Mom and dad had their hearts set on my going to college. Me, not so much. I had my heart set on buying a motorcycle and riding from Queens New York to San Francisco. Why San Francisco? There was a TV show in the 50s about two 20-something guys who lived on a houseboat there with the kid brother of one of the them. They were all very cool. That was reason enough for me to set my sights on San Francisco.
I dreamed of a year or more journey with no concept of what would follow. But I didn’t care. I was bound for the open road and unimaginable adventures. The sky was the limit. And maybe I’d finally get laid.
However, my motorcycle destiny was not going to be as clear to mom and dad. (Decipher that statement as they would hate the idea.) The word “motorcycle” barely existed in their suburban middle class Jewish lexicon. I knew right off the bat that what I was planning would be anathema to them. So I kept my dreams to myself until one day I mustered up the courage to announce my plan. It didn’t go so well.
Talk about upset. You’d think I just spit on the Pope or even a Rabbi. Mom and dad were having none of my itinerary in spite of my rational explanations of how good it would be for my character development. Safe? Of course it was. What could happen on a motorcycle to a kid who could barely control a two-wheel bicycle? But the ultimate cut was that mom and dad said they wouldn’t pay for any of it. So I’d have to pay for it? More of the drudgery-filled and/or dangerous summer jobs I’d previously had? So against my fervent wishes and desires, I decided I would undertake a college search.
At this point you may be thinking: c’mon Steve, you didn’t have dangerous jobs, you’re making that up. Well, I’ll tell you about just two of them and you decide.
They Call Me Mister Danger
During one summer break from high school I worked in the food distribution warehouse of Associate Foods, which was a major Northeast food chain in the 1950s. My Uncle Charlie was a big bub there and he got me in. One of my jobs was driving an electric flatbed cart around the warehouse picking the ordered food cartons from Costco-like metal shelves for the various Associated stores, and then depositing them at the loading dock. The cartons would then be loaded on trucks and delivered to the stores. Workers were always getting their ankles smashed by the carts and losing days and sometimes weeks of work. But that wasn’t the dangerous part.
One day I was assigned to work with Sal unloading incoming grocery cartons from boxcars on which the goods came in on. Unloading heavy cartons from boxcars in stifling New York summertime 90 degree heat and jungle-like humid days was backbreaking work. Stronger men than me (a proverbial 97-pound weakling) went to the hospital with heat stroke. But that wasn’t the truly dangerous part.
On my first day of boxcar duty the foreman told me that Sal was a really nice guy and went on to tell me about Sal:
“Sal used to be a barber. One day he was giving a customer a shave with a straight razor when he “flipped.” He slit the guy’s throat and killed him. Turns out Sal was a World War II vet. The customer said something to Sal (nobody knows what) that caused him to suddenly have a flashback to fighting in a South Pacific island jungle. To him, the customer was suddenly a Japanese soldier. So Sal did what he was trained to do, he defended himself and killed his enemy. He was tried and sent to prison but was given leniency because of his excellent service record and good behavior. They also revoked his barber’s license. My advice is be careful what you say to Sal.”
Sure enough, Sal was sweet as pie, just “shell shocked” which was the term before PTSD came into being. Let me tell you, that was one long hot summer as I routinely got assigned to unloading boxcars with Sal. It was the summer that I learned to be a man of few words. That was fine with Sal because he clearly lived in his own world.
For another high school summer job I worked for the general contractor building Pier 40 for the Holland America Line on the Lower West Side of Manhattan along the Hudson River. My dad got me that job. One of my assignments each morning was to inspect the work done by the steelworkers the previous day to verify that they accurately reported what they did.
Unfortunately for me, they were working under the pier. So each morning I had to descend a rickety wooden ladder to the Hudson River below the pier and get into a tiny, leaky, very tippy wooden row boat and row to where they were doing the steel work. My route crossed a giant sewer pipe that literally emptied the raw sewage from all of lower Manhattan into the Hudson River below the pier. And man, was it turbulent. The slightest misstep would mean my sudden death. The horrendous vomit-inducing smells were a very secondary concern. I was in mortal fear of drowning in a river of shit.
Well dear reader, where would you put those jobs on the danger scale? Regardless of what you think, they scared the crap out of me. Now let’s carry on on with my life-changing saga.
With some suggestions from dad, I narrowed my college short list to a few. One was Syracuse University. Its main attraction for me was that’s where my folk-singing counselors Paul and Judy had gone. Maybe I could get a degree in folk songs. That wouldn’t be so bad. (If you read my “Get Rid of the Kid” story, you can learn all about Paul and Judy–but be sure to come back here so you’re not left in suspense.)
Another short list prospect was Northeastern University in Boston suggested by dad (who I later discovered had an ulterior motive). I put Northeastern onto my short list because I got it confused with Northwestern in Chicago. (Northwestern would have gotten me closer to the San Francisco Promised Land.)
A late entrant on my list was New York University. Dad was not enthusiastic about NYU. It was a Liberal Arts College with a so-so reputation back then. Its main attraction to me was that it sat in the heart of Greenwich Village at a time when folk music was exploding there. It was rumored that there was a guitar or banjo player or a folk singer behind every door. I had no musical talent but my theory was that maybe talent would rub off on me. The rap on NYU at the time was if you could spell “cat” and pay the tuition, you were a shoe-in. Since I could even spell cat in Spanish (gato) after four years of High school Spanish, NYU seemed a safe bet.
A word about my roots on my father’s side. Dad was a first generation U.S. citizen born to my Russian immigrant grandparents. Grandpa Edelstein came over on “the boat” in 1906. It was the classic Jewish immigrant story. He arrived at Ellis Island and was then dumped off on New York’s Lower East Side where he lived for awhile, then moved to the Bronx and eventually to Morristown, NJ, New Jersey. Grandpa was a devout Orthodox Jew who worked in sweat shops as a tailor well into his 80s.
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My dad’s mother died before I was born. Grandpa married Bertha and they lived in Morristown. Grandma Bertha was wonderful to me and was everything Grandpa was not— outwardly loving, nice to be around, and able to speak good English, unlike Grandpa. He constantly fell back on Yiddish, which I didn’t understand at all. I struggled to understand him ‘til the day he died at 93.
Grandpa and Grandma lived apart near the end of their lives due to illness. Grandpa lived with his daughter, my Aunt Hilda and Uncle Archie in West Hartford, CT. Grandma lived with her daughter, my Aunt Eva and Uncle Harold in Atlanta, GA. Grandpa was lost without Bertha and rapidly declined into dementia and died. It may sound trite but I think grandpa died of a broken heart.
Dad rarely talked about his childhood but I knew that in the early 1930s he worked during the day and went to The Cooper Union in lower Manhattan at night. Cooper Union is not a well-known college but it’s very prestigious with extremely high standards that offered degrees in Architecture and Engineering with zero tuition for all who were admitted. Dad’s graduation from Cooper Union in 1934 with a Bachelor’s degree in Mechanical Engineering was an immigration success story.
From Dad’s 1934 Cooper Union Graduation Year Book
James Monroe High School
If the ability for hard, concentrated effort means anything then Abe should go far in his chosen field of endeavor, for he is one of those industrious students who never leave a problem until it is completely solved.
Quiet and unassuming though he may be, he is well liked by his classmates for his easy-going ways and sympathetic nature. Except for the habit of occasionally being overheard muttering to himself of lost heads—a natural result of too much hydraulics—he is guilty of no known faults, and is in all ways a perfectly sane and normal person.
The Plot Thickens
Dad wanted me to go to The Cooper Union but with my grades there was not a prayer of my getting in. I had terrific grades in Math and Physics but otherwise, my grades were so-so.
Slowly, dad’s vision for me came to light and it explained his Northeastern pick and lukewarm support of Syracuse but not NYU. Actually, NYU was a really strange option to dad—there wasn’t an engineering program there, just unfocused Liberal Arts with Greenwich Village (aka “the Village”) beatniks pretending to be students. By now I understood that dad wanted me to follow in his engineering footsteps. To dad, engineering was the logical choice. I would continue on the hard-fought path he had forged by working days and going to school at night. It’s also possible that he imagined us being a slide rule-toting, problem-solving dynamic engineering duo made invincible by our plastic pocket protectors.
With the engineering plot revealed, I did what I often did. I whined, dragged my feet, and found other diversions like my growing 33 1/3 LP record collection. My ultimate defense was whining “I don’t want to be an engineer.” So dad, with full support from mom, regrouped and they set about helping me figure out what I did want to be other than a motorcycle bum.
Finding My Life’s Calling
My folks enrolled me in an intensive vocational testing program in Manhattan, which meant traveling by bus and subway every Saturday for weeks from the Queens New York hinterland to midtown Manhattan. That was just how I wanted to spend my Saturdays. Not! But I played along.
I was subjected to a crazy battery of tests for IQ, aptitudes, and psychological profile. For one set of tests, the tester said, “You’ll be going into that room over there and there will be a collection of wooden shapes. Your job is to find the corresponding holes to put the shapes into.” Piece of cake I thought. I’d seen that done on TV, put a few shapes in a few holes. Easy peasy.
The tester opened the door to a long, narrow windowless fluorescent-lit closet of a room with at least 30 feet of wood shelf on three sides the room–except for the door wall–with a sea of shapes and holes everywhere, of every conceivable size and shape. And, as I soon discovered, a shape in the left front corner of the room could be as far away as possible from its hole in the right front corner, or it could be inches away. It was a sea of randomness. (The test designer should have lost his puzzle design license for unethical practices.)
I wound up mentally and physically laboring for hours, running around that stupid room matching shapes and holes. I probably ran something close to a half marathon back and forth in that tiny room. All the while I was cursing my tester, my parents, the people that invented this crazy test, the inventor of college, and anybody else I thought had the slightest connection to the “room of insanity.” But eventually I finished. I rode home on the subway after dark, famished, feeling defeated, and like my brains had been sucked out of my head through my nose.
There were other crazy tests, but eventually the day came when I would find out my results and discover my life calling. I met with a fat, cigar-smoking counselor in a tiny office that reeked of stale smoke. There was a translucent window behind the guy that was caked with about 30 years of smoke and grime so that you couldn’t see through it. After some chit-chat, he pompously announced the findings that would determine my future.
I waited with bated breath as he announced my career options:
“First is the clergy. Second is farmer. And last, if you can’t find anything else to do in life, you’re suited to be ( . . . wait for it . . . ) “an engineer.”
My reaction to hearing this was incredulous, confused, stunned. This kid who thought about burning down the synagogue to avoid Hebrew school, a rabbi? I don’t think so. A minister? That was so ridiculous it wasn’t worth a wink or a moment’s thought. A farmer who couldn’t stand to get his hands dirty and could hardly tell a row of corn from a row boat? That’s not happening. “NO, not the clergy or farmer!” I mentally shouted to myself. I then realized that all that was left for me was a friggin’ ENGINEER. I wondered if this entire test farce was some sort of master plot arranged by my father? To this day I don’t know.
I left the place thinking about being an engineer. All I really knew about being an engineer I knew by observing my father. Engineers had big thick books with endless pages with long tables of meaningless numbers. Engineers had nice slide rules. Engineers had monthly subscriptions to the most boring magazine on earth, HVAC Magazine. Engineers worked hard and sacrificed their own life to support their family by commuting hours to work by way of smoke-filled buses and subways every weekday, with just a two week vacation each year. Engineers never wandered aimlessly with their motorcycle on the open road. As far as I could tell, engineers never got laid once their only child was born.
So in an act of defiance, I told my folks, ok, I’ll postpone my motorcycle dream and I’ll go to college. But not as an engineer. I need to find myself, and the best way to do that is to go to NYU in Greenwich Village. Mom and dad reluctantly agreed.
True, NYU had a marginal reputation . It was known for being more of a party school. A perfect match for me, in other words. So I scheduled my admission interview with a college Dean in The Village, as required by NYU. But first I needed a new suit for the interview.
My Interview Path Is Through Robert Hall
Mom, dad, and I were off for a new suit from the Robert Hall store in Flushing Queens. (Does anyone reading this remember the Robert Hall clothing stores?) It had several major attractions, including endless clothes on plain pipe racks with values that went up, up, up, and prices that went down, down, down, and low overhead.
The clincher, as far as we were concerned, was that the Flushing store was just down the block from the Chinese restaurant that we religiously ate at just about every Saturday. The Edelsteins could not pass up an excuse to “eat Chinese.” With Robert Hall next to the Chinese restaurant, it was a no-brainier.
The Kid’s In the Wrong Place
I arrived at the Dean’s office wearing my new low, low- priced blue suit, freshly starched white shirt with French cuffs clasped together with gold-colored cuff links that peeked out of my jacket sleeve, snappy red tie with little sea horses arrayed from top to bottom held to my shirt with a gold-colored tie bar that matched my cuff links, and new, highly-polished, black leather, wing-tipped shoes and black socks. On looks alone I could pass as being ready for college.
The Dean’s office was straight out of 19th century literature. It was magnificently decorated with polished wood everywhere, and with faint wax and leather smells. There were books on every wall from floor to 12-foot high ceiling and one of those sliding ladder thingies to reach high up books.
The Dean sat behind a massive, carved mahogany desk and greeted me with a firm handshake and a friendly demeanor. That was disarming because he almost seemed like a real person, not the stern-faced high school teachers I was used to.
The Dean engaged me in some chit-chat. Noticing the flop sweat starting to turn my shirt to see through, he said:
“Relax kid, you’re in, you’ve been accepted to NYU.”
We talked some more and after about 10 minutes, he suddenly stopped talking and without a word to me he picked up the phone. I only heard one side of the conversation, which went something like this:
“Hi Joe, I have a kid here that we just accepted into the 1960 fall semester at the Village campus but he’s in the wrong place. He’s doesn’t belong in the Liberal Arts College. He should be an engineer up there with you.” (silence) “ Ok, I’ll send him uptown.”
He hung up the phone and said:
“I just got you into the Engineering school at the NYU Uptown University Heights Campus in the Bronx. They’ll send you the paperwork, and your parents the bill, and all you have to do is graduate [high school] and show up at the start of the Fall semester.”
There was a little more chit-chat, another firm handshake, and I was escorted out the door.
I left his office with my head spinning. What the fuck just happened? Uptown University Heights, what was that? Engineer? You’ve got to be kidding?
The Gods Have Spoken
With that call between the Dean and whoever was on the other end of the call, my fate was sealed. I was destined to be an engineer at a part of NYU that I didn’t even know existed. And it was in the Bronx of all places, not too far from the neighborhood my parents fled with me from 10 years earlier when we moved from the Bronx to Queens.
My motorcycle dreams or fantasies of being in an exotic new place like San Francisco or even Boston or Chicago disappeared like smoke. The gods had spoken. I couldn’t join the clergy or become a farmer if I wanted to. I was going to be an engineer. As I thought about my future, the Dean’s words echoed in my head: “All you have to do is graduate.”
To help write the Roots section above I found dad’s 1934 Cooper Union graduation yearbook hidden in a stack of family memorabilia that I had kept after he died in 1969. As I read dad’s year book entry I started crying. The sentence that broke my heart was:
“Quiet and unassuming though he may be, he is well liked by his classmates for his easy-going ways and sympathetic nature.”
I suddenly realized that until that very moment dad’s quiet way was just who he was. It took me to my 70s to realize that what I took as dad’s distancing was not about me. He was not intentionally avoiding me and hiding behind his endless reading because I somehow was not enough. His quiet way was all he knew. And not to over psychoanalyze, but my constantly rebellious behavior may have been my attempt to get his attention, driving him further into isolation. I also think it’s safe to assume that his retreating from the world was shaped by living through the Great Depression.
What a loss for both of us. I know there’s no turning back the clock but I sure wish I could. Knowing what I know now, I would have reached out to him instead of always (and I mean always) waiting for him to come to me. I only hope I haven’t done the same thing to my children.
If I have any advice for you dear reader, it’s this: if an important relationship disappoints you in some way, take the opportunity while they’re still around to look beneath the surface. You may have to dig deep and be patent. Their ways with you may not be about what you have assumed. If they’re no longer alive, it doesn’t have to stop you from trying to discover a different interpretation of a relationship.
Post Post Script
And my San Francisco motorcycle dream, well, I never really got over it. After grad school I made it to Palo Alto for five years, just a short 40 miles from San Francisco. It was the mid-70s and the Bay Area and California were everything and more that I dreamed of. Having two young kids (David and Laura) gave us the perfect pretext to explore the entire state. But it was sans motorcycle. Somewhere within me the motorcycle dream was still alive.
Eventually Nancy and I met and wound up living in Jamestown, Colorado where some of my closest friends, including Rabbit and Snake Von Hobenero (aka Lynn), were and still are prolific riders. Finally, some 40 years after high school, I succumbed and purchased a beat up Honda motorcycle from English Bill. The bike was a monster, big, heavy and powerful. Friends said I needed a smaller bike to learn on. The thought of getting it up our steep dirt road and driveway scared me so I stored it at a friend’s house on flatter turf in town. Fortunately, I was wise enough by then to realize that I needed riding lessons in spite of Nolan’s urging to just ride it. “You’ll figure it out after you crash a few times” he said.
I enrolled in a motorcycle course in Longmont and aced the written material and exam. Riding was a somewhat different matter. As I whizzed around the parking lot course I nearly crashed into the concrete wall at one end on every circuit. My reflexes were horrible. I never did figure out how to operate the clutch. On the last day of class the instructor discretely pulled me aside and whispered:
“You are one of the worst riders I have ever seen. I recommend you find another hobby. If you want to persist you may eventually learn to ride if you take six months or more of private lessons. But, I don’t recommend it if you want to stay alive.”
And so, no longer being sufficiently motivated, I sold the Honda after never riding it an inch. My motorcycle dream ended once and for all.