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The Weekly Blague

The Gift of Books

Every gift-giving season I make available signed copies of some of my books. Here's the selection for 2023:

  • Nowhere Man: The Final Days of John Lennon (updated and expanded 2022 edition), $21
  • A Brooklyn Memoir (2022), $23
  • Nowhere Man: The Final Days of John Lennon (2002 edition with photos), $19
  • Bobby in Naziland (2019, earlier, slightly different edition of A Brooklyn Memoir), $23

Prices include shipping in the continental US. Please email me for information on payment via Zelle, check, or money order, or if you have any questions.


Wishing all of you the happiest of holidays! And to help you get into the spirit of the season, here's Mary Lyn Maiscott's Christmas classic, "Blue Lights."



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My Father at 100

Had my father, Irwin Rosen, lived, he would have turned 100 on September 23. But he left us in 2005, a vigorous man who had to be dragged to doctors and refused to take certain tests that might have saved his life. If it's true that everybody is born with a finite amount of courage, my father spent most of his on the battlefields of World War II and had little left over to face the verdicts rendered by men of medicine. My last memory of him when he was still healthy was playing touch football on my brother's front lawn. At age 80, he could still move and fling the ball with zip. I prefer not to think of him lying in a hospital bed.


My relationship with my father was challenging, and it was only after he was gone that I considered writing about it and trying to make sense of it. When I was a kid, he owned a candy store on Church Avenue, in Brooklyn, around the corner from where we lived. He put in 12-hour days, then came home and went to sleep. Pretty much the only time I ever saw him awake was when he was behind the counter in the store, whipping up egg creams and malteds for his customers and selling them cigarettes. I worked in the store from the time I was seven, making change for newspapers and eventually graduating to the egg-cream bar. I liked listening to my father and his cronies talk about the war, football, and the dirty books he kept on a special rack in the back of the store. But I also got an advanced education in bigotry—I was carefully taught whom to hate. It was ugly stuff, some of the things they said, and I wrote about it in detail in A Brooklyn Memoir, which ends in 1964, when I was 12, just before my father sold the store.


Then came my teenage years, which I've yet to write a book about. My father was a law-and-order Republican, I was a hippie, and things in the Rosen household grew so strained, we froze each other out. It was a cold war. Months went by when I didn't exchange a word with my father or my mother. The root of the trouble was the length of my hair and my refusal to cut it. I spent as much time away from my parents as possible, while still technically living in the same house. I moved out in 1975, when I was 22.


By the time my parents moved to a retirement community near West Palm Beach, in 1995, my father had mellowed, even toning down the bigotry, and I'd become more accepting of his and my mother's flaws. We were talking again, and I enjoyed visiting them and spending time in Florida. Despite their adamant opposition to my career choice—"You'll starve!"—they were thrilled when Nowhere Man became a best-seller, and they kept a file of newspaper clippings about the book, in many languages. Though the thing that finally persuaded them that I'd achieved some degree of success was when Nowhere Man was a question on their favorite show, Jeopardy. ("Rock & Roll Bookstore for $400, Alex.") 


Now, in my own advanced age, I find myself missing the old man and wishing he'd taken the damn medical tests so I could have had him around a few more years. And my mother, who's closing in on 97, misses him, too—despite their 56 years of bickering about everything. That's just the way it goes. The lucky ones get old and some of them do make it to 100.


So, on the occasion of my father's 100th birthday, I'll leave you with an excerpt of A Brooklyn Memoir. This is how Chapter 11, "Fragments of My Father," begins:


Yes, my father wore his hatred on his sleeve like a badge of honor—because that's what he wanted people to see. He thought it made him look like a tough son of a bitch who was not to be fucked with, and maybe it did. But it was possible for certain people—like me, my mother, and perhaps a few others—to occasionally get beyond this facade, and if you managed to do that, what you'd find lurking just beneath the surface was a seething mass of contradictions.


Please join me for a discussion of Nowhere Man: The Final Days of John Lennon on Wednesday, October 4, 6 p.m., at Subterranean Books in St. Louis.


All my books are available on Amazon, all other online bookstores, and at your local brick-and-mortar bookstore.


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Sometimes the Living Know Brooklyn, Too


It's been a while since I've posted about A Brooklyn Memoir, my tale of growing up in Flatbush at a time when the beloved Dodgers abandoned the borough for Los Angeles, WWII was still fresh in everybody's mind, and the military veterans and Holocaust survivors who populated the neighborhood suffered from what was not yet known as PTSD. But a podcast about the book that I recorded nine months ago recently popped up. You can listen to it on the above player.


Yvonne Battle-Felton, the host of Bookable Space, is a writer and academic based in the UK. Her probing questions about A Brooklyn Memoir got me talking about the racism, hatred, and emotional and physical violence that I tried to forget after I left Flatbush in the mid-1970s. It wasn't until 2012 that I decided to write about those long-ago days; I then spent the next several years recalling fragment by fragment what I'd so successfully put out of my mind.


I also read three short excerpts from the book: the beginning of Chapter 1, "The Goyim and the Jews"; the beginning of Chapter 3, "Heil Irwin," which is about my father; and the section from Chapter 9, "The Great Candy-Store Tragedy," that gets into the Brooklyn Dodgers and Bobby Thomson's devastating "shot heard 'round the world."


Tune in and return to a New York City that's been lost to time.


Please join me for a discussion of Nowhere Man: The Final Days of John Lennon: Wednesday, October 4, 6 p.m. at Subterranean Books in St. Louis.


All my books are available on Amazon, all other online bookstores, and at your local brick-and-mortar bookstore.


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The Artful Propaganda of the Spanish Civil War


Last week, to celebrate my birthday, I wrote about the man I was named after, my great-uncle Robert Rubin Weber, who, in 1938, joined the International Brigade, Lincoln-Washington Battalion, to fight against fascism in the Spanish Civil War and was killed in action at the Battle of Gandesa. I also examined a Spanish Civil War propaganda poster from the Abraham Lincoln Brigade Archives (ALBA). A selection of these artistically striking posters, designed to convince Spanish citizens of the righteousness of the Republican anti-fascist cause, will be on display through September 15 in the NYU Kimmel Windows.


This week I'll examine two more ALBA posters that caught my eye. The text across the bottom of the above poster translates as "The Internationals: United with the Spanish, we fight against the invader"; the text in the seal as "International volunteers of freedom." Though the posters were effective, with volunteers from all over the world joining the International Brigade, the fascist rebels, led by General Francisco Franco and backed by Adolf Hitler, overwhelmed the Republican army. Franco and his repressive regime would rule Spain until his death in 1975.



During the Spanish Civil War, Buenaventura Durruti, working with anarchist labor unions, fought on the side of the Republicans against the fascist rebels, known as Nationalists. He was killed in action, in November 1936, at the Battle of Madrid. The text translates as "Honorable anarchists are against the false freedom that cowards [meaning the Nationalist rebels] invoke to get away with what they're doing."


It should be noted that the battle against fascism continues today in the United States, as one of its major political parties has rejected democratic rule, derisively calls those who oppose it Antifa (anti-fascist), and strives to overcome popular will and install an authoritarian regime.


There is much to be learned from what happened in Spain 85 years ago.


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My Great-Uncle Robert


The Spanish Civil War was the opening act of World War II. From 1936 to 1939, Spain's democratically elected leftist Republican government fought fascist rebels, known as Nationalists, led by General Francisco Franco (still dead) and backed by Adolf Hitler, of Nazi Germany, who saw the conflict as an opportunity to test his weapons of war. Volunteers from many countries joined the XV International Brigade to fight alongside the Republicans. British writer George Orwell was perhaps the best known volunteer, and he documented his experiences in Homage to Catalonia. American volunteers joined the Abraham Lincoln Brigade, and one of them was my great-uncle Robert Rubin Weber.


I knew little about my mother's uncle when I was growing up, other than that he was an "adventurer" declared missing in action in the Spanish Civil War and presumed dead and that I was named after him in the Jewish tradition of naming babies after deceased family members. Sixty-five years later, as I was writing A Brooklyn Memoir, I asked my mother if she could tell me anything more about her uncle. The only thing she remembered is that after a trip to the South Seas, he brought her back a coconut carved into the shape of a woman. He'd disappeared when she was 11. I'd never even seen a picture of him; nobody in the family had one.


As A Brooklyn Memoir was going to press, in 2019, I continued searching for additional information about Robert Weber and stumbled upon a page devoted to him in NYU's Abraham Lincoln Brigade Archives (ALBA). I'd been spelling his name wrong. My mother finally told me that my grandfather had inserted an extra "b" into Weber to make it sound "less German." My grandfather and his wife and children were Webber.


I was 67 years old before I saw a photo of the person I was named after.



My great-uncle Robert Weber's passport photo. He was killed in action at the Battle of Gandesa, in Spain.


Robert Rubin Weber was born September 12, 1903, in Lomya, Russia, now part of Poland. He arrived in the US a month before his eighth birthday and became a naturalized citizen. His father, my great-grandfather, was Jacob Weber, who was born in Russia and died in 1935. Robert was a grocer like his older brother, my grandfather. The address listed on his passport, 442 West 23rd Street, in New York City, was most likely a rooming house at the time. He sailed for Europe aboard the Aquitania on January 12, 1938, landed in Spain on January 23, and served with the XV International Brigade, Lincoln-Washington Battalion (known as the Lincoln Brigade), rank soldado. Reported missing in action in March 1938, near Gandesa, as the International Brigade retreated from a fascist onslaught, he's now listed as killed in action.


I bring all this up because I was walking on LaGuardia Place a few weeks ago and was surprised to see an artistically striking selection of Spanish Civil War posters displayed in the NYU Kimmel Windows, a block south of Washington Square Park. The exhibition, which will remain on display until September 15, was co-curated by Miriam Basilio Gaztambide, an associate professor of art history and museum studies; Danielle Nista, an assistant university archivist; and several students. The posters got me thinking about my great-uncle again, and how I'd so recently come to learn anything about him, and how amazing it now seems that 85 years ago a member of my family, who'd probably never picked up a rifle, volunteered to go to war against fascism for a country that was not his own.


Tomorrow is my birthday, and, on this blog, I'm celebrating today and in weeks to come by remembering the man I was named after and the righteous cause he fought and died for.


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What's in a Name?


I launched this blog February 10, 2010, with an announcement that the Italian edition of my John Lennon biography, Nowhere Man, was going to be published by Coniglio Editore, and that I was going to celebrate with a pizza and a bottle of Chianti. I don't remember what I called the blog back then. I changed the name every few weeks. I do know that over the past 13 years and 5 months, as I posted sometimes daily, sometimes weekly, and sometimes monthly, I changed the name many more times.


If you logged on here four days ago, I was calling the blog "Flatbush Flashback," a reference to my most recent book, A Brooklyn Memoir. The blog served as an illustrated postscript to what I'd written about my old neighborhood in the 1950s and 60s. Before that, my posts about Beaver Street were an addendum to my analysis of the political, technical, and sociological ramifications of the pornography industry. I called the blog "The Daily Beaver." Scroll down the left-hand column (on a computer) and you'll see a list of all the other topics I've written about since 2010.


Lately I've been writing about whatever catches my interest on any particular day. So, if you've tuned in recently, you've read about legal cannabis in New York City, a 350-year-old tree in Washington Square Park, tenement buildings (which did, coincidentally, touch on Flatbush), and a visit to Uvalde, Texas, on the first anniversary of the mass shooting at Robb Elementary School.


It was time to change the name of the blog.


I stole "The Weekly Blague" from an Agatha Christie book I've been reading. There's a reference in Death on the Nile to a gossip column in a newspaper called the Daily Blague. The name made me laugh. I looked it up and was surprised to see that "blague" is a real word, though a bit archaic. I'm not going to tell you what it means, but I will say I'm using it ironically.


I don't know how long I'm going to keep that name. But for the time being, I am going to keep posting to The Weekly Blague about whatever's on my mind.


Conventional wisdom has it that people no longer read blogs, that they're very 2010, that readers want only microposts on social media. I don't buy it. A good blog is no different than a good newspaper. If you write about things people want to read, they'll find it. This blog has proven that many times.


Welcome to The Weekly Blague, however long it may last.


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We Were Talking About Air Shafts


We were sitting in a bar talking about air shafts. My friend Andrea was with her niece, Mia, who was visiting from Florida. Mia had wanted to go to the Tenement Museum, on the Lower East Side, admission $30. Andrea refused to pay $30 to look at a curated slum.


"Give me 30 bucks," I said to Mia. "I'll show you a shabby apartment."


The conversation then turned to defining what, exactly, makes a building a tenement. Andrea suggested a number of features distinctive to certain New York City apartments: rooms without windows, bathtub in kitchen, shared toilet in a water closet in the hallway, and windows looking out on an air shaft, often with garbage piled up at the bottom.


My wife, Mary Lyn, who's from Missouri and has never lived in a tenement, wasn't sure what an air shaft was. So Andrea and I endeavored to explain that in the early 20th century, New York City building codes demanded that apartments have at least one window, and that the solution to building cheap housing that had at least one window in every apartment was to place an air shaft—an empty verticle space—in the middle of the building. That way, interior apartments looked out on an air shaft, the other interior apartments often so close the tenants could reach out the window and shake hands with their neighbors as they inhaled the garbage fumes wafting up from below.


I pointed out that sometime in the 1950s, a builder came up with the insidious idea that kitchens and bathrooms don't need windows; vents would suffice. The idea caught on, and if you've spent any time in New York City, you've probably noticed how common this is, even in modern luxury buildings.


All this talk got me thinking about the apartment I lived in when I was a kid—the one I describe in detail in A Brooklyn Memoir. That building wasn't a tenement, but it was pretty rundown, though it did have a window in every room, including the kitchen and bathroom. What I didn't describe in the book was the way the kitchen and bathroom windows looked out on a space in the middle of the building that was too small to be called a courtyard but was bigger than an air shaft and served the same purpose. Every so often, a man with an accordian wandered into this space to sing Italian songs. People threw money at him, an occasional dollar bill floating down. From our third-floor kitchen window, I'd try to hit him in the head with pennies until my mother walked into the room and screamed, "Stop throwing money out the window!"


Should there be a future edition of A Brooklyn Memoir, I will include this scene.


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A Journey Through My Consciousness

Nowhere Man, Beaver Street, and A Brooklyn Memoir, three books about seemingly unrelated topics, are connected by my voice—they all have the same sound. It's almost as if they're a trilogy or a journey through my consciousness. The interviews I've done over the years usually focus on only one topic: John Lennon, pornography, or Flatbush. But occasionally somebody wants to explore the complete Rosen oeuvre, and that was the case with the podcast Conversations With Rich Bennett. Rich wanted to hear it all, and he allowed me to ramble on for more than hour, taking a deep dive into each of my books.


I hope you'll give our conversation a listen.


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When Crosby, Stills & Nash Came to Flatbush

Marquee of the Kings Theatre, May 2015. Photo © Mary Lyn Maiscott.


Though I tend not to wax nostalgic over dead musicians, even those whose music contributed to the soundtrack of my formative years, I was surprised at the surge of emotion I felt upon hearing about the death of David Crosby of the Byrds and Crosby, Stills & Nash (and sometimes Young).


Yes, Déjà Vu was an album I played to death in the early 1970s, and Crosby's "Almost Cut My Hair" was a personal anthem back when I was living with my parents and they were incessantly telling me, "Cut your hair! You look like a damn freak!" I very much liked his lyric about the paranoia he felt when he looked in his rearview mirror and saw a police car. Because those were the days when my freaky hairdo was a magnet for police attention, and I couldn't so much as drive around the block without getting pulled over for a "routine" license and registration check.


I should also mention a fond memory of smoking hash in my bedroom with a couple of friends and hearing for the first time CSNY's take on Joni Mitchell's "Woodstock" come over the radio, with Crosby providing those ethereal harmonies and rhythm guitar, and thinking that a song never sounded so good.


But whatever emotions I've been feeling about Crosby probably have more to do with the last time I saw Crosby, Stills & Nash, in May 2015, when I'd gone back to Brooklyn to meet some old high school classmates for dinner. They all had tickets to see CSN at the Kings Theatre (formerly the Loew's Kings), which was down the street from our high school, Erasmus. I didn't even know they were playing there that night.


In A Brooklyn Memoir, I describe the Kings as "one of the rococo, multi-tiered Flatbush Avenue movie palaces," where for 50 cents I'd often satisfy my taste for Godzilla, vampires, and James Bond, and once saw the Three Stooges make a live appearance. (Moe was an Erasmus dropout.)


Since I fled Brooklyn in 1975, the Kings, after falling into disrepair, had been restored to a sumptuous entertainment venue equal to its original 1929 magnificence. And it was surreal to walk down Flatbush Avenue and see "Crosby Stills & Nash" on a marquee where I was more accustomed to seeing such offerings as The Three Stooges in Orbit.


In any case, I bought tickets to see CSN that night, sat in the balcony with my wife, and listened to one of my all-time favorite bands, still in fine voice considering what they (especially Crosby) had been through, open with "Carry On," and play, among other classics, "Long Time Gone," "Déjà Vu," "Suite: Judy Blue Eyes," and, yes, "Almost Cut My Hair" (which it's no longer necessary to tell me to do).


And that's why surprisingly poignant emotions have been welling up over a musician I never met, but who touched my life, and in the final phase of his own life came to my old neighborhood to sing his songs.


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Eleanor Rosen Is Alive and Living in West Palm


I describe my mother, Eleanor Rosen, one of the main characters in A Brooklyn Memoir, as an obsessively clean housekeeper, an excellent cook, a lover of art and literature, a hater of Nazis, and a status-conscious woman who was dissatisfied with her lower-middle-class life in a shabby apartment on East 17th Street in 1950s and 60s Flatbush.


Today she resides in an assisted-living facility in West Palm Beach, Florida, and last week my wife, Mary Lyn Maiscott, my cousin Mark Coplon, and I visited her. Such visits are emotionally difficult, mostly because my mother is unhappy being "in an institution," as she puts it, and would like to live with my brother, Jerry, or me, which would be impossible. She's having memory issues and problems walking; she'd require a full-time aide. Even putting aside the cost of such an endeavor, neither Jerry nor I have enough space.


A conversation with my mother goes something like this:


"How old am I?"


"You're 96, Mom."


"That's old. Do you think I'll make it to a hundred?"


"Could happen."


"Would you ever move to Florida? I'd feel so much better knowing you were near me."


"Our lives are in New York, Mom, but we'll visit you as much as we can. And so will Jerry and Cindy."


To distract my mother from her obsessions, we went outside to the patio, where I showed her the copy of A Brooklyn Memoir that I'd brought with me. Despite her failing eyesight, she recognized my father and me on the cover, and that the photo was taken, probably by her, on Church Avenue and East 17th, down the block from my father's candy store. Then I read her favorite passage, which begins, "Say what you will about my mother. She knew how to cook, and must be given full credit for her near-supernatural ability to transform the most ordinary cut of meat or low-budget piece of fish into something delicious."


Mark-Coplon.jpg My cousin Mark Coplon, a drummer in The Nickel Bag back in the day.


Later, Mary Lyn took out her guitar and sang for my mother, as Mark, who back in the day was a drummer in a suburban garage band called The Nickel Bag, drummed on the tabletop. My mother then looked up into the cloudless Florida sky and saw two hawks circling above us. It reminded her of a lyric from Oklahoma, which she and my father saw on Broadway before I was born. She asked Mary Lyn if she could play the title song from the show. So that's what Mary Lyn played. My mother remembered the words, and we all sang together:


Oklahoma, every night my honey lamb and I

Sit alone and talk
And watch a hawk

Making lazy circles in the sky.


And for a moment my mother was happy.


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The Rosen Oeuvre


Talking with Emerson Souza, host of the Hear Some Evil podcast, is kind of like hanging out at a bar and getting into a stimulating conversation with the knowledgeable stranger sitting on the barstool next to you. Souza originally told me that he was interested in discussing Beaver Street, my book about the history of pornography. But we ended up talking for two hours about my other books, too: an updated edition of my classic John Lennon bio Nowhere Man, which was just re-released, and A Brooklyn Memoir, a darkly comic tale about growing up in Flatbush in the 1950s and 60s, surrounded by Holocaust survivors and World War II veterans who fought the Nazis. In short, Souza and I covered the entire Rosen oeuvre, and you can listen to our conversation if you click on "Play," above.


My latest book, A Brooklyn Memoir, is available on Amazon, Bookshop, all other online booksellers, and at your local brick-and-mortar bookstore.


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Another Fragment of My Father: II


This is the kind of document I wish I had when I was writing A Brooklyn Memoir. It's my father's pay record from 1944 and 1945, the final years of World War II, when the 94th Infantry Division had arrived in Nazi Germany as the Third Reich was making its last desperate stand against the advancing and soon to be victorious Allied armies.


The pay record contains many details that I was unfamilar with and that would have clarified the chronology of my father's war years, which he only discussed with me in the vaguest terms. I can see, for example, that when he was promoted from private first class (PFC) to corporal (CPL), on September 29, 1945, his salary skyrocketed from $15 per month to $40 per month; that a $6.50 life insurance premium was deducted every month; and that his life was valued at $10,000.


Had I known any of this, I'm sure I'd have included it in the book, as it adds another dimension to what my father was going through. Should there be a second edition of A Brooklyn Memoir, I will include it.


In the meantime, I offer his pay record as a souvenir of a time when Nazis were America's mortal enemy rather than domestic terrorists who declare themselves patriots and defenders of freedom.


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Another Fragment of My Father


World War II and its effect on my father, Irwin Rosen, is one of the main themes of A Brooklyn Memoir. He was an infantyman in General Patton's 94th Division. He marched through France, Czechoslovakia, and Germany. He fought in the Battle of the Bulge and took part in the liberation of a Nazi slave-labor camp. Despite my persistent questions, he never talked about what he experienced in any detail. Everything I learned about what happened to him in the war I learned from somebody else, usually my mother.


As a child, I loved looking at my father's war souvenirs, which I describe in the book. Recently, I came across a war souvenir I'd never seen before: his "Special Orders for German-American Relations" (first page depicted above), signed by Lieutenant General Omar Bradley, in 1945.


His orders were exactly as follows:


1. To remember always that Germany, though conquered, is still a dangerous enemy nation.

2. Never to trust Germans, collectively or individually.

3. To defeat German efforts to poison my thoughts or influence my attitude.

4. To avoid acts of violence, except when required by military necessity.

5. To conduct myself at all times so as to command the respect of the German people for myself, for the United States, and for the Allied Cause.

6. Never to associate with Germans.

7. To be fair but firm with Germans.


This happened a long time ago. My father would have been 99 September 24. This is another fragment of his life.


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Don't Pass Me By Podcast

Don't Pass Me By Podcast

The title may be a Beatles reference, but this edition of the Don't Pass Me By podcast, with host Bob Wilson, is all about A Brooklyn Memoir. Bob and I began talking about my old grade school, PS 249, and the third-grade class photo that I ran in the previous blog post, "It's Not Even Past." I told Bob that seven people in that photo, including me, are "characters" in the book.


I then talked about how I'd been out of contact with my classmates for more than a half century, and how, a year ago, I received an e-mail inviting me to a mid-pandemic sixth-grade class reunion via Zoom, with many of the same people in my third-grade class. After 50 years, there were my characters, live and on a computer screen.


And somehow over the course of the podcast, I babbled on about everything from playing tackle football without equipment in Brooklyn's Parade Grounds to Middle East politics (no, I don't have a solution).


This is the first podcast exclusively devoted to A Brooklyn Memoir. I hope you enjoy.


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It's Not Even Past


You can just make out the date, 4/25/61, on the rectangular black-and-white identification board in the back of the room, on the right. Most of these people were together from first through sixth grades, and this particular classroom is the setting of a key scene in A Brooklyn Memoir. A chapter titled "The Third Grade: 1960" begins like this:


"Does anybody know someone who was in a concentration camp?" our teacher, Mrs. Feinstein, asks the class during a social studies lesson.


Daniel Silver is the only one who raises his hand.


"Who do you know, Daniel?"


"My mother," he says. "She was in Dachau."


"Do you know how she survived?"


"She could split logs into three even pieces with an axe."


"Your mother has a good eye. She's very lucky the Nazis found that useful."


This photo demonstrates the inherent truth of William Faulkner's best known line: "The past is never dead. It's not even past."


I'd been out of contact with my classmates for a half century as I wrote A Brooklyn Memoir. I had no idea what had become of them. I didn't know if they were alive. A Google search revealed nothing.


About a year ago, I received an e-mail. My former classmates were organizing a mid-pandemic Zoom reunion. Would I like to reunite?


Sometimes the past is best left in the past. This time I welcomed it back.


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How I Found My Voice

How I Found My Voice


Shepherd, a new Website that helps people discover their next great read, asked me to put together a list of books that were important to me, and explain why. This was a way to make readers aware of my latest book, A Brooklyn Memoir, which I describe as "darkly comic" and "an unsentimental journey through mid-century Flatbush, where Auschwitz survivors and WWII vets lived side by side and the war lingered like a mass hallucination."


I called the list "The best memoirs, essays, and fiction that inspired me to write." It's also a list of books that helped me find my own voice. The most difficult part of putting the list together was limiting it to five books. Those five classics, which you can see above, were written by giants of American literature: Henry Miller, Hunter S. Thompson, Philip Roth, Joan Didion, and Joseph Heller, who was one of my creative writing instructors at City College.


If I could have added a sixth book, it would have been Miller's Black Spring, because A Brooklyn Memoir is, in part, an homage to Miller's journey out of the "damp grime of his Brooklyn youth."


Been there.


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Why I Wrote the Book


An expanded version of this post appeared on the Oil on Water Press site. The paragraph below is drawn from the afterword of A Brooklyn Memoir.


A Brooklyn Memoir is an attempt to make sense of a confusing past that for most of my life I pretended didn't exist. The seeds of A Brooklyn Memoir can be found in the opening pages of my previous book, Beaver Street—a description of the scene in my father's candy store in 1961. As I wrote those pages, I knew that I was only scratching the surface, and that whatever was happening in Flatbush in the mid-1950s to the mid-1960s, from the final days of the Brooklyn Dodgers to the arrival of the Beatles, was rich material that demanded further exploration. So I wrote down everything I could remember about that time and place, and when I looked back at the 400 single-spaced pages of notes, fragments, anecdotes, and ideas that had accumulated, what jumped out at me were Nazis—they were everywhere, like in the souvenirs my father brought home from the war and in the numbers on the arms of my neighbors. In one way or another, it was Nazis and the Holocaust that provided much of the inspiration I needed to write this book.


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Caught in the Spotlight

Caught in the Authors Guild Spotlight

The following interview was posted on the Authors Guild Website.


Why is writing important to you and why do you think it's an important medium for the world?

I became a writer because I wanted to satisfy a primal need to communicate. That's why it's important to me. It's important to the world because the written word is often the best way to tell stories that need to be told.


What are your tried and tested remedies to cure writer's block?

I don't believe in writer's block. If you're blocked, just start writing anything. Describe the wall in front of your desk. It doesn't matter if it's gibberish. Eventually the right words will come.


What is your favorite time to write?

If I have a deadline, first thing in the morning. If I don't have a deadline, I generally hit the computer by noon.


Keep a notebook and write in it every day. Make writing seem as natural as breathing.


What's the best piece of writing advice you've ever received and would like to impart to other writers?

Keep a notebook and write in it every day. Make writing seem as natural as breathing. That's what my writing professor at City College, Francine du Plessix Gray, told me. And she was right.


What excites you most about being a writer in today's age?

Getting published, seeing my book on a bestseller list, and getting paid.


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The Road to Naziland

In 2016, at the age of 63, Jerry Stahl, a writer best known for his addiction memoir Permanent Midnight and his work on TV sitcoms like Alf, was contemplating suicide. His marriage and career had fallen apart; he'd been diagnosed with hepatitis C; doctors had found a suspicious mass on one of his kidneys; and a botched surgery had left him "wearing a bag" for what he thought would be the rest of his life. But instead of jumping off a bridge, as he was planning to do, he chose to find a reason to continue living. Stahl decided to go to "Naziland" to take a guided tour of concentration camps in Germany and Poland. He wanted to come "face to face with the Giant Maw of Hell" and experience up close "the darkest stain on humanity." This, he thought, would allow him to put his own problems in perspective.


He then wrote a book about it.


In 1956, at the age of four, I became aware I was living in a place where people who'd survived the concentration camps of Germany and Poland were everywhere—in the stores, in the streets, on the subway. Some of my neighbors were mutilated, and so many others, more than I could count, had those blue numbers tattooed on their forearms. Between the concentration camp survivors and the army veterans like my father, who'd fought the Nazis, not a day passed when I didn't hear somebody talking about Hitler and Germany. It was as if World War II hung like a mass hallucination over Flatbush and other large swaths of Brooklyn. William Styron, who spent a few months in Flatbush in 1949, noticed it too and set his autobiographical Holocaust novel, Sophie's Choice, in a rooming house where he and the title character both lived, across the street from my grade school.


In an effort to make sense of what I'd experienced as a child but had blotted from my memory for most of my life, at the age of 63 I began writing a book about Flatbush, a neighborhood I'd come to think of as "Naziland."


A Brooklyn Memoir is a journey back to a metaphorical Naziland.


That Stahl's Nein, Nein, Nein! (Akashic Books, Brooklyn) and my book, A Brooklyn Memoir (Oil on Water Press, London), are being published two days apart, on July 5 and 7, by different publishers in different countries, is hardly a coincidence. With the youngest surviving World War II veterans in their 90s, and the youngest surviving concentration camp inmates in their 80s (two people born in Auschwitz are known to be alive), these two books, mirror images of each other, are part of a sudden outpouring of literature, film, and journalism about the Holocaust and the war while they remain in living memory.


The most recent example, the HBO movie The Survivor, directed by Barry Levinson, is based on the true story of Harry Haft, played by Ben Foster, an Auschwitz inmate who survives by performing in to-the-death boxing matches with other prisoners for the amusement of his Nazi captors. After the war, Haft resettles in Brooklyn, among a multitude of fellow survivors, and becomes a professional boxer with a bad case of PTSD.


Films such as Dara of Jasenovac, from Serbia, about the Jasenovac concentration camp; The Auschwitz Report, from Slovakia, about an escape from Auschwitz; and L'equilibrista con la stella (The tightrope walker with the star), from Italy, about a circus performer who hides a Jewish girl from the Nazis, were released in 2021.


A casual perusal of any news site confirms that this global outpouring is a trend that's gathering momentum. The periodicals of April (coincidentally the month of Hitler's birth) and early May (coincidentally the month of Germany's surrender) contained the following headlines:


"Harald Jähner: The German author on struggling to forgive his parents' generation" —The Guardian, April 9


"They Are the Heirs of Nazi Fortunes, and They Aren't Apologizing"The New York Times, April 19


"Adolf Hitler 'had Jewish origins', claims Russian minister Sergei Lavrov in rant" —Sky News, May 1


"My Great-Uncle, The Holocaust's First Jewish Victim" —The Atlantic, May 5


The war in Ukraine and a rising tide of neo-Nazism, Trumpism, and Holocaust denial seems to have inspired a need to produce accounts of 80-year-old atrocities while eyewitnesses still walk the earth. In Nein, Nein, Nein! and A Brooklyn Memoir, Stahl and I—Jewish writers born one year apart—have immersed ourselves in the details of those atrocities.


One of the eeriest resemblances between the books involves our descriptions of the freezing/thawing "medical" experiments the Nazis were so fond of conducting.


One of the eeriest resemblances between the books involves our descriptions of the freezing/thawing "medical" experiments the Nazis were so fond of conducting. The ostensible purpose of "The Treatment of Shock From Prolonged Exposure to Cold, Especially in Water," as the experiments were bureaucratically known, was to determine how long it took a man to die in freezing water. The answer according to Dr. Sigmund Rascher, who was in charge of the experiments and guarded his turf jealously: 80 minutes to 6 hours if the subject was naked; 6 to 7 hours if he was clothed.


From Nein, Nein, Nein!, when Stahl is touring Dachau:

Another of Rascher's ideas was to enlist the aid of prostitutes, often Romani ladies plucked from the women's concentration camp at Ravensbrück. The doctor's idea was to press the poor, unconscious individual's body between the females for a slow "body massage." This last, for reasons we can probably surmise, was so appealing to Rascher, he brought in Himmler to observe the proceedings.


From A Brooklyn Memoir, when I'm describing the Eros/Thanatos thrill of reading, at age eight, William Shirer's The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich:

Naked men were put outside in sub-zero temperatures and doused with cold water every hour until they stopped screaming. Then, on the verge of death, they were brought inside so Nazi doctors could conduct "warming experiments"—from which they concluded that the best way to thaw out a frozen man was to put him in bed with one or more naked women, and let the women's body heat warm him as they had "intercourse." The doctors also determined through repeated testing that one naked woman unthawed a man faster than two, because, they deduced, a "chilled man" and one woman were both less inhibited and clung more closely to each other during the sexual act.


Similar descriptions, often laced with dark humor, occur throughout both books and demonstrate one effect the Holocaust had on an overlooked segment of the post–World War II generation. While literature about the trauma of children born to Holocaust survivors, like Art Spielgelman's Maus, proliferates, Nein, Nein, Nein! and A Brooklyn Memoir (originally titled Bobby in Naziland) are the only books I'm aware of about those of us born in the late 1940s and early 1950s who had no family connection to Holocaust survivors yet were unable to escape the trauma. Because if you grew up Jewish in a Jewish neighborhood in those early postwar years, the Holocaust was an unavoidable reality that you were veritably marinated in—I've known what Auschwitz meant for almost as long as I've understood language.


Stahl and I both became obsessed with the mechanics of the Final Solution—the trains, the gas chambers, the crematoria.


He grew up in Pittsburgh and writes about how his father, who died by suicide when Stahl was a teenager, had escaped from Lithuania at age 10, after his own father was killed in a pogrom, but never spoke of his "missing years"—which led to Stahl's feeling a "nameless guilt" because he had it so easy while his father had it so hard.


My father, an infantry veteran who'd participated in the liberation of a slave labor camp, never spoke to me in detail about what he'd experienced, despite my persistent questions. But beyond my proximity to a bitter man haunted by what he'd witnessed were the stories my mother told me. Obsessed with the need for Adolf Eichmann, organizer of the Final Solution, to pay the ultimate price for his crimes against humanity, she was more than willing to discuss the things my father refused to talk about—like the slave labor camp he liberated and how the gas chambers worked.


Because so many Flatbushians were either war veterans or Holocaust survivors, a significant portion of the population—as Levinson shows in The Survivor—were suffering from some form of PTSD (as it was not yet called). And that trauma inevitably filtered down to those of us who'd not experienced the traumatizing events firsthand. The PTSD showed itself in the rabid hatred and bigotry of both adults and children towards anybody outside their tribe. And it showed itself in the perpetual violence among the kids, who routinely beat the shit out of each other for no discernible reason.


The two books often alight upon the same Holocaust-adjacent cultural touchstones—the Three Stooges, for example.


The two books often alight upon the same Holocaust-adjacent cultural touchstones—the Three Stooges, for example.


In A Brooklyn Memoir, I cite the Stooges' Jewishness, mention that Moe Howard went to my high school, Erasmus (he dropped out), and describe the live appearance the threesome made at a local movie theatre packed with Stooge-crazy kids to promote their 1962 film The Three Stooges in Orbit.


In Nein, Nein, Nein!, Stahl cites a 1940 Stooges short, You Nazty Spy. Moe plays Hitler, Larry plays propaganda minister Joseph Goebbels, and Curly plays Gestapo head Hermann Goring (Field Marshall Gallstone in the movie). The Stooges considered it one of their finest films—certainly superior to The Three Stooges in Orbit—and it was the first film to satirize Hitler, released nine months before Charlie Chaplin's The Great Dictator.


Then there's Donald Trump—because these days you can hardly write a book about Nazis without referencing him. In his cameo appearance in A Brooklyn Memoir, I say that the twice-impeached president grew up in Queens, where he was exposed to an even more virulent strain of bigotry than I was exposed to in Flatbush. Trump's feral genius is his Hitler-like ability to transform that hatred into political power.


Stahl describes Trump as "an anti-Semitic sleazeball" and blames him for "fucking up" his book. When he began writing Nein, Nein, Nein!, in 2016, Trump was not yet president. By the time Stahl had finished writing it, in 2021, he says, his Trump vs. Hitler comparisons felt dated and played out. He also notes that the Trump-loving Proud Boys and other neo-Nazis and white supremacists are but pale imitations of the real thing—though he sees no difference between the forced hysterectomies ICE, under Trump, performed on migrant women and the Nazis' forced hysterectomies performed in concentration camps.


Stahl and I took different roads for different reasons to arrive at the same destination: Naziland. His visit to the real thing left him feeling only "an overwhelming emptiness." When I returned to my own metaphorical Naziland, I felt sadness, but it was tinged with nostalgia for the streets of my youth.


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Rosen Remembers, Part III

Rosen Remembers, Part III : A Brooklyn Memoir

A Brooklyn Memoir Interview


In the final part of my interview with author Marshall Terrill, we discuss A Brooklyn Memoir, my unsentimental journey through 1950s and 60s Flatbush, to be published by Oil on Water Press, July 7. We also talk about the as-yet-untitled book I'm currently working on, about America in the 1970s. The interview has been edited for clarity.


Marshall Terrill: Let's move to your new book, A Brooklyn Memoir, which is your most personal work to date. It captures so beautifully a special moment in time and a special place in America. What was the inspiration to write this particular book?


Robert Rosen: The opening pages of Beaver Street take place in my father's candy store in 1961. I knew I'd just scratched the surface with those few paragraphs, and I wanted to explore this time and place in more depth. There was something happening in that Brooklyn neighborhood—Flatbush—in the mid-1950s through the mid-1960s that was worth writing about. So I spent a couple of years writing down everything I could remember.


The more I remembered, the more I remembered. I wrote 400 single-spaced pages of notes, fragments, and anecdotes. I went through it looking for common themes and Nazis jumped out—they were everywhere. That's why the original title was Bobby in Naziland. I thought it was perfect—Mel Brooks meets Alice in Wonderland. So I was surprised when people came up to me at readings and said, "Loved the book. Hated the title." Then the pandemic hit. I had to stop doing events. Sales crashed. Bobby in Naziland wasn't a good title for a time when a virus was killing thousands of people every day. I thought that was the end of the book. I was surprised that the publisher wanted to re-release it under a new title. That's how Bobby in Naziland became A Brooklyn Memoir. They're going to do an audio book, too. I'm hopeful the book will find its audience this time.


MT: This is a book that almost every Boomer can relate to because there are so many milestones that everybody experienced together in America at that time. This memoir also has a New York twist in that it chronicles the neighborhood you grew up in, which was pretty tough. So with that said, was it a hard childhood or are you nostalgic about it now? How do you feel about it?


RR: I have mixed feelings. You say it was a tough neighborhood, and it definitely had that element. But if you compare it to Harlem or Bedford-Stuyvesant at the time, it wasn't so tough. I never heard about people in Flatbush shooting or stabbing each other. The main form of violence was fistfights. We had those every day. We were a bunch of kids running around beating the shit out of each other.


"I grew up in a neighborhood where a huge percentage of the people must have had PTSD."


I didn't realize until I started writing the book that between the Holocaust survivors and the World War II veterans, I grew up in a neighborhood where a huge percentage of the people must have had PTSD. How else can you explain this mindless violence? Sometimes you just passed somebody on the street you didn't like and started throwing punches. I probably beat up more people than beat me up. I guess I was a kind of bully, but everybody picked on weaker people. It makes no sense, but that's what we did. Am I nostalgic for it? When I go back to Flatbush, I do feel a certain nostalgia—for the streets, for the buildings, for the parks. But it was also claustrophobic. East 17th Street between Church and Caton Avenues, and Church Avenue between East 17th and 18th, were my whole world. It was a very limited world and I was happy to get out of there.


MT: Kicking ass and getting your ass kicked seems like a great way to steel yourself for this world.


RR: We were definitely free-range kids. My parents were the opposite of helicopter parents. As long as I didn't come home with torn pants after a street fight, they didn't seem that concerned with what I was doing. But I was constantly getting into fights and my father, if anything, encouraged it. He felt the best way to handle a bully was to punch him in the face. And I did do that. But I can assure you I'm a nonviolent person now.


MT: What does your old neighborhood look like today given that Brooklyn has gone through major gentrification?


RR: The block I lived on was pretty shabby and it seems to be the block that gentrification forgot. When I was writing the book, I went back there to check it out and refresh my memory. I walked into my building, and aside from the new doors on the apartments, nothing had really changed. I was on the staircase, taking pictures, when I saw a young Hispanic man walk into my old apartment. I tried to explain to him in my fractured Spanish that I lived there 50 years ago, and would he mind if I took a look at the apartment. He was not into that at all.


Around the corner, the place that used to be my father's candy store had been torn down and now it's part of the subway station. Though most of the buildings are the same, every store on Church and Flatbush Avenues had changed. I couldn't find one that was the same as when I was living there. Erasmus Hall High School still looks the same, and the original building, from the 1700s, is still standing. The Dutch Reform Church and its graveyard, across the street from Erasmus, is still the same. Flatbush itself has gone from being a predominantly Jewish neighborhood to a Caribbean neighborhood with a lot of Haitian people. Part of Church Avenue has been renamed Bob Marley Boulevard.


MT: One of the running themes of your book seems to be your fascination with the Holocaust survivors in your area and the national figures that emerged during that era. Can you explain that fascination and why and how it started?


RR: The part of the book about my father liberating a slave labor camp and seeing the piles of bodies—I heard about that from my mother. My father never said a word about any of that stuff. He never spoke in detail about his war experiences. He'd talk to me about the war in the most general way, though I'd occasionally overhear a thing or two—like bodies stacked like cordwood after the Battle of the Bulge, which I mentioned in the opening pages of Beaver Street. I used to ask him questions like, "Dad, how many Nazis did you kill?" and he'd always say, "Nobody." It wasn't until the end of his life, when he was in the hospital, that out of the blue, he told me the story about guarding German POWs after the war, and that he was prepared to kill them if they tried to escape. I took that to mean that he'd probably killed lots of Nazis—that's what you did when you were in the infantry, on the front lines.


My mother told me most of what I knew about the war and my father. She'd call me into the living room when there was something on TV about concentration camps. She knew I was interested. When The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich was published, I was in second or third grade. I was still reading Dick and Jane. Then I saw that book on the bookshelf with the swastika. I'd go through it and read the parts about concentration camps and gas chambers and medical experiments. I learned a lot from that book.


"They wanted to put Adolf Eichmann in a cage so people could walk by and spit on him."


My mother was obsessed with Adolf Eichmann, and she was thrilled when the Israelis captured him. She wanted to see Eichmann hang. Everybody wanted to see him hang. There was blood lust in the air. People in the candy store wanted to put him in a cage so people could walk by and spit on him. That's how I learned about the war—from watching TV, talking to my mother, and hanging around the candy store.


MT: Your father is pretty much the center of this book, and reading it, you couldn't help but feel his inner pain and frustration, although it seemed like he did a good job of hiding it from you. Do you believe he suffered from PTSD?


RR: Nobody knew what PTSD was. But in retrospect, yes. It goes a long way towards explaining his hatred of pretty much everybody who wasn't part of his tribe. He was constantly spouting bigotry and racism, and you have to wonder: Where did it come from? I think the war filled my father with a lot of hate because he experienced some genuinely traumatic things, like what he saw in the slave labor camp, or on the front lines, which he never spoke about.


MT: In the book you write about a war buddy of your father's visiting your apartment. Do you think part of his PTSD or frustration was that his missed his band of brothers and a sense of mission only to come back to Brooklyn and work in a candy store?


"It was quite a change for my father to go from saving the world from Nazis to working in a candy store."


RR: It was quite a change for him to go from saving the world from Nazis to working in a candy store. But I don't know if he had a sense of mission to lose. I think his mission was to stay alive.


The only person I ever met who was my father's buddy during the war was the guy with the artificial finger. I remember the night he came to the house. It was the late 1950s. They were sitting around the kitchen table, drinking coffee and talking about how cold it was at the Battle of the Bulge.


I know the war was traumatic for him because he refused his medals. Why would somebody refuse medals? I couldn't understand that when I was a kid. Something pretty bad must have happened, but again, he never, ever spoke about it.


MT: Speaking of horrors, that Brighton Beach passage you wrote about watching the Holocaust survivors in the locker room was haunting to read. What do you think that encounter did to you?


RR: It was the summer of 1962; I was nine, almost ten. In the locker room at Brighton Beach Baths I saw a bunch of old men standing around, speaking Yiddish. They had numbers on their arms, and their dicks and balls were missing. Whatever happened to them I figured must have happened in a concentration camp. I was horrified and it haunted me. I couldn't stop thinking about it for a long time. And yeah, it was traumatic.


MT: Did any of your dad's World War II medals and memorabilia survive and how do you feel about those possessions now?


RR: He had a canvas bag full of Nazi medals and bayonets and stuff like that. I detail the contents in the book. I don't know what happened to it and don't remember the last time I saw it. He probably sold it to a collector.


MT: We spoke of your fascination with Adolf Eichmann. But you also had a fascination with Julius and Ethel Rosenberg, who were convicted of espionage and executed by the government in 1953. Again, what was your fascination with their story?


RR: My mother brought the Rosenbergs to my attention because they were famous Jews who were in the newspapers every day. They looked like they could have been members of my own family, and their name was so similar. My grandfather was Julius Rosen. They had a kid named Robert, just a little older than me. I became fascinated by the idea that this husband and wife who looked like my cousins in the Bronx were sent to the electric chair. I had a morbid imagination. I became obsessed with the whole process of execution and sought out every bit of information about the Rosenbergs and capital punishment I could find.


MT: In the book you paint a picture of a time and place essentially that no longer exists: Coney Island, the local baker, the corner grocery, egg creams, street bullies, Boo Radley types, and that strange home in the neighborhood that every kid had a sixth sense about and learned to avoid. Looking back, how did these things shape you?


RR: Coney Island's still there. You can still find egg creams, but you have to seek them out. There are still bakeries. Corner grocery stores are called bodegas or delis. I don't know, specifically, how Flatbush shaped me. But much of what I experienced at the time I put into A Brooklyn Memoir. I wanted to share with people what it was like to be alive then so they could experience it in their imaginations.


MT: One of the two Holocaust survivors that I befriended told me that when he came to America, he was hosted by a family member and told that he shouldn't talk about what he had experienced because "nobody wants to hear it."


"I was a shy kid. I didn't go up to people and say, 'Tell me what happened to you in the concentration camp.'"


RR: I knew Holocaust survivors, but like the World War II vets, they didn't talk to me about their experiences. I would've liked to hear about it, I suppose, but I was a shy kid. I didn't go up to people and say, "Tell me what happened to you in the concentration camp." I'm not sure what they would have done if I'd said that. When Sophie's Choice came out, in 1979, I read it and was stunned that it was set in my old neighborhood. The house where Stingo and Sophie lived was across the street from my grade school. I walked past that house twice a day going to and from school. It was just a weird house. I didn't even know it was a rooming house.


MT: Your dad's candy store loomed large in your childhood. And while something like that sounded cool, you called it a tragedy. Why do you say that?


RR: Because my mother hated the candy store, and she told me every day how much she hated it. She'd talk about the store as if it were the worst thing that could have ever happened to us. She was a very intelligent woman who felt that she should be married to a professional anything, not a soda jerk. My father didn't complain about it the way my mother did, but he was unhappy working there. There were constant financial worries, though we never went hungry or couldn't pay the rent or anything like that. My mother's refrain was that money was only for necessities. I was always hearing, "We can't do that… we can't afford that." My father was never able to take a real vacation. It was just this constant, low-grade horror of being trapped forever in a candy store.


The store itself was a tiny, claustrophobic, filthy place. Of course teenagers came in and bought comic books and drank egg creams, but most of the people hanging out there were my father's cronies. They smoked cigarettes and talked about dirty books and magazines.


MT: Your memoir also touches on racism, but racism back then seemed to be equally spread out among all the ethnic groups. It seemed certainly a lot more tribal; there were Jewish neighborhoods, there were Italian neighborhoods, Irish neighborhoods. What was the difference between racism and bigotry in the 50s and 60s and racism and bigotry now?


"I heard the N-word 50 times a day."


RR: In the 50s and 60s, you could say anything you wanted—there was nothing hidden about the racism. It was something that you were exposed to all the time. I heard the N-word 50 times a day when I was a kid. It just flowed from everybody's lips. My father used it and a lot of people in my class used it, which was strange because there were virtually no Black people around. There were two Black kids in my grade school. Everybody else was white. 



If you enlarge the photo, you can see my father's candy store with its Coke sign, at far left, with my father, wearing sunglasses, leaning out the window on the right side of the store.


There's a picture of Lyndon Johnson and Bobby Kennedy coming down Church Avenue in an open limousine, in October 1964, when Johnson was running for president and Kennedy was running for the Senate in New York. There's a massive crowd on both sides of the street. But there's not one dark face. That's how segregated the neighborhood was. What's also amazing about that picture is that I'd been studying it for years before I realized my father was in it, leaning out the window of the candy store. It just hit me one day. "Oh my God, that's my father!"


To answer your question, today, in most cases, you can no longer say the N-word. The racism is coded. People, especially politicians, talk in dog whistles, but it still means the same thing. Even white-power people and neo-Nazis don't use the N-word.


MT: When you turned 20, you took a life-changing trip to Israel and worked on a kibbutz. How did that trip connect you to your roots and give you a better understanding of your upbringing in Brooklyn?


RR: I don't know if it was really a life-changing trip but it was the first time I'd been that far from home. Before that, I'd gotten as far as eastern Canada—I'd hitchhiked to Nova Scotia in 1970.


In the epilogue of A Brooklyn Memoir, I'm on a beach in Israel about 14 miles from the Saudi Arabian border, and the Red Sea is in front of me. I'd finally made it out of Flatbush, and that was amazing to me. I was there with my girlfriend, whose family was wiped out in the Holocaust, everybody except her father and grandmother. I didn't know that Naomi, as I call her in the book, spoke fluent Yiddish, which a lot of people spoke in Israel. She had to learn Yiddish because it was the only language her grandmother spoke. The trip made me more aware that I was Jewish, which, after I finished Hebrew school, was something I didn't want any part of. I was a completely secular, assimilated Jew, and Judaism did not interest me. The trip to Israel made me realize that being Jewish is something you can't run away from. There's an old saying: If you forget you're Jewish, somebody will always remind you.


MT: Tell me what you're working on these days?


RR: I'm working on a book about the 1970s. It's set at a radical student newspaper at the City College of New York and focuses on the period when the student left gave way to punk. You can read an excerpt in The Village Voice, about the Weathermen, their Greenwich Village bomb factory, and their connection to the newspaper, Observation Post.


When the draft ended in 1973 and there was no longer a threat of being sent to Vietnam, the student left's energy drained away and flowed into punk. OP was a reflection of the chaos of the time. Once it was a voice of the antiwar movement, but by the late 1970s a topless dancer was the editor. OP became a scandal sheet, almost like Screw. She published her sex memoirs and sent correspondents to underground sex clubs, like the Mine Shaft and Hellfire. OP became the embodiment of the punk sensibility—outrage for the sake of outrage. I was living with the editor and I became kind of a ghost editor.


There's also a section about hitchhiking cross-country in the summer of 1974—with Patty Hearst, the Symbionese Liberation Army, and the Nixon impeachment playing out in the background and foreground. It's a snapshot of an America that no longer exists. Hitchhiking across America for "kicks" and "experience," as Jack Kerouac put it, is something sane people no longer do.


MT: That rebellion and the political activism of the 1960s and 1970s seem to resonate in today's society. Do you see that correlation as well?


RR: When Donald Trump became president, my wife and I took part in that huge demonstration after he was inaugurated. So I'd say yes, there's definitely activism now. People feel threatened by climate change. States like Arizona and California are running out of water and are having devastating fires. And a lot of people, myself included, do not want a fascist minority government to be in charge of the country. People are threatened by these things, and when people feel threatened, it leads to activism. That's what happened in the 1960s and early 70s, when people were threatened by the draft and Vietnam. People are again feeling threatened by more things than they can keep track of.


My latest book, A Brooklyn Memoir, is available for pre-order on Amazon and all other online booksellers.


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The News From Here

It's been a while since I've posted but yes, I'm still here, preparing for the July 7 publication of A Brooklyn Memoir: My Life as a Boy, now available for preorder on Amazon. (A huge thanks to everybody who already preordered!)


This isn't the final version of the cover that Amazon's displaying, though they'll have one soon enough.


I should also add that A Brooklyn Memoir will be available as an audio book—the first one of my books in that format.


I've been busy with things, too, though (as Bartleby might say) I'd prefer not to talk about them… yet.


So that's the news from here, such as it is. Wishing you all a very belated and Covid-free happy new year!


A Brooklyn Memoir is available for pre-order on Amazon and all other online booksellers.


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