Posts Tagged ‘Rego Park’

FAREWELL, YESTERDAY

The train hurtled eastward through Queens on an early-January day when dingy brick buildings and bare trees turn New York into the bleak set of a Tim Burton movie. As Manhattan receded, so did part of my past.

I was born in the Bronx where my sister Kay had been delivered, but I grew up in Queens. My parents moved to Rego Park about two years before my arrival. Our apartment was my only home until college.

In December 1969, a few months after Carolyn and I were married in San Antonio, we visited my parents. (My mother Blanche alerted my father, “Morris, David has a girl in his room!”) We visited often as a couple then with our kids. After my father died in 1983, I spent one or two long weekends with my mother each year.

After my mother died in 1999, Carolyn and I continued visiting New York. We stayed in Manhattan and usually took the train from Penn Station to Long Island to see Kay and my brother-in-law Herb.

We also took the subway to Rego Park. We’d walk up 63rd Drive, stop at the old building, stroll the neighborhood and have lunch at the now-departed Shalimar Diner. (See “Death of the Diner.”)

My parents ate thousands of meals and desserts at the Shalimar and later, Carolyn and I entertained family and friends there. In Rego Park, I felt connected to my past, and Carolyn knew the neighborhood well. We shared memories.

The Shalimar’s closing made the Rego Park phase of my life more distant, but I thought we’d visit one last time during spring, summer or fall weather. We’d walk up the Drive, stop at the building, then head through the Crescents—tree-lined semi-circular streets with detached homes—pass P.S. 174 and go on for lunch on Austin Street in Forest Hills. We’d return to Manhattan via the E or F train at Continental Avenue.

Two weeks ago, we took the train to the Island to see Kay and Herb and be joined by my nephew Barry and his wife Heidi. I saw a sign.

Always when we’d approached Rego Park, I’d look out the window for a snippet of 63rd Drive. This time, the noon light outside was dim, and not being seated at the window, I was subjected to glare. I sensed when we passed the Drive but couldn’t see it. Returning at night, everything was a dark blur.

The message was clear. My parents are long gone. The Shalimar is a hole in the ground where an apartment building soon will rise. I’m 75, and there’s no more connection to be made with Rego Park—not on the ground.

I’ve always believed that a neighborhood, which undergoes continuous change, belongs to the people who live, shop and work there. At my age, I’m focused on the here and now—life in San Francisco. Without being maudlin, I understand that I’m on a different journey. It’s taking me forward, not back, and the station isn’t all that far off. I’m content to take each day as it comes and let memories unfold in my mind rather than on the sidewalk.

In 1940, a Thomas Wolfe novel was published posthumously: You Can’t Go Home Again. You can. But not forever.

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MY MOTHER THE CRIMINAL

A century ago, Jewish immigrants from Eastern Europe produced many infamous American criminals. They included killers, such as Ben “Bugsy” Siegel (a key character in my novel in progress), Dutch Shultz and Abe “Kid Twist” Reles. Another legendary Jewish criminal was a woman. Well, not a criminal by yesterday’s standards. I give you my mother Blanche.

San Francisco recently passed a law making selling furs illegal. Criminal! Yet in New York back in the ‘50s, my mother sported a mink coat, mink stole and Persian lamb jacket with mink collar courtesy of the most honest man ever—my father Morris. So how would local progressives view my mother? Fuhgeddaboudit!

She also consorted with mobsters. Kind of. A friend’s husband brought his “business associates,” Johnny and Tommy Dio (Dioguardi) to the Queens League for Muscular Dystrophy’s annual dinner dance. My mother, active in the chapter, served as president. The Dio brothers’ contributions, like everyone else’s, went towards research. The police never cited my mother for meeting them. Ultimately, she received a certificate from the comedian Jerry Lewis, who raised millions to conquer the disease.

Big time as a mother, Blanche Perlstein was small potatoes as a “criminal.” Her nefarious activities focused on relieving airlines of blankets (remember them?) and coffee mugs. A pink floor mat in the bathroom of our apartment in Rego Park (Queens) bore the logo of Miami Beach’s Eden Roc Hotel. Fortunately, the statute of limitations has passed.

Still, when I graduated from college, my mother advised, “If you’re ever going to steal, steal big.”

Go ahead. Laugh. Done? Now, let’s get serious.

My mother wasn’t telling me to become another Meyer Lansky—the Mob’s money man and inspiration for Hyman Roth in The Godfather, Part II. She was letting me know that the occasional airline pillow or nightclub ashtray aside, real crime should never besmirch the family name. Before considering doing something wrong, I should ask myself, “Is it really worth it to disgrace my family? Can my integrity be bought?”

The only conceivable answer, no matter how large the score: “No.” The Perlstein name is not for sale (although my books are).

If only that message got through to the millions of Americans who sold their souls in the 2016 presidential election and are preparing to do so next year. I particularly address evangelical voters who, in the name of Jesus and morality, supported one of the most ungodly, immoral men in the nation. (Grab women by the what? Pay off a porn star for what?)

Their candidate promised to deliver on their social issues, chiefly abortion, secondarily opposition to LGBTQ rights. Many bought into now-Vice President Mike Pence’s assertion that God wanted Donald Trump to be president. (Maybe God told me otherwise.)

Thus people of supposed great faith defined hypocrisy by stealing from America’s integrity and, in doing so, greatly diminishing their own.

As I prepare to say Kaddish for my mother next Friday night—she died twenty years ago at 88—I remember her with great love. The legendary Jewish gangsters might have been disappointed that the beautiful doll Blanche Perlstein was, pardon the pun, a straight shooter. But I think they’d agree that in never letting greed erode her integrity, she set a standard even they could admire.

Big Truth: New and Collected Stories, is available at Amazon and bn.com in paper or e-book. Or, ask your favorite bookstore to order a copy. And, please leave a review on either or both sites. My mother would appreciate it.

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DEATH OF THE DINER

My father Morris would have been 116 today. He’s been gone 36 years. I miss him every day. Now, I’m coping with the loss of something near and dear to both of us. New York’s diners are disappearing.

The New York Times reported (May 24) on “New York’s Vanishing Diners.” Since 2014, fifteen diners have been sold, those who owned their buildings profiting from developers’ visions for their land. Many more lost their leases. This included the Shalimar (I’m near tears as I write) on 63rd Drive in Rego Park (Queens), which closed late last fall. My parents enjoyed several thousand meals and evening desserts there, and my mother Blanche alone many, many more until she died in 1999.

The loss followed the June 2018 closing of Ben’s Best delicatessen on Queens Boulevard, possibly Queens’ last kosher deli. Carolyn and I visited there a year earlier. I used to bring Ben’s knishes home from my solo visits to my mother. We had a family-related connection.

The Shalimar opened in 1974, the year Carolyn and I moved from San Antonio to San Francisco. We and the kids ate there on our visits. After my mother died, we still strolled the old neighborhood (I had to stop just now; I cried), always with brunch/lunch at the Shalimar. Of late, the place was going downhill, but we went for the vibes. The Shalimar often served as a meeting spot for family and friends.

This hurts even more, because I love diners for breakfast, brunch, lunch, dinner, a late-night snack. They’re are for big fressers(eaters). The Shalimar’s menu was vast, the portions huge. The entry showcased Danishes on steroids. As someone who eats kosher-style, I struggle in most restaurants obsessed with drenching every dish in butter, cheese, bacon and/or ham. I thrilled to the Shalimar’s variety of choices.

Being in Rego Park, the Shalimar served lots of Jewish dishes although, like most diners, it was owned by Greeks. In its heyday, you started off with a basket of challah plus pickles and green tomatoes. For brunch, I ordered eggs, onions and lox. A bagel, of course. My mother and I often went for dinner, as well. I had Romanian steak.

Foodies may turn up their noses, but here’s another thing I love about diners—casual democracy. Diners are affordable and without pretense. Everyone’s welcome. You can come in jeans or shorts, sit in a booth—I love booths—and relax. Okay, there’s better food out there, but I’ve never enjoyed any meal more than one I’ve had at a diner.

You can still find “diner-like” places. My favorite is San Francisco’s Town’s End on the Embarcadero, open for breakfast and lunch. The food is far better than the Shalimar’s, and I love going there, but where’s all the neon and chrome? The juke boxes? The waitresses (Denise looked after my mother for years—I’m tearing up again) who ask you about your family and tell you about theirs?

I’ll be 75 in a month. My time is limited. I accept loss. In Manhattan, we’ll stop by the Brooklyn Diner on West 57th. If it remains. Of course, Carolyn and I will go back to Rego Park, but it won’t be the same.

The price for living is mortality. Memories, at least, defy time.

My new book, Big Truth: New and Collected Stories, is available at Amazon and bn.com in paper or e-book. Or, ask your favorite bookstore to order a copy.

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GOING HOME—MYTH AND REALITY

Carolyn and I went to New York last week to see Yosi and Hurray for the Riff Raff at Carnegie Hall’s sold-out Zankel Hall. New York is “home.” I grew up in Queens—Rego Park. But going home goes only so far. Time travel constitutes risky business.

On Friday, we took the subway to 63rd Drive and the Shalimar Diner, a location for the 2013 movie The Wolf of Wall Street. My parents ate thousands of meals and desserts there. Accompanied by my son Aaron and son-in-law Jeremy, we had lunch with my sister Kay and brother-in-law Herb. My mother’s favorite waitress, Denise, still works there!

After, we walked to the apartment building where I grew up. Then we stopped in a supermarket for matzo meal to take back to San Francisco. Carolyn makes her matzo balls from scratch. At Ben’s Best deli on Queens Boulevard, we shared a potato knish. Last stop: the Rego Park Jewish Center where I was bar-mitzvahed in 1957, and Kay and Herb married in 1960.

Next day, Carolyn and I went to the West Village for lunch with Aaron and Jeremy, and their lovely friend Allison. Strolling back to our hotel, we stopped at 100 West 17th Street at 6th Avenue. My grandparents Sam and Kayla Perlstein lived there in 1914 when they and three of their children, including my father Morris, became American citizens. The site has been a parking lot for years. We’d been there before. No wistful expectations disappointed us.

I love visiting the old neighborhood and other familiar places. But they belong to the people who live there now. The only thing to which I can claim ownership is memories.

I reflected on that following Monday’s Iowa caucus. The top three Republican candidates—Ted Cruz, Donald Trump and Marco Rubio—all appealed to voters who want to go home again. These folks, regardless of age, hold cherished memories of yesterday’s America—white, Christian and orderly—the last term meaning that people “knew their place.” Some of their memories ring true. Most are illusory. Think about slavery followed by segregation, hatred of Jews and other ethnic groups, the 60-hour workweek with no minimum wage, the lack of safety in factories and mines, old age without Social Security and Medicare, the Depression, the vicious McCarthy era in the 1950s and the painful waging of the struggle for civil rights.

Neither the candidates nor many caucus-goers understand that returning to the past is unwise and also impossible. Rego Park, for example, has changed dramatically for the simple reason that it’s a living neighborhood, not a museum. I can’t gripe. My grandparents helped change New York’s demographics when they arrived from Warsaw in 1906.

If we need inspiration to embrace change while still shaping it to America’s values, let’s look to the Middle East. Islamists seek to return to the 7th century—the time of the Prophet. In Israel, Palestinians long for the 12th century when Saladin defeated the Crusaders. The Jewish far right wants to retreat even further—3,000 years to the united monarchy of David and Solomon. History laughs.

The author Thomas Wolfe wrote the classic novel You Can’t Go Home Again. I suggest that we can—but only when we acknowledge that home can never be as it was.

Read the first two chapters of FLIGHT OF THE SPUMONIS here at www.davidperlstein.com. You can get a signed copy from me or order a soft cover or e-book at Amazon.com.

The blog will take a week off and return on February 19.

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STREET GAMES OF THE ‘50S

Unexpected memories pop up at odd times. Saturday afternoon, my mind drifted back to 1954 and the street games we played as kids in New York. While my apartment building in Rego Park fronted on 63rd Drive, the narrow side streets were only lightly trafficked. Disclosure: One, maybe two people were thrown off my building’s roof in mob-style murders some years after I left home. Second disclosure: The closing of Jack’s candy store affected me more.

In fall, we played touch football in the street. Winter brought sledding and snowball fights. Spring offered punchball and stickball with a pink Spaldeen or Penzy Pinky (Amazon sells high-bounce Pinky balls). They’re the size of a tennis ball but without the fuzz. We also played softball. A manhole cover served as home plate, parked cars as first and third bases, another manhole or a glove as second. As I remember, we never broke a windshield or even—maybe—dented metal.

We also played War. One kid was “It.” The rest each took the name of a country. We huddled together then scattered on the street as “It” counted to five. Everyone froze. “It” stated, “I declare war on…”—say, Russia. In the 1950s, the Cold War was a hot issue. “It” threw the ball at Russia, who could sway but not move his feet. If Russia got hit, he became “It.” If the ball sailed past, “It” stayed “It.” Risks were involved. Balls went down sewers.

We moved to the sidewalk to play Four-box Baseball and Box Ball. A small dirt patch allowed us to play Territory. We threw penknives to carve up smaller and smaller areas. Whoever couldn’t land his knife in the smallest territory lost.

We also went to the schoolyard at PS 174. Without parents! In addition to softball (as few as three kids on a side) and basketball, Johnny-on-the-Pony captivated us. One kid leaned up against the wall in a handball court. Another ran forward and jumped on his back. Then another and another until the “pony” collapsed. What was the point? Did we need one?

Then there was Moon’s Up. It involved Chinese Handball (you slapped the ball to the ground before it hit the wall). Each kid defended his space. If you couldn’t return the ball, you got a point and moved to the end of the line. When someone accumulated a given number of points—often because everyone else ganged up on him—we had a loser. The loser bent over at the wall with his backside up. Each winner got to throw the ball at him. What was the point? Did we need one?

We had indoor games for winter, like shoebox basketball played in a bedroom (which I kind of invented), but that’s another story. Urban life then placed a premium on imagination. Today’s kids, if they escape the pull of their video games, play ball in leagues with uniforms, schedules, adult coaches and cheering (sometimes fighting) parents. ESPN long has covered the Little League World Series. Ridiculous!

How did we turn out? My friends produced a New York State middle-school principal of the year, chemistry teacher/tech consultant, lawyer and neurosurgeon. There also was me. Four out of five ain’t bad.

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NEW YORK NOTES

Carolyn and I just spent five days in Manhattan. I’d like to share them with you.

In “The Scoop on San Francisco” (June 13), analyst Lynn Sedway stated that New York also is a hot real estate market. True that! We stayed at the Viceroy Hotel on West 57th Street. Across from us, a high-rise condo building for the super rich is being completed. It’s not the only such building on 57th either. And it’s just the tip of the iceberg. You can’t walk anywhere in midtown without going through scaffolding as new buildings rise and older buildings undergo renovation.

Downtown, we walked the High Line, an elevated park running from 30th Street between 10th and 11th Avenues down to Gransvoort in the Meatpacking District. It’s way more crowded than a few years ago—a major tourist destination. The High Line offers a breath of fresh air and fabulous views of Manhattan streets, the Hudson River and New Jersey. Not surprisingly, developers are building condo and apartment projects alongside.

Before lunch, we rested overlooking 10th Avenue and 17th Street. In 1906, my father Morris came to America from Warsaw at age 2-1/2. When the Perlsteins became citizens in 1914, they lived four blocks to the east at 100 West 17th at 6th. (The site has been a parking lot for years.) August 25 marks the Perlstein citizenship centennial. For us and many tens of millions of others, the American dream has been real.

We held two small Finkle (my mother Blanche) family reunions starting on Saturday, August 2. First, we had a great lunch with our friend Teri at the Boathouse in Central Park. Then we met up with Israeli cousin Rachel Sela, her family and friends to hear Hurray for the Riff at SummerStage. The band provided a fabulous hour of Americana music rooted in blues, country and folk. Our son Yosi continues to amaze on fiddle, and we spent time with him the day before at… the Russian Tea Room. We also saw the family of Alynda Lee Segarra, the band’s fabulous singer/songwriter. Side bar: Hurray for the Riff Raff opened for Dr. John and the Night Trippers, but Dr. John took ill and had to cancel. The Riff Raff couldn’t play any longer because they hurried off to the Johnstown Festival in Pennsylvania.

After the concert, we had dinner with Teri at the Bryant Park Café, one of our favorite places. Bryant Park, behind the Main Library, has been transformed into an activity-filled destination. Despite all the people enjoying themselves, it manages to be an oasis of peace.

On Sunday, we met Israeli cousin Lisa Bennett and her family, as well as my sister Kay and some of her family. We gathered for brunch at the Shalimar Diner on 63rd Drive in Rego Park (featured in the movie The Wolf of Wall Street.) After, we walked three blocks to the apartment building Kay and I grew up in. Then back to Manhattan to see The Gentleman’s Guide to Love and Murder.

More on theater: Our first night in offered When We Were Young and Unafraid with Cherry Jones. It’s a powerful play about abused women with an accomplished actress. We also saw Audra McDonald in Lady Day at the Emerson Bar. There’s a reason she won her unprecedented sixth Tony.

I love San Francisco. I also love reconnecting with my roots. Today, new generations from all over the world find a home and opportunity in New York. If I tear up whenever I see the Statue of Liberty—even on a stamp and even as I’m writing—you know why.

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I AM MY FATHER

There’s an old joke: When I graduated from high school, I thought my parents were ignorant and out of touch. When I graduated from college, I was amazed at how much they had learned.

I write this because Sunday is Father’s Day. My father, Morris, died on June 18, 1983 at eighty. It was a Saturday. We buried him the next day. It was Fathers Day. But after all these years, my father is very much alive. Because as it happens, I am him.

Not that we weren’t different people. My father grew up the son of immigrants. He himself arrived at Ellis Island as two-and-a-half year-old Moishe Chaim Perelstein (an “e” got dropped while he was still a teenager) in February 1906. He didn’t like to talk about his childhood in Manhattan, but he did respond to one of my questions: he thought his parents—Sam (Chaim Shliomah) and Kayleh—were greenhorns.

I grew up in Queens the son of middle-class Americans. My mother, Blanche, was born in New York. During my childhood in the ‘50s, the United States enjoyed incredible economic growth. While my father had to work after high school and needed eleven years of night classes to get a B.S. from NYU’s School of Commerce (’32), I went away to Alfred University, a small private school in Western New York State. My father contentedly wrote checks for each semester’s bill.

I always appreciated how my father built a good life for us. But unlike him, I didn’t smoke cigars. Or take after-dinner naps. Or think like someone who had lived through the Depression that working for Sears would provide valued lifetime security. (After the war, my father took a risk and moved out of the back office to sell springs to bedding and furniture manufacturers; he did extremely well thanks to uncommon integrity and a model work ethic.)

Moreover, the only places my parents ever traveled while I was a kid were to the Catskills and Florida. They added San Antonio, San Francisco and Las Vegas after Carolyn and I married but never left the country. Admittedly, I’m not adventurous. But post-college, I served three years in the Army, settled in Texas and drove with Carolyn across the country from San Antonio to California to New York in 17 days. After which we traversed Western Europe for three months. Moved back to San Antonio. And took vacations in Mexico. In 1974, we moved to San Francisco. I went to work for myself. Different generations. Different opportunities. Different lives.

But here’s the thing. Once Carolyn and I were in Rego Park on one of our many visits. At the time, Seth was our only child. My father and I went for a walk. Outside the apartment building, we started to cross 63rd Drive. A car approached. My father grasped my arm. In the past, I would have taken offense. Now I smiled and offered no resistance. I was a father, too. And at the deepest level, I appreciated that while I was no child, I was and always would be his child.

Tonight, closest to the secular date of my father’s death, I’ll say Kaddish in his memory. On the evening of June 26, coinciding with the date of his death on the Jewish calendar (7 Tammuz), I’ll light a yarzheit candle. And I’ll remember that in so many ways, he and I were very different—just the same.

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Read the first 2-1/2 chapters of SLICK! at davidperlstein.com. Which, by the way, received a great review and coveted Star as “a book of remarkable merit” from Kirkus Reviews. To purchase a signed copy, email me at dhperl@yahoo.com. SLICK! also is now available at iUniverse.com, Amazon.com and bn.com.