When I think of my grandfather, I remember him walking. Preceding
the fitness craze by a good few decades, ahead of his time, this old
man from Russian-Poland, he would walk enormous distances. As a child
it didn't seem particularly odd to me, or otherwise incredible. Grandpa
just liked to walk. In the city, were he resided in Brighton Beach with
his widowed son-in-law and my two teenaged cousins, Grandpa used the
boardwalk for his daily constitutionals. However, in summer, when visiting
with us at the bungalow colony, he took to the road.
Grandpa, who was also called "Whitey" (the sobriquet attributed to
the inability of my cousin Alan, as a toddler, to correctly pronounce
the Yiddish word for grandpa, which was "Zaydah"--instead mangling it
into a word that sounded like "Vitey.") was a bit of a clotheshorse,
a fair share of his salary designated for stocking his closet. He dutifully
shopped at Maxie's, a haberdasher of long standing in Williamsburgh,
Brooklyn. The huge, corner store was on Broadway, underneath the el.
Maxie and grandpa were friends, "lanzman" they called each other, though
I hadn't then a clue what the term signified. I only knew that inside
the spacious store, grandpa was treated like a favorite relative, and
when the time came for my first "good suit"-a gray sharkskin-it was
purveyed from Maxie's extensive inventory, after much intense deliberation
between my grandfather and Maxie himself.
Fleeing certain induction in the Czar's army-a severely limited future
for a young Jew--grandpa arrived in America immediately before the Second
World War. Like millions of his generation, he spoke little English,
read none at all, and enjoyed few if any prospects for shelter, let
alone a job. Yet he managed to build a life here-marrying, establishing
a family, providing an income, embracing a land and a tradition that
in many ways would remain forever foreign. The language was always uncertain
on his tongue, his conversation always a fusion of broken Yiddish and
I digress, but only so as to flesh out a picture of the man. Whitey
embraced much of the culture, developing deep affections for disparate
icons of his time. He adored Lucille Ball, rooted for Willie Mays, and
was a devotee of Jack Daniel's bourbon and Dutch Masters cigars. He
achieved citizenship as quickly as he could, and from that day until
he was put into the ground, at age 94, he never voted anything but the
straight "Democratic ticket." He enjoyed television, and, in addition
to his life-long love affair with Lucy, he was partial to Lawrence Welk,
Red Skeleton and Jackie Gleason. I remember Whitey encouraging me and
my brother to watch re-runs of "I Love Lucy" and the "Honeymooners",
not bad taste for a greenie whose only daily reading was the old Jewish
paper, THE FORWARD, which, of course, he called, "The Forvitz."
My mom used the week preceding grandpas' arrival in the country to
fortify herself for his annual summer visit. His stay was always of
indeterminable duration-sometimes two weeks, sometimes a month-in retrospect
I suppose he departed just after either he or my mom had exhausted all
tolerance for each other. Not that mom wasn't fond of Whitey, who was
my paternal grandfather,-it's just that with my grandmother gone all
those years, he'd settled into his own ways, and he was intractable
to any call for even the slightest deviation. He liked to rise early,
often before the sun was up. He dressed in the darkened kitchen, quietly
made up the high-riser, went to the bathroom where to take his teeth
from the glass of "Efferdent" and re-fix them to his gums with "Polident",
and slipped from the bungalow while the rest of the colony slept. Then
he took to the road.
I first realized how often and how distant grandpa walked when I discovered
the early morning treasures he often had with him on his return-fresh
rolls, cookies, donuts and danish-were from Katz's bakery on Broadway,
in Monticello, a good three to four miles from our colony. Now, I had
often seen groups of older men and women strolling along the shady country
roads, but I'd never given much thought to just where they'd come from,
or to where they were headed. That Whitey daily trekked over seven miles,
often in his spit- shined cordovan loafers, was an enjoyable observation,
but nothing more. If the old guy liked walking, so be it.
Upon his return to our bungalow, he ate an enormous breakfast—three
eggs, a roll, cheese, tomato, onion, herring, juice, tea, danish. I
can still remember sitting with him at the old Formica table, grandpa
drinking his glass of tea-always in a glass, never a cup-a sugar cube
tightly clenched between his false teeth so as to sweeten every sip
of the golden liquid. Then he would adjourn to the porch to light up
a Dutch Masters panatela and survey the colony from the comfort of a
For the length of his visit my brother and I never lacked for sufficient
change for pinball, or pool, or junk food. Contrary to my mother's desires,
Whitey instructed the concessionaires to allow us to charge anything
we desired so ice cream and french-fries, malteds and bubble gum, became
daily rituals. Often grandpa would return from his afternoon stroll
with surprises. There were water guns, comic books, slingshots and Spaldeens.
Sometimes there were those old, silly plastic lawn games, the ones with
the net and the clicker that propelled forth a small ball that had to
be caught by the other person, in their plastic net. There was the paddle
toy, with the small rubber ball attached by the elastic cord. Once,
just before the Fourth of July, he appeared with a tremendous bag filled
with firecrackers, sparklers and roman candles. Had Whitey managed to
walk all the way to Chinatown?
He'd worked many years in the huge commercial laundries, eventually
rising to manager. His life had been checkered with fascinating anecdotes
and colorful acquaintances, but I was too young and too self-involved
to take the time to delve into his treasure trove of memories, and then,
when it occurred to me to try, it was too late, because he was gone.
I later learned, through an uncle, of his long, involved and fascinating
flight from Russia to the US, where he hid out in basements and sewers
by day, and traveled by night. I discovered several men whose names
still live in infamy-Louis "Lepke" Buchwalter and Meyer Lansky, had
befriended him. Lepke often used the laundries to stash firearms and
contraband. Lansky sometimes discussed politics and sports with Whitey
over tea and danish at a rear table at "Ratner's."
He'd been widowed in 1948, when my grandmother died from cancer, and
till his death he never lacked for female companionship. He played a
keen game of gin rummy, and casino, which he taught to my brother and
me. He had a passion for auction pinochle, and if I close my eyes I
can still see his thick, strong, gnarled fingers awkwardly shuffling
the cards, dealing them out, slapping my hand whenever I made a misplay.
It's interesting to speculate on just what is genetic and what is
random and what is choice. I, too, loved Lucy, and the "Honeymooners."
While my friends worshipped "The Mick", I was enamoured of Mays. So
was my brother, who I believe also inherited Whitey's affection for
fine and expensive clothing. I enjoy gin rummy, and play casino for
high stakes, and to this day my drink is Jack Daniel's.
Whitey outlived his wife and two children, and died at age 94, in
February 1983, 9 months to the day before the birth of my first child.
I miss him everyday.