In 1938, the full effect of the Great Depression (which began in 1929) finally hit my parents. My father’s teaching practice could no longer support us. Of course, I was not party to their discussions and decision, but I knew that they had decided to go into business and that they were looking for a store. Somehow, they found an empty store among a few other stores on Ridgewood Road, Maplewood and determined that it should be a candy store. Their resources were very limited. I do know that they received some financial help from relatives and I contributed the $50 that I had saved up. Fortunately, because of the depressed economy, the big companies extended quite a bit of help to new entrepreneurs. For example, the Coca Cola Company paid for the front window decorations and other companies supplied fixtures such as the racks for newspapers and magazines. I know that one of the ice cream companies provided the soda bar, with its high swivel chairs, marble counter and all those compartments and spigots. As a result, with a very little financial investment of their own, my parents had a very good-looking store in an excellent location, not near any competition.
What my parents did invest was their total effort. They did not have a car. To reach the Ridgewood Road store in Maplewood from our home in Newark, they had to walk several blocks to a bus that took them to Irvington Center. There they took another bus that took them to South Orange Center. South Orange Center was at a low point in a valley. My parents had to walk up a long hill and then for at least a mile to the store. The total trip took at least two hours each way. They did this daily for about four or five months until I finished the semester at Weequahic High.
My mother had had some limited business experience before they were married. My father had none. I have always been particularly proud of him, changing his role from that of a highly regarded professional to an ordinary storekeeper. He did it very well and got along very nicely with the customers. However, my mother ran the business. I remember that after they took in some money, my father wanted to put in into a bank account, but my mother had to explain the importance of having an inventory of supplies for future sales. It was all new to him.
One of their problems was getting the daily newspapers in a timely way. The newspapers were delivered by train to South Orange Center, and my father would walk back to the Center and carry the papers back up the hill and to the store. When I went to the store on my bike, I would ride down to the Center, meet the train and bring the papers back. I benefited by getting a rack for my bike, which I had long wanted. I also saw that this hill work would make me a stronger bike rider, so I welcomed the job.
There was an interesting aspect to picking up the newspapers at the train station. I had had very limited experience with the procedures involved when a train arrived, so I learned what the various station workers did. Much more importantly, this was my first contact with black men and women in any large number. Almost all of the workers were black. I had plenty of time to study their faces which waiting for the train. For the first time, it became clear to me that black people differed in looks as much as did white people. Also, I was surprised at the similarity between the actual features, under the black color, with those of white people. It seemed to me that it was possible that for every white person, there was a black person with the same face. I sat on my bike in a corner of the platform, just watching. Nobody spoke to me The bundles of newspapers were thrown from the train as it arrived. I would pick them up, put them in my carrier, wait for the train to leave and then pedal up South Orange Avenue.
When my Weequahic High term ended in June1938, we three moved to a rooming house on Scotland Avenue, South Orange. This large, rambling house sat back from the street on a huge corner lot. It had once been a single residence and there were many houses like it in the area, still occupied by individual families. The house was run, or owned, by Mrs. De Recht, a big, very bossy woman. We lived in one big room in a corner of the first floor. My parents had a standard bed, I slept on a fold-down daybed. There was a door that led to the bathroom, which also served people on the other side. In other words, you had to knock before opening the door and you had make sure that the other door was locked when you were there.
This new location saved my folks all of that bus-riding. However, they still had the long walk to the store. That meant that they left early and stayed away all day. I began the summer school at East Orange High early in July, so for the first six weeks of our living in South Orange I saw my parents only at night. I had a lot of homework each day, but I also had time to enjoy the radio and write letters. There was also a public library nearby, so I did quite a bit of reading. I was helpful in the store only on weekends. For almost the entire summer, I was alone. I did ride my bike back to Seymour Avenue twice, to play some games with my friends, but I could feel that I was no longer a part of the group.
There is one aspect of that house that I hesitate to mention, but it certainly was a new and memorable experience for me. After about two nights, I began to itch all over. I scratched myself hard enough to bleed. The third night, I woke up and turned on a light- and found bed bugs. I had never heard of them before, but this began a constant battle, night after night. I finally realized that the daybed was full of bed bugs, so I took the bed apart and with the aid of a spray, I went after them. It was not a total victory, I did have an occasional visitor thereafter.
Being alone was not a new or especially disturbing experience for me. As an only child, I had played by myself many times. I was never bored, and I took the opportunity of free time to try writing pieces as well as very long letters.
Summer school ended on August 15th and two weeks later, I rode my bike to my first day at Columbia High. The school looked something like a 19th Century public building, with a tower and arches. Unlike Weequahic High, Columbia was a three-year school- there was no freshman class. The school served both South Orange and Maplewood. Neither of these had an advanced placement program. As a result, my first impression was that the students were much older than those at Weequahic. They were also much richer. The school parking lot was full of student cars, something I had never seen. As it turned out, because they came from wealthy families, a number of the students had traveled abroad and had had other enriching experiences.
I entered as a junior and in every class I was at least two years younger than anyone else. Also, I was very short and thin, and looked even younger than my fourteen years. I was clearly out of my depth socially. (As an indication of the difference, in my senior year some instructor asked each of us to state how many years of schooling we had had. The majority of students called out “eleven”, some even said “twelve”, having studied elsewhere. When I was called upon, I said “nine”, and the reaction was pronounced.)
The Columbia High students came in two cliques- those from South Orange and those from Maplewood. The clique members had been in classes together for all of their school years. They knew each other quite well. All of the student officers and club leaders were selected ahead of time. The faculty also understood the social standing of the parents and students and they fit right in with that closed society. I was an outsider.
There was one other aspect that I became aware of only indirectly. Shortly after we moved in, the Beasleys moved into the rooming house. There was a mother, a son and a daughter. The son, Jim, was about two years older than I was and he went to work. His sister took a job at the local library. One day, she said to me that some people were talking about me at the library. She said, “They were talking about the brilliant little Jewish boy at Columbia High.” That was the first indication I had that I might be the only Jewish student at Columbia High. I had never thought about the matter and it had very little meaning for me at the time. Of course, I was very pleased with the compliment.
Columbia High provided a top education. We had excellent teachers and we were prepared very well for college. For example, I learned to write research papers in the junior year. Miss Young, our Economics teacher was excellent with a difficult subject. Our English teacher, Miss Memory, introduced us to a wide variety of readings. She was also a noted dramatic coach. Overall, the classes were fine. However, as a young teenager, I was lost socially, and that was hard. I found myself making friends with other “outcasts”, and I do remember one boy who was very effeminate, with long fingernails. He and I got along very well. For the most part, I was alone at school.
The one subject I had trouble with was French. I was unsure of my pronunciation and it did not have the logic of Latin. However, the teacher did have an impact on my later life. The first day in class, she said that “Eli” in French was a girl’s name, so she named me: Etienne- Steven. I liked it and used it as my nickname whenever possible.
Of course, after school, I went directly to the store to help out. I was not comfortable with customers, so my job was “back room” stuff, moving boxes around and cleaning things up. Also, I would always go down to the railroad station for the newspapers. On weekends, I had two friends, Jim Beasley and Ray Williamson, a fairly chubby boy who was also a social outcast. Ray’s father had a car and Ray had a driver’s license, so we rode around together. There were no girls in our lives.
Jim Beasley had a favorite saying. After any meal or a big milk shake and steak sandwich at Mr. Pauley’s soda shop (our favorite hangout. All of the “in” crowd went to another place.) he would say: “I’m fully renuncified.” I thought that it was a great word, combining being full and energized. In 1945, right after returning from Europe, I saw Jim again and we went out to a restaurant. After the meal, I said, “I’m fully renuncified.” And Jim said, “What does that mean?” He refused to believe that he had ever used the word.
About a half year later, we moved to an apartment over some stores in Maplewood Center. This was a much better situation for my parents. My father had a piano there and did begin to give piano lessons again. However, I now was even more alone, and did become bored with my own company. I spent time composing on the piano, and I memorized some classical pieces that I could play. Several times I went ice skating with friends I met by accident over our party-line telephone and those were pleasant times.
In my senior year, I did become part of a group at school that was not quite “in”. We played basketball together and one Saturday we all went to see the burlesque show at the Adams Theatre in Newark. This was quite daring, but my mother seemed to have no problem with this exposure to sex. The leader of the group was Bill Barnes, who later became a lawyer and a New Jersey Assemblyman, in fact the Democratic leader of that body. I later worked with him when I was the Director of the New Jersey State Division of Pensions. (In that connection, one day while was riding on the Pennsylvania Railroad, I found myself sitting next to Karl Haar, who had been a student leader at Columbia. He asked me what I was doing these days and when I told him, he said, “I’m surprised. I never thought that you would amount to anything.” Such was the amazing self-confidence of that elite group.)
In the second half of my senior year, the entire interest was on college acceptance. I applied to the only schools my parents could afford: Rutgers University and Montclair State Teachers College. My mother had urged me to think about becoming a school teacher, saying that it was not only a wonderful profession but there would also be guaranteed earnings of $40 a week for ten months of the year: total financial security. I completed the Rutgers application first. The year was 1940, Germany was winning the war in Europe. In answer to the question of why I wanted to attend Rutgers, I wrote that I hoped that Rutgers would keep me from becoming a cynic. I was then invited to an interview with the Dean. He sat behind a large desk and was constantly on the telephone. He said, “I have only one question to ask you. How do I know that if you were admitted here you would not become a member of the radical group?” As I tried to think of an answer, he dialed another telephone number and become involved with a conversation about a faculty picnic. I was facing a critical moment of my life, and he really did not care. I don’t remember what my response was. I do remember that when I received an acceptance letter, it took me seven drafts of an answer to be polite in turning Rutgers down. I could afford to do this because I had been accepted at Montclair State.
In applying to Montclair, I had learned from my Rutgers experience. I completed the application without any indication of personal problems. I visited the campus and found the students and faculty to be warm and friendly. When I received the acceptance notice, I was overjoyed.
For the Columbia High Yearbook, each senior was asked to write a short personal description- words which would be placed under the individual graduation picture. I wrote: “Always laughing”- my response to whatever Columbia High did to me. It felt good to leave.
The summer of 1940, I learned to drive. My folks had bought a 1936 Chevy, which made working at the store much easier. I still preferred my bike and used it to visit relatives in fairly distance towns. The summer could not go fast enough for me. Commuting from Maplewood to Montclair would have involved two or three buses and many hours of travel, so my parents agreed to let me live at the school dormitory. The annual tuition was $100 and the room and board at the dormitory cost another $300. Somehow, they could afford it, plus an allowance for books and other needs. I would be leaving home, a new experience. I was sixteen. As it turned out, except for the two months of the next summer, I never returned home to live.