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Just Kids from the Bronx: Telling It the Way It Was: An Oral History
     

Just Kids from the Bronx: Telling It the Way It Was: An Oral History

5.0 4
by Arlene Alda
 

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"A down-to-earth, inspiring book about the American promise fulfilled." -President Bill Clinton

"Fascinating . . . . Made me wish I had been born in the Bronx." -Barbara Walters

A touching and provocative collection of memories that evoke the history of one of America's most influential boroughs-the Bronx-through some of its many

Overview

"A down-to-earth, inspiring book about the American promise fulfilled." -President Bill Clinton

"Fascinating . . . . Made me wish I had been born in the Bronx." -Barbara Walters

A touching and provocative collection of memories that evoke the history of one of America's most influential boroughs-the Bronx-through some of its many success stories

The vivid oral histories in Arlene Alda's Just Kids from the Bronx reveal what it was like to grow up in the place that bred the influencers in just about every field of endeavor. The Bronx is where Michael Kay, the New York Yankees' play-by-play broadcaster, first experienced baseball; where J. Crew's CEO Millard ("Mickey") Drexler found his ambition; where Neil deGrasse Tyson and Dava Sobel fell in love with science; and where local music making inspired singer-songwriter Dion DiMucci and hip-hop's Grandmaster Melle Mel.

The parks, the pickup games, the tough and tender mothers, the politics, the gangs, the food-for people who grew up in the Bronx, childhood recollections are fresh. Arlene Alda's own Bronx memories were a jumping-off point from which to reminisce with a nun, a police officer, an urban planner, and with Al Pacino, Carl Reiner, Colin Powell, Maira Kalman, Bobby Bonilla, Mary Higgins Clark, and many other leading artists, athletes, scientists, and entrepreneurs-experiences spanning six decades of Bronx living. Alda then arranged these pieces of the past, from looking for violets along the banks of the Bronx River to the wake-up calls from teachers who recognized potential, into one great collective story, a filmlike portrait of the Bronx from the early twentieth century until today.

Editorial Reviews

Publishers Weekly
11/24/2014
Alda has compiled a fabulous collection of 65 brief oral histories from a wide range of people who began their lives in the Bronx. The assortment of childhood memories begin as far back as the 1920s, move through the 1940s and 1950s, and end with those born in the late 1980s. Contributors include Carl Reiner, Colin Powell, and—among younger names—dancer Amar Ramasar and Bronx borough president Ruben Diaz Jr. While the borough’s underdog status is acknowledged (Odgen Nash’s “The Bronx? No Thonx?” gets quoted), the general tenor is fond and wistful. Mary Higgins Clark sets the tone by dubbing the area one of “only three places in the world that have a the in front of their names: the Vatican, The Hague, and the Bronx.” Stories often recall the mundane: stickball in the streets, trying to get “home before dark,” the unforgettable smell of bakeries and delis. Al Pacino recalls teachers who changed his life, and an urban planner remembers his mother drilling him on the subway system before sending him off alone at age 9. There are few readers who won’t be touched by this affectionate look backward, which is as much about the universal state of childhood as the specific borough of the Bronx. (Mar.)
Kirkus Reviews
2014-11-29
Short essays connected by a common thread: a childhood spent in the Bronx.Through the voices of more than 60 interviewees, Alda (Except the Color Grey, 2011, etc.) presents a kaleidoscope of images from these vignettes of life in the New York borough. The pieces span from the late 1920s to the early 1990s and capture the evolution of a neighborhood. Since the Bronx was originally settled primarily by Jewish, Italian and Irish immigrants, the initial stories are rich with details about life during the Depression and World War II and its aftermath. Then the narrative gradually shifts with the progression of time to personal reflections from newer arrivals comprised of African-Americans, Puerto Ricans and Dominicans. These short slices of life offer intimate glimpses into the childhood memories of well-known people such as Colin Powell, Milton Glaser, Abe Rosenthal and Al Pacino. Whether it was the women's changing room at Loehmann's department store, riding a bike to Pelham Bay Park or running to an apartment block to fetch someone for a telephone call at the corner store, living in the Bronx made an impression on all of them as they worked their way up the American dream ladder to become productive and prosperous members of society. Amar Ramasar, principal dancer for the New York City Ballet, sums up the essence of these narratives, writing, "Manhattan wasn't home until recently, when I moved there. It was always associated with work and studying, but the Bronx is different. It was, and I think always will be, home, comfort, love." Other contributors include Carl Reiner, Regis Philbin, Dava Sobel, Maira Kalman, Neil deGrasse Tyson and Bobby Bonilla. Entertaining and informative cherished memories from a diverse group from the Bronx.
From the Publisher

“I was mesmerized reading about the childhoods of celebrities and leaders in fields from art to science, revealing the roots that launched their journeys from humble beginnings in the Bronx to extraordinary success. An eye-opener into what drives the creation of remarkable lives. I will long remember this wonderful book.” —Walter Mischel, author of The Marshmallow Test: Mastering Self-Control, Professor of Psychology, Columbia University

“Among the wonders of Arlene Alda's wondrous book is the stunning quality of the storytelling. Just Kids from the Bronx is a Bronx tale, to be sure--a collective picture of a place characterized by citizen yearnings to be elsewhere and the glorious discoveries and self-discoveries that come with staying put. But the parts that go into this whole are equally rich as pieces of literature. Nearly every one of these offerings, including the author's own, is a little work of art, each contributor foraging for the meaning and the music of a life.The result is America in a borough--at once hopeful, dangerous, regenerative, tough, joyous, and in the end, beautiful.” —Roger Rosenblatt, New York Times bestselling author of Making Toast and of The Boy Detective: A New York Childhood

Product Details

ISBN-13:
9781627790956
Publisher:
Holt, Henry & Company, Inc.
Publication date:
03/03/2015
Edition description:
First Edition
Pages:
336
Sales rank:
119,250
Product dimensions:
8.20(w) x 5.60(h) x 1.30(d)

Read an Excerpt

Just Kids from the Bronx

Telling it the Way it was: An Oral History


By Arlene Alda

Henry Holt and Company

Copyright © 2015 Arlene Alda
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-1-62779-096-3



CHAPTER 1

FRESH AIR ... A LUCKY BREAK


I knew that I wanted to be someone. ... I wanted to be revered by the family ... not only by my immediate one, but my extended family as well. ... They all were so excited when I finished medical school that they had this large party for me. I still have the pictures. Actually, it spawned many other doctors in the family whose fathers said to them, "Forget about being a wallpaper hanger. If Mickey could do it, then you could do it!"


— MICHAEL ("MICKEY") BRESCIA, M.D.


A. M. ("ABE") ROSENTHAL


For seven years I lived with my five sisters and our parents, Sarah and Harry, among flowers and trees, dancing fountains, wilderness paths, birds singing in their ecstasy, and such stupendous quantities of a particular treasure as to send my mother into paroxysms of acquisition greed.

"Fresh air!" she would announce. And then from her lips came the command that rang through every apartment in the Bronx neighborhood every day: "Go grab some fresh air! Out! Fresh air!"

As other American pioneers and gamblers kept moving west, the Jews of New York kept moving north toward fresh air. For Harry and his Pirate Queen the road led from the tenements of the Lower East Side in Manhattan to Decatur Avenue in the Bronx, where young warriors waited in ambush to pounce on the new kids and eventually declare peace. The adult pioneers worked six days a week and every hour of overtime they could get. They saved every penny with pleasure, looking down from the peak above the sea to the pass above the fruited plain-Mosholu Parkway station, far north, only a few miles south of the New York suburbs boundary line.

Beyond the station, as far as a housepainter's eye could see, stretched Van Cortlandt Park. The ride on the subway was usually an hour or more each way. Coming home, fresh air awaited, ready to be consumed in large gulps, a reservoir never dry. And during the day, breathing the paint or the lint, a workingman knew that at least at home the wife and the children were breathing that fresh air, all day long.

The pioneers stood and gazed at their children and then went to the bank with their deposit books every few months.

Paradise was known as the Amalgamated, for the Amalgamated Clothing Workers union, which built good housing for its members. Members of other unions were eligible to buy apartments too. Papa's credentials were his card in the housepainters' union and the bankbook of his life savings.

By the time we moved into our apartment Sarah and Harry had been on the waiting list for about two years.

They both knew Harry would make a living as long as he could climb a painter's ladder or crawl out a window to a scaffold. With overtime here and there he could come up with the eighty dollars a month to meet the maintenance charges. They never again might have such a chance, a great park across the street, four bedrooms, living room, nice big kitchen, and "double exposures," which gave the apartment cross ventilation from the breezes of park-fresh air whenever you raised a window sash.

Harry and Sarah went to the savings bank, took out one thousand dollars, almost all the money they had saved. They took the cash to the office of the union cooperative and put it on the table. They were gambling that money, and every dollar they would be able to put together from Harry's work, for God knows how many years. They figured that with good luck some months Harry would make enough to pay off some of the cooperative's loan for the rest of the apartment, in addition to the maintenance. In the months he was short, the building management would almost always wait another month.

We lived in those co-op buildings the first years of the thirties, when the only thing thriving in America was hard times. The eight complexes consisted of half a dozen six-story apartment buildings, each built around a courtyard that blossomed in the spring and flowered almost until the snow provided inexhaustible hills of snowball and snowman. Just across the street was our forest, Van Cortlandt Park, which not only sent out sweet perfumed fresh air for generations of workers' children twenty-four hours a day but also provided a golfing link. Golfers, who were not experts, hit balls into the hands of boys waiting to scoop them up and run to return them for a nickel apiece.

Twenty-five years later, when I was an American correspondent in Eastern Europe, I saw Polish workers and their wives in a shabby seaside resort on the Baltic going for a walk in the nearby forest or marching for hours along the narrow beach, up and down, up and down. They went back to the little boardinghouses for meals and rushed outside as soon as they could for what else? Fresh air. Then they sat in wooden chairs to put their faces into the pallid sunshine. That week on the Polish Baltic I was a boy again and the workers were my parents.

In 1967 I was appointed an assistant managing editor of the New York Times and immediately set off for Europe to share the magic moment in journalistic history with the foreign staff of the paper.

The first stop was London, where Anthony Lewis, then the bureau chief and a brilliant correspondent of lucidity and range, gave a dinner party for me at the Garrick Club. During the cocktail hour there was one of those sudden drops in the noise level and the voice of a British member of the staff could be heard clear and true as a royal trumpet: "Tell me, Abe, do you think there will ever be a Jewish managing editor of the New York Times?"

Everybody froze, glass in hand, a living tableau. I turned slowly, martini still half raised, heard myself say, "Well, I sure as hell hope so." There were a few titters, and somebody decided it was time for dinner.

Sure enough, justice triumphed, and a couple of years later I was back in London, this time to celebrate with the crowned heads of Europe my appointment as managing editor.

The morning after my arrival, I picked up a copy of the Times of London outside my hotel room door — Claridge's — saw "Up from the Slums of the Bronx to the Editor's Chair, Page 3" on the front page. I knew they were singing my song and turned the page.

I saw it at once: a long story from the Washington correspondent of the Times, a kind of strange-customs-in-faraway-places piece in which the writer tried to explain to the British public exactly how it had come about that a poor boy from a slum in an exotic part of New York seldom visited by tourists, who attended a free college with the social prestige of a herring, whose parents were born in Russia and who also happened to be, well, Jewish, actually became managing editor of the most important, powerful, and prestigious newspaper in the United States.

It was written with a sense of kindly wonderment, as if explaining the customs of Ugandan tribesmen to the British audience.

There was a certain poignancy in the piece, discernible perhaps to only two people: the author and me. The writer was Louis Heren, who had been the correspondent in India of the Times of London during my years there. He had told me often that though he stood high in the regard of the proprietors of the Times of London, he and they knew he could never become its editor. He was born a Roman Catholic and had compounded that initial error by attending the wrong schools.

I sent Louis Heren a message of thanks, also informing him that the Pirate Queen would have been furious if she knew that Mosholu Parkway would ever be described as a slum.


* * *


CARL REINER

My father wasn't a joiner, so we were never synagogue members. When I turned thirteen, he persuaded a rabbi to rent him a synagogue in a poor neighborhood for a Thursday morning bar mitzvah for me. My only training for the event had been with another rabbi who, for a few months, was willing to teach me what I needed to know. My father, my mother, my older brother Charlie, and a group of strangers, old Jews with beards and prayer shawls, were the only ones who attended when the time arrived.

And it wasn't like today, where kids write their own speeches. My father wrote the speech for me, in both flowery language and beautiful handwriting. "Worthy Assembly. You've afforded me a great honor this day, when you have come to this temple of God to take part in and celebrate on the day I have become a bar mitzvah." It went on in the same manner, ending with "May God be with you in my endeavor to be a good member of society and a good Jew. Amen." This speech was actually the same one my father had written for my brother Charlie, who had said it at his bar mitzvah a few years earlier.

Over seventy years go by when a granddaughter of our old neighbors the Fishmans contacts me out of the blue with something she thinks I'll be interested in. It turns out to be her family's copy of that same speech in my father's own handwriting. My father had written it out for the bar mitzvah of Murray Fishman, her father, who was a year younger than I was. So that speech was delivered at three different bar mitzvahs at three different times.

I was thirteen and officially a Jewish man in the eyes of the elders, but my friends, who were older and maybe more religious than I, had already taken part in a minyan, a group of ten adult male Jews who get together for prayers. There have to be a minimum of ten or the prayers won't be valid. If I saw men in our neighborhood with prayer shawls, I quickly crossed the street. I always dodged being part of a minyan, especially since I had learned only what I needed to learn for my bar mitzvah by rote. I knew no Hebrew. I couldn't read the prayers.

But one day I was with my friends walking down our street when we were all called in for a minyan. Since I was part of the group I couldn't escape. I had no choice. When everyone else started praying, I didn't know what to do, so I prayed too — but in Hebrew double-talk. My guilt lasted many years, because at the time I thought that I was preventing the prayers of nine faithful Jews from reaching God because of my gibberish.


* * *

My interest in performing was sparked early on by my mother's family. Her brother had been in Irving Berlin's show Yip Yip Yaphank. He played the spoons and he sang. And my mother's sister, Adele, was just a funny woman who made us laugh. We also went to movies and listened to comedy shows on the radio. I guess that people are born with a talent for comedy, but if you're in a household that accepts humor as a potent force then you also develop it.

I could make kids laugh when I was very young and I liked doing it. When I was in first grade at P.S. 57 I was the teacher's pet. At Christmas they asked, "Can anyone do anything entertaining?" One kid got up and tap danced, and I could stand, put one leg behind my head, and hop around on the other. It was one of those things I found out I could do, because I had a short torso and long legs. I did that in our classroom, and then the teacher took me to two other classrooms to do it. That was my first touring in show business right there.

In third grade, I played the Headsman in the play Six Who Pass While the Lentils Boil. I was the guy who chopped people's heads off. We performed the play for an audience and all I remember is that my mother sat next to the principal, who said to her, "That boy is the best one." He said that because I was loud. I was the loudest one and he could hear me.

At Evander Childs High School, Mr. Raskin, who was the music teacher there, needed singers. So my friend Milton points to me and says, "He sings." I could sing loud and I had a big operatic voice but no ear and no timing. However, I could sing like Caruso if somebody conducted me. Raskin says, "Let me hear you sing." And he gives me a few notes to sing. I hit one note. "You're in!" "In what?" "In the chorus."

Then I was paired with a wonderful girl coloratura, Ruth, and we rehearsed a duet, "Yo Soy el Pato," which is "I Am the Duck" in English. In rehearsals I sang it really well. This was for our big outing — to be onstage at Julia Richman High School in Manhattan for a Spanish festival.

So we're there and Ruth starts to sing, and I'm supposed to walk behind her onstage. While I'm doing that, I can't help myself. I'm doing it duck style. I'm flopping after her and the audience is roaring with laughter. The more they roared, the more I'd both walk like a duck and jump like a duck. That was my first and only theatrical performance in high school, but by then I was bitten.

A few years ago The New Yorker magazine was going to do a piece on my old neighborhood, and I wanted to show them where I lived. Our apartment building was on Belmont Avenue, with a second building backed up to it, on the corner of 179th Street. But when we arrived, I was shocked to see that there was nothing there. Both buildings had been razed. So I went to the open lot, picked out two bricks, and sent one to my brother in Atlanta with a note that said, "Memories of our old homestead." Across the way were two short apartment buildings, two stories, like for three families each. They hadn't been torn down because they were historic, even though they were older and much more decrepit. One of those buildings was where I prayed in Hebrew double-talk for the minyan.


MARTIN BREGMAN

In the basement of our apartment building there was what we called the club room. Maybe the room was ten by ten, with an old couch, a chair, and a bench. After school, when we were about fifteen or sixteen, we'd go down to the basement. What did we do there? Smoke. We crowded into this room and lit our cigarettes. We smoked until you couldn't see. You could not see. You couldn't breathe. Hey Solly, how're you doin' over there? I can't see you.

At about that same age I had my first serious date. She was Italian and I was Jewish. In those days it wasn't so easy for an Italian girl to bring a Jewish boy to meet her parents, so she wasn't so sure about bringing me home. But finally she brought me home for dinner. We were supposed to go to the movies afterward. Her mother and father were pure Italian. You know, very, very strict and domineering. The father looked like he was connected.

I was dressed magnificently. A tie. A shirt. A jacket. I was fine. And during dinner I was trying to be charming. The mother took out a cigarette. She was looking for a match or something, and I, charmingly, reached into my front pocket and pulled out a pack. I was pure sophistication. I'm talking. I'm fumbling with opening it, without ever looking at the pack, while the father looks at me. This is his daughter. Italian. Pure. This is a mob guy too, or at least he looked like one to me. And as I'm talking I'm opening this packet of condoms. In those days, everybody my age carried them — just in case. You never knew when lightning would come down and strike you and you'd get lucky. And I feel the stare as he's looking at me. The mother's looking at me. The girlfriend-to-be is looking at me and I'm pulling out this condom. I wasn't looking, but I felt it. I was mortified.

We didn't go to the movies that night. The girl got sick and I got sicker. I never saw her again.

During those years, I was also looking for extra money and fun, so I hooked up with a kid I went to school with who said, "You wanna go into business? Let's buy a car and then we can deliver some liquor." So we bought a car, an early 1930-something Ford. The liquor we delivered was homemade, made in a still in the Bronx. We'd load the whole back of the car up with booze and then drive it like we were delivering bottles of milk. We worked for a "man." We had no idea that we were doing something illegal.

We delivered the booze to the clubs on Fifty-Second Street and in Greenwich Village. There was one guy in the Village who looked like he was straight out of central casting. He was a huge man who liked me. After about two years, he said, "Whad'ya doin' this for? You gonna deliver this shit for the rest of your life?" Then he says, "What would ya like to do? What would ya like to be?" And I said, "I'd like to get into the entertainment business." He picked up the phone and in a week — I couldn't believe it — I started working for a booking agent in the Borscht Belt. My job was to drive people up to the mountains, and that's how I got my start in the entertainment business.


LEON FLEISHER

For some reason music had a certain importance to my mother. She saw that music seemed to be not only a path to a better life but also that it was part of the human soul to which one should aspire. I can't remember a time in our apartment when there wasn't this little upright piano.

My older brother, Raymond, was given piano lessons but was not particularly interested. In those days, music teachers and doctors both made house visits. Whenever the teacher came to give Ray a lesson I was absolutely fascinated. I would curl up on the couch in the corner and just watch and listen. When the lesson was over, Ray would go out to the school yard and play with his friends. I would go over to the piano and repeat everything that had been done in the lesson; and apparently did it with much greater enthusiasm and alacrity than he did. I must've been four or four and a half. It turned out that Ray was very happy to let me take over his lessons so that he could spend more time in the school yard.


(Continues...)

Excerpted from Just Kids from the Bronx by Arlene Alda. Copyright © 2015 Arlene Alda. Excerpted by permission of Henry Holt and Company.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

Meet the Author

Arlene Alda (born Arlene Weiss in the Bronx, NY) graduated Phi Beta Kappa from Hunter College, received a Fulbright Scholarship to study clarinet in Germany, and became a clarinetist in the Houston Symphony, under Leopold Stokowski. She then married the actor Alan Alda and after their youngest daughter started school, Alda pursued her interests in photography and in writing. She is now the author of 17 books, including bestselling, award-winning children’s titles as well as books for adults.

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Just Kids from the Bronx: Telling It the Way It Was: An Oral History 5 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 4 reviews.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
I am a kid from the Bronx (albeit now a retiree), as is my husband. We both loved the book. I got it as a gift for my 90ish year old uncle, and he loved it, too. All his friends are in line to borrow it.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
I love this book. Lots of interesting people, and stories in the book. It's difficult for me to but the book down.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
"I want her to disapear from the face of the earth."