ISSUE 15
February 2001

Harry Marten

 

Harry Marten teaches at Union College where he is Edward E. Hale, Jr., Professor of English. He has written books on Conrad Aiken and Denise Levertov, and has published in The New York Times Book Review, The Washington Post Book World, Agenda, ELH, The Gettysburg Review, The New England Review, The Ohio Review, and other magazines and journals. "The Grandfather Tapes" is part of a book he's completing entitled Your Memory Goes First, a work of creative nonfiction about the nature of memory, family, old age, and storytelling.
The Grandfather Tapes   


Philip and Abe: Once upon a Time

Twenty-seven years ago my grandfather and father sat in the living room of my father's Bronx apartment and talked together into a large gray Webcor reel-to-reel tape recorder. In order to be heard over the rumble of the Woodlawn-Jerome IRT subway and the wail of the Montefiore Hospital ambulances passing nearby, they had to speak directly into the black cone-shaped microphone. I picture my grandfather, age eighty-six and in his last year of life, concentrating all his energy and holding tight to the mike. He is talking about his life. My father prods him gently; asks questions; jokes with familiar irony. My grandfather is impatient with facts which seem to explain nothing, but he has a firm sense of sequence and will not be rushed past essential moments. He was born—he stumbles with the first question—in 1985—1895—1885. Dates don't mean much, and names don't seem to matter, either.

"Now where in this wide world were you born?" my father asks.

"In Russia."

"Where in Russia, Pop?"

"In a city. A small city."

"What's the name of the city, Pop?"

"Libashein."

"Was that Litvak or Galitzianer?"

"Litvak."

The growing frustration is clear in my grandfather's voice, perhaps because he doesn't know what's expected and seems to keep getting it wrong as my father gradually pulls information out of him, or perhaps because he has his own tale to tell and names and dates are just distractions that get in the way. Perhaps, because this is his story and not history, the proper start is "Once upon a time." Russia is just a word to me anyway—not a mapped geography but a sound filled with vague ancestral suggestiveness. Of course I could research the matter, locate my grandfather's small city after learning how to spell it, put my pen on a map, and trace back through history's boundary shifts and name changes to mark his Lithuanian location, but in the years I've had these tapes, wrapped in a clear plastic chrysalis and stored on a bookshelf among favorite stories by Dickens and Conrad, the landscape has remained as elusive and mysterious to me as Marlow's Africa. While I've always been pleased enough to say that my roots are in Russia, it seems I've never much wanted to lay them bare. What compels me are not the dirt roads and huts of the shtetl or the narrow medieval streets of the cities, nor even what I imagine to be the deep forests and wide fields of the countryside, but the mind and eye of the child my grandfather once was, old before his time and adrift, like no child I've ever known, in a world of work.

Once upon a time, then, there was a boy named Philip, son of an unsuccessful shoemaker (a "poor mechanic") and a sickly woman, the third of four children who survived with two siblings dead at birth. He lived in a two-room house without heat, without much light.

"Tell me, Pop," my father asks, "what kind of a home did you have? Was it an apartment? A private house?"

"Mine father," he answers, "had a house. There was no floor in the house. Just ground."

"You mean the house was built on ground, Pop?"

"I'm telling you," he says, as if talking to a child or a fool, "there was no floor. It was a ground. The only ground was the dirt."

"Were there any rooms in the house?" my father wants to know.

"Of course, yes. There was two big rooms. Large rooms."

All the family slept in one room; the other, which must have been a kind of outer hall, was occupied by a pig, though it was big enough for a cow, or a horse.

"So, did you have plumbing, Pop?" my father asks.

"There was no toilet," my grandfather laughs briefly, exasperated. "No water. No plumbing. There was hills. That's all."

"So you helped fertilize the grass, Pop?"

"There was pigs," he says, in an irritable voice; "pigs, they ate it up."

He says that he can't remember a time when he didn't work, but he doesn't say it that way. "What ball? I didn't know from ball," he says, when my father, teasing, asks him what he did as a child growing up in that house—did he attend school? did he play games? did he "play ball"? What he says, with real pride, is that at the age of seven he was a brick maker's assistant—stacking, carrying, unloading for half a day before Hebrew School. In the winter, when his father traveled for months at a time trying to scare up some business, and his mother was hospitalized for illnesses the names of which my grandfather couldn't remember, or probably never knew, he was responsible for the care of his four-year-old sister. He would come home and put a potato on the fire to feed her; he would make sure she was dressed and dry and as warm as the place would allow. Before the year was done, though, he was gone from the house himself; gone, as it turned out, for good.

"Mine father made a deal with a tailor," he says. "Thirty rubles he would pay in, and I would be taught to be a tailor. But he never paid the full amount."

"Why didn't he pay, Pop? Wasn't he an honorable man?"

"Just a minute. Don't go further. I'll tell you how it was. When I went away from the house, to the tailor, I lived there. I wasn't in my home. To ten years old. I had a child to take care of. I had a cow to take care of. Every morning I had to bring the cow to some place, like a rocky field, and the cow stayed there the whole day. At night, in the dark, I used to go there and take her back. I couldn't see, and the cow was big and made very loud noises breathing. I was always afraid to do that job. Sometimes, the lady to the tailor used to give me the baby."

"You took care of a baby, Pop? Why you were just a little more than a baby yourself. What did you do?"

"I held it; I shook her," he says, as if explaining to someone who just doesn't get it.

"How successful were you when you shook the baby, Pop?" my father wants to know.

"Well, I wasn't that successful. I shook her. And the baby cried. And she took her away from me."

"Ah, Pop, so it was a trick to get rid of the baby," my father says, kidding.

"Yeah, so the wife wouldn't bother me so much when I wasn't working," my grandfather says slowly, serious about the cunning victory for workers' rights which I'd guess he just discovered in my father's remark.

"But how many hours a day did you work there, Pop?"

"I wasn't so particular about that because I wasn't a mechanic, a real tailor," my grandfather explains. "I started in the morning and I worked until I went to sleep. Except Saturday. Then I went to synagogue; I visited my parents. At night, Saturday night, I went back to work."

"Did you have books to read?" my father asks.

"No books, no books, no books," my grandfather says. "Just the Hebrew. The Talmud. Other things. By a year and a half I was working with the tailor. They were nice people."

"Did they look after your health?"

"No, they didn't. They couldn't. I was about six months with the tailor, and then came winter. I said to him, 'listen, I need a coat.' But he said, 'I need more money from your father before I can make you a coat' My father still owed him. My father was an honest person, but he didn't have the money to pay. The tailor and his wife liked me; I liked them. But they used me up. They had benefit from me. After a year and a half, when my older sister got married to a fellow from Pinsk, a blacksmith, I went to the wedding and I stayed in that city. I worked by another tailor. I was supposed to get sixty dollars a year. I made the deal myself; I was ten years old," he says with great pride.

"Was it unusual for a boy of ten to make that kind of deal?" my father asks.

"In those days, they didn't look on it like today. People worked. You started early. I was already a little mechanic, ready to live in a city. It was only ten miles from the little town where I was born, but it had everything—horses with wagons, stores, factories, a train. I felt like I was beginning my life."

 

Philip and the Great Bagel Strike

"It was mine first strike," he says to my father. "It was no union, just me. I wanted I should have something with mine bagel, to keep from choking. It was dry so you couldn't swallow."

He was ten years old and the issue, he says, was coffee to go with his bread at the tailor shop where he put in a fourteen-hour work day. It's not that my grandfather was some poor Oliver Twist holding out his bowl for a refill of gruel. His boss was a decent enough man, my grandfather says, but a poor one too. And while you can eat and work at the same time, eating and drinking is harder to manage with clothing on your lap, and requires a stoppage. Which was unacceptable.

The way my grandfather remembers it, and he remembers it emphatically, his logic was a revelation to his much older co-workers who quickly joined him in a Bartleby-like refusal to continue. No tailor or tailor-to-be had yet choked on his bagels, of course, but they could, and that was enough to bring the shop to a halt. The details are hazy, but coffee and bagels began coming together for the tailor's three workmen and one workboy. If not precisely a triumph, it was a good start, at least, toward my grandfather's lifetime involvement with more organized workers' movements, and, in hindsight, it was a sure step toward a fated encounter with the Tiny Policeman three years later.

 

Philip and the Tiny Policeman

"You mean he was a short policeman?" my father asks reasonably.

"No. What short? He was a big man. But he was a Tiny Policeman. What we called him. Like a detective."

I've played the tape again and again, wondering if I heard him right. I'd never heard identity so clearly marked according to rank and character. It conjures an army of tinies: no more Assistant or Associate job titles, but tinies all: the Tiny Professor; the Tiny Superintendent; the Tiny Head of this or that.

The Tiny Policeman had come to question my truly tiny grandfather about his Socialist friends. Were his now fairly regular strikes guided by older men? Was there propaganda in his room? On the tape he searches his memory for English words that describe his bravado and his fear. This is clearly a rite of passage for him from private to public courage, from bagels to Bolsheviks. What I hear sounds inauthentic to me, like a romance novel or a TV melodrama.

"Why did they single you out, Pop?" my father asks.

"Just a minute, just a minute. You go too far. You go too fast with this. Let me talk. One Friday, the Tiny Police came to the house to arrest me. They took me away from the house and brought me to a police station. There was lots of detectives there. They wanted to find out who was teaching me all the things. About the strike. About the others who stopped work too. They couldn't get from me nothing. What can they get from a boy thirteen years old?"

"They yelled," he tells my father. "They waved"—he doesn't have the word for it—"a pick, a sword." They wouldn't let him sleep. But they didn't "poke" him, or hurt him. I envision something cartoony, Tintin tied to a chair while a villain blusters about him. My grandfather, fully caught up in his moment, rumbles on.

"They told me they'd put me in jail for years. But I didn't tell them anything, and so they let me go. When I got out, I figured it was good to get out from there. The police were on my tail ('and your tail wasn't big enough to take care of them, eh, Pop?'). I figured it was good to get out from there, not to be in Pinsk. I had a friend mine age, and we took another boat to another city, to Kiev. No Jews were allowed to be there. Any Jews coming in there, if they caught them, if it would usually take an hour to bring them home, it would now take three months, even if home was only an hour away. So, after three days, I ran from there to Katrinaslav. I came there, looked for a cheap hotel. I was at the hotel only for a night; then I looked for work, found a place. That job was worse than in Pinsk. The hours was worse than Pinsk. Everyday we used to work until two o'clock at night. It was no good. I started to strike with them, too."

"Why didn't they just get rid of you, Pop?"

"Because I was a good worker. I worked for a year and I saw it's not so good. I knew to go away to other cities. I left Katrinaslav and went to Harkov; a very Russian city. No Jews. And then, because there was no Jews, I went on to Baku."

What really happened is, of course, unrecoverable; what matters is not the event, but what my grandfather has made of it over the years, a story of shrewdness and archetypal rebelliousness, invariably honed by tellings and retellings with cronies at work, at union meetings, at senior citizen clubs, with his son and grandson. Like David Copperfield, he is the hero of his own tale, and even though I'm unpersuaded as I listen, I absorb the story and the image it conjures, allowing his manipulative memory to become my own. Sometimes when I'm feeling especially hemmed in by my own caution, I haul out an image of my grandfather as a labor organizer, a fighter for workers' rights, a political child and man, even though that's not the figure I remember in my mother's kitchen eating farmer cheese sandwiches and grousing about the toast and service.

"Those were dangerous times," my grandfather says; and though he wasn't a dangerous man, he wants us to know that he danced on the edge. Before long, he says, there was a meeting in the woods with eighty-thousand people: workers mixing with police, government agents, soldiers, the curious.

"Eighty-thousand?" my father asks. "That's a very big crowd, Pop."

Especially for the woods, I'm thinking. Where did they put the trees? My grandfather offers no particular details. Listening to him, I can't conjure up the sights, sounds, or smells of the place. But while he talks, my movietone imagination flashes images in black and white, somewhere between Keystone Cops and Battleship Potemkin. I see my grandfather scurrying back in the night through the narrow streets of Baku to burn his library of socialist literature, pamphlet by pamphlet, book by book, in the small stove of the apartment he shares with other garment workers. He knows the police will be rounding up troublemakers, and he doesn't want to be swept away. He is now 15; he has met and courted the woman he wants to marry—the grandmother I never saw and whose name I don't even know now; and in order to protect himself and their relationship, he will take to the road, doing piece work as he travels. He has recently passed a state test to prove his tailoring skill, and because the government needs work done on clothing to outfit its army and civil service corps, he has been given "papers" and will be allowed to move through many towns that are normally shut to Jews. What my grandfather hasn't reckoned with, though, is military conscription into the Czar's army where Jews have, for generations, provided cannon fodder in European wars.

 

Philip and the Train to America

My grandfather never liked his older brother. In all the years of my growing up, he never once uttered his brother's first name. When he was mentioned at all, it was always with immense disgust as "that gozlin, that swindler," and sometimes, when especially dismissive, "that paskudnyak." There were many bones of contention, the largest being the brother's siphoning off of my grandfather's share of a business partnership, so that he could keep a fancy lady on the side—lying all the while to his wife, claiming that my grandfather had failed to pay the cash into the business that he had promised. It wasn't ordinary sibling rivalry, then, but low-level deceit that separated the two. But it wasn't until my grandfather reached back into memory while he talked with my father into the tape recorder that I understood just how far back the brotherly resentment ran, preceding financial dirty-dealing, preceding even his brother's arrival in America, a trip that my grandfather had sponsored and paid for.

As my semi-socialist grandfather tells it, it wasn't political pressure that drove him from his not-very-nurturing homeland, but the common pressure of family dynamics. On the road but not on the run, after the scare which followed his political activity on behalf of workers' rights, my grandfather was pushed out of Russia by his father's preference for his older son. Privileged by his seniority, this brother was understood to be the "scholar" of the family and spent his days studying the Talmud, gathering more sophistry than wisdom, my grandfather implies. Learning to split the finest hairs while my grandfather was learning to pull the coarsest threads, he learned, too, the fine art of self-protection. And so it was that my grandfather found himself put forward as the older son, his brother the younger, when the Czar's army reached into the family for a draftee. This meant, of course, leaving Russia completely; and while my grandfather isn't clear on the details, what he remembers is that he was helped across a border into Germany, traveling then "by cattle boat" to London, "by train" to Canada, and by boat again to New York. My father, who has been needling the facts out of my grandfather for hours, lets this pass. He simply listens as my grandfather elaborates on the joy he felt in dancing and whooping in front of the border guards from the apparent safety of his first new freedom in Germany, as he describes the immensity of the darkness and the intensity of the cold of London which he hated, as he boasts of being the only one who wasn't sick in the hold of the boat which carried him from somewhere to somewhere else he can't remember exactly, and as he explains his relief and readiness as he stepped down from what he remembers as a train in Canada where he recovered for a few days before continuing on to New York City, the place he wouldn't leave for more than a few days at a time for the next sixty years.

 

Greener, Come Here

"Hey greener," he says to my grandfather, "come here." I see a spy vs. spy scene from an old Mad Magazine, a whisper from the shadows drawing my grandfather in as he steps out onto the streets of New York for the first time, but it's more like a street vendor hawking the bargain of a lifetime, a first brush with capitalism in the green and golden land of the free: "Psst. Hey, have I got a deal for you." He offers to carry luggage and navigate the 3rd Avenue El and crowded streets, but what he's really marketing is a sense of order to replace confusion, calm for fear. For four dollars each, he says, he'll take my grandfather and three other green shoots just off the boat, all presumed fresh and tender with inexperience, to their "landsmen" where they'll spend their first nights before looking for more permanent rooms and a job. Though tired and anxious, my grandfather is proud of his savvy, and, as he explains to my father, he was not about to pay the going rate for help which he felt should be a kind of good neighbor courtesy to newcomers. Chuckling, still delighted with his triumph over all enemies, he explains how he chopped the price to seventy-five cents, accepting, finally, the plaintive logic of the would-be porter who wondered how could it not be worth so little to find your way into the darks and deeps of the city, to be taken "home" without even having to carry your own old country baggage. Echoes of the bagel strike ring in every word.

"I went with three boys I knew from Harkov and Baku," he says. "In Canada, in the middle of the night, some Jews took us in. They gave us eat and enjoyed us. They sent telegrams. Like a reception committee. It was a nice place, and they treated us very nice. I had one suitcase; everything I owned. Some society, I think they were. Toward evening, they brought us to a ship to go to the United States. It took maybe a day. Every place we used to come, people used to come and take us. In New York, too, but they was crooks. They took us from the boat to a little office, and they asked for the money to take us to a place to stay. We started to walk with them, and I said to the boys 'why do we have to carry the valises? Let them carry it.' We put the valises down on the corner and we didn't move. They came down in price to two dollars. The boys agreed and went with them. One person stayed with me. I didn't want to give him the money, but when I said I'll pay seventy-five cents and no more, he held out his hands and smiled and said OK."

My grandfather is preening in the memory of his triumphal moment, but city boys will be city boys, and my grandfather's guide had surely been up this road before. Walking him to the El train, up the long staircase to the platform, he told him to get off in two stops and vanished. Spilled out into the city at Elder Street, my grandfather—unable to talk with anyone in America's language, hauling his own valises now, wearing a cap like a policeman's and a red shirt that announced his politics—held his cousin's address out to passers by like a lost child. All pretense of bravado collapsing before that memory of helpless dependency, my grandfather softly tells us that all he could do as he tried to find his way was walk "like in an ocean," swept by deep waters. Washed ashore at last, my grandfather came to rest in the walkup near Essex Street where his cousin slept. When he tells it, the arrival sounds like a ritualistic welcome for a hero, complete with an initial greeting by a gathering of women, a cleansing bath where, as he says, he could "wash around himself," and a banquet of challa, a soup thick with schmaltz, and boiled chicken. But beneath the tale I can hear grating tones of frustration and not so splendid isolation.

By the end of the next day, like an American hero, my grandfather had moved on—found his own place to live, the windowless living room of a two room rental which he shared with another new "boy." With a sink in the hall and a toilet somewhere "downstairs" in the yard, it serves now simply as a kind of launching pad for stories of rocketing success. What my grandfather offers to cover his first year in America is mostly a litany of new jobs, pay raises, roomier apartments, small acts of defiance. It's Vanderbilt on a pygmy scale, and the stuff of Americana: bootstrapping stories from Alger to Dimaggio. The man my grandfather must have been becoming is lost in it, though, usurped by the image he wants to project to his son and grandson half a century later and by statistics of success: from three dollars a week to forty-eight dollars a week in barely a blink; from button holes to "the whole coat complete;" from the frigid toilet seat to the ah! of indoor plumbing, hot and cold; from the stink of Delancey Street to St. Paul's Place in the countrified Bronx where there were still farm fields and where a mounted policeman was only seen once a week; from humiliation to achievement.

 

And the Leaves That Are Green Turn to Gold

When my parents visited from California where they deeply enjoy their retirement near Laguna's beaches, I found myself complaining about my grandfather's unwillingness or inability to discuss his family life in America. The closer his taped conversations got to the present, the less he offered. Perhaps he thought that my father knew all about this part of his life anyway, or perhaps it was too personal, or too painful, or perhaps it simply wasn't essential to his sense of himself in these years.

My grandmother is mentioned, but only as a shadowy figure here, sent for from Russia, married within a year, suddenly but steadily ill for many more than ten years, then dead at fifty-three from a heart weakened by early childhood illness. My grandfather concentrates on their earliest years together in this country when he believed he still had some control over their destiny.

"I had a lot of greeners to take care of," he says. "First my girl's brother. Then my girl. He ran away in 1904 to get away from the war of Russia with Japan. My sister's husband also ran away from the war. The Jews who could ran away. They came to me. When she came here, I didn't want to get married right away, so I told her to say I'm her cousin. When she came to Ellis, I was late to meet her, and I didn't see her. She had to stay overnight, but I went the next day, and they wouldn't let her go with me, only a cousin. I had forgotten that her brother was here. So I said that he should go down there, and we took her to a friend of mine, got her a shower in a public bathhouse, took her out for shopping to get things. I took her to my cousin in Delancey Street and bought her skirts, dresses, coats. I spent some money on her."

"Just out of curiosity, Pop," my father interrupts, "how often did people go for these baths? Every day? Once a week? Twice a month?"

"Huh," he says, "not everybody went at the same time. Some could go every two weeks, some could go every month. If you wanted to take a bath you could go there."

Then he's back on track. "So I ordered some clothes for her, shoes, other things. She rested a few weeks and began to look for work. She was a dressmaker. It was a very bad time for work. It was 1905, and she couldn't find anything for one year. After three months I got her out of the place where she was and brought her to the same apartment where I was, the same apartment but a different room. Also there was a father and a mother and two daughters there. All the greeners who came from Europe and didn't have any money to get a place lived in rooms in other people's apartments. The poor people all lived like that. We'd come together for supper, but Mommy wasn't doing anything. She used to go around with some of her friends from Baku, all day around the 7th Street Park. She didn't eat all day, just a glass of milk. I used to fight around with her, why she didn't eat. We were there together a year, and I made up my mind to get married. What sense did it make that she should suffer like that? So just when I made my plan to get married, she found a job. She worked a week and made ten dollars. I said, that's enough; we're going to get married. I had saved a couple of hundred dollars. I took three rooms in Cherry Street. We got married in the same rooms."

"Did you get wedding presents?" my father asks.

"No presents. No gifts. What gifts? And then we started married life. Three rooms on the fifth floor. The toilet was in the hall."

"Did you have hot and cold running water, Pop?" my father wants to know.

"No water. Nothing."

"No water at all, Pop, or just cold water?"

"Water. Yes, water. Cold water. No hot water."

" I fixed up the house," my grandfather continues with some pride in his resourcefulness, "but I couldn't afford a stove. I didn't have enough money for it, and I didn't want to take by peddlers. I didn't want to spend money that wasn't mine. Everything I want to buy was the cheapest kind, but not by peddlers. I want it to be my money. Three months it took me to save money to buy up the stove. It was winter, but in three months it became a light house, a warm house. She didn't know how to cook; she didn't know nothing. But she learned."

His voice getting quiet, my grandfather explains that by the time they got to the woodsy Bronx—with upward steps along the way at Monroe Street, 121st Street between 2nd and 3rd Avenues, and 120th Street in a garage across from a stable—my grandmother was starting to get sick. "And I start to get the business with doctors," he says.

A few poignant sentences suggest hurt and helplessness: "Mommy was sick all the time. Maybe if they took the tonsils out when she was a child, maybe it wouldn't come to that. Maybe she would still be alive until today. All I could do was put hot bags on the heart, and that was the whole business." My grandfather does not elaborate. He names the places where my father, my aunt Anne, and my uncle Carl were born in the Bronx but provides no glimpse into his relationship with any of them. He talks only in the broadest terms of decades of work and then of retirement: years spent sitting with members of the Kingsbridge Road Senior Citizens' Club or watching trials in the Bronx County Courthouse where judges, lawyers, and clients all struck him as shysters. I want to know what my grandfather was feeling during the years he was defining himself by his climb to financial security. My mother says, "but that was his life, all of it."

Not long after my grandfather died, my father gave me a magnificent gold Waltham pocket watch that he said had been the first thing of real value my grandfather had bought for himself in America. It's not a practical timepiece at all. It runs five minutes fast a day; the long minute hand, tapering to a kind of ornate arrowhead, frequently catches on the small second hand that turns round inside its own small circle.

 

 

Harry Marten: Fiction
Copyright © 2000 The Cortland Review Issue 15The Cortland Review