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A Foot in Two Worlds

David Berger

I was born shortly after World War II. My dad returned from Europe in 1946 and quickly married my mom. There was a housing shortage at that time due to all the returning soldiers, so my parents lived with my grandparents and great-grandfather for a couple of years. It was a large 8-room New York apartment on 93rd and Broadway. Finally a 2-bedroom opened up on the fifth floor and my folks got some privacy and I was conceived.


Our whole extended family lived and worked in the city, so when I was born, I was surrounded by all kinds of love. When I was two, my mom got pregnant with my brother Bobby, and my parents decided that it would be better for us kids to grow up with grass and trees than in the cement confines of our beloved metropolis. And so we moved 30 miles away to a small town that was now being overrun by Jews and Italians fleeing the city with their little kids.


There were housing developments springing up all over Nassau County. Ours had 96 practically identical houses. The only difference was the shape of the roof over the front bedroom. There were two prices for these homes--either $22,500 or $24,500. My father, being a child of the Depression, couldn't see spending $2,000 for a cosmetic detail. My grandfather, being a well-to-do businessman, convinced my parents that the better house would pay off greatly in the long run. And so my young parents, starting off, bought our house with the down payment from my grandfather and my dad's 3% 30-year G.I. Mortgage.


Both my parents grew up in the city and had to learn everything about owning and running a house. I can still remember mowing the lawn, planting trees and bushes, and cleaning the garage, storm windows and screens with them. It never occurred to me then that they were learning about this new life as well as learning how to be parents. My dad traveled six months a year, so a lot of responsibility fell on my young mom's shoulders. Decades later, she confided in me that she often felt overwhelmed. As a kid, I had no idea. I just thought that every family was like ours.


One of the selling points of our house was that there was an excellent school system. My mom was a teacher before I was born, so she believed firmly in education being the springboard to success and happiness. Oddly enough, her father achieved all his success with a sixth grade education, and my dad never had the opportunity to go to college. Ours was a house filled with books and music.


When we moved to the country, it really was the country. There was a small farm at the end of our block and just beyond that, a pond, which we were not allowed to go near. Of course, I used to go swimming there. If my mom ever found out, she would have killed me. She was an excellent swimmer and once saved my grandfather who got caught in an undertow when we used to spend our summers in Far Rockaway.


So here we were living in this small town that was like all the small towns that we saw on TV and in the movies. They hadn't changed much at all since the late '30s. We lived a couple of blocks from the railroad, so, it was convenient for my dad and most of the other fathers to take the train into the city to work.


My father worked for my grandfather on 27th Street when he wasn't traveling. It was a treat for me to go to work with him on Saturdays and days off from school. I loved the city. We spent every Sunday with my grandparents, alternating between our house and their apartment. My mom would take me to the city for things she needed to do, and then treat me to an afternoon at the Museum of Natural History, or lunch at Katz's Deli or in Chinatown.


My favorite aunt lived with us for a couple of years when I was little and then moved to 34th Street. She doted on us kids and would often take me to movies, shows and jazz clubs. My dad was a big sports fan and took me to Ebbets Field, The Polo Grounds, Yankee Stadium, and Madison Square Garden. Everything I loved was in the city. It was my Disneyland.


I had a more typical everyday American childhood for the most part. There was Little League, Cub Scouts and playing in the school band. We had fireworks at the high school football field every Fourth of July, and parades down our Main Street every Memorial Day, or, as my mom still called it, "Decoration Day." I marched with the Cub Scouts and then with our elementary school band in our little blue uniforms and hats.


One year, when I was about 10, something happened at the end of the parade that I just remembered this morning. After we finished marching in the parade, we ended up in the parking lot next to the train station with all the other kids and adults who were in the parade. I have to preface this by saying that with this being just after WWII, we kids all grew up watching movies about the war. We really didn't understand the horrors that our parents had lived through. We were just kids.


So there we all were standing in this parking lot, and a bunch of kids started shouting, "Sieg heil" and doing Nazi salutes. I have no idea why they did this. They thought they were being funny. Needless to say, the vets who were marching didn't think it was funny and put a stop to it. The next day at school we all got quite a lecture about who we are as Americans and what we stand for. I don't remember if it was our principal or one of the teachers, but it was powerful. I was just a young bystander during the incident, but I felt ashamed that this had happened in our small town.


This all happened 60 years ago, and the world has changed. America has changed. We are a mobile society that has lost its sense of community and apparently its moral compass. Maybe I'm just a relic of an earlier time. I'm happy to adapt to modern innovations like computers and self-driving cars, but I remain non-negotiable when it comes to the founding ideals of our country.

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  • David Berger on

    My grandfather’s business sold giftware, stationary items and notions wholesale—tschotchkes. The address was 31-35 West 27th Street. There was a barber shop a couple doors down that had centerfolds of naked women hanging on the walls. Old school. When I was about 7 my father took me there for a haircut. When I got home, my mother saw that my hair was cut, and she said to my dad, “How could you take him there?” It never occurred to him that it might be inappropriate. Funny when I think about it now after all these years.

  • Ruth Pollack Pappas on

    So enjoyed this piece! Probably because it echoed my own story: Baby boomer, moved to Far Rockaway, recall every magical event – with loving relatives in “the wonderland” of NYC.
    Took everything my school teacher mom and litigator dad did – for granted.
    Couldn’t have had it better.

  • Steven Ross on

    So enjoyed reading this Dave. I had a wonderful aunt who introduced me to Sardi’s AND Radio City. She, my parents, and we four kids were living with MY grandparents in New Rochelle.
    Our of curiosity was your grandfather a furrier there on 27th St.? And do you recall the address?
    There just might be one of those cool co-incidences.
    Thanks for keeping me in the loop.

  • Dennis Winkle on

    Nicely said, Dave!

  • David Berger on

    Steve, actually, I have 2 younger brothers. I just looked at today’s date. Today is the 75th anniversary of the Carnegie Hall premiere of Black Brown And Beige—the most important concert in the history of our music.

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