I was working in a second-hand bookstore on Toronto’s Queen Street West—still a funky, grungy street in 1982—when someone walked in looking to sell a paper copy of Bronx Primitive, the first volume of American travel writer Kate Simon’s three-part memoir. I had never heard of Simon before, but the title and blurbs intrigued me and I bought the book for a few cents. I took it home, intending to read it and bring it back, but Bronx Primitive stunned me. During my next shift I put a quarter in the till and never returned it.
I have it still. Dog-eared and yellowing, the cover creased and peeling, its edges missing bits as if they’d been bitten off, and numerous pages marked up. Over the years I’ve read Bronx Primitive: Portraits in a Childhood several times and it never fails to startle me. Never fails to ease my heart to see that, though Simon was born a decade before me, her bare-bones childhood was similar in so many ways to my own. I nod my head and speak to her silently as I read her words.
Like Simon, I’m the daughter of Eastern European Jewish immigrants and spent my early years in that much maligned New York borough of the Bronx. We lived among other Jews in the working-class community of West Farms, in a five-storey tenement several blocks east of Simon’s but also near the main street of East Tremont Avenue. That Simon’s family came to the city at the close of World War I and mine arrived in the 1930s didn’t matter: judging by her memoir, nothing seemed to have changed much in the interim, except that my mother bought chickens that were already plucked (although, disgustingly, she gutted them herself) and her Singer sewing machine was electric. Girls were still playing Double Dutch on the sidewalk or knitting using an empty spool with four nails; they were expected to marry young—“the earlier the more triumphant”—and mothers still fed their kids salami sandwiches or noodles with cottage cheese. They scolded us not to run around the streets with boys, but behind their backs we played Ringolevio and hide-and-seek with our brothers and other guys, not to mention stickball, stoopball and box ball—batting, throwing, and slapping our smooth, pink, bouncy rubber balls called Spaldeens—more exciting games than jump rope or weaving and, considering our parents’ constricted lives, more fun than marriage.
Our family’s ground-floor railroad apartment, with its rooms branched off the hall, was small and dark. My parents slept in the living room, while I shared the bedroom with my two older brothers. My father worked long hours as a polisher in a jewelry factory downtown, and when he was gone the apartment felt spacious; but when he was home it was crowded with tension. His tension mostly—but it would be many years before I understood this; before I recognized that he was anxious and insecure, his shortcomings worsened by his time in Nazi Germany and by living hand-to-mouth as an immigrant in New York.
Throughout my childhood I saw him as larger than life, heroic, invulnerable, with muscles as large as Tarzan’s or Superman’s. I loved the things we did together: riding the tractor train at the zoo, hiking at Bear Mountain, or picnicking at Kensington Reservoir upstate. I loved the seeded rye bread and cold cuts he brought home Friday nights from a deli on Tremont Avenue, sparing us my mother’s greasy, tasteless chicken soup or dry, overcooked beef and soggy peas, heated on the stove in their own can.
She, however, saw him in a different light. She viciously yelled curses at him in Yiddish, which I didn’t understand, and though he hollered back, she always stopped him cold by calling him “Nazi bastard,” the worst thing she could’ve said.
Summers were hot and dirty in the city and everyone did what they could to get away. Simon’s family vacationed in Coney Island, in a communal house with shared toilet and kitchen “known as a kuch alein, cook for yourself, the cheapest way to give one’s children fresh air and escape for a week or two some of the exigencies of marriage.”
My family was lucky enough to spend a few summers in the Catskill Mountains, first in a kuch alein, but later, luxuriously, in a semi-detached bungalow with private facilities in the same rustic colony. My father spent his two weeks’ vacation with us, thereafter coming on weekends after working five days in the scorching city. I never saw him happier—and was never happier myself—than when we were together outdoors in nature and he spoke about hiking and skiing in Europe as a young man. He showed me orange salamanders by the road after it rained and deer grazing in a field early in the morning; he guided me safely through a nest of sleepy copperheads near the top of a mountain trail. On Fridays I looked forward to his arrival, and my mother seemed to like him better in the country too, perhaps because she got a break from him during the week.
As I grew, I learned that my father was volatile, twisted with emotions ranging from happiness to fury. I would try to gauge his humour—tired, angry, or boisterously cheerful—then either sit and listen to him or run from his snarly tone and the flash of his blue-white eyes. Charming or sad, the anecdotes he often told were always compelling, charged with nervous energy. Without fail, every tale about how he spent his day, the people he worked with, or even his life in Berlin, Lyon, and New York in that desperate time before I was born ended triumphantly. Though I didn’t know it then, I was absorbing the verve and rhythm of his speech, which I would one day use when telling my own stories.
Simon, too, had a hot-tempered father. As well, she had to grapple with a nineteen or twenty-year-old immigrant cousin who, shortly after arriving from Poland to live with her family, began making nightly forays to her room, where he straddled her in bed and “pushed his big thing” against her. The raids continued until the night he found her waiting upright in a chair and, fearing discovery, promised not to touch her again.
At twelve she also had to deal with a barber who clipped her hair with one hand while the other pinched and stroked her breasts under the cape. Then there was the “fatherly” neighbour who took her to see a movie and, once they were seated, began fingering her breast, his other hand seemingly “busy in his pants.” As he made chit-chat on the way home, Simon wondered “once more at the perfidy of adults who could do such dirty things in the dark and then talk as if nothing happened.”
Reading those pages reminded me of my own experiences with damaged men, starting when I was five or six. One time a man came into our building entrance, where I was alone playing jacks, and sat down beside me. It was cool and calm in the lobby, which had marble stairs gently worn from countless footsteps and wooden handrails with polished brass fittings as shiny as the man’s shoes. He spoke in a soft voice and nothing about him frightened me, even when he put his hand under my dress and rubbed between my legs. But when he placed my own hand on the lump behind his pants zipper, I pulled back, grabbed my jacks, and ran to our apartment.
It was wrong to tell my parents. I had broken a basic rule, described by Simon in her book, “to keep worries about God and sex to ourselves.”
Flushed and tight-eyed, they fired off questions—What man? Where did he touch you? Why didn’t you run away? Only then did I feel bad: I let the man touch me; I touched him back.
Sexual interference was not discussed openly in the 1950s, but my parents would’ve talked between themselves about what happened—in a nice Jewish neighbourhood, in a country like America! They would’ve been unnerved because they’d failed to keep me safe.
After my father checked the lobby and found it empty, the matter was dropped for good.
A year later, they took me to see Charlton Heston in The Naked Jungle. We sat in the middle of a row, my father between my mother and me, and though the theatre was half empty, a man sat in the seat to my left and slumped down, his legs wide open, his thigh pressed against mine. I angled my legs away as the room darkened and the movie began.
Almost at once I felt his hand on the small of my back; then it slowly slid down to my buttocks. I squirmed in my seat, moved forward. The hand moved forward too. I didn’t want to rock the boat and tell my father, but when the hand moved under the waistband of my pants, I panicked and whispered, “That man is touching me.”
My father turned his head and gave the man his most hateful, blazing look. The man pulled his hand away but didn’t change seats. My father resumed watching the movie. Minutes later the hand was back where it shouldn’t have been and the touching continued. I started crying silently, my tears blurring the actors on screen to a single Technicolor streak.
“He’s doing it again,” I said, and the scene repeated itself: my father glared; the stranger retreated but didn’t move. My father returned to the film. I have no idea why he didn’t punch the man or threaten to call a cop. What secret terror made him shy of more direct confrontation? Clearly his scowling was useless.
And so I understood, in that awful moment, that despite his fierceness at home—the menacing looks, the shouting matches with my mom, hitting my brothers with his belt—my father was powerless to fix what was wrong in the world, or to make terrible things stop. He could do only so much to shield me from ugliness; after that I was on my own.
In the end he asked my mother to move over a seat so I could sit between them, leaving a gap like a missing picket between the wicked man and my ineffectual father. When I dared to glance sideways, I saw the man had gone.
In the aftermath, I stopped thinking about my father’s weakness and went back to adoring him. It wasn’t until my teens that my awareness of his egotism, bossiness, and other limitations re-erupted, and then I railed against him for his human frailty.
When I first read Simon’s account of being “felt up,” and of her cousin’s attacks, I empathized with this schoolgirl abused by predatory men. I also realized that these sad incidents were more common than I’d thought. Simon too learned early that certain men saw girls as toys to be played with and used for their own pleasure—“a thing that had no feelings, no thoughts, no choices.” How else to explain the unwanted pinching, rubbing, groping, near-rape, and worse that women continue to endure?
I was seven when our fortunes improved enough for us to move to a row house in Throggs Neck, an oddly named peninsula in the southeast Bronx between the East River and Long Island Sound.
This low- and middle-income community was by and large Irish and Italian Catholic, though a few Jewish families lived there as well and attended a small brick synagogue that we drove to annually for the High Holidays. It was in this neighbourhood that I first heard that Jews had once killed another Jew named Jesus, “a sad man wearing a circle of thorns,” as Simon describes him. Like her, I found this incredible—“Jews didn’t kill, they were killed in pogroms.” The local kids, however, insisted it was true—they’d heard it at St. Frances de Chantal School—and some of them taunted or shunned me as a result.
I went to a public school, where my second-grade teacher, Mrs. Ellner, read to us daily from well-known children’s books, including Frances Hodgson Burnett’s The Secret Garden. How could I resist the story of an unloved, disagreeable ten-year-old and her sickly cousin in an English manor house becoming healthy and happy? I was spellbound as Mrs. Ellner read the story aloud in a soft and desirably unaccented voice so unlike my father’s German-inflected English or my mother’s Latvian cadence. I modelled my own speech on hers, not too Bronx and definitely not foreign-sounding.
One day Mrs Ellner invited me to stay in her classroom during lunch break. I would recite poems from the back of the room while she sat at her desk and listened, explaining words and correcting my delivery. Thus did a remarkable woman turn me on to poetry and set me on the path to becoming a writer. What made her want to introduce a young daughter of immigrants to literature? Perhaps I inherited the artistic soul of my father’s sister Rose, a concert pianist killed in Auschwitz, and that’s what somehow attracted Mrs. Ellner’s attention.
Thrillingly, my teacher asked me to tea on a Sunday afternoon in her apartment in Parkchester, an East Bronx neighbourhood much nicer than Throggs Neck. My father, too impressed and cowed not to allow me to go, drove me there at the appointed time and agreed to pick me up in a couple of hours. I was wearing the white blouse my mother had washed and ironed and my scraggly, stringy hair was pulled back from my face with my best tortoiseshell barrettes. I rang the bell and Mrs. Ellner greeted me with a warm smile.
There was no Mr. Ellner around or grown Ellner children but, to my horror, two other kids from my class were already seated on a sofa, hands folded. One was a boy with slicked-down hair who everyone called Clark Kent because he looked dopey and his surname was Clark. Only grown-ups used his first name, whatever it was. The other was someone I liked to call Susan Blah, known for her banana curls, which Mrs. Ellner admired unduly that afternoon and said would look good on me. That stopped my breath in my chest. How could she possibly think I’d wear a nerdy hairdo? Didn’t she know me at all ?
She gave us dainty sandwiches—not the heavy rye bread and schmaltz I was used to—and tea steeped in a teapot, not in the cup, served with milk and sugar instead of the lemon slices we used at home. There were small confections on matching plates—unlike the thickly sliced seven-layer or honey cakes I knew—meant to be eaten with little forks I couldn’t imagine my father and brothers holding. So this was how a native American drank tea and ate dessert—more like a goy than a Jew, I thought, though my mother assured me that Mrs. Ellner was one of us.
I wished I had her all to myself and didn’t understand what my teacher saw in dreary Clark and Kewpie-doll Susan. No doubt I pouted with jealousy the whole time we ate sweets, gulped tea, and made stupid small talk.
I told my parents it was fun, because if I told the truth they would’ve said it served me right for thinking I was special.
But I did feel special, thanks to Mrs. Ellner, and so quickly forgave her poor choice of guests and disappointing tea. This woman, after all, taught me to love books and, unexpectedly, to love myself a little too.
Two years later, dressed as a hobo in my brothers’ hand-me-downs, I dared to go out on my own on Halloween. It was a dangerous night—“an evening of mayhem,” Simon calls it—when boys swinging stockings stuffed with hard pieces of chalk beat up trick-or-treaters. My fear was great but tempered by a longing for sweets. My schoolmate Christine’s mom gave out homemade cookies on Halloween, an unbearably attractive prize, but to get to her door I had to walk a poorly lit stretch of road with swamp and brush on either side. I’d been to Christine’s house before, to play Barbie games, climb apple trees, or slide on the ice rink her dad made in their backyard, and knew I’d be safe when I got there.
I ran all the way and was rewarded with a cookie and generous smile from Christine’s blonde and blue-eyed mom, who looked at my costume—not recognizing me—and declared me a cute little boy. Embarrassed, I was silent; wishing, not for the first time, that she was my mother and this perfect place was home.
The moment I was out of her sight I ate that magical cookie, as yummy as I’d imagined it would be.
But then I had to go back down the dark, malevolent road. Almost through it, I was stopped by three big boys who appeared out of the marshland, whooping and whirling their bulging stockings. Fear crippled me and I couldn’t breathe, couldn’t run.
Hard nuggets hit my back and legs, and the arms I raised to protect my head, the pain sharp and deep and shuddering through me. I broke out wailing. The tallest boy spread his arms, and all at once the beating stopped. “It’s a girl!” he hollered, and everyone bent forward to look closely at my face. Apparently he thought it unsportsmanlike to clobber a girl, and the tall boy apologized. Quickly the trio disappeared and I was left to hobble home.
I brushed chalk dust from my clothes and didn’t tell my mother, who had helped me with my costume but warned me not to go out alone. I didn’t want her I-told-you-so’s, I only wanted solace for my terror and bruises, and got neither. But worse than not being comforted was my feeling that she was right: the world was a terrible place for Jews and females. Thereafter I stayed home on Halloween nights and gave out candy at the door to kids braver than I was.
In Throggs Neck we lived next door to a lively Italian widow and her two sons, both in their early twenties, a family we soon befriended. Pete, who drove a motorcycle, was nice but rarely seen, while Johnny, a house painter and one-time Mr. Junior America, was so good-looking I could only grunt in his presence. My family, like Simon’s, believed that Italians “were just Jews who didn’t talk Yiddish… They bothered their kids, kissed them and shouted at them, like Jews.”
I ran in and out of the family’s house where Nancy, the bossy matriarch, fed me foreign dishes like lasagna and manicotti stuffed with ricotta cheese. One time she served me tapioca pudding, which for years I thought was a special Italian dessert because the word tapioca ended with a vowel.
A married daughter often came to visit with her two sons. Frank, the oldest, was a golden-skinned boy I liked to play with in the swamplands surrounding our housing development, or anyplace there were bulrushes, rocks, scrub, ponds, mud, water bugs, and tadpoles. Nancy’s children teased us nonstop about being in love, but why would I fall for Frankie when Mr. Junior America was practically on my doorstep?
Shocking photos of Johnny’s oiled body in close-fitting swim trunks that emphasized his privates, his muscles flexed and bulging as he posed on one knee or was otherwise twisted in provocative positions, hung on the walls of Nancy’s home. Too embarrassed to stare outright, I peeked at them whenever I could, my eyes gluey with fantasy, a near-painful pulsing happening in my loins. He was like Superman, who I already had a crush on, and Frankie never stood a chance.
My mother had a thing for Johnny too. She found reasons to go next door whenever he was home—to chat with Nancy (who knew a dozen English words), drop off sweets, or return a plate. Sometimes I was also there, wincing as she cornered Johnny, speaking quickly and laughing falsely as she arched her back and jutted her prodigious bosom under his nose. I didn’t like the competition but knew I was outgunned.
It wasn’t until Johnny told my dad to keep a closer eye on his wife that the visits tapered off. Johnny himself left for Italy a while later to find a virgin to marry. Nancy struggled hard to explain this to us—as if there weren’t virgins enough in his own backyard! Johnny eventually brought home Maria, a small, mousy country girl still in her teens. She bore three babies in a row—bam, bam, bam!—and argued so piercingly with her mother-in-law that the shared wall between our houses shook with Italian insults. When Johnny grew a pot belly soon after his marriage, I went back to loving George Reeves’ Superman, who still looked great in a leotard.
At fourteen I began to suspect that love and lust might not be the same thing. We’d moved to another row house in another borough by then, where I developed a crush on a green-eyed milkman with pale lashes like corn silk. My insides tightened and I blushed uncontrollably every time he came to collect his money and I raced to the door to pay him. He’d grin as our fingers met when I gave him a few bills, forgetting to breathe, and would cup my hand in his, stroking my palm with his thumb as my arm shook, my cheeks blazed, and I had to look away, abashed. Clearly he was playing with me, enjoying my discomfort, and didn’t deserve my worship.
My dealings with men thus far and how my brothers spoke about their girlfriends’ body parts; how the most sought-after girls at school had the biggest breasts, smallest waists, longest legs; and how boys mocked me as a “carpenter’s dream, flat as a board” led me to understand that most people failed to distinguish between devotion and desire. “She was a great beauty, everyone turned their heads to look,” my father answered when I asked why he married Mom, who refused to breastfeed her babies because she believed it would ruin her figure.
And so I concluded that true, meaningful love—a meeting of spirit and mind—had little to do with forming relationships, at least as far as men were concerned. A “ruined figure,” or a less than ideal one, could damn a woman to a life of being unloved.
Years later, as a young woman living on a shoestring in Manhattan, I learned first-hand that others had classier lives than mine and sometimes felt bitter about my meager upbringing. Why hadn’t my father, who’d once played the violin, enriched the lives of his children with music lessons? Why didn’t we ever travel, eat in restaurants, attend the theatre and concerts as he had as a young Berliner? Why hadn’t my mother encouraged me to pursue a career and seek more in life than marriage and children?
Are the hurts of childhood so vividly recalled because they were first ones, their sting overpowering to people only half formed? Reading Bronx Primitive, I sharply recalled the torment of having to wear ill-fitting clothes, for example: “(A) new coat was bought two sizes too large, the sleeves covering my hands to my fingernails, the skirt almost to my ankles… By the next year’s holidays, the coat was tight across my back, the sleeves bared my wrists, the skirt was high above my knees, and the whole confection was as hideous as it had been the year before.”
My mother went along with my father’s decision to purchase garments his kids could “grow into,” even though she’d been a fashion plate in her twenties and dressed me smartly as a girl. After we moved from West Farms and I went to school in Throggs Neck and became more independent, she abandoned me to hand-me-downs, clothes too big or too small, wrinkled blouses and skirts with unravelling hems.
Stinginess and lack of money were factors, but there were others too, I think: my parents’ fear of seeming too prosperous in a non-Jewish neighbourhood; of being too visible and scorned as exiles, outsiders, immigrants, Jews. Perhaps they feared our Christian neighbours in Throggs Neck would envy our clothes, or the food on our plates. Every evening at dinner, before we sat down to eat, my mother would close the kitchen blinds, and I grew up thinking that being envied led to unspeakable things.
Like what—a pogrom? Would Cossacks on horseback ride through our kitchen to snatch our meal before slicing our throats with their glinting swords? Would Nazi Stormtroopers rifle-butt us out of our home, then loot our pantry and steal our only valuables, pewter candlesticks and a silver-plated samovar? Open the blinds! I had wanted to shout as a teenager. No one is coming for you!
A history of blame and shame. I blamed my parents as they blamed Russian and German anti-Semites for squeezing our life and making it small. Who would I have been if I hadn’t grown up fearful and shy, stumbling under the load of self-consciousness? Who would I have been if born to calm, wealthy parents secure and mature enough to love their children generously—to encourage their education and intellectual interests; their curiosity, creativity, candor, and self-reliance?
I didn’t know in my twenties that I’d become exactly the person I longed to be. An outsider, always, but also a writer, which made that a desirable stance.
The same twisty road that Kate Simon followed.
For all the trials of her childhood, Simon ends the first volume of her memoir buoyantly. At thirteen-and-a-half she was gutsy and confident, proud of her shapely body, excited by the “boundless world of choices” open to her. “As desirable as Gloria Swanson, as steely as Nita Naldi, as winsome as Marion Davies,” she felt, “like them, invincible and immortal.”
I cheered her on as I read those final pages, though at that same age I was far more circumspect about my future. My mother had died of heart disease fifteen months earlier and my father was now courting my aunt, who wouldn’t live in her sister’s house, which meant we’d have to move again, this time to a far-flung part of Queens, where I’d attend high school with a tumult of strangers.
But even as a worried teen on the edge of womanhood, part of me understood—as did Simon—that humour, curiosity, and stubbornness would see me through. For both of us, there was no going back.
—From CNQ 107 (Spring/Summer 2020)
Cynthia Holz is the author of a story collection and five novels, including Semi Detached, A Good Man, and Benevolence. Her short fiction, essays, and book reviews have been widely published. She is currently writing a series of personal essays.
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