Harvey Job Matusow's
Cockyboo & the Stringless Yo Yo
an on-line autobiographical experiment
I was born and brought up in The Bronx in its more gentle and energetic years. It was The Bronx in transition from a rural farming area to 45 square miles of high-rise city. The money that passed hands and the deals which were made in 1926 in The Bronx probably created the most powerful political machine in The United States. It was the Bronx machine that got Al Smith the Democratic nomination for President in 1928, and it was The Bronx that gave us Franklin D. Roosevelt in 1932. I watched my father use the machine, a phone call here, a phone call there, and suddenly the laws and the rules vanished. Everyone and everything seemed to have a price tag. By the time I was ten, I could steal your purse or pick your pocket on the subway, and you'd never know it. The streets were the jungle, a more gentle jungle than today, but, a jungle nevertheless. You learned it's sounds, it's smells as well as every crack in the cement side walks. It was all busy detail, filing everything away for some future unseen unexpected confrontation or crisis. Always shooting angles, the ricochet life style of a city kid.
Much of my childhood life was built around a kind of non- involved communication which children on the Bronx streets develop. You go to visit a friend, who might live in the same apartment house, or maybe the one next door. Ring the bell, hear footsteps -- it's his mother -- she doesn't open the door, but says, through the closed door, "Who is it?"
You tell her, and that you'd like to see her son. Now she knows you, she's not afraid, but she doesn't open the door -- she asks you to wait, and conveys your message to her son -- you wait -- she returns and tells you what he says -- you answer that -- and again wait -- sometimes this middle- mother conversation can take ten or fifteen minutes, and all the while she never opens the door.
Sometimes she'll tell you that your friend will be out in five or ten minutes -- all the time you wait -- the door never opens -- while you're waiting you develop games -- concentrating on things like learning to wiggle your ears.
I remember sitting on the cold marble steps of a friend's house -- he was finishing lunch, and took nearly an hour -- all the while as I sat there, saying to myself -- "they're your ears Harvey, if you can't wiggle them, then you're not you." I had a small pocket mirror and kept watching my face going through all sorts of contortions as I tried to get my ears to wiggle. I don't think I'd ever concentrated as hard on anything to that extent before -- then suddenly I found the muscle in my head, and moved my ears -- it was the greatest feeling of accomplishment I'd had, and when my friend came out, I proudly displayed my new talent. He was impressed, and countered with something he had just taught himself -- he recited the alphabet backwards. We went out to the street and found another friend, each of us proudly announcing our new talents -- only to be told by this friend that he had just learned to walk on his hands.
Every time another friend joined us, we would each play our ego thing, by doing or reciting what we had just learned. By the time the afternoon was over we had a group, our gang proudly displaying ear wiggling, backward alphabet, hand walking, stilt walking, naming the 48 American states, cutting a specific number of cards off the deck, whistling loudly through two fingers, playing Yankee Doodle on the top of the head, doing a finger dance with double-jointed index and middle finger, picking up a rubber ball with two toes, and a number of other world-shattering street events of intellectual sophistication.
Both my parents were born in Tzarist Russia, and arrived separately in 1906. My mother's trip interrupted by a con man selling my Grandfather passage to New York on a ship bound only to Liverpool. My mother, Kitty, was an orthodox Jewish lady, the oldest of ten, a gentle and strong matriarch. By extreme contrast my father had no sense of religion, and God was the reality of a card game. He was good. During the depression his card earnings kept us alive. Among my earliest memories, my mother lighting the devotional sabbath candle, and my father, bare-headed, wearing a gun.
Any way you cut it, I was an alien kid in an alien culture trying to figure out how to belong. How to figure a culture? Everything strange. Too prissy, too phoney, just unreal. How I hated my name, Harvey Marshall. That name came out of left field and had nothing to do with my cultural heritage. Almost every signal I received was in conflict. Be Jewish, but, hide it. I used to envy those kids who had Old Testament names.
Viewed all Christians as terrorists. Christians the most horrible kind of persons in my world. They lied and cheated, and most off all they were two- faced about their beliefs. They spoke of love and preached hate toward Jews. In my world a Christian was to be shunned, ignored or pitied. They were all, in my mind, evil. They loved to kill Jews in the name of Jesus Christ.
Kitty would tell me stories of how Christians would leave their churches on Good Friday looking for Jews to beat, kill or maim. She carried no outward hatred, but a simple warning when dealing with Christians. She would say, "Trust in God, and count your change twice."
Her way of viewing things was clear. As in a letter she wrote me when I was in prison,
By the time I married my sixth wife, five of whom were non Jewish, the issue of Christianity was never spoken of. But, the feelings were there, and they would manifest in the oddest ways. As one day when I received a gift of a Russian icon. It was a good piece, richly executed. When Kitty arrived on Saturday morning to see the baby, I showed her the icon. We had a few minutes to be together while my wife Bea was getting the baby ready.
Kitty studied the icon, not saying a word. After thirty or so seconds, she looked up at me, placed the icon on her lap, face down and said, "It'll make a fine bread board, where's the baby?"
My political awareness was nil. Being Jewish I was emotionally aware of Hitler. Our neighborhood was sprinkled with refugees who'd fled Germany, and during the school year four or so new kids would show up in the class. Teacher would always introduce them, asking us to be accepting of their plight. The fact that they didn't speak English didn't bother us too much, for their German was not too far from the Yiddish which most of us spoke. It was good for them also, for we all helped them slip into English. It was far different for the occasional Quebec-grown student who spoke only French.
My reality of the Spanish Civil War came from knowing some of the older brothers in the neighborhood who had volunteered for the Abraham Lincoln Brigade to fight Franco and fascism. Politics wasn't my thing. Yankee and Giant baseball was. Both ball parks were within walking distance of my house. I also lived for football, breaking school windows, playing cards, pitching pennies and spin the bottle.
To me, everything in life was a con and a hype. Moral values were for suckers and losers. Money could buy everything and everyone. The streets and the movies taught me about American culture. The Marx Brothers were my heroes. They knew how to cock-a-snoop at authority. Margaret Dumont represented all the phoney aspects of a Christian high society which I could never trust. When I saw the film, The Razors Edge with Tyrone Power, I began to for the first time question some of my belief patterns. I wanted that path. I had to touch every human experience, and not voyage in the deeds of others. The more I searched, the more vague and clouded the truth became.
My closest friend was Danny. The perfect older brother. He was my super hero, he was protective, loving, generous beyond belief, talented in art and sports. I loved him and I hated him, I wanted to be him and I couldn't. Kitty never said to him, "I wish you were a daughter." That was reserved only for me. When Danny was seven and about to be wheeled into the operating room of Metropolitan Hospital to have his tonsils removed, he saw me coming out and thought they had killed me, and he went violent, shouting, "What have you done to my brother..." It took four people to restrain him.
He was always there in the school yard to make sure I was okay. I was sixteen when he went into the Air Force, and for my seventeenth birthday, he sent me an electric razor, with a note saying, "welcome to manhood." We always shared the same bedroom, and trusted each other to a degree I've never known with anyone else.
Danny loved to tease me into learning things. He would come out with some glib absurdity like "rich people don't have sex, only poor people do." And from the time I was seven or eight until I was fifteen believed it.
Kitty's stoic silence helped mold many of my beliefs. She had a clean, non-intellectual directness which often embarrassed me as a child. My parents postured an attitude too heavy for me in its economic base. They being no different from other immigrants, insecure in a new country -- hustling and clinging to all the material dreams that folk-lore America presented to them as absolute truth.
Like countless others, they moved to the Grand Concourse in The Bronx from East Harlem, The Lower East Side, or from the side streets from the South and East Bronx.
There they were, young and making it on or just off the Concourse. The avenue was wide and spacious and lined with trees. For many it was a reminder of the boulevards and promenades of Europe.
They were clinging to the American material dream, garment manufactures, fast talking, high- commissioned salesmen and shop owners, as my father was. They moved just off The Concourse in the mid-1920's. The apartment buildings were new then, each different, some with deep courtyards and iron grilled doors, not like the working class immigrant cold-water flats with small rooms and depressing sameness. They dreamed and strutted, and smiled and played the newcomer's status game, paying expensive rents for the period. They were playing Yiddish Horatio Algers learning about class in a classless society. They took some sort of pride in having a Concourse or West Bronx address. A status symbol of comfort, prosperity and the dreams which America offered. It was a dynamic, offering an in to the power structure to the newcomers. Men like Roy Cohn's father, Judge Albert Cohn, a Bronx power broker which businessmen like my father clung to while climbing the ladder of acceptance.
The Concourse, The Champs-Elysses of The Bronx, reflecting in brick and mortar the dreams of the 1920's. But, when the depression came it was more like some hallowed movie queen, fading in time. Although they had inside plumbing and electricity, it wasn't too different from the Eastern European Ghettos. They lived worrying about the rent, and walked back to the 'slums' of the East Bronx and Bathgate Avenue to do their shopping, saving a few pennies on food in order to pay the rent, and allowing them some hold on the status dream.
The Concourse dreams they believed were for their children, many of whom, like me, grew up and moved away, leaving many of the buildings in disrepair. All seemingly filled with ghosts of streets lined with gold. The mystique of the concourse was lost despite the dignity and grace of the promenade. It had a yesterday magic, but still the Champs-Elysses to my mother. She could never understand my disenchantment with her dream. It wasn't a question of love, for I had great love for her and always felt unconditional love from her. It was more, that the Concourse of my childhood had no poetry. The only discipline it offered me was to get rich, be a professional, conquer the world, own the banks, but never paint a picture or write a poem. I envied those of my friend's families where poetry and art were revered. It was a paradox, Kitty took us to museums every month, sometimes an art museum and sometimes The Natural History Museum. We went, we saw, but we never did. Art was for others.
The "Look at me, I'm an American. Run boy run, make it as fast as you can" attitude hung heavy on my dreams and distorted and diffused my energies until I didn't know who I was, or what I wanted to be. here was love, deep concerned love, but it was taken for granted with a kind of absolute and insecure immigrant value which took pride and gave reward for what seemed to me, the wrong kind of accomplishments. There seemed to be no room for a creativity not tied to money. Not much different from most first generation children in a new country. I had to be the mirror, reflecting the-well oiled natural adjustment of my family to what they thought were the proper values of American society.
As a child I fought it all the way by being glib, and by faking it whenever I could. When your family is new to the country, new to the language and lives in constant fear of offending the society, it's not hard to play off their insecurity by building facades and giving lip service to their dreams. All taking outward pressure off myself. Leaving me free to wallow in my own childish confusion. Bright with an extremely high I.Q. Having dyslexia without knowing it, frustrated at being a lousy student and not knowing why academia alluded me. Always longing for some direction which might have a meaning and take me out of my pain and loneliness.
I always identified with my father. The way he hustled and survived always inspired me. Everything he did attracted me. He was my idol, and I wanted to be like him and better then him. I always enjoyed his telling the story of their courtship. She just turned 21, and was going to see a Broadway Play, The Gold Diggers of 1921. When she got to the theatre with her friend they met her friend's brother, who was there with my father. Herman took one look at Kitty and told her on the spot that he was going to marry her. She said she couldn't stand him, and her parents didn't want her to see him. After she died, I was going through her papers and discovered that they were actually married five months prior to their official wedding day. Why, I'll never know, but, I had fun guessing.
My father lost all his money in the crash of 1929. He built the third largest chain of cigar stores in New York. Two stores in Times Square, one in Herald Square and a sprinkling of others in the Wall Street financial district.
He reflected his generation, living high in the 1920's, and falling like an Autumn leaf in 1929.
He was down, but not broken. He survived by dreaming. Not practical dreams of bread and butter reality, those belonged to my mother. Her dreams were like those of the squirrel storing nuts in a tree thinking of the long Winter and survival. His dreams were of the grand, quick, and glorious pot of gold. Always nearly there, always within reach. Their dreams so different. Their unity that dreamers never surrender. Both were survivors and they approached survival differently. At times it tore me apart. Their instinct for survival was there but it lacked a social conscience, their view was too narrow.
It wasn't until the last few years before he died, that I came to realize he was a frustrated man. He was an artist he never took time to draw, a poet, a liver, involved in creative life, who, because of the immigrant drive which produced him became a creative shopkeeper. He was a salesman like Willie Lohman, but he had the strength to not crack up. He was a small man, five feet two inches, neatly dressed, well manicured. A great sense of humor, and a pixie smile reflecting his soft silent qualities. At times reminding me of Harpo Marx. Balancing his softness and generosity was a hair-triggered violent vocal temper. I now believe that much of it came from his creative frustrations. His innermost dreams lay shattered on the rocks of the consumer society. He never spoke of it, just kept it to himself
I don't think I ever appreciated him fully. I tended to take him for granted, never taking time to find out where his scars came from. When I think of it now, it tends to overwhelm me. At age twelve he ran away from home in Russia, a small village named Slutz where his family had a lumber business. He hustled himself to America, thought he had it made and got turned back at Ellis Island when the old man who was claiming to be him Uncle, said, "I never saw the kid until he got on the ship in Danzig."
He was deported immediately, but, it took him almost a year to wind his way back home.
He said, "I came home and stood in the yard and no one recognized me except my black dog, Muchkie, he knew me, and I was home..."
He stayed home for a few months, then ran away again, and this time successfully hustled his way into the United States. He worked as a singing waiter in Coney Island with Jimmy Durante, was a quartermaster sergeant in the U.S. Army during World War I, and he kept wearing a gun throughout the 1920's.
My greatest regret to this day, is that I never asked him about any of these adventures. It boggles my mind to think of him at age 12, traveling around the world and surviving as he did. He kept it sewed up inside, and I didn't have the wisdom and love to pry it out. It's like the greatest jig-saw puzzle of my life. How did he eat? What did he have to do to survive. He never shed a tear in the whole time I knew him. When Danny died in the war, Herman was totally unemotional. Looking at his face that day, I'll never forget it. It was strong, compassionate, but unemotional. I remember thinking then, "how much death has he seen to make him that way..". It took Kitty three years to convince Herman to sign the papers to bring Danny's body home from Europe. He was my model, and I skated on all his surfaces, never allowing myself to get into the depth. His strong silent values were there, and in my glib blindness I never saw it. The greatest day of my young life was when I beat him two out of three in Pinochle. From that day on, I became more arrogant in my ignorance. After all, it was justified, I was a teenager.
I think I began to develop some political awareness when I was thirteen. I'd been Bar Mitzvah'd, finished Hebrew School, quit the Boy Scouts, lost my virginity, and took a job with Phil The Bookie on Morris Avenue, not far from The Yankee Stadium, and where Roy Cohn was growing up. He learning about political corruption in his fathers house. He growing up and seeing and hearing all the wheeling and dealing of his father, Judge Cohn, the chief aid to Boss Flynn of the Bronx. Five blocks away I was getting the same education with Phil The Bookie. I had chosen my fathers path without any full understanding of his morality. The lessons I learned about government in the bookie parlor were more profound then any school civics class. Seeing the cops paid off weekly taught me more about government then any text book could. And, when I went to work at the U.S.Senate with Roy Cohn ten years later, I found the morality and ethical code not much different from the bookie's back room, I had little to unlearn.