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HUSTLING FULL-TIME IN THE CATSKILLS
by Elliot Podwill
MY PARENTS BLUNDERED badly in 1945, a year after I was born. They lived in what is today the South Bronx, and my father made the long commute to Brooklyn to work in the huge Navy Yard. The war years brought him prosperity as a welder of ships, with good wages and lots of overtime. But very shortly after the war ended, my parents decided to move from the city to the region of the Catskill Mountains known familiarly as the Borscht Belt, allegedly because my mother wanted to live near her mother, my grandmother.
Why was this move to the hamlet of South Fallsburg a blunder? It meant depriving my father, and therefore my family, of a year-round income. Instead of repairing torpedoed ships, he would be selling Three Musketeers bars to larcenous children. My parents’ candy store -- an old-fashioned establishment that sold newspapers and comic books, toys and games, candy, of course, and sodas that required a real glass, syrup, seltzer, and a spoon for stirring -- was open for business roughly from Memorial Day to Labor Day. This three-month work year provided little more than a quarter of a year of income, perhaps enough when I was the only child, but increasingly inadequate with the addition of each child, ultimately five in all. In addition, my grandmother aside, our many relatives and whatever friends my parents might have had remained in New York.
Why my hot-tempered father agreed to move, I’ll never know. But this is how my family wound up living in an unlikely place as children and grandchildren of Eastern European shtetl Jews. The area was physically attractive and rugged in places, but almost no Jews took walks in the woods, bicycled on back roads, fished for trout in the many streams, or looked at the stars on a clear summer night. We were city people living in a location our Lower East Side and Bronx parents would have ignored. We had relocated to the mountains because other Jews lived in or visited there. (Originally the Jewish population had consisted of Lower East Side tuberculosis sufferers staying in sanitariums, or utopian socialists who believed that Jews needed to free themselves by farming the land.) On occasion, kids visiting from Brooklyn or the Bronx would respond, “Get outta here!” when I told them that I was a genuine local, so small was the year-round population (approximately 1,200 in my town the year I graduated from high school).
MANY LEFTWING New York Jews brought their politics to the Catskills. Various blacklisted entertainers who had difficulty finding work in the city were able to get work in the mountains. Zero Mostel and Paul Robeson were two outstanding examples, appearing in Catskills resorts after McCarthyism had made it impossible for them to get cabaret licenses to work in the city. The Foner brothers, three of whom (Moe, Henry, and Jack) were fired from their CUNY teaching positions in 1941 after the state legislature mandated that communist professors be let go, became the Foner Orchestra, which played almost exclusively in the Borscht Belt. [See Henry Foner’s musical memoir here. —Editor] They were the lucky recipients of childhood music lessons traditionally provided even by working-class Jewish parents.
Even before the blacklist era began, during the 1930s and early 1940s, much leftwing activism, mostly affiliated with the Communist Party (CP), took place in the mountains. The small village of Woodridge donated an ambulance to the Loyalists during the Spanish Civil War. W.E.B. DuBois was an occasional speaker at public forums. The CP was, in fact, one of the few white-majority groups that worked actively for civil rights. Carl Bernstein, who broke the Watergate story in the Washington Post, writes in his memoir about frequently chiding his father for being a member of the CP, for supporting Stalinist tyranny. His father’s response was that he had little interest in Soviet politics but viewed CP membership as the most practical way to combat segregation and general discrimination, north and south.
There were small leftwing hotels whose guests were mostly progressive (folk dancing was a favored activity), and bungalow colonies with individual units bearing such names as Emma Goldman and Karl Marx. In addition, several “commie camps” attracted the children of New York CP members and fellow travelers. The camping population was diverse for its day, and kids learned much about international solidarity. The “fraternal” organization most prominent in the area was the Workmen’s Circle, a Jewish-socialist group that among other services provided burial insurance. (My father’s funeral was paid for by Workmen’s Circle.)
Some of our teachers were current or past CP members -- not as many as those who were chicken farmers, a favored second career for leftist professionals who had been pushed out of their jobs, but a meaningful number. We knew who Fidel Castro was before he became a headline; though he hadn’t yet declared his political allegiances, he was seen as a heroic enemy of colonialism. Our teachers had us closely follow the civil rights movement in the south, a struggle that included important Communist participation. One of our teachers took a carful of students to a John Birch Society meeting in a nearby town so we could see the fascist enemy with our own eyes.
Not that we were sufficiently sophisticated to recognize the political slant of our teachers or some of our classmates’ families. This was an era, after all, when leftist sympathies deprived people of work or literally, in some cases, their freedom. I was surprised to learn years later that several of my classmates were members of Communist families. I realized in retrospect that they’d have been warned by their parents to keep their mouths shut to avoid creating problems for themselves. It’s hard for me to imagine that any of our teachers liked Ike, and intellectually they’d have respected Adlai Stevenson. In fact, it’s hard to imagine anyone in town, at least among the Jewish majority, voting Republican.
THIS IS NOT to suggest that our region was a workers’ paradise. Quite the opposite, in fact. The family of one of my classmates, owners of a small hotel that was typically open for three months, spent the remaining nine months for a couple of years renting an apartment from my parents in the downstairs part of our decrepit old house. Their unit consisted of a kitchen and one bedroom; where two parents and three children slept is anybody’s guess. Few hotels resembled the Concord, with its golf course, ski slopes, and year-round operation.
There were, astonishingly, more than 500 hotels in the mountains during their prime, few of them world beaters, along with countless bungalow colonies. The fly-by-night summer day camp that my brother and I attended, typically affordable to local working-class parents too busy to watch their kids during the summer, had, as a Saturday activity, visiting the local A&P in order to rummage through garbage cans in the rear in search of discarded fruit. We kids became expert at selecting peaches and plums that contained a few unrotten portions. Back at the camp, the exercise activities of the older kids included trimming the good spots and placing what remained of the fruit in bowls. A favorite morning exercise was picking blueberries from the many local wild bushes, which we later sold from a roadside stand, along with the corn we older boys were encouraged to steal late at night from a nearby prison farm. Baseball diamond? Basketball court (or even just hoops)? Tennis, swimming? Forget it. I do recall a ping pong table without a net.
Thus we had a classic example of a leftwing Jewish zeitgeist rubbing up against a hard-pressed economy. It was rough sledding for many, since there was little work for most of the year. Even during the heyday of the Catskills, when hundreds of hotels and bungalow colonies did brisk business, few people were well off. Some were -- owners of the more successful hotels, doctors and lawyers and plumbers, the owners of a few construction companies, the local kosher meat market and bakery. On the other hand, the father of a friend told his son that the student loan he had applied for hadn’t been granted when, in fact, it had and the father -- a decent man who taught a number of us boys how to throw a curveball -- had kept the money in order to make ends meet.
AFTER MY FATHER died in 1964, I, a college sophomore and under 21, was entitled to money for my upkeep through Social Security. Only when my brother started college three years later and threatened to sue our mother for his rightful share did I realize that my mother for years was forging my signature on my checks. A poor widow with debts and four children still living at home is in a hard spot. But since when do Jews not turn themselves inside out in order to help their children further their education? They’re supposed to skip lunch to give their children violin lessons, I was taught. But there was a local mindset, nourished by the three-month season, that led to deception and desperation. By this time, my parents had sold the candy store and bought my aunt’s rundown bungalow colony, five decrepit cottages, complete with leaking roofs and bursting pipes, occupied occasionally by the sorts of people who snuck out in the middle of the night before that week’s rent was due.
The struggle of many created a chasm between rich and poor. The well-to-do spent their money flashily, wanting the world to know they had it made. In my small high school class of fifty-seven students, one kid on her sixteenth birthday got a Chevy convertible, another a Corvette, a third a Mercedes (a sin in the eyes of many to buy a German car), and the fourth and richest, a huge Cadillac convertible, which she proudly drove to school with the top down even in winter, a little person barely visible over the dashboard. One evening, as a member of the yearbook committee meeting in the mansion of Cadillac Girl, I saw Rocky Marciano sitting at the dinner table. Just like Donald Trump’s residence, the home was open to the rich and famous, but there didn’t appear to be a book in the house. The sons of the owners of the Concord were transported to school in a chauffeured limousine driven by a livery driver. When they were late they were not reprimanded, and when they expressed indifference in the classroom they weren’t scolded since the majority of teachers were forced to supplement their small salaries by working weekends and full-time during the summer at one or another of the few hotels that remained open all year. They knew that word would spread if they dared scold the child of a potential employer.
The hard-core class divide often turned to out-and-out greed, exacerbated, as it always seems to be, in places that provide entertainment and escape during a short season. The well-to-do owners of the local dairy, successful because they were providing milk products to hundreds of kosher hotels serving two milkhig (dairy) meals daily to many thousands of people -- the Concord dining room alone sat 3,000 -- one summer hired two young men attending a black college in Alabama to load the large trucks with the milk and cheese and cream delivered daily to the hotels. I worked there as well, as did one of the truck drivers. When the first paycheck arrived, the startled young men asked the boss why they had been paid less than they had been promised. He responded by telling them that the all-night bus they rode north went in both directions. What would have been a pleasant and profitable few months away from home for two young rural black men from the still-segregated South turned into a summer of resentment: following disclosure of the fact that they had been hired under false pretenses, they never again talked to their white co-workers unless it was necessary for work purposes. And the boss and his family, as far as I could tell, weren’t particularly racist. I never heard “shvartse” pass their lips, and at least one family member was active in the liberal wing (the only wing that existed in my town) of the Democratic Party. Had word gotten out, townspeople might have regarded their action as unfair but hardly incomprehensible.
And rarely were the “bums” recruited in Skid Row neighborhoods of New York, who were hired to do odd jobs during the summer, paid what they were owed -- “the goyim just drink the money up anyway.”
I WAS NO BETTER. Desperate for college money, I applied shortly before the summer began for a job as an usher at the local movie theater, open only in the evenings and thus not overlapping with my job at the dairy. The manager was grateful that I had applied: “Yes, the job is yours. I thought I’d be forced to hire a colored kid as an usher. You’re the first white boy to apply for a job.” Pained as I was by the treatment of the black guys at the dairy, I jumped at the opportunity, even though it meant stealing a job from one of the few black kids in my town. Money is money, after all, and the season was short.
There’s an old political truism that “when a Republican runs against a Republican, the Republican always wins.” Jewish sweatshop owners on the old Lower East Side who were socialists or communists nevertheless squeezed their employees, knowing that if they didn’t, they couldn’t compete. Only the most ideological can hold out when a hard-core capitalist marketplace forces them to compromise or drown. After a while, what becomes an unfortunate pragmatic decision morphs into a contradictory world view that enables someone to comfortably be a socialist and an exploiter at the same time.
This spills over into personal interactions. A case in point involves a father-and-son luncheon I attended with my father at a community center that belonged to the town’s synagogue. The fathers and sons unsurprisingly self-segregated, the men talking quietly, the boys, age 12 or so, roughhousing and rowdy. Irritated by our hubbub, the president of the synagogue, also our district’s state assemblyman, marched over to our table, quickly eyeballed us boys, saw the sons of lawyers and hotel owners and bankers and . . . . me, the candy-store owner’s kid. Grabbing me roughly by the neck, he dragged me over to another table, forcing me to sit by myself. Even as a boy, I understood why I was selected as an example to the others. My parents were poor, our business lacked prestige, and our donations to the synagogue were minimal. My tough-guy father said nothing: The men in the room included his landlord and a local bank officer, either with the power to put him out of business in a heartbeat. The assemblyman was a liberal Democrat like all of our political representatives, but I believe it was the three-month season mindset as much as anything else that made him choose me.
A few years later, incidentally, he and Cadillac Girl’s father were found guilty of accepting bribes in return for favors from a local racetrack that needed political help.
One man attending the event was the local bank’s attorney, who had a general practice in town as well. When my grandmother died in the mid-1950s, she left $1,000 to each of her grandchildren, payable upon reaching age 21. In 1962, with my father dying of kidney disease and my family destitute, my mother and I visited the lawyer in order to get him to release the money to me at an earlier date. I was going to begin college in the fall, and even though SUNY’s sliding-scale tuition policy allowed me to attend school for free, I still had living expenses to contend with. The lawyer, Jewish naturally, suggested that I not attend college -- an unthinkable suggestion in most Jewish communities -- and instead find a local job to help my parents pay off their debts to the bank. He was the father of a friend and used to give boys playing with his son dimes to buy after-school candy bars (I almost always selected Almond Joy), not unlike John D. Rockefeller, who distributed dimes to the poor as a way of dealing with the nation’s poverty. When it was clear that I was not going to skip college, he demanded $500 of my $1,000 inheritance in order to petition a judge to change the will. I began my student life at University of Buffalo with one year’s room and board money in my checking account.
Had we remained in the Bronx, I suspect that a lawyer wouldn’t have demanded half of my small college nest egg, especially if he was a friend of the family who knew of our financial miseries. Public opinion in a more typical Jewish community might have compelled him to charge less. Did living and working in a small town with a short work season, even if politically it was left-leaning, contribute to his decision to charge so much? I think so. My lawyer brother describes as unconscionable a lawyer taking such a large cut, especially in a small community where everyone knows everyone else.
EVEN MORE EGREGIOUS was the hotels’ practice of shaking down the workers for their tips, an unethical practice that is illegal today. My experience was typical: I worked summers along with a number of other college boys at the Concord, parking cars in distant lots. When guests needed their cars, either because they were checking out or using the car locally, it was our job to bring the vehicle to the front gate. The economic rule was simple: We were to keep the tip in one closed hand and open the hand in front of a doorman, who would take half if the tip was sizable (in those days meaning one dollar). The standard tip, hard to divide, was twenty-five cents. The rule was that the doorman would take every other quarter. Occasionally, they’d take three or four in a row; in addition, there were several doormen, so they didn’t know whether another doorman had taken the last coin. All of us made the mistake once of pointing out that they had taken the last number of tips consecutively. In return, we never saw another quarter, let alone dollar, that day.
In later years, I found out from an old doorman that much of the money we kicked back to them was in turn passed on to a supervisor, who then paid off x, y, and z, the last of the money winding up in the hands of the Parker family and in the pockets of the chauffeured boys at our high school. As with so much else in the Catskills, virtually everyone was Jewish, and those on the bottom were typically college students desperate for school money.
Not that we were so pure. If a customer stiffed us or left under a quarter or spoke to us rudely, we’d steal anything of value in the glove compartment, sometimes even money. If the car owner were particularly unkind, we’d put the car in drive, press down hard on the footbrake, and gun the engine for a few minutes; at other times we’d cut the paint in several places with the car keys. One boy was in the practice of poking small holes in condoms he’d find in the glove compartment. These were acts that we felt utterly smug about, hard to imagine in later years. The system demeaned us as well as our bosses.
To be continued . . .
Elliot Podwill is a retired CUNY English professor. He fled the Catskills at the first possible opportunity and went to graduate school to flee Vietnam. He proudly accepts being labeled a “self-hating Jew” when the opposite means supporting Israel at all cost.