HOW DO WE TURN OUT THE WAY WE DO?
I grew up in a three-and-a-half-room rent-controlled apartment. My older brother, Larry, and I spent years sleeping on couches in the living room. During the 2016 New York State primary, in order to remind New Yorkers that I had grown up in Brooklyn, we held a rally on the street where I was raised, East Twenty-sixth Street. Fifty-six years after I left, I had a chance to visit the apartment where I spent my first eighteen years. Somehow, it had shrunk. God, it was small. The kitchen/dining room was tiny. It was hard to imagine our family of four having dinner there every night together. And the whole building looked dingier than I remembered. And so many apartments on one floor.
One of my first memories was being on the sidewalk outside of the apartment house where we lived on Kings Highway in the Flatbush section of Brooklyn. There was a military parade. It was the end of World War II. I was four years old.
That war, Hitler, and the Holocaust surely played a major role in shaping the direction of my life. I remember the photos of my father's family in Poland — killed by the Nazis. I remember a telephone call in the middle of the night, which never happened in our apartment, telling my father the good news that a cousin of his was still alive and in a displaced persons camp. I remember crying whenever I saw photos in a book about the destruction of the Jews. I remember seeing people in the neighborhood with tattooed numbers on their arms — survivors of concentration camps. I remember the excitement in the community at the establishment of the State of Israel in 1948.
No question about it. Being Jewish. The loss of family, including children my own age, in the Holocaust. The rise to power of a right-wing lunatic in a free election in Germany. A war that killed 50 million people, including more than one-third of all Jews on the planet. All of this had an indelible impact upon my life and thinking.
My brother, Larry, six years older than me, introduced me to politics and a whole lot else. He has played an enormously important role in my life, and I am forever grateful for his love, counsel, and overall wisdom. For the last fifty years he has lived in Oxford, England, where he raised his family and worked as a social worker. Ten years ago he was elected to the Oxfordshire County Council as a candidate of the Green Party, and he was reelected for a second term. He is now active in efforts to maintain a strong National Health Service system in the UK.
My mother taught Larry how to read when he was very young, and he has been a voracious reader for his entire life. Larry first read to me when I was four or five. We would stay in bed late on Saturday mornings going through stacks of comic books. When we were kids he was my mentor and, as older brothers occasionally are, my tormentor. He was very smart, always knew the answers that I didn't — and he let me know it.
Being an older brother is not easy. Occasionally, when you want to go out and spend time with your friends, you have to take care of your kid brother and drag him along. Not fun. On Saturdays, if my parents were away, Larry would also have to prepare lunch for me. I thought his cooking was great. His spaghetti with ketchup and his My-T-Fine chocolate pudding were outstanding.
My parents were not much into reading books, and there were few of them in the house. While we borrowed books from the local library, it was Larry who first brought books into our home and onto a bookshelf. More important, it was Larry who helped me understand what some of those books were about. He was a good teacher, and opened my eyes to so much.
While my parents were not particularly political, they always voted Democratic, as did virtually the entire Jewish neighborhood in which we lived. Larry brought politics into the house when, as a student at Brooklyn College, he joined the Young Democrats and campaigned for Adlai Stevenson in 1956.
During my presidential campaign I was delighted that Larry and his wife, Janet, and son, Jacob, were able to join me at some of our events. I was even prouder when, as a delegate from Democrats Abroad at the Democratic Convention, he cast, with tears in his eyes, his one vote for my nomination.
Was my family "poor"? No. Did we (as the economists say) have much discretionary income? Absolutely not.
My dad was a paint salesman with the Keystone Paint and Varnish Company. He came to this country from Poland at the age of seventeen without a nickel in his pocket. He was always employed and made enough money to provide for his wife, Dorothy, and his two sons, but not much more than that.
Money (or more appropriately, lack of money) was always a point of contention in the house. There were arguments and more arguments between my parents. Painful arguments. Bitter arguments. Arguments that seared through a little boy's brain, never to be forgotten.
"Bernard. Go out and get some groceries. Here's what we need. Here's the list," my mother said. And, dutiful son of twelve, I went out and bought the groceries. But I went to the wrong store. I went to the small shop a few blocks away, rather than the Waldbaum's grocery store on Nostrand Avenue. I paid more than I should have. When I returned and my mother realized what I had done, the screaming was horrible. Money was hard to come by. Not to be wasted.
When I was thirteen, I wanted a leather jacket. It was the fashion. Everyone had one and I was tired of my brother's hand-me-down coat. "Okay," said Mom. "Let's get you a leather jacket." This became the shopping trip from hell. It's probably why sixty-two years later — ask my wife if I'm lying — I still hate shopping and why I want to escape if I am in a department store for more than a half hour.
On that day my mother took me to at least a dozen stores in search of the lowest price on a leather jacket. We started off at several stores at the Kings Highway shopping district. Then we got on the subway to the large department stores in downtown Brooklyn and Manhattan. There was no leather jacket in New York City that I didn't try on.
Well, you guessed it: We ended up buying the jacket from the first store we had visited on Kings Highway much earlier in the day. It's funny to think about that now. It wasn't funny then.
How much money your family had determined the quality of your baseball glove, which brand of sneakers you wore, and what kind of car your father drove. It also, of course, determined whether you lived in a rent-controlled apartment house (as most of my friends did) or a "private house." Not until I was much older did I learn that most people did not refer to the average house on a street as a "private house." But that distinction was very clear where I lived. Those of us who lived in apartment houses were working class and those who lived in "private houses" were middle class. It was one of the early class distinctions that I remember.
I spent much of my childhood playing out on the street or in schoolyards. The street was our world, and we never left home without a pink Spalding rubber ball. Unlike today, there was no adult supervision. None at all. We organized all the games by ourselves.
We played hour after hour after hour. On the street we played hide-and-seek, punchball, hockey, two-hand touch football, and stickball — with time-outs when cars passed by and strict rules as to what happened when the ball got stuck under a parked car. We pitched marbles into sewer grates. If your marble went down the hole in the middle, you got ten marbles back.
We played wall ball against the sides of the buildings. We played box ball on the sidewalk, curb ball against the curbs, and stoopball against the stoops. We played regular handball and Chinese handball. We flipped baseball cards. We raced. In the school yard of PS 197, where I went to elementary school a few blocks from where I lived, we played softball and basketball until we were so tired we could barely drag ourselves home. For nourishment, we chipped in to buy a large bottle of soda.
What I learned playing on the streets and playgrounds of Brooklyn was not just how to become a decent ballplayer and athlete. I learned a profound lesson about democracy and self-rule. From playing punchball and stickball? Yes.
There were no adults on the streets or playgrounds where we spent much of our lives. Nobody supervised us. Nobody coached us. Nobody refereed our games. We were on our own. Everything was organized and determined by the kids themselves. The group worked out our disagreements, made all the decisions, and learned to live with them.
"What game should we play? ... Hey. That's a great idea, let's do it."
"Can I borrow your baseball glove? ... Who brought the bat and ball? ... Was he safe or was he out? ... Was the ball foul or was it fair?"
There was no debate about who played on which side. Everyone knew who was the best, second-best, and third-best basketball player when we chose up teams. That's the way it was.
In three-man basketball, the team that lost went to the sidelines and a new team replaced them to challenge the winners. Those were the rules.
And it all worked out.
It was, as I think about it now, an amazingly democratic and self-sustaining community which taught me lessons about working with people that I've never forgotten.
The other thing I've never forgotten was the relationship that the kids on the block, and the entire community, had with the Brooklyn Dodgers. Sometimes, as I travel about, I am asked which baseball team I rooted for when I was growing up. Are you kidding? There was only one team. And they were family.
Gil Hodges at first, Jackie Robinson or Junior Gilliam at second, Pee Wee Reese (my favorite player) at shortstop, Billy Cox at third, Gene Hermanski in left field, the Duke in center, Carl Furillo in right, Roy Campanella behind the plate. On the mound we had Preacher Roe, Don Newcombe, Carl Erskine, Johnny Podres, Clem Labine, Joe Black, Sandy Koufax — among many others. Those names are indelibly planted on my mind. Sixty years have come and gone, and I remember those mythical figures like it was yesterday.
It would have been unthinkable for anyone on the block not to know the names of the players, their batting averages, and the win-loss record of the pitchers. We knew who they were playing on a given day, where they were playing, who was pitching, and how many games out of first place they might be. We also knew as much information about their personal lives as the baseball cards we flipped and traded provided. Most of our contact with the Dodgers came through the radio and TV play-by-play commentary of Red Barber and Vin Scully, who were as familiar to us as the players.
Ebbets Field, where the Dodgers played, was a half-hour subway ride away, and we would go to the ball games a few Saturdays or Sundays a season, sometimes for a doubleheader. Usually, we got the 60-cent bleacher seats, sometimes the $1.25 seats way up the first-base line. On occasion, we would wait outside the players' entrance to get autographs. I still remember seeing a tired Jackie Robinson walking out of the ballpark.
The Dodgers brought joy and despair to our world. What kid who grew up in Brooklyn does not still remember the end of the 1951 season, and the collapse of the Dodgers, who gave up a thirteen-game lead to the hated New York Giants. And then the playoffs. And Ralph Branca. And Bobby Thomson's home run, the shot heard 'round the world.
But better times came in 1955. Finally, finally, the Dodgers beat the Yankees and won the World Series. Johnny Podres the hero. Mass hysteria in Brooklyn.
You do not have to be a sociologist to understand the impact that the Dodgers had on the people of Brooklyn, race relations, and our sense of community. As kids we all knew, of course, that Jackie Robinson, Don Newcombe, and Roy Campanella were black. But what was far more important to us was that they were great ballplayers. We were not bleeding-heart liberals. We just wanted the Dodgers to win. Of course they were part of our family.
There was a saying that went around Brooklyn during the time that the Dodgers were about to leave for Los Angeles. It went like this: The three worst people in modern history were Adolf Hitler, Joseph Stalin, and Walter O'Malley, but not necessarily in that order. The departure of the Dodgers, orchestrated by O'Malley, the team owner, was devastating to the borough and to the city. It left a gaping hole.
Frankly, as a nonpolitical teenager, I found it very difficult to understand how the Dodgers could be moved. This team was the Brooklyn Dodgers. You know — like the Brooklyn Bridge. Like Brooklyn College. Like the borough of Brooklyn. How could you take something away that was an essential part of the life of the people and that meant so much to them? O'Malley's devastating decision to rip the Dodgers out of Brooklyn in order to pursue greater profits on the West Coast was, I suspect, one of my first observations regarding the deficiencies of capitalism.
But my childhood experiences were not just on the streets of Brooklyn.
I will never forget one summer when I was thirteen years old and my parents sent me to the Ten Mile River Scout Camp in Narrowsburg, New York. It was an inexpensive way for kids to get out of the city during the summer. My first summer at the camp was supposed to be four weeks. I came home after two. I was homesick. The next year I was supposed to be there two weeks. I stayed four. I had a great time. The last time I went I stayed for six weeks and cried when I had to come back to the city.
As a kid, I had been in the Cub Scouts, where my mom was a den mother, and later was part of Troop 356 in the Boy Scouts. Our troop went on occasional hikes and cookouts, but it was nothing like summer camp.
Boy Scout camp was an extraordinary experience for me. For the first time in my life I was exposed to the outdoors and a rural way of life: living in a lean-to without a front door, spending nights in a sleeping bag on a straw-filled "mattress," hiking, camping, observing beautiful starry nights for the first time in my life, learning about Indian lore, swimming in the lake, canoeing, having communal meals in a giant mess hall, singing folk songs.
One day, my bunkmate and I were sitting on our beds reading comic books. A rather large black snake slithered across the upper bunk bed on my friend's side of the cabin. The snake was heading down toward his shoulder. We ran like hell.
Quite the experience for a boy from Brooklyn.
Going to Boy Scout camp changed my life. It turned out that I really liked country living, and I never forgot that. I doubt very much that I would have ended up in Vermont, one of the most rural states in the country, if I hadn't gone to Scout camp.
High school for me, James Madison High School, was not as much fun as my days in elementary school. The school was much larger and, unlike PS 197, where I had known almost all the kids for my whole life, there were a lot of new faces. I was a good student in high school, but not a great one. The social studies interested me more than math and science.
I ran for senior class president. I remember pacing up and down the bedroom floor as I worked with my mother on the speech I was going to give in the school auditorium. My main campaign platform called for the high school to adopt a South Korean war orphan. I lost that election. The fellow who won, however, eventually took my idea: Our school "adopted" that child.
One of the first great disappointments in my young life was not making the James Madison High School basketball team, consistently one of the better teams in the city, under the legendary leadership of its longtime coach, Jamie Moskowitz.
How happy I was to have made the junior varsity team in my freshman year. I came home with a beautiful uniform, number 10. If truth be told, I even slept in that silky uniform. But then disaster struck. At a practice early in the season I was told by the coach that I was cut. No junior varsity team, no varsity team in the future, no beautiful uniform. A crushing experience.
I don't remember exactly why, but I then went out for the track and cross-country teams. As a kid, I always had good endurance and could run forever. Track and cross-country were not as sexy as basketball. No large crowds at the meets, not as much attention. But it turned out to be an exciting and meaningful experience for me. I enjoyed it very much and was pretty good at it.
There were long subway rides from Brooklyn to Van Cortlandt Park in the Bronx for the cross-country events. There were the many hundreds of runners at the starting line and, then, after the starter's gun went off, the mad dash into the woods for the two-and-a-half-mile run. There was the smell of the fall leaves on the ground through the deep breaths of a body pushing hard. There was the final kick down the long straightaway to the finish line, passing runners who were even more tired than me. Great experiences that I have never forgotten.