Soon after we moved from Apt. 2H, Building 27, 550 Ave. Z in Fred Trump’s Beach Haven to our cookie-cutter, semi-attached house at 46-05 216th Street, in Bayside, Queens, I began to spend time with kids whom my mother said were “bad influences.”
Unlike her sister, Fanny, who automatically objected to her son, Allie, having an Italian friend: My mother was not against gentiles. Nonetheless she would rather if I played with Gerson Sable than with Ronnie Pulchowski or — even worse — Pudgy Dutcher.
“Mom, Pudgy is not a bad influence.”
“Yes he is.”
“Whose idea was it to break that kid’s tricycle?” she asked.
“That was an accident!”
“But whose idea was it to take it?” she asked.
“We just took it for a ride. We were going to give it back.”
“With a bent wheel?”
“Mom, that was an accident.”
Ronald and Pudgy had been hot-rodding the trike while it’s 5 year old owner cried helplessly. When it was my turn — bad luck — I ran it full speed into a hidden stump in the overgrown corner lot and the wheel twisted. That night my father received a telephone call and I received a spanking and a stern talk.
“You are going to end up in jail,” he predicted. On other occasions he forecast that I would end up a ditch-digger. As it turned out, as an adult I fulfilled both prognostications. But unlike my father who complained endlessly about his job as an optician: I enjoyed jail, and felt proud of my accomplishments digging ditches.
Pudgy lived in one of the cookie-cutter homes down the street. Ronnie’s house — across from Pudgy’s — was a large, one-of-a kind, big yellow stucco: one of the few homes from before the farmer’s field became a newly-developed neighborhood, 3 years prior.
One Christmas Eve, I stopped by Pulchowski’s house not realizing that it was full of guests. Ronnie’s tall blond sister was almost 30 years old. His mother was plump, gray-haired and elderly. Ronald’s father looked ancient and desiccated. He wore a worn, tweed scally cap, not today’s fashionable variety, but rather the drab emblem of elderly immigrant men. The old man constantly made chewing motions with his toothless mouth.
Only years later did I realize that Ronald “parents” must have been his grandparents, covering for Ronald’s unwed mother.
Ronald opened the door and brought me to the living room, which was filled with relatives mostly orienting toward the long table stacked with eye-catching cold cuts. My family was not religious so I could eat this stuff with a clear conscience, yet the bounty of sausages, salami, liverwurst, and ham still held a salacious appeal for this Jewish boy.
There was a warmth in the room, other than from the steam radiator. Through the large open pocket doors, I saw Ronald’s “sister” talking with a tall guy in a military uniform.
When Ronald’s rotund old mother came near, I felt the comforting warmth. “Steve, how nice to see you!” she said as she reached for a plate and started to fill it with slices of ham, rolled up and skewered with toothpicks. Then she stopped, returned the ham to the serving plate, and on a clean, new plate started to place roast beef. “Your mother would not want you to eat ham? We have lots of roast beef… and cheese!”
Apparently Mrs. Pulchowski did not know about לא תבשל גדי בחלב אמו which according to Dr. Rabbi Zev Farver is “generally translated as ‘do not cook a kid in its mother’s milk.’”
I had been eying the liverwurst, not to mention the salami and ham. Now thanks to Mrs. Pulchowski’s solicitude, my chances were slipping away.
“Oh, thank you Mrs. Pulschowski, but we are Reform. My mother makes bacon and eggs for breakfast, and sometimes for lunch bacon with melted cheese on English Muffins.” Actually we belonged to a Conservative Synagogue, but I was hoping not to have to explain the nuances of Judaism… it felt particularly awkward at this Christian gathering on Christmas Eve.
For an instant, confusion appeared on Mrs. Pulchowski’s face, quickly giving way to a happy smile. She handed me the plate and told me to help myself to as much of anything I want. As I thanked her, I noticed that in addition to the piles of cold cuts, there was bread of all kinds, potato salad and ‘slaw’; and there were small bowls filled with three kinds of mustard!
Ronald’s father hardly ever said anything, but when he did, I could never understand him. In fact, I never knew whether the wizened old man was speaking Polish or English. Nonetheless, I assumed that Ronald could understand his own dad. Because of a magic trick gone wrong, I realized that even Ronald could not comprehend his father’s speech.
I had taught myself a few magic tricks from library books. One day when Ronald was over my house, I showed him one. The trick involved a dime, a napkin, and a salt-shaker. You divert the audience by telling them that you are going to make the dime disappear, but instead it is the salt-shaker that vanishes.
A few days after I taught Ronald the trick, he told me that he had tried to show it to his father, but he screwed it up. The salt shaker opened and salt went all over the place.
“What did your father say?” I asked.
“He said: ‘Schmoogala!’”