The final installment of my ongoing series about my adventures in Greenwich Village. Click here for parts 1, 2, and 3.
The Promised Land
My studio apartment at 69 West 9th Street in New York has three adjacent windows that face west onto 6th Avenue and a most incongruous sight: a Neuschwanstein-style castle, the Jefferson Market Library and Clock Tower. On the south side of the castle is a lovely gated garden, run by a local non-profit, that is open to the public three seasons a year. It is located on the former site of the notorious women’s prison of New York City (largely housing prostitutes). The architectural complexity of the castle, with its spires, stained-glass windows of various shapes, and clock tower, never fails to bring joy to the eye.
I lived in Greenwich Village for two years, some 50 years ago, but have frequently returned for visits. The Village, SoHo, the East Village, Little Italy, the Lower East Side, China Town, Tribeca—all familiar territory, bringing non-stop entertainment to this curious pedestrian. The buildings are packed with myriads of small, privately owned shops and restaurants charged with the flavor of their owners. Few chain stores (though more and more now) are the rule. Of course, change is not only inevitable but can be exciting. My persona feeds off change, clings only gently to the past, have my “head” into the future—or so I like to think.
The multitude of eclectic men’s and woman’s shoe boutiques that used to populate 8th Street east of 6th Avenue have evaporated with the same rapidity with which they appeared, as though afflicted by some kind of blight. Many have been replaced with ethnic restaurants when it seemed not even one more could survive. The French Roast on 10th Street and 6th Avenue, my old breakfast and coffee house hangout, is now a Mexican restaurant. My son warns me it may be hard to locate a restaurant or coffeehouse tolerating hangers-outs these days. Washington Square Park has had a makeover. The fountain and Monument Arch remain as before. The dog run has been upgraded as have the green areas and the children’s playground. Thankfully, the chess player corners remain a staple cultural tradition of the Village. At 69W, “Failed” management caused a closing of Baldacci’s upscale grocery. Citarella’s Gourmet Market replaced it as the building’s first floor retail space renter. The store’s wares excite, educate. Half the fish and shellfish for sale are unknown to me. These are the raw ingredients for the Haute Cuisine Chef. Exotic and very expensive delicacies find a sufficient number of buyers amongst a rich and sophisticated neighborhood clientele.
“Good Morning Dr. Zuckerman. Long time no see. How long do you plan to stay? How is your daughter, Gabrielle, doing?” Terrell, named after Terrell Davis of NFL fame, the 30ish soft-spoken and handsome daytime doorman inquires when we arrive.
“Gaby is in Chicago, no, L.A., no no, Minneapolis. She gave up her job in Chicago out of restlessness and is now a loose screw. She had a gig in L.A. that fell through but picked up other work helping to put a program together for Facebook in Denver,” I responded in long wind. “I’ll be here for two weeks.” Even though my visits to 69W are sporadic, the help is constant and attuned to Dr. Zuckerman. My daughter’s personality personalizes her relationships with staff and, through her influence; I sense they have “up” vibes for me.
I introduce Pamela, who is feeling sidelined, but who then quirkily regains her composure and jokingly flirts with Terrell and another male maintenance person present, to their and her delight. “New York’s finest,” she chortles.
Pamela biked with me for the first year we dated. Her lithe body did not come with endurance and her mind never participated in disciplined training programs. But walking arouses her. Biking has been my passion, but not my obsession, for the past 15 years. Every opportunity I bike: to work, to shop, to visit friends, to the post office. Most days my car sees little use outside of deep winter when ice made bicycling life threatening. Once a week, my physically matched buddy, Lloyd and I would head out on well-groomed bike trails into the countryside for 30-40 miles, easy as you go, jaunts. We familiarized ourselves with the most tasty, hospitable, laid-back restaurants along our way. Our trips blend the physical with equal time for multiple stops to “chew the fat.”
Lloyd actually overmatches me physically. He is six years younger and works out. But he is most thoughtful and never outpaces me, allows me often to set the pace. I have an edge in banter, especially regarding the always relevant field of medical “conditions” we both have to deal with.
Lloyd is a transplanted Trinidadian of African descent. He has worked as a partner in a small software-related company with four Caucasian partners for twenty years. Most everywhere I go with Lloyd, I sense his uniqueness, his blackness and, at times, his dis-ease with some of our stop offs. Maybe I am bent toward optimism, but when the settings are tense, I assume it is because Lloyd’s identity causes confusion rather than hostility. Lloyd and I are similar in stature and demeanor; his color and the island lilt in his English pronunciation are our only really distinguishing characteristics.
Pamela has helped me keep my walking skills, lest my joy of biking make me a pedestrian invalid. When in New York, we walk three to six miles a day, picking a general direction and heading off to find thrills. But first comes breakfast and after heading west on Greenwich Avenue we come to Rosemary’s at 10th Street. I hesitate. Rosemary’s natural, farm fresh food style, that’s okay, but $$$$. The atmosphere in the large, barn-like dining room with its high-ceiling, totally windowed east and south sides facing on to the street, bright lighting and muted sounds is relaxed, unhurried. The large room is continuously three quarters empty.
As a doctor, the health food, organic grown movement does not impress me. Humans in America live too long as it is, living long enough to develop Alzheimer’s disease. This leads to a financially depleting life in a nursing home as the reward for eating healthy. I tell this to all who will listen, only partially with tongue in cheek. “The warranty on human parts runs out at age 50,” I proclaim. But Rosemary’s pleasantries grow on us. We spend two hours every morning over breakfast, lattes, straight coffee, exotic mixed fruit juices, warm grains, intimate chatter and The New York Times. The woman at the next table has her laptop open for action and has what I assume are clients passing through every half hour.
Our waitress most mornings, Gloria, is the epitome of a Central/South American indigenous native. “Where are you from, Gloria?” I ask one day. “Are you Mayan?”
“No, I am from Columbia.”
“Ah, then you are Inca.”
She lights up. “Something like that.”
I have visited Otavalo Tribal Markets in the Andean Highlands of Ecuador just south of the Columbian border. I guessed Inca as I remember from a course I took about tribes of Central and South America that the Inca dominated the Andean highlands that now lie in various countries, including Columbia.
“Good choice, babe,” I congratulate myself.
Then we walk. It is cool but not cold, and walking keeps us comfortable. The sun is out and the land lies before us. We meet people; we stare at buildings, gawking like tourists, look in stores, and are swept up in the “streets” tempo, the varieties of humans.
Pamela needs to shop. She is a former clotheshorse who is being barraged by boutique upon boutique. Boots, shoes, coats, jeans, hats. Minneapolis is a designer desert—dull, asexual, gray, and functional. Suddenly there is a starburst of design infused with intrigue, sexuality, and Pamela experiences an unquenchable addict’s need to indulge. A shop on Bleecker, just west of 7th Avenue, is all shoes with a sprinkle of woman’s hats. It draws Pamela in, opening the way for the shopkeeper from Morocco to target her with his wares. The Latin music in the background and the fellow’s brown skin make me mistake him for Latin, but I’m quickly corrected. He is from Morocco and so I dub him morocco Joe. He fast talks the already excited Pamela. How well she knows, from years of indulgence, how to adorn her curvaceous 5’6’’ posture-perfect frame. She is not finicky or insecure. Her eyes scan the sea of footwear designs stuffed into the mini shop. Two pair of short boots with buckles, straps and colored leather strips galore stand out, and then one pair quickly wins out. Then its finding the right size as inventory has shrunken due to Amazon. Networked by phone, the right size is tracked down, delivery “guaranteed” in two days. I am hyperventilating: I feel like I’m on the Paul Bunyan log ride at the Mall of America. My log boat is being dragged to the cascading waterfall and I am about to lose control, go “over the edge.” I signal slow, caution, treachery ahead, but only further inflame the alliance between Joe, the fast talking shop keeper, and Pamela. I am being shoved into the rapids, its open warfare, and frenzied buying. Another pair of shoes, two hats. “I’ll pay for the shoes with my own money,” Pamela defiantly proclaims. I catch myself in mid-mouth and squash my usual reflex response.
“You have no money, only our money, and 90% comes from me.” I just clam up and take the fall.
Joe is diminutive in stature, 5’5’’ maybe, 50 or so, modest in all but his spitfire, heavily accented sales spiel. To me, he is con and now that I have regained the voice of the Shmata Maker in me, I let him have it. “Joe, don’t take me for a Shmo, you’re out to get my dough, and I suspect with quality so low.” He squirms, Pamela demands, I state my case—to no avail. Two pairs of shoes, two hats, one with “ears” tacked on with safety pins! I have credit carded them all even though one pair of the shoes are “on the come” to Minneapolis…maybe!
Two days later, with my paranoia index at max, we return to Joe’s store, Tooch on Bleecker—and it is gone! “Just as I predicted, that fly-by-night Joe packed up and disappeared!” Pamela frowns and I go to suck it in—but as we head farther west on Bleecker, there is Tooch, there is talky talk Joe and there is the mailing coupon, shoes on their way, to Minneapolis. I am exposed, chastised.
Joe knows I am a doctor; it’s on my credit card, “M.D.” What follows goes to the heart of the matter. Joe points to his lower left jaw. “I had a tumor here.”
“Cancer?” I ask.
“No, a tumor and they cut it out. They took bone from my left leg to fix up the hole in my jaw. The place they took the bone from never healed, even after two more operations. It’s been six years. It’s a mess. You don’t mind if I show you a picture of my leg?”
“No, I’m curious and I’m sure I have seen worse.”
Joe shows me three pictures on his iPhone taken of his left lower leg. I can easily make out the thickened dark pigmented tissue patch with its telltale redness where skin no longer covers underlying flesh. Joe has an open wound and worse yet in a most vulnerable location, his lower leg. I inquire, “Does the wound weep?”
“Yes, and it hurts so hard I can hardly walk. The student that sewed my leg up screwed me up. It’s been six years. Do you think I should sue?”
Twenty odd years ago, I was brought up on charges of medical negligence by the Minnesota Board of Medical Practice. The board had no lawyers on its staff; rather it used the MN. Attorney General’s legal staff to carry out investigations. The investigation was, in reality, an interrogation, punishment before decision. I cried openly two or three times during the one and a half year ordeal. Was I guilty? No one died or was injured, the one and only “bad” case ever was iffy, the core issue was that I was duped by a drug addict. I received a slap on the wrist but I will not forget the investigation torment. The record is public for anyone who questions my version. Like Joe’s leg, this psychological wound has not completely healed. I advise the use of lawyers to patients only in egregious cases of what I consider malpractice. I don’t like what lawyers can do to doctors.
“Have you talked to a lawyer, a malpractice lawyer?”
“No,” he tells me.
“Well, you need to, and make sure he or she is truly a malpractice specialist and that they will take your case on contingency basis. No money up front! That’s the best way to tell if he thinks you’re a winner.”
“Thank you so much,” Joe blurts out. “I am so afraid, so anxious. Every day I am in pain. Give me your phone number, maybe you know somebody who can help me?”
“I can advise you but I don’t know any malpractice lawyers.” Actually I know one famous one, Bucky Zimmerman, but he up and died recently!”
“Still, you and Pamela are good people. You have helped me and I’ll do as you say.”
Well, all that ended the salesman/customer relationship. It is now me as doctor, and Joe is the patient. It’s Tikkun Olam time. It no longer matters if the shoes fit, or the hats fall apart. I have gotten my monies’ worth. If the shoes fit and the hats last, Pamela will be triumphant, strutting about in her new purchases. She is already gallivanting about on the streets of Greenwich Village, New York, where 10th Street crosses 4th, where the island narrows down as it heads south for SoHo, Tribeca, Wall Street, Battery Park, where a map of the Village deceives as much as its counterpart does of Venice. Men give Pamela the “glad eye.” Women are curious, some openly sneer. Pamela proudly inhales the attention, the envy. I was wrong—Joe and Pamela got it right! Viva GV!
When Pamela tells me her two wolfhounds are her children, I believe my casual liking of them is not even a tenth of what she feels.
If we can’t go to Florida because of them, I have to hold my tongue and acquiesce. The logistics and cost of taking Ruby and Prince to Florida makes it not possible. Pamela does not want to kennel them for two months or even a week. One of her favorite dogs, Cassie, died in her sleep at a kennel while we were in Naples, Italy. So I dig in for winter and its shrunken social opportunities, its limits on physical activity and the threat of falls.
Elaine is our condo neighbor on our north side, Julia on the south. Elaine is a 50-something pleasant spinster who works as a nutritional researcher, utilizing small animals as her subjects, at the University of Minnesota. We talk shop now and then and I wish her luck getting grants, the financial means by which she survives. Somehow, Pamela came to dislike Elaine over the years. Elaine, both through the condo association and conversations with me, announced that she will be remodeling her two bathrooms and making them one. The work was scheduled to be done somewhere between February 1st and May 1st of 2019.
Pamela suffers from Generalized Anxiety Disorder, GAD, for which she is being treated with Lorazepam on a PRN (as needed) basis, mainly when her anxiety spills over into full-blown panic attacks. She takes Trazadone, an antidepressant and sedative, to help her get to sleep at night. She also takes Percocet in small amounts for various aches and pains, which also helps with her GAD. To top off her list of helpers, there is champagne. Pamela’s control over her caloric intake keeps her weight ideal and her figure surprisingly youthful and desirously curvaceous. She extends, to my relief, her mastery over her oral intake to the caloric heavy champagne, never drinking before dinner or when driving. On occasions when she over indulges she justifies doing so by claiming, “I am Italian,” which is a half-truth. She also sees a counselor once every three months, likes the lady, shares dog owner stories with her and gains limited insight. She has a multitude of constructive social encounters on Facebook.
What I have so far left out is her support from her animals. Pamela believes animals are often better than humans. They are loyal and, for the most part, not mean-spirited. Her animal world includes her two loving Borzois, Ruby and Prince Georgia Forepaws and a cadre of stuffed animals that include a Panda, a ring tailed lemur, a teddy bear, and a lion (a vegetarian like the ones in heaven).
When Pamela’s GAD is rampant, her memory fails her. “I’m just like my mother. She was 40 or so when she had an attack that lasted a year. She couldn’t remember how to peel a potato,” she told me once. In later life, age 75 or so, her mother couldn’t make new memories. But she always retained her sense of humor, her brash outgoing attitude, her appropriate emotional relationships, and even her captivating letter writing skills. “She couldn’t hear or see, so how could she form new memories!?” Pamela rightfully points out, though concern lingers that she also had some form of dementia. Does Pamela have her mother’s problem forming memories? Does she have dementia? Or, does she, like her mother, simply lose the capability to function when in a severe GAD state? How I hope for the latter. Thankfully, time and time again Pamela recovers from “memory loss” and is sharp as a tack. “Just that darn old GAD again causing pseudo-dementia!”
Two memorable provocateurs of Pamela’s Gad attacks: The first, a yearlong dental reconstruction project involving her whole jaw that caused temporary facial disfiguration. The second, being confronted in public by her long-term piano teacher claiming that she deliberately missed paying him for two lessons. Pamela could hardly find her way home from her piano lesson she was so in shock.
Now Pamela is suffering from premeditated fear of the noise Elaine’s construction will cause. In Pamela’s mind Elaine’s construction project is meant to harm her. A GAD attack erupts and not totally without cause. Elaine’s bathrooms are on the same floor as Pamela’s TV, computer and study room, where she spends an inordinate amount of her waking hours. Her computer time is mostly dedicated to her Facebook friends, most of whom she connected with through Jimmy Swaggart’s Ministry, beamed on TV as Sun Life Television. She has followed Jimmy off and on for some 40 years. Pamela is also a newshound: Fox News used to be her favorite station and catastrophes her favorite topic. Plane crashes and deadly fires beat the band, but tornadoes and tidal waves were okay too. While avoiding all movies with trailers claiming violence, she somehow makes excuses for her magnetic attraction to real life disasters.
Pamela tries to mark the location of Elaine’s two bathrooms on our shared wall. I tell her to knock on Elaine’s door and ask to see the location of the bathrooms. She identifies my irony. It is suspected that the bathrooms start about five feet west of Pamela’s study. She contacts two home remodelers and finds out that there is no effective way to dampen the construction noise. But, in any case, the noise won’t last for more than two days. Pamela is frantic; she searches the internet for suitable sound insulation. Nothing practical shows up. She then searches our condo and locates sheets of foam from G-d knows where, collects all unused blankets, quilts, pillows, couch cushions and sheets and begins constructing a wall made of her gatherings on our shared wall with Elaine, hammering her collection to the wall and the door of her study. Click here for a video of Pamela’s makeshift wall. Still, her anxiety rages, drives her to further magnifying the anticipated noise. “Let’s go stay in your apartment in Manhattan for the next three months,” she finally says. “It’s empty now that the co-op board won’t let you sublet it anymore and Gaby [my daughter] is living in L.A. We can spend the winter there until Elaine is finished.”
My knee jerk reaction to this blast out-of-the-blue proposal is to blow back. “We can’t,” I instantly say.
But wait a minute: I have tried time and time again to get Pamela to stay in my Greenwich Village studio apartment when we go to New York. She always refuses. We end up staying at the Sheraton on 7th Avenue and 53rd Street in Manhattan, costing us $400 a day for maybe 300 square feet. I have to pay the maintenance fee on my studio—$1,300 a month—and never get to use it. This seems to be an opening, don’t let it slip away, I say to myself. I reverse my previous statement and start building the case for New York. “We could board the dogs for two weeks at Camp Bowwow. Two weeks is better than none. It isn’t Florida, but it’ll be warmer than Minneapolis. Plus no ice so we can walk our hearts out.” Pamela loves walking in Manhattan—shops galore. And Camp Bowwow has a live camera feed of dog play areas for six hours a day. I know it will sway her, and I’m right. Pamela is hypnotized by the opportunity to view her “babies” live on her iPad while we’re away. Secretly, two weeks away from her permanently dependent children is a deserved blessing. She will grudgingly admit it if confronted.
Sure enough, Pamela takes to the two weeks option in my Greenwich Village apartment like a starving tarpon to a hyperactive crab. I start planning our trip to the Promised Land, where my relatives have been ensconced for 100 years. My apartment in Greenwich Village is located at 69 West 9th Street, on the corner of 9th Street and 6th Avenue. It was built in 1957. My studio is, with some optimistic exaggeration, 500 square feet, the biggest of the building’s studios. I have owned the apartment since 1994 when another periodic crisis in Manhattan real estate valuation caused apartment prices to plummet up to 50%. My brother owned Apartment 6C previously but lived out of town. He and the co-op board clashed over who was allowed to stay in the apartment in my brother’s absences, and the board won, as they usually do in the world of co-ops. My brother was royally pissed and he wanted out. He put the apartment up for sale. Only a few bottom feeder buyers showed up. I had rented 6C from him from time to time but somehow blocked out the idea of buying it. “Why don’t you buy the apartment from Bobby?” Pamela prodded me at the time.
She always wanted me to buy this or that. One deal was a condo on the beach at Daytona, four blocks north of the city’s landmark pier. I didn’t dare touch it. Pamela thought the Egyptian American builder was cute. He eventually went broke and took all his investors down with him. But this time, regarding New York, she was right. What am I thinking, I told myself. The price is ridiculous. Even if I used 6C as a pied-à-terre two or three times a year, it would be worth it. The maintenance fee is uppity but not that much and I have the cash to do the deal outright. And oh how I love ‘my’ village. Three blocks to Washington Square Park! I can read the Village Voice sitting on a park bench while taking in all the action around the fountain, especially the chicks from NYU! I had been hanging out at Village coffee houses ever since my high school days. I was now coming home to familiar, comfortable territory.
Pamela has taken credit ever since for the decision to buy 6C, and she deserves it. I also point out how many other deals she told me to buy that I didn’t, that could have led to big losses. But purchasing 6C was the best buy of my life. The value of it skyrocketed two years after I purchased it and has stayed up ever since. But I haven’t sold it, so my financial gains are only theoretical. More important are the profound effects it has had on my family. Apartment 6C allowed first my son and then my daughter to live cheap in Manhattan while trying to establish careers in New York. Both made it. Meanwhile, my pied-à-terre has been on hold for 25 years—until now!
After Pamela offers to live for two weeks at 6C, I’m forced to confront the apartment’s demons. It’s essentially one, medium-sized room. Recently, when we travel we stay in suites at motels and hotels, if we can afford them. For three years now, I’ve slept in my hide-a-bed on the fourth floor of our Minneapolis condo. Pamela sleeps in “our” bedroom on the second floor. I snore; I have undiagnosed sleep apnea (holding my breath per Pamela) and occasional narcoleptic episodes while driving on boring highways. I prefer not to undergo diagnostic testing, even though as a doctor I know the downside of not treating the condition, if I truly have it. But I don’t want a C-Pap Machine. Lose 25 pounds and that might cure the problem, I tell myself but I can’t. I used to tell my patients to “lose 25 pounds and grow a third arm,” in cases like this. When they’d ask me what the dickens I was talking about I’d tell them, “Well, at least the latter might be possible.” I do get out walking, biking, climbing the stairs in my four-story condo (I figure I average 15 flights up and down each day). I play tennis and keep my weight at 210 lbs. My BMI is 29.99!
As a six-year-old, I remember sleeping on my maternal grandparents’ couch in the living room of their small apartment in Williamsburg, Brooklyn. My grandfather snored and had those frightening apneic spells. I would count how long the spells lasted –1-a-1,000, 2-a-1,000, 3-a-1,000—then a gush of inhalations, finally settling down, preparing for yet another apneic spell. 1-a-1,000, 2-a-1,000—
I also have restless leg and use codeine sulfate to relax my body. It seems to me whenever I try to sleep with Pamela, the odds are greatly stacked against me. Between snoring, sleep apnea, and restless leg, how can we survive in a 500-square foot apartment with one king bed and a couch? I cross my fingers and off we go.
Manhattan in late January? A snowbird’s destination? No palm trees, no salt water beaches with shore birds. No retired Alta Cockers baking their ancient hides, decorated with a wild variety of blotches, colored red, blue and black, along with raised scaly and itchy patches, in the heavenly radiance of the Southern Sun. All have been warned, especially about the dreaded black skin plague, melanoma, but the sun’s atavistic effect on the death chill that permeates into their aching bones makes seniors gamble that they will die before being besieged by skin cancers.
Manhattan is not the home of the snowbird or the elephant burial grounds. It is ground zero for the alive and kicking. Greenwich Village and all of Manhattan below 14th Street, is urban life at its most divine, most entertaining, most delicious, most livable. Even in January, the temperature is 20 degrees warmer than Minneapolis, with no ice on the streets thanks to heated skyscrapers. A light winter coat, gloves, and solid walking shoes and we’re ready for exploration.
Stay tuned for the final section of GV is for Greenwich Village, to be posted next Friday.
Part 2 of my ongoing essay: GV is for Greenwich Village. For part 1, click here.
Genesis, Part 2
We left New York in 1966 to live in Chicago where I had been awarded a medical internship at Michel Reese Hospital. It was a dreary workaholic year for me, stuck doing hospital-based duties. On call 36 hours, off 12. Kathy taught elementary school in an under-privileged community in south Chicago and truly enjoyed the work, her fellow workers, and the students. We had little to do with each other but somehow stayed married. Then, in 1967, we moved to San Francisco to live in the Haight-Ashbury District. I had chosen a residency at Mount Zion Hospital in San Francisco Fillmore District out of location and social happenings rather than the anticipated quality of its medical education. Life became very different, very open, very exciting. Our first summer in San Francisco was the “Summer of Love.” We lived two blocks from the epicenter of it all, the panhandle of Golden Gate Park. There, congregants of youths gathered around drummers and guitarists, dancing freely to the music’s passion, some women bare-breasted and unashamed with the aroma of marijuana in the air.
“If you’re going to San Francisco, be sure to wear some flowers in your hair, if you’re going to San Francisco, you’re gonna meet some gentle people there” – Petula Clark, lyrics; John Phillips, The Mama and the Papas, music, 1967
It was all there at the time: Jefferson Airplane, The Grateful Dead, Ken Kesey, Owsley “LSD King” Stanley, Laurence Ferlinghetti, marijuana, Summer of Love, the Peace and Freedom Party, the Sexual Freedom League, anti-war marches, the Black Panthers.
I don’t remember Kathy agreeing to move to San Francisco. I don’t remember any resistance either. In my mind, my medical education, my need to finish my training as a physician, certainly dominated what I—we—had to do. Was Kathy my silent partner in adventure, glad to be hooked to my traveling medical education show? Years later, when we had separated, I wondered if settling down caused our troubles. No matter where my wanderlust took us, she seemed to not only adapt, but find joy.
We packed our hand-me-down V.W. Beetle to the brim, roof included. The Bug was so old it didn’t even have a gas gauge, just a lever that released one gallon of reserve gasoline when the engine stalled out. That gave you 25-30 miles to find a gas station.
The Bug was gifted to me by my sister’s husband, Guenther, who she met through the airlines. He, a German citizen, worked for TWA, she for Mohawk Airlines. Guenther had been a Hitler youth although he was 25% Jewish through a grandmother. He never fought in the war. I was told when it was his turn to do so, he hid out. It seemed like a smart move. Very German Guenther and my very Jewish Polish mother incongruously developed a deep affection for each other, often having the most unabashed banter about holocaust horrors. How could Guenther say such and such, and how could my mother so retort, both speaking in comical fashion, I thought to my astounded self. What did Guenther say to my mother?
“If you don’t stop talking, I am going to throw you in the oven!” he’d joke. And much else!
On our way out of Chicago, I hit another car. The left front fender of the Bug hit some guy’s right rear fender. I went to see where the damage was to the Bug, but I couldn’t tell as there were so many dents from previous accidents. The other guy probably was more at fault than me and damage to his car was negligible. We both agreed to just drive away.
We traveled west from Chicago on a northern tack. When we reached Craters of the Moon National Monument in central Idaho, I felt comfortable enough to dispose, in a Park Department’s trash can, the 23 parking tickets I had accumulated while living in Chicago. Will I eventually be tracked down, like the cold case murderers recently ferreted out by genealogy testing? Will I be billed millions in fines and interest owed, go bust and live the rest of my life in poverty!?
Everything west of Minneapolis was novel, inspiring, exotic to both Kathy and me (the farthest west I had been was when I spent a summer as an extern in St. Paul between my third and fourth year of medical school). We traveled the Dakota’s Bad Lands, the Rocky Mountains, the Pacific Coast Highway south from Seattle with the ocean always off to our right. Finally we arrived at the City by the Bay, San Francisco, via the Golden Gate Bridge. Those first few days after arriving, Kathy and I experienced a lot of fright driving up and down the treacherous hills of the city. We both had been flatlanders all our previous lives.
Kathy and I found a two-bedroom apartment in a large, old three-story wooden building on Waller Street in the Haight-Ashbury neighborhood. We were one block from Ashbury, one block from Haight, one block from Buena Vista Park, and two blocks from Golden Gate Park’s panhandle. We both wanted to live where the action was—the “Hashberry” neighborhood.
Our apartment was on the backside of the building, facing north toward the Golden Gate Bridge and periodic fog. Below us was a large grassy expanse surrounded on four sides by older residential buildings and many glorious Victorians.
Mt. Zion hospital was a mile from the apartment, in the Fillmore District. San Francisco and its Haight-Ashbury district were to the rest of America what Mt. Zion’s doctors in training were to the staid, conservative members of the U.S. Medical Community. Mt. Zion was hippie doctor central. When colleagues living elsewhere asked what it was like at Mt. Zion, I would joke that to get high on marijuana all you had to do was take deep breaths while walking through the hospital wards. I labeled the condition, “Secondary Marijuana Smoke Intoxication.” It was straight out of a Cheech and Chong movie. And marijuana wasn’t all; the interns fortified their special code of ethics with uppers and downers and Owsley LSD.
I was no hippie. There was a fault line between residents and interns. Residents—and I was one of them—were staid, not hippies.
In contrast, interns for the most part were hippies, radicals, did all forms of drugs, held psychedelic parties, did anti-war marches, joined the Peace and Freedom Party, got married by hippie priests in Buena Vista Park and smoked marijuana, hashish and did LSD. I did smoke some marijuana and hashish and wasn’t impressed. I dared not try LSD after having some firsthand experiences of dealing with “freaked out” trippers. I didn’t march either, but I got the message. My 25-year-old quest to achieve my medical doctor degree was now to take a backseat to my need to think of others and participate, even awkwardly, in the social upheavals being spearheaded in San Francisco, in Berkeley, at Mount Zion Hospital. The timing couldn’t have been better for me.
Instead of lapsing into a post-goal achievement depression, I was given a new goal, one that would drive me for the rest of my life. In grandiose terms, it was “service to mankind,” or Tikkun Olam (Hebrew for helping to create a better world).
As a physician in training, a resident physician, I took care of the indigent patients who frequented Mt. Zion, mainly from the Fillmore District. Most were black and underprivileged.
Five days a week, I held an outpatient medical clinic at the hospital. Most of my patients were women. Two stood out. Both were middle-aged, unemployed, overweight, and divorced. Their lives were bleak. One suffered from high blood pressure, the other, diabetes. I saw both weekly because, although their conditions seemed well controlled, they both complained of unremitting symptoms of headache, dizziness, chest pain and over all feeling “lousy.” Try as I could, there was never a happy face on these two women. “Are you sure you’re taking your medicine, getting enough sleep, not taking illegal drugs?” I kept asking them.
Kathy and I went on a two-week car and tent trip to Bacochibampo Bay, Mexico, on the east coast of the Gulf of California. We stayed at an old, worn out southern pacific railroad hotel on the gulf that was overgrown with brilliant blooming bougainvillea. I had one too many tequila margaritas one day and, in a state of extreme exuberance, ran down the cobblestone hotel road shouting my love for life. Kathy and I were in love in Mexico.
On return to my clinic duties at Mt. Zion, now bearded for life, I was informed that my two ladies were hospitalized during my time away. One was paralyzed and the other unable to speak. I was overcome with guilt. I had failed them. I went to the hospital station where both patients were facing their calamities. To my surprise and confusion, the station was the inpatient psych ward!
“What’s up with my two patients?” I asked the psych resident who ran the station.
“You now are forbidden from taking a vacation ever again. Both your ladies decompensated when you were away,” he said.
“What are you saying? There’s no stroke, no hypertensive crisis? What’s going on?”
“Both suffered Zuckerman deficiency syndrome—conversion hysteria. Both are actually a lot better now that they know you’ve returned,” he explained. “You’re powerful medicine, Steve.”
How much of a fool am I? I thought to myself. How did I miss the reality of what was going on with these ladies? Here were two ladies in mid-life with nothing to live for, hopeless, helpless. And here I was, a youthful, good-looking, Jewish doctor who paid attention to them weekly, one-on-one, brightening up their lives. Of course, they dared not get cured, needing to keep complaining of various symptoms, lest I changed our visits to monthly or even worse, discharging them from my care.
“I want to continue seeing you weekly so we can control your blood pressure and your diabetes,” I told them. And when they came to clinic, never missing an appointment (that in itself should have been a clue), and I asked, “How are you doing?” The answer was always the same: “miserable.” My concerned response was also always the same: “I’m sorry to hear that. Let’s see if we can’t find something that will help out. And we’ll definitely need you to come back next week to see how you’re doing.”
I had learned my lesson to never neglect the souls of my patients.
After two years at Mt. Zion Hospital, living in the Hashberry, being socially awakened, I felt unsure of my scientific medical knowledge. I turned down the chief resident job at Mt. Zion, which was enhanced by an opportunity to spend six months doing research at U.C.S.F. Medical Center on lovely Mt. Parnassus. I needed to suffer and knew exactly where to fulfill that need—the University of Minnesota Hospital in Minneapolis. The San Francisco of Siberia!
Something else happened in San Francisco. Kathy and I decided we were a couple and had held our marriage together for three years. “Why don’t we have a child?” I asked her, or something like that. She was agreeable, or must have been. We began having sex with a procreative purpose! Gabrielle, our first child, was released from the confines of Kathy’s womb at Mt. Zion Hospital. I was present and impressed by Gaby. She was taken with animation, legs pumping, arms wiggling. A state she has remained in all her life.
In 1965, Kathy became pregnant unintentionally. At the time, I was overwhelmed with the inconvenience of having a child, the effect it would have on my career ambitions. I prevailed on Kathy to have an abortion. I don’t remember her resisting to any great extent. Through a fellow teacher at her school, Kathy located a gynecologist who agreed to do the then-illegal procedure. He, on occasions, did abortions and did not charge for them, doing them based on his ethical beliefs. The procedure, done after hours in his office, went smoothly.
I also began to perceive how adaptable Kathy was to the various environments my medical education dictated we attend. She thrived on our ever changing world. Looking back, it was a much more compatible relationship, she and I had, than I realized. Would Kathy agree to my appraisal? She complimented my need to explore, even to joining me in a near death experience at the 200-foot bottom of Truk Lagoon, decked out in full scuba gear.
Part 3 of Greenwich Village will be posted next Friday!
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).
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, is that you, Stephen?”
“Yes, who is this?”
“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?”
“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.”
“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.
The next installment of my autobiography is part two of the story of my faith and how it relates to my profession. Be sure to check out part one here, and pop back into the blog on Fridays for more chapters from my ongoing project!
Five years ago, when I was 73, I “sort of” retired. Or should I say I was forced out of practice because I couldn’t type fast enough. This was okay with me, except for how it was done. “You’re fired, but tell your patients you’re retiring,” said the corporate mouthpiece doctor-turned-turncoat. I told my patients I was fired and started a firestorm. Never mind that I had other fish to fry before I either died or suffered incapacitation—which would mean being as good as dead. I had dropped out of medicine on two previous occasions in my life, and it had always been fine. I knew, at least, that I wouldn’t end up stalking ghetto streets, snapping photos of “real life” in the urban underbelly with my $20,000 hobby camera, or taking high-minded elder courses while cruising the ancient culture-littered Mediterranean with other like-minded seniors, overindulging in excessive gluttony, getting soused on gourmet wines while chattering away about what money can’t buy, time left on planet earth. How about a cruise called The River Styx Misadventure for Seniors.
I had no time for all that: I had to complete the never-ending and die in the saddle, chasing down the enigmatic in me and in the idiosyncratic, marvelous universe.
Four years before, I was solicited for a donation by the American Jewish World Service (AJWS). Its mission: “Supporting community-based organizations in countries in the developing world and to educate the American Jewish community about global justice.” Its goal: “Ending poverty and promoting human rights in the developing world.” The organization’s Jewish underpinning was the phrase “Tikkun Olam.” As usual in Judaism, it’s a concept that dates back a couple of thousand years and has been chewed on by scholars and madmen, eventually reaching a point where its meaning could become whatever you want it to be. What I wanted Tikkun Olam to stand for was the core Jewish pillar, the promotion of good deeds (mitzvahs), not only among Jewish brethren but among all humans.
The AJWS seemed right on with its message, and, low-and-behold, I had a revelation when they contacted me. Wasn’t I blindly, intuitively following my nose and making career choices that added up to Tikkun Olam? What I saw as haphazard decisions that eventually turned out okay were really being guided all along by an unwavering belief in Tikkun Olam that had been embedded in me by a few glances and a few words when I was 2.5-years-old. That was when I first met Dr. Gabriel Kirschenbaum, the man who inspired me to become a doctor. Later, my drive to serve was pushed along by my friendship with another crusader, Marshall Engstrom. Both he and Kirschenbaum were saints of Tikkun Olam, physically big and heavenly bent. Yes, there was a key role for those who served by carrying out the Jewish ritual, endlessly studying Jewish teachings, and then there were those who carried out the meat and potatoes of the chosen people’s mission.
My first working arrangement as a physician came about after I finished my residency at the University of Minnesota Hospitals in 1970. I had been given a Berry Plan deferral, a chance to finish my medical education in trade for a three-year assignment as a medical officer in the Air Force. At least I wouldn’t be on the frontline in Vietnam as a foot soldier, for which I was thankful. Then, two months before my active duty was to commence, the Air Force responded to a letter I sent from my dermatologist making them aware that I had “wide spread, chronic, incurable psoriasis.” This disqualified me from active duty.
I now faced a decision I had made no plans to deal with. How was I going to earn a living? I didn’t want to stay in Minneapolis or the Midwest. Should I go back to the Bay Area, where I had spent two years in residency training, and seek work? Or should I head back to familiar childhood territory and return to New York City where my family lived? Unable to choose, I sought itinerant work in Minnesota, hoping to buy myself the time to decide. That is when I ran into Marshall Engstrom. Marshall was out recruiting doctors to work at a small, out-of-the-way hospital in Onamia, Minnesota, where he was the administrator. The hospital was 100 miles north of Minneapolis and run by Franciscan nuns whose sister house was in the nearby town of Little Falls. It was an invitation to work on Mars for all I could make of it.
I drove to Onamia to meet with Marshall and the town’s doctors. The trip became rural rather quickly, with occasional farms, rolling hills, and pastureland broken up by forests and lakes. The town of Onamia was right off the highway and the first structure of note was a shuttered railroad station. The town itself was made up of a three block, barely-alive downtown that was dotted with mostly one-story buildings. The hospital was on the far side of town. It faced the auspicious Crosier father’s seminary and bordered Lake Onamia, a shallow, weedy body of water that actually was a bulge in the Rum River as it headed south to join the Mississippi, some 70 miles away.
Marshall was a tall bachelor, modestly portly and ruddily completed, with an effusive, outgoing enthusiasm. He had previously been a court reporter, but it was obvious that a more people-oriented occupation was much more to his liking. He was self-taught in hospital administration, after which he passed the equivalency testing to get his license. His name and his physical appearance suggested a Swedish heritage, but his temperament was hot-blooded, more Mediterranean. He spoke passionately about the impoverishment of the local community and its chronic lack of sufficient doctors. Most would leave town after one to two years. Worse yet was the state of the Ojibwe Reservation in nearby Vineland on Mille Lacs Lake. Marshall told me how the reservation was made up of tarpaper shacks and how alcohol had despoiled so many of the tribes’ men. He essentially asked me to join him and the volunteer nuns on their mission to serve mankind as it was in Onamia. I did.
I worked as an itinerant internist at the hospital for one year, seeing consults referred to me by the three general practitioners who had their clinic in Onamia. During that time, Marshall and I became close. I would spend two days a week at the hospital, then stay overnight at his family home on the very broad, shallow Mille Lacs Lake, famous for its abundant walleye. Marshall lived alone and so when I stayed at his house he and I would go for dinner at the Blue Goose—a former speakeasy restaurant at one time owned by a famous homegrown gangster, and Meyer Lansky compadre, Kid Cann Blumenfeld (legend has it that as a youth, poverty forced him to sleep in the family’s flop house bathroom, thus earning him his nickname). After dinner and a vodka gimlet or two, Marshall and I would spend hours at his cabin talking about local politics and injustices.
Needless to say, I became a zealot missionary like Marshall, and he and I went on to found a rural healthcare cooperative that helped to urbanize healthcare in Onamia, as well as a number of other rural communities. All that time, I never advertised that I was Jewish, nor did I deny it. It seemed everyone in my orbit knew anyway and it didn’t make any difference. If anything, my being Jewish seemed to make everyone more friendly, more open. It tickles me to relate these enlightening instances:
“Are you Jewish?” a middle-aged male patient once asked me. Before I could answer, the man went on. “I am a bohunk, thou most mistake me for a jack pine savage.” We both laughed.
The Franciscan nuns working at the Onamia hospital (Community Mercy Hospital) were a warm, playful, enlightened bunch who I came to admire. One day a sister told me I looked like Jesus Christ. I was taken aback, but definitely felt it was a compliment in many ways. My response: “Gee, sister, I hope that doesn’t mean you plan to hang me on a cross over the front door of the hospital.” Again, we all had a laugh.
My work in Onamia came to its satisfying conclusion. The hospital, the doctors, all became affiliates of various urban medical centers, removing the stigma of “rural healthcare.” I again was left without a clue as to what to do next. But then there it was, an advertisement in the Journal of the American Medical Association to work in the Trust Territories of the Pacific. To me, it stood out like the proverbial sore thumb. I doubt many others saw it that way. My wife at the time certainly didn’t. I applied anyway. I was bored and distraught and I needed a radical change. Besides, for all of my conscious life I had been a swimmer and a fisherman. What could be better than living on a coral atoll in the middle of the Pacific? The recruiting brochure put out by the US government warned that the locals, the Trukese, were touchy about their taboos and could get surly if offended.
Practicing medicine, living in Truk, was definitely a two-year experience in the third world. But the Trukese didn’t think much about being third worlders. They lived as tribal peoples, sharing all they had. Nobody was poor in that they all had the same. As for being surly, the “advice” turned out to be nonsense. They loved to gossip, to tell tall-tales, to laugh. Most of all, they loved children. I worked out of the hospital and became known for my own tall-tales.
On a visit to Palau, the most beautiful of the Micronesian islands with the most Western style culture, I was approached by a medic I had previously worked with. “Dr. Zuckerman, I want you to know that we Palauns are the Jews of Micronesia,” he told me. I had told no one I was Jewish—not to hide the fact, but because I felt no need to broadcast it. Clearly, the medic was making a two-sided compliment, one that put the Jews, me in particular, as the first in intelligence and the Paulauns a close second by association. I always feel a twinge of uncomfortability when told how bright I am and so I tweaked my brain for a relieving retort. “Well, we Jews are known as the Palauns of the Middle East!” Again, we both laughed, reminding me that everywhere I went the keen witted picked up on the fact that I was Jewish. A joker once said he knew I was Jewish because of my hooked nose before quickly correcting himself. “No,” he said, “it’s because you’re smart and compassionate.”
My Tikkun Olam medical career mostly ended when I retired, except for the fact that I continued to practice among friends and relatives. My last assignment before retiring—the one I was fired from—was as a practicing internist at the Aspen Medical Clinic in Minneapolis. The clinic was the only one serving a poor neighborhood, populated by retired blue-collar patients of Scandinavian stock, younger immigrants from Africa, Somalia, Mexico and South America, urban living Indians from the reservations, you name it. At last, I was to practice as a primary care physician, doing what Kirschenbaum did.
When Kirschenbaum started his practice with his patients, all were Jews, most from the shtetls of Eastern Europe. Jews a world apart from Kirschenbaum’s native Germany. I wonder sometimes if Dr. K spoke Yiddish, the native tongue of his customers. His German would no doubt suffice. Hardly any of my patients were Jewish at the Aspen Clinic, and English was to many a second language. Still, like Kirschenbaum, I was the patients’ doctor, the one responsible for them, the one who year after year kept being there for them. I knew their families, their phobias and foibles. I could tell over the phone what their blood pressure was, I held their confidences and they knew it, trusting me to do my best by them. Those 23-years made me Kirschenbaum. I filled his shoes and filled my heart. Tikkun Olam.
Here’s the latest installment of my ongoing autobiography project. This one steps outside of the chronological storytelling I’ve done up until this point and examines my relationship with religion. Check back next Friday for part 2 of this topic, which looks at how my Jewish faith helped carve my path to becoming a doctor.
I can’t ever remember my father or mother attending synagogue. I am sure they must have, like on the day I was Bar Mitzvah at the 102-year-old orthodox temple, known as the Clymer Street shul in Williamsburg, Brooklyn, on the corner of Bedford Avenue and Clymer Street. The shul had a large pew-filled main prayer area with highly sloped balconies—the women’s sections—on three sides. It was my maternal grandfather’s shul as well as that of my family’s doctor, Gabriel Kirschenbaum. The congregation originally founded a shul on the lower east side of Manhattan that was called the Buskin Synagogue, as most of its congregants had immigrated from Brest-Litovsk in what is now called Belarus. When the shul’s members migrated across John Roebling’s Brooklyn Bridge, over the East River to the promised land of Williamsburg, they built the Clymer Street Synagogue in their new home. When the shul burned down in 1971, it was Dr. Kirschenbaum who raised the $400,000 to build a new one.
I attended Saturday (Shabbos) morning services as a child with my maternal grandfather. The shul was always full, mostly with old men with beards who smelled of snuff and who were imbued with ritual and prayed in tongues (Hebrew). They mumbled, rapid-fire, through their pray books, reading psalms they had memorized by repetition. I never felt a part of the ceremony. I could not read Hebrew that fast even at my best—I faked the reading, turning the pages to keep up with the men of the congregation. I stopped when they stopped, davened when they davened, bowing slightly forward and back. Or when more exuberant, twisting side to side.
What a relief it was when the three hour service came to a conclusion. How the old timers manage to stay upright through the extended portions of the ceremony that required standing always impressed me, a 10-year-old, who could barely manage the task. Immediately, when services were over, the whole congregation fast-footed it into a large back room set up with folding tables and white tablecloths. On the tables were treats provided by the family of whoever was Bar Mitzvahed that day. All sorts of cakes and cookies, especially sponge cakes, shared space with bowls of pickled herring and platers of home baked challahs. Sweet kosher wine was a must, though the main attraction was always the bottles of Schnapps. The congregation held back until the baruchas (prayers) over wine and bread were said. Then quick action was necessary by the congregants, my grandfather included, to get hold of a bottle of Schnapps, pour a full measure into a white paper shot cup and then throw it down. The schnapps didn’t last long at the mercy of these professional schnorrers.
My grandfather owned a candy store on the major intersection of Roebling and Division Avenue, in the heart of Williamsburg. He and his wife, Rose, had both come to the US as children from a dissolving shtetel world in eastern Poland in the early part of the twentieth century. Rose was a Reiss, the only aristocratic bloodline in my family. Doctors, professors, artists and impresarios. My great uncle Lionel, my grandma Rose’s youngest brother, was a self-taught and successful artist, in spite of his parents’ horror at his career choice. Being an artist entailed creating human images—a sin against Jewish law. He was warned of God’s revenge for creating such craven pictures; false idols to worship to, such as the Jews of the exodus had done by creating the golden calf in the Sinai Desert of old. Ironically, his greatest fame was for the images of Jewish faces that he documented in his epic bicycle expedition through Eastern Europe. He did this in the early 1920s with the purpose of sketching the Jewish faces of the people of the pale to try to determine if there was a Jewish facial anatomic identity. As such, he foreshadowed Hitler’s sinister desire. He found none, but his “G-dless” portraits of Shtetl Jews became, with Roman Vichniacs’ surreptitiously recorded photos of the 1930’s, the main archive of the faces of those who lived a way of life soon to be annihilated. Lionel traced the Reiss’s back to Iberia and their exodus at the time of the Spanish inquisition. Rather than converting to Catholicism, going underground (secretly practicing Judaism), or sailing to the Caribbean or Holland, the Reiss’s decided to head east through Germany to end up in eastern Poland. A few hundred years later (around 1905), they headed west, landing at Ellis Island and settling on Manhattan’s Lower East Side.
None of my relatives ever mentioned any Rabbis in our past, or philosophers or union leaders. As for my maternal grandfather and both my paternal grandparents, their backgrounds were “non”-distinguished. Tailors, small businessmen with partial high school educations, they had street smarts and were, as a whole, a-religious. In fact, I don’t think any of my father’s family even celebrated Passover, though my maternal grandparents did. I have drunk sweet kosher ceremonial wine since the age of four at Passover Seders. I learned the four questions (fer Kochees) and, as the youngest, dreaded the moment I would be called to sing them. (Monish tanah Hillilah hizer! Why is this night different from any other?) Always the same questions and always the same answers.
Well, not exactly the same, as Passover evoked an advertising blitz that was accomplished by Kosher food companies creating their own private label: Haggedahs (Passover prayer book). These were replete with stunning pictures, crafted lettering, both English and Hebrew text, and unique variations on the exodus story. The main elements of the story were, however, always the same. Bad Egyptians, enslaved Jews, Moses, the foundling bulrush Jewish boy who becomes a mumbling Egyptian prince, and then, probably the greatest Jewish leader in the religion’s 4,000 year history. Then there were the ten plagues that visited Egypt, the splitting of the Red Sea and drowning of Pharos’s army, the forty years of arduous tribulation in the Sinai Desert that included an ever-present, paternalistic G_d, the giving of the Ten Commandments, the idolization of the golden calf and the ever-loved Matzah. All this mishegoss (craziness in Yiddish) had to be waded through before we could reach the promised Passover meal!
When we moved to Queens, I studied Torah and my Haf Torah (my Bar Mitzvah prayers), with a somewhat emaciated gentle older man. After my Bar Mitzvah, I rarely attended official Jewish functions other than family events (Bar and Bat Mitzvahs, weddings, funerals). I had no idea if a G-d existed, nor did I think much about it. My life was focused on becoming a doctor and being a Jew played no role in achieving that goal. While I felt a kinship with other Jews, it was an uneasy one as I knew so little and did so little that would support my Jewishness. My gentile friends would often embarrass me by asking me “Jewish” questions: “Where do Jews think the dead go? Do you have a heaven and hell? Do you keep kosher? Why did the Jews kill Christ?” I often confabulated answers rather than embarrass myself by admitting my ignorance and disinterest. I even re-read the interesting parts of the Original (old is not a suitable term) Testament on my own. It did little to connect me to a living G-d. I saw films about Hassidics, about Jews in Israel (where it was comforting to find out that few went to synagogue, or observed the Sabbath, but still felt they were good Jews). I went to Israel with my children. I felt I was Jewish, I felt my open-minded curiosity, my ability to think for myself (a gift I attribute to my mother), to learn, to explore, to understand. These were Jewish traits. But still, I had only inklings of a G-d-driven master plan for the chosen people.
I certainly felt outside of that plan, especially around the Hassidic, the ultra orthodox, who my “conservative” grandfather despised for the separate Jewish world they had created in Williamsburg. This world consisted of mini-synagogues with separate women’s prayer sections and dressing in “un-American,” unassimilated ways (tsitses, flowing black robes, fur-lined hates, payees). Those Jews avidly read, studied, and debated the original testament and the writings of the great Jewish Rabbis and scholars. These were the firm keepers of the Jewish flame.
Me? I was a genetic “thoroughbred” Jew who knew not what it meant to be a Jew. As much as I was ashamed at my lacking, I didn’t much try to be otherwise. In late 1999, I went to Israel with my Christian second wife, who, like my first wife, was intrigued by Judaism’s role as the roots of their religious beliefs. I made sure they understood that Jesus was of the house of David (like me, I would tell them). It was Simchat torah when we arrived and a merry band of Hasidic evangelist men and children had setup shop in an elevated part of the square in Tel Aviv, right outside our hotel’s entrance. A three-piece band played familiar Jewish tunes. The men and children danced, and we, my wife and I, sat on a nearby bench to watch. A dancer approached, “Are you Jewish?” he asked in English.
“Yes,” I answered.
He grabbed my hand. “Come and dance with us.”
What the hell? I thought. The music’s beat encouraged my sense of abandon. I danced and toddlers were put on my shoulders, a fur-lined hat on my head. These are my brethren, they accept me, and maybe they would yank me into their orthodox cult in the twinkling of an eye. A feeling of epiphany gripped me and my dancing feet. My shame, my sense of Jewish inadequacy faded, at least for the moment.
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.
I’m taking a brief break this week to focus on writing and life. But check back in next Friday for the next installment of my ongoing autobiography project (posted every Friday to my blog!). A hint: this next essay is called “Summer Sex.” You won’t want to miss it!
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!