stuffing them in his shirt. Startled, my reflex was to protect him from detection by acting as a look out. It turned out that the aisle was in full view of the manager’s elevated office with its tinted, one-way windows. He caught us and threatened to tell our parents and so succeeded in scaring the wits out of me, at least. My career as a thief’s accomplice went down the tubes there and then.

For having jumped the turnstiles, the four of us received J.D. (Juvenile Delinquent) cards, copies of which were sent to Stuyvesant. I had to take mine home and have it signed by my parents and mailed back to the police. Ever since I was seven or so, I’d learned to duplicate my mother’s signature and had signed all sorts of school documents, most regarding absences, late slips, and misconduct reports. Her Z in Zuckerman was telling—it was a printed capital Z, not a cursive one. To this day, I use a variety of signatures, including my mother’s, when signing documents, checks, etc., depending on my mood. This time, I was afraid not to let my mother and father in on my problem. My mother listened to my story and shrugged it off. Stuyvesant did too. My record up to that time was pristine. The next day, I went around to my Stuyvesant buddies declaring, “I’m a J.D., I’m a J.D.!”

The Parable of Joseph M.

Stuyvesant was both an egalitarian and an elitist high school, filled with a wide range of characters. Brilliance was the constant amongst my class, but in my opinion, the class valedictorian wasn’t actually the most brilliant. Peter Biskind was a respected, reserved, pleasant, thoughtful, steady-as-you-go, bright fellow. He ended up writing books about the movie industry. The kid who was actually the most brilliant student in my class ended up having the most tragic of lives. At least, for me, it was a tragic life, genius wasted.

Joseph M entered Stuyvesant in the 10th grade rather than the 9th. He had attended a private junior high school, which, in those days, ran from 7th to 9th. Public schools usually ran first through eighth grade. In junior high, he was apparently considered a poor student, though he must have done well enough on the Stuyvesant entrance exams to get in. Once in Stuyvesant, he excelled. He was not only brilliant, he was a rare creative genius. In the super math class, where only the elite of Stuyvesant were allowed and where the lowest grade you could achieve was a 95%, Joseph M made the rest of us look like cardboard. I remember he presented a solution to what I believed was an advanced geometry problem that the teacher had never seen before and could not find a single fault with.

Joseph M went to Harvard, as a genius should. I heard he didn’t last six months there. Years later, at my 40th high school reunion, Joseph M, to my delight, showed up. Between Joseph and I there had always been an openness, a warm intimacy that overcame my sense of being in the presence of a superior intellect. I prided myself that I could keep up with his rapid-fire, stuttering conversation. We spent about a half hour that evening talking about his life and he filled me in on the gritty details.

After Harvard, Joseph M never went back to school, never worked. He revealed that he had lived almost all of the past 40 years with his mother until she died. He still lived in her apartment in Manhattan. He had been on disability all this time and had been under psychiatric treatment almost constantly. I gathered that his diagnosis was obsessive-compulsive disorder. He told me that he had improved recently and I guess his ability to bring himself to attend our high school reunion was, to him, a major achievement. He seemed totally absorbed in his day-to-day efforts to deal with his illness and, at least in my presence, was not depressed by his life or his circumstances. I wasn’t depressed by him either, but I felt a deep sadness for Joseph M—a sense of loss – loss of what could have been if Joseph M had been able to use his genius and not been crippled by mental illness. I took Joseph M into my heart. But as my college psychology professor used to say, quoting Popeye, “I yam what I yam and dats what I yam. I’m Popeye the Sailor Man.” The sum of Joseph M’s parts had added up to an emotionally crippled genius, a big time loss for him personally and for humankind.

A number of years ago I had a premonition that I would live a good life until age 82 and then die suddenly. If this was to be the case then I would be alive and able to attend my 60th Stuyvesant class reunion, hoping Joseph M would also be there. Thankfully, I was at that meet-up, along with 150 or so others from different classes, celebrating our reunion. I searched amongst the crowd for Joseph M, but with no success. Fortuitously, I ran into another classmate from my year, the class of ’58. The man had spied Joseph and pointed him out to me. “There he is, I’m so glad he made it,” the former classmate said. “Too bad about his emotional problems. He never got to it.”

Joseph had turned all gray with head and shoulders tipped forward. He appeared animated, agile, and trim. “Hey, Joe,” I said when I came up to him. He looked at me, a bit bewildered. I pointed at myself. “Steve Zuckerman.”

“Oh yeah, Zuckerman, how are you?” Joseph coolly enquired.

“It’s been 20 years,” I said. “Are you still living in your mother’s apartment in Manhattan?”

To which he answered in his usual rapid, stuttering speech: “Blah blah blah, rent controlled, trying to buy me out, blah, blah, blah, I have to get that SOB of a neighbor, blah, blah.”

The combination of an increase in the velocity of Joseph’s stuttering speech and my failing hearing made our conversation mostly a failure. Except it was obvious that Joseph remained emotionally involved in his day-to-day life, living in the moment. I went to touch him on his shoulder while “signing off.” He withdrew.

Following my encounter with Joseph, there was a talk by the president of the Stuyvesant Alumni Association for those attending the reunion. The theme was the duplicitous behavior of The New York Times for writing a derogatory article about Stuyvesant, labeling the school elitist, its student body pampered and wealthy. “Yes, we are elitist—academically,” the president went on to say. “It requires being the best on a blinded test to get in to Stuyvesant. Twenty-five percent of our students come from families below the poverty line. There is no favoritism in admission. It’s the glamorous Stuyvesant building, now some thirty-years-old, built in Battery Park City, facing the Hudson, that sparked a lot of the criticism. Stuyvesant doesn’t receive any more money per student than any other New York City high school.”

During the entire speech, Joseph guffawed, mumbled seemingly cynically, just loud enough to be heard but not to be ejected. I was embarrassed for him, though glad it didn’t come down to a confrontation with Joseph being escorted away.

Following the alumni president’s talk there was a cocktail hour of sorts with the reunion celebrants standing about conversing. Amongst the crowd was a knotted band of women, four or five or so, who crowded around Joseph and engaged in delightfully charged conversation. The ever-stuttering, charming Joseph M was the center of attention.

Do you dear readers ever sum up your life’s achievements on earth to bolster your belief that you wrung from your physical and intellectual endowments all, or nearly all, or enough, so that you can convince yourself that you lived a full life? I do, and most often, but not always, I feel consoled. I am now retired from the practice of medicine but not able to justify not “doing” something on the basis of physical or mental incapacity. Be it shame and or guilt, I still need to continue to grow the CV in my mind and to write, to sense the joy of plumbing my mind if for no other purpose than just that. It was time in Stuyvesant that helped spark this in me, and those school days are forever burned in my mind.

Public schools in New York City ran nine months a year. June through the end of August was vacation time. Thanks to connections my father had made through his dress business, starting at age 15½, I got to work at resort hotels and summer overnight camps where there were also teenage “women” workers. Sexuality was in bloom and parental or other forms of oversight were negligently absent. Hurray!

 

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