Walking down the street where I grew up

Strolling in Queens the other day I turned the corner and walked up the hill to the little house I used to live in [1].  As I walked up the incline Michael Siegel or I used to sprint down chasing a ball that got away, or where we made our networks of twig and blossom dams to try to halt the flood from the sprinklers in its race to the Turnpike, I was thinking of that old cliche ‘you can’t go home again’.   My childhood house was right there, tastelessly retooled, with a car that left muddy tracks on the sidewalk parked at a rakish angle on the unkempt lawn.   “Classy,” I thought, as I snapped a picture for my sister.   The lawn is now mostly dirt.

You can’t go home again, unless you want to be arrested for breaking and entering.   Even then, of course, nothing remains of the home you once knew.  The people are strangers, the ones you shared the home with once now mostly dead, the decor is completely different, the smell of the place is unrecognizable.  A pointless exercise looking at what has become of your former home.  Home, of course, is kept in your heart, in the memories of the time you lived there.  The comfort you felt there you can feel anywhere, in a way, as the entire world is now your home.    

The little house my father grew up in was a place of abject misery.   His rough uncle Aren owned the house and paid the bills.  My father’s father had two eyes, a nose and a mouth, and tried to keep an unaccountably mischievous expression off his face as he shrugged through a life of extreme poverty.    There is a hint of that expression in his eyes in one of the two existing photos of the man I am named for.  

The photo is taken in the dark sanctuary of the First Hebrew Congregation of Peekskill where he worked as an unpaid janitor.   He wears a suit and a fedora, stands next to the wife, wedded to him in an arranged marriage, who hated him, his younger son on the other side of the wife, also in a suit.  My father must have been off making the world safe for democracy when the photo was taken.  That elusive expression on Eliayhu’s face, close to breaking out into a chuckle, but well-practiced in holding it together, one of the only clues I have about my grandfather.

There is no hint on my grandfather’s face that this is a man capable of rage.   It certainly was not allowed him, that much is clear.  I would imagine that only my grandmother screamed in that house.  In the little house I grew up in we all screamed at each other.   Progress, I suppose, if you want to think of it like that.  

I stood in the street between my old home and the Gerwitz house, and smiled to see the little jockey, much tinier than I remembered him, still holding his arm in the pose that he used to hold the lantern.  A wooden sign with the address, minus one digit, has replaced the lantern.  Gerwitz was a rich man, my father told me, but his former home, a showplace at one time, in the old parlance, has fallen on hard times. Like the American Dream itself, I thought, as I took out my phone again to immortalize the joint in a photo and share it with friends and strangers on a website here in Cyberia.


Pretty shabby looking manse for the richest guy on the block.   Of course, during my childhood, having a million dollars made you a rich person.  Nowadays that’s like having a quarter.  Chump change.  A million dollars will hardly buy you membership and annual dues at Mara-Largo, if you intend to do anything else with your money.  Back when Gerwitz was rich a Cadillac cost $6,000, same as a year’s tuition at Harvard, at the time America’s most expensive university.   Nowadays… forget about it.  I don’t know where Sam Gerwitz got his great wealth, he may have been a lawyer, or possibly in advertising.  The source of his fortune is a mystery I have I no worries about.  Sad, though, to look at the shithouse his once-majestic showplace is now.

If you are born to a family with enough money, and you do nothing to get disowned, all you need to do is grow up, inherit it and watch your fortune grow.   You are entitled to feel entitled because you don’t rely on entitlements like the poor people, parasites who grow fat like tics sucking on the wealth of others.  

Back in Germany at one time these “takers” (as opposed to ‘job creators’)  were classified as “useless eaters”, they lived their lebensunswertesleben (“life unworthy of living”) until the state made the arrangements to be done with them.   The German State in the late 1930s started its infamous mass killing program with eugenic euthanasia, gassing mentally defective German citizens, clearing their madhouses and asylums of people who did not deserve to eat.  

The family members of the murdered were lied to about the cause of death of their random institutionalized defective.   Few others in Germany knew or much cared what happened to a weird and unproductive group of chance mutations, Mongoloid teenagers, demented men and women in their forties, fifties and sixties, the retarded, schizophrenics, adolescent catatonics. 

Civilized people, moral people– informed people who learn about a program to kill ‘useless eaters’ — people with feeling human hearts, of course, largely would not agree to their government rounding up, roughing up and killing society’s most helpless citizens.  It is a historically high bar, though, this simple morality.   When angry, desperate people are whipped up enough, and pointed at the enemy, as often as not the blood of the weak will run in the streets.



[1] The Little House I Used to Live In is also the title of a beautiful instrumental by Frank Zappa, a wonderful version of which he played on the Live At The Fillmore album I was in the audience for back in 1971.

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