Jay Becker loves to write, and has had articles printed in several publications. He has given us permission to put them on our website for your enjoyment.
#1 - The Catcher in the Rye Caught Our Feelings
By Jay Becker
The death of author J.D. Salinger brought me back to my childhood in the Bronx, because The Catcher in the Rye was not only enjoyable to me, I found that I could relate to so much in it. I was always a reader, and had enjoyed many books well before grade 7 at JHS 127. Why do I remember The Catcher in the Rye so well- it is because in 1955 when I entered Junior High School, I had a miserable, nasty English teacher who told the class that she would not accept any book reports on that book. This is not what made her miserable and nasty-she was that way before she made that announcement about the book.
She then went on to deride it as though it was garbage and not fit for teenage consumption. I had heard about the book at the time, but had not read it yet, and so went right out to get a copy. I remember that the Parkchester Library did not have it and since it cost 50 cents at the time, I purchased it in Womrath’s on Metropolitan Ave. and I am convinced that the teacher, Mrs. Horowitz, who taught CORE-which was a combination of English & Social Studies, was sincere in her belief that she really did not consider the book suitable for teenagers. I think that most adults felt this way at the time, and tried to protect kids from these independent ideas. Some might say that the teacher did this on the forbidden fruit theory-that she would get us to read something that we would ordinarily not pick up. This was not it-she wasn’t that type. Also, this book honed right in on the way many people my age felt. This teacher, and probably so many others like her was the image of the prim “schoolmarm” who didn’t want us exposed to the ideas in the book. Remember that in those days, censorship of all forms of entertainment was rampant.
I know that the story was quite risqué for its day, and I also remember that the book Peyton Place and Confidential Magazine were also being circulated widely. Everyone knew what pages to turn to in Peyton Place and the author Grace Metalious really zinged up the story. Most of us read both of these publications. I remember sitting on the floor of Parkchester News store on East Avenue, next to the Loews American Theatre, and besides reading the comics which were 10 cents (15 cents for the Classics), I snuck plenty of peeks at Confidential, to see what the movie stars were up to. They were usually up to no good, and a lot of it was hard to believe. I did not really know about the word “gossip”, but I figured that if it was in a printed magazine it must be at least somewhat true.
I found the Catcher in the Rye to be fantastic, and as I was twelve years old, I related to it, since I felt alienated too. I remember saying to myself “Yes, that is it“-I’ve felt this way but never was able to express it. Most kids did, in some way experience aspects of the story. We all believed that our parents didn’t understand us, and that the teachers didn’t understand our world. I just didn't have the words then to describe it. We all had to deal with other kids who were obnoxious and nasty.
When I became a teacher in 1968, I recommended the book to my students and continued to do so until I retired in 2003. I gave extra credit for book reports on it because I felt that it should be required reading for teenagers, as early as possible into that “life passage” (Gail Sheehy, please forgive me). I know that Salinger never wanted the story made into a movie-'tis a tragedy. He was afraid, and probably correct that Hollywood would ruin it, make too many changes in it, and that he would lose creative control. But one thing for sure, he knew the teenager's mind precisely. It wasn’t just teenagers of the 50’,s, kids must have been like this for generations before. The ancient Greeks complained about the kids. We were the first generation to actually have some money with which to rebel though.
A few years later when the Fleetwoods released their song “Mr. Blue”, in my mind the words and music fit in with Holden Caulfield’s and my life. I think it is time to reread the book, so that I can share the ideas with my grandchildren
#2 Apparently, I Remember This Well
by Jay Becker
There it is-on the last issue, page 44 of the lovey, gentle, Pelham Parkway Times, always full of great memories, a picture of my nemesis from Junior High, Mr. Charles Kaufman, who as pictured in 1954, taught 8th grade at PS 89 but in the 1957-1958 school year taught 9th grade math at JHS 127, on Castle Hill Ave.
Maybe my discomfort in seeing his picture fifty one years later is a combination of math being my nemesis, and remembering Mr. Kaufman taking advantage of my vulnerability instead of trying to help. Also in fairness, this problem with him did not suddenly occur-I was a poor math student right from the beginning in elementary school and it lasted into college. However, when we “add in” (no pun intended) algebra, geometry, logarithms, quadratic equations, monomials and polynomials, we have a recipe for disaster in a poor math student-me
Note that I did or tried to do all the homework, and had the benefits of tutoring. My parents sent me to Mrs. Mooney, a retired math teacher who lived near Hugh Grant Circle, just outside of Parkchester, and she was a great help in getting me to translate this arcane body of knowledge into something that I could now barely understand. She charged $5 an hour in those days, a sum my parents held dear, but were investing it so that I could pass this subject. It helped only a bit. I studied and studied, did the homework and class work, did not go to the blackboard to put the work on, because I would have been unable to explain it, and never raised my hand to ask a question because I did not know what or how to ask in this strange language, and probably would not have understood the answer anyway.
Back to Mr. Kaufman. He started every sentence with “Apparently”, as in …. “Apparently, Becker, you will not be able to do polynomials if you couldn’t understand monomials”. I told him that I am doing the work, I don’t understand it much , but I am trying-and I’m also going for tutoring. He would reply ”Apparently, the tutoring isn’t helping much.”.
He said “apparently” so many times that eventually the class organized a betting pool on the number of times he would say it in a 45 minute period. An envelope was passed around (out of his sight), and you put in a penny, wrote your name on the back and indicated the number of “apparentlies” we would endure during that class. If you hit the right number (sometimes around 28), you won the envelope of pennies. You could not go over the official count. If no one hit the right number, the one that was lowest, and closest to the count would win. Someone was appointed to count, surreptitiously, and as the period drew close to an end, a lot of students would be counting, as Mr. Kaufman looked around the room, seeing the smiles and wondering what we were so happy about . He probably thought that we were counting the minutes to the end of the period. I was anyway.
But it was his sarcasm, a word I really didn’t know then, that really got to me. I had never had a teacher before like that who would criticize you in front of the whole class, for getting poor marks. Naturally, not all teachers were helpful, but he was the only one to go out of the way to make you feel worse when you did poorly. Was he taking the Marine drill sergeant approach by telling you that you aren’t good enough to make it-hoping that you’ll work harder to show him to be wrong? I don’t know-I was too young and inexperienced in the 9th grade to worry about that.
When he gave back a test, he would have the tests in order of grade from the highest to the lowest. That in itself is not bad, but what was, was his comments about how badly a student did and of course if you were the last one to receive a test back, the whole class knew the story. One rare test that I did do well on, (I was the third one in the class of 35 to get it back-I somehow got an 85, right behind two kids who each got 100), he commented that this was a pleasant surprise and he would like to see more of this kind of work. I would too, but I doubted the possibility. I thought that maybe this signaled a change in attitude from him, and that maybe he would pick on someone else, but that was an incorrect interpretation, as I learned with the next unit and next test.
As far as the math was concerned, I always wondered, not even “apparently”, why we had to worry about doing anything with a quadratic equation, since we already knew the answer-it was always 0. Why don’t we just leave it alone?
When do we ever encounter logarithms in life? We don’t even use them when measuring a room, as you might use geometry. I felt sure that I would not be launching rockets to the moon. I also did not care what time the two trains get to Hartford, or what happens if you mix different types of peanuts, or which sibling is five years older than the other. Whatever it is, that’s the way it will always be.
I forgive Mr. Kaufman, and at this point in my life, hold no grudge. I cannot resist though, comparing his class and teaching methods to Miss Demotses, who I had two years later for Algebra at James Monroe High School. I was lost there too in trying to understand the work, despite studying the homework, class work and tutoring. She was compassionate and helpful though, and I thank her to this day for recognizing my effort. What motivated me to try harder in her class was the kid who sat next to me, a tall skinny black kid, who never took notes, wouldn’t do homework, never went to the blackboard, never raised his hand, and spent his time scratching his girlfriend’s name into the desk with the compass. My memory isn’t clear, but I think his name was Eddie, and he got very high marks on the tests she gave. I was amazed, and when I asked him how he does it, all he could answer was “It all be booshit man”, just booshit” The teacher gave him 65’s on the report card in spite of the high test marks, because he did no homework and no class work. I had suggested to him that if he did this work, he would get much better grades-I told him “She is so nice…she would give you a great mark“, but he replied “ She do whatever she want.. I ain’t doin no homework for no teacher”. It wasn’t that he ever had a confrontation with the teacher, he never was a discipline problem, never gave any teacher a hard time. It was years later when I became a teacher, I realized how Eddie got great test marks-he had a great memory. He just memorized everything she said, and wrote on the board and parroted it back to her on the tests. Remarkable!
We met all kinds of teachers as we went through school, each one leaving some type of memory ranging from exhilaration to happiness to disgust to some type of resentment, and yet regardless of personality they have had an effect in shaping our personality, and helping us decide what we should do or never do in our lives.
In the Words of Brenda Lee, “I’m Sorry”
By Jay Becker
To Tammy, formerly of Thwaites Place, is it too late to “put out there” a sincere apology for something I did in 1958? Is it too late to apologize now to someone who, according to what I’ve heard, has passed on, but who many might believe, her spirit still lives?
I really did like you and did want to take you. I was completely sincere at the time. I believe that I may have hurt you, and I should have explained myself at the time. Perhaps you had already heard what had happened-the gossip news had reached you that I had done a turnabout, and you were too proud to either tell me off or ask me what made me do this. I was worried and felt guilty about what I did to the extent that I had even asked various friends of mine if they would explain it to you, but being fourteen I did not know how to properly handle this. My friends did not want to get involved in this mess, much to their credit, as I now know.
The truth of what actually happened is that I was challenged to a handball game by Morty and his pal Pee Wee, who were friends with each other, but just acquaintances of mine, both of them from Pelham Parkway, vying with me by challenge for the right to take Susan to the prom. This was not my idea-I had not even thought of asking Susan-but they thought that I wanted to, and they thought that I was close to asking her-but it was never my intention to do so. I did know and like her, but did not actually have the nerve to ask her to the prom because she was so popular, and I felt that I would not have had a chance anyway.
I never thought about this until they approached me with the challenge. I should have just said to them in some way, that there was no issue here-that I was already taking Tammy, and that either one of you could go right ahead and ask Susan, you certainly didn’t need to ask me, because this is what you both wanted. But we know that at that age, we were not negotiators; rather we responded to challenges even for things that we didn’t really want anyway, just because you had a hard time walking away from a challenge. I also prided myself on my abilities on the handball court, making it more difficult to say what needed to be said. I held my tongue. Who hasn’t gone after something that we really didn’t want just because someone else made a contest of it?
It was this challenge that I could not resist- to play one of them in handball on a Spring morning in 127’s yard, the winner would get the date with Susan. Morty was apparently the better handblall player of the two, and he was put against me, the winner to take Susan to the prom. I, with my 14 year old mind at the time (and some would say that I never grew out of it ) accepted the challenge, defeated Morty 11-9 in one of the hardest fought handball contests ever seen on this continent, a game in front of an audience of friends and acquaintances, which would have put the Roman gladiators to shame, and now I was put in a position that I could not back out of; that of taking Susan, a very desirable and popular girl, to the prom.
I’m sorry Tammy, for not being mature enough to tell you-instead I just carefully avoided you, and did not make any arrangement to pick you up and take you that night in June. I did feel guilty about it and if it is any comfort to you, I felt as guilty on the night as I feel now even though I have been happily married-to someone else, not Susan, for 45 years and have four grandchildren.
Nothing ever blossomed with Susan anyway, though I did see her from time to time, and oddly enough I ran into her ten years later, when she was teaching at Columbus HS and I was substituting there, waiting for my regular appointment which came a few weeks later in Bayside, Queens.
Proms are a major event in the life of a teenager, and Tammy, I certainly hope that you were able to get past this. I also considered the possibility that you didn’t think much of this whole thing, that it never bothered you at all, that you may have completely forgotten about it, that you may have actually been relieved not to go to the prom and even that you were glad you didn’t go with me. I have also thought that since you accepted my invitation so quickly and readily, that you may have had some regrets, some second thoughts in doing so, and wanted out anyway, and didn’t quite know how to do this, just as I didn’t know exactly how to extricate myself. I also considered the possibility that you may have been thankful and relieved that you didn’t go to the prom with me and maybe you were not hurt at all but actually quite glad, maybe even thrilled,
These events which were so important to us at the time, are minimal matters fifty years later, because as we look back, we now know how things turned out, and better yet, there are no consequences now.
#4 Learning About Work, On the Job
By Jay Becker
Most of us who grew up in the early days of the Bronx sought out some kind of work either because our parents did not have enough to give us or we wanted our own source of money, or it was actually needed to help support the family. In my case, I wanted money to spend which was beyond my 50 cents to $1.00 a week allowance, so with a friend who owned a small red wagon, we collected old newspapers and magazines by going through the Parkchester buildings, checking the incinerator rooms, ringing doorbells, and then bringing the load on a wagon to a junk dealer on Purdy Street, just off Metropolitan Ave. where he would weigh the haul, and give us quarters. Back then, the buildings did not have locked entrance doors, so you could not only go into the building to collect, you could go into the “underground passages” which were utility tunnels, where the various custodians, in those days called “porters” would store paper refuse for collection. We were as happy to take these products, as the porters were to see us “schlep” them away. Eventually the junk man closed up, and another one on Castle Hill Ave. near Tremont did not want paper products, only metal, so our hauling profession ended.
I started in the early 1950’s at age 11 delivering the Bronx Press Review in Parkchester, to two different buildings. Back then, it was necessary to build up the business yourself by going door-to-door and getting subscribers. My mother helped by sending me to a number of her friends, and as a result, I had quite a number of customers for the papers I could carry. Since I did not have a bike at the time, there was a limitation on the amount of papers, and distance that I could cover. When there were papers left over, it was not difficult to sell any remainder on the station platform of the Pelham line, at E. 177 St on what is now called the #6 line. I had an arrangement with the man in the token booth-I would leave my watch with him as a guarantee that I would return. Once he got to know me, he refused to take my watch and just let me go through to sell my papers to the commuters. Since I was not taking a train anywhere, I did not want to cut into my profits by losing 15c to go on the platform. That job eventually ended when the paper’s managers decided to end the practice of kids selling the paper and go to newsstand and mailed subscriptions.
Later on I worked for my father in his insurance office on Westchester Ave. either in the office doing clerical work, or going to the Motor Vehicle Bureau at 161 St. and Walton Ave., in the Court House basement, to process license plates for his customers, or to the Assigned Risk Plan on John St. in the financial district of Manhattan to get FS-1 forms to prove that someone had insurance before getting plates.
I had tried unsuccessfully to get jobs in the fruit market on McGraw Ave., and a few other local stores, but did find work, and some small pay assisting a friend who worked for the furrier on Unionport Rd., near Tremont Ave. The job consisted of giving out flyers under doors and to people on the street advertising the furrier’s products. It was also necessary to sweep the floor in the back of the store where work was done on the coats.
A friend of mine had worked for a local florist, and his mother decided that she wanted him devoting more time to school, so he recommended me and I took the job which entailed sweeping the floor regularly, cutting the thorns off the roses-very carefully, and most importantly, making deliveries of flowers and plants, where I could get tips. The boss was a nasty man, and I could never understand how someone could be so grouchy working among the beauty in a florist shop.
In the later 1950’s while in Monroe HS, I got a summer job, which was also good for Christmas and Easter weeks, a job which I enjoyed very much, not just because it paid $1.25 an hour (!), which was more money than I was ever used to, but also because it meant learning something which was so interesting-the stock market. I was an office boy and messenger (called a runner in those days) in a Wall Street stock brokerage firm, finding occasional time to study and learn the stock ticker, read the analyst’s reports, annual reports, prospectuses, and talk with brokers. I even thought that I wanted this as a profession, until I learned that it was so difficult to get customers. Here again, was a grouchy boss, an elderly woman office manager, but I put aside all her recriminations because there was so much that was good about the job. Just being on Wall Street every day was so exciting, visiting the stock exchange, having lunch in Battery Park or on the stairs of Federal Hall, visiting these large banks, all of it was an enjoyable education which not only serves me well today, but gave me an extra edge when I was teaching economics.
These first jobs are formative, because they not only teach us about handling our own money, they teach us, as kids how to relate to the adult world of work, how to respond to criticism, how to dress properly for work, and how to avoid or correct the errors we are prone to. If I only knew then what I know now….
#5 A Brief Return Home in Retirement
Being a train buff from my earliest days, I enjoyed watching either the White Plains Road line which went from E.241St out to Brooklyn or the Dyre Ave. “dinky train” which was usually just a two car shuttle running from Dyre Ave. to 180th St. The interesting thing about the Dyre Ave. line was that you did not need a token to go onto the station-you just paid the fifteen cents to the conductor when the train arrived.
My parents were members of the Castle Hill Beach Club (The Pool) and for two years, 1950 and 1951 I was “assigned” by them to the Castle Hill Day Camp, across the street. The reason given for this decision was that I was in need of adult supervision. In any event, at both places I met lots of kids who lived in the Pelham Parkway area, and though I was too young to travel by myself at that time, I understood where they said they lived as I liked to study maps and remembered streets that I had visited. When I heard kids say that they lived on “Cruger Ave, or Bronx Park East, or Thwaites Place“ I knew exactly the area that they were talking about . Pelham Parkway itself was and still is a physically beautiful street, and when I was twelve years old and got my first bike, I began, sometimes with friends and sometimes alone, to explore the area and visit friends, and ride the length of the Parkway. Another interesting place to ride was the bike path through the park that went all the way to Yonkers.
I went to JHS 127 where I met lots of the kids who took the bus from the Pelham Parkway area-the S.P. kids were sent there because the local schools were overcrowded and JHS 135 was just opening. As a matter of fact I watched it being built.
On Sunday mornings there were programs at the “shul”- which was mostly a game room located in a storefront on Bronx Park East, just off the corner of Bronxdale Ave. My friends and I took the bus from Metropolitan Oval and usually got there in about twenty minutes. I noticed not long ago that it had been bricked up and made into an apartment. An early “Donald Trump” had taken action to cash in.
My mother had a close friend on Barnes Ave who had a son that was my age, and he became a person I “hung out “ with quite a bit. When one of the girls from Parkchester who I knew from school went for dance lessons at the school on Bolton St. I would ride my bike up to the school and wait for her to finish the lesson just to have an excuse to talk to her. But I had to use the excuse to my mother that I was going to see my friend.
Skipping ahead many years, I became a social studies teacher, and my first job was-of course-Christopher Columbus High School in 1968. It was so ironic to me to be teaching in the school where I had known so many kids, but had never attended myself. What a thrill-I was like a kid with a new toy. Though the people I knew were long gone-by eight years-I felt a very comfortable “hamish” spirit in the building.
Probably most people would not go to a school reunion in a school that they did not attend-but I did. When Columbus had its sixtieth anniversary a few years ago, and invited all classes, I went, and had a wonderful time. I met so many of the “kids” I knew from the 1950’s and was also attending as a former teacher. Thirty six years after I began my career, it was 2003 and I retired, and though I had left Columbus many years back, to be happily appointed to a junior high in Bayside, I decided to perform a special retirement ceremony-“where it all began”. I went back to the corner of Cruger and Bronxdale Ave. where I have a strong comfort level. This was because I knew so many people there forty five years ago. I brought with me a Cuban cigar and a small bottle of champagne. Standing in front of the apartment building on the corner, I opened the bottle, took a few swigs, lit the cigar and smoked it halfway down. I then left the area, satisfied, and then performed the same ceremony in Parkchester at Metropolitan Oval and West Avenue.
With that part of the “life” cycle now complete, I got into the car and returned to Long Island to begin the next phase of life, that of retirement. I will always think of Parkchester and Pelham Parkway as my foundation of life in the Bronx, and they will always be hamish.
By Jay Becker
I was a student at PS 102 on Archer Street between Theriot and Taylor Avenues in the Bronx from 1949-1955 and was the stage announcer for the program she created, which was held in that school in 1955, the year I graduated. I was selected either because of, or in spite of being the class clown-which in those days meant frequently being evicted from the classroom to stand in the hall. The teachers who sent me into the hall, which I think were all the teachers I had during those years, became even angrier at me because I did not stand right outside the door, but tended to wander further down the hall, to either see what was doing in other classrooms, or check out the stairways, or watch the custodial workers change bulbs fix things and clean. I always thought that the custodians had the greatest job in the school because they didn’t have to be dressed up, they walked around all over the building carrying tools, and did not have to listen to the teachers. As a matter of fact they seemed to be on a higher plane than the teachers because they could come into the classroom to change a light or fix a window and the lesson would stop while they performed their duties. I was always jealous and thought that I would like to have that job someday.
Sometimes for disciplinary reasons, I was given a temporary transfer to the back of the room to sit by myself, or a note to take (sealed in an envelope) to visit to the office of principal Vera B. Maloney, or even worse, the assistant principal, Mrs. Foley, who was super creepy and screamed at everyone. As a result of these actions, my mother was a frequent visitor to the school to hear about the troubles I was causing in disrupting the class with my jokes and humorous comments. (Lack of self control)
However, I think this “talent” for humor, which was uncontrollable by me was the reason I was selected to be the MC for this major auditorium program because I spoke well in front of people and had very little fear of an audience. In my mind and heart, I was emulating Jerry Lewis doing the Colgate Comedy Hour or Milton Berle on the Texaco Star Theatre both of whom I admired greatly. Never did I think at the time I would be using those “skills” as a classroom teacher myself. If anyone had ever suggested to me at that time that I would one day become a teacher, it would have been the biggest joke of all.
The “district” in those days was called the Bronx Park Community and each school was charged with putting on some type of patriotic or historical show. In both a daytime and evening auditorium show for students and parents, it was my job to introduce the acts that each grade, and certain classes within that grade created.
Just outside the auditorium was the office of Joseph Loretan, who was an Assistant Superintendent in the original Board of Education a man who I later learned was responsible for implementing the Board’s programs in the Bronx.
We were always warned by teachers as we walked through the hall that led to the auditorium, past Dr. Loretan’s office to be absolutely silent , so as not to disturb him. None of us really knew who he was, or what he did, but more interestingly, no one ever saw him. He never came to any classroom, no student was ever sent there for any reason, and no teacher ever threatened to do so. No teacher ever said that she saw or talked to him, and mysteriously, his office door was always closed, (and locked-I tried it once), and the one time, in all the years I was in PS 102, that the office door was open, there was no one in there, The room was the size of a long closet, and it had only a desk and file cabinet. Nothing else. Not even a chair. It looked like the room hadn’t been used or cleaned in a long time, and I remember how much dust was on the windows and the desk. It looked like a room in an abandoned house, something you see in a movie. Scary.
On a personal level, when I thought about him, with the title “doctor” I was always scared because I thought that he was a real (medical) doctor, and I couldn’t understand what he was doing in the school, but as a child, I worried that if I got sent to him he might stick me with a needle. I always behaved while passing his office.