Growing up in the Bronx in the 1940s, Steven Robbins was raised on egg creams, baseball stats, and the camaraderie that kept his melting-pot Bronx neighborhood humming during World War II. Robbins aspired to escape his humble roots, and eventually worked his way to Madison Avenue, where he became a hotshot ad man with an enviable wife. But as he pushes fifty and his marriage falls apart, Robbins begins yearning for a deeper happiness. Returning to his old neighborhood in the Bronx, Robbins seeks the simplicity of the life he once fled in the one place where he may ultimately find contentment. The Old Neighborhood is a warm-hearted novel that shows it is possible to go home again, or to take home with you wherever you go. This ebook features an illustrated biography of Avery Corman, including rare images from the author’s personal collection.
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The Old Neighborhood
By Avery Corman
OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIACopyright © 1980 Avery Corman
All rights reserved.
To be ten years old in 1944 was to know one's place in the war effort, to collect scrap paper for the scrap paper drive, save Minuteman war stamps, and memorize the silhouettes of enemy aircraft, then crouch on the roof of a building at twilight hoping to spot a Stuka before it could strafe the neighborhood.
We lived in the Kingsbridge Road-Grand Concourse section of the Bronx in a red brick building on Morris Avenue. Flamingos caroused on the wallpaper in the lobby and art deco nymphs were painted on the elevator door of "Beatrice Arms," named for the landlord's wife, Beatrice. The building's most distinguished citizen was The Dentist, who had an office on the ground floor, the smell of ether lingered in the lobby.
My best friends were Arthur Pollack and Jerry Rosen. We were in class 5-1 at P.S. 86, our teacher, Miss Brenner, was a humorless woman in her forties, her hair pulled into a tight bun in the back. The war had helped her organize an educational philosophy, she went from elementary school teacher to pre-induction officer.
"Stand up, Steven R. Hup-hup! At attention!"
We were children of the homefront. I had just downed my sixth German Focke-Wulf of the morning in my composition book. I rose at attention to the snickering of my classmates, some of whom had been sinking U-boats.
"I said, 'Hands folded on desks,' did I not?"
"Yes, Miss Brenner."
"That does not mean 'Hands writing in notebooks,' does it?"
"No, Miss Brenner."
"I am going to tell you of an incident that cannot be repeated sufficient times."
The Foxhole Story. Again! Arthur Pollack produced a comic groan and Jerry Rosen began to giggle.
"Stand up, Arthur P. And you, too, Jerry R. At attention!"
The giggling in the class was now widespread.
"Stand up, class 5-1. All of you, at attention!"
Miss Brenner had the entire class on its feet as she told her favorite war story.
"The infantry squad was in foxholes near the enemy lines. A rifle shot was heard. The officer yelled, 'Heads down!' Some were slow to respond. Others did not respond at all. Everyone was killed. Except for one man. That man did respond. That man put his head down quickly. That man was Corporal Howard Reese, a former pupil of mine, who learned in my classroom how to follow instructions. And he lived. And the others died. He wrote to tell me this. And that is an important story. You are to listen to your teacher."
Then she said, in case anyone had missed the point:
"Or maybe one day you will be in battle and not know how to listen."
Suddenly, this time in the telling, she noticed a problem with the story line. She rushed to add:
"That means girls, too. You could be combat nurses."
Arthur, Jerry and I were kept after school for being weisenheimers. We had to write on the blackboard thirty times, "I will not be rude and inattentive," a heavy punishment which kept us out of the first stickball game of the afternoon.
Jerry lived in my building, his father was Rosen's Dry Cleaning on Kingsbridge Road. Arthur was the rich one among us, his father worked in Manhattan for a printing company, and Arthur owned electric baseball. We were Yankee fans, my favorite player was George "Snuffy" Stirnweiss, who led the American League in batting in 1945 with a wartime average of .309. His picture was pasted to the wall above my bed, along with my collection of Dixie Cup covers with scenes of "Our Branches of Service in Action." I listened to Yankee games on the radio, the road games re-created in the studio to the sound of the Western Union ticker: "Grimes hits a high fly" ... tick ... tick ... tick ... "It's down the left field line" ... tick ... tick ... "It's" ... tick ... tick ... tick ... tick ... "A foul ball." Time was suspended in these reports, which came in from such exotic places as Cleveland and Chicago.
My parents, Sylvia and Bernard Robbins, had moved to this neighborhood from the Lower East Side the year I was born. They came north by subway to a new social position in their lives, to an area with parks and elevator buildings. My father had been hired as an assistant manager of a men's haberdashery store on Fordham Road. Six feet one with reddish hair, he was slightly stoop-shouldered, as if he were embarrassed to be taller than his neighbors. My mother was small and fair with fragile features, a woman who attempted to manage her responsibilities as she perceived them—to run the household and be informed. Our family and The Dentist and his wife were the only people in the building to read The New York Times, not held in high regard in the neighborhood, as it did not have horse-racing tips or the comics.
My father, 4-F because of a heart murmur, was an air-raid warden, out on the streets during blackouts. In his work, after ten years in the Bronx, he was still an assistant manager in the haberdashery, which meant that he was but a salesman entrusted to use the cash register. He was extremely low-keyed in business. The store manager told my mother, "He's too nice."
Angry with my father, my mother confronted him at the dinner table.
"What salesman should be called nice? They should be saying you're aggressive!"
"Some of these salesmen—they'll sell you anything," he answered, defending himself, turning to me. "Even clothes that don't fit. I can't do that."
He did not advance in his work or earn the money that others did, but he was honest, the word in the neighborhood was that people respected him. So he was retained in his job by a succession of store managers he never replaced.
Our apartment was decorated modestly, bare wood floors, mahogany pieces, wing chairs and a greenish tweed couch in the living room. The prized piece was our push-button console radio, an Emerson, purchased on time. Some families in the neighborhood went to the Catskills or to Rockaway for the summer, as my mother was given to remind my father. On Sundays we went to Orchard Beach by bus. They argued often over money. I pretended not to listen. My mother never took a job to help the family income because in the neighborhood wives did not work, unless the husband was in the army or dead. Neither the husband nor the wife would have approved of the woman working. This was cultural, a given, in the same way that troubled couples, as my parents were, never got divorced. As I think back, thirty-five years later, remembering that besieged couple and the tired man who was my father, it is astonishing to me that I am an older man now than my father was then.
A major day arrived in my life. Not only did I have permission to go with Arthur to the RKO Fordham for the children's show, five cartoons, a Pete Smith, a chapter, plus the double feature, not only did I have spending money for candy, but afterward we were going to Liberty Bell Bridge and Arthur was planning to let me "go halfies" on his ringing of the bell. A facsimile of The Liberty Bell was erected on the Grand Concourse in front of the Loew's Paradise Theatre and anyone who bought a war bond could step up on the bridge and ring the bell for freedom. I had not yet been able to save enough for a bond in my war stamp book, but Arthur had rung the bell twice before. A bonus for the bell ringers was to look inside a captured two-man Japanese submarine which was part of the war bond display. When the movies were over we ran to the Paradise, then holding Arthur's bond together, we walked up on the bridge and rang the bell—pals for victory. We peered into the submarine and were intrigued by how small and sneaky the submarine looked. I was momentarily encouraged to change my favorite branch of service from the Army Air Corps to the Navy so I could sink Japanese submarines with depth charges from my destroyer.
In the neighborhood, the sense of participation, of being part of a nation at war, was palpable. People placed white flags with blue stars in their windows to signify a man in uniform, sometimes a double star for two men, or a gold star for a man killed. It was a working-class neighborhood divided between Jews and Irish Catholics. Tommy McPheeley, a stickball friend, said that he liked me even though the Jews killed Christ. I asked how he knew that—since I did not know myself—and he said, "Sister Theresa told us." So the idea was being taught in the parishes in the 1940s, and Sister Theresa said so, and she was a Sister, which seemed to be documentation of some kind. But the religious issue generally was set aside during those years, Jews and Catholics were in the Big Fight together and on the killing of Christ it was acknowledged that, at the very least, the event was pre-war.
On June 6, 1944, D-Day, the schools closed early and we were asked to attend one of the special afternoon services being conducted in local churches and synagogues to pray for the safe return of Allied servicemen. The radio had announced that many would die in the fighting, that it was the biggest battle of the war. I walked with Arthur and Jerry to the Jacob H. Schiff Center near Fordham Road. I was nervous as we entered the synagogue, we were supposed to pray and I had never prayed. The synagogue was crowded with children who had been released from school, women from the neighborhood, and the elderly. The rabbi began the service with a news bulletin, the first beachheads were secure. A children's choir sang hymns in Hebrew and the rabbi recited the Lord's Prayer in English, which was momentarily reassuring, since I had heard it in school. Then came the moment I was dreading. He asked the congregation to pray. I closed my eyes and began to imagine bodies being blown out of the water by enemy mortar fire, blood trickling out of the sides of mouths of soldiers in trenches, bayonets ripping into stomachs, planes streaming into mountainsides, pilots' bodies burning—images reinforced by dozens of war movies, now embellished by my imagination and the ominous quality of this day, that I was released from school on the day of the biggest battle of the war, that many would die in the fighting, that I was to come here to this strange place, ignorant of the rules, and that my prayers—whatever praying was, whatever God was—had been asked for, and the deaths frightened me. I was ten years old and I wanted the war to stop. The romantic adventure of the war ended for me on this day. No longer did I draw pictures of P-38s and German planes in my books. The war had exhausted my capacity for militant fantasy.
On April 12, 1945, Franklin Delano Roosevelt died. In this working-class neighborhood he was revered, the man who had led the nation out of the Depression, the Commander-in-Chief. People drifted into the streets and gathered on street corners to console each other. School was canceled on the day of the funeral, stores closed, strangers passed and nodded, sharing the sense of loss. Our doorbell rang and standing there was our next-door neighbor, Mrs. Cavanaugh, a widow who lived alone. No more than a "Good morning" had ever passed between Mrs. Cavanaugh and the members of my family. Alone in her sorrow, she asked if she might come in for a cup of tea. We sat with the radio playing and listened to the reports of the funeral, none of us speaking. Then Mrs. Cavanaugh began to talk about her life, about the details of her husband's death, she wept for President Roosevelt and for her husband, then excused herself abruptly, never to approach us again or ever again to say any more than a "Good morning."
When Germany surrendered, V-E Day was declared, for victory in Europe, and an avalanche of paper commemorated the event in the neighborhood. People threw paper out of their windows, the fastidious cut it into confetti, children hurled rolls of toilet paper from the roofs. I was with my friends, running through the paper that covered the streets. We kicked it, we scooped it, we tossed it like snow.
The Memorial Day parade along the Grand Concourse after V-E Day was a massive victory celebration. Everyone who could march was there—servicemen on leave wearing their uniforms, civilians from war organizations, the wounded in special cars. Those families whose windows faced the Concourse competed with each other in the sizes of their American flags. Arthur, whose apartment was on the Concourse, invited us to watch from his living-room window. Whenever a color guard passed by, the spectators sitting along the curb would rise and come to attention. Uncertain of protocol and wanting to do the correct thing on this important day, when a color guard passed beneath us, we stood at attention in the living room.
"Unconditional surrender!" the younger children yelled without comprehending the words. Victory over Japan, V-J Day, produced another blizzard of paper in the neighborhood. I was part of the celebration in the street when I happened to notice the gold star mother at her window. We did not know her name, but we had seen her, at times, looking down at us when we played. She opened the window and was holding a small brown paper bag. She emptied it and a little stream of cutup paper went floating to the street below. She watched as the last pieces fell to the ground, then she closed her window. The war was over.
From December 7, 1941, to August 14, 1945, the people in the neighborhood did their share for the duration. The sons and the husbands, those who were able, went into service, those behind bought the war stamps and war bonds, saved the scrap paper, worked in the ground-observer corps and civilian defense, dealt with rationing and shortages, listened to the radio reports with the same hopes that the war would end quickly so the boys could come home. There was a feeling that the people of the neighborhood had been through something together. I was seven years old when the war began and eleven when it ended. Beyond the imagery, the war movies, the war posters, the war fantasies, what I remember is the sense of community in the neighborhood in those years. It was special and profound and I have never forgotten it.CHAPTER 2
In the Bronx in the 1950s young people lined up early to be middle-aged. A tremendous force, greater than the power of all the D trains as they traveled up the Grand Concourse, was generated by Bronx parents to make certain their children went to college to get A Good Job.
"What's to become of you?" my mother said. "Time is running out." I was seventeen at the time. I stood before her with my cherished basketball under my arm, having spent an hour by lamplight in the park practicing one-handed push shots, which I considered a highly profitable hour. I was in my senior year at De Witt Clinton High School, a starting forward on the basketball team and possessor of a varsity jacket, with which I hoped to seduce a girl into going all the way—actual. Among the possible actuals were Barbara Semmelman of Taft High School—we had a rubbing-up-against-in-hallways, "inside on top" sexual relationship—and Cynthia Cohen of Roosevelt High School, "outside on bottom"—so near, yet so far.
The owners of the local candy store, Moe and Rhoda Fisher, lived in our building, and when I was small the Fishers allowed me to sit in the back of the store and read comic books without buying, making me something of a celebrity among my peers. Now the Fishers had given me a job part time in the candy store. "You can't be a soda jerk forever," my mother informed me. I was, by her determination, the only young man under twenty-five in the Bronx who did not know what he was going to do in life. My mother was under pressure. She saw me becoming the financial success for her that my father had failed to be. She assembled a collection of college catalogs that rivaled the number in the school guidance office. I did not share her anxieties about my future. What I considered significant was that I had made my high school basketball team, that I had worked my way up from three-man schoolyard games to the community center league to ownership of a varsity jacket that could be worn on weekends. Now that was personal progress.
"You've never even seen me play. I'm a good ballplayer."
"Everybody knows what they want to be."
"The Shadow knows."
"Morty Papkin knows. He's going to be a veterinarian."
"Morty doesn't realize you have to kiss a sheep before you get your license."
"It's true. A soul kiss."
"Be serious. You need a plan."
Excerpted from The Old Neighborhood by Avery Corman. Copyright © 1980 Avery Corman. Excerpted by permission of OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIA.
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Most Helpful Customer Reviews
Steven Robbins, advertising executive, has reached the top of his profession, as has his wife in hers, and the couple has the perfect life - or so they thought, until the pressures of their careers drive them apart, and they undergo a trial separation. During that time an unhappy Steve remakes his life, resigning from his job and starting a new life in the old Bronx neighborhood he grew up in, eventually recreating a less stressful and more satisfying life for himself. This novel by the author of "Oh, God" and "Kramer vs. Kramer" is lesser known than those two books which were made into fine movies, but it is a good story all the same, with a life-affirming ending that would give hope to anybody trapped in a similar struggle for filthy lucre. I also envy Steve the eventual career he created for himself.
I found this book interesting and easy reading. Fairly good believable story line, not too heavy. Short and sweet.
first person an autobiography up to the end. he relates what he did thinks and how people appeared to him literally what happened it was interestibg to read but evoked no emotion since all had already happened