Autobiography, Memoir, Personal Essays

GV is for Greenwich Village

In the Beginning There was Madness – Winter 2019

 

Genesis, Part 1

Polar vortex, the name itself shivers. More than ever I fear a Minnesota winter, the orthopedic wonderland season. I am old, 78 this winter. I remember all my icy falls, three in total, none causing serious injury but still memorable for the sudden loss of footing and subsequent crashing to the ground. Then, gingerly, while still grounded, checking for broken bones, bleeding wounds, double vision, before attempting the upright. Nowadays I am more unstable in the upright, more prone to labyrinthine-induced vertiginous spells that portend disaster when combined with the brittle bones of senior-hood. My greatest fear: a fall on my head knocking me unconscious, helpless, alone in the frigid outdoors, left to freeze to death. My next worry: fracturing a hip due to a fall. Both my hips have already been made artificial, a consequence of a congenital abnormality called external rotation that only becomes important if you live long enough, beyond the age of 60. A fracture of a synthetic hip joint might not be repairable, permanently crippling me.

I am retired; my wife Pamela is retired too. I have some bucks saved up. So why haven’t we joined the legions of snowbirds and headed south to Florida, Arizona, San Diego, or for the more adventurous, Mexico, Rio, Bangkok, Israel, to avoid the treacherous northern winter? Because of my never-pregnant wife’s two adopted four-legged children, her Russian Borzois wolfhounds: Ruby and Prince.

I am not a companion animal person. I like cats and dogs. I once had a fresh water aquarium with fish I liked. But I didn’t love them.

I’m used to feeling disconnected from beings close to me. I married my first wife, Kathy, out of panicked loneliness.

Until I met Kathy, I didn’t know I was lonely. It wasn’t as though I had awful parents or tension with my siblings (I have a sister, Bernice, four years my elder, and a younger brother, Bobby, seven years younger).

IMG_5921
Me and my siblings, Bernice and Bobby

But I was unquestioningly focused on becoming a doctor since age 2½—nothing else much mattered. And as far as women went, my sister loved me but we weren’t playmates or confidants, and my exposure to other women was nil as I attended an all men’s high school, Stuyvesant, an all men’s college, Union, and an almost all men’s medical school, State University of New York, Downstate (SUNY), Brooklyn, New York. Since age 15 or so, my sporadic encounters with the opposite sex, as an obligate heterosexual, were all about sex.

I met Kathy on my summer break between my first and second year of medical school. SUNY Brooklyn formerly was the Long Island College of Medicine and was located in the heart of Brooklyn, East Flatbush. It was the cherished school of New York City’s poorer immigrants for its ability to bestow the degree of medical doctor that guaranteed success as an American, and at a cut-rate cost thanks to New York state subsidies. Competition to get admitted to SUNY was ferocious, but even after acceptance the competition to stay in school and not get expelled was “scary.” The faculty, incredulous as it may sound, used the students’ fear of expulsion to derive sadistic pleasure out of tormenting us. Those vulnerable to psychological torture were singled out.

We were divided by alphabetical order for certain projects, such as foursomes to perform an anatomic dissection on corpses. The medical school obtained these corpses from the city of New York, which held unclaimed and embalmed bodies for six months before designating them as derelict. My alphabet mate, Richard Warronoff, was a good deal brighter than most other students. He was extremely self-deprecating and a master of micrographic. During the latter part of his first year in medical school, with grades well above average, he was unexpectedly called into the Dean of Students’ office. Such an invitation was universally seen as threatening.

I met Richard on his way out from the meeting. He was paler than usual. “What happened?” I queried.

Richard, in his suppressed affectation, blurted out, “The Dean told me there were members of the faculty who didn’t like me.”

“Is that all he said?”

“Yes.” And then, “He asked me to leave.”

I was left speechless. This harmless, self-tortured soul had just been stabbed mercilessly and the knife then twisted sadistically after penetrating Richard’s all too vulnerable soul. Thirty years later all the graduates of my medical school year received a letter from SUNY’s president at that time. It humbly apologized for the past despicable behavior of the school’s educators toward the medical student body. Such a letter of contrition could have had only one motivation—to coax donations out of now wealthy alumni who “hated” SUNY. I cherish that letter.

Somehow, my parents allowed me to use my New York State Medical School scholarship to help finance an adventure to Europe during the summer break between my first and second year. Of course, it was understood that the deal was off if I “flunked out.” I didn’t.

I sailed to Europe—along with what seemed to be 1,000 other students—on the Holland American line’s second iteration of the New Amsterdam. The tub had been converted from a luxury liner to a student version of the love boat. Luxury staterooms, accustomed to double occupancy, were outfitted with three double bunk-beds. A band of musicians traveled free and in exchange played day and night in the ship’s lounge. Beer cost ten cents a stein and there was no such thing as a “drinking age.”

Could the gathering of Americans eels in the Sargasso Sea be any more a rite of passage than the eight-day odyssey of the New Amsterdam? It was on this voyage that I met Kathy—it was love at first sight. One evening, she and I stood on the ship’s deck all alone. A cool north Atlantic sea breeze chilled the air. I stood behind her and held my arms around her tightly, our bodies warming each other. We were as one, intoxicated and in love.

Eventually, we reached Rotterdam and the magical journey ended. Kathy had her summer well planned out. She had enrolled in a summer arts program run by the Austrian artist, Kokoschka. She would be living and studying in an old castle on a hilltop in Salzburg. Was I ever impressed. My vague plan: get to Europe by boat and equipped with a backpack full of clothes and a pocket full of traceable American Express travelers checks, explore the continent and especially its women.

Kathy’s silent strength was new to me, exotic, pulsating and emotion-filled. She was beautiful. The New York girls and women I was brought up knowing were verbal blasters. Still, I was in no mood to restrain my exuberance for anticipated adventure in Europe. I conceded to Kathy that I would end my summer travels in Salzburg to see her once again before both of us flew back to America (no one who came over on the New Amsterdam, it seemed, wanted an epilogue. They all flew back to the States). We kissed, we parted—and that was it, I thought.

At various times I traveled with companions. Other times alone. Both suited me. I followed my nose and it did not let me down. Towards summers’ end, my vow to Kathy seemed to be a good fit both geographically and emotionally. I was in Rome at the time and had stumbled upon a large flea market. I had always had a penchant for gambling and even worked at the racetrack in Monticello, New York, one summer. I had squandered away many an academic grade playing all night poker at Union College. On one hand, gambling had allure; on the other, the results were emotionally alienating. The alienation kept me from over indulging, from addiction.

At the Roman flea market there was an ongoing raucous shell game that substituted playing cards for walnut shells and peas. Still, it was all the same. I observed the goings on for 15 or 20 minutes during which time a variety of individuals won large sums of money. I was hooked. The black card could be traced by quick eyes, the two red cards avoided. Out came my lira, each denomination color and size coded so that a 10,000 lira note had to be folded two or three times to fit in my wallet. My gambling spree ended quickly. Every card I turned over was shockingly red and the more I lost, the more I bet. Bigger and bigger lira notes until there were no more! Stunned, I walked off in a daze. When I collected my wits, I went back to the card game to observe, and now I saw what I couldn’t before. After two or three winners came and went, the same winners recycled! They were shills!! I comforted myself with a bit of intellectual dishonesty—well, 50% dishonesty. For the $150 or so I had lost I had an undeniable experience that would yield much more value in years to come. This lesson wouldn’t go away soon. The reality of the moment, however, was that I was almost flat broke. I had no way to get to Salzburg. What I did have was enough cash for a bus ticket to Frankfurt, home of my sister’s in-laws. My plan to meet Kathy at the castle school was terminated by my folly in the flea market. I had no way of contacting her to let her know. C’est la vie, I thought and headed to Frankfurt to meet the Hillenmaiers.

The Hillenmaiers lived comfortably in suburban Frankfurt with their own house and garden. While the family was devastated by WWII, Mr. Hillenmaier, along with most of West Germany, prospered in the post war era, he as a banker. Mr. and Mrs. Hillenmaier jokingly accepted the reason for my financial crisis (they spoke sufficient English to communicate with me). I stayed at their house for two days and then, financially fortified, booked a flight to New York, to my parents’ house in Queens. Salzburg and Kathy faded into a memory.

How Kathy found me in New York, I do not know. The greatest concentration of Zuckermans (Sugarmans) in the world has to exist in Metropolitan, New York City—most not knowingly related to me. But one day we Zuckermans got a phone call.

“Hello, is this the home of Steve Zukerman?”

My father cautiously answered, “Yes.”

“Can I speak to him?”

“Yes. Stephen, it’s for you.”

“Who is it?”

“I don’t know, a woman.”

“Hello?”

“Hello, is that you, Stephen?”

“Yes, who is this?”

“Kathy.”

“Kathy? Where are you?”

“I’m in New York.”

The shadow of guilt spread throughout my thoughts. Play innocent you four-flusher.

“What are you up to in New York?

“I ran out of money to get back to Minnesota. Can you help me?”

“Well, sure, but I’m living at my parents’ house. I’ll ask if you can come here and stay over, if you need to. How much would a ticket to Minnesota cost?”

“Around $150.”

“Can you get a taxi to my house? I can pay the cab driver when you get here.”

“No, I have money for that, I think. What’s your address?”

I hung up, thinking that this would be a temporary situation. Kathy will move on home to Minnesota and all will be well, I thought.

Four years previously, I had spent five days with my cousin Marvin on a vacation in Miami Beach at the Nautilus Hotel. I was 19, Marvin 18. We were interested in meeting women and girls, and we did, even as socially awkward as we were. Mostly it was play, not sex. On our last night, I met Beth Spanos at the Nautilus Bar. Beth was something else. The bar sported a band and dance floor. She and I danced as one, tangled up in each other. Two of the songs the band played over and over were “Misty” and the Calypso song, “The Big Bamboo.” I will never forget those tunes. My flight back to New York with my cousin was at 10:30 a.m. the next day. I decided I wasn’t going. Beth said she would meet me at the Nautilus the next morning. My cousin and I checked out that morning from the Nautilus and I wished him a good flight. Beth met me and we spent the day walking about Miami Beach. That night, a strange thing happened. We were stopped by a 50-or-so-year-old man, casually dressed, of muscular build, firm of attitude—threatening. He said he needed to talk to Beth. He obviously knew her and had something against her. Should I tangle with him? What had I got myself into? A former lover, a pimp? Beth said she would take care of it. I stood far off, far enough that I could hear their heated conversation but not make out the words. This guy was danger, for Beth and probably for me too. To my relief, the man abruptly left. Beth was less upset than I would have anticipated, but I needed her to explain.

“What was that all about?” I asked.

“Oh, he’s a cop; they patrol Miami Beach to keep it clear of prostitutes.”

“You know him?”

“Yeah, he thinks I’m a prostitute and that I’m hustling you.”

“Are you?”

“No, no, no, no. I just want to be with you.”

“I haven’t got a hotel room anymore; can we stay at your place?”

“Well, no, my girlfriend and her boyfriend are there.”

I thought it over. “Well, it’s scary, but I still have the key to my room at the Nautilus. We could see if anyone is staying in the room and if not…”

“Let’s do it.”

I knocked and knocked more. No answer. We entered the room, no luggage. It was pins and needles all night. I kept expecting the hotel bull to bang on the door, break in and collar the two of us. At sunrise, 6:30 a.m. or so, I’d had it. Beth and I “checked out.”

I left that day for New York and two days later was back at Union College for my junior year, living in the Phi Sig Fraternity House. The very next day, Beth called. “I want to come live with you. I’m packing my suitcase. Please send me some money to come to Schenectady. I love you.”

I panicked. I don’t remember what I told Beth but it must have worked—she never came.

This time was different. I didn’t hesitate. Kathy came to Flushing, Queens, to my parents’ house. I used to call Flushing Jamaica Estate North, claiming to be embarrassed by the name Flushing (the area now is called Fresh Meadows). Meeting my parents was awkward. What could I say? Who was this woman to me? I had no answers. The next day, Kathy left for Minnesota…and then the letters started coming. Light blue tinted stationary, dark blue ink, crisp, un-congested, neat, totally legible writing that informed me of Kathy’s life and her innermost thoughts in a deliberate and even-tempered manner. I tried to answer accordingly, to express my feelings and write neatly, legibly. Alas, that was not me. Little by little, Kathy’s letters drew me in, became my emotional lifeline. After a year of a mail romance, Kathy decided to move to New York. Not to move in with me, but to be in New York, experience the city and live with a girlfriend of hers from Minnesota. I could handle that, I thought.

Over the next six months, Kathy and I dated. She found a job first as a social worker for the City of New York. The City was desperate for workers, training or not. It was, as I gathered from Kathy, an overwhelming job due to the desperate nature of her clients. Later, she got a job teaching art in a Spanish Harlem elementary school, much more to her liking. We didn’t live together, and no mention was made of doing so. I was avoiding getting “too” close and then I felt it was too close anyway and decided to call our relationship off. I told Kathy so. I gave her some vague excuse about needing to finish medical school.

Never had I ever felt so horrible. It was as though I had pulled the sword of love out of my heart and was bleeding to death. I found Kathy and hugged her as tight as I could to quench the emotional exsanguination I felt. I knew then and there I had to marry her, to make her mine!

At the time, March of 1965, I was living with my college fraternity brother, Jerome, on the top floor of Meyer and Lillian Schapiro’s three-story brownstone on West 4th Street in Greenwich Village. The Shapiro’s had advertised their apartment for rent in The Village Voice. Jerome and I both had frequented the village often and were taken with the local lifestyle. It was an easy decision for us to look for an apartment rental there and the Shapiro’s rent was cheap for the area.

Meyer was considered the world’s greatest living art historian, an eclectic, cultured genius who taught at Columbia University in New York. Jerome and I sat once with Meyer when he showed us a multi-volume work on Persian art that he had edited. Neither Jerome nor I were capable of comprehending Meyer’s creative insights, his academic sophistication. Along with his rare books, Meyer owned invaluable pieces of antiquity. When his brownstone was robbed, Meyer’s treasures were left intact while Jerome’s penny “piggybank,” secondhand TV, and slide ruler were stolen, revealing the comically unsophisticated character of the thief who had breached the Schapiro’s lightly secured residence.

In 1965, I was in the throes of my third year in medical school; the year medical students come out of their academic closet, so to speak, when book learning takes a backseat to learning from the real thing: patients. Jerome was working for his father, Ben, a hardcore Brooklyn Jewish bricklaying contractor, all of whose employees were Italian and whose union was Italian Mafioso. Jerome had a degree in Civil Engineering, his father a degree in street smarts. The two never saw eye to eye.

The summer before, 1964, I worked for Jerome’s father as a bricklayer’s assistant and Mafia accomplice. Most of the bricklayers were Italians off the boat, and so I was often enlisted to do math for the shop boss or interpret some other wise cryptic message that cropped up due to my fellow workers’ limited command of the English language. Berating me for my lack of bricklayer skills was one way to jokingly get even with me. “Hey, Zuckerman,” they would shout at me after I screwed up, once almost pulling down a wall of freshly laid bricks, “you become doctor, I become president of the United States.”

I wasn’t union. Jerome’s father worked a favor with the Mafia and got me the job and union pay—$12.00 per hour plus $18.00 for overtime! In 1964! It was a fortune.

Kathy and I got married on June 6th, 1965. I moved out of Meyer’s brownstone and into Kathy’s 6th floor walkup apartment on 15th Street between 1st and 2nd Avenue in Manhattan (the higher the walkup floor, the cheaper the rent). The apartment windows faced north across 15th Street with a view of Stuyvesant High School, my alma mater. To my fascination, I could see, through the large classroom windows, my old teachers in the same classrooms I attended. They were stuck in a time warp while I had shot ahead with my life.

Kathy’s apartment was a two-bedroom deal. It seemed perpetually dirty in a way you couldn’t rectify, dirt built into the walls, the floors, the ceiling.

Kathy and I got married in a Unitarian Church in lower Manhattan with Jerome as my best man. We were the third or fourth marriage that day in what felt like an assembly line. We benefitted from some other marriage’s flower arrangements. From that day forth I felt trapped, believing that my marriage had put a lid on my life’s expectations, my desire to venture out into the world, live in exotic lands, and be with exotic women. At the same time, I was fearful of being alone. I didn’t belong to a Synagogue, a club, or a sports team. I had little or no interests outside of my medical training. I had few friends, none close, and didn’t feel particularly close to my parents or siblings. Kathy was my intimacy; she had spellbound me into loving her. At the same time I resented the hold her intimacy had on me. At age four (my sister told me that was how old I was when the event happened) I had a temper tantrum in front of my mother. In my mind it was actually for her sake, to impress her. When I recovered and pulled myself off the living floor, her words to me, in a sincere calm voice, become gospel. “If you are so unhappy you can leave anytime you want and I will even pack you a lunch.” I was free then, but now, after marrying, I wasn’t anymore.

New sections of “GV is for Greenwich Village” will be uploaded to the blog every Friday. Stay tuned next week for Part 2 of Genesis.  

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