Autobiography, Memoir, Personal Essays

Mount Free-dom, New Jersey, 1954

Welcome to another addition of my ongoing autobiography project. I took a mini-break for the holiday season, but will hopefully be back to posting regularly. Be sure to check in on Fridays for new chapters. 

When I was fifteen and a half, my father arranged for me to be a children’s counselor at Kessler’s Hotel in Mount Freedom, New Jersey, during the summer of 1954. I had zero experience or training that qualified me for the job, but he had gotten me the gig anyway through a friend in the shmata (inexpensive dress) business. I would be spending the summer in New Jersey, and I was thankful for the work.

In the ‘40s, Mount Freedom had been a relatively classy summer resort area frequented by the Jewish population of New York City—a country getaway only 50 miles from the bustle and congestion of the city. One hotel in the area was famous because of its owner, the champion boxer Rocky Marciano, but that was ten years prior to my showing up on the scene. Kessler’s had once been the crown jewel among the area hotels with its Olympic-size pool and its bucolic end-of-the-road setting. But by 1954 it was in rapid decline, as was the whole of Mount Freedom’s tourist trade. Mount Freedom lacked mountains and lakes while the Catskills, a bit further from New York at 70 miles, had both. The resorts in the Catskills—Grossingers, the Concord, Swan Lake, and many others—did-in Mount Freedom, and years later, with the advent of cheap airfare, Miami Beach did-in the Catskills. Such was the cycle of summer resorting for New York City Hebrews able to escape the swelter of the city’s tenements.

Kessler’s was owned and run by three generations of dyed blond momzers (Yiddish for nasty female characters) who I assumed had eaten their mates as none were around. The youngest was only 20, while the elder was a 73-year-old witch who most tried to avoid. The old lady was a tyrant, no doubt the inspiration for the behavior exhibited by her daughter and granddaughter.

As was the rule for seasonal hotels on the skids, the hired help was peppered with an array of transients, some more degenerate than others. I fit in with the clean-cut high school students working as counselors or maids. We got to sleep in the bunkhouse, a rickety one-story wooden structure with a porch and hallway that led to six bedrooms. Each had two beds adorned with the lumpiest of mattresses, a single dresser, and a mirror. No closet. Half the staff in the bunkhouse were females, women, teenage girls, whatever! For someone who had just finished his second year at an all-boy high school, this was akin to a miracle. All of a sudden hot petting was available in the next bunkroom.

I had a steady lover, Carol, for most of the summer. We ended up more or less living together. That was the beginning of my enlightenment in regards to the trials and tribulations of having a regular relationship with a member of the opposite sex. To be fair, Carol wasn’t so much a lover as a member of the opposite sex, and therefore extremely yearned-after. The word lover seems to encompass more than I was capable of at the time, and we didn’t date or anything like that. We would meet in the bunkhouse hallway and then suddenly, unbelievably, end up entangled together in her bedroom or mine.

Carol was a little younger than me with a wondrous girlish figure, a bit of a horse nose, but an otherwise cheery smiling face with squinty eyes and strawberry blonde hair pulled back in a ponytail. She mostly wore blouses and pants or shorts. I can’t remember either of us talking about much, delving into who we were, our ambitions, our families, even where we lived. We were only about one thing: intense sexual exploration, which went forward without the removal of any articles of clothing. We didn’t physically sleep with each other, as we both had roommates and had decided to obey what should have been the rules.

Life was simple during those days, and so much in the immediate. Carol and I had little life experiences, little baggage, and we both knew the future didn’t include an ongoing relationship.

About mid-summer, Carol was brought back to her dependent reality. Her parents came to “rescue’ her from the bunkhouse and me. I don’t remember having a chance to say goodbye and any fears I had about punishment for my “transgressions” with Carol, our unsanctioned under-aged enactment of “man and wife,” never occurred. It wasn’t a sin anyhow; it was the passion of spring in both our loins finding epiphany.

I shouldn’t have worried about getting caught: there was little to no supervision at Kessler. The woman who ran the front office of the hotel was supposed to be my guardian—she was my father’s contact—but she played no role in watching over me or any of the other under-aged employees. We hormone-charged teenagers were “recklessly” on our own! How I feared going back to barren Queens, my family home, and the woman-less Stuyvesant High School.

We high school kids only made up a fraction of the staff—most were transient employees of various standing. The busboys and waiters were often male college students intent on earning next year’s tuition. They were relegated to the basement under the hot kitchen with its leaky sewer pipes exposed above their bunks and its cacophony of flushing toilets and noisy air conditioners. They were paid little or nothing but were supposed to earn their tuition money through guest tips. Tipping was a once-a-week affair at Kessler’s and since the clientele had deteriorated along with the hotel, tips were lousy or nonexistent. Guests would often sneak off without tipping the dining room staff at all. On occasion, a waiter or busboy would chase the swindling guest down to demand payment through embarrassment.

The final category of transient employees was the most extreme—shanghaied and downtrodden drunks from the Bowery district in New York City. Every Sunday afternoon another truckload of the then-sober inebriates were hauled out of the bowels of New York and delivered to Kessler’s backdoor. Their assignments were as groundskeepers, dishwashers, or any other manual jobs where they were more or less out of sight. The same truck that delivered the Bowery crew picked up the old crew, who had been paid that day and were reeling and slaphappy. The sheriff was often on hand to help round up the spent crew and make sure they didn’t become a problem for the hotel guests.

One scene I will never forget involved a transient whose week at Kessler’s was marked by the Rosh Hashanah holiday (Jewish New Year). The hotel stayed open an extra week or two to accommodate the holiday crowd. The celebrants, as expected, indulged in sweet Concord grape Mogen David wine. A Bowery worker was assigned to washing the delicate wine glasses by hand but chose rather to do so with his delicate tongue. After licking a hundred or so glasses he was tanked out under the sink. Entrapment, you might say!

The most incredible character on the Kessler’s campus was the old lady’s sidekick—a ragged ancient fellow with puckered cheeks from lost teeth (he had none). He had a sinuous, agile body, a wild look in his eyes, and was forever dressed in the same over-sized, drooping bib overalls. He wandered about Kessler’s grounds day and night doing the old dame’s biding while muttering the most fabulous stream of curses that ever assaulted a teenager’s ears. I greatly expanded my cursing repertoire thanks to that ancient one. One of his favorites became mine. “He (or she) ain’t worth a shit up a donkey’s ass.”

One night in the kitchen, he had an encounter with the always-contentious chef, whom he whacked over the head with a metal pail, splitting the surprised fellow’s scalp. The chef staggered away, dazed, with blood gushing out of his split scalp and all over his white uniform—a sight to see. Occasionally, the old timer would get drunk and let the dogs run loose, he with them, howling to beat the band and frightening the hotel guests. Then the sheriff had to be called to come and corral both him and the dogs. He must have had some valuable talent, because the old dyed-blond witch tolerated all of his shenanigans.

One Bowery worker managed to stay on week after week. One day he took me into the nearby woods to show me the glen where he drank. It was piled high with beer cans. He couldn’t stand wine. A year or two later, when I worked at a down-on-its-luck Swan Lake Hotel as a lifeguard, I ran into the same gang from the Bowery. They continually badgered me to buy them Tawny Port in pint bottles, as I had a ’49 Desoto with luminescent dials and fluid drive and thus could access the liquor store in Liberty some 12 miles away. Tawny Port, 50 cents a pint, came wrapped in a nameless brown paper bag from which the bottle never exited. The thirsty crew unscrewed the bottle tops and put spout to mouth and, with a series of continuous gulps, ran all the Tawny into their demanding guts. I never dared try the rotgut, for fear I would be magically turned into a Bowery drunk as well.

My summer at Kessler’s was a grand success. My counselor’s job morphed into a mélange of assignments. As most of the high school and college staff ran away, quit, got fired or otherwise vanished, never to be seen again, I kept assuming their roles, sans any real experience. The mentally challenged 18-year-old lifeguard ran off with Barbara Light, a 16-year-old housemaid who was my fantasy shiksa lover: blond, blue-eyed, statuesque, and a cold fish. Thus I became the keeper of the Royal Pool with its peeling paint and rusty gutters. I took the job of guardian of the waters seriously, especially at the 10 foot deep-end where the lifeguard’s elevated seat was situated. The long pole, with its salvage hook at the end, never saw use. The aquatically incompetent, which included 99% of the hotel guests, were at least clever enough to fear water above their navels.

With Barbara eloped, I was free to pursue shorter, more pigmented and hotter women, namely Carol. By dint of my capacity to actually enjoy working at Kessler’s I had outlasted the bellhop and various busboys and waiters. So, in time, I serially took over their jobs too.

Towards the end of my Kessler summer I met up with the daughter of one of the hotel guests, Jessica the Terrible. Wickedly sexy and self-willed, she was given to vitriolic outbursts and violent petting. She and her family lived some 20 miles from the hotel, and although she was only fifteen she had the use of her father’s car and a permit of sorts to drive it. Every opportunity she got she’d wrestle the car from her father and visit me at Kessler’s. And then I drove the car too, with a useless New York state permit, and almost wrecked it once traveling down a closed highway.

One evening near summer’s end, I went on a double date with my bunkmate, a 16-year-old con man from Brooklyn. My hellcat Jessica borrowed her father’s Lincoln and we headed for Broadway through the Holland tunnel. After walking about on the Great White Way and imbibing a few illicit alcoholic beverages, we headed back again through the Holland Tunnel to the Garden State. Somewhere, after having traversed the tunnel, I got turned around. There, looming before us was the mouth of the tunnel once more. Oh no, we don’t want to do this again, I thought and judging that there was no one else in sight and that it was 1:30 in the morning, I decided I could get away with a U-turn on the eight-lane road. The turn went fine, but there, just ahead of us on an off-ramp to the right, were three police cars.

One police car immediately swooped down on us. I pulled over to the side of the road and threw Jessica behind the wheel. The cop sauntered out of his car and stuck his head in the driver’s side window and pointed past Jessica to me. He told me to get out of the car and come over to the squad car. I stood outside the cop car’s side window with both cops seated in front. One had a very thick pad in his hand. “We saw who was driving the car when you made that extraordinary and very illegal U-turn. We know it was you and not the dame,” the cop in the driver’s seat said. “Where’s your driver’s license?”

I didn’t have one. All I had was a shredded, outdated driver’s permit that was no good for five different reasons. I took it out of my wallet and handed the tattered permit to the cop. At least Jessica had a valid permit, although it wasn’t valid for use at night and not without a licensed driver in the car. The cop examined my permit, or tried to. He really couldn’t see much in the shape it was in, but he pretended to study it. “You know for that illegal turn we could impound your car, put the four of you in jail, and fine you a couple of thousand dollars. Throw the book at you.”

At first, I felt the blood drain out of me. I was scared to death. But then the cop went on and on about all that was going to go down and another feeling came over me. This guy is fishing for something, I thought. Then the cop suddenly changed gears. “What do you think, should we let you go?” he asked in a most conciliatory voice.

“I don’t know, officer, it’s up to you,” was all I could muster, even though my heart-rate was back to normal.

“How about you buy my friend and me a few drinks?” he asked.

The bluntness of the request caught me off guard. “Sure, where should we go to get them?”

“No, no, no,” the officer politely said. “You can just give us the money and we’ll take care of it.”

At that point, I felt in charge. These guys don’t give a hoot for the law. I’m a class-A law breaker, but all they care about is extorting a few bucks. I own them. I had just been paid my final paycheck in cash and so had $340 in my pocket. The smallest bill was a twenty. If I had a five I would have given it to the officers. If I had more chutzpah, I would have given them a twenty and asked $15 in change.

The cops seemed quite pleased with the $20 bill. “Can I go back to my car now and drive?” I asked.

“Sure,” nodded the talkative officer.

“Can I drive with my permit?”

“Sure.” The cop gathered up the pieces and handed them to me.

As I walked away from the patrol car I heard one officer say to the other, “What should we tell the other fellows?”

“Tell them we stopped a cop,” he said.

I sped off in Jessica’s fathers Lincoln, feeling invincible and knowing I had plenty more twenty dollar bills in my pocket. My little hellcat indulged my abandon, crawling all over me, kissing and biting, at 100 miles an hour.

Soon it was September. Kessler’s staff was busy closing down the ill-aging former queen of Mount Freedom resorts, putting her to rest for the winter, her future in doubt. My parents came to take me back to Flushing, Queens, and I had to return to my childlike existence in their 14 foot wide, 30 foot deep, three-floored attached house, and on to my 3rd year at the all-male Stuyvesant High School. As we drove home, the regression I feared had already set in. My fairy tale coming-of-age summer at Mount Freedom became a cherished memory that stuck with me. No diary was necessary to vividly recall the vivaciousness of it all.

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