Saturday, January 11, 2014

Life on the Lower East Side

Written by Betty Weiland, Ed's wife.

We lived on the sixth floor of a tenement on the Lower East Side of Manhattan.
There were three rooms for the six of us. The toilet was in the hall shared by two families.  The other family includes two or three “bad” men, Communists. The largest middle room was the hubbub of activity. It was where we ate, bathed and generally spent our time.  My  parents slept on a rollaway bed in that room. My sister and I had one room and my two brothers had the third room.

My saving grace was the fire escape where I spent hour after hour reading books, looking at the landscape and daydreaming of a better life somewhere else. I was a lonely isolated child. Once I made a friend at school and she invited me to her home which was as poverty stricken as my own. I saw something there I had never seen before---a chamber pot.  When I got home I told my mother that some people had a bathroom under their beds. She said, “Don’t ever go there again”. I didn’t.

My next friend was the janitor’s daughter, a bubbly, out going, dynamic black girl. My mother said, “Is that the only friend you can find, a schvartze”? I don’t remember ever having another friend. I went back to my books on the fire escape.

There was a large circular staircase leading to our sixth floor walk up apartment. You could look down from any floor balcony and watch the janitor’s wife cleaning the marble floor on her hands and knees.  Just then small heads appeared from a lower floor. A large rock was thrown, hitting her. They disappeared and I was accused of throwing the rock. I denied it, insisting I was innocent. Nobody believed me. That’s when I first learned treachery and deceit.

I was a thin emaciated child, always sick. My brothers and sister were robust and energetic, never seeming to have the time to be sick. I used to fantasize that the blood circulating through my veins was dark red and lifeless while my siblings had rich red blood, fast moving blood coursing through their bodies.

Once my class was assembled for a picture. Right after the picture was taken, I fainted. This ghastly picture showed a sickly, unhappy little girl for all to see. An investigator was sent to my home to see if I was getting enough to eat. My mother never forgave me for that. It was decided I needed country air. The political party in power sent me to the country and when I returned to my family they had relocated to the Bronx. I had missed the excitement of the “Big Move”.

I remember living with Aunt Clara, my mother’s sister. She was rich and we were poor. My mother used to clean her house for food money. She would bring me with her and leave me indefinitely. I never asked, do you want me to stay with Aunt Clara?
My aunt had flaming red hair, beautiful clothes and drove a car recklessly down country lanes with me on her lap, steering. We had fun, the only fun I ever remembered as a child.

Once Aunt Clara brought me home to my mother and left me. I cried over and over. I told my mother I wanted to go back to Aunt Clara. She beat me with a strap. I never complained again about that.

When I was 60 years old I finally worked up the courage to ask my mother how she could have given her child up so easily. She said simply. “I thought you’d have a better life and she could do more for you than I ever could.