My Grandfather and His Two Bronx Neighborhoods
y maternal grandfather, Harry Rothstein, was a very unusual man. To amuse myself and my brother, he made up imaginary characters - three bears known as Whoopie, Snoopy and Little Blackberry. He referred to us playfully as "vipers," from the biblical verse about a "generation of vipers," and kept lots of toys and games for us in the house. Short, bald and overweight, he humorously referred to his big stomach as "de corporation."
Although my grandmother did most of the cooking, he would occasionally make pancakes for us, which we considered great fun. In addition, he had a real love of animals. And he would often sing songs in a high funny voice, often with the nonsense syllables "ee-ee-ee, ee-ee-ee! This would often be followed by his trademark line, "Take dat!" And when he got a little upset, he'd say, "Vot you tink dis is? A picnic?"
Grandpa also had his serious side. Although an immigrant and a blue-collar worker, he had little formal education outside of a year or two of night high school. He was self-educated and must have had a hundred books, both in Yiddish and in English. Most of these were by Sholem Aleichem, Mark Twain, Jack London, Upton Sinclair, Edgar Allen Poe and other writers who were either from "his era" or were considered classics when he came here. As for Grandma, she was an opera aficionado and loved Shakespeare's plays.
Grandpa and Grandma were both born in the same area of what is now Belarus, although they didn't know each other until they had come to the United States. After they got married, they lived first in East Harlem, then on Crotona Park North in the East Bronx.
Around 1935, they moved a few blocks away to 1700 Crotona Park East, one of the fanciest apartment buildings in the neighborhood, with an elevator, three stairways, a huge lobby, a courtyard and, in the early days, a doorman. "We never would have been able to afford it if not for the Depression," my mother said. And it is true that during the 1930s, rents went down and every building had at least one empty apartment. Still, in the beginning, my grandparents had to "double up" with Grandpa's beautician sister and her husband; they later moved to their own apartment in the same building.
When I was a young child, I loved going to Grandpa and Grandma's house. To get there from Boston Road, where the subway was, you walked up a gently-sloping "step street" on 173rd. I especially loved going to Crotona Park. My most vivid memory of the park is walking to Indian Lake and marveling at seeing some other kid flying a remote-controlled model airplane. In later years, groups of conga and bongo players would play in the park for hours, and my grandfather would compliment them, "Dat Pablo is a good drummer!"
In their apartment, you always saw things there that only "old people" had, like tooth powder instead of toothpaste. Another novelty they had that we didn't have at home was an old-fashioned clothes line with ropes and pulleys, stretching from their living-room window across the back yard to the next building. From the back yard, you sometimes heard what sounded to me like operatic singing. "That's the cantor," I was told. Apparently some famous khazen lived in the neighborhood..
But by the time I was ten years old, my mother started telling me that the neighborhood was "becoming rundown." Later on, Mom told me that "at first, the old people sat on the sidewalk in front of the building. Then they became afraid and only sat inside the courtyard. Then, they didn't go outside at all." At some point, the building's laundry room shut down because there had been too many muggings. When I was fifteen or so I decided, against my better judgment, to take a walk in the park by myself and got hit by a BB gun.
So, in 1968, when I was sixteen, Grandma and Grandpa, along with Grandma's sister Matilda, moved to a new apartment on Lydig and Wallace Avenues, near Pelham Parkway. The building, 2110 Wallace Avenue, was somewhat newer than 1700 Crotona Park East, and you walked through an open entrance to an inner courtyard, where you had three or four "sub-buildings," each with its own entrance, elevator and stairway. Here, I could walk around all I wanted, so I began to explore the neighborhood.
It soon became apparent that there was a big difference between my own neighborhood, Marble Hill in the Northwest Bronx, and the Pelham Parkway area. Marble Hill was very mixed - Jews, Blacks, Italians, Irish, Greeks and Puerto Ricans. But the south side of Pelham Parkway in 1968 was probably around ninety-five percent Jewish (as indeed Crotona Park had been years before). There were about half a dozen synagogues within a few blocks - the Pelham Parkway Jewish Center, the Reform synagogue a block or so from White Plains Road, the tiny Roosevelt synagogue, the Educational Jewish Center on the north side of the parkway, and others. Of course, my devoutly non-religious grandfather, an old-time leftist, didn't go to any of them, but that's another story.
Unlike Crotona Park East, 2110 Wallace was a stone's throw from a big shopping area, and many of the stores reflected this Jewish orientation. You had the Zion kosher deli, the vegetarian restaurant that served dishes like blintzes, vegetarian chopped liver and borscht with sour cream; you also had the old-style bakeries that sold hamentaschen, babka and black-and-white cookies. Near the end of Lydig, toward the Dyre Avenue line, you had a store selling Jewish religious items like tallises and yarmulkes. And on the weekends, you'd see hundreds of old immigrant men and women on the benches on Pelham Parkway itself, talking in both Yiddish and English, reading Yiddish newspapers.
Of course, like in every neighborhood, Pelham Parkway also had non-ethnic businesses, like Olinsky's supermarket, the Six Brothers diner, and Carvel, where the local teenagers hung out. Grandpa often took us to the Six Brothers as well as to a little Chinese restaurant on Lydig Avenue where you walked down a flight of stairs. One store that always intrigued me was a small health food store on White Plains Road near Brady Avenue. They sold most of their food, like lentils, nuts and beans, not in packages but from bins.
One last word on the stores - when Grandma, Grandpa and Matilda moved in, there was an untidy, hole-in-the-wall store around the corner that sported the clumsily hand-written sign "Hot Pullets" and sold freshly killed chickens. Soon, it went out of business, and we began to see new activity inside. We asked a neighbor whether something better was coming in. "No, somet'eeng even voise," the old gent said, shaking his head. Soon, the new store opened - one that sold gravestones and monuments.
Probably because Grandpa, Grandma and Matilda were already in their 70s when they moved to Lydig and Wallace, they didn't make many new friends. One woman in the building whom my Aunt Matilda befriended was Mrs. Schnapper. She didn't share any of my grandparents' intellectual, political or cultural interests. She was, said Matilda, "a plain woman." One day, while I was visiting, she came downstairs and started advertising the virtues of her granddaughter. "Just lest year, she spent de hull summer een Israel, in dees kind of kemp, how you say, kaboo!" Of course, the word was "kibbutz," but I didn't have the heart to tell her.
During the summers, my grandparents and Matilda usually went to their bungalow upstate, where Grandpa and his friends, usually other retired house painters and paperhangers, spent their time playing pinochle or chess. When they did the latter, one of them would be sure to say, "Check, meester!" And there would always be a few bottles of Piels or Ruppert around.
One summer when I was around twenty-one, I finally prevailed upon my parents to let me stay in Grandma and Grandpa's apartment for two weeks. I fantasized about meeting a young woman my age, one with long hair, a peasant blouse, sandals and jeans, and beginning a relationship. Alas! The most exciting thing I did those two weeks was doing the laundry downstairs, surrounded by a bunch of old ladies. Hippie chicks on Lydig Avenue were few and far between.
Grandma died in 1976, Grandpa and Aunt Matilda the following year. When Grandpa died, I was in graduate school in Boston. A week or so beforehand, I called him at his hospital bed. "Maybe I'll come to visit you and see Boston," he said in a weak voice. I knew he never would.
Over the years, I found myself in the Pelham Parkway area once in awhile. At first, it was because I had a close friend who lived on the north side of the Parkway; later, it was when my wife and I went to the Zoo. I saw the old stores go out of business, one by one, to be replaced by unfamiliar enterprises. The old people died out. At first, we thought the neighborhood would become as Russian as Brighton Beach. Russians started coming even when my grandparents were still alive. But today, it's a melting pot - Russians, Latinos, Albanians, Asians and others.
Whenever I brought up life after death or other religious beliefs, my grandfather would dismiss "all of dat nonsense." But I know better. Somewhere up there, in a place suspiciously resembling a Pelham Parkway apartment, Grandpa and one of his old buddies from the Painters and Paperhangers Union are playing chess, with a bottle of Knickerbocker beer, some fruit and some slices of pound cake nearby. The TV is playing "All in the Family," a show Grandpa loved. The bookcase is nearby, with its familiar bust of FDR. And every once in awhile, Grandpa turns to the other guy and says, "Check, meester! Take dat!"