Education on the Sidewalks of New York

Benjamin B. Ferencz

Hell’s Kitchen, where I lived before I reached seven years of age, was not a very friendly place. The residents were mainly Irish and Italians who had settled in New York to avoid starvation in their beloved home countries. All the policemen, firemen, and motormen who drove the trolleys or elevated trains were Irish. As far as I could tell, Italians dug ditches or sold vegetables. The numerous offspring of these immigrants seemed primarily intent on beating each other up. I tagged along and got on well with all of them. I was adopted as a mascot by both sides. When they were not fighting gang wars in defense of their neighborhoods, they were busy pilfering. Potatoes roasted on the sidewalk only tasted good if the “Mickeys” were first snitched from a fruit store. Other harmless sidewalk sports included various forms of gambling. I learned about shooting craps from the ground up.

In those days there were no such diversions as television, video games, or cell phones to entertain kids. Adolescents would hang out on the stoops or sidewalks and look for trouble. If they were seen kneeling on the pavement, it was not in prayer—they were tossing dice. The stakes were usually a penny, but occasionally some sport would toss in a nickel bet. When engaging in such high finance, it was prudent to have a sentry posted to protect the players from predators or the police. That’s where I came in. I never gambled. Rather than relying on the toss of the dice, I preferred a sure thing. I served as the lookout man. I stood near the corner and if I saw a cop coming I would have to shout “Cheezit, the cops!” Whereupon, the kneeling gang would jump up and run like hell. The Irish cop would chase after them cursing and swinging his nightstick before returning to pick up the pot for himself. By that time, of course, I had quietly pocketed whatever pennies had been hastily abandoned. All the arm of the law could get from me was an angelic smile. First come first served.

It was a time when the manufacture, sale, or consumption of alcoholic beverages was against the law, but prohibition was rarely observed. My father, known as “Joe the Janitor,” did a little bootlegging on the side. He liked a little nip now and then and he had a certain talent for improvising to meet emergency situations. It was legally permissible to use alcohol for medical or religious purposes. Although he would hardly be mistaken for a medical professional, my father could pass as a fairly pious man. He would take me with him to early morning services in the back room of a nearby store that also served as a synagogue. I could not understand any of the lamentations in Hebrew and I thought the whole thing was quite boring. The concluding service on the Sabbath required that a braided candle be doused with alcohol; obviously, one could not practice the faith without a little booze near the pulpit.

I don’t know where he learned it, but my father was able to convert a mash of boiling potatoes into a plain fiery liquid that dripped from the copper distillery hidden in our basement. I am not suggesting that my Pop was going into competition with Al Capone, but his modest production served a useful and friendly service to the community. The Irish cops who patrolled the beat on foot would often feel weary and stop by for a little refreshment. Some even took along a flask of the whiskey to remind them of home. The honest ones would leave a dollar or two on the table. I always appreciated honest policemen. Because the shiny copper boiler had to be concealed and my father had admonished me not to talk about it, I sensed that something fishy was going on. I can guess that it was my inherent respect for law and order, and for freedom of speech, that prompted me to start speaking openly about my father’s new vocation and friendship with the police. In what may have been my first victory over organized crime, the distillery in our home soon disappeared. I can guess that my Pop sometimes regretted that he hadn’t thrown me overboard.

I was made aware of the evils of drink by various experiences as a very young child. I recall the day that my father confronted a drunk who had been throwing bricks from the roof. In his official capacity as Janitor-in-charge, my Dad ordered him to desist. In defiance, the offender took off his jacket, rolled up his sleeves and, in his best brogue and a stance reminiscent of boxing champion John L. Sullivan, challenged my old man to a fight. Rumanians are not noted for their valor. It is rumored that Rumanian soldiers wore uniforms only on their backs since that’s all the enemy ever saw. My father was no hero and had never heard of the Marquis of Queensbury Rules. When the drunk jabbed with his left, my father pulled the heavy cover off a nearby garbage can and held it up like the shield of a Roman gladiator. After another punch was thrown, the battle was on. My father smashed his opponent squarely in the face with the smelly shield and kept pounding away at the fallen villain’s head as he lay moaning on the ground until rescued by the cop on the beat. I’m sure my father never felt bound by the biblical mandate “an eye for an eye,” but he knew that if attacked you must defend yourself—particularly if there is a garbage cover handy.

Another educational experience involving liquor occurred when I was perhaps 4 years old. It was Passover, a time of celebration when families reunite to remember the escape of the Jews from slavery in Egypt. The prayer ritual requires repeated sips of wine. The kosher purple grape juice was sufficiently fermented and sweet to make it very palatable and I did my religious duty with gusto and glee. I was soon feeling quite happy and even more talkative than usual—much to the amusement of all present. They kept pouring more wine and I kept drinking it. Soon, I was what experts call “drunk as a skunk.” I recall vividly how the room kept spinning round and round while I got sicker and sicker. That was the first time in my life that I ever became inebriated. It was also the last. I had learned the value of moderation in all things.

My sister and I were never left in the care of baby-sitters who expected to be paid. Instead, we were deposited in the nearby movie house, the “Chalona,” on Ninth Avenue. Admission cost only a dime, and kids could be taken in by an adult and left there indefinitely. The movies showed cowboys chasing Indians while the piano player in the front row pounded away with music or noise supposed to reflect the action on the silent screen. There was a lot of shooting and fighting and the good guys all wore white hats while the bad guys wore black hats and usually ended up dead. Indians, who never wore hats, didn’t do so well either. The written text was supposed to explain the wild gesticulation of the actors. Of course, I could not read, nor did I know anybody who could. It was quite exciting nevertheless, and I got the gist of what was going on. On one occasion, when I was deposited as usual, I could not be located when my father came to retrieve me. The management regretted that a search of the house would only be possible after the last show. It was close to midnight when all the customers had left, that I was found sound asleep under a seat in one of the front rows. When the screen is filled with killing and violence, a good sleep can be very refreshing.

On one busy and rainy day, my mother told my sister and I to go to the movies by ourselves. I was no more than six and my sister less than eight. We were instructed never to cross over the wide Ninth Avenue, with its horse-drawn wagons and even automobiles, without help from an adult. The standard routine was for me to wait till a gentleman approached and then ask politely, “Mister, please cross me cross.” At the box office we had to wait for another adult to get us into the theater. Along came a teenager who spotted what we were waiting for and offered to buy our tickets for us. He took the quarter that my sister clutched in her hand, went up to the box office, and then, laughing, spurted away into the distance with our money. We both stood there in the rain and started to bawl as though our hearts would break. Soon, an elderly gentleman came along and asked us why we were crying so bitterly. We tried to explain but it was very difficult through our tears. He finally understood what had happened and told us not to worry. He took out a handkerchief to help dry our tears. He then bought two tickets and escorted us into the theater where he found two seats with a good view. We told him that one of our parents would come to collect us and we thanked him politely as he left. A few minutes later, the stranger returned with an ice-cream cone for each of us. Neither my sister nor I ever forgot that kindness. Not everyone is mean and rotten. The world is not such a bad place after all.