I was June 1, 1971, and I was 18 years old. I’d signed a lease with no guarantors for a four-room tenement apartment at 505 West 122nd Street, complete with mice and roaches, just off heroin-ridden Amsterdam Avenue on Manhattan’s Upper West Side.
Sam Weintraub from Great Neck, New York, couldn’t be too choosy for a tenant willing to pay the astronomic sum of $150 a month to live in that dump. I had a clerical job in a sheet music warehouse upstairs, where Fairway now stands, across from Needle Park and next door to Plato’s Retreat. My wages for the summer were $2.25 an hour, and my Tennessee hometown girlfriend, Linda, would split the rent with me for the summer until September, when my three male roomies would move in and she would head out to Arcosanti, Arizona.
Forty-six years later I’ve come 360. I’ve moved into an apartment a block away. Every day, I look out on what is now a huge vacant lot being redeveloped between 122nd and 123rd Streets next door to the Jewish Theological Seminary. And I think of an Oneg Shabbat I’ll never forget, one held in darkness in that very same place, at the point of several snub-nosed .38 revolvers pointed straight at my head.
One evening, in the spring of 1976, when I was about to graduate from Columbia Law School, I ventured up the cobble-stoned street to enter 529 West 122nd Street, a haunted, vacant tenement house of 240 apartments, owned by JTS and ready to be demolished to construct its new library and courtyard.
Along with my Vietnam vet and draft dodger buddies from my crummy building at 505, I made a habit of entering the unlocked apartments at night with flashlights, scavenging for abandoned furniture, utensils, anything interesting and useful. We would cart out desks and chairs, cups and saucers, hardware, all under cover of darkness.
But that March evening, a Friday night, fate paid a visit. There we stood, frozen, as the torches of four cops from the 26th Precinct shined on our heads and the cops’ angry voices filled the air: “Hands up and then don’t move; you’re under arrest.” We turned to face four revolvers, triggers cocked, pointed straight at our frightened heads. Slowly the cops approached us, brandishing handcuffs, and in a trice we were manacled and led to two squad cars, then hustled off to the station house for processing.
Each of us was cuffed to the rail, the other hand released from the cuffs. The sergeant’s desk was empty, as was the entire room in which it sat, and one by one we were led into a squad room for interrogation. It was the eve of the Jewish Sabbath, and some busybody snitch who lived across the street had ratted us out.
First, they led my flak jacket clad, long-haired buddy Richie in for questioning while I stood alone in the entry room, eavesdropping on their contemptuous questions. It was not many years since the SDS/Columbia student uprisings of the spring of ’68, led by the infamous Mark Rudd, and fewer still since the May Day protests of 1970 over Lyndon Johnson’s bombing of Cambodia. Pigs remained pigs in our eyes, and cops still detested us right back.
Richie’s pockets were emptied, and the cops smirked and guffawed as they examined his loot: two shrimp cocktail glasses, the cheap little ones we used to buy, that had tin pry-off lids; some carpenter’s nails, and miscellaneous silverware. Quite a bunch of thieves we were, liberating garbage, in the view of the law. The cops looked at us as though we were useless kooks.
While waiting for my friend to return to the sergeant’s desk, I suddenly realized that I had a joint in the pocket of my khaki Army surplus shirt. Woe unto me, for these were the days of the Rockefeller drug laws, when possession of modest amounts of cannabis could mean 25 years to life, up the river. A single joint merited less but nonetheless severe punishment. The prospects were daunting. We were also guilty of a Class D felony: entering a dwelling, even one that was unlocked, with intent to commit larceny. I was so dumb.
Thank God no one was around at the sergeant’s desk, and no cams existed in those days. I thought of swallowing my precious reefer but found the prospect distasteful. My tighty whiteys had room to spare, and surely the bulls would not go there in their homophobia. Looking around, I took my chance and palmed the joint, sticking it below my belt and then stuffing it in. Out came Richie, and in I was led, alone. But I emerged undetected and unharmed, cuffed, along with Richie, to the rail, awaiting further instructions.
Fifteen minutes, half an hour passed, and nothing doing: The cops were nowhere to be seen or heard, and we waited fearfully for the Black Maria to cart us downtown to Central Booking. Finally, a fat cop emerged and uncuffed us. We were each given a warning and told to beat it. Got hot geshikt der refieh far der makeh, as they say in Yiddish: God sent the cure in advance of the plague.
Why had we been so lucky? It was Friday night, and despite multiple calls to the seminary, no one had answered, and no one would show up to sign a criminal complaint. We were off, scot-free, as the curses and name-calling ensued: Catcalls of “faggot hippie scum” followed us out the door down 126th street into the night, the tune better to my ears than any “Lecha Dodi,” given the circumstances.
A better Oneg Shabbat there never was, and never will be.
“Benjamin Feldman is an historian, author and Yiddishist, chair of the board of The New Yiddish Repertory Theater in New York. His work can be seen at New York Wanderer.