They Were the Good Kids on the Lower East Side

The three alter kockers looked much younger than their years when they greeted each other at the Seward Park Library on Manhattan’s Lower East Side. Mentally sharp, with considerable color in their skin and dyed hair, they seemed giddy that they’d been chosen to be the first formal interview subjects for The New York Public Library’s new oral history project on the Lower East Side. The interview will be catalogued in the Library’s Irma and Paul Milstein Division of United States History, Local History and Genealogy, and made available online to the world.

Seven decades had elapsed since my 95-year-old father, Julius, and his sisters Paula “Peshie” and Esther, 92 and 85, had been in this high-ceilinged Lower East Side Renaissance Revival building. The 20,000-square-foot landmark the width of a city block on the eastern side of Seward Park was designed by Babb, Cook & Welch and built in 1909. Two of the architects also designed Andrew Carnegie’s 1901 64-room Carnegie Mansion — better known today as the Cooper Hewitt Museum.

One more Shapiro sister was left out of the occasion: Eva, who at 87 still goes by her Yiddish nickname, Chavi. Aunt Chavi wanted to come, but had to stay in Florida. I promised to write a few of her memories here. The siblings talked about Chavi in the pre-interview chat, but they didn’t mention their much older brother, Sol, a heavy smoker who died in 1977 from emphysema. They have been four for so long, but once they were five. Seward Park Library served as a daily escape for the impoverished siblings, a well-lit oasis away from the dingy four tenements they lived in, including the last one they shared, at 214 East Broadway, which was right next door to the library.

A young man carrying a clipboard entered the room. This was Andrew Fairweather, a soft-spoken, bespectacled 27-year-old library assistant who has been cataloging the library’s Lower East Side Heritage Collection, a Herculean task that has been passed on from one librarian to the next for years. Mayflower blond and decidedly non-Jewish, Fairweather is still familiarizing himself with thousands of clippings and photos. Sorting through and digitizing the collection may take many more years; I’ve volunteered (my secular mitzvah) to help him for an hour a week.

I had warned Andrew that my father is hard of hearing. His extreme fear of looking like an idiot because he can’t hear was almost the deal breaker for his participation in this interview. What follows is a condensed version of a lively two-hour conversation:

ANDREW

So let me explain why we are here. We have a lot of articles and a lot of books in the Heritage Collection, but we don’t have many memories. Anyone remember being here as a kid?

JULIUS

The librarians knew me very well. Sometimes I would get a book and come back in the afternoon and get another book — if it was cold outside I would sit near the stove at home on the floor and read my books from Seward, which were mostly about boys with sports. I hated football books, though — what kid on the Lower East Side understood football?

ANDREW

We have a sport series for boys — we have such a thing to this day — but it’s Matt Christopher.

JULIUS (cupping ear)

Who?

ANDREW (practically yelling)

Matt Christopher.

JULIUS

I never read him. Anyhow, did I say there weren’t enough books for me here? I also went to Chatham Square (a nearby library branch).

ANDREW

To this day, I still see some of our kids at the Chatham, and you can’t take it as a betrayal. Julius, I heard from your daughter that you had a nickname — Shakespeare Shapiro — did that excessive reading have anything to do with it?

JULIUS

Call me Julie. And I’ve got to be honest, I think I got the other nickname just because my last name started with Sh.

PESHIE

But I can vouch for Julie’s nickname and crazy reading habits. I do remember Julie sitting in the corner on the floor near the door. And in the wintertime, we had the stove on the other side of the kitchen because we had a coal stove, and we didn’t have heat in our railroad flat; the coal stove heated the apartment.

ESTHER

I don’t remember Julie with the books, but I remember coming here with my mother, the Ima as we called her, the mother in Hebrew. I had one interest in books, mysteries, which I still love. [Augusta] Seaman was my favorite author.

PESHIE

I remember the children’s library was on the second floor, and up until second grade, I would go to the second floor and read the picture books like “Millions of Cats.”

ANDREW

Oh, by Wanda Gág!

PESHIE

We used to play library as children. Standing to stamp the library cards.

JULIUS

What we did do beside the library is spend a lot of time in the park.

PESHIE

Julie and I had saved up 80 cents for roller skates. Between the two of us, we needed another dime to buy them for 90 cents. So my father gave us a dime. This was during the Bad Time. The Abba said, “Don’t tell the Ima!” But now we could skate. Julie had one skate and I had the other skate. We alternated.

ESTHER

I was the beneficiary of those skates. I inherited a set of skates and the Abba would take me to the park too. But I had a whole set, Peshie!

PESHIE (shaking head)

The injustice!

ESTHER

I inherited all the good things from my older siblings. I never had anything new, but I inherited clothes from cousins, and the Ima was a dressmaker. She used to make our clothes.

PESHIE

The first store-bought dress that I owned was for my high school graduation. It was the first dress that we finally went to the store for, just my mother and me. I’m not sure where we went. Ohrbach’s? Or maybe Klein’s?

ESTHER

Later on, when we were grown, she sewed in Clinton Street at the bridal district there. But in the early days, the Ima used to sew in the house. People would come over and she would make clothes for them. She had been a successful dressmaker back in Palestine, where she had a school; people would come and apprentice there and learn how to sew, but when she came to America in 1919, things were bad.

JULIUS

I was born in 1920. I stopped counting my birthdays because I got very sick in 1940, a staph infection, and there was no penicillin. They operated on my spine, and I was in the hospital for three months. But then I gradually got better, and now I gradually get worse, as you can see. My daughter’s forcing me to say I’m 95, but I’m really 20. After I got sick I stopped counting my birthdays.

PESHIE

I remember pushcarts!

JULIUS (disappointed)

Peshie, you stole my one line I prepared.

PESHIE

Say your line then!

JULIUS (happier)

The main thing was the pushcarts. The minute they disappeared, as far as I’m concerned, we no longer had the Lower East Side.

ANDREW

When did the pushcarts disappear?

JULIUS

When the Essex Market opened. Besides the pushcarts we had the Forverts; it was very, very important. All the Jewish people on the Lower East Side would read it. They had star writers, and my parents and friends knew their names, and during the election time, they had a big screen on the building wall for the Forward’s readers where they would project the results. Thousands of people would come out on election day.

PESHIE

And don’t forget they showed Mickey Mouse cartoons on the side of the Forverts Building for the kids.

ESTHER

How about the coal and ice man? He used to bring up a slab of ice. Andrew, do you even know what an icebox was?

ANDREW

Only by watching “The Honeymooners.”

JULIUS

Can I talk about how Al Smith lost the 1928 election? You can’t believe how New York City was in favor of Al Smith.”

[Note: You may question if anyone living can clearly remember the 1928 election, but my father is as politically obsessed as when he was as a kid. A computer-savvy Democrat, he watches all the debates and breaks them down afterward, whether you want him to or not.]

ANDREW

Go right ahead!

JULIUS

There were fires in the street celebrating his victory. But he lost after everyone was sure he was going to get elected. And he was a Catholic, which didn’t matter to the Jews like us. We were 100% for him, but unfortunately for him, being a Catholic didn’t help. I don’t have a good visual memory, but I can’t forget that day.

PESHIE

But I thought you once told me you remembered Hoover?

JULIUS

Of course I do. Hoover won; he had a very good record with relief in WWI, but when he came into office, he was the worst president we ever had. He kept saying a chicken in every pot, but he never put the chicken in.

ESTHER

But when was Roosevelt? Because I only remember Roosevelt.

PESHIE

Roosevelt was after Hoover. 1932.

ESTHER

You think I could remember that.

JULIUS

We never knew at night who won.

ESTHER

Well, no one had television.

JULIUS

Maybe we can have a return to the old ways. To the pushcarts.

ESTHER

Julie, nothing will bring back the hot corn in the winter and the ices in the summer. Hot corn, two cents apiece. The man would come around to sharpen knives. “Knives to sharpen! Knives to sharpen!” And you would come down.

JULIUS

Not only that, when you were sick, the doctor came to see you. If you didn’t have any money, he would come for free.

PESHIE

So true! So do you remember the troubadour singing and how we would throw pennies down to him?

ESTHER

Troubadour! If we weren’t all so poor, we could say those were the good old days. But everybody was so poor that they weren’t really the good old days.

PESHIE

But everybody was happy in a certain way. Even though they were poor.

JULIUS

We were poor, but we had a stove. During the Great Depression, some of the buildings across the street were empty and we would go and chuck wood to burn.

PESHIE

My mother would go there — she had an ax and would go.

ESTHER (To Julius)

Where were you?

PESHIE

Inside reading your books!

JULIUS

C’mon, I was 10 years old.

ESTHER

In Julie’s defense, I must say my mother never let us do very much. She would always say, “Go study! I’ll take care of the dishes!” She never wanted us to help her; our job was to study.

PESHIE

But when it came to Friday, Ima had to make the house ready for the Sabbath, and my job was to help her bring the challah down to be baked. She prepared it, but they would bake it at the bakery.

JULIUS

How about the cholent?

PESHIE

That too.

JULIUS

You paid the baker a couple pennies to cook it for you, but it was prepared at home.

ESTHER

I never had to go to the baker, Peshie.

PESHIE (to Andrew)

I had to do that as I was the oldest girl. I had to watch Esther and my sister in their carriage. I would be in front of the carriage, and the Ima would say, “Sit there!” And I would look at my friends jumping rope and —

ESTHER (to Julius)

All of this is coming out now.

PESHIE

So let me tell you a big story that happened to me, scary in a way: We had a neighbor that lived right above us on the fourth floor. We were on the third floor. This is during Prohibition. We knew something was going on in the back room, because we used to see all these men in work clothes going in the back for a few minutes, then coming out. And one day, I was coming home from playing or school and very enthusiastically I ran up the steps and inadvertently I went to the fourth floor instead of going to my apartment. I went to their apartment, and in those days, you never locked your doors. I open the door, and there I see these pipes stretching all around the ceiling into the front room, and oh my God, I got so frightened and closed the door and ran down the stairs quickly. I suppose that was the distillery. But that was a scary moment! I was afraid the bootleggers would see me.

JULIUS

We would never go the fourth floor, that’s true! I remember that. We also had a fire escape that spanned two apartments. We come in one day and who is in our apartment? The child of the next-door neighbor! We had opened the window and God knows how many times he had been there before? He was stealing, not that we had anything.

ESTHER

But living in those tenements, as they call them now, what I remember so clearly is the toilet in the hall. And to go to the bathroom, you had to use this dingy dark toilet. I remember my sister Chavi used to be afraid to go by herself. Me or the Abba would always have to go with her.

[Note: “Wait a second,” Chavi later recalled from Florida by phone, “For the record, it wasn’t the darkness. I would have the Abba take me because there were strange men in the hallway, I was scared of what would happen if no one was there and I was alone with a creep.”]

ESTHER

I think Chavi and me took our bath together once a week on Saturday night. You had to lock the door to make sure no one could get in. This was at 103 Monroe Street, when we lived in the back part.

JULIUS

But then we worked our way up to the front!

PESHIE

That was a good improvement.

ESTHER

Because then you could look out!

JULIUS

But then on Monroe Street, we got a room and a study space for me in the front.

ESTHER

I was at camp when they changed the house — I used to go to Camp Felicia from the Madison House — is the Madison House still there? I used to go every summer for two weeks.

[Note: It is: hamiltonmadisonhouse.org. The Down-Town Ethical Society in Mountainville, New York, founded Camp Felicia in the 1920s, offering children of the city’s slums a taste of country life.]

ESTHER

When I was away in camp, my parents pulled a stunt of putting a small bathroom in the living room.

PESHIE

From then on, if you were in the living room and you had to go the bathroom you stayed in the living room. We lived at 103 Monroe, 238 Clinton and finally 214 East Broadway, which was the big one with six rooms. Later on my husband, Sid, lived with us there briefly, and my first child, Gene, was born there.

JULIUS

I had a friend who lived in the second floor at the back of 103 Monroe, and they couldn’t afford electricity, so he would stay up all night reading by candlelight. After a while, he knew more than the teacher.

ANDREW

Tell me more about your brother.

JULIUS

Sol was born in Jerusalem. He was eight when he came to the United States, and I was born a year later, in 1920. He was much older than me, so truthfully we weren’t that close. But after a while, Sol became the counselor for the whole family.

ESTHER

Like a father figure. He was in the academic world and got a doctorate.

JULIUS

He got his Ph.D. the hard way, at night.

PESHIE

All five of us went to college.

JULIUS

But that alone didn’t always open the doors you’d expect. When I graduated college, my first degree was in chemistry; naturally I looked on the bulletin board and they recommended a place where you could go get a chemistry job out in New Jersey. They were very pleased with me, I practically had the job, and then the guy said, “Oh, one more thing — Shapiro. That’s German isn’t it?” And I say, softly, “No that’s Jewish.” “Oh we don’t hire Jews.” And every job I went for at that time, they did not allow Jews. The place I ended up with, the man who hired me was Jewish, and he told me he had the same problem when he was looking for a job. So the science world was out for Jews.

ESTHER

But I think Jews have a history of always learning that comes from studying the Torah. People that came here who were Jewish brought that sense of how important education is. And I think the times when you went to college and Sol went to college, most people did not unless they were Jewish. None of my friends went to college; I don’t know how many of your friends went to college. It wasn’t encouraged.

PESHIE

Very often, my friends would say they had to go out and help the family and that was more important than getting an education. Whereas in our family, the education was more important than helping.

ANDREW

Did you ever go to the Educational Alliance?

JULIUS

The Madison House was more intimate, and they cared. They had clubs and leaders. The Educational Alliance was so sprawling.

ESTHER

But I’m younger, I spent a lot of time at the Edgies! The Naciremas was my girls’ club. We would play ping-pong there. I was a good ping-pong player only from going to the Edgies.

ANDREW

The Naciremas?

ESTHER

Americans spelled backwards. We thought we were very clever.

PESHIE

At Hester Street Park, we used to have jitterbug and lindy hop dances there for the teenagers. We also danced in the cellar club on Henry Street. Every teenager belonged to a cellar club.

ESTHER

The man who became my husband [Jerry] was in the club called the Barons; they were on a third floor of a building, but they still called it a cellar club.

JULIUS

I was also in a cellar club, opposite Seward Park. We were the Signets, and later our Jewish “gang” merged with the Mohawks. Once about 10 of us got attacked on the Williamsburg Bridge by an Irish gang. In my memory, they had hundreds of kids crossing the bridge. We had one non-Jewish member of the gang who talked them out of it. Where we lived, we were on the fringe of the Jewish section. We had Italian and Irish, and there was tension.

ESTHER

But our next-door neighbors were Italian and we got along very well.

JULIUS

True.

ANDREW

What do you remember about World War II?

JULIUS

I was sick, but a lot of my friends went in the Army, but miraculously they all came back.

PESHIE

At the start, I was visiting my Uncle Willie in Atlantic City when things broke out. I do remember I did not want us to go into war, very few people did. We were picketing because the British wanted us to send arms. We picketed holding signs: “Boycott Britain!” Obviously, we didn’t know what what was really going on.

JULIUS

The thing was the Nazis.

PESHIE

We didn’t know. It was only later on when they bombed Hawaii that we all had to get in the war.

JULIUS

C’mon, how did you not pay attention? There was a difference between FDR and Eleanor Roosevelt, and she wanted FDR to get more involved as far as saving the Jews —

PESHIE

Later on. They didn’t know much about the camps at the beginning. It was a secret, and we didn’t know.

JULIUS

I knew.

ESTHER

I forgot how smart you were!

JULIUS

I liked Eleanor Roosevelt, and I knew how good she was.

PESHIE

I was a wartime hostess at Temple Emanu-El. We would dance and talk to the soldiers. But again, I remember the left wanting to be less involved before we were pro war.

JULIUS

Nobody wanted it — the war.

PESHIE

I was out on the street petitioning something — I think 1940, there was a petition to stop the Land-Lease Act. I belonged to the Young Progressives of America, a liberal group, although McCarthy thought it was Communist. When my whole family was out of town, I arranged a fundraiser party at our East Broadway home for 25 cents a person. We were dancing, and all of a sudden, there was a knock on the door, and I was pulled down to the local jail because they found out it was Young Progressives of America, and then somebody for the American Labor Party found out I was in jail and came running down to jail and didn’t let them do my fingerprints.

ESTHER

I was young, but I remember this.

[Note: The name Pauline Shapiro got in all the papers, including the Daily News and a pro-union paper widely read by New York’s left-wing elite, Ralph Ingersoll’s PM, a short-lived (1940-48) upmarket daily liberal afternoon tabloid whose name was proposed by Lillian Hellman. Dr. Seuss [Theodor Geisel] and Crockett Johnson [Harold and the Purple Crayon] did the cartoons, I.F. Stone and Ernest Hemingway were contributing journalists, and Weegee was the paper’s star photographer. PM was one of the first media outlets to be loudly anti-Hitler.]

ESTHER

I was scared for you, Peshie. We still think of ourselves as the three sisters, or di dray shvesters in Jewish.

PESHIE

My younger sisters were very close back then, I was five years older than my middle sister Chavi — eight years older than Esther.

ESTHER

Chavi and I were always together.

PESHIE

I was already grown up a little more, and I was out late with my friends — but Esther and Chavi would go out with my mother to see Shirley Temple, remember?

ESTHER

Oh, the movies, we sure went to see the movies.

JULIUS (muttering)

Fifty years later, 70 years later, who knows anything anymore?

ESTHER

When my mother would wash and hang up the clothes on the window on a line, she would sit on the ledge — we were on the third floor on Clinton Street or Monroe? I’m mixing things up.

PESHIE

Monroe Street.

ESTHER

When she hung up the clothes, we would hold her legs. As if that was going to do anything if she was going to fall — but I remember that. So clear.

JULIUS

But you know who fell out? We had a cat and were on the third floor, and she fell out!

PESHIE

Jumped out. The cat would always disappear, but one day she was gone and all of a sudden my mother hears this meowing and she went down and it was in the yard. And she brought the cat back to the house. You couldn’t live without a cat.

ESTHER

Because of the mice.

JULIUS

The cat had a lot of cat friends.

ESTHER

The cat used to sleep with me, though.

PESHIE

The cat hair used to be all over the place.

ESTHER

And when the cat peed in your sneakers, that was bad.

PESHIE

If you happened to put your coat down and forgot to take it away, it was all full of hair.

ANDREW

How about Seward Park High School and all the famous people there?

(Note: Julius went to school with the track team’s Walter Matthau — then Walter John Matthow — and he thought his sisters had gone to school with Tony Curtis aka Bernie Schwartz. Other students of that era included Jerry Stiller, Zero Mostel and the “Golden Girls” firebrand Estelle Getty, born Estelle Scher in 1923.)

PESHIE

I’m mad I didn’t know Tony Curtis. I think he was a tiny bit younger than me.

ESTHER

Does it count if I knew Susan Maza, who was the sister of Jackie Mason? Jackie Mason’s family lived on Rutgers Street. Jackie Mason had older brothers and he had three younger sisters. So Jackie Mason became the famous comedian — he still is — but whatever happened to the girls? I once saw Jackie Mason in a show, and I went over and asked him. I’m sorry to report he was very cold when I asked about his sister — he didn’t want to discuss it.

PESHIE

I think there was some friction in that family, because they were a very religious family and the father was a rabbi and the brother became a rabbi, and he was the only one that didn’t follow. He claims he was a rabbi but I don’t think so, c’mon, and then one of the sisters was also like him. Remember her? She wore a lot of makeup.

ESTHER

Ooh. I don’t remember that! Chavi had Jerry Stiller in her class, She told me he was very smart and sat very quietly in her math class excelling.

PESHIE

I remember when they opened the new version of Seward Park. It was the first time they had air-conditioning in the schools. Julie, weren’t you in the first class in the new building? You were in the first class — and it was such a great school. It was quite a treat to have the school with air-conditioning.

ESTHER

[PS]177 was after PS 2. Near Knickerbocker at Market or Monroe. I remember when we went to 177, for fun we would go over to Knickerbocker Village to ride the elevator. Because that was a thing — to go up and down the elevator; that was fun for kids from the tenements!

[Note: Julius and Ethel Rosenberg lived in a Knickerbocker Village apartment at 10 Monroe, on the 11th floor. My dad once told me the Rosenberg electrocution made him vomit.]

PESHIE

You know who lived in Knickerbocker Village? The butcher.

ESTHER

Henry the Butcher?

PESHIE

I thought it was Harry the Butcher. Or Heylke in Jewish. He lived in Knickerbocker, but his store was in the next building. My mother would send us down to get lungen.

JULIUS

For the cat!

ANDREW

Lungen?

ESTHER

Five cents she would give us, the cat loved lungen. I don’t think you can buy lungen now.

(Note: Lungen, or cow lung, has been illegal in the United States since the 1970s.)

JULIUS

I just recalled a shoemaker’s store, and everybody was sure I would end up being a shoemaker because I would sit there and watch the guy fix the shoes. This was my favorite hobby.

PESHIE

I used to like the laundry place. A Chinese laundry place on the same block as the shoemaker. To this day, I iron the shirts the way I saw him iron.

ESTHER

Remember how the mazgeiach would slit the chicken’s throat and then put it upside down on a cone so that the blood would run out?

JULIUS

Who was the one who killed the chicken? The one from Alaska.

ANDREW

Sarah Palin?

JULIUS

Yeah, That was the end of Palin’s career. She couldn’t be elected dogcatcher after the chicken got killed.

ANDREW

Turkey.

ESTHER

Julie, you’re trouble. No more politics, let’s switch to gefilte fish.

PESHIE

Good idea! Do you remember when the Ima put the fish in the bathtub?

JULIUS

Until the cat came.

ESTHER

I don’t remember that. Sounds good, but I don’t remember that. I only want to tell the truth.

JULIUS

I’m oldest. My word counts 10 times more.

ESTHER

Well anyhow, she would give the fish a klock, bang it good, and kill it. And she made the gefilte fish herself didn’t she — she always made it, right?

PESHIE

Very often she would have some help from the fishmonger — they would get the scales off.

ESTHER

We always ate home. We never ate out someplace fancy, at least not that I can recall, except on Saturday night maybe when we ate in the delicatessen on Henry Street.

PESHIE

We weren’t very Orthodox; let’s go on record as “mildly” Orthodox. My mother more than my father.

JULIUS

Ima was kosher, but we started to veer the other way with the Abba. We were so guilty we ate the Chinese food.

PESHIE

All we told the Ima was that we were going to eat out. And when we came back she wanted to know, “Vat did you eat?” So we said we ate blintzes — but we had egg rolls.

ESTHER

I don’t think I ate Chinese food until I was 16 years old.

JULIUS

C’mon, Esther. Half of the population of the Lower East Side was like that.

ESTHER

We didn’t mention that we were on home relief.

PESHIE

During the Depression. Welfare we call it now. They would give us clothes and free milk.

ESTHER

Clothes we didn’t want to wear. You could recognize who was on relief, everybody had the same clothes, the middy blouses with colored bows. We would wear them, and the investigators used to come to the house.

PESHIE

We used to get butter, flour and stuff like bread.

JULIUS

But you got us in trouble once. You said too many things.

PESHIE

So what did I say?

ESTHER

The wrong thing.

JULIUS

They said do we have enough to eat, and Peshie you said, “Yeah, we have enough” — You were persona non grata. You mentioned the things the Ima prepared that you brought to the bakery to be baked — the cholent, the challah.

PESHIE

Really? I guess I was very honest — but they gave us more food.

ANDREW

Tell me about your father.

JULIUS

What did the Abba in was his heavy smoking.

PESHIE

He smoked on Saturdays, and he thought nobody could smell it, but we didn’t snitch. He really wanted to be a pharmacist. But of course they wouldn’t allow it. He had to go to yeshiva.

ESTHER

He came without any skills.

PESHIE

He had a difficult time working, and eventually he worked at a factory. He did piecework in the needle trade.

ESTHER

He was a scholar who did piping on the seams of men’s jackets on the inside of the jacket so the seam doesn’t unravel. That’s what he was reduced to after his years of Torah study and private reading. That’s why he was so much involved with our schooling and our learning. He was very concerned about what you were studying and what you were doing. He did lose a finger. I remember that.

PESHIE

Oh yes, he was trying to fix a sewing machine and his hand got caught.

ESTHER

The pinkie. Wasn’t it the pinkie?

JULIUS

Yeah, the pinkie.

PAULA

Back in Jerusalem, in the yeshiva culture, when you first get married for three years or something like that, the husband continues his studies. My mother had her sewing business, a school, and she supported the family, and then just before WWI, he came to the United States because he did not want to be in the war. So they were apart from 1914 to 1919.

ESTHER

So you are saying they didn’t come for five years or six years.

PESHIE

Right. That’s when a lot of things happened with other people where you hear of things – that’s where the Bintel Brief comes in — the Bintel Brief in the Forverts — women writing in that their husbands are in New York and they don’t know where they are, and they probably had other girlfriends. My mother and Sol came over on a ship by themselves, the SS La Touraine.

ESTHER

My older brother was a teenager when I was a little girl.

ANDREW

What do you remember? Did you have a radio?

ESTHER

We had a little box radio; that was our entertainment. We would listen to all the programs and would sit on the couch like the kids today with their iPads. We used to listen on Sundays to programs in Yiddish — and also to Jack Benny, Fred Allen, Inner Sanctum mysteries.

ANDREW

What about cinema? Anything besides Shirley Temple?

ESTHER

Mostly we went to the theater on Canal Street, or to the Apollo on Clinton and the Delancey. That was far. Avenue A to us was uptown. No one had a car. You had to walk everywhere if you were a Lower East Sider.

PESHIE

Once a year, the family went together to Coney Island. Esther went with her friends when she was older. But when Esther and Chavi were little, we went with my mother.

ESTHER

Really? I don’t remember this.

PESHIE

We would take a basket with food and everything in it. We went on the subway from Delancey Street — one time that was enough for the whole summer. Because we were full of sand and my mother would say enough already.

ESTHER

But later on we went with friends. We did everything on the train, we were never afraid to go on the train.

PESHIE

We used to come home 11 at night and not worry about it.

ANDREW

When did you leave the Lower East Side?

PESHIE

I left after I married. You never lived away as a single woman. We lived with my parents a year or two until we got an apartment in public housing and then worked our way up to a house.

(Note: Peshie and Sid, an architect, had four children — including the only Jewish world squash champion to date.)

ESTHER

I also lived with my mother until I got married. Then I went to Sunnyside in Queens with my husband, Jerry, then Long Island. We were not unusual; you didn’t live on your own. What was unusual though, I guess, was I was the only one of all of my friends with a master’s; mine was in psychology. I worked for 28 years as a school psychologist.

JULIUS

I left for a while to Brooklyn to be near Brooklyn College, then Brooklyn Polytech — but then I went to Columbia University. I have three degrees. After Columbia University, I was a chemist and then I worked in color TV in the 1960s, and then I vied for a computer systems position. I moved my [second] wife back from the Upper West Side to be near my mother in old age because she took exceptional care of me when I was sick and bedridden in 1940.

ANDREW

How crazy is the Lower East Side, with everyone moving back here?

TOGETHER

Crazy!

ESTHER

Andrew, I hope you don’t think it was a Garden of Eden. Everyone was poor and resources were limited. We rarely went anyplace. We did what our parents wanted; we listened to the radio — we were good kids.

After the interview, on the first floor of the library, I saw Aunt Paula glance at the teen corner with a curious expression on her face. As we left via the handicapped ramp, my dad also gave a last look back at a building he will probably never be inside again.

I led my elders down the street to the French bistro LES Enfants de Bohème (whose name plays on the Lower East Side location), on Jefferson Street, a phenomenally weird culinary destination since it’s at the base of a former tenement they used to walk by.

Over croque monsieurs and salade Niçoise, the family that never ate out when they were young toasted my father’s 95th birthday they’d missed celebrating together two weeks earlier. And then they toasted their brother and parents.

Later, at the home he shares with me, my husband and my daughter, my father said to me, “Dammit! Did I say your Uncle Sol was good friends with Zero Mostel? I think I forgot to say that.”

Laurie Gwen Shapiro is currently working on her first nonfiction book, about a Lower East Side kid who was a stowaway on Commander Byrd’s 1928 Antarctica expedition (Simon & Schuster, 2017).

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They Were the Good Kids on the Lower East Side

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