Letter to Mr. Carney
By Sharon Leder
“Sara, I beg you, don’t do it!” Her mother’s cry came from the kitchen.
Sara heard her mother’s terry cloth slippers shuffle on the linoleum. “What’s going on, Ma? You’re not dressed yet?” In the bleak winter light, Sara could make out her mother hovering over something on the table, her floral housedress still hanging loosely on her small figure.
“This report! I won’t let you hand it in.”
“You stole my homework assignment,” Sara shouted, watching her mother finger the precious pages. “That report isn’t meant for you. You read it without my permission.”
“The papers were falling out of your school bag,” she said. “I saw the title . . .” She nervously fussed with her hair. “You wrote it that way without my permission. Sara, you’re not handing this report in! I won’t let you.”
Sara paced from the kitchen window, where a gray rain sounded on the pane, to the table, where she gathered the stray pages of her report. Sara felt her mother’s eyes on her.
“Sweetheart,” her mother softened. “It’s a touching story. Don’t get me wrong. You’re only a high school junior and already such a good writer. I can’t believe you actually put it together from what I told you. But there’s too much personal information in it. Please tell me you won’t bring it into school the way it is.”
“I have to,” Sara pouted, fitting her arms into her pea coat and wrapping a woolen scarf around her neck. “It was due last Friday. If I don’t submit it today, I’ll get a zero. My record will be ruined.”
Her mother’s lip quivered, and Sara’s anger subsided. Never had Mother wanted her husband’s shame to be revealed. Now that Father was gone, Sara believed the story inscribed in every cell of her mother’s body should be exposed. Shouldn’t Mother, a chain-smoker afflicted all her married life with what she called “nerves,” fully unburden herself?
“Your record with me will be ruined, Sara, if you dare to hand that in.” Casting a glance into the foyer, her mother called out to the younger children. “Kids, your sister is ready to leave. Put on your boots and take your umbrellas.”
Mother is gloom and doom this Monday morning, Sara thought. Her mother was late.
“If I knew you were going to divulge all that private business to your teacher, I wouldn’t have
shared any of it with you.”
Facing the foyer mirror, Sara saw her own blue eyes narrow, her forehead fill with worry lines. Am I doing the right thing? Could it be that Mother is right? Am I being too impulsive? Will Mr. Carney even accept this assignment? He’s an old-fashioned history teacher who’s been at Eastern District forty-two years. He may not appreciate my efforts.
“I would have said nothing,” her mother grunted. She checked the clock above the refrigerator. “I’ve got to get to work. I don’t want you kids to be late. Will you promise me, Sara, you won’t hand it in? Tell your teacher you’re working on it. I’m sure he’s willing to wait another day. Sara, I know what I’m talking about. I’m trying to protect you.”
“You’ll have to trust me, Ma. What I’m doing is not wrong. Why can’t you just trust me?” Sara kissed her mother’s cheek before leaving the apartment with her siblings in tow.
“Sara!” her mother said, tapping her daughter’s head. “I don’t want to be disappointed when I come home tonight.”
Once she was sitting at her wooden desk in Home Room, Sara re-read her overdue report. Before the first period bell sounded, she wrote a cover letter to Mr. Carney.
January 16, 1964
Dear Mr. Carney,
I’m submitting my make-up assignment for “How Did President Roosevelt, As Commander-in-Chief, Lead the United States in World War II?” except I couldn’t write it the way you wanted. I tried over and over to use the textbook to answer your question, but I kept blanking out. I mean, I wasn’t able to concentrate. I kept being distracted by a real story that took place when Roosevelt was having trouble with the depression and the war. It’s the story of my father and how his life got ruined back then. I just had to write my father’s story because since he died last month, I can’t get him out of my mind. His photos are everywhere in our apartment. At the desk in the kitchen, where I finished my report over the week-end, my father’s troubled face stared at me from the last photo we took of him, peering out the window of his two-tone, white-walled Cadillac parked on Penn Street. How he cherished that car, Mr. Carney, even in the final stage of his sickness.
My report is in story form. We’ve been writing stories in Mrs. Newman’s English class. Sometimes, she’s even given me an A. I imagined myself a story writer for your assignment, giving my characters words to say. My mother’s been filling me in on what happened to my father, but she hasn’t been very well since the funeral, and she’s been speaking to me in dribs and drabs. Then, this week-end, she poured her soul out to me. With her information―and our textbook―I came up with a story. It’s based on real life, but whenever I didn’t know something, I made it up so it would fit.
My mother is completely against my handing this in. I don’t know what she’s afraid of. She says it’s shameful, but it’s the only assignment I can turn in, and I can’t believe that telling the truth can be bad. I’ve marked the confidential information in red, so that you’ll know what has to remain private. I hope you’ll accept it. I spent the whole week-end writing in order to meet your deadline, and I’ve written much more than the five pages you assigned. Even though it’s in story form, you’ll see that I do understand the conditions that Roosevelt was dealing with. My father lived through them. And they killed him.
P.S. I know you told the class never to give deaths in the family as excuses, but this time it’s TRUE. I couldn’t get words out of my mouth the day I came back to class and stood at your desk, so you never really learned what happened to me.
What Happened to My Father Josef Katz While Roosevelt Was President
Our textbook doesn’t tell us how frightened the young men were about dying when Roosevelt called the country to war. Frightened and confused. Those boys had to put up a big front to act brave. It was even harder for Jewish boys, because fights were breaking out right here in Brooklyn, wherever Jews were hated. And with all the fears those young men had, some were bound to find ways to escape. I want you to know how my father tried to escape from the pressures he was feeling. The cold, narrow hole he burrowed into never allowed him to crawl out.
At first my father was ready to fight against the Nazis, but his faith in our country got broken, and he didn’t want to die for nothing. My mother began to notice my father’s upset as early as 1939 when they heard Father Coughlin on the radio blame the Jews for the war in Europe. My father read the nasty columns about Jews in the newspapers and overheard the snide comments on the streets. He was a junior at Eastern District at that time. What he loved the best was playing in a harmonica band. I wonder if you knew my father―Josef Katz.
My mother told me that family problems weighed heavily on my father’s mind. His parents were deeply worried that their cousins in Poland were being starved and persecuted by the Nazis or were possibly dead. My father wrote letters in Yiddish that were sent overseas, but the family received no response. They made many calls to Europe that didn’t get through. They appealed to The Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society on the Lower East Side but their cousins couldn’t be located. Clouds of sorrow hung not only over my grandparents but over my father as well. He tried to help neighbors who had threatened relatives overseas. He was good at languages and took French in school, so he did favors for his French neighbors by writing to their family in France. Some of his neighbors came from Germany, and he could write in German, too. It’s a lot like Yiddish. They would tell him what they wanted to say, and he’d put it down the way it was supposed to be written. My father started out a sensitive man, heartsick over the persecution of his fellow Jews in Europe.
Our textbook mentions Cash and Carry, Roosevelt’s plan to help the Allies against the Nazis. According to my mother, when that act was passed, my father figured that Churchill was convincing Roosevelt to enter the war. Then, when Roosevelt set up the first draft for
men twenty-one to thirty-five in 1940, my father told my mother that younger men would probably get drafted soon, and he’d have to decide what he was going to do. My father was in great conflict. My grandparents understood it was my father’s duty to fight, but they didn’t want to lose their son to war, their only son. You see, my father’s older brother Alex had already died, crushed under a trolley, a brother he never knew. So my grandparents didn’t want to lose another son. They overprotected my father, kept him close. Often, as he told my mother, he felt smothered, living under his dead brother’s shadow. So you see, my father had concerns that put him under great stress.
My father’s life became more troubled when anti-Jewish feeling began springing up right here in Williamsburg. Irish and Italian kids my father knew in school, former friends and acquaintances, began forming gangs and labeling my father and his harmonica buddies “dirty yids.” My father’s Jewish friends weren’t used to getting into brawls. They wanted nothing to do with knives and chains. But my father had to do something when a swastika in bright red paint was splattered on his father’s butcher shop window.
You probably remember, Mr. Carney, that these kinds of things were happening while Roosevelt was president. I’m not saying he was responsible, but these incidents were part of his time. Do you remember the fights that broke out between the Jewish kids and the Italian and Irish gangs in Williamsburg? My father, because he felt so thoroughly Jewish, was deeply affected by them.
I can imagine how horrified my father and grandparents felt seeing that swastika on their window. Probably, they were just as horrified as the families of those Black girls you told us about who were killed by the KKK in the Alabama church bombing not too long ago, or the
Black families in the South who found KKK crosses burning on their lawns. Racism can be terrifying, especially if you don’t trust the authorities to do anything about it.
I can imagine the conversation between my grandparents and my father.
“We lived through this before son, in the pogroms in Russia,” said my grandmother.
My grandfather spoke in Yiddish. “It’s better to just let this blow over. I’ll wash the paint off.”
But my father was determined to bring the culprits to justice. “You can’t let this happen and do nothing, Pop. This isn’t Russia under the czar. We’re in America now. We have rights here. And you should speak English.”
“Rights?” my grandfather said.
The idea of people having rights was strange to my grandfather. I can see him rocking his
head in his hands repeating, “Rights? Rights?” I see him placing his hands on my father’s shoulders and looking squarely in his eyes, his own eyes filling with tears.
His voice chokes as he says, again in Yiddish, “For us Jews, believe me, there are times―I know all about them―when what you call rights don’t mean anything, anywhere―not even in America.”
I can imagine him wiping his tears with his blood-stained butcher apron and slowly walking
to the back of the store searching for a wash basin. “The paint has to come off,” he says.
I picture my father following him, kicking up sawdust and pounding his fist on the butcher block. “No, Pop, you’re wrong. Rights mean something here. You can’t accept this treatment.”
My grandfather returns with the basin and wet rags for washing off the paint. At that moment, my grandfather might have appeared smaller and frailer to my father than ever before. My father might have seen in his father’s sad frame that his own dreams of freedom, justice and opportunity were being threatened. So you see, Mr. Carney, discrimination against Jews was a reality in our own country, not only in Europe. It existed during Roosevelt’s administration, and my father was deeply troubled by it. It made him disillusioned in America.
A very sad thing happened next. Because my father did not want to fight antisemitic ruffians at school, my mother tells me that he stopped going to school. And it’s here, I must ask you, Mr. Carney, to keep the rest of this story confidential, everything I marked in the margin with red pencil. My mother doesn’t want to advertise the ugly truth about my father’s truancy and delinquent behavior and her own disobedience. I can hardly believe it myself my father a high school drop-out and my mother lying to her parents. My father would have been shocked, even outraged, if I had decided to quit school.
After my father saw that the gangs were challenging him and his friends for being stuck-up Jews, for having big heads and thinking they were better than everyone else, he decided he had had his bellyful of classes and of playing harmonica for school dances. Playing hooky and playing music in clubs were much more rewarding.
From my mother I learned that he set up a clubroom in the neighborhood on Lee Avenue, the Moonglow Clubroom, with his best friend Davy Pollack and a few other guys in his harmonica band. These were the guys he got along with, the ones who wanted to compete in the city-wide dance contests, play music, and learn from the great talents playing in the nightclubs. My father never told my mother about the club until its doors were opened. So she didn’t know about his hooky playing until much later.
The Moonglow, I learned, was like other clubrooms spreading through the city’s different ethnic neighborhoods, clubs like the Crow’s Nest, the Jester, and Club Cimarron. The clubrooms were basement flats high school boys rented for mingling and dancing, jamming on their instruments, drinking booze, and smoking cigarettes and reefer. Yes, Mr. Carney, they smoked marijuana back then.
Setting the Moonglow up consumed all my father’s time and energy. My mother said that he and his friends rummaged for used furniture with a horse and buggy. They hauled lamps, chairs, rugs, tables―you name it―to Lee Avenue. If they ran out of money, they stole what they needed―silverware, ashtrays, window shades, telling themselves the Moonglow was performing a community service by keeping teenagers off the streets. Boy, did they deceive themselves!
Anyway, shortly after the Moonglow was set up, most of my father’s friends returned to school. Not my father. The trouble he had with anti-Jewish guys flared up again with a gang member who tried crashing at the Moonglow one of the first evenings the club opened. My mother learned about the blow-up after it happened.
Kevin Shea, the leader of an Irish gang, carried a gun, so when he and some of his buddies came into the Moonglow looking for trouble, my father, who carried a knife, got designated the bouncer.
My father told Shea the Moonglow was a private club. He saw the bulge on Shea’s leg and said, “We don’t want fights here.”
“We’re just here to see what you got,” Shea said and drew the pistol from under his slacks.
My father, a head shorter than Shea and lighter in weight, tried yanking the gun out of his hand. But he wasn’t able to flip the weapon out of his grip easily, and Shea struck my father’s forehead with it. Thrown off balance, my father managed somehow to rebound. Finally, he tugged the gun out of Shea’s hand. It fell to the ground, and Shea reached for it. In that second, my father gashed Shea’s thigh with his jack knife. Luckily, with his wound, Shea had enough and hobbled off leaning on his friends’ shoulders.
The event strengthened my father’s resolve to stay away from school, from Shea and his gang. Because my father’s classes were large, and his friend Davy Pollack punched in his Delaney cards, my father wasn’t missed. He was even able to pass his exams without going to class.
I can hear my father’s good friend Davy plead with him. “Are you crazy, man? I care about you. You’ll be expelled if you’re caught out of school.”
And I can hear my father respond, “Just don’t tell Helen. She doesn’t know about the club yet. I haven’t told her I dropped out.”
“Your own girl and you haven’t told her? What’s the matter with you?”
About his truancy, my father, said not a word for over a year, told neither his parents nor my
mother. She never suspected, since she attended a different school than my father, a high school for girls in the Bronx.
All that time, my father’s parents thought he was a model student because he was smart and got good grades. They imagined him to be the perfect son who was making up for Alex, the son they lost when he was only six.
My mother told me that before she learned about my father’s truancy, she liked stepping out to the Moonglow Clubroom with my father. She had to be rebellious herself, since her parents didn’t allow her in a clubroom. They thought clubrooms were nothing but dimly-lit basement hang-outs where good girls lost their reputations.
At the Moonglow, my mother met sharpies who dressed in zoot suits and danced the Shim Sham Shimmy. She listened to my father play the harmonica with his band, the Detons. They played different size harmonicas imitating the professionals, like Borrah Minevitch and the Harmonica Rascals. My father boasted to my mother that someday he’d audition for the Rascals.
My mother and father danced the lindy-hop to swing and bebop recordings and rehearsed acrobatic routines for the city-wide contests held up in Harlem at the Savoy Ballroom. My mother told me the doubts she had at that time: How long could she continue lying to her parents? What if they found out she’d been going to the club? What if they learned that Josef smoked reefer? I was flattered, Mr. Carney, that my mother trusted me enough to tell me these things about her life as a teenager. So please don’t share this information with others.
Meanwhile, over a year later, when my father was a senior, he finally told my mother he had dropped out of school, wasn’t being allowed to graduate, and had a secret life. He told her that all the know-how he picked up on the streets and in the clubs had made up for the time he lost in school where he would have been wasting his time.
He said there was no guarantee life would be easy if he got a diploma. If he had to choose between graduating and learning about life, he’d pick life hands down. He asked her what she thought he did on Fifty-Second Street when he went to Kelly’s Stables. Did she think he just listened to the piano player and watched Charlie Chaplin movies? Or when he went to Oscar’s Bar? Did she think he just sat and drank vodka while he munched on hard-boiled eggs and onions? No! He played harmonica. He made contacts. He was learning to turn his life around. He told her about his audition with the Rascals who were making a movie.
My mother realized then that the man who had been courting her, the one she pictured herself
marrying and making babies with, had his head in the air, a luftmensch she called him. She asked herself why he was making life harder for himself. Why wasn’t he staying in school until he graduated? Why didn’t he master his parents’ trade and open a butcher shop in the neighborhood like he used to dream about?
My mother found out that my father’s buddy, Spencer, who lived nearby on Bedford Street and used to ask my father for help with homework, was playing hooky with him. Spencer taught my father different kinds of things: where to play pool, where to jam with Negro bands, and where to cop reefer. They traveled together up to the Savoy Ballroom on Lenox Avenue to hear the Savoy Sultans. The Negro band let my father jam with them occasionally during rehearsals because they knew he was good. The band leader, Al Cooper, said to my father after he heard him play, “Boy, you got a great sound. Where the hell did you come from?”
And that was it. It wasn’t about color. It was about respecting people’s talents.
My father told my mother he found relief from his personal problems and the city’s racial tension at the Savoy Ballroom. He liked that people of different cultural backgrounds mixed there socially. The fancy atmosphere, all the mirrors and pink decorations, must have transported the Negro and white clientele out of their poverty and fears. It seemed to be a home for happy feet where local dancers, little people, strutted their stuff. I see my father at the Savoy Ballroom watching some of the Sultans get high on weed, on smack, and on pills. I see him pondering limits he’s set for himself. When he’s at the Moonglow, he goes no further than drinking vodka and smoking reefer. But at the Savoy, I imagine him in the Savoy men’s room with a pusher telling him that booze is a downer and that he should try a different groove. He knows that Spencer has tried smack a few times, but my father is scared of it. The risks of heroin begin filling my father’s head. He’ll shame his family, lose my mother, and maybe become addicted. He knows boys in the neighborhood who’ve gotten hooked and become ill.
The pusher says to my father, “C’mon man. Fuck. Hang up that jive. Just horn this, snort it.”
My father tells him to get lost. “I don’t want any shit,” he says.
“You’re drinking like there’s no tomorrow,” the pusher says. “But when you sniff this stuff, you got no hangover and your instrument sings like a bird.”
“Guys die from smack,” my father says, pushing the guy away.
A few other players on break walk into the men’s room. They catch on. I hear a lanky trumpet player saying to my father, “None of us is hooked, my man. Right guys?”
“Yeah,” the other players say.
The trumpet player continues. “With smack, you can taste and just play around. Some guys don’t know when to stop. But that doesn’t have to be you. You just stop when you want to, like we do. Why don’t you just try it?”
My father is about to leave and get a drink with Spencer, when the trumpet player whispers in his ear. “You play your harmonica real good sonny. Joey, we’ll show you the way to go. Then you can play with us in the second set. What do you say boys? Can’t pretty Joey be big time with us?”
The players begin chanting, “Joe-eee! Joe-eee! Joe-eee!”
My father feels like getting high. What’s wrong with just tasting? I won’t get hooked from a taste. Spencer’s not hooked. If there’s a problem, I’ll stop. What the hell? I drink booze and smoke reefer. There’s no harm in them.
Mr. Carney, this is how I imagine my father about to be hooked on heroin. I had to stop writing when I came to this part of the story because I was too overwhelmed. I had trouble seeing what I was writing through my tears. I was so upset. But I had to do your assignment! I wish I could have been there in the bathroom with my father. I wish I could have stopped him from snorting heroin that first time. I would have said to him, “Dad, don’t ruin your life and everything beautiful that’s ahead of you. What about the family you want to have someday, children? Don’t risk it, Dad! No, Dad. Turn your back!”
The trumpet player takes him into a stall and shows him how to snort powdered heroin. My father’s sinuses begin to tingle and burn. His throat tastes bitter. He thinks he’s made a big mistake. But when he steps onto the bandstand, and the horse begins to course through his body, he experiences incredible, intense warmth. He feels blissful, at peace. His demons are put to rest: the watchful, judging eyes of his parents; the haunting memories of his dead brother and his lost Polish cousins; the scorn of Jew-hating gangs; the war looming before him. High on the drug and on rhythms of swing, he soars for miles. The velvety chords streaming out of his harmonica sound perfect. He sees my mother in his mind, his Helen, floating above him on angel’s wings. And his joy, his happiness, lasts all night. No fear or danger touches him. He’s eighteen and free, invincible. Free to be himself, the person he desires to be. And he wants to feel this way again and again.
And that’s what I imagine, Mr. Carney. One taste was too much for him. One taste that he needed to repeat for over twenty years because he couldn’t stop. And he died from it.
Copyright © Sharon Leder 2014
Sharon Leder is Professor Emerita, Nassau Community College, Garden City, New York. Founder of its Jewish Studies Project, she co-edited with Milton Teichman Truth and Lamentation: Stories and Poems on the Holocaust (University of Illinois Press, 1994) and The Burdens of History: Post-Holocaust Generations in Dialogue (Merion Westfield Press International, 2000). She authored “Becoming a Teacher of Jewish Studies,” Breakthrough, Ed. Mel B. Yoken (Peter Lang, 2007). Currently Program Director of the Teichman Art Gallery, Brewster, Cape Cod, she is completing a novel We All Fall Down, of which “Letter to Mr. Carney” is a chapter. Chapter One, “Private Family Business,” appears in WIPs Online Journal (June 2013). Chapter Two, “The Two Fathers, 1955,” appears in Connected: What Remains As We All Change (Wising Up Press, 2014).