Gold Lined the Streets of NYC

My Great Grandfather and Great Grandmother lived in Russia in the late 1800’s. One day my Great Grandfather said “The streets are lined with gold in NYC. I’m going to go there and we will be rich!”. He left my Great Grandmother who was pregnant at the time. She never heard from him so two years later she decided to follow him to NYC with a two-year old to find him!

When they arrived they stayed with some family and eventually found an apartment. To make money my Great Grandmother bought a push cart and sold vegetables every day. This was common on Hester Street. Women would line up and sell all sorts of things. And at the end of the day if there was anything left, there would be a trade with all of the vendors so they could feed their families.

She never found my Great Grandfather. I wonder if he died on the boat going over there. The part of the family that likes to talk, were certain he had just left her. They also claimed that she wasn’t married and had a child out-of-wedlock. This version of the story really upset my Mother and my Aunt. It was also ridiculous because my Great Grandmother was very religious.

Her name was Bella Rubinsky. She had long red hair, big blue eyes and a tiny nose. Her patience was worn by the time I showed up. I was a troublemaker and she had lived a hard life. I remember when she was mad at me at the table she would reach across the table with her long nails to pull my hair and face, but I was too fast. She never got me.

Her daughter Lillian married Thomas Kanaplue. He worked int he navy yard and was a big strong guy who unloaded things from trucks to the boats. He was so strong, it wasn’t uncommon for him to help people lug ice boxes up several flights of stairs to their apartments. He would strap them to his back! He also took care of a whole bird pen on the roof of his building. He was a gentle giant.

Bella thought Thomas wasnt good enough for Lillian. Unfortunately, they all lived together from the start of their marriage. He came in to support both of them, but Bella would NEVER speak to him. He was also never allowed in her room. This worked to my benefit later on when my Grandfather would try to reprimand me as a child after my Grandmother worked him over. He would chase me with a broom and I would run into my Great Grandmothers room and I was safe! He would try to poke me in the room with a long broom and Bella always backed me up. Eventually he would give up.

Thomas died when he was 63. When I was in my teens my Grandmother moved in with us. Most days she would be cooking her spicy spaghetti sauce when I came home after school. One day  she said to me, “You know you don’t look like your mother! You look like your father’s family cuz you’re hairy!” I guess I was hairy, for a girl. But I’ve always had a complex I looked like my father. Resembling your father is one thing, but LOOKING like you father is another! So she would say this and then force me to eat her spaghetti sauce, even though it turned my stomach.

When I think about my Great Grandfather leaving my Great Grandmother and Grandma Lillian to go find gold in NYC, it sounds both awful and exciting. I feel bad he left, but happy to know that his adventurous and optimistic spirit is in my family tree. Mostly, Im glad it lead my Great  Grandmother here with Lillian in tow. What a couple of characters.

I turned 79 two days ago and still live here in NYC. The streets still aren’t lined with gold , but if it wasn’t for my Great Grandfather thinking they were I would probably be in Russia right now. I’m not sure if I would like that or not, but at least I’d still have my fathers face.

 

 

It’s About Time

In the mid-sixties I took a bus to Washington DC to protest the Vietnam war. We all chipped in and  loaded up on a bus on Central Park West and 100th street. The bus was full of life and singing the songs of Bob Dylan and Peter Paul and Mary. The long drive seemed like minutes and we poured out of the bus near the Reflecting Pool and joined thousands of others protesting.

I squirmed through the crowds to find a good place to stand. It was one of the first times I was with a giant group of people who were doing something so positive. Their politics matched mine and they felt the same about human nature. They had American flags, all of us did. We all sang, “If I had a hammer, I’d hammer in the morning, I’d hammer in the evening, all over this land!”  The love was palpable.

The police were everywhere. Under the guise of protecting us, we knew they were their to protect other people from whatever we did.  But all we wanted was peace. We knew we weren’t going to storm the White House.

We had signs protesting the war. Abbie Hoffman spoke. This lead to a string of protests I attended. Be it Women’s Rights, the War, anti-Semitism or sit ins wrapped in American flags – I did it!  It was an incredible time when huge masses of people forced society forward, and I was one of them.

The one thing I didn’t attend was Woodstock. I was really focused on my studies and activism at Pratt at the time. We were protesting to have our curriculum changed and as architects we drew structures all over the streets. We sang, we marched and we won. The people I knew who went to Woodstock were on a lot of drugs and alcohol and I felt much more comfortable with people I had more in common with. Basically I didn’t think it was going to be anything but a big drug fest, which I think its sort of was. But in the end we all were breaking barriers and fighting our rights. Even at Woodstock!

I am proud our country has the opportunity to vote for a Woman President today. Whether she wins or looses, I’m part of the reason she is able to run at all and I’m proud of that. I’m only 78, but it’s about time!

 

A Beatnik in Mexico

In the 60’s I was a Beatnik in El Paso with my first husband. It was a crazy time. We had this large calendar on the wall where we would put the dates until we could leave. We hated El Paso and spent our days listening to a lot of Lenny Bruce. I loved him!  I also witnessed the Freedom riders getting dragged out of restaurants in Texts and it deeply effected me. So much so, I volunteered to wait for the busses in the hopes that I could interfere with the violence, as a demonstrator. But there wasn’t much I could do without getting beaten up myself.

Lack of respect for people in general was all around me. I was teaching for the first time in my life. My days were filled with trying to help people, however when I was interviewed by the Principal she said, “Now Judy! I don’t want you bringing in your New York Jewish ways!” She said I smelled of sex. I had a moment where I could have said, “Go fuck yourself”” But I realized this was where I was needed the most. And while the other teachers called their Mexican student Wetbacks, I did my job. Teach.

Many of the Mexican students were learning English for the first time. Getting past the language hurdle was the first step to getting to know who they were as people. I had a couple of students who were cousins; Matthew and Catalina Gonzalez. They knew more English than the others and ended up being the brightest kids in the class. They were very smart and eager to learn. The Mexican kids were so thirsty for information I could do no wrong. I taught them as much as I could fit into my days and they absorbed everything like a sponge.

I met the parents of a lot of the students on parents day and they were lovely. The other teachers treated them with disdain, but I told them all of the wonderful things about those kids.

To see Mexicans in any way besides with respect is purely prejudiced. Back then they were productive and had a growing middle class.  I remember feeling safe and inspired by their creativity. And regardless of how much money they have they made beautiful things and sold them in the streets. They were driven to get out of poverty and educate their children. And they have.

I haven’t been there in years, but I often think of my students and their parents. I wonder what they think about Trumps plan to build a wall. They were forward thinking like I was and I know I don’t like the idea of it at all. If one goes up, I plan to help tear it down. Maybe they’ll help me.