||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 bornhe stumbles
with the first questionin 198518951885. 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.
"Where in Russia, Pop?"
"In a city. A small city."
"What's the name of the city, Pop?"
"Was that Litvak or Galitzianer?"
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
anywaynot 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
"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
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 housedid 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 assistantstacking, 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
"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
"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
"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 everythinghorses 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
"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 marrythe 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 sidelying 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 grandfatherunable 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 politicsheld 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
By the end of the next day, like an American hero, my grandfather had moved
onfound 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
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 Bronxwith upward steps along the way at Monroe Street, 121st Street between
2nd and 3rd Avenues, and 120th Street in a garage across from a stablemy grandmother
was starting to get sick. "And I start to get the business with doctors," he
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.