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Flatbush Flashback

Do It With Lewyt

 

I found this ad, circa 1950, several years ago when I was looking for memory-jogging photos of things I was writing about in Bobby in Naziland.

 

I didn't remember the vacuum's brand name. So I Googled "1950s vacuum cleaners" and scrolled through several hundred images of Hoovers, Electroluxes, and GEs. Finally, there it was, unmistakable, though I hadn't laid eyes on it in more than 55 years: my mother's Lewyt (pronounced loo-it) vacuum cleaner.

 

They had a catchy slogan, too, "Do it with Lewyt," and the model shown in the ad was the best-selling vacuum of its time. But the name didn't ring a bell. Alexander Lewyt, the founder, who's now remembered for predicting that nuclear-powered vacuum cleaners would be a reality by 1965, sold the company to the Budd corporation in 1959, and they changed the name to Budd vacuums, which still exists.

 

Despite its Good Housekeeping seal of approval, the above ad is deceptive. What I remember about the vacuum is the horrible noise it made, especially when my mother used the even noisier attachment shown in the photo. Every time she took her Lewyt out of the closet, which she did at least once a week, I ran to my room to hide from the noise. The Lewyt was the first machine I learned to hate and fear. Yet when I saw it in the ad, I was overcome with a rush of nostalgia.

 

That unsuspecting kid in the photo could have been me.

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Bobby in Naziland is available on Amazon and all other online booksellers, as well as at your local brick-and-mortar bookstore, where you'll hopefully be able to buy it again someday soon.

 

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Last Event Before the Apocalypse II: The Numbers on Their Arms

 

It's just the three of us here in our cozy, quiet apartment—me, my wife, our cat. Above the empty streets of Manhattan Island, one week melts into the next. 

 

We're in a perpetual state of waiting for supplies. When's the next food delivery? Did we order milk? Will the masks ever arrive?

 

Mary Lyn is strumming her guitar, working on a new plague-inspired song, "I Can't Touch You." I'm lost in a nostalgic reverie of pre-plague life, still looking through the video she shot February 1 at my Bobby in Naziland presentation at Books & Books, in Coral Gables. In my previous post, I described that reading, hyperbolically, as the "Last Event Before the Apocalypse."

 

The hyperbolic "Apocalypse" is planet Earth on lockdown during these early months of the coronavirus pandemic. Here then is another short video clip from the Q&A portion of that Books & Books event, in which I answer the question, "Was anybody in your family in a concentration camp during the war?"

 

The short answer is "No." But my more elaborate response, which should serve as a reminder that once upon a time, things were even more horrible than they are now, includes the following information:

 

·        My father liberated a concentration camp.

·        The first time I saw an Auschwitz number was on the forearm of a woman who worked in a bakery on Church Avenue in Flatbush.

·        Those tattoos were a common sight in the neighborhood.

·        I knew what Auschwitz was for as long as I understood language.

 

I provide even more detail on all the above throughout Bobby in Naziland, which I'd suggest is a book worth reading as we shelter in place. There are, after all, a lot of hours to fill, and reading books is a good way to distract yourself while waiting for armies of essential workers to deliver your food and other necessary supplies. At 7 P.M., the hour of the vuvuzela, we will salute them and all the others who are doing their best in impossible circumstance to keep us alive.

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Bobby in Naziland is available on Amazon and all other online booksellers, as well as at your local brick-and-mortar bookstore, where you'll hopefully be able to buy it again someday soon.

 

I invite you to join me on Facebook or follow me on Twitter or my eternally embryonic Instagram.

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Last Event Before the Apocalypse

 

A hard rain was falling in Miami the night I read from Bobby in Naziland at Books & Books in Coral Gables. It was Saturday, February 1, and the town, overrun with fans of the San Francisco 49ers and Kansas City Chiefs, was in the mood for football, not literature. The Super Bowl was the next day, up the road in Hard Rock Stadium, and a couple of hours before I showed up at Miami's greatest bookstore, Jerry Rice, the 49ers' Hall of Fame wide receiver, had presented his book, America's Game. Such was the competition.

 

Compared to events I'd done in New York, St. Louis, and Philadelphia, the turnout for my event was modest. But many in the crowd were originally from New York, including two people I hadn't seen since high school, one of whom, Lee Klein, now a Miami chef and food writer, was in the midst of finishing his own novel. So the enthusiasm level for my tale of Flatbush was running high.

 

To set the moment in a historical perspective, the disastrous Iowa caucus would take place in two days. And yes, I was aware that something called the coronavirus had infected tens of thousands of people in China and that New York City had just reported its first case. But these things were not foremost in my mind.

 

After the reading, I was looking forward to a good dinner and then enjoying a couple of vacation days in Miami Beach with my wife before returning to New York to begin planning the European leg of my book tour. London, Paris, and Madrid awaited.

 

Well, forget about that. Along with my public and social life, any thoughts of a European tour have been cancelled. And as I look back at the Books & Books event from my perch here, above the deserted streets of downtown Manhattan, it now seems like that night in Coral Gables was the final moment of what passed for normalcy in Trump America, a time of ignorant bliss before the onset of the Apocalypse and the Season of the Plague.

 

Still, there is a certain nostalgic pleasure in looking back at pre-plague life. So, in the above video clip from the Q&A portion of that last presentation, which I can now file under ancient history, I answer two questions about Bobby in Naziland:

 

How did your father end up with a candy store instead of a butcher shop?

 

Were there counters and stools and teenagers hanging out in the candy store after school?

 

Someday in the not-too-distant future, perhaps I'll again be able to go out in public and read from my books and answer more questions about them. In the meantime, like the rest of humanity, I'll just keep sheltering in place. 'Cause there's not much else to do here except work on another book and maybe some laundry.

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Bobby in Naziland is available on Amazon and all other online booksellers, as well as at your local brick-and-mortar bookstore, where you'll hopefully be able to buy it again someday soon.

 

I invite you to join me on Facebook or follow me on Twitter or my eternally embryonic Instagram.

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Against the Wall, Circa 1956

 

Even when she was young, my mother, Eleanor Rosen, a major character in Bobby in Naziland, didn't like being photographed. So I don't have many photographs of her. But I have this one, probably taken in the early winter of 1956. I was 4½, she was 30, and her nail polish was red. You may have seen this photo several years ago when it ran with an interview published on Huffpost. It's one of the few photos from that era I have in my possession.

 

The wall we're posing in front of is on East 17th Street, near Church Avenue, down the block from where we lived and around the corner from my father's candy store. (Here's a 1940s municipal archives shot of the wall as seen from the corner of Church Avenue, and here's a recent Google-maps shot; rotate it to the left to see the wall.)

 

I don't know why we're posing there or who took the photo, but it's a wall I knew well. It's one of the walls where we used to play Chinese handball and when we were older, regular handball.

 

My expression, too, seems familiar—certainly more familiar than my expression in some of the photos that show me smiling that I ran in earlier blog posts. I didn't like being photographed, either, because it generally involved my mother yelling at me to "Smile naturally!"

 

This, then, is my more natural expression—more or less that of a hostage under duress. As I said in the book, "My mother, in particular, doled out her affections—the occasional hug and kiss, or the sentence spoken in a pleasant and non-accusatory tone—only on those rare days when I obeyed her without question or brought home sterling marks on my report card. And whatever emotion I felt in return was probably more akin to Stockholm syndrome than love, and was grounded in the fear that if my parents didn't stop smoking cigarettes, then I'd end up an orphan like the Rosenberg kids."

 

These days I get along well with my mother, who now resides in an assisted-living facility in West Palm Beach. Though she's not read Bobby in Naziland—eye problems—she's proud of having taken the cover photo.

 

Click on the links below to see other Flatbush photos from the Bobby in Naziland era.

Prospect Park, 1959.

East 17th Street and Caton Avenue, circa 1954.

Church Avenue, 1956.

East 17th Street, April 1955.

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Bobby in Naziland is available on Amazon and all other online booksellers, as well as at your local brick-and-mortar bookstore, where you really should buy it.

 

I invite you to join me on Facebook or follow me on Twitter or my eternally embryonic Instagram.

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Smiling Naturally: Parkside Avenue, 1962

 

There's a scene in Bobby in Naziland that describes how my mother took the photo that many decades later ended up on the book's cover. "Smile naturally!" she yelled at me in exasperation as she aimed the camera. "You always photograph horribly!"

 

I was four years old.

 

In the above photo, taken in March 1962, I was nine and a half—old enough that I can now see the first hints of the adult I turned into. I also seem to finally have learned to smile naturally—at least this once.

 

What I'm doing at mid-afternoon (judging by the shadow), posing for a picture at the edge of Prospect Park, across the street from 121 Parkside Avenue, between Parade Place and St. Paul's Place (here's the 1940 tax photo of the street and here's a recent shot from Google maps), I've no idea. Nor do I know why I'm wearing my gray blazer and dress pants rather than "dungarees," or why I'm crouching rather than standing up. My best guess is that it's the weekend and I was on my way to a family gathering that required me to wear nice clothes. The only other time I got dressed up was for Friday assembly at school, but if that had been where I was coming from, I'd have been wearing a white shirt and tie, and it would have been later in the afternoon.

 

The real mystery of the photo is how I'd managed to make myself smile naturally. Perhaps it was my innate method-acting abilities. I don't remember this as an especially happy time—just another ordinary school year in early-1960s Flatbush. I was in fourth grade, and to set the photo in a historical context, the previous month, as I describe in Bobby in Naziland, John Glenn had become the first American astronaut to orbit the earth; I'd stayed home from school to watch it on TV.

 

But I doubt that's what I was thinking about here. Somehow, I was able to move the correct facial muscles, and my mother clicked the shutter at just the right moment, thereby creating the illusion of long-ago happiness.

 

You can see other Flatbush photos from the Bobby in Naziland era here, here, here, and here. There will be more.

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Bobby in Naziland is available on Amazon and all other online booksellers, as well as at your local brick-and-mortar bookstore, where you really should buy it.

 

I invite you to join me on Facebook or follow me on Twitter or my eternally embryonic Instagram.

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