Sidney Gross (1941-2016)
Image courtesy of Google Maps, Image Capture June 2016, copyright Google*
If the taste and texture of a madeleine could evoke the past for Marcel Proust, the odor of a hot potato knish can do the same for me. You may laugh at the crudity of the comparison, the difference between a delicate cake and a wad of pureed potato and onion encased in a shell of rubbery dough. Yet, there’s no denying that the tastes and smells of certain Jewish foods instantly recall to me a world now gone. Come upon suddenly, they are better than any snapshot of bygone times. They recapture the past in a moment of sensible ecstasy.
Here I am, then, contemplating a knish. And it recalls for me the essence of my youth and of the Brooklyn I knew in the 1940’s and 50’s. My childhood seemed so solid, so constant at the time.
Now everything has changed. But let me be frank. I couldn’t go back to that world again, even if it were there to go back to. Brooklyn is different now and so am I. Yet I would enjoy the luxury of summing up a few aspects of my past—on my own terms.
What was Brooklyn like in those days?
Even then it was big, a crowded place where parking spaces were scarce (even though nobody in our circle had a car) and there were traffic lights on every corner. Today I live in a town of 13,000 in Illinois. When we add another traffic light on the main street, people cluck their tongues and say we’re growing too fast. My own opinion on the matter is that no matter how rapidly it grows, this town will never be Brooklyn.
Yes, Brooklyn was big. But when I think about it, my Brooklyn was really just the block on which I lived. The latitude and longitude of my existence was Bay Parkway and 64th Street, with forays into the surrounding area. Effectively, my world stretched as far as 60th Street, where P.S. 226 was located, and 18th Ave., where there was a public library. 65th Street was the local shopping area, and many of the stores I will mention in these stories were once on that street. The outermost extremities of my world were Coney Island and Fulton Street (downtown Brooklyn). These were reached, at the cost of a nickel each way, by the Sea Beach Express. I realize now, as I reflect on it, that insularity was the name of the game, even in cosmopolitan New York.
Were my early years typical? I have the strong intuition that there were lots of kids brought up the same way I was. I remember the five-hour days in school, punctuated by hot lunch at home. My brother Ephraim and I were lucky, our mother Esther told us. We were for sure the only kids in the school who got meat for lunch, every day no less. I must have been an early guinea pig for the high protein diet—two eggs sunny side up (“bulls eyes”), two rolls and butter, and coffee for breakfast, and either steak or hamburger for lunch. School was followed by “Hebrew” two hours a day, four days a week. I got as far as being able to translate the Book of Genesis from Hebrew into English.
Friday nights I was supposed to go to services, although nobody pushed me because they didn’t like me having to walk the two blocks between home and synagogue in the dark. This meant that for the most part I could celebrate the advent of the weekend like a normal kid by listening to the Lone Ranger on the radio. Saturday mornings were another story. I had to go to services. What sticks in my mind after all these years are two things, neither of them having much to do with religion: 1) how hot the synagogue usually was on Saturdays, and 2) the sponge cake and wine which were always served at the end of the ceremony. My parents saw no contradiction in forcing me to go to the synagogue in the morning and allowing me to go to the movies in the afternoon. Lunch on Saturday was always eaten out at the kosher delicatessen on 65th Street.
Imagine if you will a group of noisy, overweight ten-year-old boys converging en masse on the delicatessen. If I were the owner, I would have groaned, but then again, we were steady customers. Left to my own devices, out of the watchful dietary eye of my mother, I always ordered side dishes rather than a main dish at the restaurant—never a sandwich, always plates of vegetarian baked beans, kishke, coleslaw, potato salad, a cup of tea to wash it down, and a bottle of celery tonic to wash it down further. A balanced meal was out of the question, and in some ways it’s a wonder that I didn’t contract some exotic nutritional disease. The entire meal was consumed in fifteen minutes or less, and then the group of us was off to the movies.
Our movie house, the Marboro, was cavernous with a real stage and a balcony, to which we would always sneak. Even then the plush seats and carpet were in a state of decay. In those days, twenty cents got you a double feature, five cartoons, a newsreel, and coming attractions. During the holiday season the admission price went up a nickel, but they added more cartoons and a two-reel comedy to the bill. The only thing I can remember about the theater manager was that he had gray hair and always looked harassed. No doubt he is now enjoying a well-deserved eternal rest. As a kid I thought the movies were just great, and it’s only now in reminiscence that I realize they provided a wonderful child care service for all the parents in my old neighborhood.
Sunday was meant to be festive, but it was always spoiled for me by the thought of school the next day. We all slept late on Sundays, which meant that everyone was perambulating by eight instead of six. The day began with a walk to the bakery around the corner. Usually my mother bought rolls at the grocery store each morning before the rest of us were awake. But on Sunday it was the bakery for us. The bakery was a source of exoticisms such as salt sticks and onion pletzels. At the time we bought for the four of us a dozen assorted Danish and crullers. From the bakery we stopped at the appetizing store for lox, baked salmon, cream cheese, and a pint of sweet cream. Here were all the fixings for Sunday breakfast. The final stop before returning to the apartment was at the candy store—not for more food but for the Sunday editions of The Times and the Mirror.
When I was very young, my mother made the rounds on Sunday mornings, but as soon as I got smart enough to read a shopping list and make change, the job was delegated to me. I didn’t mind it. Breakfast led invariably to a light lunch, and lunch was followed by a trip to visit my father’s mother. My grandmother Mollie Gross, as well as numerous uncles and aunts, still lived on the Lower East Side, and no doubt it was our duty to make the pilgrimage each Sunday. These visits were always a drag for me—my cousins were all girls.
The only part I really enjoyed was the ride to Manhattan on the Sea Beach, especially the part where we came out of the tunnel and surfaced on the Manhattan Bridge. On the way into the city I could enjoy the cars racing the train along the cobblestone span. I looked at the murky river fifty feet below and speculated about what would happen if the train fell into the drink. At night the view from the train was a panoply of neon lights. A huge billboard for Dutch Boy paint is burned in my memory as well as an advertisement for a freight company which showed a side view of a semi with a neon tire.
Brooklyn was many things in the 40’s and 50’s. It was the citified games of stick ball, Johnny ride a pony, and king. It was summer days at Washington Baths in Coney Island, returning home sandy and red as a lobster, with an iridescent chalk mark (used for identification) on the right shoulder. Brooklyn was also the yentas who lined the sidewalk on their folding chairs and made a ten-year-old feel like he was running the gauntlet every time he went out to play or to run an errand. It was my father Samuel coming home from the drugstore, the exotic smells of medicines still clinging to his hands and clothing. It was my mother talking incessantly on the telephone to her Eastern Star cronies. How she connived and politicked; and then once a month she magically transformed herself in a white dress and went to her chapter meeting. It was my grandmother Bertha’s cooking…
My mother’s mother, Bertha Pantzer lived in a small apartment across the street from ours. In fact, the windows faced each other across 64th Street. Since in those days, local calls in New York City were billed as message units, one ring on the telephone meant both parties were to come to the window and transact their business by shouting at one another across the street. We had nothing to hide! My grandfather, Samuel Pantzer had been a kosher butcher. When his daughters married and moved to Brooklyn, he and Bertha followed and opened a store on Bay Parkway. After his death, a year or so after I was born, my grandmother ran the shop alone for a while and then retired, or so she thought. Her second career started late in her life. She lived to survive both her sons-in-law and it fell on her shoulders to bring up two sets of grandchildren, four boys, while her two daughters held down full-time jobs. Many memories of my childhood are of my grandmother Bertha in her kitchen.
*A note on the Google image capture, from Sue: This is a contemporary picture of the corner in Brooklyn, and of the apartment building where Sidney grew up. What is now Ortobello’s Restaurant on the corner, was, back in the early 1940’s, Sidney’s dad’s pharmacy. 6401 Bay Parkway was then “Samuel Gross, Pharmaceutical Chemist.” There was a soda fountain in the drugstore, however, so I guess you could say there has been some continuity to the location… From the reviews on Yelp, Ortobello’s sounds like a great place to eat!