My earliest infant memory is being held in my mother’s arms on a street corner in Strawberry Mansion (a neighborhood in north Philadelphia) as she stopped to speak to an acquaintance. I recall a blindingly bright day. Although I was quite near-sighted and not yet wearing glasses, I recall that my mother’s friend’s face was covered with warts, or cysts, and looked like it had been created by a pizza-maker idly poking at a fist full of dough. What I realize, the many times that I have turned this memory over in my mind, is that the experience had not so much to do with seeing a memorable face but of seeing an ugly face and in being aware at that very young age that I could be repelled by what was unattractive. This was long before I had words for things, and long before I had any idea about abstract notions such as beauty and ugliness. This intense reaction to the world of things seen has been a powerful force throughout my life.
My father used the front room of our first floor apartment on Diamond Street in Strawberry Mansion as his law office. I believe he also had an office in center city back then. A bronze plaque, rather conventional in design, was affixed to the façade of our brownstone and readable from the stoop: ABRAHAM J. LEVINSON (and in smaller print and in italics) Attorney at Law. It seemed to me special to have such a formal and serious sign on our house. In his office was a desk and some leather guest chairs and a couch. It was spare and not particularly impressive. I seem to recall a framed image of men wearing capes and wigs; the kind of drawing I later learned that lawyers typically had on their walls.
One day my brother and I were alone in the apartment with nothing much to do. This was before the age of television and we weren’t yet into reading. I was about six or seven and my brother was two years older. Because we were bored, we decided to have a catch but couldn’t find a ball. I was a kid,even back then, not bound by convention or standard modes of thought and so it might have been me who suggested we use ground beef instead of one of my father’s tennis balls, which apparently we couldn’t find. Somehow we ended up in my father’s office for our game of catch. One of us must have thrown a wild pitch and a ball of sticky red meat sailed out of reach and flattened on the tall blank wall behind my father’s desk. Oops!
We stared at the red puck of greasy ground sirloin until it began to peel…ever so slowly…from the wall then dropped to the floor with a plop. Hill and I thought that was really funny. And so our game of catch took on a new dimension. The goal was to see who could get the ball of meat to stick the longest. We were roaring with laughter as we watched our meatballs splat against the light blue wall, stick there for a few minutes, then sag, peel, and finally drop…leaving behind an array of almost perfectly round telltale stains of grease flanking the men in capes and wigs. After a half hour or so of wild fun, we tired of this inventive pastime and went on to other mischievous activity, leaving the wall looking like the face of a young teenager covered with zits.
Was it possible that we knew that we were doing a bad thing at the time and went ahead anyway? Was it possible we thought the grease stains would evaporate like water leaving barely a trace of residue? Was something missing in our upbringing that would allow us to deface the place where our father earned the money to pay the rent for the very room we were marring, not to mention the rent for the other rooms in our house, not to mention the food and clothes we used each day?
That night, red-faced with fury like the ground beef we had been tossing around his law office, my father pulled down our pants, pulled his belt from around his pear-shaped middle, and whacked the living shit out of us. We bawled and bawled and finally realized that we had done something really bad.
About halfway between our row house on Diamond Street and the Park Theater at the end of the block lived a man who had fabricated something in his basement that I would pay hundreds of dollars today to see once again. I don’t believe I was ever told who the man was or whatever happened to his extraordinary construction.
One day I was taken into his house and then down into the small low ceiling basement. He had constructed there a miniature Santa’s workshop, peopled by animated gnomes the size of dolls. I have no idea what force animated them but they all moved — tapping little hammers, sawing pieces of wood, even appearing to apply paint to little fabrications and doing everything that one would expect of Santa’s helpers. I recall raw materials moved through the panorama and I was sure things were being fabricated for delivery to all my Christian friends.
The Lilliputian workshop was on a raised platform consisting of many levels and many of the gnomes’ heads almost touched the joists of the floor framing above. The place was busy with activity and there may have been music to accompany this chamber of industry. I was stunned that human hands could create such an extraordinary dreamlike panorama and to do have had this occur in a basement in a not-very-well-to-do neighborhood was even more unexpected. As I think back on it, the event seemed more like a dream than real, but I am certain I went there, met the ingenious creator of this subterranean workplace and am certain I saw this unbelievable fabrication. The hours, the ingenuity, the dedication. I wonder whether it ever made it into the papers or on the radio or whether it remained a hidden phenomenon known only to a few adults and their incredulous children.
So perhaps now you have some idea why it’s been difficult for me to clear my office of all the things that connect me to lives past and all the questions I never got to ask. Life is like thin sheets of seawater sweeping up across the beach then sliding back into the ocean, leaving behind a few gasping bubbles and a handful of sand crabs scurrying around in search of something not visible. You see the beach then it disappears behind a reflection of sky and clouds. Here one moment, gone the next.
Oh, do I wish my mother’s ashes could speak and tell me why Mom, and Hilly, and I were not swept out to sea in the 1944 hurricane that summer in Wildwood. I think it was the first time I experienced my mother as a woman separate from me, separate from my needs and wants.
I wish I could ask her why we survived, why we weren’t sucked into the sea like all the others. What could she tell me of those terrifying hours? I want to go back to Wildwood and experience it all again, but with the assurance, of course, that the outcome would not be changed by some malevolent writer of fiction invisible above the fury of those unforgettable, cyclonic clouds. World War II was winding down that year, and my mother had taken my brother and me to Wildwood, a seaside resort roughly halfway between Atlantic City and Cape May, for a week of vacation. My father, a private and inaccessible man, remained in Philadelphia attending to his law practice, and attending I presume to the skirts that fluttered on the streets of Center City. I guess he was happy to have some time alone, away from the family. He liked being alone, sitting in the sunroom, his pants open at the waist, the New York Times tented over his basketball belly, Beethoven on the radio, asleep, alone, unconnected to the living.
I think it was already afternoon when the cab carried us through the hot humid late summer air back to the small second floor apartment Mom had rented on the second floor of a beachfront cottage. A cab would seem an unlikely mode of transport given what I presume my father’s income was back then, but perhaps news of a storm was beginning to spread, and people spent what they needed to seek shelter. As we got out of the cab, enormous raindrops, the size of sand dollars, suddenly fell from the sky and hit the concrete pavement with splats as loud as machine gun fire. We dashed from the cab and raced up the exterior steps and into the security of our apartment, which consisted mostly of a single room with windows on three sides that faced the ocean. There were some closet sized bedrooms that faced back toward the bay. The wind was starting to whip up and the ocean looked troubled. Swells started far out near the horizon and rolled in like lines of tanks arriving for battle. The sun was in retreat, clouds marauding across the sky. It was as if a war-machine of nature had been sent to our shores from the war between nations on the far side of the Atlantic.
The stream of retreating bathers had cleared the beaches within minutes of the arrival of that bizarre rain shower and the narrow street next the house was now empty. The rains suddenly vanished, swept aside for the moment by buffeting winds. I noticed a car drive up alongside the house and park no more than thirty feet from the five-foot sea wall that protected our house. A thin man wearing a white dress shirt, black tie and a light weight black business jacket hopped out with a bulky press camera swinging from one arm. He quickly positioned himself with feet firmly on the macadam to take pictures of the angry sky and the wild ocean. Waves repeatedly exploded in green-white fans as the sea smashed against the sea wall. Water splashed over him and swirled forcefully in treacherous pools around his legs, soaking his pants all the way to his belt. He kept shooting, trying to protect his gear, slipping photographic plates from his jacket pocket into and out of the rear of the camera.
My mother opened one of the windows that formed a continuous band around this fragile summer room and screamed into the howling wind, imploring the man to leave. Even at five years of age, I was proud of her concern for the welfare of others but felt she was a tad premature in expressing her concern. I can still hear the desperation in her voice as she alerted him to the mounting danger more visible from our elevated vantage point than from his. After a huge plume of seawater suddenly shot up over the wall, the man jumped back into his black car barely escaping a mountainous wave that could have done him in.
We watched the ocean get crazier as huge waves slammed into the sea wall and crashed thirty feet over our house. I think my brother and I would have been really frightened if we actually understood the peril that was descending upon us. I wish Mom’s ashes could speak to me and tell me how scared we really were. The house shook as the ocean’s mountainous waves relentlessly pummeled the house driven by 90 mile an hour winds.
The owner of the house lived alone on the first floor. She came up the back steps to confer with my mother from time to time with a terribly frightened look on her face. It was agreed she would stand on a table and bang on the ceiling to let us know she was still all right. We could hear her below us during a lull as she pushed furniture against the door that faced the ocean and what was left of the disintegrating sea wall. Then the ocean would surge again and crash open the door and slammed her and the furniture to the rear of the room in a grinding deafening screech. Outside of our water and sand-streaked windows the ocean and the sky had fused into a ferocious cauldron of cyclonic energy, gray and furious, whirling and battering, and in a state of unspeakable fury.
I had packed a green periscope-shaped flashlight. I fetched it from my carry bag and pressed the aluminum button to send flashing signals into the darkness that surrounded us. I was five years old at the time, my brother seven, and my mother in her lovely thirties. If she had been terrified, I cannot recall, and knowing her she would have tried to conceal it from us as she bit her lower lip. Perhaps all of us were lulled into believing that the house would somehow protect us against the immeasurable fury of nature. That’s what a house is supposed to do, isn’t it; protect! Although our bungalow was anchored deep into the sand through its wood pilings, the building shuddered and groaned with each onslaught of waves. I must have been scared because at some point my mother said, Joel, look out the windows to the left. When you see that house go, then you can be scared. The words were not fully out of her mouth when the house imploded and was sucked down into the raging waves of the sea. We could not hear the explosion or implosion, or the cries from anyone trapped within, so masked were the sounds by the howling irate winds.
Come back, Mom, and tell me what happened next. Were we all crying on the floor, or praying? Certainly not praying! Mom’s father read Bertrand Russell and subscribed to Bertrand’s brand of atheism, as did my mother, and as do I. At least she was an atheist until her dying day’s fifty some years later when she decided to hedge her bets and accept there might be a god out there somewhere. If there was a god out there in that hurricane of 1944, he must have left his watch, or momentarily lost control of the nature he was supposed to have created. I’m just dying to know more about what we were all thinking, and feeling, or saying, or fearing to say in those moments when our lives were hanging in a terrifyingly precarious balance.
I think we must have slept for a while (I can’t imagine how) because my next memory is that of a sunny sky and a peaceful ocean, as if the hours of dark and untamable madness had been but a dream. Up and down the beach we could see only a handful of isolated houses, porches torn off, windows blown out, where before there was a solid line of houses that curved along the coast in both directions. It was a scene of such total devastation that it is impossible to erase the scene (imagined or otherwise) from my memory. Did my brother and I realize that hundreds of lives were washed into the sea along with the countless houses. It didn’t register then, at least for me; it surely does now. To this day I still grow fearful when the wind howls.
Our cottage now stood in the middle of the sea, as if this were perfectly normal, and we should go about enjoying the day as if we were on a fishing boat. Our landlady, who had come upstairs with us sometime during the night, was inconsolable. Eventually two men in yellow raingear rowed a lifeguard boat up alongside the house. One man steadied the rolling boat as the other one struggled to muscle a ladder in our direction as we stood in the still strong winds on a now cantilevered second story stair landing to which our outside stairs had once been affixed.
The four of us huddled on this precarious ‘balcony’ afraid to descend the swaying ladder into the arms of a stranger no matter how strong and tan he looked. One of the men carried me down first, then Hilly. Then he went up for my mother, her sundress fluttering in the breeze, that irrepressibly flirtatious smile beaming on her face, but her heart no doubt skipping wildly with pent-up anxiety.
Our landlady was now alone on the balcony and she wailed and covered her face in embarrassment, grief, and unfathomable sorrow. She initially refused to let her chubby body be carried down and away from everything that had been the center of her life for decades.
Hilly remembers that we were rowed to a stretch of visible road from which we could walk to a bus terminal or a train station. Far in the distance we saw a tiny moving dot. The dot loomed larger and then we realized it was a man racing toward us along the broken roadway. He raced past huge empty pools of seawater with building pieces floating like rafts. We saw a kitchen table top that amazingly still held a plate with a slice of pizza seemingly glued to it.
When we finally realized who it was in his white linen suit and straw hat, wearing his fancy lawyer shoes, we too raced toward him. His face was white, nose a bit red, tears filling his weary small eyes. Hearing of the hurricane, he boarded the first train he could get with no assurance we were still alive, probably already steeling himself for what he must have presumed was the inevitable news that we had been washed out to sea like the others and taken back to the watery womb that had brought forth all of nature several billions years earlier.
A believer in the god of his Jewish faith, he must have thanked God for the miracle he was now hugging with all his might, fearing the worst and wondering all the time whether he was still dreaming.
MORE STORIES TO COME . . .