Memoir — From the September 2013 issue
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Fred Morton, who died this week in Vienna, at the age of 90, was a longtime contributor to Harper’s Magazine and a good friend. Among his contributions to the magazine were memoirs of his life in both pre-World War I Vienna and New York City, to which his family emigrated in 1939 to escape the Nazi takeover of Europe. The memoir below, “Othello’s Son,” which was listed as a Notable Essay in Best American Essays 2013, appeared in our September 2013 issue. Read Morton’s obituary in the New York Times.
It was on some early excursion from our backwater district in Vienna to the elegant center of the city that I saw him. I was about seven, reaching up to hold the hand of my tall father, but much taller still was he, this magnificent shape looming up before us: a fairy-tale giant with a silver feather topping a sky-blue cap and a sky-blue tunic that had diamonds for buttons and epaulettes flaming golden on heroic shoulders. But what made the apparition truly fabulous was his face. It gleamed as black as his hand, which held two white gloves.
And like a magic-lantern slide there flashed into my mind the illustration I’d glimpsed not long before in an open book at my friend Karly’s house. I didn’t know what kind of book, but I remembered the words under that gorgeous portrait now become flesh before my eyes — General Othello.
“A general!” I whispered to my father.
“Not exactly,” Papa whispered back.
He led me around the corner so that we could talk freely. “This is the Hotel Imperial,” he said. “It was built for visiting kings. He’s the doorman.”
The doorman? I insisted we go back around the corner again for another peek. Whatever a doorman might be, he looked exactly like a general.
I was little Fritz Mandelbaum then, in the mid-1930s. A few years later, history exploded. It blasted us from our bright art-deco rooms in Nazi-occupied Vienna clear across the Atlantic to drop us down in front of a chipped façade on West l5lst Street in Manhattan, over whose entrance rusting letters spelled out the beaumont arms.
And there, meeting us, was another military black man, also not exactly a general. He wore some sort of greenish, wrinkled army overcoat with a torn lapel, apparently the uniform of the Beaumont Arms janitor. He helped carry our steamer trunk up to our fourth-floor apartment because, he told us, “Elevator’s broke.”
When Papa handed him a quarter tip, he gave an almost smart salute. Then Papa asked me to ask him (I was the family translator thanks to my English lessons in Vienna) for his name.
“Name’s Elwood,” he said.
“This is nice to meet you, Mr. Elwood,” I said.
“No, ain’t my last name,” he said. “It’s my baptism name.”
“Then what is your last name, mister?”
Elwood straightened up out of his stoop, tensed. “Something wrong?” he said.
“What?” I said, baffled.
“Only time they ask my last name is police,” he said.
“No, no, mister,” I said. “Nothing is wrong.”
“Ja zerr,” Elwood said, or something sounding like that, and left.
“Ja zerr,” he said next morning when I asked why there was no hot water. “ ’Sbroke. Goin’ to look into it.”
Though “Ja zerr” sounded vaguely German, it took us a while to decipher it. On the other hand, the significance of “Goin’ to look into it” emerged quickly. It didn’t mean “Fixing it,” for the broken elevator, like the broken boiler, was part of the basic character of the Beaumont Arms, which expressed itself through so many brokennesses that the only way one single Elwood could deal with them was through deferential indefinite postponement.
And deferential was his “Ja zerr,” which translated into “Yes, sir,” as I gradually realized. The white Broadway grocer from whom we bought our food never addressed us refugees like that, certainly never with Elwood’s intonation. Not that the grocer was rude. But his patience sounded more like charity than sympathy. Elwood’s “Ja zerr” came very much from below, and shaped my initial experience of the Negro in 1940s America.
That experience changed the second week after our arrival when I entered Food Trades Vocational High School as a freshman in the Baking Department. Why there? Because my atrocious grades at Vienna’s gymnasium hardly destined me for higher education. Also important was the advice from the refugee welfare board: Since my parents could barely afford the rent in our run-down building, it would be prudent to choose a school that would train me in a craft promising employment right after graduation. Bakers were in demand.
Precisely this, as I discovered later, was why Mayor Fiorello La Guardia had founded Food Trades two years before I walked through its door on West 13th Street. It was an institution designed to instruct children of poor immigrants in trades with ample job offerings even in an economy still in a depression. But among the groups primarily targeted were not refugees from Nazi Germany but blacks fleeing the Jim Crow South.
The class I therefore found myself in was more than half black. The white kids were from Williamsburg or Brownsville — then Jewish slums — bruisers for whom Food Trades was often the last stop before reform school. But there were also quite a few sons of small-bakery owners in Little Italy, boys with steely eyes and limbs primed to punch or kick. As for the blacks, none of them were Elwoods. Of a later generation, they had been born, bred, and hardened in the streets of Harlem. They casually called one another niggers (though watch out if anybody else did), and they took no crap from kikes or wops.
Such nuggets of American idiom I came to know courtesy of my schoolmates. More complex locutions like “cocksucker” and “motherfucker” I learned from the teachers. Food Trades had not recruited its faculty from a starchy teacher’s college. The master bakers who showed us how to grip a huge flour bag for controlled pouring into a mixing bowl were brawny types robust in manner and language. And yet an almost bizarre idealism informed them. By day they taught and tamed a rowdy group of boys. By night they studied for an equivalency degree in education — the condition on which they’d gotten their temporary teacher’s licenses. They could have earned a great deal more money as bakery foremen, but they were New Deal zealots resolved to get kids off the streets and into steady jobs at places like Joe Louis’s Brown Bomber Bread Company.
And were they ever egalitarians! They didn’t give a shit about four-letter words, but if you let even a syllable escape your mouth that might develop into an ethnic slur, you were grabbed by the neck and dragged to the sink, where you’d spend the rest of the school day scraping oven peels, scrubbing burned cupcake forms, and scouring pots.
That didn’t always protect me, who talked and looked funny, especially my first few weeks at school, when my mother still insisted that I report to class in white shirt, tie, and jacket, as in Vienna. At Food Trades this looked like a comedy act. So I threw a tantrum at home and hauled my mother to the (happily, cheap) Used and Cleaned Apparel section of the Army & Navy Store on Amsterdam Avenue. The scuffed denim in which I thereafter showed up at Food Trades was much closer to its dress code. The Army & Navy Store, however, had nothing for sale that could cloak my accent, which outside of the teachers’ earshot still invited much brutal hilarity. One morning when I went to the bakery stock room and asked for a bench scraper, Palusso, the school’s alpha Italian, happened to be on duty. He repeated my request in a very loud, derisive Teutonic falsetto: “Pliss gif me ah bench skrrraper!” I lunged at him. By the time Mr. Sultan separated us, my lip was swollen — but Palusso had two black eyes and an impressive nosebleed.
From then on I began to feel at home at Food Trades. Actually, the school had something in common with my previous life in Vienna. There too I had been an inviting target as young Mandelbaum, child of affluent parents in a slum gymnasium populated by rather few Jew-lovers. Luckily I had the muscles, temper, and reprimands of a scrapper; this, together with the fact that I nearly flunked every subject except phys ed, was of great help in disarming a prejudice waiting to happen. I was no spoiled wimp of a teacher’s pet. In New York, at Food Trades, my academic grades turned out to be good, but nobody (except my surprised parents) paid much attention. What mattered were my fists. They spoke the same language as in Vienna, and they spoke it with no accent.
Palusso’s greeting continued to be “Hey there, Kraut,” but I had learned to reply with “What’s up, asshole?” Still, I wanted to be a Food Trades “Top Guy.” This status knew no racial barrier, yet membership was stringently limited. It was enjoyed only by those who had mastered truck jumping, a Food Trades art form honed along Seventh Avenue, which separated our school’s main building (with its bakery, butcher, restaurant shops) from its academic annex, a former factory hall partitioned into rickety classrooms where we were exposed to the rudiments of English composition, scraps of literature, and enough math to figure out recipe quantities or compile inventory. At lunch we traveled between the two sites. Commoners of the student body trudged and chewed their way down the twelve blocks of Seventh Avenue, but Food Trades royalty jumped truck ledges at full speed. After a period of carefully watching the technique followed by some failed attempts, I became a truck virtuoso myself.
My prowess led at last to my official induction as a Food Trades Top Guy in the place where such investitures were performed: the men’s room. For months I’d enviously watched a ritual there. One of the Top Guys would lean against the doorjamb in a careless lounging position, one leg slightly flexed in front of the other, a cigarette dangling from his lips. If just anybody walked out the door, he’d get at best a terse “Hi.” But should another Top Guy come along, the leaner would hand him the cigarette with a prince-to-prince nod and leave; whereupon the recipient would lean his body and dangle the cigarette in precisely the same way until he could offer the smoke to a peer.
At the end of my first Food Trades year, I was handed the magic Camel. And the one who conferred it on me was Palusso, my erstwhile adversary. He didn’t leave after my initiation, though. He sauntered back to the urinals but stayed zipped, and kept eyeing me. I began to suspect that he saw something wrong in my posture. Perhaps I didn’t lean against the doorjamb at a truly American angle, or, being a nonsmoker, maybe I didn’t dangle the cigarette properly.
But no. Palusso’s real reason became plain when Wilson entered the bathroom. Wilson was not only a fellow truck artist but had both the color and the build of Joe Louis and might become, if not a baker, a heavyweight boxer. Naturally I handed him the Camel.
To my shock, he seemed shocked. Then he half-grinned, gave me a peculiar shoulder tap, and, without touching the cigarette, was gone.
Next moment Palusso was at me.
“You fucking blind? Wilson’s colored. They didn’t teach you in the old country? You don’t give it to them and they don’t give it to you!”
“Of course the fucking cigarette! It’s mixing spits, colored and white! It gets you sick!”
“Breeds germs in your blood or something. Look, you don’t do it. Now you know. You just don’t fucking do it. Okay?”
He gave me a shoulder tap similar to Wilson’s, only a little harder, and left. And I didn’t do it after that. But I couldn’t understand the restriction. In our building, I asked Doktor Blaubach, now reduced to hospital orderly at St. Luke’s but once a cardiologist in Vienna. He said that the idea of racially mixed spit having a pathological effect was unwissenschaftlich, unscientific. But even apart from that I was puzzled. This saliva segregation excepted, I never noticed a line drawn between black and white at Food Trades — not in the classroom seating or in the teams we formed in the parking lot on West 12th Street, where, after hours, we played stickball, so different from soccer, the only sport I knew. Sometimes a white hand, draped over mine, would guide me in holding the broomstick, sometimes a black hand. And still, Doktor Blaubach notwithstanding, some part of me kept wondering: what would have befallen my father had he put to his lips a cigarette previously smoked by the ebony general in Vienna?
Eventually this question was answered by a grand event that affected forever the Top Guy ceremony in the men’s room. Mayor La Guardia’s visit to Food Trades Vocational High. For me the occasion was particularly special. I had been chosen to be part of the welcoming delegation, a student quartet drawn from all Food Trades departments: me from the bakers, and others representing the cooks, the butchers, and the grocers. Our principal, Mr. Simonson, inspected the four of us to make sure our aprons had been laundered snow-white, our hands were washed, and our fingernails were immaculate — 100 percent fit for food handling.
At the appointed time of noon we and Mr. Simonson lined up at attention in front of the building. And very soon there was the sound of a police siren approaching. We were expecting a big limousine, but what came into view was a plain patrol car. It stopped before us, fanfare siren subsiding. Out of its back door scrambled a small, chubby, rumpled creature, jowls shadowed by a huge hat.
His Honor himself.
The mayor shook hands with Mr. Simonson. And then he did something amazing. The one item in his appearance suggesting high office, his formidable Stetson hat, he whisked off, whisked with his other hand the chef’s hat off the head of the cooks’ delegate, plopped the Stetson on the cook’s head and the chef’s hat on his own, and, linking arms with the Stetsoned cook on one side and Mr. Simonson on the other, marched into the school. And me, walking behind, I was almost as jealous as thrilled. I wished His Honor had crowned me with his Stetson. Of course, our bakers’ headgear was just a simple sailor’s-hat-like thing, not a bloated chef’s hat, but this Stetsoned cook son of a bitch wasn’t even a Top Guy trucker!
But at least La Guardia went first to our department, where the bakers stood arrayed in straight, white-aproned, applauding rows. Billson (he was a Top Guy) rolled in a cake stand. A large cherry-chocolate torte, frosted pink, featured the spun-sugar calligraphed inscription we love our little flower. Over the i in little floated a disproportionately big dot in the form of a hat.
Far from resenting the familiarity, the mayor slung his arms around Billson, put a forefinger close to the cake yet not touching it, and, glancing up timidly from his five foot two to the gangling Billson, asked in a raspy voice: “May I taste?”
“Sure, man . . . sir,” said Billson.
The mayor dipped finger into icing, tasted, threw back his toqued head with delight, let out an ecstatic mrmmnmmhhhh, dipped again, then offered his refrosted finger to an aide, who let out a similar mrmmnmmhhhh before placing the cake in the gift basket he was carrying.
Next we escorted La Guardia to the other departments, each ready with an offering, each acknowledged with contortions of mayoral gratitude that were both impressive and adorable. The butchers presented him with a lamb chop finely marbled, perfectly cut, and conserved in a glass bottle silvered with ice chips. The restaurant department’s gift was a fancy curried soup, also sealed in a glass bottle. The grocers came up with something wrapped in silver paper and tied with a red ribbon. I forget what was inside. But I remember the mayor’s parting speech: “I tell ya fellas, my God, I oughta hate ya, cause tomorra I’ll be even fatter eatin’ all this delicious stuff tonight. But I’ll always love ya! Thanks a million! Good luck, keep up the good work, and for Chrissakes get great jobs!”
Somehow that scratchy voice only heightened the spell. And then this roly-poly imp who ruled the world’s greatest city retrieved his Stetson, scrambled back into the patrol car, and vanished with the siren wail.
But how did the mayor’s visit, as I mentioned earlier, change the cigarette ceremony in the men’s room? Actually nothing La Guardia himself did made the difference. But without his visit a certain most consequential incident would have never occurred.
Earlier in the morning that day, Greenstein, a fellow truck artist, was smoking his Top Guy cigarette inside the bathroom door when a black man — wearing a classy three-piece suit, the hair at his temples streaked with gray — emerged from a stall to wash his hands at the sink. This was unusual: adults were always directed to the faculty bathroom upstairs.
“Hey,” Greenstein said. “What’re you doing here, man?”
The man pulled from his jacket pocket something like a wallet, which he flipped open.
“Mayor’s advance security.”
Though spoken quietly, the phrase struck Greenstein like a thunderbolt. That he had challenged such a personage so disoriented and alarmed him that, speechless, by way of confused apology, he offered the man his cigarette.
The man smiled, took a drag, and handed it back. “Thanks, buddy,” he said, and left.
The two words turned Greenstein’s alarm into exhilaration. A lieutenant of the New York City Police, a big shot on the mayor’s personal protection team, had called him buddy! This was so amazing, Greenstein couldn’t possibly keep it to himself.
By ten thirty the whole butcher department knew every detail, from the three-piece suit to the graying on the temples. By eleven the story was all over the school. And then the other bombshell dimension of the encounter sank in: Greenstein, still euphoric, had finished the cigarette after getting it back from the lieutenant — yet it bred no germs in his blood. Still hale two days later, he jumped a Seventh Avenue truck too fast even for me.
I was terribly relieved by all this but couldn’t tell a soul why. The detoxification of interracial saliva had for me a very private significance. It involved a certain black librarian of the 145th Street branch of the New York Public Library. miss hariette poynton said the sign on her table, but under the table hypnotic thighs bloomed out from her short skirt, exciting fierce fantasies that always began with much moist mingling of tongues, now proven medically harmless.
But there was something else about Miss Poynton. Beyond a hot body, she had a key equally hot, to the vitrine housing Webster’s Unabridged Dictionary. As she bent down, penetrated key into lock, she ignited both my libidos. The other was my lust for lexis. A mania for words had come upon me about a year after legs had become riveting. But there was a difference between the two obsessions. The woman thing simmered in all the other fellows too; it was the dominant locker-room theme. None of the other guys, though, were subject to this language itch of mine. In the library I could indulge myself. When Miss Poynton unlocked the glass case and surrendered to me the Unabridged, I would hug that huge, ripe, luxuriant volume of more than 3,000 pages, opulent with synonyms, antonyms, metonyms, etymons, against my chest. I would then totter to the nearest table, plunk down my treasure, and pull out the slip of paper on which I’d scribbled terms like callipygian or bathycolpian, veiled iridescent mysteries that I could now undress into naked meaning.
And where had I spied such sesquipedalian delights? In the course of voracious, promiscuous devouring of fiction, non-fiction, and poetry, extending from Karl Marx (“reification”) to T. S. Eliot (“objective correlative”). When my father found me bent over The Brothers Karamazov at three a.m. he unscrewed the electric fuses in my room so that I would have no light, convinced I’d hidden some pornography between the pages. I didn’t disabuse him of the impression. Disguising my oddball urge safeguarded it somehow.
In school I stuck to regular-guy talk. Occasionally, though, I was carried away by an arrogance of which I wasn’t aware until it was too late. In English class, for example, discussing Oliver Twist (the lone “literary” book on our reading list), Mr. Hertz suddenly became too unbearably simplistic for me in his adulation. I blurted out, “Dickens is all brilliant surface, but there’s no depth, no undertow, like Dostoevsky!”
The class stared at me during such outbursts. But they didn’t happen often. And when they did, the guys seemed to think of my aberrations as an amusing aftereffect of my accent, which had vanished in the course of my senior year.
Maybe that’s why Smitty asked me to come up with “some funny German stuff” for our graduation show — a substitute for the prom nobody could afford. Smitty was its impresario; as our leading locker-room entertainer, he was a natural for the job, cracking up everybody with his terrifically filthy version of “(I Love You) For Sentimental Reasons.” But I was witless. Come up with some funny German stuff? I couldn’t think of anything. Because just then, at the end of my senior year, confronted by the imminence of an adult future, I had realized that I wanted to become a writer. I wanted to distill from this huge heap of language I’d hoarded between my temples ideas, stories, statements that would edify the world — a scheme modeled on the Food Trades syllabus, which taught us how to transmute a big lump of raw dough into nourishing loaves of savory bread. I planned to become the new Maxim Gorky, who had also worked in a bakery and, while toiling amid flour sacks, had developed a mind fertile with enlightening dramas. And here I was unable to think up a skit for a high school graduation show!
Since I had kept my ambition secret, I had to hide my distress at failing it, especially when my mother came home from her final parent-teacher meeting aglow: “Mr. Hertz says you are so smart! You should go to college! From a vocational high school you need a special entrance test — but he will arrange it. City College — free tuition!”
All I recall of the test is a dingy hall, tense pimply faces to my left and right, and too many math questions: my weak area. And, afterward, the leaden certainty that I’d flunked. But I thought, bitterly, that it was just as well. I should rid myself of my writer fantasies and let reality take hold.
During my last week of high school I watched rehearsals of our graduation show. There was Tarantino, with gray Yankee stripes crayoned on his white baker’s apron, doing a hilarious DiMaggio imitation, endlessly setting and resetting his cap. Smitty was still better as Frank Sinatra alias Joe Louis. Sporting a zoot suit (borrowed from his brother) and boxing gloves, he crooned a sentimental ballad punctuated by uppercuts. But my brain refused to create.
Coming home toward the end of that last school week, I was greeted by my mother’s happy scream. She rushed at me, waving an envelope. “Fritz! From the admissions office! You are a university student!”
“You mean I passed?”
“Yes, and Mr. Hertz says now you can study food chemistry for a big educated job! Like the National Biscuit Company. They have laboratories! It is like a dream.”
I pretended to be happy in my mother’s embrace, for this was worse than flunking the exam. It confirmed my smarts, but it was a stolid bookishness unquickened by imagination. After four years of soaking my head with food chemistry, I’d be all too qualified to concoct recipes for overpriced cookies, thus bloating profits of monster corporations. I’d be no Gorky rising from flour-flecked toiler to author-tribune, voice of the people’s woes and hopes. What would become of me? I dreaded the future. I didn’t want Food Trades to end, the rough, authentic grit of it. I even longed to regain my accent. Somehow in losing it, I had abandoned my true self. Quite possibly my accent nostalgia lit up, at last, a bulb in my head — an actual idea for the graduation show!
Not that it was an original concept, being in essence stolen from Spike Jones, who hosted a favorite radio show of mine. But it was “funny German stuff.” I just wished I had thought of it earlier than late Friday, only a weekend away from graduation Monday.
Luckily, our show master Smitty and I rode home together on the same subway, his station only a couple of stops farther uptown than mine. “Nice shit, man,” he said, when I told him the idea. “We better try it out right now.”
But where? Smitty said it couldn’t be at his house: his four brothers were too rowdy. As for my apartment, I knew that my mother always took Friday afternoons off from her job to vacuum the rooms for the weekend. But then I thought of the lobby of our building. It was huge, befitting the Beaumont Arms in better days, before the luxury apartments had been divided into small flats. When we walked in, it loomed empty as usual, for all amenities had been removed to discourage loitering. Elwood stood in a corner with another person, both of them staring at a water stain running down from the scrolled ceiling. The other person turned out to be Mr. Posser, the landlord, he of the wrinkled bald head and the cold cigar crushed between yellow teeth.
Mr. Posser was a reliable pain. But at first he gave us no trouble, walking off with Elwood. So we started rehearsing. Since I couldn’t carry a tune, Smitty said he’d sing some lines and I should speak the others — “only speak ’em,” he said, “like an out-and-out Kraut kook.”
After a few false starts we were well launched when suddenly we had to stop. Coming down on us out of the blue, Elwood was wheeling his mop-in-a-bucket smack into our rehearsal.
“What are you doing?” I yelled at him.
“Mr. Posser says mop the lobby.”
“So start at the other end! It’s a huge place!”
“Mr. Posser says here.”
“Just here? Where we are?”
“Ja zerr. Mr. Posser says here.”
This was intolerable.
“Where the hell is Mr. Posser?”
Elwood pointed to the service door.
Behind the door stood Mr. Posser with pen and pad, frowning at the electric meter.
“You tell Elwood to leave us alone!”
Mr. Posser put away pen and pad and took the cigar out of his mouth.
“Get him outta here,” he said, motioning toward Smitty. “All I need, niggers hollering in my lobby. They’re killing the neighborhood. Get him out.”
“First of all, you shouldn’t call Smitty, you shouldn’t call anybody, a nigger —”
“He’s got no business here. Get him out.”
“For God’s sake, we’re just rehearsing our graduation show!”
“Not with him. That’s final. He’s not a resident in this building. I’ll have him arrested for trespassing.”
“No,” I said. “This is a free country.”
Mr. Posser pointed his cigar at the pay phone on the wall. “Want me to call the precinct? Captain McGurk is a pal.”
“He’s the son of a general,” I found myself saying.
“What?” Mr. Posser said. “Who?”
“The young black man in the lobby. He’s the son of an African general! Vital for our Allied war effort!”
“You want to bet? La Guardia is bringing that general to our graduation. Mayor La Guardia loves our school, he visits us — you can look it up in the paper! And I’m gonna tell him on you!”
“You’re nuts!” Mr. Posser said, turning away. “He’s outta here or he’ll get arrested.”
“I’m going to tell the mayor to sic more building inspectors on you.”
Mr. Posser turned back to me and tapped some ash out of his dead cigar. Only a couple of flakes fell out.
“That’s not funny, kid. Anyway, I got no more violations.”
“How about the incinerator?” I said. “Broken for over a week. That’s gonna cost you big in fines.”
Mr. Posser stuck the cigar back into his mouth but then took it out again. He mumbled something like “Gonna quit this stinkin’ business.” Louder he said, “How long you need to mess with him in the lobby?”
“How long? At least one hour,” I said, dizzy at my own daring.
“Forty minutes, max,” Mr. Posser said. He opened the service door.
“Elwood, got a watch on you?” he called out.
“Let ’em. Forty minutes exact. No more, you hear?”
Elwood wheeled the mop-in-bucket away.
“All right,” I said. “That’s a little more like it.”
Inwardly I was still trembling with the stress of combat as I marched away from Mr. Posser toward Smitty.
But what triumph! We could go on rehearsing. I’d be part of the Food Trades farewell. And I had prevailed against Mr. Posser, sort of creatively. Maybe I’d become another Maxim Gorky after all.
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