The story of the adventures of Danny Levine, Mousey Stern, and Newt Biddle growing up together in Southern California back in 1962, Kiddo is a novel of the California ’60s that you will want to read aloud to your friends, give to people who lived through it, and cherish as a memory of a better—and worse—times.
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The first time Danny Levine laid eyes on Newt Biddle was at Mousey Stern’s bar mitzvah.
They were sitting across the aisle from each other in the back row of Beverly Glen Synagogue, the rich people’s temple on the corner of Wilshire and Beverly Glen. Actually, the place took up the whole block, on account of how it was the very first ranch-style shul ever built in America, or at least it was supposed to be. Danny didn’t know about that. All he knew was it was some kind of boss place from the outside, like a really giant, really fancy International House of Pancakes, only with stained glass, too.
And the inside was even more boss. The wall-to-wall carpeting was so thick his shoes almost disappeared into it. There was air conditioning and must have been two hundred rows of seats, each one of them made out of walnut with its own individual tweed cushion. And then there was the stage, where there were these huge polished marble pulpits for the rabbi and the cantor, and a row of high-backed chairs and the ark. Beverly Glen’s ark had to be the bossest thing Danny had ever seen, except for maybe the new Matterhorn ride at Disneyland. The thing had to be four-stories high, and its giant doors were inlaid with mosaic tiles all the way up. But the best part was that the doors were opened and closed by this foot button set into the carpet behind the cantor’s pulpit. When Danny saw the doors start to swing open all by themselves at the beginning of the service he thought it was like God himself had opened them. It was some kind of boss.
This was the first time Danny had been inside. His folks didn’t belong to Beverly Glen. Danny had performed his bar mitzvah last winter in the dark little storefront shul on Fairfax that he went to every Saturday morning with Happy. Hap was Orthodox. Danny had chanted his haftorah in front of about thirty yellow old men in shiny gray suits. They bobbed and wailed while he chanted, pausing every once in a while to hock these gobs of phlegm into handkerchiefs the size of tablecloths, which they then stuffed into their back pockets. It wasn’t much fun. Danny’s mom had to sit on the other side of the maroon curtain from his dad and Happy. She sat with the Schatz girls, Bea and Lea. The Schatz girls were twin sisters who’d never let a man come between them. They were seventy-three and still roomed together. Cousins of Happy. No other relatives came to Danny’s bar mitzvah. There weren’t any. Hap was a widower and Ev, Danny’s mom, an only child. Abe, Danny’s pop, had no relatives. At least none anybody knew about. And Danny didn’t invite any chums to his bar mitzvah. He told Abe and Ev he’d always sort of seen it as a family occasion.
Danny didn’t have any friends.
The Mouse’s big day was a whole different story. There must have been three or four hundred people there, and they were nicely dressed and none of them had coughs. Mousey had probably taken in over a grand in checks and bonds already and could expect to double it after tonight’s reception. All Danny had to show for his was a portable typewriter from Abe and Ev, a hundred-dollar bond from Hap that wouldn’t mature until 1972, and a pen-and-pencil set from the Schatz girls. The pen was from Bea, the pencil from Lea.
Danny sat a good twenty rows behind the other guests at Beverly Glen, all by himself except for a tall, bored-looking gentile kid across the aisle. He had a blond crew cut, this kid, and was dressed in a seersucker suit, white button-down shirt, and striped tie. Danny wore his Robert Hall bar mitzvah suit. It was black and it still fit him. Abe and Ev had insisted the tailor cut it generously. They wanted to get their money’s worth out of this suit, since there was nothing, but nothing, Danny could do to stop himself from putting on another ten pounds or so every month. Already he didn’t have long to go before he outgrew it. The trousers were a little tight in the thighs and kept him squirming. The sleeves rode up several inches on his bare, hairless forearms. His black clip-on tie dug into his throat like a thumb. He was very uncomfortable and wanted to go home and change.
An old gent got up from the front row and went on stage to do his aliyah. Must be Mousey’s grandfather, thought Danny. Mouse didn’t have long to wait now. Danny stuck his head out into the aisle and squinted. Could just make out the top of Mousey’s head way up there in the front row, on the aisle. Tough little cookie, that Mouse. Danny was surprised Mouse had thought to invite him to his bar mitzvah.
They got mildly chummy in gym class that spring because they were the slowest lap runners. Mouse was a foot shorter than everyone else and spiny as a reptile. Couldn’t have weighed more than sixty pounds. That wasn’t how he got his nickname though. That came from his nose and ears, which were early and full bloomers. Real flappers, those ears. And his nose looked like the doctor had used it to get a good grip on him when he yanked him out of his mom. Mousey also had a pronounced overbite. Wore metal on both fenders. His real name was Michael.
As for Danny, he was several feet bigger around than everyone else. Lardo, tubby, fats, chubbs, porky, porko, Porkowitz, slim, Big Fella, Big Guy—he’d heard them all. Anyway, he and Mousey kind of fell in together behind the pack that bobbed its way around the track. Running, Danny felt like a walrus sinking into quicksand. Mouse trotted erectly and briskly but just didn’t get very far, on account of how he was so little.
Their friendship mostly consisted of gasping encouragement to each other as they fought to get air into their lungs, until Mousey turned out to be the only one who had any words of comfort for Danny after the rope-climb incident, the incident that made him a legend at Dwight D. Eisenhower Junior High.
It happened in the gym. All the boys who had physical education that period—seventh, eighth, and ninth graders—sat cross-legged on the polished wood floor. About 150 guys. The occasion was the rope-climb competition, the final one in a series of really grueling physical challenges—600-yard dash, sit-ups, pushups, potato race—that were taking place at every junior high in Los Angeles. The Board of Education agreed with President Kennedy that a fit America was a prepared America.
They were seated around a lone rope which was anchored to the ceiling twenty feet above. Coach Fordham, who was big and mean and fierce, was in charge. He stood next to the rope and called each boy alphabetically. The boy popped up from the group, walked to the rope, gripped it tightly with both hands, and swallowed. Coach Fordham yelled “Go!” and clicked his stopwatch. Then, as the boy scampered up the rope just like a monkey at the zoo, he barked encouragement.
“PULL … PULL … PULL!” he yelled, his muscular arms flapping in vigorous rhythm against his sides. “PULL … PULL … PULL!”
When the boy neared the top, where a tin plate waited to sing out from the rap of a set of white knuckles, Coach Fordham yelled “REEEEEACH!”
As the boy scampered down, Fordham checked the time, announced it, and marked it down. Good times drew applause.
Danny sat hunched on the floor, fingering his tennis shoes, upon which he’d carefully printed his last name in neat block letters. His hands were so moist the ink began to smear. He took a deep breath. He was terrified. He had a secret, a terrible secret.
He knew there was no way he could make it up that rope.
Fordham yelled “LEVIN!”
Jeff Levin. A grade ahead of Danny, and a bit chunky.
“GO! … PULL … PULL …”
Levin had to use his feet to help him up the rope. The thinner guys, the good athletes, could scamper up just with their hands. Coach Fordham wasn’t particular—as long as you made it.
“PULL … PULL … PULL … REEEEEACH!”
Levin made it. Took him 12.6 seconds. Very slow. But he made it. Everyone had made it so far.
Danny got up and walked directly to Coach Fordham. Honesty was his best bet, he decided. Surely Coach Fordham would respect it as a manly quality.
“I can’t climb the rope, sir,” he said quietly.
Coach Fordham held out a hand, palm up. “Note?”
“No note, sir. There’s nothing wrong with me.”
That drew a few snickers from the boys seated nearby.
“I mean, I’m okay; it’s just that I can’t climb the rope.”
“Get up there, Levine.”
“I can’t, sir.”
“There’s no such word in my vocabulary as ‘can’t.’ ”
Marty Licht, who was the joker of Danny’s class, chirped, “It’s two words, Coach. It’s a contraction!”
“Pipe down, Licht!” snarled Coach Fordham. “Get up there, Levine.”
Danny sighed, approached the rope, and gripped it high with his hands.
He jumped up, holding onto the rough rope with his hands and feet, and clutching it between his mammoth bare thighs, burning them something awful as he tried to pull himself up higher.