A Stuffed Nose
wake up with a head cold and a blocked nose. It's January, and the Victorian "paintedlady" I live in, beautiful and built in 1885, has no heat. Did I really move to San Francisco to feel this cold? I thought I was moving to the tropics.
On mornings like this, my mind takes me back to winters in the Bronx, fifty years ago. As a child, I'd wake up too early, struggling to force air through my nose; my throat would be dry from mouth breathing. I'd feel the cold air leaking in from the street. Huddling under the covers, I listened to the sounds of our neighbors going off to work. Then, with a sudden banging of the radiator, the steam heat would come on.
We lived in a walk-in apartment at sidewalk level, and passers-by could easily look inside. Our lives were intimately entwined with the noises of the street: cheers for the boys playing stickball in the gutter; the slap of the pink spaldeen against the tenement wall; car horns honking; people laughing or screaming at each other; the hawkers yelling about their wares ("Rags and Bones and Bottles and Bags," they'd cry, or "I Cash Clothes"); the clop of the horse's hooves as the vegetable wagon trundled by; and the heavy clatter of the push cart bringing jelly apples and marshmallows.
Ours was a two-room apartment. In the bedroom, my mother and I slept in two twin beds, next to an old upright piano, on which the family's little genius (me) could practice. Through the doorway was the all-purpose room, a combination kitchen, dining room, living room, and bedroom, where Dad spent the nights on a Castro Convertible Sofa.
On those winter mornings, it could be snowing. In the blizzard of '48 - or was it '47? - the snow was so high that we had to tunnel out of our apartment. We kids had many happy hours of play as thawing black rivulets turned our winter wonderland into a dirty heap of ice and slush. "This is the only place in the world where the snow is black," we would joke.
Lying in bed, nostrils stuffed, I would be trying to determine how sick I was. Was I well enough to get up and go to school? Usually, I was. Education was the most important thing in my household. In our working-class Jewish neighborhood, the children were sent to school to better themselves. My father wanted me to have the tools to understand what was really going on in the world. He'd talk to me about racism and union busting. So, urged on by my mother, I'd get up and run into the bathroom. In the winter, sitting down on the ice-cold toilet seat was an agony and a nightmare. I can feel it now.
I'd wash as little as possible and get dressed. Under my skirt, I wore "woollies", woolen panties that hung down; they felt like spider webs on my thighs. We girls all had to wear skirts to school then. Long socks and sensible oxfords kept our feet and calves warm, but what about the knees? My knees were always exposed to the elements; they were usually bleeding and scabby, too, from my regular falls on the slippery sidewalk.
Once my blouse and sweater were on, I'd start sneezing uncontrollably. This would make my mother feel guilty about sending me out into the cold. I'd look at her slyly to see what effect I was having, but she'd steel herself and hurry me along to the dining room table. If Dad was home, we might have hot Wheatena, but if he'd already left for work, Mom knew I wouldn't eat it, so she gave me Cheerios, orange juice, and a glass of milk. I was in love with the Lone Ranger, and Cheerios sponsored his radio program on WJZ.
Then Mom would stand behind my chair and the final torture would begin: she'd braid my hair. She'd always do it while I was eating breakfast. She would pull the hair taut off my scalp until I felt as if the skin on my face would come with it. I'd yell, "Stop it! You're hurting me!"
My mother was born in Bukavina in the Carpathian Mountains, a province of the old Austro-Hungarian Empire. She'd gone to public school in New York City. Still, as the proverb has it, you can take the girl out of the Carpathians but you can't take the Carpathians out of the girl. I have Bukavina to thank for my morning torment.
Despite my loud protests ("Stop it! I'm calling the police!"), Mom would continue combing and braiding until the job was done. Then she'd nag me because I didn't finish my breakfast.
We never had leisurely breakfasts. Other American families did - the families I heard on the radio soap opera if I was really sick and got to stay home for a day. Those Americans were in the Dick and Jane readers at school, too. They had large, well-appointed homes, tree lined streets and they were always polite to one another. Money was never an issue. Those people didn't live anywhere that I had ever seen.
Overcoat, scarf, woolen hat, gloves, rubber overshoes, and I was out the door. As I hit the cold, my nostrils closed up completely, and I sucked in the frosty air through my open mouth. Padded against the cold, I moved like a small, round tank down Walton Avenue to the corner of 170th Street. There I waited for Officer O'Brien, our favorite policeman, to help me cross. This was in the 1940s; the policeman was still our friend. Another half a block and I was at PS64, my home away from home. I'd made it. I was ready for another day of learning how to read and write and, if the teachers had their way, to be a good American citizen.
It was a time of hope. World War II was over; Hitler had been stopped. The McCarthy purges, which were soon to make my father's life a misery, had not yet started. Post-war prosperity was slowly trickling down to our Bronx neighborhood. My friends and I had change to buy charlotte russes and egg creams at the corner candy store. We went roller skating on the sidewalks and on Saturday afternoons we crowded into the local movie theater to watch serials and musicals. Every once in a while, my family ate out at the Chinese restaurant on 170th Street.
The West Bronx was the center of my universe. I was happy there, at least for a while.