I’m scared to death of death. Is one supposed to learn to come to grips with it as one ages, or is life a constant attempt to distract oneself from the inevitable? I guess I’ve been lucky in that I haven’t had to stare death in the face, personally or vicariously, as often as many people my age, as often as many people of much younger age in fact. But I think back on people with whom I shared many days of my life and then one day were gone, and I recognize that it’s time to devote a blog to them.
Alfred Siegel was, I think it’s fair to say, the leader of our little band of neighborhood ballplayers, sometimes assertively, more often benevolently, most often just assumedly. I wish I could say “friends,” but I really didn’t understand the concept then. There were four of us who spent most days of a decade together, myself, Alfred, Ricky, all of us living in the same Bronx building, and Craig, who was in the next. There were a number of others who were part of the clique for significant periods. David, who moved in across the street, spent many years as second or third in the athletic and influential hierarchy, as well as serving as the group comedian. His sarcastic wit, which I unfortunately was all too often a target of, was to earn him two distinctions: becoming a successful comedy writer in Hollywood, most notably, and fittingly, for “Married With Children,” and being the only person I have ever actually hit (deservedly and clumsily), which he found especially funny. Jeff lived on the next block, and he was part of the gang for a substantial time, during which he developed a crush on Ricky’s sister, which ended up getting him slapped. (Those were the only incidents of violence in our story.) I was lucky enough to reconnect with Jeff, who might have been the closest thing I had to an actual friend and who thinks I exaggerate some of my ineptness and other perspectives, and we are at least periodically in touch (though not often enough, so I’m going to be calling him after I finish this). Joey, who had started our relationship by bullying me (in a mild, Bronx Jewish sort of way), suddenly turned around and not only befriended me for a time, but was the one who hooked me up with the little posse. He was a part of it until he discovered girls, whom he found much more appealing than sports, and with whom he turned out to be considerably more successful. There were others, from the neighborhood and outliers, one of them being Stephen Adumkin. Stephen, who lived on Jeff’s block, was born with only one arm, yet by the time we met him he was almost the athlete that Alf was. Through a little browsing, I discovered that he had gone on to be named “the best New York City handicapped athlete in his age group,” became an accomplished card player, and died of a heart attack in 1990 at the age of 40.
This hadn’t been my first internet search. In addition to finding Jeff, I also traced Craig, who became a car dealer in Connecticut and Massachusetts, “Richard,” a technology CEO in New York, and Alfred, an extremely successful attorney, also in New York. The old neighborhood wasn’t the last place I had run into Alfred. As a result of all those days playing ball, I had become a pretty good softball pitcher in one of the fairly prestigious Central Park softball leagues, and, to my surprise, Alfred was a manager in the same league. We faced each other a few times, and my recollection is that I more often got the best of him. One of my greatest memories is the 2-0 shutout I pitched against the league’s best pitcher, “Slim,” and the league’s defending champions, The Kings, thanks to a great throw to the plate by our rightfielder and Daily News sports columnist, Wayne Coffey. Shutouts are virtually unheard of in modified fast pitch softball, and the signed game ball I left with became one of my most prized possessions… until it was destroyed when my house was burned down years later. But I still keep the simulated replica I made, that’s how important it was to me. And it was more important because Alf was sitting in the stands watching, and hopefully impressed. He had pretty much taught me to play sports. I have another memory, of an informal football game among the four of us, me and Alf against Craig and Ricky, and he called the unimaginable play: me going out for a long pass. Overweight and awkward as I was, I was so slow that it would be sunset by the time I got open. Nevertheless, he threw a pass that must have gone three times as high as it did far to compensate, and I somehow snatched it off my shoe tops while reaching back, followed by Craig yelling in amused amazement, “He caught it!” Obviously I still remember that moment. Alfred not only kind of coached me, he kind of accepted me. That is to say, he saved me. Without those social and athletic experiences, I was on a path to become that guy that Woody Allen described in “Annie Hall,” with the galoshes and shopping bag, drooling on a bench in Central Park instead of playing on a ballfield. I never expressed my appreciation, and I guess none was to be expected. But Alfred died, too, I was to find out, in 2014, also of a heart attack, a much admired crusader for justice in the legal profession, a much praised father, and an unsuspecting rescuer.
Mary Martinez was the secretary/bookkeeper at the Coney Island day care center where I was the Director. I inherited a staff of mostly underqualified and too complacent long-serving locals. Combined with the restricted budget that City child care programs operate with, the place was unfit for children. Over a few years I tried to improve the facilities, the teaching and the staffing. I wish I could say that I performed miracles, I wish I could say that I at the time had the experience and confidence to fully overcome entrenched interests, but, for what it’s worth, it did become the best day care center in the area while I was there. I showed caring, I connected with parents, I used a slush fund, I suffered a mugging, I made some decent hiring decisions (Stephon Marbury owes me big time for being sure to give his mother a permanent job before I left), and I did have the support of the Executive Director (whom I would end up dating twenty five years later, but that’s clearly another story). I certainly faced some skepticism, but not from Mary, who recognized and appreciated the attempts at change. Mary was devoted to the center and it’s kids… and to me. Or should I say, I think she was in love with me. She was a wonderful woman, married to an abusive man, and too humble and religious to do anything about it. She was a friend, and I relied on her.
Once I took her to lunch, and the staff, presumably aware of her feelings and/or her deprivation, suggested that the restaurant should have been a prelude to my apartment. I was hardly above sleeping with a married woman at the time (or twenty five years later), but this clearly wouldn’t have been right for her, despite how torn it was obvious that she was. When I came to resign, she expressed everything I had meant to the program and the children, but, as was her way, I guess her destiny, held back regarding herself. I should have stayed in touch with her. I think it would have made her very happy when, after bouncing around other, less successful administrative positions, I found my footing, and some success, as a college professor. I don’t think she was to ever be very happy. In researching the staff in another exercise in nostalgia, I found a page of a 2011 local newspaper. It contained a very brief tribute to the late Mary Martinez, to her last days a devoted bookkeeper at Roberta Bright Day Care Center and member of the Coney Island church and community, beloved by many, as she should have been, although perhaps not, were he still alive, by her husband. My good-bye to her, and my expressions of appreciation, and of other feelings I might have harbored, will forever remain distant and inadequate. But she remains one of the very best women, in so many ways, that I’ve ever known.
David Klein was a long-time, albeit intermittent friend. I met Dave, well, I met “Bear,” at my first try-out for a softball team in Central Park. Bear was a hulking, amiable, kind of goofy teammate. We started hanging out and getting high (sure, I did that then), going to movies, playing cards and expanding our circle when his childhood friend, Zack, who remains another too intermittent friend and football betting adversary of mine, returned. There was so much that was charming about Dave. And then there were things that were so annoying, things I understand better now. Dave had a troubled youth. Although I usually enjoyed his company (especially on those days when we would get stoned, play in the playground, pick up some chocolate cannolis and Chinese dumplings, and sit in the first row of the Kips Bay theater watching some stupid when unintoxicated comedy and pigging out), I didn’t like the way he, as I perceived it, tended to use people. I don’t think he ever quite understood that that’s what he was doing. After a few years, I began to grow resentful, and after he just took it too far with his relatively new wife, I, like she, ended up divorcing him. I’m not sure I myself was in any position for such moral outrage, but we parted company and I know that hurt him, as he continued to see me as a close friend.
I found out through our mutual friend that he had moved upstate with the rather young woman he had left his wife for, a relationship which I had apparently misjudged and didn’t turn out to be as unreasonable as I had imagined, and that after it ended he had met another very nice woman whom he was living with. I was told he had changed, and I hesitantly began to see that in the nature of the relationships he was attracting, in his very warm, intimate and positive Facebook postings, and in a couple of too brief attempts at recommunication. I was also told that he was in seriously ill health, first, that he had had a heart attack, and, second, that diabetes had led to the amputation of his legs. This last woman apparently was a saint, because even after their romance ended she stayed to care for him. But he was now isolated and lonely, with a small circle of acquaintances up there that he couldn’t even get out to see and who apparently didn’t go out of their way to see him. He really wanted the company of his old friends, and our mutual friend especially wanted to visit him, and asked if I would drive since he didn’t. By this time, we were talking a little more regularly, out of friendship as well as pity, but long drives did then, and continue to, unnerve me, and at the time even the prospect of a long trip didn’t play well with the stress and depression I was undergoing, so I had to say no to the visit. I probably didn’t care enough yet. I know that Zack deeply regrets having not seen Dave before he died, in 2012, also of a heart attack. So do I now, for all three of us. He had endured and overcome a lot, and rather than regressing or turning inward, the gentle, sensitive, fun and people loving soul that he really always had been is what will always best define his memory.
Matt Zavitkovsky became a friend in college. Well, actually, from what I understand, he, along with our to be mutual friend Joe, was commissioned to reach out to and recruit this novice to radical politics into the Maoist faction of SDS (Students for a Democratic Society) to which he at the time belonged. I did hover there for a while, but we did in fact become good friends. Despite being a little younger, he was like the older brother I never had, in a way taking over for Alf as a more direct mentor. He taught me to dance, to smoke pot, to be a little more social and a little less anxious, and to develop a more precise, or distorted, depending on perception, understanding of socialism. Almost exactly a year later, we discovered that we were second cousins. From then on, and especially after we graduated and pursued different things, there were times when we were closer and periods when we were barely in touch, but our friendship spanned two full decades. It also continued in its original character, with him as the mentor and big brother, even when I no longer needed, or wanted, such a dynamic. Matt had to be right, even more than I did, and there was one time when I consciously held my ground through one of our debates. The nature of relationships, any kind of relationship, is hard to change, and I think that was the final straw, amidst other annoyances, some deserved, for him. He was to be co-best man, along with Joe, at my wedding, and I was to find out that he had planned to fulfill his obligation as if nothing was wrong and then never speak to me again, continuing a well established tradition in our family. And in fact we never spoke again. I did keep tabs on him through our friend, though, and it was all sad.
Matt had been a prodigy in so many ways. When I first met him, he was smart, sociable, handsome and multi-talented, playing several instruments in a band. He could have been an exceptional musician. When the computer revolution first began (after the revolution we had been planning for never did), he taught himself to become a skilled programmer, and what a career he could have had in the new technology. He attended nursing school and became a registered nurse, authored a few pieces for medical periodicals, and assisted a very prominent scientist, Lynn Margulis (Carl Sagan’s wife) in writing a textbook. He could have made it big in the medical or medical journalism fields. He attended Harvard Law School, and dropped out in the last semester, partly because of a bout with shingles, and partly because it appears that he could never see anything through, including what seemed, on the outside anyway, a really good relationship. He was a bit of a faddist, immersing himself in something (whether, literally, it was computers or cream cheese, music or mayonnaise, medicine or vanilla yogurt, the law or goldfish crackers), and then, just as quickly and thoroughly, abandoning it. The young man with the unlimited potential took a “safe” civil service job, with the good looks shaved his enviable curly hair (again partly due to the shingles) and grew obese, with the energetic sociability became a virtual recluse, and with the wealth of interests and talents evolved into a tight-walleted scavenger and hoarder. I got a call from Joe in 2005 telling me that he had died alone, also from a heart attack, and it took several days for his body to have been discovered. So many broken hearts, figuratively and literally…. But it needs to be noted that while he was here, Matt accomplished much, touched many people and served as a model both of all of the characteristics of greatness and of mistakes and demons to be avoided in its pursuit. He certainly changed my life, overwhelmingly for the better.
I couldn’t complete this piece without commemorating two other, extremely important people to me, my grandfather and my father. As with all of the above, but, of course, even more deeply, I wish I had told them some of what I am telling you now.
Samuel Kravitt, better known to me as “Kapu,” was my maternal grandfather, and my male role model. In a Jewish family with no masculine right of passage other than going through the Bar Mitzvah motions (which I believe included the kosher chicken dance along with the hora), here was someone who had buddies and had played ball (first base without a glove no less), and smoked and drank and gambled. In reality he didn’t drink or gamble to any excess, and the womanizing that I had also believed to be part of this oh so naughtily goyishe persona was purely due to my mother’s tendency toward gross miscommunication. Regardless, I idolized him. But, really, not for any of that. I adored him because he adored me. I was the only grandchild, and he doted on me. He took me on mail trolley rides in the Post Office he worked in. He bought me rock candy. He was the aggressive card player that I modeled myself after when our family played Bridge. He was my favorite family member, and, unfortunately, I made no secret of it. But once I was mad at him for something, and my mother told me about how he had walked a long distance rather than ride the bus so he could save the nickel to buy me a comic book. Obviously, I’ve never forgotten the guilt. When I was seventeen and in the process of radicalization, he and I would have hurtful arguments over his old world racism and my new world lengthening hair. Given that and my age, I don’t remember us ever being as close again. Just a couple of years later, in 1970, I was alone in the house when the phone rang. It was our family doctor, telling us he had died, of a heart attack. He had been in ill health for some time, which is what my mother had been trying to communicate when she set loose my imagination by vaguely referring to the “trouble” my grandmother had with him that I “don’t want to know.” I had to tell my mother. And mourning him was difficult for me, despite the fact that I don’t seem to feel things as deeply as some, except anxiety, and things on television, although I respond as if I do. But there was the guilt, over our last years and my misunderstanding, to help it stew.
As is too common the case, I started to appreciate him more after he was gone and as the years passed. He worked two jobs, supporting my grandmother and mother, and was as generous and devoted and funny and kind as a friend, husband, father or grandfather can be. He would have come around on racism, as my mother and father and grandmother, sequentially, did when I announced I would be marrying a Black woman. He loved too much not to. Once I went to a psychic and asked if he could conjure up his spirit. Allegedly possessing it, he smiled and gave me a playful “zetz” on the chin. I pretty much dismissed it, until I recently read about this psychic, his life and the attestations to his legitimacy. Now I don’t know. Despite the rationalism that usually trumps my curiosities toward spiritualism, I have felt, since my twenties, that some thing/one was watching over me. I was told by this same psychic that it was a woman relative. My girlfriend talks about angels. I am about to speak with Arvel Bird about my animal spirit guides. My acupuncturist believes in them, too. Yet I don’t think I’ll ever be convinced that, if there is someone or something, it could be anyone or anything but my grandfather. It’s what he would do if he could.
Joseph Weber was my father. This will be the hardest one. There was so much I didn’t understand. If anything, my father, a gentle man, was even more self-sacrificing than my grandfather, in fact, too self-sacrificing. His wife and his child were his world. He dropped out of college to also work in the post office, which he came to hate. I don’t think he had much of a sense of self. He was funny, mechanically talented, and smarter than he ever realized; my cousin wasn’t the only one with unfulfilled potential. My mother was the “strong” one in our family. Her need was to have people dependent on her, as my father was, as my grandmother was after her husband died, and as I had to break away from. I blamed her for that, I blamed him for his weakness. He was anxious, like guess who, and self-doubting, like guess who, and wasn’t the male role model my young self was looking for, never mind that after all of my libertine overcompensations I ultimately turned out so much like him in such significant, probably mostly good ways. I think that my son can thank him for my becoming as devoted a father as I believe I have been, and my students for the ethic and sacrifice, and anxiety and guilt, I have put into my teaching. I judged him immaturely. I didn’t appreciate that two people could be happy in their marriage and with each other, or good parents if they didn’t fit some traditional stereotype that was convenient for their son, or that he could be a “real man” by fulfilling his responsibilities to family and being a humble person of honesty, decency and generosity.
Yes, they were both limited in their own ways in their abilities to understand and help their boy child socio-emotionally, as that was their weakness as well, but they gave everything they could and more, and how many of us can write about having had two parents who were good people, utterly committed and gently supportive, and in undying love? Sometimes my personal frustrations and projected blame hurt him, but he took it. He also took great pride in me. He only spanked me twice, both times because I had been disrespectful to my mother, reaching for the masculine identity of her (albeit unnecessary) “protector.” During the later years of his life, after a breakdown, his retirement from his job, and the loss of another piece of his identity, that of fatherhood, with the moving out and rebellion from his son, he then found himself, instead of enjoying his “golden years,” being dragged around with my mother to respond to every needy whim of his mother-in-law. When I called, he would quickly recite some pleasantries, then pass the phone to my mother. We hardly talked. We never exchanged “I love you’s.” I started to appreciate him more and reached out meagerly, but we were too distanced. He died, of a heart attack, unexpectedly in the middle of the night in 1999. I went in to teach the next day. I miss him now, even just hearing his voice during those phone calls, and wish I had understood, and… well, you know… said so many things I never thought or got to say. I don’t see or talk to my ninety year old mother often enough, and we don’t know how to exchange “I love you’s” either. But I do tell my son.
So what is this blog all about? It’s probably about that bunch of cliches about being grateful for the presence of people in your life while you have them, and telling them how you feel, and trying to understand and appreciate and forgive them, and realizing how precious and vulnerable life is, and how nostalgic yet unforgiving memories can be. And it’s, of course, about my psychology, and maybe in some ways yours, too. Well, at least you’ve met these people now. The need to write this came to me while I lay in bed trying to fall asleep. Now I have. I wonder if sleep will come easier tonight.