March 13, 2005

A Personal Walk Through Time

My dad was born and raised on the Lower East Side of Manhattan in the early 1920s. His family was low-to-middle class, mostly sitting toward the lower end of that scale. He and his two brothers shared a single bedroom from the day they were born until they each left the nest. None of them ever complained. His “home,” as a young boy was a tenement building near the Bowery.

Dad always had stories to tell and man, did he tell them well! Through him, I learned about the ice man delivering huge blocks by way of hoisting them up the side of the buildings right into the kitchen window. I learned about the corner butcher who would occasionally throw in an extra pork chop if you always paid your bill on time; people didn’t need to have cash upon every visit, he’d just run up a tab for them. Stick ball was played in the streets and you knew every single neighbor for two square blocks. In the city, that’s a lot of neighbors.

With no television or telephone in the house (his earlier years), families and neighbors did a lot of visiting in the evenings and on weekends. In his extended family, everyone could play at least one musical instrument, and they’d all gather in the living room to entertain one another with their talents. It didn’t matter if you were pitchy or scratchy, everyone sang along.

No matter what you did throughout the daytime ~ whether it was work, school, or just hanging around on the corner playing marbles or stick ball ~ at dinnertime, everyone converged in the kitchen and the family ate together. There was something almost sacred about this ritual. I have kept this up in my own household as well. I love it.

One of dad’s stories that is ever-present in my mind was the time he and his gang of friends, (gang had a whole different meaning back then), went off to the Central Park Zoo. Some of them had a few beers in them and started goofing around when they arrived - walking on the lawn where they weren’t supposed to and tossing peanuts to the monkeys (another no-no).

One of the guys scaled the waist-high fence that was put in place to keep people back from the old black bars of the Polar bear cage. The guy started to taunt the enormous bear to come closer and closer. As he stood with his back against the bars, suddenly his friends called out in horror as they saw the bear take one swipe and rip the boy’s entire arm from its socket. One swipe. A drunken (or sober) teenage boy is no match for a Polar bear. My dad said this happened within a split second. It stayed with him forever. It will stay with me forever.

Dad talked about his childhood quite a bit, and though he wasn’t an overtly emotional man, I could see a glint in his eye with each new story. He loved recalling his youth.

I chose this as my post topic today because I was surfing around earlier and located a website for the Lower East Side Tenement Museum. If I knew how to insert a link inside my posts, I’d share the URL but I haven’t advanced that far yet in my blogging career. Soon.

A couple of faithful readers have stated that they would love to visit NYC one day, and I can’t think of a finer and more detailed tourist attraction to recommend than this museum. After all, thousands upon thousands of immigrants started out in this area, in these buildings, in these crowded apartments, speaking their own languages and learning to speak an all new one (English) ~ which would be passed down to their families throughout many lifetimes. Jews got along with their German neighbors, and Italians lived quite happily among the Irishmen. Local merchants trusted people and nobody tried to outdo the Joneses; basically because in those times, you just couldn’t ~ and it just didn’t matter.

I was thrilled to tears to have had an opportunity to visit this Tenement Museum a couple of years ago while showing my fiancé around the city. It turned out, for me, to be quite a spiritual trip. Not in a religious sense, but in an “affecting the very soul of me” sense. We took the tour (which is laughably inexpensive), and were guided through two different tenement buildings which were preserved just as they had been abandoned some eighty years earlier. There were personal belonging inside: shoes, tablecloths and complete table settings, beds with blankets, overcoats hanging on hooks in the wall, mugs dangling over a crude stove and walls ~ oh the old, old walls ~ featuring paint chips that allowed you to count the various coats that had been painted over.

For effect, our tour guide was dressed in period clothing and proudly spoke in her genuine Ukranian accent. As she led us up the creaking stairs to one of the sample apartments, we passed a universal bathroom in the hallway. People shared everything back then, and without shame.

When we entered the dimly lit apartment, I swear to you I fully expected my grandmother to come in from the other room. Now, I never met my grandmother on dad’s side, because she had passed away long before I was born, but this place had such a familiarity about it ~ just based on all of dad’s stories ~ that it was easily imagined. I could “smell” her cooking ~ possibly bratwurst and sauerkraut. My mother had Grandma’s old recipe tin and would often try her hardest to replicate these fine German meals.

The most touching and personal part of my visit was revealed in a simple mug which had been left on a table. It was an exact copy of the very mugs my father would sip his tea from night after night following dinner each night of my own youth. No designs, no print, no color… just this ceramic off-white mug. There it sat on a small, kitchen table ~ and it was able to sweep me directly into my father’s youth. Imagine this? Great, great stuff.

Walking through the rooms I could sense what it must have been like for him to look out the front window and have his friends calling on him for a game of stick ball before dinner. I leaned out the kitchen window visualizing the ice man … and “hearing” the cowbell on the knife-sharpening truck as it crept past the building. Crude fixtures and sconces on the walls made me wish like hell that I had been born in that era.

I, too, like to reminisce about my youth, my teens, my life. For me it’s a means to recapture some of the magic of days past. Oh there’s magic in days present as well, but not to the extent that this walk through history provided.

(I will gladly provide the web address for the museum, though a Google search on “Lower East Side Tenement Museum” will get you there if you’re interested – they even provide a virtual tour)

19 Comments:

Blogger Wally said...

Carol.

I will have to check that site out. I've always seemed to find myself stepping back into the past, as well as fondly remembering the many stories that my parents and grandparents had to tell. I really enjoyed reading about your personal walk, and I'm sure you have many other great memories. When you had once told me "sameness", I have found it to become more truer every day.

10:55 PM  
Blogger Swifty said...

This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.

4:13 AM  
Blogger Swifty said...

This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.

4:16 AM  
Blogger Swifty said...

A beautifully written reverential piece of work. It's strange isn't it how we tend to look back into the time of our parents and experience a yearning to live as we imagine they did. Personally, I gain a lot of comfort from looking at old family photographs, marvelling at the beauty of my mother, and the lean handsome figure of my father as a young soldier.

Back to your incomparable best, this compares with your High School piece.

Thank you so much

4:18 AM  
Blogger blue2go said...

Good story! It's fun to check out the past, there's so much to LEARN from the past. More than just nostalgia.

7:23 AM  
Blogger Sask 1 said...

Im going to check out that site.I love historical things and it must be doubly interesting for you having your fathers memories to look back on.
June

10:15 AM  
Blogger Becky said...

My story teller was my paternal grandmother, and I miss her and her stories so very much. She was a very refined little southern woman, who told me the most wonderful stories of speakeasys and bathtub gin. She and her bridge ladies even taught me to do the jitterbug one afternoon. She and the bridge ladies would drink Bailey's and "good bourbon" and bet money on their bridge hands. Oh, what a fun bunch they were!

11:14 AM  
Blogger CarpeDM said...

Carol,

Thanks so much for sharing this story. It made me realize I really do not know that much about my family history and I think I'll have to investigate it more. I do know that the original members of my family came here from France but I'm not even sure when that was.

My father was born in 1924 but was never much of a storyteller that I can remember. He did pass on his love of reading to me and we did have a great time talking about authors. He had a wonderful sense of humor (well, more of a dark and sarcastic sense of humor) that he passed on to me.

Unfortunately, he was an alcoholic and that affected our relationship. I regret that I did not speak to him for the last three years of his life and wish I could go back and forgive him before he died.

Thank you for a touching post.

2:58 PM  
Blogger Grant said...

Great post. Most of my youngest years were spent in ultra-rural Kentucky. My childhood memories are filled with snakes so I have no desire to revisit them, but I'm glad you got to tour through yours.

4:10 PM  
Blogger NYCbeauty said...

Carol,
You are a terrific story teller. I hear similar stories from my parents (and used to from my grandparents) and it really brings me back. It's really easy to post a link in your blog: just follow this formula :

insert the text you want highlighted

Hope that helps! Thanks for visiting my blog.WHEN I figure out how to link to blogs down the margin of my page, I will certainly link to you!
-Jennifer

6:33 PM  
Blogger Carol (Smiles and Laughter) said...

Great story, Carol. I, too, enjoy hearing my father's stories about childhood. So much to learn, and you are so blessed that you can tour that meseum and go back in time just a bit.

(and thanks for visiting my blog!)

-Carol

6:53 PM  
Blogger happyandblue2 said...

That story was amazing. Thank you..

7:33 PM  
Blogger Swifty said...

Hi, it's me again,

Once again I have to mention the historical value of a lot of your writing. It's not just personal nostalgia, but also allows others to get a flavour of times past; as you did in the most exemplary fashion with your 'High School' piece.

Don

4:20 AM  
Blogger John said...

Great story Carol. This makes me want to visit NYC more so. So much to see...

7:13 AM  
Blogger pete said...

Yeah, I was definitely born in the wrong generation! :)

4:38 PM  
Blogger anumita said...

You dad had a great life... and you have told it well. I can imagine what a great story teller he must have been. Like they say, it's not so much the story but the way it is related that moves us.
Keep it up, Carol!

8:00 AM  
Blogger Tricorn said...

Wow.

Your post made me want to hug my parents once more tonight, Carol.

I thank thee on behalf of my puzzled parents!

You're really good, Carol! I can't wait to read all your other posts tonight! ^_^

11:07 AM  
Blogger GratisGab said...

You write beautifully! I've only read this one piece but I plan to read them all. This one reminded me of stories that my grandfather used to tell when we would visit him (this was in a small village in southern India)..he loved to talk of those pre-independence days and the pride that shone in his eyes when he recounted how just leading regular lives required so much courage…his stories would inevitably bring this huge lump in my throat every time..

I will be back, keep writing!

4:40 PM  
Blogger brooksba said...

Carol,

Finally, Blogger is going to let me comment!

This was a wonderfully written post. As always, I was thrilled to find a new post and a new story. You are truly talented.

I love hearing stories of generations past. I was lucky enough to form an interest in geneaology early in life and got to interview older family members before it was too late. I even convinced my parents that our family vacation should be spent inside court houses in Ohio one year!

This post makes me want to visit NYC as well.

Keep the great posts coming!

Beth

4:14 AM  

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