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Flatbush Flashback

In the Promised Land

 

"This and more the Czech girl carried with her, quietly for the most part. And it carried us through the Promised Land, from the Golan Heights to the Gulf of Aqaba, where we sat one morning after breakfast, 14 miles from the Saudi Arabian border, on the beach in Eilat, looking out at the Red Sea. I knew then that I was finally far from Flapbush." —from Bobby in Naziland

 

In Bobby in Naziland's epilogue, "Far From Flapbush," I tell the story of meeting up with my girlfriend—I call her "Naomi"—in Israel in the summer of 1972. She was the daughter of a man who, along with his mother, fled Czechoslovakia as the Nazis overran the country. The rest of her father's family was wiped out in the Holocaust.

 

Naomi spoke fluent Yiddish, which she'd learned to communicate with her grandmother, who spoke only Yiddish. In the book, she serves as a living symbol of the Holocaust's inescapable shadow. Though a generation removed, she was obligated to carry its memory, and it was a heavy burden. But she was also a guitar-strumming hippie, a young American woman determined to enjoy her life as she balanced the horrors of the past with the pleasures of the present.

 

For me, that trip, my first time abroad, was an extraordinary odyssey through Europe and Israel. I flew and hitchhiked more than 6,000 miles to rendezvous with Naomi. But my camera broke before I got there, and I had no photos of my time in Israel.

 

Several months ago, in what turned out to be one of my last social engagements before the onset of the pandemic, I had dinner with an old friend whom I'd first met that summer in Israel. He gave me the above photo, which he'd taken in early August, soon after I turned 20. That's me on the left.

 

That day, I was on a glass-bottom boat in the Red Sea with Naomi and a group of people she was touring the country with. (They'd let me join them on their tour bus.) The fellow standing next to me is one of the tour leaders, Avnir, an Israeli. (My friend the artist Daniel Jay said we look like Peter Frampton and Elvis Costello.) That's "Naomi" on my right, her face outside the frame.

 

So now I have one photo to remind me of my time in Israel—and how amazing it was to be young, to feel immortal, to look (a little) like Peter Frampton, and to always remember the reason that that country, the land of survivors, exists.

________

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

 

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A Brand-New Way to Exterminate the Human Race

 

"I was 97 days old when a one-footed Jewish refugee from Nazi Germany, Edward Teller, the real Dr. Strangelove, more commonly known as "the father of the H-bomb," introduced Planet Earth to this brand-new way to exterminate the human race." —from Bobby in Naziland

 

In 1975, I briefly worked in the Pentagon as a speechwriter for the secretary of the air force. Gerald Ford was president; the Vietnam War had just ended—the first war the United States had lost since 1812—and though there was a so-called moment of "détente" between the U.S. and the Soviet Union, the Cold War and the arms race were ongoing.

 

Justifying the need for more money to build more nuclear weapons was the central theme of many of the speeches I wrote. The secretary, John McLucas, would put forth two arguments: You need the right-size weapon for the job at hand. You can't stomp ants with elephants. And, more importantly: Nuclear weapons are not for killing people. They're to deter killing. The more nuclear weapons there are, the more deterrence there is.

 

This is known as "Mutual Assured Destruction" or MAD, and it's a strategy that's been in effect since the Russians developed their own nuclear weapon, in 1949. In its insane way MAD has (thus far) prevented a nuclear war.

 

The failure of MAD is the plot device at the heart of Dr. Strangelove: a lunatic general orders a nuclear strike. I first saw the film when I was 11 and have seen it about 25 times since then. It left a deep impression, whetting my taste for black humor and instilling in me a fascination with the power of the hydrogen bomb. So I was amazed to find myself, all those years ago, toiling in the Pentagon—the ultimate Strangelovian setting.

 

I mentioned the Pentagon only in passing in the afterword of Bobby in Naziland. But what I witnessed there was very much on my mind as I examined the threat of nuclear annihilation that hung over my childhood.

 

While doing research for a chapter called "Speak, Memory," I learned that the first hydrogen bomb was detonated November 1, 1952, when I was 97 days old. I then wondered if it was possible for an adult to retain not an actual memory, but something memory-like from his infancy if an event occurred that "tore asunder the very fabric of reality," as did the hydrogen bomb. I described that memory-like sensation as "a tiny quivering in the recesses" of the brain.

 

That train of thought resulted in the sentence excerpted at the beginning of this post. It may also partially explain my attraction to dark topics and my tendency to find humor even in a one-footed Jewish refugee from Nazi Germany who developed a brand-new way to exterminate the human race.

 

Cracks me up every time.

________

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

 

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Space Nerd in the Land of the Free

 

"An astronaut, Navy Commander Alan B. Shepard, was sitting atop a Redstone rocket in his Mercury space capsule, Freedom 7, the announcer said, and was about to be the first American launched into outer space. No, he wasn't going to orbit the earth, at 17,500 miles per hour, as Russian cosmonaut Yuri Gagarin, the first man in space (a Communist!), had done less than a month earlier—thus asserting the technical superiority of our arch-enemy, the Soviet Union, and making an entire freedom-loving nation feel distinctly inferior, both intellectually and militarily. Shepard was going to ride this rocket a mere 115 miles into space, on a 15-minute, 300-mile sub-orbital flight, at 4,500 miles per hour." —from Bobby in Naziland

 

Two things obsessed me in the early 1960s: the New York Yankees and the space race, and it's hard to say which one I found more exciting. In any given year, I could have named all 25 Yankee players and cited most of their batting and pitching statistics. I also could have named all seven Project Mercury astronauts, given you a capsule (so to speak) biography of each one, and told you the names of their space capsules and exactly what each mission entailed. My favorite book was We Seven, "by The Astronauts themselves." I read it more times than I can remember and I still have it on my shelf.

 

The above excerpt is from a scene that takes place in Brooklyn's PS 249 gymnasium. Grades three through six were assembled there to listen to the launch of Freedom 7 on a big transistor radio set up in front of the gym. Like most of my classmates, I was wondering if the rocket was going to explode. That kind of thing happened a lot in those days, and it made for almost unbearable drama. People could hardly believe that America was finally sending a man into outer space.

 

Between the anti-Russian Cold War propaganda drummed into our heads in school (the Communists are godless, immoral warmongers who want to enslave you) and the "public service" TV commercials we watched on Saturday mornings ("We will bury you!" Khrushchev threatened), we took the space race to heart.

 

Alan Shepard's entire flight, from liftoff to splashdown, was a goose bump–raising patriotic rush. When frogmen recovered him and Freedom 7 safe and sound in the Atlantic Ocean, everybody in the gym let loose with an enormous cheer. Then the teachers marched us into the auditorium for Friday morning assembly, where we pledged allegiance to the flag and sang with feeling "The Star-Spangled Banner" and "This is my country, grandest on earth."

 

Because we were proud American kids in America, in 1961, who really did believe we lived in the greatest country in the world—a country where anything was possible, where there were no limits to what you could accomplish if you worked hard and played by the rules, and where anybody could grow up to be president.

 

Boy, did we have a lot to learn.

________

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

 

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I Was an Eight-Year-Old Soda Jerk

 

"If you read comic books, then you may remember that Pop Tate's Chock'lit Shoppe was the Riverdale institution where Archie, Betty, Veronica, and Jughead whiled away idyllic afternoons sipping malteds at the gleaming, chrome-trimmed counter. It occurred to me one not-so-bad Flatbush afternoon, as I was perusing the latest editions of Archie, Richie Rich, Sad Sack, Superman, The Flash, Fantastic Four, and Mad, which I'd spread out on top of the ice cream freezer in the back of the store, that if Pop Tate's were in Bizarro World, the cube-shaped planet from Superman where everything is the opposite of the way it is on Earth, then it might look something like the Goodrose Cigar Store." —from Bobby in Naziland

 

One night in Provincetown, in the summer of 1996, Mary Lyn Maiscott and I went to see the band Betty at a local club. Named after Betty Cooper in Archie comics, the group, known for tight harmonies, catchy melodies, and clever lyrics, still consists of Alyson Palmer, Amy Ziff, and Elizabeth Ziff. Midway through the show they asked the audience an Archie-related trivia question and offered a prize to the first person to answer it correctly.

 

The question was: "Who is the principal of Riverdale High?"

 

I was the only one who raised my hand, so they called on me.

 

"Mister Weatherbee," I answered.

 

"That's correct," one of them said and then asked me my name.

 

Not only did Betty give me some Betty CDs and a T-shirt, they sang my name in three-part harmony, which left such an impression on the audience that after the concert, as Mary Lyn and I wandered around Provincetown, some people, who'd obviously seen the show, called out, "Hey, Bob Rosen!"

 

It was my finest Archie moment, and it wouldn't have happened had I not spent all those hours reading comic books in my father's candy store.

 

The above cover of Pep (Archie Series), from January 1961, is typical of what I was reading in the prime of my comic-enthusiast days. And though I'm sure I understood the difference between fact and fiction, the idealized image of the candy-store proprietor, his employee, and his customer must have filled me with confusion and longing.

 

For one thing, portly Pop Tate, with his bowtie and lavender shirt, was a far cry from the candy-store owner I knew: my father, whom I describe in Bobby in Naziland as looking "dangerous, in that irresistible James Dean kind of way, all slicked-back hair, cool aviator shades, and ever-present cigarette dangling from his lips."

 

And I, the employee, was an eight-year-old soda jerk who could barely imagine what it would be like to serve somebody as pretty as Veronica (or Betty) an egg cream, not to mention make out with her between sips (though I could never understand what either of them saw in Archie).

 

Most confusing of all was the contrast between the cramped, dingy candy store, where every surface "appeared to be coated with a half-century of accumulated dust and grime," and brightly lit, sparkling clean, mirrored, expansive Tate's, with its chrome-trimmed seats at the counter. (SRO for the candy store's cigarette-smoking and dirty-book-reading clientele.)

 

Why couldn't my father's candy store be more like Pop Tate's? I wondered, as if the fictions of Riverdale could somehow be made real in Flatbush's grubby commercial grottos. In Provincetown, 35 years later, had Betty, the band, followed up their Mister Weatherbee question with this more existential inquiry, I'd still have been stumped.

________

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

 

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

 

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Brighton Express Memoirs

 

I'm a New Yorker and I've been riding the subway pretty much from the day I was born. That's why I have no memory of my first subway ride. It happened when I was too young to form long-term memories. That's one difference between native New Yorkers and people who move here as adults: new arrivals always remember their first ride.

 

In the 1970s, when the subways were in decrepit condition, muggings were routine, and the fare kept rising, from 20 cents to 30 cents to 35 cents, I was living in Brooklyn and going to school in uptown Manhattan. My commute took well over an hour each way, not counting the walks to and from the stations. In my freshman year at City College, before I found a quicker route that involved fewer trains and more walking, I took the F train from Fort Hamilton Parkway to Jay Street/Borough Hall; then the A train to 59th Street/Columbus Circle; and finally the No. 1 train to 137th Street/City College—and I somehow made it to an eight o'clock History of Architecture class on time.

 

I spent so much time on the subway, it felt like my second home, though not as much of a second home as it was for a guy sitting next to me on the A train one morning, on his way to school. He had a portable typewriter in his lap and was tapping out a term paper due that day, as he told me when I asked.

 

Because of the pandemic, I stopped taking the subway for more than four months, from late February into early July, even for trips to distant neighborhoods. Despite what I'd read about the relative safety of New York's mass transit system, and the fact that ridership had declined by as much as 80 percent, the subway still seemed like a place worth avoiding. I walked everywhere.

 

Then, on two brutally hot July days, I broke down and took the subway. It was an exercise in underground anxiety. Too many people on the platform weren't wearing masks, and though there were never more than a dozen people in the car, there was always at least one maskless rider.

 

I again stopped taking the subway.

 

My lack of subway riding had me thinking about the long-ago days when riding the subway was an adventure, and on Saturdays my mother would take me to Manhattan, on the Brighton Express from Church Avenue, usually to visit a museum.

 

I described those trips in Bobby in Naziland, and so clear was my vision of late-1950s and early-1960s subway cars, some of which remained in service until 1970, it never occurred to me to check the accuracy of my memory against a photograph. Then the other day, I came across the above photo and was pleased to discover that everything I wrote about the subway cars of my childhood is accurate.

 

The car in the photo appears to be from an exhibit at the New York Transit Museum. You can see the padded wicker seats, the white enamel poles and handgrips, the exposed ceiling fans, the bare light bulbs, and the period advertisements. Though Lux soap and Heinz mayonnaise are well represented, there are no ads for cigarettes, nor are there any Miss Subways posters.

 

My nostalgic subway reverie has since ceased, and I again find myself longing for pandemic-free days when taking the A train uptown to Harlem is routine, and a pleasure trip to Brooklyn, across the Manhattan Bridge via what used to be called the Brighton Express, doesn't seem like a reckless act of life-risking insanity.

 

Maybe someday.

________

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

 

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

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Maris in the Fall

 

In "Maris in the Fall," a chapter in Bobby in Naziland about Roger Maris's quest, in 1961, to break Babe Ruth's "unbreakable" home run record, I referenced four parody poems that ran in the April 8, 1962, edition of the New York Times Magazine. The poems were part of a feature, "Maris in the Spring, Tra-la, Tra-la," comprised of 19 poems by Milton Bracker, the Times Rome bureau chief.

 

The poems, published to coincide with opening day of the baseball season, are a classic example of doggerel. But when I read them at age nine, I thought they were fantastic—even the footnotes rhymed! They were better than any poem Edgar Allan Poe ever wrote, and I used to think nothing could beat "The Raven."

 

I memorized most of Bracker's poems, recited them to anybody willing to listen, and hoped that someday I, too, would be able to write such extraordinary poetry.

 

I wanted to quote some of the poems at length in Bobby in Naziland, but when I contacted the Times to get the rights to approximately 50 words, the non-negotiable price they stated was outrageous. You'd think they were selling me an original handwritten manuscript by Shakespeare.

 

So I did what I've often done in similar situations: sliced and diced a total of 16 words—enough to communicate the poems' flavor while staying well within the bounds of "fair use."

 

Since this Website is both "educational" and not for profit, in celebration of this weird season of pandemic baseball (and the normalcy of seasons past), I will now quote the four poems in full (and still remain within the bounds of fair use).

 

I Love Maris

I love Maris in the springtime,

I love Maris in the fall;

I love Maris

Nearly-as-much-as-I-love-Paris,

If he just h-i-t-s that ball.

 

The Electronic Age

Transistor Sets

Why do so many people go

To ball games with a radio

That tells each hapless nearby being

Exactly what his eyes are seeing?

(But since, at short, he was a whiz

  With every drive and bouncer,

No wonder Phil Rizzuto is

  My favorite announcer.)

 

Historic Utterance

Near Coogan's Bluff

(Oct. 3, 1951—Giants win playoff on sensational home run in 9th, 5–4)

Bobby Thomson took a bat,

Knocked the Brooklyn Dodgers flat,

Said, aware he was much richer,

"Glad I wasn't born a pitcher*."

___

  *Pity, indeed, Ralph Branca's plight:

Pitched that day. Tossed all night.

 

The Last Time I Saw Maris

The first time I saw Maris,

His bat was coming round;

I loved the way it smote the ball,

I loved the shot-like sound.

 

The next time I saw Maris,

He loped from base to base;

He didn't have to run at all,

He set a hero's pace.

 

The last time I saw Maris,

He wore a handsome tux;

He wasn't making runs at all—

But he was making bucks!

________

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

 

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

 

 

 

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Living on Flatbush Time

 

There are only two pictures of my father's candy store that I'm aware of. One was taken the afternoon of October 15, 1964, when President Lyndon Johnson and Robert Kennedy, who was running for the U.S. Senate, rode down Church Avenue, in Flatbush, in an open limousine. As the car passed the candy store, a photographer snapped a photo of thousands of ecstatic Brooklynites surrounding the limo. If you look closely at the background, you'll see my father, Irwin Rosen, leaning out the candy store window, another face in the crowd. I'd been scrutinizing the photo for a year before I noticed him.

 

The other photo is the one above, taken around 1940, eight years before my father bought the store. This stretch of Church Avenue, between East 17th and East 18th Streets, is one of the main settings of Bobby in Naziland. This is how it looked in the decade that Flatbush Standard Time came to a standstill and construction began on a psychic wall that would surround the neighborhood and hold a changing world at bay for the better part of 23 years.

 

Then two events—the assassination of President John F. Kennedy and the arrival of the Beatles—crashed through the wall, and the 1960s came flooding in, changing black-and-white 1940s Flatbush to the full-color spectacle on display in the LBJ-RFK photo.

 

Frozen-in-time Flatbush of the 1950s and early 60s—a neighborhood where World War II "lingered like a mass hallucination"—is the subject of Bobby in Naziland. Though the Municipal Archives photo was taken more than a dozen years before I was born, it's more in sync with my earliest memories of the block than the color photo of those famous politicians rolling down Church Avenue, making for a day so vivid, it's seared into the memory of every Flatbushian alive at the time.

 

Let's deconstruct the photo, beginning with my father's arch-competitor, the hated corner candy store, on the right—the place that made inferior egg creams with chocolate syrup I described in the book as "cheap slop." Though some local denizens will tell you that the corner store actually served superior egg creams, in my household it was a matter of religious faith that my father's egg creams were the best on the avenue if not in all of Brooklyn. I never set foot in the corner store and never tried one of their egg creams, so I can't settle this ancient argument. If anybody reading this can offer an objective opinion, please post a comment below.

 

The store that my father would buy, in 1948, is to the left of the entrance to the Church Avenue subway station. The photo isn't sharp enough to make out the lettering on the sign or any other details. But it does capture the ramshackle dinginess of the place. In 1965, two monopolistically inclined brothers bought my father's store and then bought the corner candy store, too, thereby establishing themselves as the undisputed egg cream kings of Church Avenue.

 

But the Metropolitan Transit Authority held the leases to both stores and, in the late 1970s, chose not to renew them. Instead, they tore down the two candy stores and expanded and modernized the subway station. Click here to see how it looks now. The tile wall between Feel Beauty (formerly Lamston's) and the entrance to the station is where my father's store used to be.

 

October 31, 1956, was the last time the Church Avenue Trolley—one of the last trolleys to run in New York—passed over the trolley tracks that span the length of the photo. I'm old enough to remember both riding on that trolley and the Brooklyn Dodgers, named for trolley-dodging Brooklynites.

 

Note the M.H. Lamston sign on the side of the building above my father's store. There's also a sign in front of Lamston's that says "5 and 10," which, I assume, is what most things in the store cost in 1940. That sign was long gone by the 1960s, but everybody continued to call the store "the five and ten," though there was almost nothing for sale that cost so little as that. On February 10, 1964, I'd buy Meet the Beatles there for three dollars.

 

To the left of Lamston's is Wallhide Hardware, which I don't remember, and to the left of Wallhide's is N.E. Tell's bakery. (You can see both signs more clearly in this Municipal Archives shot.)

 

One of the key scenes, from which I drew the title Bobby in Naziland, takes place in N.E. Tell's, in 1956, the year the trolley stopped running. I've always imagined it as a scene from a black-and-white movie, a film noir in which a young child sees a number tattooed on the forearm of a woman who works in the bakery. He asks his mother what the tattoo is and she tells him—but she doesn't have to say much. The child watches TV, and images of extermination camps are already embedded in his mind. He understands too well what the tattoo means.

 

That's just the way it was when you were living on Flatbush Standard Time, and the past often seemed more real than the present.

________

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

 

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

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Death of a Salesman

 

In the summer of 1967, when I was 15, my "Uncle Paul," as I call him in Bobby in Naziland, took me on the road to make a few sales calls with him—an adventure I'd been looking forward to since school ended. He worked for Highlander, a women's suede and leather coat manufacturer. His territory was upstate New York.

 

One afternoon we were in a women's clothing store in Utica (or maybe Rome), in the buyer's office, sitting opposite his desk. Paul introduced me as his nephew and launched into his sales pitch, about fall's hot new suede fashions, which, if stained, could be easily cleaned with an ordinary pencil eraser—that was, supposedly, a big selling point.

 

The buyer—pudgy, middle-aged, and with a receding hairline—was resistant. There was too much inventory, he said. Other Highlander coats weren't selling as expected.

 

Had I been in my uncle's chic Italian size-nine loafers, I'd have given up then. I thought there was no chance the buyer was going to buy. I was ready to leave.

 

But my uncle kept pressing him, charming him with jokes about Cary Grant, stories about women and deep-sea fishing, wearing him down, veritably seducing him. By the time he was through, the buyer had agreed to buy 10,000 dollars' worth of suede coats, and my uncle had earned a 15 percent commission.

 

The buyer then looked at me and asked, "Do you know that your uncle's the greatest salesman in the world?"

 

"Yes," I said, swelling with pride, amazed at the turnaround I'd just witnessed. I thought that I, too, might want to be a salesman.

 

You won't find the above story in Bobby in Naziland. It occurred outside the book's time frame. But you will find other stories about my uncle. Some are not flattering, but all are true. What I wrote in the book about "Uncle Paul" was my way of coming to terms with a difficult relationship with an uncle who was like my older brother when I was a kid. I worshipped him because he was living proof that it was possible to escape from the kind of life I felt trapped in. With his salesmanship skills and "winning personality," he'd escaped from a similar life. My uncle represented everything a lower-middle-class kid might dream about: money, success, expensive cars, and exotic travel.

 

When I was 19, and in the throes of rebelling against everything, my illusions about my uncle fell away. I saw him for who he was—the deeply flawed man I'd write about in Bobby in Naziland. I was so angry at him, for reasons I won't go into here, I stopped talking to him; I cut him out of my life.

 

As I matured and became more accepting of people and their flaws, we reconciled to a degree. We talked and spent time together.

 

I'm writing this now because on July 20, my uncle, 81, died from Covid-19 in a Florida nursing home. I'd last spoken to him several months ago. He was unhappy with where life had ultimately taken him, and I'd gotten the feeling that he didn't want to talk, that there was nothing more to say.

 

Due to the pandemic, there was no funeral. So I sit here, in New York, sorting out a spectrum of emotions and memories accumulated over a lifetime. I prefer to dwell on the positive.

 

My earliest memories of my uncle are from 1956. He was a starting offensive guard on Brooklyn's James Madison High School football team, and my parents took me to games to watch him play, though I could never seem to pick him out on the field. His football career ended when he tore up his knee. I can picture him in an autograph-covered cast, recuperating on a green couch in my grandmother's living room.

 

When I was older, he sometimes took me deep-sea fishing, for blues, fluke, flounder, and porgies, on the charter boats at Sheepshead Bay. "Let's cut a slice of life," he'd say, as we set sail. Fishing was another thing he excelled at, and he was passionate about it. There were days, especially when we went for blues, when he was the only one on the boat who caught a fish. He once took me to Montauk to go cod fishing. It was my best fishing day ever. You dropped your line in the water and out came a fish. We caught hundreds of pounds of cod between us, which we gave away, except for a couple of fish we took home for our mothers to cook.

 

Also when I was 15, he took me on my first airplane ride, to Cleveland. He had to go there to pick up his car, a silver Cadillac, which he'd left in a parking lot when he had to fly back to New York for an emergency. He wanted me to keep him company on the drive home. Riding on a jet plane and spending an entire day with my uncle, traveling 465 miles in his Cadillac, was the most thrilling thing I'd done at that point in my life.

 

He took me to Ranger hockey games at Madison Square Garden and Titan football games at the Polo Grounds. We spent afternoons cruising around in his other car, an MG convertible, which was almost as exciting as flying in a jet. And he turned me on to the Beatles "White Album," though I don't think he ever got past side one.

 

My uncle might have been a salesman, but he was no Willy Loman. If anything he was more akin to an honorary member of the Rat Pack.

 

I hope what I've written will provide some comfort to those who knew him by his real name.

________

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

 

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

 

 

 

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Name That Year: July 27 Edition

 

July 27 is my birthday and it'll be here before you know it. It's also fellow Brooklynite Bugs Bunny's birthday, though he's considerably older. (He was born in a rabbit warren under Ebbets Field.)

 

I'm not going to say how old I'll be because that will make me feel older than I am (and older than I feel). But the information's out there. You can look it up.

 

Or you can read the list, below, of nine newsworthy events, which I've compiled from a chapter in Bobby in Naziland. Everything on the list took place in a 12-hour period, from 8:30 p.m., July 26, to 8:30 a.m., July 27. See if you can guess the year. The answer is in the UFO video at the end of the post.

 

  · Eva Perón—"Evita"—the first lady of Argentina, died, at age 33.

 

  · Objects unknown—UFOs—traveling at speeds between 100 and 7,000 miles per hour, buzzed Washington, D.C.

 

  · The stock market reached a 22-year high.

 

  · King Farouk of Egypt was deposed in a bloodless coup.

 

  · A woman flying Pan American airlines, from Rio de Janeiro to Rome, was sucked out of the plane off the coast of Brazil when the emergency door popped open.

 

  · U.S. B-29s bombed North Korea's electrical power grid.

 

  · At the Summer Olympic Games, in Helsinki, Bob Mathias broke his own world record for the decathlon.

 

  · The New York Yankees were in first place in the American League, and the Brooklyn Dodgers were in first place in the National League.

 

  · Cleveland Indians third baseman Al Rosen was leading the American League with 18 home runs, 4 more than Mickey Mantle of the Yankees.

 

 

Bugs Bunny's July 27, 1940, debut. If you're of a certain age, you've seen it many times.

 

One of the multitude of UFO sightings that occurred during the month of July, many years ago. Find the answer to the "quiz" in this video.

________

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

 

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How Hot Was It?

 

"She always began with the heat wave that baked New York City that July. 'It was 95 degrees every day,' she'd say. 'Some days it hit a hundred. And we didn't even have an air conditioner. Do you have any idea how uncomfortable it was to be nine months pregnant in that miserable little apartment?'" —from Bobby in Naziland

 

The heat wave of 1952 began on June 26, when the temperature in New York City hit 100 degrees. It continued throughout July. The "she" in the above excerpt is my mother, and her meteorological memories of the days surrounding my birth, amidst a frenzy of UFO sightings, are accurate.

 

  · July 14–23, 1952, was the hottest 10-day stretch in New York's recorded weather history, dating back to 1871.

 

  · July 1952 was the hottest calendar month the city had ever endured.

 

The first four summers of my life, 1952–55, were the hottest four consecutive summers on record in New York; the temperature went above 95 degrees on 41 different days. And I was in Brooklyn for all of them.

 

Somehow, we got through those heat waves without air conditioning. I didn't know anybody who had an air conditioner, in part because a 5,500 BTU machine, in the mid-1950s, cost about $350, the equivalent of $3,386 today. But money was beside the point. The building I lived in and most of the other buildings in the neighborhood, constructed in the 1920s and 30s, weren't wired for air conditioning. Flatbushians could only dream of air-conditioned apartments.

 

I can picture myself, age six or seven, lying in bed, coated in sweat and trying to fall asleep on a sweltering night. On the floor next to the bed is a little spluttering fan tilted upward, its breeze wafting over my body and doing almost no good at all. How I longed for a moment of coolness.

 

In those ancient days, if you couldn't afford to escape to the Catskills for the summer, you cooled off at the beach, at a public swimming pool, or in an air-conditioned movie theatre, probably on Flatbush Avenue.

 

These days, I'm fortunate to be sitting in a large room cooled by a 12,000 BTU Frigidaire AC. And that's a good thing—because, out of an excess of caution, I wouldn't consider going to a beach or pool, and New York movie theatres remain closed.

 

So I'm staying right where I've been for the past four months. It's safe here, and there are books to be written and books to be read. Summer, after all, is a good time to catch up on your reading. And if you're reading this blog, you might also want to pick up Bobby in Naziland, if you haven't done so already. It may be just the cure for the summertime blues, despite what Eddie Cochran sang in the long, hot summer of 1958.

 

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No Asterisk for Maury Wills

 

"With the transistor radio pressed to my ear, I can feel the electricity of 25,000 people in Dodger Stadium and a million more who are tuned in coast-to-coast. I can feel it pouring into Maury Wills, surging through his body. The Dodger infielder, having drawn yet another walk against the Chicago Cubs, takes a huge lead off first base, and the frenzied L.A. crowd, knowing he's feeding off their energy, is on its feet, chanting 'Go, Maury, go!' willing him to fly, to again steal second, now only 80 feet away." —from Bobby in Naziland

 

In the summer of 1962, I listened to a lot of baseball on a transistor radio my parents had given me for my birthday. Mostly I tuned in to the Yankees, the reigning World Series champs. Since the Brooklyn Dodgers had split for L.A., in 1957, I'd become a Bronx Bomber fan. There was no choice, really. I never understood how anybody could root for the Mets, the "lovable losers" created out of thin air, in 1962, to replace the irreplaceable Dodgers.

 

When the Yankees had a day off, I'd listen to a Dodger game if I could find one. Of course it bothered me that "dem bums" had moved 2,500 miles away, but fellow Brooklyn Jew Sandy Koufax was still a Dodger, so I felt a connection to "dem," though Koufax had been injured in July and was out for the rest of the season.

 

Even without Koufax, the Dodgers were a thrilling team—thanks to Maury Wills, a player I could relate to, despite his lack of Jewishness. Unlike my Yankee idols, Mickey Mantle and Roger Maris, who blasted baseballs into the bleachers, Wills, a 5-foot-10-inch, 160-pound infielder, who never hit more than six home runs in a season, got by on pure speed. I, too, was a fast runner and I devoted a significant portion of my childhood to trying to figure out how to apply my speed to baseball, even though my hitting abilities were akin to those of Gus Bell, the Mets right fielder, who finished the '62 season batting a hefty .149. If I could just find a way to get on base, I thought that I could be like Maury Wills.

 

With Wills providing the spark, the Dodgers were locked in a life-and-death struggle for the National League pennant with those other New York deserters, the San Francisco Giants, with the winner gaining the right to lose the World Series to the invincible Yankees.

 

Hanging out in front of my house or wandering around the neighborhood, I'd listen to Dodger games, the voice of Vin Scully transporting me to distant ballparks where I'd become one with the crowd, urging Wills to get on base and make something happen—and just about every time he came to bat, something did happen.

 

Though hitting an unspectacular .299, Wills's blazing speed forced errors, turned routine ground balls into singles, and turned walks into triples. His on-base percentage was .347, and every time he got on base, everybody watching or listening to the game knew he was going to try to steal—second, third, and sometimes home. There was little anybody could do to stop him. In 117 attempts, he was thrown out stealing only 13 times—8 of those times on hit-and-run plays when the batter didn't hit the ball. No team's entire roster had more steals than Maury Wills alone. The Washington Senators came closest, with 99.

 

Wills stole his 96th and 97th bases, tying and breaking Ty Cobb's record of 96 steals, which had stood for 47 years, in the 156th game of the season, on September 23, 1962, in a 12–2 loss to the St. Louis Cardinals. (No asterisk for Maury!)

 

The Dodgers and Giants both won 100 games, finishing tied for first place and forcing a three-game playoff series. On October 3, in the seventh inning of game three, Wills stole his final base of the season—number 104.

 

But the Giants pulled the game out—1951 déjà vu all over again!!!—and went on to lose the World Series to the Yankees.

 

I watched game seven on TV, a 1–0 nail-biter at Candlestick Park. The game ended as Willie McCovey lined out hard to second baseman Bobby Richardson, with the tying and winning runs on second and third base.

 

Somewhere Maury Wills, the National League MVP—Willie Mays of the Giants, batting .304, with 49 home runs and 141 RBIs, finished second in the balloting—was watching, too.

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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 should (and probably can buy it again).

 

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40 Sacred, Scruffy Acres

 

"Once I was allowed to cross Caton Avenue on my own, I could play baseball anytime I wanted, though not terribly well, on the sacred, scruffy sandlots of the Parade Grounds." —from Bobby in Naziland

 

The official name has always been Parade Ground, but nobody called it that. Today, these 40 acres of ball fields, unrecognizable to my eye, are partitioned with fences and covered with artificial turf. A sign over one of the entrances confirms the official name, so maybe modern-day Flatbushians call it Parade Ground.

 

Fifty-five years ago, when I lived a half block away, on East 17th Street, everybody called it the Parade Grounds, plural, and there were no signs indicating otherwise. To say "Parade Ground" doesn't sound right to me and never will.

 

It was a wide-open space and there was no artificial turf, either. Astroturf, as it was first called, didn't exist. The Parade Grounds were, as the above excerpt says, a collection of dusty, scruffy, unmanicured baseball fields. Blades of grass were few and far between. When you played ball there, especially in the summer, you'd return home covered in gritty red clay.

 

Come autumn, combination football goalposts and soccer goals appeared, and gridirons were marked off. Though somebody must have played soccer there, I never saw anyone do it and I didn't know anyone who did. The Parade Grounds were for baseball and football because that was the American Way.

 

And the grounds were sacred, especially if you were Jewish and loved baseball, as most of us were and did. The Parade Grounds were where Jewish, Brooklyn-born Hall of Famer Sandy Koufax, of Lafayette High School, learned to throw his unhittable curve ball before joining the Brooklyn (soon-to-be LA) Dodgers.

 

In the above photo, taken in 1928 from a rooftop near Coney Island Avenue, the Parade Grounds look similar to the way they were in the 1950s and 1960s. The corner of Caton Avenue and Stratford Road is behind the trees on the upper right, and Parade Place, which turned into East 17th Street when you crossed Caton Avenue, is at the upper left.

 

The number of times I crossed Caton Avenue with either a baseball mitt or football tucked under my arm is incalculable.

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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 should (and probably can) buy it again.

 

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Church Avenue Stories

 

"Then [my father] had to return to those grueling 12-hour shifts, the ones that began in the predawn Church Avenue gloom, when the drunks came staggering out of Byrne's 'gin mill' across the street and made their way to the candy store's front window to croak, 'Bromo Seltzer.' And my father would serve it to them, one foaming glassful of stomach-settling swill after another, 12 cents a pop, thereby earning his first dollar of the day." —from Bobby in Naziland

 

The awning in the above photo is the entrance to Byrne's bar or "gin mill," if you prefer that term. It's one of the places from which the intoxicated multitudes emerged around four in the morning when the bars closed. They then stumbled across the street to order a Bromo Seltzer from my father's candy store. The glasses he used to serve the Bromo were the same glasses he'd use later in the day to serve his famous egg creams, which were the same price, 12 cents, and were said to taste like chocolate ambrosia.

 

I didn't remember the name of the bar until I came across the photo. I rarely walked on that side of Church Avenue—I wasn't allowed to cross the street by myself until I was eight. Byrne's didn't hold the same fascination for me as the Maple Court Tavern, on my side of the avenue. Even after it had gone to seed, the Maple Court seemed like a more interesting place, and I'd always stop to look inside as I walked past on warm days, when they'd leave the door open. Byrne's just seemed dark and unappealing—the diviest of the local dive bars.

 

The character I call Aileen Murphy—the girl who prowled Church Avenue with a vicious dog after she was released from reform school—lived above Byrne's. Even after I was allowed to cross the street, I usually kept to my own side to avoid running into her and her provocatively named mutt. (See Bobby in Naziland, Chapter 1.)

 

Three stores to the left of Byrne's was the Savoy. Though I didn't write about it in Bobby in Naziland, this greasy spoon was a place my father often sent me to retrieve a cup of coffee when he was working in the candy store. Sometimes my family ate dinner there; I always ordered the hot open roast beef sandwich and, when permitted, the marshmallow sundae for dessert. (Neighborhood denizens will recall Matty the waiter.)

 

One afternoon when I was in the third grade, I walked into the Savoy and saw a bunch of teachers from my school, PS 249, sitting at a table in the back, eating lunch. They were so out of context I didn't know how to process this vision. I'd never seen any of them, including my own teacher, Mrs. Fletcher, outside the confines of the school. Mrs. Fletcher waved to me. I stood there dumbfounded, before finally deciding that I should wave back. But I was afraid I'd done something wrong and would be in trouble the next time I showed up for class. In those days I lived in a perpetual state of thinking I'd done something wrong.

 

Which isn't all that different from how I feel today.

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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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The Emotional Resonance of Common Household Objects

 

The Kelvinator in the above photo is identical to the refrigerator we had for the 12 years we lived on East 17th Street. The landlord must have given my parents a slightly used model when they moved in, in 1953, because the refrigerator always looked little dilapidated, with ice building up in the freezer until there was barely enough room for an ice cube tray. Defrosting it was a tri-monthly ordeal. My mother first had to remove everything in the refrigerator, then chip away with an ice pick until there was enough room in the freezer to fit a pot of boiling water, and then another and another, until enormous chunks of ice began crashing to the floor. Then she'd mop the floor since it was already wet. My mother despised that refrigerator and longed for the day she could have a new one, preferably frost free, with a separate freezer compartment.

 

Like the Lewyt vacuum cleaner I wrote about in April, the Kelvinator is one of the numerous household objects I searched for on the Internet to jog my memory as I was writing Bobby in Naziland. It always surprised me how much emotional resonance certain common objects held, and how many memories they evoked, especially if I hadn't seen them in more than a half century, and especially if in the ensuing years they'd taken on the appearance of antiques. Looking at such objects underscored how much time had passed since I'd last seen them for real.

 

Memory itself is one of the subjects I explore in the book, and I noted in a chapter called "Speak, Memory" that if you grew up anytime after the late 1940s, it's possible to piece together the lost world of your childhood from fragments found on the Internet. It's all there: the antique photos of the street where you lived; the videos of the decades-ago-canceled TV shows you watched; the advertisements for the toys you once owned or coveted; the vacuum cleaners your mother used, and the refrigerators she defrosted.

 

After spending several years seeking out and finding such things, it occurred to me that organic memory and digital archives can become so intertwined, sometimes you can't tell where one ends and the other begins, though these days it hardly seems to matter.

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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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Flatbush Is My Dublin

 

Next Tuesday, June 16, is Bloomsday, the day that Ulysses, by James Joyce, takes place—in Dublin, in 1904. Joyce picked that day to commemorate his first date with his wife-to-be, Nora Barnacle. During their outing, while walking along the banks of the River Liffey, Barnacle put her hand into Joyce's trousers and masturbated him. It left an impression.

 

Ulysses is one of those novels that everybody knows about but few people have read. Its fame rests on the book's frank portrayals of sexuality. In one scene, the main character, Leopold Bloom (hence "Bloomsday") masturbates in public—probably the most poetic description of public masturbation in literature. Published in Paris in 1922, Ulysses was banned in the USA.

 

Despite its sex scenes, the book—an experimental stream-of-consciousness narrative, full of puns, parodies, and obscure allusions—is, to say the least, a challenging read.

 

I read Ulysses in 1977—simultaneously with a dictionary. On some pages I had to look up, literally, every other word, some of which were not in the dictionary. It's the kind of book that requires a sherpa to guide you through. But I stuck with it because it's considered one of the greatest novels in the English language, and in those early years of my career, I thought Ulysses was a book every writer should read.

 

I can't say I enjoyed it or understood all of it, but I did admire what Joyce accomplished. Writing in self-imposed exile in Trieste, Paris, and Zurich, he brought to life, in granular detail, the streets, alleys, pubs, bedrooms, and people of his native Dublin. Joyce transformed an ordinary day in the life of an ordinary man into a universal story. Dublin was the world.

 

Though Bobby in Naziland is neither stream-of-consciousness nor experimental and does not require a dictionary or sherpa to understand, I did try to do with Flatbush what Joyce did with Dublin: bring to life in gritty, visceral detail its streets, alleys, ball fields, bedrooms, candy stores, and people, and make it a universal story told through the consciousness of an ordinary boy. Flatbush was the world.

 

Though sheltering in place and curfews have at times made my life in Manhattan seem like one of exile, it's not. But when I started writing Bobby in Naziland, I probably hadn't set foot in Flatbush in more than a decade, and I only went back to explore my old haunts after I'd finished a first draft.

 

So yes, Flatbush is my Dublin, and I'd suggest a good way to celebrate Bloomsday next week (since it's not a great idea to hit the Irish bars yet, in the traditional, Guinness-fueled manner of celebration) is to pick up a book that you will read and that tells a universal tale of the place I left behind 55 years ago. It just might be a place that you left behind, too, even if you lived in Dublin.

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The Street Where I Lived

 

The above stretch of East 17th Street, between Church and Caton Avenues, is one of Bobby in Naziland's main settings. I lived in Brighton Hall, the building in the middle, from 1953 to 1965. The expanse of sidewalk in front is where I hung out, had almost daily fistfights, played Chinese handball, and knew every crack in the cement. It's a street I thought I'd never leave, and in a manner of speaking, I never did. I've carried East 17th Street with me all these years. The street never left me.

 

East 17th Street looks a lot different today than it did 55 years ago, but in the municipal archives photo, taken in 1939 or 1940, it's very much as I remember it. The first-floor triple-window, to the right of the entrance, is the apartment of the character I call Alan Feldman. It was below that window that "Feldman" flung me to the ground and sat on me one afternoon, in front of his jeering friends, when I told him, incorrectly, "You're too fat to take me." (Lesson learned.)

 

Two details in the photo indicate that the squalor I describe in the book—the result of a quarter-century of landlord neglect—had not yet descended on East 17th Street. Generic lighting fixtures replaced the two stylish globes on either side of the entrance, and the canopy leading to the entranceway of the marginally more upscale building next door, at the right edge of the photo, was gone by the 1950s. (Click here for a better shot of the canopy.)

 

The character I call Jeffrey Abromovitz lived in that house. His real name was Marc Barshatzky—I changed many names throughout the book—and though I hadn't seen him since high school, we remained friends into our mid-teens.

 

Several weeks ago, his sister, Susan Barrett, called to deliver the shocking news that Marc had died suddenly. A professional actress, Susan had participated in the New York launch of Bobby in Naziland, reading one of the sections about her brother. Marc's obituary paints a very different picture from the disreputable child I describe in the book.

 

His death and my serendipitous reconnection with Susan have rekindled a number of emotions that I thought I'd laid to rest when I was writing Bobby in Naziland. It's also made East 17th Street more poignant in a way I hadn't anticipated.

 

Ironic how death can make the past come alive.

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The Glory of the Loew’s Kings

 

"Or if I had 50 cents on me, I might go see a good horror film, like House of Usher—Edgar Allan Poe's premature-burial story...—at one of the rococo, multi-tiered Flatbush Avenue movie palaces, like the Albemarle, the Astor, the Rialto, or the Loew's (pronounced Lowie's) Kings. It was at the Kings, one afternoon in 1962, after sitting through a showing of The Three Stooges in Orbit, that I saw the Jewish Stooges themselves run down the aisles and take to the stage as every kid in the packed house simultaneously let loose with an ear-shattering shriek." —from Bobby in Naziland 

 

The above photo was taken the night of June 4, 2019, in the lobby of the Loew's Kings Theatre, on Flatbush Avenue. My wife and I had gone there to see Bikini Kill, the reunited 90s "riot grrrl" punk band.

 

We sat in the balcony, as we did the first time I took her to the Kings, in May 2015. That night we'd joined some of my old Erasmus classmates (the school is two block away) to hear Crosby, Stills & Nash. Walking down Flatbush Avenue and seeing the name of that iconic trio on the Kings marquee, rather than, say, The Three Stooges in Orbit, was surreal.

 

Opened in 1929, the Kings was a lavish 3,676-seat theater, one of five "Loew's Wonder Theatres," featuring both movies and live stage shows, usually of the vaudeville variety, but they soon switched to movies only. As I recounted in Bobby in Naziland, it was a place where, for 50 cents, I could escape into the worlds of Poe, Godzilla, vampires, and James Bond.

 

The Kings closed in 1977 and for more than three decades stood empty, deteriorating into a state of near-collapse. Finally, in 2010, the New York City Economic Development Corporation stepped in. Along with the Brooklyn Borough President's office, they oversaw a renovation that took four years to complete and ultimately restored the movie palace to its 1929 magnificence, which is evoked in the wall panel and window behind me in the photo. (You can see more photos here.)

 

Like much of the rest of the world, the Kings Theatre is on coronavirus hiatus. Which reminds me that John Prine (who probably appreciated the Three Stooges) was one of the 100,000 casualties. He played the Kings on April 13, 2019. We should have seen him when we had the chance.

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“I am not Josef Mengele!”

 

In May 1960, news of Nazi war criminal Adolf Eichmann's capture was flashed around the world. According to the official story, Mossad agents had snatched the Gestapo colonel off a street in Buenos Aires, where he was living under an assumed name, and spirited him back to Israel. There, Eichmann was charged with crimes against humanity, tried, found guilty, and hanged.

 

The most surprising thing I learned while doing background research for Bobby in Naziland was that the official story, which had endured for 40 years, had left out one crucial detail: how, exactly, the Mossad—the Jewish CIA—found Eichmann, the logistics expert responsible for organizing the "Final Solution."

 

That detail came to light in 2000, when the Israeli government quietly declassified the Eichmann file, which contained the story of Lothar Hermann and his teenage daughter, Sylvia.

 

Lothar, a half-Jewish former Dachau inmate, had fled to Argentina in the aftermath of Kristallnacht. There, Sylvia, who was raised Catholic and was unaware of her father's history, began dating Eichmann's son Klaus, who used his real last name, bragged to the Hermanns about his father's being a high-ranking Gestapo officer, and told them that the only mistake the Nazis made was that they'd failed to exterminate all the Jews.

 

Lothar tipped off the German authorities, who relayed the information to the Mossad. Sylvia, acting as a spy for the Mossad, gave them detailed information on Eichmann's whereabouts.

 

Until 2000, the story of Lothar and Sylvia Hermann remained unknown, even to their relatives who lived in Argentina. The 2018 release of Operation Finale, a film about Eichmann's capture, starring Ben Kingsley as Eichmann, brought some attention to the father and daughter, as did a traveling museum exhibition of the same name, co-produced by the Mossad.

 

But neither the film nor the exhibition touched on another disturbing aspect of the story, which I detail in Bobby in Naziland. According to a contemporaneous account in the March 24, 1961 issue of the Argentine newspaper El Imparcial, a year after Eichmann's capture, the Mossad accused Lothar Hermann of being Nazi doctor Josef Mengele, arrested him, held him for 15 days, tortured him, and then released him when an analysis of his fingerprints showed he wasn't Mengele.

 

"No Soy Jose Mengele", nos declaro enfaticamente Lothar Hermann, the El Imparcial banner headline says ("I am not Josef Mengele," Lothar Hermann told us emphatically).

 

A more recent article, in one of the main Argentine newspapers, Clarin, published on November 27, 2011, also says that the Mossad arrested Hermann, accused him of being Mengele, and tortured him.

 

When I was in Buenos Aries, in 2017, I asked Argentine journalist Rolando Gallego if he knew about Lothar Hermann, and if it was true that the Mossad had arrested and tortured him. It was "common knowledge," he said.

 

I also asked former Mossad agent Avner Avraham, who curated the Operation Finale exhibition and was a consultant on the film, about Lothar Hermann's arrest and torture. He denied that it happened. "Why would the Mossad do that?" he said. "It makes no sense."

 

The Mossad would do that, apparently, because they mistook him for Mengele. Therefore, I included the story of Lothar Hermann's arrest and torture in Bobby in Naziland, attributing it to the contemporaneous account in El Imparcial.

 

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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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Summer of ’61

 

Let's return to the Maple Court Cafe, or "Tavern" as I called it in Bobby in Naziland—because that's what everybody called it, except for those who, like my father, called it a "gin mill," which is a pretty good synonym for "dive bar."

 

I blogged about the Maple Court's interior this past August, when I found a postcard from its glory days. Back then it was a quasi-classy joint, with potted plants and palm trees painted on the walls—the kind of establishment that gave away souvenir postcards.

 

The Maple Court was one of the places where Stingo, the narrator of William Styron's Sophie's Choice, hung out with Sophie, in 1947, when he lived in a rooming house in Flatbush. It was also the first bar I ever walked into. A shot from New York City's Municipal Archives, taken from the corner of East 16th Street, shows what the block looked like back in Stingo's day. You can see the Maple Court behind the "Furs" sign.

 

The above photo, courtesy of the Brooklyn Historical Society, was taken in June 1961, when I was eight and one of the set pieces in Bobby in Naziland was taking place: Roger Maris was in the midst of his record-breaking home run streak, hitting number 13 on June 2 and number 27 on June 22. This is how I remember the Maple Court. (The taller buildings on the right are the backs of apartment houses that faced East 17th Street.)

 

The Maple Court sign indicates "dining" and "entertainment" were on tap, but by the summer of 1961, no food was served there and the only entertainment was watching the locals get hammered. The Maple Court was dim, dingy, and uninviting, and it's long gone, the building torn down, replaced by Bobby's Dept. Store. In 1961, I might have found that more intriguing than a dive bar.

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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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The Sawdust-Strewn Aisles of the A&P

 

In the 1950s and 60s, The Great Atlantic and Pacific Tea Company, better known as the A&P, was a chain of grocery stores that were ubiquitous in New York City. There was one in Flatbush, on Church Avenue between East 18th Street and St. Paul's Place. My mother did most of her food shopping there before Waldbaum's opened a block closer to our house.

 

In Bobby in Naziland, I discuss two books about Nazis that influenced my own writing. One was The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich, by William Shirer. The other was Sophie's Choice, by William Styron, which was set in postwar Flatbush, with many of the book's locations only a block or two from where I lived.

 

This blog, in part, is a photographic addendum to Bobby in Naziland. My intention has been to add greater detail about any number of people, places, and things that I touched on in the book. In this Season of the Plague, I've found that losing myself in mid-20th-century Flatbush, despite some of the darkness of that time, has been especially pleasurable.

 

This week, I return to the "sawdust-strewn aisles of the A&P," which Styron and I both wrote about. And I wonder if any stores, at least in New York City, still strew sawdust on the floor to absorb moisture. At a time when the very notion of walking into a supermarket can be terrifying, the idea of floors covered in sawdust seems so, to say the least, unsanitary.

 

The above photograph of the A&P on Church Avenue, taken in 1940, is from the New York City Municipal Archives. You can see the other half of the storefront here. (The same car appears in both shots.) Though The Great Atlantic and Pacific Tea Company ceased to exist after filing for bankruptcy, in 2015, the current Google maps shot shows the store that was once the A&P remains a supermarket, though its aisles, I'd imagine, are sawdust free.

 

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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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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.

 

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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.

 

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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.

 

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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.

 

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Prospect Park, 1959

 

The above photo was taken in the autumn of 1959 by the lake in Brooklyn's Prospect Park, near Parkside Avenue, behind the Peristyle, or Greek Shelter, as it's more commonly known. I'm 7 years old and my father, Irwin Rosen, is 36. The excerpt from Bobby in Naziland in the caption comes from a scene in chapter one, where a gang of teenagers steals my new fishing rod. That took place two years later, in the summer of 1961.

 

The fishing pole I'm holding in the photo is a toy; the one I'd receive for my birthday was real. The fishing spot I describe in the book is the peninsula jutting out in the background.

 

I didn't have this photo when I was writing Bobby in Naziland. I wish I had. There are a lot of memory-jogging things going on here that you can see better if you enlarge it. On the collar of my favorite jacket (I'd forgotten about the jacket) there are two disks, authentic U.S. Army pins. One shows two crossed rifles, the infantry symbol; the other says "U.S." My uncle gave me the pins, too, as well as a pair of captain's bars that I wore on the shoulders of this jacket, though you can't see them here. Maybe he hadn't given them to me yet.

 

My uncle was a private in the peacetime army, happily doing his time between Korea and Vietnam. He was stationed in Germany, at the same time as Elvis, though not in the same unit. Before being shipped overseas, he was posted at Fort Dix, in New Jersey, and would often come to visit when he had a weekend pass. He'd always bring me some kind of trinket that he'd picked up in the PX, like those pins that I loved—because he knew I was fascinated by everything having to do with the military. (I discuss this in the book.)

 

In the "Fragments of My Father" chapter, I write that my father wore "heavy black work boots" in his candy store. This is incorrect. He wore the black ripple-sole shoes he's wearing in the photo. If you look closely you can see the ripple soles.

 

The memory might be unreliable but these photos aren't.

 

You can see other photos from the lost world of Flatbush 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.

 

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Where Are the Dogs of Yesteryear?

 

We all know where the dogs of yesteryear have gone, and if this particular beagle—yes, I remember him, though not his name, his human, or the bystanding girl—is still walking the earth, he'd be about 330 dog-years old now.

 

The year is 1954 or early 1955, and I appear to be about 2½ years old. This photo was taken, probably by my mother, on East 17th Street near Caton Avenue, down the block from where we used to live, in Flatbush. Though I didn't have a dog, I was crazy about the neighborhood dogs and loved to pet them, as I'm happily doing here.

 

To see photos of this corner, taken from different angles, around 1940, click here and here.

 

Like the other photos I've been posting the past few weeks, here and here, all of them recently unearthed in my brother's basement, this one shows what Brooklyn (and I) looked like during the period that Bobby in Naziland takes place.

 

I will post 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.

 

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Church Avenue, 1956

 

Here's another photo from a recently unearthed series of photos that show what Brooklyn, Flatbush, members of my family, and I looked like during the period that Bobby in Naziland takes place.

 

In this photo, taken in 1956 or early 1957, I'm about four years old. The cars all appear to be early 1950s models; the one where you can see the grille and license plate is probably a 1952 Oldsmobile. I don't know who took the picture. It could have been my mother, the official family photographer, or it could have been our downstairs neighbor Fred, the owner of the dog, Boxer. That's my father, Irwin Rosen, 33 or 34 at the time, standing behind me.

 

The location is Church Avenue, between East 17th and East 18th Streets. (East 18th Street is in the background.) One of the main settings of Bobby in Naziland, my father's candy store, which he opened in 1948, is down the block, to the left, directly across the street from World Liquors, which in a few years would become Deal Town. Above the liquor store, the sign obscured, is a bowling alley and pool hall. I don't remember Ray's or Bob's. (Click here and here to see photos of this stretch of Church Avenue, taken from different angles, in 1940.)

 

My father and I are standing in front of N.E. Tell's bakery, which isn't visible. It was around this time that I first saw the Auschwitz tattoo on the forearm of a woman who worked in Tell's. I describe that moment in a key scene in the book.

 

I'll post more photos in the coming weeks.

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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.

 

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Flatbush, April 1955

 

The above photo is one of several an editor solicited for a story about Bobby in Naziland that was supposed to run in a local Brooklyn newspaper. The story was never published, so I'm going to run the photos here, as illustrations of what Flatbush—and I—looked like during the period the book covers, the 1950s through the mid-1960s.

 

In this shot, labeled "April 1955," I'm not quite three years old. About one mile away, the Dodgers will soon begin their third from last season in Ebbets Field.

 

My mother, Eleanor Rosen, took the photo in front of the building adjacent to where we used to live, on East 17th Street. A character in the book, whom I call "Jeffrey Abromovitz," lived there. As I describe in the first chapter, this is the sidewalk I would lick 61 times—once for each home run Roger Maris hit in 1961—in exchange for Abromovitz's rare Maris baseball card.

 

You can watch a video of Abromovitz's sister, Susan Barrett, reading this passage here.

 

Look for more photos in future blog posts.

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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.

 

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Suzi From the Block: The Sequel

 

Since Bobby in Naziland: A Tale of Flatbush was published, I've reconnected with many people from my past, some of whom I hadn't seen in 50 years. Susan Barrett, who's appeared on such TV shows as 30 Rock, Shades of Blue, and Law & Order, is one of those people. She was the only actor captured live on video at "Bobby on Beaver Street," the December 14 New York launch event for Bobby in Naziland. You can see that performance here.

 

In the above video, shot in my apartment, Susan reprises her Beaver Street performance and tells the story of our first, serendipitous meeting. She then reads from the opening chapter of Bobby in Naziland, "The Goyim and the Jews," in which her brother is a character.

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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.

 

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