I’m not sure my father graduated from high school. He never told me. I think my mother graduated from Girls High in Brooklyn, but I’m not certain. She had come to New York in the hold of a ship from Russia with her mother, my Grandmother, who had six children in tow. My mother was three years old. My Grandfather had come a few years earlier to save enough money to bring them to the United States. It all happened in the waning days of the nineteenth century. That was the way it was done.
My father came to New York from London’s East End when he was ten years old. He was, I think, born in Poland and had come to England with my grandparents when he was eight months old. He rarely talked about his early childhood in London, but when he did he cited merely the names of boys with whom he had played. He never went back.
That is the sum total of knowledge that I gleaned from my parents about their early days. It represents a huge gap in my education. Perhaps it was my fault. I never asked. But they never told me. I didn’t miss this lack of knowledge until a few years ago. Now I hunger for it. Not only about their history but about the whole line of ancestors that came before me.
This is not how I got the idea for The Sunset Gang, but it is an element of memory that clearly connects with the idea and might be one of the subconscious reasons why I wrote these stories.
Late in life my parents retired to Florida. Somehow, after a life of hard economic knocks, they managed to scrape up enough money to buy a one-bedroom condominium for $13,000 in Century Village in West Palm Beach. My father had been a bookkeeper, mostly expendable and mostly unemployed throughout the great depression. Half our lives were spent in a small three-bedroom house in Brownsville, Brooklyn bought for my mother’s parents, my grandparents, by their sons who supported them. We moved in whenever we were thrown out of our apartment for not paying the rent. It was called being dispossessed.
My grandparents had no social security, no pension, no means of support except by their children. The house became a refuge for us and those of my aunts and uncles and cousins who had lost the means of their livelihood because of hard times. There were eleven of us who lived in this tiny house with one bathroom. I slept with my kid brother. My parents slept somewhere downstairs in the dining room.
I have no memories of deprivation or unhappiness. I loved my childhood and loved that house, but that is another story I will write someday.
Oh yes, the idea of The Sunset Gang. Century Village in West Palm Beach is a sprawling community which was populated in the seventies and eighties by mostly lower middle class people, many of whom were Jewish, who had found Valhalla after lives of tough sledding in New York City and and other northern cities. It’s probably much changed these days. Most people who lived there then were, like my parents, immigrants. With their children grown, they trekked to the new promised land. Florida! This became the magic destination, with sunshine, perpetually blooming flora and fauna, swimming pools, a giant clubhouse for entertainment, vast areas for card playing, old comedians doing their Catskill shtick, cycling clubs, lectures, classes and, above all, gossip.
Gossip had always been the coin of the realm among these immigrants who had come to American as children. They had always lived in close quarters, always watching and listening to the people who lived around them. They were always observing each other, talking about each other, criticizing, commenting, bragging. They were a living pulsing version of today’s tabloids. They knew who was cheating on whose husband or wife, who was lying about their past lives, who was exaggerating about their children’s achievements, who was richer or poorer, who had been a crook or a gangster, who was in bad health, who was dying, which widow was on the prowl for a man and visa versa. Above all, they knew who had secrets and they passed them around to each other in strict confidence. “You shouldn’t tell” meant spread the word. They were more efficient communicators than today’s internet.
The principal conduits for this word of mouth knowledge were the women. The “Yentas.” Yenta is a Yiddish word for busybodies, a term of derision and mild contempt.
My mother would have been appalled if she was referred to as a Yenta. In fact, no woman would ever admit she was, at heart, a Yenta. “Me a Yenta. Are you crazy?”
The men, too, were a form of male yenta, although I never heard them referred to as such. To them yenta was the ultimate put-down, a troublemaker, a female gangster. “Watch your mouth. The Yentas could be listening.” was the ultimate danger signal of all the men who I met at Century Village on my periodic visits to my parents.
This said, I must confess that all of the ideas that became the short stories in my books, The Sunset Gang and later It’s Never Too Late for Love came from the Yentas of Century Village, including my mother. I owe them a profound debt of gratitude.
I began this little essay with some background about where my parents came from. I am, after all, a child of their experience and their genes flow in the blood of my body and my brain. I know in my gut that these stories come from that fount, that milieu.
God, how I miss them.
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