Dad: A Bronx Man's Man
y dad, Irving “Sonny” Schulberg, Bronx born and bred, and who passed away in 1982,just shy of age 72 in his Co-op City apartment, was the product of a broken home. Dad, his parents and siblings lived in the neighborhood aligned with Morris High School. Sometime during his youth in the 1920s, his dad walked out on his mom, older sister, younger brother, and him. During that period there was no such thing as alimony or child support, so when my grandfather left, my grandmother, who had been a homemaker, as most of her generation was, took a job. My aunt, who already had a job working for the City of New York, but had been allowed to keep her pay for herself, had to contribute her pay to the household, and Dad left Morris High School to take a job and contribute his pay to the household as well. My uncle was allowed to continue schooling as far as he could go.
The years wore on, the ‘20s became the ‘30s, and my grandfather died - in the residence of a paramour. Dad was a great athlete, particularly in baseball. One of his jobs was as a Catskills hotel athletic director. During this period, he was offered to play on a Brooklyn Dodgers farm team in North Carolina. In those years, farm team players were not paid and had to be self-sustaining. As Dad was expected to contribute money to the household, he had to forego the Dodgers farm team opportunity. My uncle graduated Morris High School and went on to Texas A&M’s college and veterinary school, becoming a veterinarian. The collective earnings of my grandmother, aunt and dad covered my uncle’s college and veterinary school tuition, room and board.
Fast forward to 1939, and my grandmother, aunt, uncle and dad were now living on River Avenue, directly across the street from Yankee Stadium. My aunt got married, moving her husband into the apartment and her bedroom, at about the same time Dad was drafted into the army and my uncle enlisted. During the war, dad became an officer and tank commander, serving heroically in the Battle of the Bulge and winning a Silver Star. He also forwarded his army pay to my grandmother to continue helping with the family finances.
After the war, Dad left the army, and married my Bronx mom, a Roosevelt High School graduate, having met her before the war. They set up a household in the Morrisania section of the Bronx. From Dad’s army experience, for whatever the positives, he decided he did not want to answer to a chain of command, and promised himself that for the rest of his life he would always be self-employed. That commitment was kept. Dad became a wholesaler of meat. He had a truck and early every morning he would drive to packing houses on Westchester Avenue in the South Bronx, load up with boxes of meat, many in excess of seventy pounds, and then make rounds in the South Bronx and in Spanish Harlem, selling to butchers whom he had established as customers. As a one-man business, Dad was the “company” accountant, buyer, salesperson, and deliveryman.
I was born in 1949, and a sister was born in 1958. Growing up, as a result of my nagging, I would be allowed to occasionally work with Dad during school holidays and summer breaks. Seeing how rough the neighborhoods were that he traversed, I asked him why he didn’t carry a weapon for protection, knowing of his army firearms training. His answer was that he believed carrying a weapon could potentially make for more trouble than it would prevent. He said that if trouble came knocking, in lieu of a weapon he would address it as best he could. I didn’t probe further, but was quite taken by dad’s willingness to confront danger without use of a weapon. As it turned out, for all his years of working, he was never accosted or robbed.
Most of the customers of the butchers that Dad supplied were on welfare. As such, the butchers could not charge high prices for their goods and my dad could not add a large mark-up to what he sold them. The result was that dad’s income was modest at best. Mom had to work as well, not only to supplement the family income, but for benefits such as health insurance. But I can’t say that my sister or I ever felt deprived.
Dad was a quiet man who minded his own business, and practiced a live-and-let-live philosophy. Dad always backed up the United States, the state and city of New York, and the borough of The Bronx. He was as honest as they came; a loyal family man, visiting my grandmother every Sunday until she died in 1960, faithful to and adoring of his wife (he would never think of cheating), supportive and loving of my sister, my wife, me and, for the short time he had with them, our two young sons. He was never money-hungry, did not gamble or curse, and after a heart attack in 1961, was personally disciplined in his physical habits. He watched his weight and diet, and did not smoke. Moreover, Dad was quite handsome in a distinguished way, sort of resembling the older Sean Connery. At my wedding, in a tux, Dad cut quite a figure. He was a man comfortable in his own skin, and never felt the need to experiment with different looks or wear the latest fashions. Dad was always clean shaven and had his hair cut regularly.
Mindful of my mom working, Dad readily helped with the cooking, and dishwashing, and was extremely tidy so as to minimize any excessive cleaning needed in the apartment. While Mom was clearly the more outgoing of the two, when friends and relatives visited our apartment generally at her invitation, Dad was an accommodating and congenial host. Together with Mom, he encouraged my sister and me to pursue higher education, which we did.
Dad was an avid New York sports fan who enjoyed watching on television New York sports teams, particularly the N.Y. Mets. Dad was turned off to the Yankees which I believe was because he resented them not having pursued the acquisition of a home-grown Bronx boy, Hank Greenberg, whom my dad played baseball against in their youth (Greenberg had attended Monroe High School). Dad also read the New York newspapers from first to last page and was always conversant on the issues of the day. Additionally, over a period of time, he read the dictionary from cover to cover. He was a most literate man who mastered crossword puzzles, and the game of un-jumbling mixed-up words. Most impressive was that Dad could write extremely well despite his limited formal education.
With a dad who was a great athlete, a war hero, had backbone enough to generate his own income rather than be on another’s payroll, and whose personal traits were above reproach, he was both my idol and a man’s man, more specifically a Bronx man’s man.
I miss Dad greatly.