Essays - Winter 2006

Buster Brown's America

How a Jew from Slovakia became a Catholic from Manhattan, then fell from grace and turned into a real American

By Jiri Wyatt | December 1, 2005

On 207th Street, way uptown in Manhattan, a couple of blocks north of the elevated subway, there used to be a Buster Brown shoe store. This was in the 1950s. The most wonderful thing in that store was a magical contraption kept in the rear against the back wall, a tall wooden box resembling an elongated cardboard carton or a miniature coffin. At the base of this tall box was an opening where you stuck your feet while wearing strangely stiff, not-yet-purchased shoes; the top of the box enclosed a rectangular viewer through which you looked down at—this was the magical part—an X-ray of your feet darkly outlined in their casing of new shoes! It was a kind of out-of-body experience, before I knew there were such things, and one blessed by science: a scientific measure to ensure that your brand-new shoes fit perfectly.

I loved, feared, and felt altogether gaga about that contraption. It was the weirdest object of study among the welter of things that I, having just got off the boat, wanted so badly to see and feel and value the way any American kid would. Who knows how this should have been done: I experienced it as being akin to what’s expected of a devotee. The objects of my devotion included Campbell’s baked beans, Superman, Roy Rogers, cap guns, baseball gloves, Spalding balls, Levis, the Shadow, Bazooka gum, peanut butter, Coke, Chevys, Louis Armstrong, Dinah Shore, Milton Berle, Jerry Lewis, Sid Caesar, Imogen Coca, the Pledge of Allegiance (at that moment, still godless but about to become a pious weapon in the war against godless Communism). Anyway, you get the point. I was ardently devoted to mastering all this so I could claim my destiny as an American boy.

The back of the Buster Brown store appeared distinctly shabby—you could see the storage area, which didn’t have a carpet; there were little bits of crepe paper and tags and such lying around; and dust. I liked those things for all that they made uneasy—I mean the almost kinky consanguinity of the brilliance of the latest technology, all lit up, as it were, mixed with the tawdriness of the back of the store. And one more puzzling thing, to do with language and the important mysteries of advertising: Even then, when my American English was an unreliable, uncertain, crude instrument for the apprehension of things, even then I wondered about the prudence of naming a store something as hokey as “Buster Brown.” There was a boy attached to this name, a boy after whom the store was named. The ads about this boy confused me—I was never quite clear about where the boy was supposed to be from and what sort of life he was supposed to be living. But it seemed clear even to me as a just-landed immigrant that he was of the wrong time and the wrong place, of a simpler time and a more rural place, and hence either an archaic or a nostalgic figure, and it puzzled me how one or the other could be very good for business.

We arrived in New York by boat. We got off the boat and were driven to the apartment in the east 30s of a landsman. The adults gathered around the dinette to catch up on their news, and I—I was ten years old—was plopped in front of the TV. I had never seen such a thing before. It was the afternoon. On the screen was a show from a zoo, maybe the Bronx Zoo, a show about snakes. A man in an open-necked white shirt stood next to a glass case in which a black snake moved extremely slowly, sometimes across the glass, sometimes across the screen. This all happened in black and white, so in truth I don’t know what color shirt the man wore or what color the snake was. For the most part, the snake barely moved; and there were long silences. Nevertheless, I was transfixed. My first day in New York, in the United States of America.

We finally settled in Inwood, way uptown. Inwood was a neighborhood of the respectable poor (maybe that’s what accounts for the Buster Brown shoe store). It was appallingly clean, especially once you got to the side streets, which were exceptionally clean—long rows of wide sidewalks and tenements, mainly in bland, dusty, pale brick. The hallways in these apartment houses were long and ill lit. There was not much to distinguish the inside from the outside: both were hugely empty, a neat, vacant streetscape, without money. No one had enough to get anything dirty, never mind to litter. These were simply the streets of respectable poverty—one that achieved the American ideal: a true melting pot of poverty without blatant ethnic or racial distinction. Jews, Irish, other eastern Europeans, blacks . . . we were all more or less the same. Our upstanding isolation on the periphery of American affluence occurred at a moment of total conviction in the rightness of things American, such as split-level houses and G.E. refrigerators. Our poverty rendered us if not altogether equal then companionable. In the distance—bright lights, big city.

The houses to the west of Broadway, from Broadway to the edge of Inwood Park, were the domain of the better off. (Appropriately, from my house down by the Harlem River, you had to walk uphill all the way to this stretch of modest privilege perched above the Hudson.) All my Jewish friends who were old American, in other words, who had been born in the United States, lived up there. The Catholic church up the street from my primary school— P. S. 98 Manhattan—sat on the west side of Broadway too: the Good Shepherd Church. I owe something crucial to that church to which I was, for a time, devoted. It was at the Good Shepherd Church that I fell from grace and became an American boy.

My mother had decided that I was to be an American—having arrived in New York City we were never again, my mother concluded, going to pack up and migrate. So, now that I was to be an American, I would have to cease being not only a Slovak but a Jew. I would become an all-American Catholic boy. She didn’t know that all-American boys are not Catholic. In our hometown in Slovakia, the synagogue stood on one side of the town square, the Catholic church on the other. That was it, the two possibilities. I don’t think she altogether understood about Protestantism or had much notion of the lineage of American power. But maybe I am wrong. Maybe she couldn’t quite bring herself to go that far, to aspire to slipping into ranks so wholly alien, to be so daring.

In any event she packed me off to the Good Shepherd Church for religious instruction. I was the only boy in my group studying for both first communion and confirmation. At the age when I ought to have first rendered my confession and knelt at the altar and received the body and blood of Jesus Christ, I was stranded in what for my family was the no-man’s-land of Peru, where, incongruously, we had landed after the Holocaust. I am not going to say much about why we arrived there, of all unlikely places. The fact is there really weren’t many places to go; we couldn’t get into the United States; and one of my mother’s brothers was already living in Lima, the Peruvian capital. Still, it was a mistake. Whatever it might have meant to blend into the Peruvian streets, to speak Latin American Spanish, to belong there . . . all of this never quite rose to the level of something plausible and real. Rather Peru was simply a no-man’s-land—in the sense that my parents immediately and always felt out of place there, could not imagine how to set roots there, and had no sooner arrived there than they laid plans to leave (although this took another five years). We were neither one thing nor another—not Peruvians, not Europeans; not Catholics, not Jews; and so forth. Whatever I was then, when I arrived as a five-year-old by the Pacific shore where Lima is located, vanished—lost between possibilities. When I arrived in New York, I was determined not to have any such thing happen again. I was going to be someone once more.

But things didn’t work out according to plan. My mother’s idea was to remove the stain of my identity more completely than it had been in the radical indeterminacy of our Peruvian exile, as if I could be wiped clean of all and every association with anything for which there might exist an exclusive name, such as a nation or a race and especially of anything that might betray me as singed by the Holocaust. Only in my invisibility would safety lie. The first step in this Houdini act was to be performed at the altar of the Good Shepherd Church.

Almost half a century later my father is serving dinner to my Israeli first cousin’s grandfather, on her mother’s side. (Have you followed that? One of my father’s brothers escaped the Nazis across Romania to Palestine, married, had two daughters—and was killed in the 1947 war. One of these daughters, Avigail, had two daughters, one of whom, Judy, works for El-Al airlines and regularly visits my father, now the patriarch of the family across several continents. On this visit she comes with her mother’s father, an old Zionist, one of the founding Israeli generation.) The two old men, my father and Judy’s grandfather, find that they have everything in common. They eat and wave their hands to rouse up the past. Among the things they have most in common is an upbringing of sturdy or, better, pugilistic anti-clericalism, a kind of peasant suspiciousness of religion. “We were poor. Everyone was poor. I did not believe it when they told me God would help me. Nobody helped me,” my father says. Ari—Judy’s grandfather—adds with a note of delight and fury, “That’s it! You think I was different? When the Hassidim came by our house, we threw stones at them!” My father jumps up. “I threw stones at them. I hated them!”

My parents came from a culture of an emphatic secularism that no one would tolerate today in the United States. For one thing it would be seen as disrespectful, our only remaining word for sin. But to my parents and to so many Jews of their time and place, religion meant, more than anything, the commitment to backwardness. Everything progressive, everything modern, everything promising hope and better things was for them not simply areligious but anti-religious. They threw stones at the Hassidim!

Consequently, at the time I was enrolled for instruction in the Good Shepherd Church, I had had no experience of church, synagogue, or anything having to do with religion, either as concept or ritual or place. I must have known what “a place of worship” means, but in reality, the words meant nothing to me. They referred to some abstract thing of which I had no experience. When I first entered the Good Shepherd Church, with its vaulted ceiling, its dark air spiced with incense and candle smoke, its blatant figures of holy agony, its grotesque bleeding hearts, I reeled, felt nauseous, and almost fainted. I felt a kind of blissful sickness made equally of rapture and terror.

This is where things began to go wrong—for my mother and for me. My mother, then as always, took it as axiomatic that I saw the world as she did. It would be a good thing to become a titular Catholic. It would provide a way to pass, a key to the kingdom, a cloak of invisibility. But I was a serious boy impelled by my experiences of wandering and breathtaking escapes toward communities of belonging; and by the amorality of dispossession toward moral achievement. My poor mother was flabbergasted to find me a prostrate penitent ambitious for salvation. I began regular attendance at services; I confessed and prayed; I was overcome with unworthiness and hope. I was going to be good.

The Mass in those days was still conducted in Latin, which served my purposes exactly. The mystery at the heart of the faith was inscrutable, inaccessible, unintelligible—but melodious, authoritative, commanding, beautiful, disciplined, powerful beyond reason or understanding. It was the sort of thing I am sure every child—diminutive in a great world—finds completely convincing. God knows; God Is; before Him how small and transparent we are, how pitifully guilty. At the same time, here was something to aspire to, a glory beyond calculation, beyond everyday grubbing, something awesome in the old sense of the word, something vast and in its vastness equal to the ravenous passions of childhood.

I became at once an abject pilgrim in the Christian epic: I was going to be good, to be saved, to be elected to the community of eternal privilege. My parents were stunned and appalled.

I need a digression here. Our apartment was on the third (the top) floor of a new, block-long building set back from the street and fronted by what were called gardens. These gardens were no more than a patch of lawn with a couple of trees here and there, but still no other buildings in the neighborhood could claim any such sylvan accessories. Never mind that what I saw directly in front of my bedroom window was a garage for Pabst Blue Ribbon beer delivery trucks; ours were garden apartments, practically suburban. On the street level this block of apartments was divided into several sections, each with a separate entrance—but below ground the basement was one continuous cavern, with rooms for storage and whatnot, a long stretch with massive boilers and, at the end farthest from where I lived, the apartment of the super, Mr. Kotlowitz. Mr. Kotlowitz had one child, a son two or three years older than I, named Billy. Few children lived in our garden apartments—aside from me there were Esther Blank, a year older, stately, the object of my adoration and fantasy, to whom I never said more than three words; Tommy Murphy, a classmate, whose father owned a candy store on 207th Street (he made great egg sodas); and Billy.

The basement was Billy’s kingdom and served us—that is, the boys—as our private amusement park. It was perfect: there was never anyone else around; there were nooks and crannies, machinery, odd bits of equipment, stray tools. Billy, as the eldest and biggest of us, ruled. He liked to horse around, to grab you and heave you to the ground or onto the creaky bed that stood incongruously in one of the otherwise empty rooms and where we would wrestle and punch each other. In that room too Billy kept his set of pornographic pictures. The basement was hot. We would be flushed from having tossed each other around. It was as if Billy’s pornographic pictures were a little bit of purgatory. They were crude black-and-white photos of naked women in various explicit but unseductive poses—women on their backs with their legs wide apart, revealing a dark, unruly center; women on all fours photographed from behind; women holding their breasts up to the camera in their palms, and so forth. Billy would pass these out one by one, and Tommy and I would adopt a swaggering nonchalance to hide our fascination and fright.

There are some things in the house of horrors of early adolescence, where so much experience is creepily distorted, that you just can’t admit you haven’t mastered. At an age when no one knew anything about sex, it is astonishing how we pretended to dulled familiarity with each fragment of carnal knowledge. Like James Joyce’s boys in Dubliners, we too, comprehensively short on experience and self-knowledge, found our daring extended only to pulling down the shades and peeping out in a fever of adoration and shame. Everything about our unruly bodies stained the daily world; we laughed hysterically, blushed and leered, lived two lives, one undemonstrative and common, one secret, overheated, shameful.

In woodworking class at my junior high, the boldest of us, Tony Russo, broke the ice by claiming intimacies that I—and probably most everyone else—found dizzying and baffling. Not the smartest kid in the class, he had finally found something to give him an edge, an actual intellectual advantage, over the rest of us, and he seemed to have mastered an anatomical vocabulary of breadth, precision, and vulgar pedantry. Pretty soon the whole bunch of us were throwing around whispered queries. In the end, even Tony had to admit there were things he couldn’t be quite sure of. It was decided that one of us—one palpably respectable and decent, an obviously good boy of whom no bad thoughts could be entertained—should go to his doctor and ask. I was selected.

Our family doctor, Dr. Kranz, was a thin, gray, kindly old man, maybe in his 60s, and also a Slovak Jew. Occasionally my parents saw him socially. It was unthinkable that I could ask him how many times a day would be safe—one of my friends’ questions—not to mention that I didn’t know what words I could possibly use to fulfill my delicate assignment (my vocabulary was no match for Tony Russo’s). But then, was there anyone to go to? This was before the days of sex education or lucid discussion about sex with your parents (assuming there really is such a thing); and this wasn’t a subject you could talk to God about.

For my mother, my introduction to the Good Shepherd Church backfired when, against all expectations, I got religion. For me, the obligations of faith brought me soon enough to the simplest moral crisis, the one in which flesh and spirit clash. As a boy, as a good Catholic boy, I did not know that my pain and struggle were a cliché. Images from Billy’s card collection, Esther Blank’s haunches as she walked in front of me to school, the bra ads in my mother’s Vogue —it seemed as if everything conspired to taint my waking and dreaming with sin.

I could not find a way out. I could not find anyone to speak to. I could not confess. It was no more thinkable to put my sin into words, say in the confessional, than it was likely I would never sin again. In fact I had just done so, was about to do so, would have liked to have done so, was thinking of doing so, was thinking of little else. Even assuming I could have found a way to speak in the confessional, how could I ever have made it safely through to the next morning’s communion?

In this way the days lengthened to weeks. I said nothing to Tony Russo. I avoided Billy Kotlowitz. I stopped going to Mass. Then one morning Tommy called me down into the garden. He was in a state of evident panic. Billy had been arrested the night before, dressed in a bra and ladies’ panties, on a fire escape outside someone’s bedroom window.

My heart raced. Like Tommy, I panicked, without knowing what I was panicked about. For days afterward I walked around overcome by shame—for having held Billy’s body to mine (not because I suddenly thought he might be gay, something so secret I knew nothing of it—but rather because I thought of him now as soiled by sex and somehow contagious), for having held Billy’s dirty pictures, for having held myself . . . for my criminal sinfulness.

I was forbidden the basement. Tommy and I stopped seeing each other. For days I slunk around as though I had been branded, as though everyone surely could tell at a glance that I had been marked “Guilty Alien” and could never belong. I never went to confession again.

A great many years later, when my own children were pushing into adolescence, it finally dawned on me that what had happened was yet another of those “Only in America” things. In some way hasn’t every American fallen from grace, and don’t we all want to deny it, evade it, repress it? Image and reality—what could be more obvious?—have never meshed, especially in this place that for almost all of us has had to be made into home, such disenchanting work. Bred on all those big ideas (salvation by election, Manifest Destiny . . .), we are hopelessly, endlessly starry-eyed and find the disenchantment almost impossible to live with. It’s an indication of how hard I, anyway, found it to abandon the dream of a sanctified destiny that even many years later, when I thought I had begun to get a handle on it all, even then it did not cross my mind that it might be okay just to live. Maybe because that’s a genuinely un-American idea.

I was right, by the way, about Buster Brown. About a year or so after we moved to Inwood, the store closed. First there was a closeout sale, then a pile of boxes and legless chairs appeared on the sidewalk in front of the store, as if a family delinquent on its rent had just been evicted. Sure enough there was the X-ray box, gutted of its innards and looking all the more like a miniature coffin. I wanted to grab it and take it home. But I knew I couldn’t. There was nothing I could do to turn the broken thing I had loved
back into a magical contraption.


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