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July 20, 1990 - Image 55

Resource type:
Text
Publication:
The Detroit Jewish News, 1990-07-20

Disclaimer: Computer generated plain text may have errors. Read more about this.

an onion, a coat, or a dollar or
two. Doors were often left
unlocked even though we had
our fill of robberies. Thievery
is, after all, the poor man's
fight for survival.
The poverty of East Siders
then had no bottom. Along
the curb, a heap of old sticks
of furniture — rickety tables,
sofas with stuffing poking
out, scuffed dressers with
cracked mirrors — was the
sign of an eviction. You
learned not to stare because
members of the homeless
family hovered nearby. It was
a sin to shame them.
Even people with jobs hung
over the edge of starvation —
pay was so miserable. Sick-
ness abounded. Children died
of measles, whooping cough,
diphtheria and polio. Pneu-
monia and tuberculosis (or
consumption, as it was called
then) carried off grownups.
We had to escape the grim-
ness. A happy make-believe
world waited for us at the
movies. We went whenever we
came by a nickel but the sum-
mer vacation was a 10-week
film festival. A couple of
mornings a week my mother
would load a brown paper
grocery bag with thick slices
of buttered rye bread, bana-
nas, apples, peaches and
plums, and off I went. The
movie houses' original names
— The Waco, The Odeon and
The Cannon — were lost in
the far past. Kids called them
all one generic name — The
Dump.
The movies we saw were
westerns, Keystone Kop and
Mack Sennett comedies, and
serials which always broke off
at the point where a train or
a herd of stampeding cattle
was about to run over the
hero or heroine. The piano
player, who was also the
sound effects technician, fired
off blanks whenever a gun
showed on the screen. Peach
pit and apple core fights
among the moviegoers added
to the excitement. As the
afternoon raced on, we
gasped through a cloud of
acrid gun powder mingled
with the pungent aroma of
urine. We dug our hungry
fingers into crumpled, greasy
brown bags for stray crumbs.
The entire show took four
hours, after which the lights
went on. We were supposed to
leave then to make room for
the fresh horde clamoring at
the front door. We refused to
go silent into the afternoon.
We were prepared to hold on
until nightfall and beyond.
The manager came on stage
and yelled, "All out!" Such
Chutzpah! We responded by

ducking under the seats. The
manager and his stooge, the
usher, would come down the
aisles, kicking under the
seats. The task was beyond
them. With a great roar the
thundering herd at the gates
would burst through the bar-
Hers and sweep manager and
usher away.
Triumphantly we came out
of hiding and joined the
newcomers. We were generous
in victory. We didn't stay long
afterwards. Ironically, since I
was destined to spend my
working years in a classroom,
I found school depressingly
dull. Once I discovered joy in
the printed word, I drove my

lesson for me about how unre-
liable the natural order of
things was! Rats were sup-
posed to run from cats, but
nothing was fixed forever.
With talent and determina-
tion the rats had changed
things. Not that I could have
described it that way then.
Kids learn lots of things they
can't express.
I never studied Talmud, but
I often hung around syna-
gogue at sunset. The voices of
men bent over ponderous
leather-bound books drew me
there. I couldn't follow the
sharp exchange of thought in
Yiddish, even though I had
learned that tongue at my

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elementary school teachers
mad by constantly reading on
the sly in class. The smart
teachers let me go my way.
Apart from what I picked
up from library books, the
streets gave me my schooling.
We lived two floors above a
poolroom and bakery. The
bakery was the scene of a
neverending war. The bakery
was run by the Basskowitz
family. Mrs. Basskowitz and
her three children, Mae, Louie
and Minnie, tended the store.
Mr. Basskowitz spent 18
hours a day down in the cellar
baking several kinds of bread
and rolls. A squad of over-
sized cats kept constant
guard on the piles of flour
sacks stored in the cellar.
The cats should have kept
away all bakery-bound ro-
dents. Not so. They handled
mice all right, but the rats
were something else alto-
gether. Regularly, rats,
regiments of them, swarmed
into the bakery basement.
They came up from the river,
down from roofs, from push-
carts, and cheese and pickle
works. They were almost as
big as the cats but much
more ferocious.

Every day, cats streaked
from the basements into the
streets, bleeding and yowling
like frightened kids, with fat,
sleek-furred, squealing rats
close on their torn and tat-
tered tails. What a gripping

mother's breast. The sing-
song and the sweep and dip of
thumbs pushing the point of
an argument were like operas
in foreign languages, beauti-
ful and moving without being
understood.

Where else could I have
audited a course in "Marxism
for the Masses:' Its poverty
made the East Side a favorite
target for impassioned street-
corner speakers making a
pitch for their vision of a new
and more just world. Years
before "social consciousness"
became the in thing for de-
pression-era college students,
I heard about the evils of
Capitalism and the glories of
Socialism. I heard phrases
like class conflict, production
for use not profit, vanguard of
the working class, reform and
revolution. I understood just
enough to be more cautious
and skeptical than my peers
when I entered college years
later.

Who gave Charles Dickens
a copyright on contradiction?
I had a gruesome childhood,
I had a marvelous early life.
I was disadvantaged, the
streets gave me the equiva-
lent of a college degree by the
time I turned twelve. The
ugliness and decay scarred
me forever, I packed my
memory with image and hap-
pening enough to last my life-
time.

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THE DETROIT JEWISH NEWS

55

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