It’s July, I’m working on my book and some literary pieces that I haven’t been putting in, but frankly I’m tired, and love being outdoors on summer nights so I’m going to be telling some favorite family stories. This story isn’t fleshed out; and it needs to be tuned, but bear with me while I get back into the Savage family story telling groove.
My dad grew up in on East 106th Street in East Harlem, when it was mostly Jewish and Italian with a mixture of some other groups. My sister and I were always under the impression that about 60 of his cousins lived in the same tenement building, and that everybody on the block were either relatives or close friends.
My grandparents owned a small candy store under the building, that had the one phone on the block, usually used by the neighborhood bookie. The bookie noticed my father’s ability with numbers when he was about eight and thus began my dad’s career….not really, but at the time bookies were respected (at least by our family–very respected), and the mob helped people with their problems.
Or so I was told throughout my childhood. The candy store didn’t make much money. My grandmother worked in all day and night it seemed only to stop to make dinner for my grandfather and 25 or so of his best friends who would stop by to talk politics. Yes, they were Socialists.
I can’t vouch for the veracity of the story I’m about to tell but I heard it at least 5,000 times over the years. Once my mom and I were talking and she began laughing.
“You believed everything daddy told you?”
“Well, duh, yeah, he was born between Lincoln and Washington’s birthdays, and was so proud of being born between the births of two great and honest presidents.”
After my mother stop convulsing:
“Daddy would say almost anything for the sake of a good story. You were the one person I never thought he could fool.”
“I was his daughter. Remember? He practiced all his stories on me from the time I was in a crib.”
My parents had met as teenagers during the depression. They dated for many years because they couldn’t afford to get married, and then they didn’t have children for a number of years after they were married. Say this because my mom worshipped my dad. After my younger sister and I left home for college, they acted like newly weds. One of us had always been embarrassed by their life long show of affection in public places, and it wasn’t the sister telling this story.
I found the above remarks to be almost treason, and was shocked beyond words. However she did admit that the one I’m starting to tell, slowly like my dad always told a story, could very possibly be true.
My dad’s version of a bed time lullaby was “Sad sad and lonely. If I had the wings of an angel, over these prison walls I would fly.”
It was a song about an armed robber who wanted to escape to see his girlfriend. Honestly, I had no idea that other fathers sang songs like “you are my sunshine.” Found that out as an adult and was shocked. Though my dad sounds kind of criminally inclined from his stories, he was the most moral and honest person I have ever been privileged to know.
Putting that in because it’s true and these are way different times than his childhood and early adulthood. My dad wouldn’t sing “Sad sad and lonely” in the 1980’s when my generation began having kids.
“Armed robbery is so tame.”
My dad belonged to a boys club named for an Indian tribe. They met at a community center (settlement house) somewhere in East Harlem. Every block or two had its own club; my dad’s club, consisted of several of his cousins and about ten other boys. Throughout the rest of their lives they would be called “the boys.”
My dad’s best friend, aside from his cousins, was named Norm. Norm was as loud as my dad was quiet. When my parents were first courting, my father was too shy to call my mother and would have Norm call for him. Fortunately my mom liked Norm and my dad’s cousins whom she had actually known first. When my mother’s friend’s would tease her for dating a tall gangly boy instead of the handsome boys they all went out with, she would smile and say:
“Max is going to college. He’s going to make something of himself, and he’ll fill out.”
He did turn into a very handsome man. I have the tape of the MTV commercial he starred in when MTV was new to prove it. But that’s a different story that some of you have heard, but I will tell again. This ones about Norm Rubin.
Norm was wild and coarse. While my dad was studying at High School of Commerce, working for the bookie, and working at another part time job, Norm was roaming the streets not killing or mugging people, but doing whatever high school dropouts without money did. I know he played a lot of practical jokes and told ribald jokes but I have no idea what they were.
I’m not sure if Norm had parents or not; if he did they were very peripheral to his life. He did have an uncle; his uncle was a Jewish gangster who was much more important than the neighborhood bookie. I will call him Uncle Sy–nobodies real name is used basically to protect me from the wrath of my sister. Uncle Sy had watched Norm grow up into a loud mouthed very very small time hood. When Norm was 16 his uncle had a talk with him.
Uncle Sy told Norm that he was too smart to waste his time on the streets. He told Norm that he was probably the smartest person he knew and much smarter than his lawyer. If Norm finished high school, he would send him to college and law school. Then Norm would become his personal mouthpiece. Norm went to college and to Fordham Law. Though Fordham was a Catholic college, I always call Fordham Law the Jewish old boy’s network, because so many Jewish boys (and one woman who will rate her own story) I knew later had gone there in the 1930’s.
Norm lived up to his end of the deal; his uncle was killed several weeks before Norm graduated and Norm never had to work for him. This isn’t to say that Norm ever lost that street edge; it’s probably what gave him the large suite of offices in The Empire State Building. When I was thirteen he told me my first dirty joke and was very proud that I got it.
My father and Norm remained friends and colleagues until my father’s death. As my dad became a CPA, they were a good match. Though my dad had his own practice, they often worked together. Since The Empire State was close to Penn Station my dad would stop there before going home. It was his version of going to a bar.
When I was 25 and found an apartment in the East 60’s off Fifth Avenue, the landlord, a white collar criminal attorney, very coincidentally knew both Norm and my father. Well, it was a coincidence that my father saw the ad in the paper, I probably wouldn’t have been given a lease if my father hadn’t known Norm and hence the landlord.
Sometimes I would stop by Norm’s office to meet my father before going out to dinner. If I arrived before my dad, Norm would tell me dirty jokes. No I can’t repeat them here.
The boys met often throughout their lifetimes. Though my dad and Norm were the most successful financially they never considered themselves better than…and somehow all my father’s cousins became attorneys and had gone to Fordham Law though they didn’t have a rich uncle to pay for their education.
My parents had many social circles. They loved meeting new people, and they loved going out. But somehow the boys represented safety to me; they had known each other from diapers to death. Safety isn’t the word that I’m striving for. They showed me that friendship could span decades, and that friendships will go through stages like love relationships. Maybe friendship is the ultimate love relationship.
I have no idea if Norm’s uncle really was a famous mob figure or not; and I don’t ever want to know if he wasn’t.