Seymour Avenue – 1935-1938

When I was about eleven years old, we moved to 278 Seymour Avenue, Newark, I assume because my father’s piano-teaching practice was shrinking. We lived on the second and third floors of a three-story detached house. While 132 Osborne Terrace was on the corner of the street and had two stone lions guarding the front porch, this new place was in the middle of the block and had nothing of note outside.

The third floor consisted of three bedrooms and a large storage closet. My Grandma Lubman and Uncle Morty took two of the bedrooms. The third was always rented out. The third tenant to move in was a young lady named Grace Riefschneider. Uncle Morty and Grace fell in love and later were married in about 1940.

The storage closet became my secret hide-away. It contained a large old Victrola, a wind-up record player. There was a dial which controlled the speed of the turntable. I played at being the captain of a ship. I also played the jazz records that were there- especially “The Varsity Drag” and “Good News”.

The second floor was arranged as before, with the living room and dining rooms making up my father’s studio. However, there was a sun parlor, which became my bedroom. It was lined with windows and I could string wires and cords over to Natey Kaminski’s window next door. We tried all types of communication, but nothing worked.

Seymour Avenue had a garden strip running lengthwise, so that traffic flowed one-way on each side. Nye Avenue met Seymour at a right angle directly in front of our house, resulting in a large paved area that was our major playground. Both streets were lined with trees. The houses were much the same- separated, two-family homes, three stories high.

I found a group of friends there and immediately fit in. There was Herbie Raskin, Norm Fast, Artie Cassell, Natey Kaminski, Ivan Misowitz and, later, Steve Silberman. We seven became a solid group. We did everything together. We became the center of a baseball team and a touch football team. We raised money for various causes. We played “box ball” and touch football and skated in the streets. We played other games in our backyards. Once a year, we had a big snowball fight with the Irish kids from the other side of Hawthorne Avenue who would invade our territory. While we all about the same size, I was a year or more older and several years ahead in school, and so I became the leader.

At one point, one of the mothers persuaded us to join in helping heart disease care. We formed a club, which I named the “Aquila Cardiac Troopeteers”. (Somehow, I determined that “aquila” was Latin for “eagle”.) Our mothers baked cakes and we had cake sales at school. We ran raffles. At the end of the money-raising drive, I presented our collections at a ceremony and gave a short speech about the Aquila Cardiac Troopeteers that was well received.

I had special affection for Steve Silberman. The first time I met him, he was calling out for help. He had somehow tied himself between two trees and couldn’t get out. He was bright and shared my kinds of wild dreams. He had a very small harmonica that he could play with his nose- playing the triumphal march from the opera “Aida”.

In those years, the entire community had three sports favorites: The baseball New York Yankees, Notre Dame football, and the prize fighter Max Baer, who we thought was Jewish. (Later it was revealed that he was not Jewish. His brother, Buddy Baer, a big guy, was also a prizefighter. His son, Max Baer, Jr., later became a TV start on the “Beverly Hills Hillbillies” show.) After Max Baer lost to Joe Louis, we shifted our allegiance to the “Brown Bomber”.

We belonged to the “Knothole Gang” of the Yankees’ farm team, the Newark Bears. For five cents a game, we went to eight games a year and saw all the future big stars playing. The Newark Bears were an excellent team, better than some of the big league teams. In one year, they finished in first place, some 26 games ahead of the next team. They rarely lost, It was fun to be with a constant winner. Of course, we loved the Yankees, who also always won. They had Babe Ruth, Lou Gehrig and other stars. We could not understand the loyalty of the Brooklyn Dodger fans, since their team never won a winning season.

Saturday afternoon was movie time for all the kids in the neighborhood. We went to the local theatre and watched two full-length films, at least three or four cartoons, a chapter of a serial and the movie news. All of this for ten cents- and sometimes they gave away prizes, like dishes. The movies were usually comedies- Laurel and Hardy and the Dead End Kids were great favorites- or cowboy pictures. Once in a while some romantic scene might creep in, and we would all boo and hiss. The serials were always exciting, ending with the hero or heroine being in immediate danger of being crushed, burned to death, killed in an accident, or falling off a cliff. Of course, at the beginning of next week’s episode, he or she would escape in some amazing way. The day at the movies that I still remember quite vividly was when they showed the double-feature of “Frankenstein” and “Dracula”. I have never been so scared in my entire life. For years thereafter, I had nightmares of the Frankenstein monster coming at me in that slow awkward walk and at nights I always watched out for the bat that might be Dracula.

While Saturday was always good fun day, Sunday was not. That was the day you visited relatives or guests came to the house. Schoolwork had to be done. The only good thing was the evening radio shows- starting with the Hertz Pet Food half-hour, featuring the singing of canaries to organ music, then Olivio Santoro, a boy soprano who sang about Philadelphia Scrapple, then the Moylin Sisters, two little girls who sang that they fed their doggie some product that made him full of “Livo” (It rhymed.), then on to the more serious stuff: the Lone Ranger, some mystery show, a romance play, starring Mercedes McCambridge, and ending with the Eddie Cantor Hour- an hour of laughs. And when Eddie Cantor sang: “I love to spend this hour with you, it was time to go to bed. Such a sad song.

Down the block from us, there lived a slightly older boy named Morty. He was a radio buff and was able to listen in on police broadcasts. Whenever the neighbors called the police because we were making too much noise in the street, Morty would come running up to us, shouting, “Chickee the cops!” We’d scatter before the police arrived. However, one day, I scattered right into the way of the police patrol car and they scooped me up. They took me for about a fifteen minute ride, during which I was very worried. And then, miracle of miracles, they brought me back to Seymour Avenue and let me out of the car. I became the block hero. Morty was an excellent pianist, specializing in jazz. Years later, I saw him leading a small band on NBC’s late night TV show. He later became Judy Garland’s accompanist for many years.

We knew that Mr. Oxfeld was the person who called the police. Sometimes, he would come out of his house and chase us down the street. One night, as I lay in bed, I thought about Mr. Oxfeld. He had been a young boy once. How did he become such a grumpy old man? I said to my future self, “Don’t ever become like Mr. Oxfeld. Always remember what it was like to be a young boy, playing in the street. Where ever you are, when you are an old man, remember me. Remember how I felt, how excited I was, how wonderful this time is.” And, over the years, I have always remembered that young boy and how he spoke to me.

Until I was in military service, my biggest football play came when I was about eleven years old, on Seymour Avenue. A big touch football game had been arranged, between a two groups of boys in their mid and late teens. It was our neighborhood against some outsiders. We little kids sat on the curb to watch the game. Somehow, our guys needed one more player and our captain called me into the game. It was our ball, and when we were in the huddle, the captain said, “Eli, you run like hell down the right side and I’ll get the ball to you.” When the ball was snapped, I ran down the street as fast as I could. I guess that because I was so small, no one on the other team even saw me. Our captain threw the football and I ran like hell. The ball was coming down way in front of me. I leaped forward, stretching my arms. The ball tipped my fingers, bounced in the air, hit my forehead as I ran, and bounced forward into my arms. It was a touchdown! There was cheering from my team members and from my friends on the side. The noise was so great that Mr. Oxfeld came out of his house and chased us all away. The game had ended and we had won.

As a baseball team and a football team, we were not very good. I was the baseball team catcher and the manager. (I loved my catcher’s mitt, but since I had no other equipment, it was scary squatting behind the batter. I once was hit in the chest by a swung back and that pain lasted for years.) I was also the football team quarterback and captain. I do remember that we got first place in the football league, having lost every game. The judges credited 70 points of 100 of each game for good sportsmanship and we were such good losers. No other team had 700 points.

The corner candy store always had a pinball machine, which cost a nickel for five balls. We would join the older boys and go there in the early evening to watch some one play. If you scored high enough, you would win free games. The trick was to tap and move the machine, just enough not to tilt it, to control the direction of the ball. This took great skill. We were all very excited when a new machine appeared that had buttons on the side which operated arms inside the playing field, keeping the ball in further play. Somehow, we figured a way in which to get one of the balls into a self-propelled rotation, rolling over scoring pins and running up the score. We called this condition: “Perpechi” (for perpetual motion). We had many, many free games until the store owner was able to replace the machine. It was a sad day when we learned that Perpechi was gone.

One day, I won a $2.00 in a local raffle. This was more money than I had ever seen. My friends all crowded around as I waved the two one dollar bills- and everyone decided that we should go to the candy store, which was featuring a new concoction, called a “Charlotte Russe”. It consisted of a round white paper cup, filled with angel food cake, topped with whipped cream and a cherry- all for ten cents. They also had “Mello Rolls”- creamy ice cream, sitting on top of a light brown cone- and Dixie Cups- the underside of the lid had a photo of a baseball player or a movie star, and the ice cream, eaten with a spoon, was half vanilla, half chocolate. We marched into the candy store and I was Mister Big. It was only after I ended up with one Charlotte Russe and no money that I began to understand something about personal finance.

The local drugstore announced a special contest for kids. You received points for various purchases, especially of large chocolate bars. The first prize was a beautiful two-wheel bike and the second prize was a good-sized pool table. My Uncle Morty decided that I should win first prize and he organized all the neighbors to give me credit for their purchases- with special credit for those chocolate bars. The contest scores were posted on the drugstore windows and each day, we would all run up there to see who was winning. I was in first place some of the time, but at the end, someone else won the bike. However, I took home the folding pool table and it became our family entertainment for several years.

Cigarettes were a regular part of our life. My mother smoked heavily as did many of her friends. It was a sign of female independence. My father did smoke for a while, but gave it up. The leading brands were Camel (“I’d walk a mile for a camel”) Old Golds (Not a cough in a carload!”) and Lucky Strike- which sponsored a hit radio show, “The Lucky Strike Hit Parade”. This was one of the most popular radio shows, featuring the hit songs of the day. More importantly, the show had a weekly contest: If you could name the three top tunes of the week, you would win a special pack of 50 cigarettes, and if you could name the three in the proper order, you would win a 10-pack carton of cigarettes (a $2.00 value at the time). To enter the contest initially, you sent in a penny postcard with your selection. The Lucky Strike Company would then send you a free postcard for the next week’s contest. It was clear how to win: all you needed was enough entries. Each of us made up a bunch of names of fake people living at our homes and sent in post cards. And every week, a flood of free postcards would come back from the Lucky Strike Company. I think that I had about twelve cards to send in each week, as did all of my friends. Every now and then, one of us would win and we would sell our winnings to some grown-up for a reduced price. Everyone was a winner- especially the Lucky Strike Tobacco Company over the long-run.

Every now and then, my Uncle Morty would bring something home for me. One time, it was a microscope with glass slides. I was fascinated and immediately began to make up specimens, such as thin slices of fruits and vegetables. Uncle Morty had also brought home a big bunch of strawberries and that night, we all had desert of strawberries and cream. I took one of the strawberries, made a thin slice and put it under the microscope. There were tiny white things crawling around! I shouted out, “Stop eating the strawberries! They’re full of bugs!” That put an end to a lovely dinner.

Uncle Morty was also the key person in my bike-riding career. When I was eleven or twelve, he bought me a well-used 20” size bike, paying $3.00. He took me outside of our house on Seymour Avenue and, holding me firmly, began to help me along. Suddenly the feeling came over me and I took off, flying down the sidewalk, to his amazement. That little bike was my constant companion, but after a year or so, I had outgrown it. So Uncle Morty took my mother, my father and me to a store that sold all kinds of kids stuff- and there I saw the dream bike. It was a 28” inch black beauty, with red rims- love at first sight. Clearly it was a bit too big for me, but this would be a life-time purchase: I would grow into it. Whatever the asking price, it was much too high for my family. The bargaining with the storeowner went on for some time and finally, we just gave up and left. With heavy heart, I walked back to the car, but when I turned around, Uncle Morty wasn’t with us. And then I saw him coming out of the store- with the bike! He said that he had negotiated the price down to an acceptable level. I have no idea of what really occurred. All I knew was that I had my dream. The bike became my prize possession- and I rode it everywhere. Somehow, my parents had confidence in my common sense and “ridership”, because I rode on major streets and visited relatives in towns 30-40 miles away. The bike became a very important part of my daily life when we moved to South Orange in 1938, as I helped my parents with their store and commuted to various schools.

My Uncle Morty had a convertible car, with a canvas roof that you could put up when it rained, and running boards that you could stand on as he drove, and a rumble seat, that opened in the back to hold two or more people. He played tennis and every now and then he would come driving down the street with a bunch of used used tennis balls that he would throw out to all of us. He was a dashing local hero.

One of my prize possessions was an “Electric Questionaire”. It was a large black box, 12’ by 18’, with hinges along a short edge. Inside, one half held some 30 or more large cards, each of them containing 36 questions and answers about some area of knowledge. There was also one card of riddles. Each card was divided between a question section and an answer section. The other half of the opened box consisted of 36 pairs of pins connected by coated wires underneath the board. The entire maze of wires was attached to a “D” battery and a buzzer. Above the board were two wires with open caps that fit onto the pins. When you matched a question with a correct answer, the buzzer sounded. While I enjoyed playing with my Electric Questionaire, my greater pleasure came when I somehow got a second one. I proceeded to re-wire the second one so that it would not buzz when the correct answer was selected, but would buzz for a given incorrect answer. Then I would invite friends and family members to try to get the correct answers, enjoying their frustration. Being proud of my electrical achievement, I would then bring out and demonstrate the first Electric Questionaire so that they could appreciate what I had done. I still remember that the correct wiring for the first question was to the answer pin at the second row, second column. Some of the riddles were basic: “Why did the chicken cross the road?” and “Why do firemen wear red suspenders?”

Each summer, I would be sent to visit my cousins Julius and Sylvia Fallick in Poughkeepsie, New York for several weeks. This involved taking a large Hudson River Dayline boat up the Hudson. The boat ride took about four hours and I loved it. These boats were like the old paddle boats, with very large wheels on each side that propelled the boat along. I would go down into the spotless engine room and watch the huge pistons move up and down, turning the massive rods that connected to the power wheels. Sometimes there was a band on board. The boat stopped at the Bear Mountain Amusement Park and at West Point, among other places, and I enjoyed watching the way in which the boat would be maneuvered against the pier. The stay in Poughkeepsie was a wonderful vacation. My cousin Julius was just about nine months older than I was; Sylvia was about two years older and very pretty. We got along quite well. Aunt Rose and Uncle Lou Fallick had a little grocery and I was allowed to help out. Julius was very bright. At an early age, he had memorized the capitals of all forty-eight states, which was very impressive. We roamed throughout Poughkeepsie and it was there that I had my first taste of Pizza and my first meetings with Italian-Americans. I was fascinated by the dark beauty of the Italian girls.

I heard my first Glen Miller record- “Tuxedo Junction” while visiting in Poughkeepsie. For some reason, I was deeply moved- and have continued to be moved- by the first three slow and low trombone notes. They had, and have, a special significance- that this was a different type of swing music- far different from the fast beat, noisy jazz sound that was everywhere.

When I was twelve years old, I joined the Boy Scouts. A troop met in a local church recreation room on a weekday evening. The scout master wore a horse-riding outfit and carried a whip. He would play military music records and as we marched around the rec room he would beat time with his whip. I was not a great success as a Scout. The test for the rank of “Tenderfoot” was pretty easy, but that was as far up the ladder that I ever got. The problem was: tying various knots. I could not tell a Granny Knot from a Square Knot and a Bowline Knot defied my dexterity. However, I was a valuable member of the Troop, because I was so small and light weight. We competed against other troops in various scouting skills, and our “Life-Saver Squad” always won its race, principally because I was the victim. Of course, I just lay there, but still, a prize is a prize. (Years later, my daughter Christine played the same role, for the same reason, in a University of San Diego regatta sailing team.) Eventually I got tired of marching around the floor and failing at knot-tying, so I joined another troop. While this one did no marching and I did enjoy our football games, my scouting experience was the same: I attained and stayed at the rank of Tenderfoot. I had to find a way out- and did. In reading the Boy Scout Manual, I found this motto: “Don’t live to eat, eat to live.” Since I loved food and ate constantly, there was an obvious contradiction in our fundamental outlook on life. I resigned with pleasure and never looked back.

Halloween, 1938 became a special day in American History. In Newark, Halloween was celebrated in two ways: little children went from house to house, asking for candy; older kids dressed in costumes and paraded up and down the major streets at night. This particular evening, three of us boys were in a friend’s second floor apartment, having decided not to go out in costumes. We were playing some board game, possibly Monopoly, when I turned on the radio. The announcer was describing an battle between an alien space ship and Princeton, NJ police. I recognized the situation- that although the location was different, the plot was right out of H.G. Welles book, “War of the Worlds”. Since had I read the book, I wasn’t interested in the radio program and turned it off. About an hour later, we heard noises outside and saw some people running down the streets with handkerchiefs over their mouths. We made no connection between their behavior and the earlier radio program. We just thought they looked sillier than the usual Halloween crowd, and went back to our game. The next day we learned that the entire country had been fooled by Orson Welles into thinking that Martians were invading the country, that they had killed the Princeton police and were on their way to New York City.

Every now and then, Uncle Maurice, my father’s brother, would show up. For some reason which I never understood, he spelled his last name “Schones” rather than “Schanes”. By our standards, he was a very big man. My mother would lift me, my father would lift the two of us and then Uncle Maurice would lift the three of us. He was a loud, very happy man. While he was a cellist, he also had a strong baritone voice, and he would sing Russian songs, stamping on the floor, shaking the house. Uncle Maurice remained single all his life, but he did have women friends and one time he brought one very nice lady with him. During the early Depression days, he had toured Europe as “Mario Schones and His Italian Trio.” I heard him tell how he had lost all of his foreign income because of currency devaluation that took place while he was abroad: it took so many more francs and lira to make a US dollar. One day, he took me to the grocery store, where we bought a quart of milk. On coming home, he and I finished the entire quart- my part being one glass.

Uncle Maurice brought me two present from his travels in Europe: a ten dollar gold piece and a pencil that had four different colored leads. The gold piece was smaller than a dime, The pencil was a cumbersome silver metal affair, with four slides that pushed the different leads into the point. This was very fancy and very unusual. I brought both presents to show in school. Sadly, the gold piece disappeared during the day. However, I kept the pencil for many years- it was much more of a conversation piece than a usual device. I think that my life-long love of gadgets dates from that time.

Nathan B. Heller, MD, was a family friend I greatly admired. My parents met him while walking on the boardwalk at Belmar, New Jersey, the summer I was born. Dr. Heller was a dermatologist. He had a high-pitched voice. His brother-in-law was Leo Huberman, a prominent Socialist who lived in Greenwich Village, New York City, and who had written a noted book called “We The People”. Dr. Heller was very interested in politics and government and I enjoyed discussing the events of the day with him. In 1936, the Supreme Court was declaring that each of FDR’s new programs was unconstitutional, thus killing the child labor laws and wage and hour laws. FDR said that the Supreme Court justices were too old and he proposed to have a law passed that would permit him to appoint an additional judge for each judge age 70 and over. This plan, called “Packing the Court”, would have given him a majority on the court. I was shocked at this idea and told Dr. Heller that FDR should respect the great men on the Supreme Court and their decisions. Dr. Heller asked me where these judges came from and what made their opinion on these policy issues any more correct than any one else. He made me think and I came to understand that these learned men, like everyone else, were human and were affected by their individual personal backgrounds. I realized the importance of the court in national government policy and began to think of possibly becoming Chief Justice of the Supreme Court. (At that time, one did not have to be a lawyer to serve on that court. When the rules were changed so that being a lawyer was a requirement, I lost interest in the position.)

Adolph Hitler came into power in Germany in 1933-34. In 1935, when I was eleven, his troops marched into an area between Germany and France, which, by the terms of the Versailles Agreement ending the World War, was to remain independent. England and France did nothing about it, nor did the League of Nations. It was clear to me that World War II was inevitable, and I began to save newspaper headlines. This belief was reinforced by a dream I had in 1937. I pictured myself in a wartime trench with an armored tank coming at me- and the date of August 28, 1943. From that time on, I was fairly sure that that would be the date of my death. World War II did break out in 1939; the U.S. entered in 1941; I was called into military service in February, 1943; I was flying in a bomber toward Germany in August, 1943- each event told me that the dream was indeed prophetic and the event inevitable. Actually, August 28, 1943 turned out to be a day of very little importance. So much for dreams.

Seymour Avenue stands out in my mind as having two major phases: playing ball in the street during the afternoons and sitting on the stoop at night. I played ball with my buddies, but at night, I sat with the adults of the house and their friends. Often the conversation was about politics, but at times we played various games: word games and mathematical games. I enjoyed these and held my own in the competition.

When there was an important event taking place, such as President Roosevelt talking to the public in one of his famous “Fireside Chats” or a major sports event, everyone went into their homes to listen to the radio. When it was over, all the stoops were filled with people commenting on what had just taken place. The night that Joe Louis- the invincible Brown Bomber- was knocked out by the hated German Max Schmelling, the stoops were silent. The impossible, the unthinkable, had happened. Our hero had been crushed.

The night in 1937 that we heard that George Gershwin had died, the stoops again were very quiet. Other than my grandfather’s death ten years previously, this was my first real encounter with the finality of death. I could not accept that so wonderful a composer could have died at so young an age, before I had really had the chance to enjoy his future works. I cried for a person I did not know. In fact, I don’t think I have ever reconciled myself to the fact that George Gershwin has died.

©Steven E. Schanes 2002

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Published in: on July 12, 2006 at 5:15 pm  Leave a Comment  

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