Monday, December 28, 2009

40th Street (Cont. #3)

Another in a series of vignettes about growing up in Borough Park, Brooklyn (and, I guess, its "extensions" in the Catskill Mountains).

VI. Bunglow colony

I almost drowned at Roshwalb’s.

Roshwalb’s. At least that’s the way I remember the name. Roshwalb’s, one of innumerable cheap bungalow colonies in the Catskill Mountains, in places like South Fallsburg or Kauneonga Lake or Monticello, where first- or second-generation Jewish immigrants would go to escape the suffocating, blistering environment of 40th Street or any of the million streets like it in Brooklyn, Queens, Manhattan or the Bronx for a few weeks each summer.

Roshwalb’s, with its paper-thin bungalows and one hall they called the casino, was for the poorer Jews, like my family. Not like Kutchers, or Grossingers, or the Concord or the Nevele, which lots of people have written about, so I won’t talk about those hotels. Rather it was Roshwalb’s that was the type for my family, including my aunts and uncles and cousins.

We didn’t go to the Nevele or Grossingers. We didn’t care much for people who could afford those places.

On 40th Street, every August, my mother and father and older sister and myself, and later my younger brother and even later my baby sister, would pack a million clothes into heavy unmovable suitcases, load the suitcases into my uncle Lou’s car, and drive up along Route 17 until we got to the Catskills. Maybe stopping once at the Red Apple. Then Uncle Lou--the cabdriver who was sometimes a butcher and sometimes a candy store owner and sometimes other, darker, things that we never knew about--would drive us up to Roshwalb’s or other, similar colonies. My family didn’t have a car in those days. Only Lou had a car, a Studebaker, so we went with him.

Roshwalb's had a big house with many rooms, one room per family, and a communal kitchen, and off down the walk a bunch of connected bungalows or cabins. One family per cabin, which had cots, a bathroom, a tiny kitchen and a bedroom. And Roshwalb’s also had a lake. In summer, if there was a drought, the lake would be lousy, really crappy. But if it had rained during the night, the next morning the lake would be great, overflowing, so you could stand on the massive rock somewhat out from the shore and see the water overflowing the banks.

Many years later, when I revisited what was once Roshwalb’s, but what had become just a plot of land for sale, I walked down to the lake and saw, instead of a lake, a tiny expanse of water, maybe fifty yards long by thirty yards wide, choked with green slime. A very large puddle. I stared and stared, and then walked back to my car, and didn’t think about it. But in the days of the bungalow colony, it was a lake.

One summer, when I was little, I went swimming in Roshwalb’s lake. It had rained the night before, so the lake was great, really deep--so deep I couldn’t stand in the middle, but that was okay because I had earlier taught myself to dog-paddle. Then I paddled out into the center. My father and mother, and maybe my older sister, but I don’t remember if she was actually there, were sitting on a blanket on the sandy beach. My father was the only one in our family who knew how to swim. In Coney Island, he would swim out so far you could only see his head. We would all watch, standing on the shore, staring out toward the distant waves, not allowing ourselves to be scared that he was so far out he might drown. But he always swam back to the shore.

In Roshwalb’s, however, he never seemed to swim. He just sat on a blanket that my mother brought and laid out on the tiny pebbly sandy beach.

I was standing on the rock. Then I jumped in and dog-paddled into the center, which was way above my head. (I was very small, a lot smaller than other kids my age.) Somehow, and I don’t remember how, or why, I felt myself going under. But it was okay, because my father was there, sitting on the beach, looking out for me. If I were in any trouble, he would jump into the lake and rescue me. He was a great swimmer.

The water above my head kept getting higher and higher. Where was Dad? The water kept getting higher, and I kept going down, and where was Dad? And I kept going down, and down.

Until I knew that my Dad wasn’t coming, and I forced myself to lift my head, submerged in water, almost out of breath, and somehow raise my knees to my chest, which by magic made me float to the top, where I got air, and gulped and breathed air, and breathed and breathed, and then I paddled out to the big rock.

Where I stood, looking to the sandy pebbly shore, seeing my father on the blanket, looking at me.
Why didn’t you come get me? I asked. But only to myself. My whole life I have been asking that question, but only to myself.

Maybe he hadn’t seen me drowning.

* * *

Sunday, December 20, 2009

40th Street, Brooklyn (cont.)

Two more episodes from my years in Borough Park, Brooklyn.

IV. The fight in the locker room

At New Utrecht High School in the Bay Ridge section of Brooklyn—a few miles from 40th Street—there was a group of Italian guys who dressed in pegged pants and pink shirts and pointy shoes with metal taps on both the heels and toes. The taps made a clinking sound in the hallways, a warning to everybody else to step back if you knew what was good for you. They were the neighborhood's tough guys, most likely in a gang. Even though, sometimes, they would get together on the sidewalk and sing rock and roll acapella together.

One of those guys, Frankie, was in one of my classes. He was the only guy in that group who was small, like me. Actually just my size, and just about my weight.

One day we got into an argument. We were in class, I think it was home room, the first room you’d go to in the morning. We got into a real argument—I don’t know about what—and the way arguments between boys were solved in those days was, you’d turn it into a fist fight. But we couldn’t fight right there, of course, so the next best thing was to threaten each other that we would get you after school. So Frankie said to me, or I said to him, Be down in the locker room at 3 o’clock. And then Frankie said, or I said, I’ll be there.

And then I said, shaking so hard I could barely think, yet knowing I could never show him that I was scared, Just make sure you’re there.

The rest of the school day, sick unto death, I had to decide what to do. I didn’t really know how to fight, which was bizarre, growing up in a working class neighborhood, with teen gangs and such all around (the Ditmas Dukes were a few blocks away in one direction; the Gremlins in the other). And I was told by my mother, over and over again, that “Your father never got into a fight.” My mother said it proudly, but I knew the reason he never fought was that he was a coward—afraid of people to such an extent that whenever he’d meet someone new he’d emit a fear so powerfully I could smell it.

Anyway, I never learned how to fight. I never learned what every other boy in the world knew as a matter of course. Of survival. I never fought. My father, who only knew how to cower, never taught me.

What I did know that day, without knowing how I knew, was that if I didn’t show up, I couldn’t live with myself. I would be taunted, and pushed and shoved and punched and laughed at not only the next day, and the next, but for the rest of my life. And I also knew, that if I did show up, I’d probably be beaten to a pulp.

I showed up. So did Frankie, in the locker room, with the concrete floor and metal cabinets, which were in the basement of the school. But this time, it wasn’t just the two of us. Frankie showed up with four of his friends. All sporting the ducks’ ass haircut and curled-hair “bombs” down the forehead, and pegged pants and pointy black shoes with metal taps.

I think I froze. But I was there, and before I knew it, Frankie and I had our arms around each other’s necks in a mutual strangle hold. We were shouting at each other, something like “C’mon faggot, C’mon, faggot.” He landed a few punches, I’m not sure if I landed any. What I heard were all his friends cheering him on. “C’mon Frankie,” they said. “Kill ’im!” They were whooping and shouting.

Then at some point, maybe after about twenty minutes, or twenty hours, Frankie asked if I would “give,” which means give up, or acknowledge that he had won.

I said yes.

Then we shook hands. He left with his friends, who were patting him on the back and laughing and shouting.

I left, alone, and took the D train home to 1546 40th Street.

But the sick feeling I had had earlier that day had disappeared. In its place was one of elation, even though I had not been able to get Frankie to “give.” (That would have been gravy.) I had showed up. I had showed that even though my fearful, cowardly father had “never been in a fight,” even though I had incorporated his lifelong demons into my own guts, I had just faced an abyss, and plunged into it, and emerged whole.

I couldn’t wait to get to school the next day to see Frankie.

V. Bigger than myself

Girls and boys carried books differently in high school hallways. The girls at New Utrecht, in the 1950s, would hold a stack of books pressed in front of them, cradling them to their chests with both arms wrapped around them, almost like you hold a baby. It didn’t matter how many books they carried, or how different the sizes; they would hold all of them the same way. Inevitably, one girl with her books would say to another something like: “He was so cute, what a doll!” Then, after the briefest of silences: “But is he conceited!” And the other girl would nod, knowing beforehand what her companion would say, because she herself would soon say the same words, with the exact same inflection, to somebody else.

Boys didn’t carry books like that, and didn’t talk about girls that way. They would put as many books as they could hold into one palm, usually the right palm, and hold them tightly, fingers hurting from the strain. Their upper arm—from armpit to elbow—would be pressed against the side of their ribs, while their lower arm—from elbow to hand—stuck straight out, at a ninety degree angle to their upper arm.

If any boy was stupid enough to hold the books in the more comfortable way the girls held them, he’d be either hounded as a “faggot,” or, worst case, beaten.

How did boys talk about girls? When they did, which was rare (at least in my underdeveloped circles), it was more like, “Do you think she bends?” Not hard to figure out what that means.

One rainy day, as a junior at Utrecht (you rarely said New Utrecht; only Utrecht), I was walking through the front aisle of the assembly room, that big, cavernous room with a stage up front, and rows and rows of seats affixed to the floor. I walked the way any real boy would walk, with a hint of a bop—a slight bouncing motion, sauntering from left to right to left—which was supposed to show you were tough. I carried my books the boy way as well, holding too many in my hand. A curl of hair wound down my forehead. My pants were pegged, a recent development, and the heels of my shoes bore metal taps. All tiny me, making myself bigger than myself.

As I walked from one end of the assembly room to the other, I noticed a kid in a front row seat, some ten feet or so ahead of me, his legs spread out in front of him—blocking my path. The usual anxiety gripped me. Do I challenge, or retreat? Do I continue sauntering along, with my make-believe tough guy stance, directly up to him, daring him to make me alter my path, thereby either placing myself in a position to get pummeled, or forcing him to face my terrifying mercy? Or do I in fact alter my path, like a girl might do, say by changing my direction, walking up onto the stage, and passing around him, thereby letting him “win.” And thereby acknowledging that I’m a . . . nothing?

Since he didn’t seem too big, I took the first option. I stared at him, sauntering directly towards him with my books in my aching hand, implicitly threatening, praying to God to make him feel that if he didn’t withdraw his stuck out legs, he’d pay with his life.

He withdrew his legs. I bopped on past, walking straight into relief heaven.

* * *

Tuesday, December 15, 2009

40th Street, Brooklyn, NY

When I started this blog a year and a half ago, I thought I might devote it, in part, to my life growing up during the 1950s in the Brooklyn, NY neighborhood of Borough Park, where I spent the first 24 of my years. So far, I have resisted writing about that extended time. I'm not sure why; maybe it's because I'm afraid to do what James Baldwin said you have to do if you expect to be any kind of writer: you have to look into the abyss.

So here goes. Following are the first of a few episodes that I recall when I think back to them there days. They are not in any kind of publishable order; nothing chronological, nothing like a straight line from early childhood to adolescence to college age and beyond. They are just recollections, written as they occured to me when I started to (re)think about them. All the names have been changed, for obvious legal reasons. But the rest is true, at least so far as I recollect.

1546 40th Street, Brooklyn 18, NY.

That was my address in Borough Park, Brooklyn for years and years, before zip codes changed the Brooklyn 18 NY to Brooklyn NY 11218, and when everybody in the neighborhood was either Jewish or Italian working class, and all the buildings had stoops, so you could play stoop ball.

I. Roller Skates

It was just a few houses down from that four-family house that skinny, ratty Davey Stein, who everybody on the block knew was a bad kid, ran up to me fast when I was on roller skates. I was eight. He was nine and a half. The roller skates I rode back in 1950 were the metal kind that you could take apart with a special key, separating the front wheels from the back and, if you cared to, attach the two sets of wheels to a piece of wood--a two-by-four--and then nail the wood to a wooden crate that you got from the grocery store on 15th Avenue and make a scooter.

But I didn’t want to make a scooter then. I wanted to improve my ability to ride directly on the skates, zooming down the hilly alleyways that separated one house from another all the way from 15th Avenue to 16th Avenue.

Our universe.

I had just sped down one of those alleys, when Davey ran up fast to startle me, deliberately. He must have had some magical power, because my skates lifted themselves out from under me and rose in the air, with my feet still attached. I started to fall backward. Involuntarily, my right hand shot out and landed palm down on the pavement. Scalding pain seared through my wrist, up my arm and neck, and into my brain. Davey grinned down at me and said, “Awww, you gonna cry now, Nathan? Cry baby.” Then, loudly: “Nathan is a cry baby, Nathan is a cry baby!”

I won, though. I forced back the tears. “I’m not crying,” I said.

I never cried again after that, until I was in my forties.

II. Knuckles

You play knuckles?”

“Yeah, who doesn’t?”

So Barry Levine, big and fat, 16 years old, dealt out the cards to us on his stoop. Which was across the street from my stoop. Arnie was there, and Selvin, and Jake whose sister, whose name I forget, was ugly, and Mikey, and Harry Shapiro, whose father had a retail car franchise (I didn’t know what that meant, but it sounded impressive) and me. Harry died two years later, when he was 17, from leukemia.

Knuckles was sort of like poker, but different. In poker, like five-card poker where you get rid of cards, or five-card stud poker where you don’t get rid of cards, or seven-card poker, you get dealt hands, and somebody wins. But in knuckles, no one person wins. Instead, one person loses. There’s one loser and the rest are winners. Instead of nickles or comics or baseball cards or anything like that, the only thing the winners get is a chance to smash the knuckles of the loser.

This is how you did it, in Borough Park: everybody gets dealt four cards. One guy throws down a card, and you have to match the suit. So, like, if he throws down an eight of clubs, you have to throw down any club you have. If you don’t have a club, you have to pick a card from the deck, and then again, until you get a club. Anyway, whoever is left with cards at the end, loses. If he has three cards, he gets three knuckles.

Here’s what that means: After you "win" (that is, don't lose)--assuming it’s just two guys who are playing (only guys, because girls didn’t play that game)--you hold a deck of cards, and you make sure to arrange them so that the bottom of the deck is not smooth, but jagged: one card up a bit, one card down a bit. Then you take the deck, and as the loser holds out his arm, straight out, in a fist, you smash the jagged edge, hard as you can, onto his knuckles. Make him wince. Make his knuckles bleed. Make him hurt so bad he can’t think clearly. Make him wish he could kill you. That’s how you show you’re a winner.

Then you play another round and hope you don’t end up holding cards.

Fat Barry lost the round, on that raw, windy November Saturday, 1957. When it was my turn to inflict the reward, I looked at his fist, inhaled, raised my own right hand high up and, holding the deck as tightly as I could, swung it down in a smooth arc. Fat Barry’s knuckles bled. Everybody around me said “Ooooh.” That was the best compliment I had ever received. I was glad, because I had always felt I was the weakest among them. Now I showed them that I wasn’t.

Fat Barry said, “Wait ’til next time, Nathan.” But I felt too good to care.

III: The Playground

The playground was two blocks away, on 38th Street between 15th and 16th Avenues, which abutted Dahill Road. All these playgrounds were built in the 1940s in working class neighborhoods throughout the five boroughs. Generally, these block-long stretches of concrete, protected with bushes and a chain-link fence outside, were divided into two parts: one for the younger kids, one for the older guys. I say guys because I never remember girls hanging out in the older kids’ part, except if they were with some of the guys. Usually with the Italians.

The entire playground was made of concrete and steel. Nothing soft. The kiddie section had a large concrete wading pool that was turned on during summer. It also had wooden slat benches for fat parents who would watch their kids splashing or running around, a bathroom building that always seemed out of order, and a small building holding supplies.

In the very beginning, maybe the late 1940s or early 1950s, when I was very small, I used to see an attendant or two in a green uniform. Later on, they disappeared. With no attendants, the playgrounds seemed to operate themselves. At least at first. Ultimately, they began to deteriorate. But we didn’t see it then. Anyway, the kiddie part had a maze of climbing bars, which we called a jungle gym. Kids would climb to the top, and if they slipped, they would fall down hard smack onto the concrete. Rubber tiles weren’t used then.

By the time you were eleven or so, you would make sure to be seen only in the older kids’ part. Otherwise you were a baby or a “faggot.” The older kids’ part had a handball court, basketball hoops, and steel exercise or gymnast bars. These included a horizontal ladder, some ten feet or so above the ground, on which you could swing from one rung to the next until you got across. The older you were, or the bigger, or the more agile, the more rungs in between you would skip, so instead of moving from one rung to the next, you could skip one or two, swinging like a monkey. Underneath all the bars, again, was concrete, no rubber mats.

It was 1956. I was 14. A bunch of older guys, mostly Italian, I thought, or maybe with one muscular Jewish guy, in their late teens, were hanging around. The ladder was not being used, so I climbed up the side, reached for the nearest rung with one hand, and then swung away, deliberately skipping two of the rungs, to reach for the next with my other hand.

When I awoke, I found myself lying on my back on the concrete. I could barely breathe. I was scared, because I couldn’t get enough air into my lungs. A bunch of the older guys were standing near me, looking down. One of them stood right next to me. He wore a black leather jacket with silver studs, jeans, which we called dungarees, and motorcycle boots--the standard gang and wanna-be gang member’s uniform. (Actually, that was only one uniform. The other was regular trousers pegged, or tightened, at the ankles, a pink shirt, pointy shoes with metal taps on the heels, and a duck’s-ass hair style.)

When I opened my eyes, I was staring up at the bottom of his boot, which he held about six inches above my head. He was grinning to his friends. I don’t remember what he said, but he was pretending to laugh. He also kept pretending to stomp his booted foot onto my head. He never actually did it, though.

Many, many years later, with all sorts of sociological and psychoanalytic smart-ass know-it-all under my belt, I thought back to that day, and concluded that he was just being macho, that he found it hard, in those pre-feminist times, to let on how he was really scared that this skinny kid spread out onto the concrete ground in front of him might be really hurt, and that he couldn’t admit to being scared, so he had to show how macho he was.

That day, of course, all I could do was stare up, make sure I didn’t cry, and try to catch my breath. Somehow, at some point, I got up, sat down near the chain-link fence at the handball court, and watched a game.

Wednesday, December 9, 2009

Disguised bigotry

The recent Swiss vote banning the construction of new minarets on mosques has generated a predictable amount of furious condemnation and applause around the world. For myself, the most disingenuous commentary comes from Ross Douthat, a conservative columnist for the New York Times.That is because his unstated but obvious support of those who voted against the construction not only amounts to the same old anti-immigrant xenophobia ("millions of Muslims have accepted European norms. But millions have not."), it has all the surface appearance of rational discussion. One part of his technique is the traditional half-truth: cite a few examples of Islamic fanaticism (a riot against Denmark, a religiously inspired murder in Holland--as if riots and religious murder were never known in yesteryear's Europe), and imply, without quite stating, that the minarets will foster more of the same.

But Douthat goes beyond the usual stereotyping. His concern is that Islamic immigration to Switzerland and other European countries is deeply undemocratic. Why? Because it was accomplished "in the absence of a popular consensus on the issue, or a plan for how to integrate them." In other words, since non-Muslims already living in European countries did not vote, or otherwise reach some "consensus," on whether to accept Muslim immigrants, the very existence of Islamic immigration is undemocratic. "Better," he said "if [European leaders] had let their voters choose."

Imagine Douthat's argument applied to the United States in years past, during the days of massive immigration to these shores from other countries. B
e Douthat: Cite the rise of organized crime here, and conclude that we should never have let the Italians in, or at least have allowed the pre-Italian residents here to reach a "consensus" on whether to accept them. Cite examples of Irish police brutality and corruption, and conclude the same for the Irish during the potato famine. Cite (my tribe) a few Jewish slumlords or corrupt bankers--or Ponzi schemers--and conclude the same for Jewish immigrants from Germany, Russia, Poland and elsewhere. And don't forget examples of cocaine smuggling, which can be used to question allowing natives of Columbia to come here. The list of ethnic stereotypes extends ad nauseum.

Now compare Douthat's disguised bigotry with the call issued by the Conference of European Rabbis. According to, the rabbis--who know all too well the nature and history of xenophobia--issued an immediate
condemnation of the Swiss ban. "During a meeting in Moscow [on December 4th, 2009] the rabbis declared the decision to be undemocratic for violating freedom of religion."


Saturday, December 5, 2009

A dollar ain't worth a dime anymore

My previous post ("Relatively speaking" December 1) generated a fair amount of interest. One reader suggested I solicit recollections from all of you about your first job, wage, and/or apartment rent. I took her up on it, and here are the responses.

She also suggested I add the prices of some general consumer items several decades ago. Difficult to find, but some average prices in 1965 are offered by
The People History.* I have no idea if they are accurate; also bear in mind that averages (means) can be very misleading. Still, these seem reasonable, if memory serves.

New house: $13,600
Gas per gallon: 31 cents
New car $2,650
Loaf of bread: 21 cents
Rent per month $118
Income per year $6,450

Arthur Zaczkiewicz: My first job was as a photographer's assistant in a studio on Long Island in 1982--another recession era, remember? I earned $150 gross for four days work each week ($336 today). I also did odd jobs to supplement my earnings, which brought my weekly, gross pay total to $190 ($435 today). My rent was for a share of a house, which was $150 per month ($336).

Ed Lieber: My first job, at db magazine, which reported on sound engineering (the company was located in the attic of the elderly couple who published it), I earned about $14,000 a year ($24,400 today). This was in 1989. I kept that job for four months, then moved to a position at General Media, the company owned by Bob Guccione, that published Penthouse magazine. I earned $21,000, also in 1989 ($36,600 today). Next, in 1990, was CMP, where I also earned $21,000 ($34,700). My next job, a year later, at Chilton, I earned $36,000 ($57,000). First big increase, you could say.

I didn't begin earning real money until ICD Publications hired me at a salary of $75,000 in the year 2000 ($94,000 today). I had been earning about $60,000 ($75,000) at HFN [Home Furnishings News], before ICD lured me away.

Celia Hartmann: I was a college graduate with an editorial assistant position--glorified title of Assistant Managing Editor, on a two-person masthead!--making $155 a week ($513 today) in 1978. I moved into a two-bedroom railroad on very Dominican West 88th street, New York City, the next year, sharing the $270 a month rent ($804 today) with a roommate.
I ate a lot of beans and knew every bar with free food at happy hour!

Anon: My very first job with a paycheck was the summer after high school in 1969. I made $50 per week ($295 today) for forty hours work; was that even minimum wage then? [Minimum wage in 1969 was one dollar per hour--NW.] I was an assistant in the career counseling office of a community college. I lived at home and gave the money to my Dad for my college expenses and clothes my mother was sewing. I didn't have a bank account until I left home that September and started on near campus.

It might be interesting if people also know their college debt. I borrowed $450 ($2,650 today) for my four-year BA. My first job in New York City paid $12,000 in 1978 (almost $40,000 today) with benefits and I got a new job by the end of the year for $15,000 (almost $45,000), also with benefits. I sublet an East Village four-room shotgun apartment for something like $175 ($520), then moved to a two-room, first floor, cave-like apartment in the West Village for $250 ($745). Those were the days. Now I make $37,000 working for a state in danger
of becoming bankrupt; no raises for three years, but I still have insurance and vacation days.

Phelan Wibecan: A friend got me a job at a Tower Records that had opened on the Upper East Side, New York City, in 1996. Shortly after that, I moved into an apartment in a then-undiscovered neighborhood called Williamsburg, Brooklyn. Rent was $600 a month total ($827 today), then split with a roommate. I survived on a routine of financial jockeying that consisted of cash advances from work, pleading phone calls to my mom, and a landlord who had accepted the fact that she'd get the rent eventually. If I recall correctly, I was making about $160 a week ($220 today)--five dollars per hour for forty hours, less tax.

Elissa Krauss: I paid $65 a month ($433 today) for a three-room, railroad, tub-in-kitchen aparment on East 11th Street between Avenues B and C, New York City, in 1966. I split the rent with my roommate [a mutual friend from City College days]. Have no idea what I made, but I suspect it was something like $30 a week ($200 today), since I was still a student, working part time.

Jennifer White Karp: I couldn't find a job after graduating college in 1993 (this was during the last recession) so I was waiting tables in a catering hall--it was miserable--and living at home while I sent out my resume. So I was thrilled when I landed a job as an assistant editor at a weekly newspaper in East New York, Brooklyn! This is probably the most dangerous part of New York City--and one of my first assignments was to visit the 75th Police Precinct (highest murder rate in the city) to report on the goods-for-guns exchange program that had just been launched.

I was so jazzed--I thought I was going to be doing gritty crime reporting! The salary was something like $18,500 a year ($27,600 today)--but it was enough for me to move into an apartment share in Long Beach with someone with whom I went to high school. We paid a ridiculously low few hundred a month (almost $450 today).

As for doing real journalism, the newspaper, "The Spring Creek Sun," was owned by Starrett City, the giant housing complex. The management wasn't fond of crime stories. So a story about a sniper on a balcony would be trimmed to practically nothing and buried inside. On the front page would be stories about what was going on at the senior center.

There were a lot of heavy snows that winter and I would spend the night with the receptionist and her family, who lived in Starrett. It was a very different place to grow up, compared with the burbs where I was from. Her kids came home directly after school and did not go out again until it was time to go to school next morning. It wasn't safe for them to walk alone to the community center while she was at work. It was grim but I covered a lot of interesting stories, even if we didn't get to run them the way I wanted. I was there ten months, when I found what I considered a higher-paying job: $25,000 a year ($36,400 today) at another weekly newspaper, this time back in the burbs. Still, it beat the catering hall.

*For average prices of food products in the 1970s, many by brand name, see

Tuesday, December 1, 2009

Relatively speaking

My family is lucky. Although the nation's unemployment rate is reaching for the moon, our two daughters, six months out of college, have finally managed to find jobs. One--who graduated with a degree in anthropology--is a production coordinator in a film and video studio. She will earn nine dollars an hour, or around $18,720 a year for a forty-hour week. No health benefits, of course, but hey, what do you expect these days?

Her twin sister, with a degree in English, landed a freelance editing job for eighteen dollars an hour; that also amounts to around $18,720 a year for a twenty-hour week. She supplements it with occasional baby-sitting. And she just got a temporary second job, which should last about a month during the holiday season, in a women's clothing store, for eight dollars an hour. (Don't laugh: that's still above minimum wage!)

Since rents for vacant free-market apartments in New York City today are beyond criminal, they both have to live at home. There is a price to pay, however. As one sighed recently, "Simply having to be here, after being on my own for four years, is infantalizing."

Some perspective: In 1965, fresh out of college, with a degree in public administration, I landed a job as "information officer" (read public relations hack) at the New York office of the U.S. Department of Labor. (I had taken and passed the Federal Service Entrance Exam, for which I had been prepped, it seems, most of my life by my Depression-era father.) I earned, in today's dollars, over $61,000 a year. Full health coverage, vacations, everything else. Then I got a studio apartment on Manhattan's upper west side for eighty-six dollars a month ($590 today). The apartment, in a beautiful brownstone, had a full kitchen and a working fireplace. The multi-building landlord was obviously prosperous, even though all his apartments were rent-controlled.

The funny thing is, while I shake my head in comparing our daughters' situation to my own at their age, I really can't complain. Given the desperation of so many families today, struggling to survive the wreckage of our greed-fueled economy, our kids are doing okay. . . relatively speaking.