HUSTLING FULL-TIME IN THE CATSKILLS
by Elliot Podwill
To read Part 1, click here.
THE SOCIAL DARWINIAN universe we inhabited filtered down to adolescent social mores. A friend in high school was on several occasions turned down for dates by girls because his family car was dingy. (No subways or buses ran in South Fallsburg.) In lower grades, the teachers routinely gave the best parts in classroom plays or singalongs to the boys and girls who weren’t necessarily more gifted than others, but who were physically among the most attractive and, just as important, from “good families.” The selection process could only help the prospects of some of our female teachers’ husbands, whose work life was potentially given a boost when wealthy kids reported at home that the teacher had handed them the lead in the class production of Oklahoma. Mostly, however, the local zeitgeist was internalized by the kids themselves.
A spring trip to Washington was an annual tradition for seniors in our high school. It was an event we looked forward to all year — see the nation’s capital, indulge in underage drinking, maybe get to make out in the back of the bus. Early during spring semester, a prized classmate, Tall Paul, began to organize the trip.
Paul was a piece of work. He was the best musician in the class, one of the two or three best math students (eventually getting a Ph.D. in statistics), and a starter on the basketball team. Though thin and not strong or much of a leaper, he was a valued player whose hand-eye coordination made him an accurate jump-shooter. In addition, he had perfect early 1960s boy hair, a curly ledge dipping over his forehead, thick enough to always be in place. In short, he was our school’s paramount boy heartthrob, and he well knew it.
Months before our bus began the long drive to Washington, Paul began thinking about roommate combinations. Each room slept four, and generally the kids got to hash out who would stay with whom. But on what basis should the choice be made? Paul’s idea was that good looks was the bottom line. Who would choose how the boys paired off? Him. Interestingly, when he was unsure of who trumped whom in the looks category, family income/status was the tiebreaker. As the semester progressed, kids became increasingly uneasy about who would be placed where. I was offended that my room included a boy I found particularly homely. The teacher-chaperones knew what was going on but didn’t seem to care. The girls decided a similar arrangement on their own. One exception was made: a group of three pretty girls was allowed to include a homely fourth since they depended on her to feed their egos. Forty years later, at a class reunion, the four sat together, and Ms. Homely still got the least desirable seat. (At the same event, the poorest boy in the class who had a crush on the richest girl could not get her to sign his yearbook in 1962. At the reunion in 2002 he brought his copy of the yearbook with him, and she still wouldn’t sign it.)
I’m convinced that in many other environments such a crass room allotment would not have taken place. Sure, kids in most places create pecking orders, but in ways that are more broad-based, less monolithic. It’s not by accident that a few years earlier, Paul and I were hitchhiking from one town to another, a common mode of transportation at that time for kids not old enough to drive, when Mrs. Concord, uncharacteristically behind the wheel of the car, recognized Paul and stopped to give us a lift, or so I thought. “Whose boy are you?” she asked, and when I told her, she said she couldn’t let me in her car. “What if I have an accident? How do I know your parents won’t sue me?” was her unlikely excuse. She couldn’t have known that when my mother was working at her hotel as a switchboard operator a few years later, after my father’s death, my mother would have the kitchen staff set aside for my family half-eaten steaks and drumsticks scraped off the plates of guests who had finished eating. My notion of hygiene told me to cut around the eaten part. (There were always plenty of leftovers since guests at the Concord were famous for ordering two or three separate dinners in order to try a bit of each.) When I turned to Paul to express disappointment that we’d be standing at the juncture awhile longer on a cold day, he was already halfway in the car. Off they went, leaving me most hurt that my friend would abandon me. But of course he would. Loyalty is weakened by the short-season mentality.
IT WAS CLASS-BASED insecurity that made me agonize a few years later over whether to add ketchup to the burgers I was assigned to pick up at the local diner on an outing to a lake. Do they also eat ketchup, or is it just families like mine that use condiments? When I brought the burgers back, the rich kids I was swimming with demanded to know how I could expect them to tolerate burgers without ketchup. I remember sweating nervously as I walked back to the group, burgers in tow. Would I catch hell for neglecting the condiment or be mocked for applying it? “Why no ketchup? How do you expect us to eat something so boring?” was the response.
This incident entered my mind years later when I read Vivian Gornick’s “The Catskills Remembered,” in her essay collection Approaching Eye Level: “It was the Catskills, not early socialist teachings on my father’s knee, that made me a Marxist.” In the same essay she mentions a disgruntled hotel worker urinating in a child’s orange juice, no doubt due to too-small a tip, reminiscent of restaurant scenes in George Orwell’s Down and Out in Paris and London. Working in various dining rooms from which she was often fired, Gornick was forced by one guest to peel her hard-boiled egg.
She found bosses and guests cruel and grasping. After being scolded unfairly by a guest, she was assaulted by the maître d’:
He stared coldly at me, in his eyes the most extraordinary mixture of anger, excitement, and fear. Yes, fear. Frightened as I was, I saw that he too was afraid. Afraid of the blond woman who sat in her chair like a queen with the power of life and death in her, watching a minister do her awful bidding. His eyes kept darting toward her, as though to ask, all right? Enough? Will this do?
No, the unyielding face answered. Not enough. Not nearly enough. Once again Gornick is fired: “‘Serve your morning meal and clear out.'” As hard as it was to make a living for the maître d’ and college money for Gornick, their lives were made much harder by demanding, unhappy guests. It amounted to a short work year, made worse by people who posed real threats to their income, guests new to relative affluence who hadn’t the experience to know what to do with it.
Gornick also writes, “It was an apotheosis that summer, that hotel; no one and nothing seemed small, simple, or real. The owners were embezzling the place. The headwaiter was on the take, the cook gave us food poisoning.” Waitresses, she claims, were required to attend casino shows and dance with the men, better yet to sleep with them.
British novelist Howard Jacobson in Roots, Shmoots describes fairly well-off businesspeople at the Concord Hotel wanting to have absolute control. He writes about a woman who wanted his seat in the dining room, who, even after he offered it to her, continued arguing with him and the maître d’, taking pleasure not in the victory but in the conflict. He found his fellow guests routinely nasty to one another.
Again, we’re talking about an overwhelmingly Jewish population. The guests were beneficiaries of post-war prosperity, the first generation as a group to live in affordable suburbs that expanded or were created in the 1950s. Many went to college and received generous home loans thanks to the G.I. Bill, and benefited from government-built highways that enabled an easy commute into the city. It was often these communities that were first integrated. Though sometimes worried about diminishing “property values” or “shvartze” playmates for their children, these were Jews who may have kvetched but almost never threw rocks through the windows of homes newly purchased by blacks (often assisted by Jewish allies) or set them ablaze. Government was seen as an enabler, and neighbors of color, though objectionable to some, were not seen as the mortal enemy by people whose relatives had been slaughtered in Europe not many years earlier. So while they may have complained — and many did not, due to leftwing roots that were bruised but still planted — few took action. Lorraine Hansberry’s A Raisin in the Sun came out of her childhood experience as a member of one of the first black families in Woodlawn, Chicago, and her parents were endlessly harassed by bigots who were not Jewish. Other Chicago neighborhoods, like Deerfield Park and Clybourn, filled with racial tension, also lacked a significant Jewish population.
So we see a community that was often competitive and petty, not yet firmly established economically, and still a little nervous about being Jewish (people had worried as late as 1965 about how America would respond when Sandy Koufax refused to pitch game one of the World Series, which fell on Yom Kippur) — but remaining was a veneer of traditional Jewish liberalism that ran through Jewish communities, the Catskills included. Still, there were anomalies. We know there was a Jewish mob, that Las Vegas and Havana were hotbeds of criminal activity headed by Jewish chieftains. It was hard, however, to imagine Jewish mobsters in working-class Brooklyn or Queens.
This was not the case in South Fallsburg.
My brother and I shared a bedroom in the downstairs part of the house, near the front door. One night I answered a knock on the door. “Joe,” I heard from one of two very wide men wearing suits standing just inside the hallway. “Excuse me, can I help you?” I asked, confused. “Joe,” he repeated. Now I understood. Joe and Mrs. Joe and Joe Jr. lived in the small apartment previously occupied by my hotel-owning classmate and her family. “Uh, he lives there,” I responded, pointing to the door leading into the small apartment. They brushed past me, and Wide Guy 2 knocked loudly on Joe’s door. Someone let them in, then closed the door behind them.
My brother and I placed our ears to the wall, but all we could hear was murmurs. After about fifteen minutes, I heard Mrs. Joe walk upstairs to the main part of the house. Time passed, and then Mrs. Joe returned to her apartment. I heard what sounded like a telephone conversation through the wall dividing her apartment from my bedroom.
Later that evening, my mother gave me the lowdown. The two wide bodies worked for a “businessman” who ran a high-stakes poker game in a private suite in one of the luxury hotels. Joe’s luck, usually bad, had taken a turn for the worse, and he had dropped a bundle he couldn’t pay. The gambler and his hoods couldn’t take Joe’s car as payment; he drove an unlicensed “hack” between the Catskills and New York, transporting back and forth vacationers who didn’t or couldn’t drive. To take his car meant to take away his means of paying off his debt.
Joe was given forty-eight hours to repay $500, a large sum in the late 1950s. Mrs. Joe spoke with my mother about borrowing the money. Mrs. Joe then phoned her parents to ask them to mail her a check for $1,000 or else she would be widowed and her son orphaned. The deal was that the $500 debt would be paid from my savings account, money earned from summer and after-school jobs. In return, Mrs. Joe’s parents, who lived in Philadelphia, would immediately put a check for $1,000 in the mail, due to arrive too late to pay the thugs, but fast enough to refill my now-empty bank account twice over.
Mrs. Joe was my mother’s best friend, mahjongg buddy, late-night kibitzer, child-rearing confidante. Nevertheless, in her moment of crisis, it was accepted without question that a short-term loan would involve usury. I never heard Mrs. Joe complain: This is the way it was. The season is short, dollars are scarce, and one person’s crisis is someone else’s opportunity. The extra $500 stood me in good stead when I went off to college. Still, in my parochial state, it seemed strange that “law-abiding Jews” would gamble away the rent money and that hit-men existed in our little corner of the world. And which Jew’s behavior was most thuggish: Joe’s or my mother’s? Both that lawyer who demanded 50 percent of a poor boy’s inheritance to change the terms of a will and my mother were guilty of shaking down the desperate — reminiscent of Naomi Klein’s premise in The Shock Doctrine that in times of crisis, the powerful are most capable of fleecing the weak.
THUGGISH also was much of the entertainment throughout the region in the early 1960s, when I started attending some of the shows at the hotels. Gone were sweet Sam Levinson and Myron Cohen, gently laughing at Jewish foibles. People were capable of laughing at themselves, and much of the humor was corny, sexist, and stereotypical. Only later did it enter Don Rickles land: “Is that your wife or did you bring your pet pig to the show?” In the early 1970s, my young sister heard the audience laughing for reasons unknown to her as she bent over table after table serving drinks at a hotel nightclub, unaware that the person doing lighting at the club was spotlighting her ass as she went about her job. Hey, she’s all of 18, anything for laughs.
Did everyone in my graduating class at 18 go off to college, vowing not to return? Well, not exactly. Some stayed behind. They lacked education, confidence, drive, or found their lives satisfactory and felt no reason to move. Three of the four recipients of fancy cars on their 16th birthday stayed put and led economically comfortable lives, one becoming a dentist, another Mrs. Murray’s Chicken. The majority moved, most often to New York City or Florida, but to a variety of other places as well, taking advantage of economic opportunities or marrying someone who lived in another part of the country.
Among the crew living in New York, some participate in occasional get-togethers held in an Upper East Side restaurant. Some attendees don’t live in the city but live close enough to drive in. What they share in common is an undying love for their home region, a nostalgia that hasn’t dimmed through the years. The discussion almost always gets around to the time X told the history teacher to go screw himself or Y’s accident-prone driving habits or Z’s unlikely decision to go steady with Z/1. I understand that these are social occasions, not times to chew over the factors that drove the Borscht Belt out of business or the tensions always under the surface between Jewish and Christian kids (called “scoopers” by the Jews if they were the poor descendants of a longstanding rural population) or the unfair economics that held sway during that time. Still, I stopped attending after a while: the most interesting people from our small community weren’t in attendance. The last time I showed up, I asked several people about the war that Bush was about to launch against Iraq. No one seemed to be for or against. Let me add that I can hold my own as a bullshitter, fully capable of mining minutiae with the best of them. But these minutiae were so small they would have required an electron microscope. One man who lives in the city sends occasional email news alerts concerning our home region, which I read with less avidity than stories about Burma or Laos.
More recently I went with my brother to a party in Colorado of ex-Catskill hotel workers who had remained in touch through the years, my brother included. Most of the attendees, like those at the restaurant in Manhattan, were Jewish and economically successful, college-educated, unlike the first group living in more various parts of the U.S., but like the others in love with the lives they had led in the Catskills. On this occasion, I asked not about the war in the Middle East but about the Colorado ballot issue proposing to make it the first state that would provide single-payer medical coverage for all. Again, my attempt to engage in stimulating (at least to me) conversation failed. The main topics included the time Joey dropped a bowl of soup on one of the guests in the hotel dining room forty years ago, and the great marijuana supplied by Pete, the local drug dealer — stories they’ve been repeating for decades. Were the reunion to take place today, it probably would be the only gathering of Jews in the world where Donald Trump would not be mentioned. Again, I’d have been happy to discuss Laurie’s upcoming dental surgery or which coast has better shellfish or the ups and downs of the current baseball season, but these topics, relatively speaking, were rocket science.
On both occasions, two groups of well-educated Jews had no interest in, to use the title of a great documentary about City College in the 1930s, Arguing the World. The day after the Colorado party, I attended a cookout attended mostly by academics from a variety of countries. I was the only Jew present. We had an uproarious time arguing the world. We also with pleasure chewed over a new bread recipe someone had come up with.
What both uninteresting groups shared in common was an utter disinterest in the life of the mind (or even a mild interest in the major events of the day), paired with a sentimental affection for The Mountains as it was in the past. A connection? Perhaps. Maybe the hotels were dishonest, but an enterprising kid could fund his/her college education while enjoying, if they were fortunate, lots of youthful sex. Not bad, after all. But for the thin-skinned and the intellectual, it was a bad fit. And for those who valued social justice, it was an out-and-out nightmare.
MY BROTHER LOREN, president of a law firm in Portland, Oregon, responding to Vivian Gornick’s essay, “The Catskills Remembered,” writes: “For sure there were jerks, we were forced to kick back money to keep our stations, many of the chefs were egomaniac sadists, we worked twelve-hour days with rarely a day off between Memorial Day and Labor Day and every weekend the rest of the year, etc. On the other hand, I never had more fun in my life, made lifelong friends, earned a ton of money that paid for college and travel around the world. The hotels I worked at were a magnet for young adults (mostly Jewish college kids from the city and Long Island) that worked hard and played even harder. I’ve always thought that working the dining room was the best training I could ever have for my current career as a trial lawyer. Public speaking, problem solving, and working the room are all skills I use today that I first learned working in the Catskills. A great experience that I continue to remember fondly.”
A high school friend who also worked in the dining room of several hotels writes similarly about hard work, friendships, high earnings for college. At the same time, both left, rarely to return after graduating from college. And interestingly, I’ve asked my brother on a few occasions when he’s been in New York if he’d like to drive up to the Catskills for a day or two. Not a chance. On the other hand, a high-school friend who has retired in Da Nang, Viet Nam, actually wanted to relocate in the tiny hamlet of Mountaindale, where he was raised. Only his wife’s threat to leave him kept him away.
As is often the case, the rough-and-ready environment of our Jewish community served the needs of the aggressive pragmatists but disappointed those who yearned for a better world, whose secular Jewishness demanded poetry and justice. As a high-school kid, my greatest immediate desire was to see a foreign-language movie with words in English on the bottom of the screen, having learned, as a subscriber to the Saturday Review, that such things existed.
I tell my friends that if I hadn’t been born Jewish, instead of getting a Ph.D., I’d have spent my life delivering plumbing supplies in Monticello, New York (though I might have grown up being allowed to use the name “Johnnie,” my childhood dream). Looking at the polling results in my no-longer-Jewish hometown area, country living would probably have made me a devotee of Donald Trump instead of the socialist I am today. Yes, life would have been both better and easier had my parents remained in the Bronx, but the life lessons I absorbed by surviving the three-month season taught me much that has shaped my world view for many decades.
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.