In an era where “tall, dark, and handsome” dominated the TV and movie screens, and the classrooms of P.S.114 as far as I could tell, I had that losing trifecta of short, pale, and skinny, which equaled ugly. I truly believed that. Sometimes I still do.
Short was easy to measure. Whenever my class lined up I was third, alphabetically and by height. Jon Abrams was first. He was shorter than I, but he had dark, wavy hair and a voice as big as Ethel Merman’s. I think we were in a third grade assembly program when Jon first sang He’s Got the Whole World in His Hands. Teachers swooned. I decided never to sing again; I’d heard the best.
Star light star bright,
Send me a Bassowitz milky white.
In that one verse the gang managed to critique both my complexion and my choice of friends outside the gang. You see, the gang featured an uneasy truce between Catholics and Protestants; English, Irish, Germans, and Italians. They even welcomed Puerto Ricans from time to time. But Jews were forbidden. Even befriending the people who comprised almost half our neighborhood would get you in trouble, and a sarcastic nickname.
The gang began calling me Bassowitz after word got out that I was spending time after school with Mark, from the part of Canarsie west of Remsen Avenue, and with Scott, from just up the street. Both kids had descended from Eastern European Jews and had been touched by the Holocaust. They were my friends neither because of nor in spite of their being Jewish. We simply liked doing the same things, and we laughed at each other’s jokes. Even today, if you do those things I will be your friend 'til death do us part.
Grace Church taught us that God had called the Jews to be his Chosen People. They were special. To a church steeped in dispensational theology, reading regularly the Scofield Reference Bible, and believing that one day Christ would rule and reign in Jerusalem, we should have been thrilled to be friends of Jews. As a religious group, we weren’t. I don’t know why. I only know it hurt when my very first friends could not accept my new friends.
Judgment goes many ways, I soon learned. At the same time as I was being judged by the gang for befriending Jews, I was joining with the gang in condemning Jews to hell. To be fair, I didn’t single Jews out. I believed everyone was going to hell except for people who prayed the “sinner’s prayer” and asked Jesus into their heart. Jews just happened to be born with the disadvantage of claiming him as one of their own but not having him claim them as his own. It seemed to make sense back then.
Mom and Pop were the exceptions. Mark, Scott, Jon, all were welcome at their house. Sure, they wanted Jews to accept Jesus as their Messiah, but they never pushed, never threatened hellfire and damnation. Their method of evangelism was love and hospitality, and leave it for God to judge.
I’m not sure the Protestants and Catholics who comprised the 93rd Street Gang really hated the Jews all that much; they were just less tolerant of them. The gang reserved their greatest hatred for each other. This was before Vatican II offered the possibility of mutual salvation through the church, whether or not you followed the authority of the Pope.
In the pre-Vatican II gang, we members of Grace Church knew beyond all doubt that the kids from Holy Family Church were hell-bent idolaters who confessed their sins to a priest instead of directly to God. The Irish and Italian members of Holy Family knew beyond all doubt that the kids from Grace were “outside the Church,” and that was enough to warrant eternal damnation without even the option of Purgatory. “Prots” and “Cats” we jeered at each other. But we didn’t jeer much. Insults were only hurled when we had nothing else to do, and that was rare. Usually, we were too busy playing punchball in the street, stoopball on Kurt, Judy, or Susan’s stoop, or ring-o-leevio after dark. Only on those days when someone would ask, “What’d’ya wanna do?” and heard the response, “I dunno. What’d’you wanna do?” would arguments ensue. Then all stops were pulled, and our customary religious tolerance gave way to holy war. 'Damn Cats!' 'Damn Prots!' Insults often accelerated until one side or the other unleashed a phrase beginning with “Your mother...” Eventually we dropped the descriptions or definitions of each other’s parentage and gave the verbal shorthand, “Yuh muthuh!” That ended it, and we tolerated our differences again. Except for Jews. The gang never tolerated Jews. I did, and paid for it until I realized, perhaps irrationally, that if the Jews were God’s Chosen People, and I was being called a Jew, then that put me in pretty good company. From then on I wore the nickname Bassowitz proudly. Except sometimes late at night when I didn’t.
Short and pale I couldn’t change. My third defining characteristic, skinniness, I tried and tried to overcome, but it didn’t work. I looked and felt like the 98-pound weakling the cool guys kicked sand at in ads for somebody’s bodybuilding program, but I’d have had to gain some weight to reach 98 pounds. With twig-like arms and spindly legs, short delicate fingers, and a perpetual crew cut, I prepared myself for failure every day. Seldom was the effort fruitless, especially when bullies showed their menacing faces.
Bullies. The mere word strikes terror in our hearts. You’ll hear the story of the biggest, baddest bully P.S.114 ever knew in next week’s episode of Tales of a Canaries Boy.
To hear this episode, please click the YouTube link below.