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Relative Poverty

I went from being a privileged kid in the projects — I had the most toys —to what I experienced as Great Neck poverty.

In Great Neck, my mother was the only mother who worked. No other kids in my class lived in an apartment.

We moved out of the projects when I was in second grade and into a one-bedroom apartment in Great Neck over the Easter holidays. The apartment was laid out on exactly the same floor plan as our project apartment. Our furniture fit neatly into its accustomed spots. But this wasn’t an apartment for poor people. Unlike the project apartment, the closets had doors and the elevator stopped at every floor. (The project closets didn’t have doors, elevators stopped only at odd numbers floors. Constant reminders to all who lived there that we were poor.)

As soon as we moved in, my parents got me a dog, a Kerry blue puppy name Susie, from Joe and Loretta. Loretta had been taking care of me after school from the time I was two years old, when my mother went back to work. Loretta and Joe lived in Manhattan and now that we were living in Great Neck, she wouldn’t be able to take care of my anymore. I might still get to visit Loretta and Joe occasionally on weekends and sleep overnight in their apartment across the street from the Rheingold brewery and listen to the rumble of the coal delivery in the morning and go with them on Sunday mornings to their daughter, Dawnie’s, stable near Van Cortlandt Park, but I would have to come home after school to the new empty apartment. The idea behind the dog was that that the apartment wouldn’t be empty. Susie would be there. I could walk Susie — she would need to be walked by then — and Susie would keep me company.

But Susie was too much for me. I wore dungarees every day, and the legs were always too long so I wore them rolled up. Susie would grab me by the cuffs, dragging at me. I couldn’t manage her. And I didn’t want to go home to the empty apartment.

Mommy took me to school on my first day. She was the teacher in the family. She always took care of the school stuff. The principal, Mr. Frick — why do these names stick in my memory after so many years? — told us that my teacher was Mr. Vinnie. I think Mommy was surprised, male elementary school teachers were unheard of in those days. I must have learned that from Mom as we walked down the hall to his classroom.

Not a man. Mr. Vinnie turned out to be Miss D’Vinnie. Miss D’Vinnie called Howdy Berman, one of the second graders, to the front. She told Howdy and me that he would be my best friend. I remember thinking that this was crazy. How could he be my best friend? Jerry, my friend in the projects was my best friend. I didn’t even know this Howdy Berman. Howdy turned out to be my best friend all the way through fourth grade.

I went to Howdy’s house after school every day. His mother gave us milk and cookies. Sometimes we went to other kids’ houses. I never went home after school. Somehow Joe and Loretta took Susie back and found her another home. Anyway, I hoped that they did. I felt guilty about not being able to take care of Susie. I was having a hard enough time taking care of me.

I was ashamed and embarrassed. Mommy was the only mother who worked. I was the only kid in the class who lived in an apartment. Mommy wasn’t as young as the other mothers. Mostly, I hated the fact that she worked. She tried to help me with my penmanship — she was after all a teacher — but I wouldn’t let her. It was only many years later when I saw the admiration for my mother, first in Joan’s eyes and later in others, that I really began to appreciate her courage. She was the liberated woman so far ahead of her time.

I began to appreciate the awesomeness of her moving out of her parents’ house without being married. It wasn’t heard of in her day, just wasn’t done.

I had grown up on funny stories about Mommy’s timidity. Aunt Tess’s story, told over and over again. Tess was engaged to my Uncle Nat, my mother’s older, adored brother. Tess was trying to make things easier for Mom, trying to show her that she wasn’t losing a brother, she was gaining a sister. Aunt Tess invited my mother to meet her for lunch in Manhattan, at Schrafft’s, I think. Mommy cancelled because it was raining.

I ended up with so many of my mother’s fears and discomforts. I didn’t manage to get past my anxiety about lighting a match until my sophomore year of college when I started smoking. Thank God she sent me to sleep-away camp or I might never have learned to swim. I was into adolescence before I finally learned to ride a bike. For years, I was making up lies to explain to my friends why I couldn’t go biking, skipping biking trips at camp.

It took me a long time to really appreciate her, but I got a glimpse of something in 6th grade. My teacher, Mrs. Pine — she had a new name when we arrived for the first day of school, we were expecting Miss Somebody-or-other — had gotten married over the summer. Every evening at dinner — we always ate dinner in the dining area, there was no dining room in our apartments — we always ate dinner as a family even if my father was going out after to a political meeting or to sell the custom cabinetry he made — I reported on my school day. One evening, Mommy must have sensed something. “I’m going to have to go up and see Mrs. Pine,” she said. I don’t remember what it was. Maybe Mrs. Pine was yelling at the kids. I don’t think she was yelling at me. I never got in trouble in elementary school.

A couple of evenings later, I learned at dinner that Mrs. Pine was going through a hard time. Newly married, her husband had been deployed to Korea. Mommy understood. She had been through this herself, home with an infant son when Daddy was overseas during World War II. Somehow, Mommy had helped Mrs. Pine. “She’s going to be okay now,” she said. She went up to see Mrs. Pine a couple of times more during the year.

But it was many years before I saw how “advanced” she was: atheist, communist, psychoanalysand and, chief bread winner in the family. And many more years before I realized what a terrific teacher she was. Only when we opened our first charter school did I realize that so many things which are touted today as outstanding pedagogical practices were things that I had been hearing at the dinner table for as long as I could remember.

I, of course, remembered her stories.

My favorites were the stories about Jack. Jack was a struggling learner but somehow Mommy discovered that he was a wonderful dancer. The whole class could be difficult, but when their stresses threatened to interrupt learning Mommy would break the tension. “Push back the chairs and desks,” she would announce. “Let’s dance.” The atmosphere would change. Jack learned. Everybody learned. Mom did so well, the principal asked her to “loop” with them for a second year (although I didn’t learn about looping until after we had opened our schools).

When I was really little, I always loved the last day of school.

Mommy always invited her students to bring comic books to school. They were encouraged to read. Everything. Especially things that they enjoyed reading. When they finished whatever assignment they were doing in class — maybe it was a page of math problems — they could take out their comics and read. When I was very little, I guess before I started first grade, Mommy would bring me with her to school for the final day of class. I loved it. Toward the end of the day, all the students would give me their comics which they had been reading all year, and I would go home with a great pile of “new” comics.

It was even better than a sleep over at Joe and Loretta’s. Around the corner from their apartment was a second-hand comic book store. Who had ever heard of such a thing? Three for a nickel. I would go home from the sleepover with half a dozen comics. But the last day of school was crazy.

But still I was embarrassed when we got to Great Neck. Then, there didn’t seem to be anything cool about Mommy being the only mother who worked.

My parents finally bought a house toward the end of 7th grade. It was a little house, but it had a backyard for playing catch and a screened porch and a driveway for playing basketball. It had a big weeping willow for climbing in the front yard. And at least I was no longer the only kid I knew who lived in an apartment. That eased the pain. And it was fortuitous for the family.

Within a year, Mommy left the NYC public schools, one jump ahead of the McCarthyite witchhunt in which she would certainly have lost her job for “refusing to name names” or even have gone to jail. She built a highly successful private practice tutoring reading and math. There was a tiny, little study just to the left as you came in the front door which Mommy was able to turn into her tutoring office. She never could have built her practice from our apartment.

The dinner table stories continued. I loved the story about Angelo. Angelo brought his son every week for his reading session. After years of struggling, the son was now a flourishing reader. Angelo thanked Mommy, and then after putting his son in their car came back to the front door and rang the bell. When Mommy opened the door, Angelo asked, “Now, can you teach me to read?”

Angelo had built a successful alarm business — alarms were still pretty novel technology — without knowing how to read. After my mother taught him to read, Angelo, whose clients were primarily jewelry stores — he provided secure 24-hour monitoring — wired my mother’s house and provided the same service. When my mother moved in with us in Brooklyn years later — she was a bit nervous then about moving back into the city — Angelo wired the Brooklyn brownstone. When Dee and I bought our house on Staten Island, Angelo wired that house as well.

This was better. Now we lived in a house and, although Mommy was working, she was at least working from home.

Although my parents managed to make a decent living out of Great Neck — it was a community that could support custom cabinetry for their homes and private tutoring for their kids — I was still a fish out of water. Some of it I learned to tolerate. Sure, I was the only kid in my junior high school clique who didn’t have his own 14-foot runabout with a 25-horsepower Evinrude motor. But I got to ride in my friends’ boats, to water ski. So what the hell?

Maybe I didn’t take Driver’s Ed in high school, didn’t get a license until I was away at Carleton — a college chosen in part because students there were not allowed to have cars — because I knew that my parents didn’t have the money to buy me a car. It was okay. My friends all had cars. I pretty much got chauffeured around. We double-dated. I didn’t have to drive.

Relative poverty, but still it hurt.

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