The day began as so many days in early December do, pretending to still be fall in the bright light of morning but descending into the grey and cold that only the earliest days of winter feel like by afternoon.
I was 10 years old, in the 5th grade and hated going to school. My school, three blocks from my apartment, was PS 93 located on 93rd Street and Amsterdam Avenue.
Built in the 1890’s, PS 93 looked like a penitentiary from a black and white movie. The school yard had deteriorated into nothing more than a surface made of hard broken cement. There was a huge wall on one side of the yard that was used to clean the erasers. The kids who were considered disruptive were sent down to the yard, even in winter, and had to bang the erasers against the wall to remove the chalk. I talked a lot, which was apparently considered disruptive, and so I spent many hours banging erasers against that wall.
I began attending PS 93 when my parents moved from east 24th street in 1958 to the Upper West Side.
This was the West Side of West Side Story, before Lindsey, before Koch and before Dinkins — and way before the movie Death Wish cemented our violent reputation along with the narrative of a city in a deep moral and violent decline.
In 1958 there were neighborhood gangs that preyed on kids like me. The most famous was called “The Little Kings.” Rumor had it that they carried switchblades. I was even shot in the neck with a BB gun pellet in 1961 as I was walking around the corner of my block in the middle of the afternoon on a warm sunny day. This only made my daily habit of walking the three blocks to the school even more interminable.
My fifth grade teacher, Mrs. Harvey, was nice enough and considered the jewel of the school but had a stern, no nonsense posture and demeanor that belied her 5 foot 2 inch frame. She seemed to always wear a blue dress, perhaps to project an image of immutable sartorial consistency.
I also didn’t like school because I never thought of myself as either smart or cute, and always felt like an outsider. Girls didn’t seem to want to talk to me much, either.
John Lande (pronounced Land-DEE), on the other hand, was the cute one and the ‘teachers pet’.
While Mrs. Harvey never specifically labeled John Lande as that, it was the way she addressed him, the way she immediately deferred to him when he needed to go to the bathroom. Everything just seemed to be so easy for him. Never for me.
I was jealous. I was never going to be seen that way; I was never going to be ‘special’.
On this December day in 1962, while staring at the clock in the hall and praying for 3:00 pm to arrive, Mrs. Harvey announced that the annual school science fair was about to begin in two days and everyone in our 5th grade class had to come up with a project, either alone or in groups, that could be presented at the fair.
About a week earlier, Mrs. Harvey taught us about Nichrome wire and how it was used to make lights dim due to the resistance of electricity being either closer or farther away from the power source. It was also the most important part of a toaster, as it was nichrome wire that heated up the bread.
For reasons that I can’t really fathom, this was the first time I actually listened and became fascinated by any kind of electrical process. I went home that day and studied the wire’s properties.That’s how much it excited me.
Now, a week later Mrs. Harvey challenged us all to work on science projects, and I thought, “What if I can design a circuit with a small bulb, a 12-volt battery and use nichrome wire to show how the electricity actually works?”
I can now say with 100% certitude that this was the first inspirational concept that my brain conceived. All of a sudden, I was energized. I had to make this project. I knew exactly how to do it but I did not want anyone in the class to help me.
I ran home and told my mother. I think she was really happy that there was something related to school that interested me; she was getting tired of seeing the same comments on my report card — comments like “John seems at times interested and engaged but too quickly loses interest in his studies. I know he can do better!”
To my mom, whatever potential I had was not showing up in the confines of the NYC public school system. Not that we had any choice, as my parents were solidly economically lower-middle class. But both of my parents were intellectuals, my dad having been a writer for national magazines for a period of time in the 50’s before settling down as jewelry salesman and my mother not only being the campaign manager or consultant to many of NYC’s top reform Democrats but also a proofreader for Simon & Schuster.
Maybe that’s what was so frustrating for both of them. By this point my brother Jeff, 9 years older and scholastically much more desirous of being considered a successful student, was still living home and in his first year at Queens College.
When I got home excitedly that afternoon, I sought out Stanley, the superintendent’s son who was a couple of years older than me and had access to his dad’s office in the basement where we could actually make this science project and nobody would know that I had received any help!
First though, I need a shelf upon which to mount this project. I also needed a 12-volt battery, a small light bulb and socket and, of course, nichrome wire. All of items were easily obtainable from Altman’s hardware, located conveniently in my building’s avenue side set of storefronts.
My parents gave me about 3 dollars, which allowed me to buy all of items and give them to Stanley, who brought them to the basement.
As far as a shelf, we thought that there was a good possibility that we would find one in a garbage can in the neighborhood. It was now after 6:00 pm and the weather was getting colder and it was getting dark. It took about an hour or so before we found a perfectly sized shelf on the street.
The next step was to go down to the basement.
My building was one of those 16 story pre-war structures that dot the Upper West Side, buildings that, to me, were the common homes of all my friends. These apartments are now seen in every Law & Order episode and are now deemed as “luxury housing.”
Typically in these kinds of buildings, there are 2 entrances and at least one, if not two, dedicated elevators per side.
My building was built in 1926. The the lobby had beautiful rose-colored marble walls and stunning white marble tile on the floors. The rugs were huge and thick, and the heating vents were covered by a heavy ornate brass Fleur-de-lis pattern. There were also two huge sand-filled vases that adorned the sides of the center staircase in the middle of the lobby. Although the building in general and the lobby in particular were not maintained in a manner that, say, an Upper East Side building from the same era would have been, It still proudly had the ‘bones’ of an era now long gone.
I was standing now on the right side of the elevator, and Stanley was standing on the left. We were facing each other when I heard someone say, “Hi Johnny.” It was Herb Hamburger who had just entered the building. Herb, with his wife Florence, lived one floor above us in a one bedroom apartment. There was a family on the other side of the building with the last name of Frankfurter. Trust me, the irony of that was always funny to me from the day that Herb and Florence moved into the building.
The Hamburgers were close friends of my parents and often came to our much larger apartment to play bridge, smoke cigarettes, drink martinis and scotch and talk politics…endlessly.
Herb was now standing directly facing the elevator with me and Stanley on either side as we made small talk about the weather.
Suddenly there was a commotion. A group of men ran into the lobby from corridor on the other side of the building’s lobby.
A short middle aged man in a black coat who had just entered the building was now being attacked and beaten by these men and he was screaming at them to stop. The hard marble walls and floors only enhanced the sounds which reverberated and made his pleas evermore alarming. Blood started to flow from the top of the head onto the white marble tile floor. The attackers were beating and talking to each other and at first didn’t seem to notice that the three of us, waiting for the elevator, were standing just 10 feet away.
There we stood. Three potential witnesses.
As two of the men continued to beat the man in the coat, the third approached us at the elevator. They all had guns.
The man who approached us held up his arm and put the gun to my head. I stared at him and the gun. This really can’t be happening, can it? He then said to me, “If you scream, I’ll kill you.”
Why? That is a question I will take to my grave. I was staring death in the face and I didn’t do what I was told to do. In fact, I did the very worst thing I could have done: I screamed as loud as I could. I was so stunned and shocked at what was unfolding that screaming in the face of death was my only choice.
I screamed so loud that people 10 floors up could hear it. I screamed so loud that the doorman, who at that time was in the basement with the super, heard the screams, got into the service elevator car and came up to the lobby.
The doorman, Manny, also carried a gun which he had drawn as he left the service elevator and waved it at the three men.
Quickly, the three men ran out of the lobby and into a waiting car leaving the man in a crumpled mass of blood. I started crying and shaking in shock. I didn’t know if the man that had been beaten was alive or dead. All I knew was that I was still alive but death stared me in the face.
Most 10 year olds, not living in war-torn lands or gang infested neighborhoods, ever need or have to confront it this choice. But at the moment when your life and possible death cross paths, you change.
The changes can come quickly or many years later when just the sight of a gun in close proximity makes you shudder. Moments like these can either seem appear to go in slow motion or flash in a nanosecond. This was a strange hybrid of both.
The whole building apparently heard the screams as well, as tenants began to pour into the lobby.
Manny the doorman took me upstairs to my apartment. Both my parents were there.
What happened after was a blur. I know that my parents, having decided that my near-death experience didn’t warrant anymore of their participation or attention, went out that evening to a political meeting at the local Democratic club and left me with my brother. Why would they do that when I was so traumatized?
I often think about that. Did they not think that this was as bad as I told them it was? What I wouldn’t give to go back in time and ask why the hell they left me alone. I could have been killed! But, they went out regardless.
Later that evening the police came to question me. I was so scared that I thought it was the “bad guys coming to kill me” and I hid under my bed and had to be dragged out by my brother. The police, however, explained what had taken place.
The man that was attacked was a rabbi —Rabbi Foxman, who lived on the other side of the building.
Rabbi Foxman, it turns out, was also a diamond dealer. The people who attacked him knew that he was carrying about $100,000 in uncut, untraceable diamonds that night. They also somehow knew that the doorman always went down to the basement around 7pm every night during the winter months to turn on the boiler. That is why Manny had been downstairs with the super.
That is the how and why I almost lost my life as a witness to a robbery of a Rabbi.
As far as I know, the robbers were never caught.
The next day, I went to class and told everyone the story. A classmate, Gene Fellner, who lived in an apartment on the lobby floor and was among the first to hear my screams, backed up my story. My other classmates were mildly interested but all of this crazy action and trauma just seemed to disappear quickly.
Oh, and the science project?
The very next day I built it.
It was so good that two days later it went on to win first place in the PS 93 school science fair. It was then entered into the district science fair that afternoon. I won first place there as well. Finally I had some self esteem! For a moment, I was John Lande!
And the Rabbi? Rabbi Foxman, a Talmudic scholar, survived the robbery. He not only survived but got married and raised a family in the building. Although we acknowledged each other many times walking in the lobby over the next 40 years, we never talked about that night — or anything else for that matter, as the Rabbi spoke Yiddish almost exclusively.
I started to wonder if he knew what happened that night in December 1962 when all of us could have been killed if those robbers had been just scared enough to do the stupidest thing.
One day, about 10 years ago, while standing for the same elevator that I had been waiting for when the incident took place, I was approached by one of the rabbi’s sons who had moved out years before.
He told me that he came back to the building because his father had died the day before and the family was gathering for Shiva.
He then went on to say this:
“My father always told us that you saved his life. That your screams saved him from being beaten to death. I just want you to know that we all thank you for what you did.”
I was stunned. I very much appreciated that the rabbi had felt that way and had related that story to his family — a family that, in 1962, had not existed at the time of the robbery.
I was happy that we all continued to live and have lives that mattered to many people.
The undeniable truth about my screams that night is that I wasn’t trying to save the rabbi’s life or Stanley’s life or Herb Hamburger’s life.
I was trying to save my own.