They are both dead now- Aunt Ruth and Uncle Joe. She died in Harrisburg Hospital holding onto Carol and me. She had sung You Are My Sunshine to her doctor only two hours before. She had even encouraged the doctors and the nurses to sing along with her. She told each of them how nice they looked and then asked us for confirmation. It was a strange feeling seeing her literally expire while watching those monitors of her biorhythms rise and fall and finally flatten out. We both cried and looked at each other. Aunt Ruth was gone, but we were there to help her leave.
Uncle Joe died three years earlier. We got a call from Mac, Joe’s brother, that he had expired in their apartment in the WABASSE cooperative in Coney Island. Aunt Ruth had no idea that he was dead. She had called Mac and Evelyn, his wife, with a question about why Joe was sleeping so much. Carol and I got into our car and got to their apartment in record time. We took over the last remnants of a life that was left to a world not really interested in the meager existence of two such kind and regular people.
Aunt Ruth and Uncle Joe lived on the beach at Coney Island. They occupied a space, four by ten in the sand on Bay 23rd St. If you just looked up at the Washington Bath clock and follow your eyes down toward the beach, you would have seen them. I still see them planting their rented umbrella and chairs in the grey brown mixture that passed for working class beaches in the 1940’s. You had to come early to get the prime spots, not too close to the water, as the tide would wash away your place, or too near the boardwalk where the undesirables hung out and couples kissed and did other bad things.
An eight year old boy, me, takes off his pants and shirt and runs at open throttle to the water to test the temperature and check the waves. It was summertime and I was given over to the kindest people that I have ever known, for two weeks. I would never forget those times and the debt of gratitude that I owed my aunt and uncle.
Ruthie was the youngest of the Bernstein children. When she came over in 1921 she was probably about seven years old. She was the baby of the family, and according to my mother, the one who got the piano lessons and was able to finish high school. Her life was made difficult because of her complexion which was pock marked from severe childhood acne and inept doctors. She nevertheless grew up to be a positive human being and a great influence on her nephew. She met Uncle Joe at one of those social clubs that abounded in New York to get young Jewish people to meet under supervision. When she married Joe Fleischer he was handsome, warm and the epitome of Joe Lunchbox. He had been in an orphanage, along with his brothers, for most of his early life. Joe was a special and accepting person. However, he was not the choice of Grandma Frieda. She wanted something better for Ruth and made her thoughts clear to Joe. His reaction was to have violent bouts of sniffing in her presence. Her answer in Yiddish was “ Why do you sniff all the time?”
After my dad died in 1943, Ruth and Joe became my temporary parents during those two weeks in the summer. You could always tell Aunt Ruth by the amount of food that sat in four Macy’s shopping bags at her side. The beach chairs and umbrellas surrounded her. The umbrella was there so that if it rained you would have someplace to hide. Uncle Joe was that rather tall gentleman with an index finger in each of his ears( adjusting his earplugs (he once had a punctured eardrum, which kept him out of the service.) I can still see them silhouetted against the blue morning skies discussing the plans for the day.
Since they had no children, Ruth and Joe lavished all of their frustrated parental instincts on one small nephew, me. The summer was a grand time for us all as we traveled the elevated train to Coney Island past all of the strange smells of oil and candy corn, past Luna Park into the final resting station of Coney Island. From about ages 5 through 11, I stayed with them just before school started and after I had spent 4, and sometimes 8 weeks at Camp Deal, in New Jersey. By the time camp was over I was ready to go to Brooklyn and be with my aunt and uncle.
They lived in a small apartment at 1780 76th Street in the Bensonhurst section of Brooklyn. The small kitchen, living room and bedroom seemed so grand to me compared to the tenement that I lived in for the rest of the year. I was treated like Freddie Bartholemew in some of the Lord Fauntelroy movies. There was no request that I could make that would not be answered.. Delectables like Joyvah Halvah, rock candy, marmalade bars, cookies, Danish and dots on paper and Charlotte Russes were staples. I am sure that if I told my mother or grandmother that I was eating such treats, they would have been aghast and agog.
When I was in my minority, about age 7, I even slept in the same bed as Ruth and Joe As I began to grow too large, I was relegated to a folding bed in the living room. On hot nights we would go up to the roof, sometimes called the roof garden, and look at the fireworks coming from Coney Island. Hard to imagine that I once stood in wonderment at that colorful display. I somehow have become jaded to all that I looked forward to when I was a kid.
The greatest joys in their lives were the beach and food, and for pure orgasmic joy, a combination of the two. For ecstasy, nothing could compare to the morning of the packing for the beach. The entire refrigerator seemed to be emptied onto the kitchen table in full view of all the participants. Uncle Joe and Aunt Ruth would then discard all of the non-portable items and ritually pack the rest of the feast into the Macy’s shopping bags. They packed for ten people, expecting that their friends might just drop by at the beach. Unfortunately, their friends also brought food with them, leaving 26 lbs. of food for two large adults and one small boy.
We rode the elevated subway to Coney Island, getting off at the stop with all of the amusements and food vendors. We would stroll past the edifice of Nathan’s hot dog stand amidst the odor of hot franks and root beer. Aunt Ruth’s comment that one could probably get ptomaine poisoning from so much as touching one of those hot dogs, made the odors no less alluring. I could almost see Uncle Joe’s appetite countenance appearing as he seemed to be agreeing with me. We never did get one of those dogs.
Uncle Joe’s desire for food overstepped every known barrier. Dinner at the Fleischer’s always consisted of 2 courses. Each of the courses was a full meal with appetizers, salad, a main course and dessert. The final course was always Alka Seltzer placed on the table after the second dessert course. Dessert was usually homemade cake created by Uncle Joe. He had three specialties- nut cake, machine oil cake and sour cream cake. Other than some extra ingredients, they all looked and tasted the same. At each meal, between Aunt Ruth and Uncle Joe and this 7 or 8 year old, we consumed two of the cakes. By the next meal, all three cakes were gone. I had always imagined that Uncle Joe’s voracious appetite came from his days in the orphanage. In later years, in speaking with Joe’s brothers Mac and Jack, it was confirmed that all three had insatiable desires for food.
Uncle Joe’s immediate preparedness at any time of the day or night for any victual was his hallmark. Grandma Frieda said that although cleaning one’s plate was a Jewish trait ( I have since found out that it is also old world, ethnic and depression mentality), Uncle Joe was suspect because of his never ending desire for more plates. There seemed to be no end whatsoever to Uncle Joe’s desires. At a time he might humbly refuse an individual portion of a course so that it might appear that he was in restraint of his craving. However, he would more than compensate by remaining at the table after the meal to help in cleaning up and to down a few choice snacks.
We arrived at the beach at about 9 o’clock,. . . when the water was clean. I was then allowed to dip myself for about ten minutes. Aunt Ruth would then come charging into the water, to her ankles, declare that I was turning blue, and then spirit me back to our place in the sand.
I would never swim more than those ten minutes during the day. I was instructed to eat my large beef tomato, my hard boiled egg, my quarter of a fried chicken, my four cups of juice, my three pieces of fruit and my cake. I was then ordered to wait one and one half hours before being allowed to swim. By that hour it was once again time for a large meat loaf sandwich, some loose lettuce, another beef tomato, some cookies and fruit. This cycle was repeated two more times during the day until five o’clock, at which time we left.
I must admit that the one and one half hour rest periods were very interesting. It was at this time that I was treated to the sight of Mae and Jack, my aunt and uncle’s closest friends. Mae was about my aunt’s age ( about 104 years old I thought at the time), rather sallow complexioned and scrunched in at the cheek. Jack was sort of a nodule of a man who might have felt at home attached to some inanimate object such as a chair. His face bore the marks of his own appetite- he drank the oil from the sardine cans and discarded the sardines.. He was a placid little man who wore a rubber swim cap on his head and ears. Jack claimed to be an expert swimmer, and from what I could see, from an eight year old’s vantage point, this is what he was.
Jack was able to float atop the water on his back with his head resting on an inflated rubber pillow. This I divined as expertise. No sight could be more comforting than to see this small smudge of a man resting on that vast expanse of water, blowing a thin stream of water through his teeth into the air. Then one day I was sad. Jack was resting comfortably on the water, when a small wave slipped past the Coney Island jetties and overturned Jack’s body. He was about fifty feet from shore when this tragedy occurred. He screamed three times for Uncle Joe to come and help him. Alas, Uncle Joe was wearing his earplugs and could not hear him. I made some frantic hand signals to Uncle Joe, and the big man swam toward Jack, stood him up in the water(Jack was never aware of the water’s depth since he floated on top), and shook him. Jack composed himself, adjusted his rubber cap, walked towards the shore and began to recount the first telling of the legend of Joe’s rescue of Jack.
While the benign figure of dour Jack rested on the ochre-colored water of Coney Island, the saronged body of Mae slowly sifted hundreds of pounds of grey-blue beach sand. Mae was a thrifty person..The word thrifty denotes her philosophical, as well as her physical modes of operation.. She made no attempt to rationalize her sifting through the sand for money or other forgotten objects. Her main beach function was four or five hours of searching the sand with a flour sifter for lost valuables. She prided herself on her findings, calculated at about one dollar a day. She would promptly place this money into a napkin, probably to distinguish it from other caches she had found, and dumped it into her purse.
To say that Mae did not use this money in a carefree way, is to give a false report. Mae used this money in the innumerable card games that became a great tradition between my aunt and uncle and their good friends Mae and Jack. The beginning of the great card game tradition is lost in those pages of history that are glued together by some food substance that has been deposited on it during a careless meal. The only game that they played was poker. The stakes were one penny and two for a raise. Bluffing was considered to be an attribute of cardsharks. The games began with an explanation of the rules, to wit; one pair was the least that you could get, two pair was a good hand, three of a kind was better than one pair, but not as good as two pair, a straight was complicated and required extra time to figure out, a flush was all of one suit and the rest we could argue about.
Each game was preceded by an explanation of the fines for talking, which was generally levied against Uncle Joe, although Aunt Ruth did the interrupting. She was the enforcer of the rules. The dealer then dealt out his/her choice of poker games. If the game was five card deuces wild, a cataclysmic argument would ensue relative to the merits of a real hand and a phony one with deuces. If the game was seven card hi-lo, a foreign expert would be called in to determine who the winners were, and in fact, how much each of them had won. The results of these contests were generally that Uncle Joe would lose all of his pennies, while Aunt Ruth won substantial amounts. Mae and Jack would announce that they had no urge to ever play again because it took too much time out from their sifting and floating.
I would generally have some time during the afternoon to run across some bodies on the sand to the skee ball emporium on the boardwalk. I was allowed to play this frivolous game at five cents a throw because the concession was run by an honest Chinese gentleman. With other games, grandma would have found fault, not only with the obvious gambling aspects, but of the ancestry of the proprietor of the establishment. With this diversion, she found no fault, so Aunt Ruth and Uncle Joe permitted it. As with Chinese restaurants, skee ball run by a Chinese person was o.k.
After getting twenty five cents worth of nickels, I would survey the several alleys to determine the previous lowest score which appeared in a window above each alley. My rationale was that a low playing alley would be ready for some high scores. I carefully deposited my nickel into the aged machine, pulled the lever back and extracted nine worn wooden balls into the play slot. Lining my eye up with the center, I released the first ball along the wall of the alley with a deft spin. The ball hummed unevenly as it approached the jump off point. If my aim was satisfactory the ball would hit the jointure of the corner and the rise in the alley and jump directly into the fifty point slot.
Perfection was never achieved. The Chinese proprietor counseled me on the efficacy of delivering the ball straight down the alley, rather than releasing the ball to the side. His advice went unheeded as I became expert in what was later to become a kind of illegal spitball pitch at all skee ball centers.
With each game completion, I was eligible for a coupon which could be redeemed for eye opening prizes. The higher your score, the more coupons you got. If you got a maximum of 450 points you got twenty five coupons, a glorious sum. I was never able to overcome my need for instant gratification. I cashed in my coupons immediately for such prizes as chinese fans, spauldeen rubber balls, and the thumb torture apparatus. ( in which both thumbs were inserted with no way of extricating oneself). Aunt Ruth was always amazed at the number of items with which I returned. She puzzled over the thumb torture, feigned use of the fan and generally made a fuss over her nephew’s ability in the sports field.
If there is a mortal exhaustion, it can be no more in degree than the going home from the beach. By this time of the day, the crowds had become a shifting, moving wave of humanity in line trying to go to the only men’s and ladies rooms within a mile’s walk. Although changing one’s clothes on the beach was a strictly forbidden part of the huge signposts everywhere, there were no restrictions at the comfort station. Attendants looked the other way as old women with tiny children and those with incontinent bladders attacked the few stalls in the rest rooms.
Many of the small children became sexually aware in these small cubby holes. The mechanics of dressing in such surroundings required a knowledge of ballet, aerodynamics and football. Obviously, those with wider ranges of experience could master the jumping into the stall, standing on the commode, wiping one’s feet while at the same time putting on the outer clothing, relieving oneself and making your way out of the noisy place.
Aunt Ruth and Uncle Joe decried the indignities of this mode of dressing and did what was then called daring. After seeing that most of the people were gone or looking in other directions, Aunt Ruth would produce a towel from some compartment in her Macy’s shopping bag. She would unfold it, revealing a towel large enough to completely obscure the vision of enemy reconnaissance planes. Uncle Joe was then instructed to place a towel around me, while I removed my still dry bathing suit, dusted the sand from my body and put on my underwear and outer garments. By this time, anyone who had not noticed us before was staring blankly at the sight of a man holding a towel at arms length in a circular pattern with some obvious movement coming from inside the towel’s center.
Uncle Joe and Aunt Ruth would then bid good by to their friends, dust themselves off and put their clothes directly on their bathing suits. The cleaning of the feet and the dusting of all other items was the function of the boardwalk itself.
The long trudge to the elevated subway platform was punctuated by Uncle Joe’s reminiscences about the day’s happenings, mostly the bill of fare and how it compared to other beach days. The train was impacted with people in various states of debilitation. From one end of the subway car to the other, children were sleeping on suitcases, bags and other beach accessories. Sugared popcorn was the odor of the cars, as Uncle Joe bemoaned the misdeed of not getting a small snack before boarding the train. The train waited interminably for the completion of its packing and lurched forward meekly as it progressed down the track to 1780 76th street and my aunt and uncle’s home.