The Furnace

      On an ordinary, run errands afternoon, I drove from place to place listening to Eli Wiesel’s recorded book “Night.” When Wiesel was fifteen the Nazi’s sent him and his family to Auschwitz. “Never shall I forget that smoke. Never shall I forget the small faces of the children whose bodies I saw transformed into smoke under a silent sky.” Wiesel used the word incinerator, and its meaning awakened a childhood memory.

The eerie cellar in our 3-family house on W. Runyon Street in Newark also had furnaces that sent smoke to the sky. Chunks of coal were incinerated and transformed first into heat and then into smoke. At the end of the cycle ashes were saved and mixed into garden dirt as fertilizer. Some ashes were stored and sprinkled on winter’s icy sidewalks. All those ashes at Auschwitz — what happened to them? I don’t know, but the story my mother and Wiesel told made the furnace an instrument of death.

When I was probably about nine years old, my mother wanted me to know about a woman, her baby, and a furnace. As a newborn I lived with my parents in an apartment building on South 15th Street. Ralph Martinelli, a roughly cut, good-natured Italian, or wop, as my father might have said, worked part-time hours as the building superintendent. Mazie, his wife sold lingerie at Bamberger’s, a downtown department store. Already married five years, Ralph and Mazie wanted a child of their own, yet nothing ever came of their desire.

On an afternoon of her choice when my mother and I were alone, she began a story. Upon reflection, I did not need to know about the Martinelli’s or their son. His birth and adoption made no difference to me, especially at age nine. The two couples stayed friends for years, even after Ralph moved his family out of Newark. I suppose my mother wanted me to know that families are formed in more than one way.

“Ralphie, Jr. is adopted. He’s not the Martinelli’s real child,” my mother began as if telling a secret. “Ralphie’s mother wanted to throw her baby into a furnace. Big Ralph saved the boy’s life, and they raised him as their own.”

My mother said an unhappy and poor woman took her baby to the cellar. I imagined a cellar likes ours on W. Runyon Street — a dirty, dank place with shadows, coal bins, and storage cribs where feral mother cats gave birth to litter after litter. On winter nights I hated going to the cellar. Scary down there when I had to set the damper and adjust the flue. A winter fire needed to be banked just right. 

Back to the story —the sound of someone in the cellar brought Ralph out of his workroom. As I listened to my mother, I imagined his shock. A woman stood in front of an open furnace fire with a baby in her arms.

“What are you doing, Anna?”

“I don’t want the baby,” she cried. “I’m going to throw him into the furnace.”

“Are you nuts, Anna? Gimme that kid!” Ralph grabbed the child from her arms.

“I can’t take it anymore,” she sobbed. ” He cries all the time. I’m going crazy. I don’t want him.”

The horror of what might have been had a happy ending. From the cellar to talks in the upstairs apartments, the Martinelli’s and the woman reached an agreement. My mother never explained the legal details, and those would not have matter to me. She said that after a few months and with great joy, Ralph and Mazie adopted the baby. The birth mother turned away, moved away, and never looked back.

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Checkers

I want tell you about a summer pasttime that remains as clear and as sharp as a Kodak moment. If I had a picture of George Korasi sitting opposite me at the checkerboard, the  image would tell the story of friendship and competition. You would see a lanky boy wearing leather sandals and lederhosen with a white tee shirt. I would be wearing shorts, some kind of jersey, and sneakers. We sat on my porch with our feet on the last of seven steps above the sidewalk. George and I lived in side-by-side, 3-family houses on W. Runyon Street in Newark.

From the end of June until the day after Labor Day when the new school year began, I had to fill endless hours with something. The coolness of an early summer morning was the best time to play checkers. Most mornings had a calm, just awakened, starting to stretch kind of feel. The kids on the block slept late, but 13-year-old year George, a Hungarian refugee, was up early and always came looking for me.

I heard George open the door in the back and start down the narrow, one-car wide driveway that separated our houses. His boney legs lurched side to side. His arms stretched out like airplane wings trying to balance a body ready to crash. He exhaled a gurgle of happiness when he reached the sidewalk.

   — Hi, Georgie. I have the checkers and the board. You ready to play?

I yelled down from the space we called a porch. My mother had a wooden Adironack chair in the corner aside from the vestibule doors. The space wasn’t a real porch, not like my grandmother’s in Scranton with a long railing, a gilder, and a pull-down awning that kept out the sun. We called it a porch anyway and just pretended.

George gripped the bannister with his left hand and lifted one leg at a time over the concrete slab cemented into the sidewalk. The next six steps took a while, and I’ll not ask for a Kodak snapshot of the struggle. George was born with cerebral palsy and a joyful spirit. He kept his eyes on me waiting at the top. One foot dropped on to the first step, and he torqued his body upward a step at a time. As he climbed, he laughed a honking sound. He grinned when he reached the top step and saliva slipped from both sides of his mouth. High off the ground, George folded his legs as if he were a giraffe and dropped on to the landing.

Every checkers morning, George climbed those steps, and I waited for him to reach the checkerboard. As he climbed what seemed to be Everest in Newark, I wondered. I wondered if George was unhappy with his body. Did he know why Peter, his brother, had a regular one? How did George ask questions without using words?  I understood his sounds, but we were only playing checkers. When he dreamed, did he have legs that ran with a horse’s gait? Did he want to kiss a girl? I did not know, I only wondered.

     — Your move, Georgie, and I’m gonna beat you this time.

George let out a laugh and extended the shakey pointer finger of his right hand. He moved a black checker diagonally to an empty space.  

* * * *

 

I’m from Newark

A man with silvery-white hair wore a black tee shirt with the words South Amboy printed in large orange letters. An embroidered basketball was centered just below the two words. He passed my table carrying a Starbucks beverage container.

“Hey, Jersey guy,” I said.  He came to a quick stop and backed up to where Anita and I sat with our Starbucks beverage containers.

“I’m from Jersey, too,” I continued without a pause. “When I saw South Amboy, I knew. . ”

“Almost every time I wear the shirt, someone stops me. How long you’ve been in Tucson?”

“For me, too long. We came in ’86. How about you?”

“Thirty years. Where you from?”

“I’m from Newark,” I said with a jokey smile.

“Yeah, you and Whitney Houston.”

“Don’t laugh. I was on a plane once and told the woman next to me the same thing. She said, ‘You mean you’re from South Orange or West Orange.’ No, I’m from Newark. Bergen Street School. Arts High. Went to Rutgers.”

“I went to Rutgers in New Brunswick,” he said. “Did you go to New Brunswick?”

“No, I told you. I’m from Newark. I went to school in Newark.”

What don’t people understand about Newark? It was a great city. I loved the place and still do.  My teachers were phenomenal. Plenty of recreation – ice skating in winter. Fishing with my uncle in Weequahic Park during the summer. Double-feature films at the Cameo Theatre on Elizabeth Avenue. A great library and fine arts museum. Saturdays in New York City. Safe streets where kids had fun.

Gradually, life changed. One by one families and my friends moved to Kenilworth, Belleville, Livingston, the Oranges, Union, and Hillside. They were the white families. We were a white family, but my father stayed on until my sister finished 8th grade. Chris was one of the last white kids to graduate from Bergen Street School. That June we took the white-flight and moved. If I had a magic wand, I’d fix Newark and the city would be great again.

Mrs. Bell

Mrs. Bell 

As a kid, I had an angry father who seemed to dislike some people. He made remarks about kikes, wops, spics, and colored.  I didn’t understand his belligerence but felt it came from his parents and the Great Depression.  It wasn’t my fault that grandma made him go to work instead of college, which his high school principal offered to fund. Maybe it was standing in the breadlines on the Bowery or the drudgery of shift work for Westinghouse in Newark. Most of my childhood I wore a bull’s–eye, and he shot his anger straight at me.

* * *

“Where were you?” he asked in that ready-for-an-argument tone when I came home close to suppertime. I never went far from my street, and he usually didn’t ask questions.  To answer his question, I will tell you a story.

On sticky August afternoons when Newark’s air was heavy with humidity, Mrs. Bell sat on her front porch. Her weight filled a flowered sleeveless cotton dress. She wrapped her spongy arms across a broad jelly belly. Sometimes she fanned herself with a folded newspaper and at other times with a Japanese paper fan. Without using an ounce of energy, she watched traffic and neighbors go up and down Runyon Street. Her swollen ankles were set wide apart in house slippers. She seemed to like the little breezes that danced up the steps and found their way under her dress, between her legs, and into the dark, warm spaces she dared not fan.

“Honey, come on up here and talk to me,” she said, using a sweet voice. Sometimes Mrs. Bell scolded me when I made a screeching roller-skate turn in her precious driveway. “Stop that noise! Go skate someplace else! I have a headache!”

I pretended not to hear and had almost reached Johnson Avenue when she called again. I wanted to look for Bobbie Bufanio or any other kid who might be on the street. The afternoon was hot, and I was tired of reading. I spent hours every day of my fourth grade summer playing checkers and reading. George, the boy with cerebral palsy who lived on the second floor next door, smiled and garbled sounds I barely understood. I knew he loved playing checkers, but reading and playing checkers on every summer day had become absolutely boring.

Mrs. Bell broke into my search for some neighborhood kids. If only a fire truck would come to the corner, a fireman might open the hydrant in front of Ziegler’s grocery. An open hydrant always brought kids running into the streets. We would jump into the spray wearing our regular clothes, even our shoes. Sometimes I’d undress to my underwear and prance in the cold water. Abram would even let his dog Measles join the fun.

“What the heck,” I said to myself after hearing Mrs. Bell’s second call, “I’ll look for Bobbie later.”

I went up the steps and plopped into the chair next to hers. Mrs. Bell had curly white hair cut short and combed back from her face, and large breasts that heaved up and down as she sucked in air. Mrs. Bell didn’t have a husband, only a son named Sanford. Someone said her husband had a jewelry store and had died in a bus accident.

Mrs. Bell liked to wear jewelry. Maybe she has the stuff from her husband’s store. Gold rings and rings with pretty stones circled her chubby fingers. White and red plastic bracelets flashed colorful streaks as she fanned. As she exhaled, her breath smelled of onions. The air entered quietly but pushed out through her mouth in a noisy rush. I sat way back in the chair, leaning away from the onion smell and wondering if Sanford might be home. Just sitting on her porch put me that much closer to him.

Sanford worked as a cameraman for CBS Television in New York City. I always made sure I was around when he washed his car on Saturdays. More than anything, I wanted him to make me a television star.  From my backyard, two houses up the street, I’d twirl over the metal pipe cemented into the concrete leading to our cellar. I’d twirl and belt out Ethel Merman show tunes in Sanford’s direction. “There’s No Business like Show Business” was my favorite. Sanford just kept washing his car and listening to a Yankees game on the radio.

“How’d you like to do some work for me?” Mrs. Bell asked.  “I’ll give you fifty cents if you straighten out my jewelry and my sewing drawers. Would you like to do that for me, honey?”

I thought about the money. With fifty cents I could actually buy the September issue of Photoplay magazine. Without money I’d hang out at Moe’s store and look at the magazine one page at a time. Moe owned the store on Hillisde Avenue, and lived in the back with his family. He sold magazines, newspapers, ice cream, candy, and gum. He liked kids and never seemed to mind me just looking at the magazines.

A more serious thought interrupted my fantasy.  I thought about my father and what he would say if I did anything for Mrs. Bell. It was okay if I walked little kids to school and baby-sat and took that money, but my father didn’t like Jewish people. He said they were stingy and always wanted something for nothing. Mrs. Bell was Jewish, and I didn’t know whether she was stingy or not.

“Okay,  I’ll help with your drawers,” I agreed, thinking about movie stars and Sanford. Maybe my father wouldn’t ask any questions.

I had barely finished agreeing when she put both hands on the arms of the chair and began to rise like a whale heaving up from a calm sea. Lacking nature’s grace, she stood a second to balance her weight and took flat, heavy steps toward the foyer door. When we were inside, she opened the inner door, and we entered a cooler, darker space.

I blinked to adjust my eyes to the dim hallway that led to her rooms. Mrs. Bell’s flat smelled of fried bologna, just as my mother’s kitchen did sometimes. We walked through the parlor and a middle room. I glanced around for signs of Sanford but didn’t see him. Mrs. Bell went into a large room on the right, her bedroom.

“Come on in. I’ll show you what I want.”

Sunlight beaming through the back window made slashes across her bed. The red spread glowed with rows of fire. She put her weight down at the foot of the bed and reached to open the wide dresser drawer with both hands. Slowly pulling it forward, she revealed a drawer that sparkled with rhinestones – animal and flower pins, circles, beaded necklaces, rings, earrings, and bracelets – a jumbled treasure of beautiful, colorful things. My mother had a pearl necklace and a dragonfly pin with colored stones, but they didn’t compare to Mrs. Bell’s treasures.

“There it is,” she said, holding her palm up to the jumble. She picked up a glass perfume bottle from a collection on the dresser, took out the stopper, and dabbed Crepe de Chine behind each ear and on each wrist. The floor fan combined the aromas of fried bologna and perfume. My senses began to swirl, and I had a job to do.

“You put the rings with the rings, the pins with the pins, okay? You do that, and then we’ll look at the sewing drawer. What you don’t finish today, you’ll do tomorrow. Can you come back tomorrow?”

“Yes, I can do that,” I said with eyes that had just caught sight of one of King Solomon’s mines and the September issue of Photoplay magazine.

Pulling two pillows behind her head and shoulders, Mrs. Bell stretched out long on the bed, holding her fan. With one arm she fanned her face, and her other arm rested across her chest. She pulled her legs close together, and an earthy sweetness drifted through the room.

“I want you to put the jewelry into the boxes, and, if there aren’t enough boxes, put the pieces together nicely into the compartments.  Just make the drawer look pretty.” Her soft voice seemed to drift toward a nap.  I moved the jewelry pieces here and there – rings with rings, pins with pins. I had the drawer pretty much together and thought I had better go home. No one knew where I was. If my mother looked out, she wouldn’t see me on the porch or on the sidewalk. She’d start to worry, and I’d be in trouble. And, I still had to go to Moe’s for the newspaper.

“Mrs. Bell, I better go now. I did the work, and I’ll be back tomorrow.” Her eyes were closed and she let soft puffs of air pass between her lips. She didn’t know I went home with a dab of Emeraude behind my ears.

* * *

“Where were you?” demanded my father from his place at the kitchen table. My mother was quietly peeling potatoes at the sink, getting ready for supper. He had the graveyard shift this week and would go to sleep after we ate. I knew he disliked Mrs. Bell. If I lied, he would hit me. If I told the truth, I could be punished for his stupidity.

“Out. I went to look for some kids. Then I went to talk to Mrs. Bell.”

“What’d you talk about?”

“Nothing much. She asked me to help straighten out her jewelry and sewing drawers. Said she’d give me fifty cents.”

“What? You were working for that Jew?” His white face flushed red, and blue veins popped on his neck.

“It wasn’t hard work, just putting rings and things together in her jewelry drawer.”

“She pay you?”

“No, I’m going tomorrow to do her sewing drawer.”

“The hell you are! You’re not going to work for some Jew lady who won’t pay you anything.”

“Yes, she will. She said so.”

“Shut up! I said she won’t!” He pointed his finger in my face, and his face took on a rage of red – redder than Mrs. Bell’s bedspread.  “You’re not going there again.”

My eyes burned hot with tears. “Ma, make him change his mind,” I pleaded. “She will pay me. It’s not hard work.”

“Your father doesn’t want you to go there anymore. You have to listen to him.”

I ran to my bedroom and threw myself across the bed. Tears rolled down my cheeks and soaked the pillow. I sobbed and sobbed.

“He’s stupid!  Just plain stupid!” I cried out between wails. I wouldn’t have a Photoplay of my own. There wouldn’t be a chance to actually meet Sanford Bell in person. There wouldn’t be any more sorting jewelry in Mrs. Bell’s bedroom.

“Why is he my father?” I yelled, but softly enough that no one would hear. “I want a better one than him.”

* * *