My Artificial Life: A Retrospect on Questionable Supermarket Purchases in the 1970’s

wonderbreadEvery Saturday morning, Mom ventured out to the supermarket called Waldbaum’s right up the street from our house. We couldn’t wait for her to arrive home with the loot, since by Saturday we were all fighting over the only thing left in the house to eat, the hot mustard sauce left over from the previous night’s Chinese take out.

I often accompanied my Mom on these trips. One might think this is how we spent quality mother-daughter time, but the reality is I wanted to wield some influence to convince my mother that Keebler chocolate fudge covered grahams were my constitutional right.

Besides that, Mom needed my help. Back in the 1970’s virtually no groceries were bagged in plastic. You came to the supermarket with a shopping cart and the check out girls would pack your groceries in double bagged paper. Each bag was filled half-full with groceries and then another bag was inserted on top and the process continued until all the groceries were packed. Shopping for a family of five meant the bags could often be stacked well over Mom’s head and perched precariously like the Leaning Tower of Pisa. To complicate things further, there was a steep downhill between the supermarket and the apartment building and I served as navigator, since she could barely see where she was going.

Our shopping list generally consisted of the four food groups of the typical American family in the 1970’s: artificial flavor, artificial color, salt, and sugar. The food we ate was so laden with preservatives and chemicals that have since been outlawed, that a steady diet of paint chips would have been a vast improvement. And by the way, lots of kids ate them back then too.

So here are my top memories of supermarket purchases between 1973 and 1979. They may not have been good for us, but they are accompanied by some awesome memories.

  1. Jello. We always had Jello in the house and this served as dessert in a pinch once we’d eaten all the really bad cookies. On one occasion,  Mom managed to mess up the complicated preparation process (add water and stir) and the Jello set with some funky kind of film at the top. Convinced she’d bought defective Jello, Mom wrote a letter to the manufacturer explaining her disappointment. We were sent eight free boxes of Jello which meant we had to go without Entenmann’s for weeks.
  2. TV Dinners. How exciting to have a choice at dinnertime, just like at a fancy restaurant! However, the choice was always somewhat problematic because it was statistically impossible to select one dinner where you liked all four components of the meal. If you selected the turkey dinner, the meat was palatable because it was smothered in gravy, but the dessert was barely one step up from cranberry sauce. If you picked the fried chicken, you had to deal with peas and carrots that were as hard as pebbles. And if you picked the meatloaf, you had to handle the upset stomach from the acid in the sauce. But that dinner came with a brownie. And since I come from a family that only cares about dessert, I went with that one almost every time.
  3. Pecan Sandies. My father went through a Pecan Sandies phase that lasted about two years. They were one step up from really bad cookies, but not so bad that even he could barely stomach them. They always tasted like salt to me. I now wonder if Dad salted them himself to keep our hands off them.
  4. Cheez Whiz, Swiss Knight Cheese, and Kraft Singles. The only ingredient NOT present in these foods was cheese. Still trying to figure this one out.
  5. Coca-Cola. Every week Mom bought seven quarts of Coke until the late 70’s when we were all told that a switch to the metric system (which we likened to Armageddon) was coming and we started buying liters. We were only allowed to open one bottle per night and only at dinner time (probably so the sugar high in the evening hours and erosion of our teeth after our three-second teeth brushing regimen could be fully optimized).
  6. Hebrew National Bologna. We liked our nitrates just as much as the next family, but in a Jewish sort of way.
  7. Wonder Bread. Before there were dozens of varieties of white, wheat, rye, and gluten-free bread, we had white bread and crackers. And it’s impossible to make a grilled cheese sandwich with crackers. I made many a grilled cheese sandwich with Wonder Bread and when the packaging got a little too close to the frying pan, you could decorate the pan with blue, red, and yellow polka dots, kind of like your Twister board.
  8. Saltine Crackers. This is what you ate when you ran out of Wonder Bread and after you’d finished the Ritz crackers. Our version of really bad grilled cheese was saltine crackers with Cheez Whiz.
  9. Canned Salmon. When I grew up, it didn’t seem like we ate any fish unless the words Gorton’s or Arthur Treacher’s was attached to it. I don’t think you could get decent fish in the supermarket and there was no fish store nearby that I recall. The closest thing we came to fish was a dish called salmon loaf. It was made with canned salmon, white bread (Wonder!) and some other slop to hold it together like eggs, milk, and sour cream. The only thing worse than salmon loaf for dinner was salmon loaf for dinner with Jello for dessert.
  10. Hawaiian Punch. This was generally only purchased in the small containers that could be packed in our school lunch. This supplied the cheaper version of a sugar rush necessary before we could have our real fix of Coke later in the evening. Hi-C and heaven forbid, Kool-Aid never made it past our doorstep as they were not on Mom’s approved food list. She had her standards, you see.
  11. Haggen Daz. Like every other family in the 1970’s, we too were fooled into thinking this was some sort of imported ice cream from some exotic region of the world that began with Kaz or Frak or Guetten and ended with Stan. But by the time we realized it wasn’t manufactured in Kazfrakguettenstan, but in the Bronx, we were already hooked.
  12. Campbell’s Chicken Soup. This was what you were offered when you didn’t feel well and you usually got a few saltines with it. Not a feast of kings, but certainly better than the alternative, a temperature check with a rectal thermometer.
  13. Captain Crunch, Lucky Charms, Cocoa Krispies, and Sugar Smacks. Frankly, any cereal that changed the original color of the milk to a radioactive-like hue would do. Cereal also served as the morning sugar boost before the lunchtime Hawaiian Punch or evening Coke.
  14. Raspberry Soda and Beer. These two beverages are grouped together because they were rarely bought and considered a special treat. Once or twice a year, Mom would buy raspberry soda and make us ice cream floats. We had these nifty straws with a spoon at the end that made this treat extra special. Mom was not much of a drinker, but once in a while she’d have a beer with dinner and she’d be three sheets to the wind by the time it was time to break out the Jello.
  15. Taster’s Choice Instant Coffee. This was almost always on the shopping list. Every morning with breakfast and every evening after dinner, Mom and Dad had a cup of Taster’s Choice Instant Coffee. It was the equivalent of brown water with stuff floating around in it, kind of like New York City tap water in the 1970’s. Perhaps this was the attraction. How much longer could it have possibly taken to make real coffee? Why didn’t they just drink tea? I’ll probably never know.
  16. Green Giant Frozen Vegetables. These were one part vegetable and five parts butter. We were never served a vegetable in it’s natural form unless you count corn on the cob which was slathered in butter seconds after it was removed from the pot.
  17. Hostess Cakes. No explanation necessary. Just read any of my 50+ blog posts and you’re bound to find the word Hostess in all of them.
  18. Pop Tarts. Imagine! Putting something in your toaster and having your entire home smell like a fresh strawberry pastry from a fancy French bakery. Must have been the 2% (or less) dried strawberries or the red dye that made them so authentic. We had English muffins too. We were truly global.
  19. TV Guide. Ok, this isn’t food, but it was an important weekly supermarket purchase. Before there was cable or Netflix or Hulu, we had to wait to watch our programs. TV Guide was a weekly magazine that allowed you to plan your life around TV and you could purchase it right at the checkout counter at the supermarket. With this magazine, you could see which shows were playing simultaneously and then you were forced to pick one, commit, and live with your decision, at least until summer when reruns were on and there was a slim chance you could catch the episodes you missed. Thank goodness the agony of those days is gone and I can binge watch The Brady Bunch whenever I want.

Across the 59th Street Bridge and Back: Reprise

bridgeThirty years ago, I moved from my hometown in Queens to an apartment on Manhattan’s Upper West Side. I never really intended to live in Manhattan, but once I graduated from college, I knew I wanted to begin the next chapter of my life living away from my parents. My friend Susan wanted to get an apartment and live on her own as well, and since she proved to be such a great friend back in junior high school when she courageously put my well-being ahead of her own by uncoupling me from my possessed germ-ridden retainer that had attached itself to my shirt, I knew she would be an outstanding apartment-mate.

We began searching for apartments in Queens, but through a family member, Susan was able to get us an apartment on the Upper West Side where we could pay a fraction of the rent most people paid. So after five weeks living at home following graduation (which for me felt like four weeks too many) we packed up our stuff and moved. I took an assortment of mismatched furniture from my house including the bed and dresser that were part of one of mom’s HGTV moments years earlier and the coffee table that never fit anywhere in the house and ended up in my room along with the rotisserie. We found two guys with a U-Haul and they brought us and our stuff to Manhattan. I have no recollection of packing or unpacking for that matter, but the trip across the bridge that day, when I was just shy of my 21st birthday, is seared in my mind and I still remember the excitement I felt.

Just a few days after we moved in, my friend Liora’s father asked me to take care of the family dog Dandy while he went to visit Liora who had moved to Argentina. What I didn’t know at the time was that Dandy was 17 years old and blind. After a few seconds in the apartment, Dandy walked head-on into the coffee table and nearly scored a concussion. We had to keep the dog in the kitchen when we went to work just to keep it safe. The poor dog howled all day which probably would cause some concern in a NYC apartment building in 2015, but in the post-David Dinkins, pre Rudy Giuliani 1984 version of New York City, screams, alarms, honking horns, gunshots and howling were all just part of a typical day. Fortunately we managed to make it through the two weeks of howling without getting evicted.

Barbara and dad ny aptI was definitely right about Susan being a great person to share a space with. Her wisdom far exceeded her age and she asked me the important Jewish mother questions that my own Jewish mother never did. Things like, “Do you see a future with this guy, does he have a job and is he Jewish?” (well actually my mom asked me that last question a lot). And like the daughter who doesn’t heed her mother’s advice, I generally didn’t listen to Susan’s either, even though she really was always right.

A few years later, Susan met her husband-to-be and they decided to start their married life in that apartment. I rallied to stay, promising them I wouldn’t make much noise, because by now I was attached to my life in Manhattan. She helped me get a studio on the top floor of the same building that was so small that when I pulled out my Ikea futon knock-off, it touched the bookshelf on the other side of the room that was against the wall. But I didn’t care because I got to continue my life in the city.

I spent three decades living in Manhattan and watching it go through a sort of renaissance which included hookers in Times Square that were replaced by Elmos in handcuffs, grafitti-covered trains replaced with trains covered in scratchitti and drug dealing playgrounds replaced with family-friendly ones. I witnessed many other wonderful changes. Sometime in the late eighties, sales of sandwich bags in New York City rocketed with the introduction of the Pooper Scooper Law. By the mid-nineties at least one out of every five people you passed on a Manhattan street who appeared to be talking to themselves was actually using a cell phone and not crazy after all.

But now friends and family have drawn me back to Queens and I’ve made that journey across the bridge again to go back home. This time I had a lot more stuff and while a moving truck transported my belongings, I made the trip back on the F train. And it was just as thrilling as that first trip 30 years ago.

Austin StNow I’m reaquainting myself with the infamous Queens grid system. I’m sandwiched in between a road and a drive that share the same number and nestled between two inconsecutively numbered streets. I can only find my apartment building because I can spot the behemoth of a building on Queens Boulevard where I make the turn to get to my own. This nonsensical system leaves me so lost in my new surroundings, yet simultaneously so found. Lost because you can routinely find me walking around in circles, but found because although I don’t quite understand the exact geographic coordinates of my new address, I know I am home.

This is where the story began and where it ends. I’ve done my best to accurately document my formative years while sufficiently embarrassing myself (and others!) and luckily no one has unfriended me (yet). I’m incredibly flattered by the number of people who have followed this blog and shared their own stories of youth and the borough of Queens. If you are ever in Queens, look me up…I’m halfway between the high school’s non-regulation track and the store that sells the smelly cheese.

Vacations, Staycations and Other Memories of Summer

Bermuda 6Shortly after my fifth birthday, my mom enrolled me in a summer day camp. Mom put me in a group of campers that were mostly four year olds, perhaps to give me a possible height advantage that I could never reclaim at any other point in my life. But her plan backfired. When I told my fellow campers that I was five, none of them believed me. One girl said, “You’re not five, you’re four.” Another girl boldly proclaimed, “You’re not five, you’re three!” Another girl claimed I was two, the next said one and the final girl who was just a bit meaner and cleverer than the others said, “You weren’t even born yet!” At the time the words really stung and I continued to be annoyed when people thought I was younger than I actually was until about ten years ago when I decided to just keep celebrating my 29th birthday over and over again.

Another source of embarrassment was my inability to walk in flip-flops during our two daily treks to the swimming pool. While everyone else glided effortlessly in their flip-flops, I shuffled along like I was on a Nordic Track just to keep the damn things on my feet. I was never successful and would fall so far behind in the line that they had to send out a search party to find me. Walking without shoes was not an option, because much of the campgrounds were covered in wood chips of a similar size and texture to the glass shards that blanketed the Saxon Hall playground. Since I was a flop wearing flip-flops, I was given an option far worse than walking barefoot on glass; walking in slide sandals that were the footwear of choice for old Russian men. After that summer, I begged my mother not to send me back to camp again.

Shibley 2A few years later, I decided to give camp another try and I went to a new camp in Long Island. This was a far better experience and it was here that I improved my swim stroke and learned how to dive. But it wasn’t all marshmallows by the campfire and pony rides; it was here that I also discovered a whole bunch of other stuff I suck at. A few times during the summer, we got to go to the go kart area. Getting the gas and the brake right while steering proved too much for me and after nearly mowing down a group of fellow campers and two counselors, I was asked to just sit and watch the other campers. Note to everyone still trying to figure out why I don’t drive: Now you know.

Another camp activity I sucked at was making things with lanyard. Whether it was the zipper, Chinese staircase or butterfly stitch, I just couldn’t get the hang of it and just like the abandoned bookmark that defined my second grade experience, I left camp without ever finishing a lanyard project. Fortunately, lanyard was an activity generally reserved for the 35-minute bus ride home, so only a select group of campers got to witness my lack of digital dexterity which kept the teasing to a minimum. Unfortunately, I was the last kid dropped off the bus every day which meant I suffered with my lanyard in silence the last few extra minutes of the ride when on three out of four days of the week the bus driver’s radio blared Gilbert O’Sullivan’s summer hit, Alone Again Naturally at the precise moment the second to last camper stepped off the bus.

That same summer, my family took our first (and only) official family vacation, unless you count what dad referred to as our annual six hours of hell on Amtrak. I got to go on an airplane for the first time and we went to Bermuda. We stayed at our first (and only) big fancy hotel without the words Holiday or Inn in the name. The hotel was right on the ocean and we got to rent water rafts while my father who couldn’t swim sat under a huge beach umbrella, liberally applying the 1973 version of Coppertone which offered about as much protection from the sun as whipped cream. When we exited the ocean, guests were required to soak their feet in warm water to remove the tar that was stuck to them. At the time, we kids thought this was just another cool feature of the beach; we didn’t realize the tar was petroleum residue from a 1973 oil spill off the coast of Bermuda. Now I understand how we were able to afford the trip.

While we loved the beach, the hotel had something we loved more; a game room. Prior to our trip to Bermuda, the closest thing we’d ever seem to a hotel game room was the ice machine at a motel in Altoona, PA. But now we had pinball and ping pong! We spent hours in the game room, which is probably how three kids with the pastiest white skin ever avoided getting a sunburn on a tropical island.

Bermuda 3Another highlight of the trip was the hotel restaurant. In our real life we ate dinner out once a year. But in our vacation life we got to eat out every night. My brother Jeffrey decided to take full advantage of this and managed to order the most expensive thing on the menu each night. Additionally, many of the dishes he ordered involved fire. When he ordered the Flambe Cherries Jubilee for dessert, cooked right at the table, the nearby wall caught on fire and after that we were only allowed to get ice cream for dessert.

Many of my summers were spent just doing things in the neighborhood. While now we have the fancy term staycation to describe vacationing without going anywhere, back then we called it what it was; hanging out with your friends, often being bored out of your mind and getting into all sorts of trouble. Some of the most dangerous things happened to us in the summer; we played Ringolevio and hid in ominous apartment building garages that attracted sketchy people. We crossed Queens Boulevard with greater frequency and hung out past dark even when we knew Son of Sam might be nearby. We ate red M&M’s before they were banned in 1976, we trespassed on other people’s property to pick mulberries, and once or twice we even jumped into the Park City Pool a mere ten minutes after eating a Chow Chow french fry. We watched way too much TV, went looking for poison ivy, risked our lives tormenting our siblings and stepped in enough dog shit to fertilize an 18-hole golf course…twice. We survived all of this and emerged without broken limbs, skin rashes, stomach cramps, blindness or arrest records; just great memories of summer fun.


Second Grade: A Time for Lost Teeth and Lost Confidence

second gradeSecond grade was probably the first time kids began to distinguish themselves academically and become aware of the intellectual prowess of their peers. The public school system in New York City at the time did very little to support the educational differences of students and teachers were quick to categorize students as “teacher’s pet” or “bane of my existence.”

A few times a week kids would work on independent reading assignments. They would be assigned a module of stories to read with questions after each story. Once they completed all the stories in the module, they would move up to the next level. The modules were color coded, so as not to let on who was ahead and who was behind, but even the not-so-smart kids knew that if you were still on the orange module in May, there was a problem.

Even if teachers could detect a reading problem, they never seemed to do much with this information, except put the child in another class track the following year. Each grade had 4 to 5 tracks, so the second grade classes would be 2-1, 2-2, 2-3, 2-4 and 2-5. Here there were no nebulous color codes assigned. The “one class” had the students who performed best academically, followed by the 2, 3, 4 and 5 classes. It was an exceptionally biased and insensitive way to structure a classroom and a confidence-draining experience for students. Kids in the “one-class” quickly became assholes to kids in the other classes, claiming superiority and eventual world domination.

Back in 1971, no one talked about things like ADD, Aspergers, dyslexia or overall anxiety. You were either a good student or a bad student. You either followed the rules or you didn’t. Many kids with creative minds and hints of brilliance were shunned by teachers, separated from the class at that special desk in the front right near the teacher’s desk or routinely sent to the principal’s office.

While I did well academically in the early years, other non-academic projects rendered me inept. During arts and crafts, we were given a special type of coil that had large holes in it. We would thread a plastic needle and weave colored yarn in and out of the holes to create a homemade bookmark for our mothers. Despite having a needle with a hole the size of a quarter, it took me several tries to thread the thing. Once threaded, I would weave my yarn in and out until the end of the coil and then forget to tie a knot to hold it in place, pulling the entire piece of yarn out. While most kids were on their third or fourth bookmark, I was still working on line two of my first. This was frustrating for me and created a great deal of anxiety.  The teacher called my mother to tell her I was a nervous child.  Because obviously that was a better solution than taking the extra two minutes to help me work past my mental block. This may explain why I suck at other tasks like opening doors with keys, putting moving boxes (with instructions) together, wrapping gifts or changing a vacuum cleaner bag. I finished second grade with a complex, but no bookmark. 

It was also in second grade that I realized I would be short forever. When you are three or four years old and you do things by yourself, you receive positive reinforcement from adults like, “What a big girl!” but when you are in second grade, you are told to line up in size order, so you can compare your height to the children who will not have to always have their clothes tailored by others who actually know how to thread a needle.  This is the one situation where you don’t want  to be first. I kept the title of first in line throughout grade school and thankfully shed this designation once I entered middle school and we were no longer subjected to standing in lines. Looking back, I can’t for the life of me, figure out why being in size order was necessary (except on picture day, when the second grade 5midgets (I mean little people) had to be placed somewhere where they could be seen (shortest kid (me) always sits to the far right of every class picture). I mean, what was the point? Did the teacher think she would lose the 3′ 5″ kid standing behind the one that was close to 6′ on the way to the water fountain or bathroom? It’s so arbitrary, Why not line up by shoe size, or bra cup size or by the size of a boy’s…oh nevermind. It’s obvious that the Board of Education should be held accountable for my need to continuously purchase high-heeled shoes beginning in 1978 when my mother no longer had a say in the matter, and I am billing them for $5,072.45 in shoe purchases immediately.

Despite the fact that I couldn’t wear high-heeled shoes in 1971 to compensate for my short stature or try to snag a place standing in the back row on picture day with the tall kids, I could focus on other aspects of “styling” that were not related to height. By second grade, I had moved on from the Botox-inspired ponytail I wore in earlier grades to side-by-side ponytails that created a nice symmetry with my side-by-side missing teeth. I was actually relieved by my missing teeth, because most kids had already lost several teeth and my delayed onset was just another confidence-draining aspect of second grade. In second grade, mom still controlled the selection of clothes, so dresses and tights were still the uniform and I would have to wait another two years before wearing my first polyester leisure suit to school which believe it or not, would be the biggest confidence-booster of the decade!


Wonderful Grandparents Never Go Out of Style

grandparentsGrowing up, I usually got to see my grandparents twice a year. We generally spent one week in the summer in Altoona, Pennsylvania, the small town where my mother grew up and where her parents still lived.  Altoona is known for three things; Horseshoe Curve, Mallomar cookies and the hometown of fictitious character Alex Owens from Flashdance.

Each year we embarked on the six-hour train ride to visit them with great enthusiasm and excitement. We would head for New York’s Penn Station with my parents and their his and her matching Samsonite luggage, my mother’s case packed to the brim as if she was spending a month in the South of France. She carried a Jackie Kennedy-like cosmetic bag that was big enough to transport a small dog which always seemed unnecessary to me since my mother didn’t wear much makeup. When they announced our train, the conductor would call out all the stops on the route with such vigor and heart that upon his retirement decades later, he was invited on David Letterman to call out the stops one more time. My favorite part was when he said All aboarrrrrrrrd!!! and he sounded something like this. 

For me, the grueling train ride was one of the most exciting parts of the trip. While my father chain smoked and counted the hours left before arriving at his destination, I would play cards with my brothers and make frequent trips to the water fountain that had fancy cone shaped paper cups, similar to those used to hold the Chow Chow french fries I salivated over back home. I was allowed to travel through the cars to the snack car or bathroom if accompanied by my brothers. I only wanted to do this with my brothers anyway, because I regularly feared that I would make a wrong turn, exit the moving train and be squashed by its wheels. I continue to have this fear today.

Back then, the trains had a fancy dining car with table cloths and real silverware, unlike today where you typically get your soggy microwaved Amtrak food in a cardboard box. On a few occasions, I remember going to the fancy dining car with just my father. One time we were eating as the train climbed an enormous hill in Paoli, Pennsylvania. The table shook, the glasses threatened to shatter, and I obliviously ate a hamburger that tasted like shoe leather, mesmerized by my surroundings.Grandma's garden

It was always exciting to visit my grandparents because they lived in a house, not an apartment, and owned a car. While many would take these things for granted, since we owned neither, these things seemed exotic to us. To this day, whenever I hear the sound of the turn signal in a car, I think of my grandfather and remember my drives with him.

The other thing I loved about visiting my grandparents was their yard which housed a garden and a birdbath. Additionally, my grandfather had an automatic pitching machine that pitched wiffle balls that you could hit with a plastic bat. My grandfather was one of 9 boys; enough for a baseball team. One of his brothers even made the minor leagues. So he was thrilled when his only granddaughter spent hours perfecting her swing while her brothers were inside exercising their minds.

There was no beach nearby, but my grandfather would take us to Lakemont Park, which  had an amusement park, playground and the largest swimming pool I had ever seen in my life; at least three times as big as the Park City Pool. When we arrived home with wicked sunburns caused by the fact that there was no such thing as Fair-Skinned Ashkenazi Jew Sunscreen 50 in 1970, my grandmother would attempt to sooth our skin with a paste made of baking soda and water that left a trail of white dust around the house. I don’t think this concoction did a thing for our sunburns, but it made up feel like we were being taken care of. After I was coated in my Shake n”Bake-like mix, my grandmother would let me help her in the kitchen. Her specialty was apple pie and she taught me how to make it with a fancy schmancy lattice crust.

Lakemont parkSometimes my grandfather would take us out for ice cream or a burger. My grandparents kept kosher at home and when they went out they would bend the rules a bit, but my grandfather was not prepared for the bacon cheeseburger I ordered one time when I went out to eat with him. I’m sure my mother got a dressing down after this episode, and once again wished I’d attended Hebrew school at Temple Isaiah, but then again, she’s the same person who shared her first BLT with my father years earlier and vowed never to go back to the dark side of a pork-free existence.

One other week each year, my grandparents came to New York to visit us. My grandmother’s favorite thing to do was go shopping at Loehmann’s, the same store where my fifth grade teacher shopped. My grandmother had a penchant for anything lavender and bought a pair of lavender spandex pants there that she rocked at the age of 73. While she bought disco-wear, my grandfather spent his time at the nearby Jay Dee Bakery buying enough prune danish to wipe out constipation in North America.

As I got older, I continued to visit my grandparents and began making the trips on my own. While I was fortunate to have them both in my life until after I graduated from college, their health was steadily declining at that point. By my early twenties, my grandmother was displaying the classic symptoms of Alzheimer’s disease. On one occasion, my grandmother who had kept a kosher home for 80+ years asked for butter on her bread while we were eating meat. My grandfather kept insisting that she must want margarine, since it was against Jewish law to mix milk and meat at one meal. My grandmother was insistent and my grandfather said, “My wife’s been kosher for over 80 years but if she wants butter, I will give her butter.” This moment touched me at the time and this memory still stays with me today as a symbol of his love and compassion for her.birdbath

My grandmother passed away first and her funeral was held on a bitter cold day. My grandfather died just a month later and the day of his funeral it was a beautiful calm spring day. It was as if things were now in order and they were back together again.

If I’m ever fortunate enough to be a grandparent, I hope I get to share memories with my grandchildren  that will last forever, as mine have. I  hope to be rocking lavender spandex as well, but this may be a feat that only my grandmother could achieve.



$#*! My Dad Says

Dad BermudaJust like my mom, my dad had his own set of sayings, jokes and expressions that made him endearing, charming, silly, ridiculous and wise all at the same time. Here are just a few of my favorites.

  1. Ask your brother Jeffrey.
  2. How was the party?
  3. I love you sweetie-petite-ee
  4. Everyone gets one glass of soda.
  5. Major in accounting so you can meet a nice man.
  6. Where are the cookies?
  7. Start thinking about waking up for school. (6:30 am)
  8. Make it snappy!
  9. How was gym class?
  10. Are you taking care of your teeth?
  11. Oy!
  12. I never remember you and your brothers fighting.
  13. You should eat more junk food!
  14. Turn off the light when you leave the room!
  15. Ask your brother Stuart.
  16. dad couchHow many people were at the party?
  17. I love you Boober!
  18. Everyone gets one cupcake.
  19. What can you do with a psychology degree?
  20. Whose turn is it to buy cookies?
  21. Soon you will have to wake up for school. (6:45 am)
  22. What’s the rush?
  23. No gym class today?
  24. Your braces are costing me a fortune!
  25. Feh!
  26. You used to fight with your brother so much!
  27. You mean you like to exercise?
  28. Who left the light on?
  29. Ask your mother.
  30. Did the kids at the party bring gifts?
  31. I love you sweets-e-luchins.
  32. Eat as much candy as you want.
  33. Learn how to type so you can get a job.
  34. Who ate the last cookie?
  35. In 15 minutes you will have to wake up for school. (7 am)
  36. barbara and dad niagra fallsDoes Jim ever buy you pretty flowers? (always asked when discussing gym class)
  37. When was the last time you went to the dentist?
  38. Don’t ask.
  39. Go back to graduate school so you don’t have to type anymore.
  40. Are you sure you turned the light out?
  41. Wake up! (7:15 am)

My dad may no longer be here, but I know he’s somewhere still saying this $#*! And I hope he knows I’m still listening.








Junior High: In and Out in the Blink of an Eye

HalseyIn 6th grade, I took a test that would allow me to skip the 8th grade if I scored high enough. My brothers suggested I skip 8th grade, as they had done, so I would have one less year of school to deal with. This all made perfect sense to me until years later when I entered college at barely 17 and spent every keg party with a huge scarlet A (well a green X) on my hand so everyone on campus would know I was too young to drink. Despite this short-term inconvenience, skipping 8th grade did have its merits, mainly the fact that when both my children entered 8th grade, I was able to tell them I couldn’t help them with any of their homework because I’d never been to 8th grade.

Educators led parents to believe that children would still be taught the 8th grade curriculum, but it would be integrated into the 7th and 9th grade curriculum. Integrated was apparently code for “screw the 8th grade curriculum; we have neither the time or the resources to teach it to you, and who will really know anyway.”

I entered junior high school with some trepidation because many parents were anxious about the transition. A year or two before I entered, there had been an unfortunate incident where a student from the school who was traveling on a bus was shot. All the parents were worried that the school housed a bunch of gun carrying thugs who would be mugging their kids who were still trying to figure out how to recover from a bebe gun wound.

But junior high school proved to be an amazing ( and violent-free) experience. Since we now had different teachers for each subject, the likelihood  of every teacher hating me was dramatically reduced. And while I only had one male teacher during all my time in grade school, now I had several, which changed the dynamic of the learning experience, probably because I had a crush on half of my male teachers.

I had the same math teacher for both 7th and 9th grade. He always wore a belt with the Jewish Chai symbol on the buckle. Why he felt the need to call so much attention to his religious convictions via a buckle above his crotch is beyond me, but because of that belt, I have never forgotten that he is a Jew.

I also had cool, young teachers for geology and computer science and for just a brief window in time I enjoyed those subjects again. On the flip side, I also had a male gym teacher, which was weird to begin with, but became even more bizarre when he would claim he smelled cigarette smoke in the girls’ locker room and threaten to come down to check. Ew.

One of the biggest changes about middle school was that we had to change classes every 45 minutes. When the bell rang, you had to quickly navigate to your next class in under three minutes despite the throngs of kids in the hallways. Traveling between classes was so congested that the school had separate up and down staircases to combat the mayhem that was inevitable. Learning how to move efficiently from class to class was daunting at the time, but it taught me an invaluable skill that I would need a decade later…navigating the F train to Manhattan during rush hour.

Since students were traveling from class to class, there were many opportunities to get to class late or just cut the class altogether. But luckily the school had a solution for this, called “clean sweep.” Clean sweep was a draconian system for rounding up students who were late for class, smoking in the bathrooms or tying to cut class. An announcement would blare on the PA system from some school official who sounded authoritative saying, “This is a clean sweep. If you do not have a hall pass, you must report to the auditorium immediately.” Most kids didn’t want to be caught and end up in the auditorium. I don’t remember what the consequences were, but at the time I thought they were similar to what prisoners experience when they end up in solitary confinement, so I made sure to get to class on time.

Some students really enjoyed the challenge of getting to the next class on time and two in particular took the task to a new level and always raced to the next class. One boy always wore a handmade striped vest and each year as he grew, his mother would knit a new row to accommodate his recent growth spurt. Minutes before the class ended, they would start packing up their books and tying their shoelaces, readying themselves for the task at hand. A few teachers got so sick of this behavior that they made these two kids stay in the room until everyone else had left.

Occasionally, some kid would have a broken arm or leg and would be given a special pass to leave class early so their fractured bone would not be more traumatized from the gridlock going on in the halls in between classes. The injured kid was allowed to take a partner with them to accompany them to the next class, and being selected for this distinguished role and avoiding the between class crush was more coveted than winning the lottery.

Many of my friends from grade school were still in my classes in middle school, but my friend-group began to expand as I met new kids as well. The best new friend I made in junior high was Susan who lived in the next town over where I hadn’t spent much time before but quickly realized was a step up from my hood. The main reason I felt this neighborhood was upscale was that it had a McDonald’s and I gladly took the Q60 bus on weekends to meet my new friend for a Big Mac so I could live large even if it was just for a few hours.

Susan was such a good friend that in 7th grade when my retainer got caught on my oh so 70’s new gauze shirt, Susan offered to help me dislodge it. Sans gloves, Purell, or a face mask, she proceeded to pull the disgusting, bacteria-infused retainer from my shirt. She broke it in the process, which was a blessing, since there was no way my father was going to pay for another one and I was done with my braces forever. Perhaps I have Susan to thank for my Lauren Hutton-ish gap in between my two front teeth that perhaps could have been prevented by longer use of the retainer, but I’m good with that. To this day I can’t think of another human being other than my dentist, who will willingly put their hands on something that’s been in my mouth for an indefinate period of time.

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Not So Fast Times at Forest Hills High

FH shirtWhen I entered my sophomore year of high school, my brainiac brother Jeffrey convinced me that it would be a good idea to take both chemistry and biology concurrently. Doing so would eliminate the need to take a science course in my senior year and enable me to get out of school just an hour after I arrived. It sounded like a brilliant idea at the time,  but once the semester started and I realized just how in- over-my- head I was, I began to think otherwise.

Biology was somewhat manageable, since to some extent the material could be memorized, but chemistry required both logic and math skills, two competencies that had ceased to be part of my being after fourth grade. To make matters worse, chemistry required a weekly lab period which was slotted into my already crammed schedule at “zero” period, which if my memory serves me correct, took place several hours before sunrise. During labs, we would work with bunsen burners and chemicals I hadn’t seen since the day’s when my brother was allowed to make bombs in the house. We would make observations and hypotheses (total random guesses) as to how the chemicals would react under various conditions. Immediately after “ain’t no sunshine” zero period, we would head to chemistry class where we would receive a lesson that probably had some correlation to the lab experiments, but I, for the life of me, could never figure out what that was. Our teacher would try to quiet the class for the lesson using her signature (and only) attempt at humor, saying  “Quiet, you’re disturbing the moles” (yes, I had to Wikipedia that term too and it still isn’t funny).

I learned so little in chemistry, that my father assigned Jeffrey the task of tutoring me for the Chemistry Regents exam that I was about to fail. (Note to readers under 25 who have attended dozens of Kaplan prep classes: no parent was willing to pay for tutoring back then; siblings’ sole purpose was to teach each other stuff they didn’t know and agree to play Monopoly in place of their parents). After several frustrating attempts to learn the material from Jeffrey and buckets of tears, dad brought in the reinforcements (my brother Stuart) who was actually the more patient of the two teachers. I passed the exam, took a deep breath of O2 and a swig of H2O and moved on.

By the time I got to my junior year and was expected to take physics, I created a new hypothesis that if I begged hard enough to my physics teacher, he would let me out of the class and my science credits for high school would be completed. Finally, one of my theories was proven correct.

Math that year was no better. We were learning geometry and by what must have been an egregious administrative error, I was placed in honors math, alongside the best and brightest students in the school. Just seconds after a geometry problem was written on the board and before I could even draw the triangle or parallelogram, some future doctor, scientist or Nobel Prize winner was raising their hand with the answer. On occasions when we worked on a series of problems on our own, our male teacher would walk the room, usually ending up behind the girl with the biggest boobs in the class (which for once wasn’t me!) and massage her shoulders or do something else inappropriate. At the time we all just referred to him as a creepy pervert because we didn’t know fancy words yet like pedophile or sexual predator and no one could Google him back then to see how many states he was wanted in. By my junior year, I was outed as a sub-par math student, booted out of honors math and placed in a more academically appropriate class where I didn’t do much better, but never had to worry FH 2about some old guy’s hands near my bra strap.

One of my favorite subjects in high school was history and during my junior year I got to take a college-level class in American history. It wasn’t that I was so enamored with the subject matter but  part of the course material was a book about Thomas Jefferson that detailed his numerous  sexual relations with his slaves. I’d never read a history book like this before and I’d hardly had any exposure to the topic of sex since my brother explained the F-word to me years before, so this book was a welcome addition to all the dry readings about the other boring presidents who seemed to do a better job of keeping it in their pants.

I did well in English class, but looking back on the books we were assigned in high school, most were torturous reads with little relevance to my life at the time. Just a few of the books I suffered through included The Grapes of Wrath, Wuthering Heights, To Kill a Mockingbird, The Scarlet Letter and A Tale of Two Cities. You know a book is bad when you read page 64 five times before turning the page and don’t even realize it and this is when I discovered my  favorite book series…CliffsNotes.

Outside of academic pursuits, high school offered several extracurricular activities Students at my high school were basically attracted to one of four areas: sports, SING!, Beacon and drugs. Categories one and four are fairly self-explanatory. I didn’t really fall into either of these categories because as for sports, I was still having trouble running the five laps around the school’s non-regulation size track sans sports bra and on the drug front, I had basically just learned how to swallow a pill whole the year before, so I wasn’t quite ready to run with the quaalude crowd.

SING! is an annual student-run musical production competition by grade put on by some high schools in New York City. At least that’s how Wikipedia describes it. A more accurate description might be “a temporary state of insanity which commences in late September and doesn’t resolve until mid-January.” SING! productions required students to write original scripts, rewrite lyrics to popular songs, design original sets using only a huge burlap schmatta and paint as a backdrop, create dance routines, design costumes, recruit a grade-level musical ensemble and cast and put on an hour show in about 3 months. Great friendships were built (and demolished) during SING! and there was often more drama offstage than on. Grades tried to keep their shows a secret from each other for as long as possible for fear of any intellectual property being stolen. There was some amazing talent among the grades and some of the alums have gone on to earn some coin as singers and musicians. I participated in two SING! events, in more behind-the-scenes roles like the ensemble and script writing because I was way too shy to audition (especially with such fierce competition),  but I created some amazing friendships with some great people, many who impressively still remember all the SING! 1979 revised lyrics to Earth Wind & Fire’s Fantasy.

FH 4The Beacon was the school newspaper and it was here that I discovered I liked to write. We learned how to report in a newspaper style and write and edit longer-form content as well. This was where I also discovered the best book ever; the Thesaurus; a nifty tool for making me sound much more literate than I actually was. My favorite “go-to” word for anything I wrote about was “juxtaposition” and I started overusing it in articles and daily life as well saying things like, “Is it ok if I sit juxtaposed to you at lunch today?” and “Hmm, when I juxtapose my score on the math test next to yours, I realize I’ve failed.” Several members of Beacon went on to become paid journalists and writers. I ended up with this self deprecating blog and  five followers.

By my senior year, the extracurricular activities played a bigger role in my daily life than the academic coursework and we began to turn our attention to other senior activities such as prom and graduation. Some member of the administration thought that it would be a good idea to include an overnight, barely supervised trip in the prom festivities and so hundreds of seniors got to go on a trip that had the potential to turn into a 1980 version of Burning Man. The event would be held at the Concord Hotel in The Catskills which was considered posh in the 60’s, somewhat tacky in the 70’s and has since devolved into this. The evening would begin with dinner, followed by a pool party and then the prom at midnight. I thought I’d be clever and kill two birds with one stone. In 1980, Danskin, the manufacturer of the famed children’s equivalent of polyester leisure suits in 1974, had come out with a new look; a one-piece bathing suit collection that had matching Lycra skirts. (Note to all corsage-wearing girls in long formal wear: disco was still king; this was considered formal wear back then, at least for a girl from Queens). For the pool party, I wore the bathing suit. Then I ran back to my room, semi-dried the suit, put on the skirt and heels and bam! Prom-ready.

Meanwhile, the boys had other ideas about what to pack in their suitcases, mainly vodka and orange juice. We managed to end up in a room next door to the Assistant Principal, a man named Milton Sirota, who had to endure a full year of kids chanting his name to the tune of The Knack’s My Sharona which someone cleverly changed to Mi-Mi-Mi Mil Sarota. My my my i yi woo!!! But despite his proximity, the boys (and some girls) managed to Ch-Ch-Ch Chug the vodka. The next day there were a lot of hung over kids but I don’t remember any admonishments from the faculty. Perhaps they were hung over themselves, or maybe they just remembered what it was like to be young.



I’ll Take Two Great Brothers for $300, Alex

stuart, jeff me 4One of the great things about being one of three kids in the family was that there was usually someone to play with. With the exception of chess, a game my brothers felt I could never play well enough to command any reasonable level of competition, my brothers were usually willing to play some type of board or card game with me. My brother Stuart was always up for a good game of Scrabble. At age 12 he had the vocabulary of a Pulitzer prize winning author. He could find an open “a” on the board and come up with a word like “ka” which we would immediately challenge but unfortunately quickly realize was a real word referencing a Predynastic pharaoh of Upper Egypt. The “k” would undoubtedly be placed on a triple-letter square that was also a triple-word square or something equally ridiculous, and he would end up with 5,000 points at the end of round one. Today lots of people have heard of the word ka, but they know it as another Cirque de Soleil show at the MGM Grand in Las Vegas and I think using it in this manner goes against the official rules of Scrabble. I would generally follow up on my turn with a word like “it” garnering two points.

Stuart was so smart, that had my parents thought more about how to exploit this, they could have gotten him on Jeopardy and the prize money could have been used to send their less intelligent daughter to private school. No category would have been too demanding for Stuart. I could see him selecting “18th Century Russian novelists with speech impediments for $200” or “Unusual stamps of the 19th Century Depicting the Industrial Revolution for $500” without missing a beat and nailing the answer every time.

After being sufficiently humiliated with games requiring a command of the English language, my brothers would give me a reprieve and we would engage in games requiring less brain power. When my brother Jeffrey was about ten, he was able to request a copy of an original Star Trek script from NBC. I was no Trekkie, but didn’t want to be left out, so when Jeffrey decided to stage a production of “The Trouble With Tribbles” in our home, I was all over it. Jeffrey played Kirk, Stuart was fittingly Spock and I was Ohura and whatever female characters were fawning all over William Shatner that day. I can’t remember who played Scotty or the Tribbles for that matter, but it was a lot of fun.

Following this, we would move on to a board game, often Monopoly. I think Monopoly was invented for families with a lot of kids, because kids are the only people who will suffer through the three-plus hours it takes to complete this game. I usually ended up with my hotels taken over by my brothers, hocked property and many more tears than could fill my thimble playing piece, but I always came back for more. Luckily, we would find Risk a few years later and Jeffrey would always manage to place all his armies in the tip of South America and conquer the world within 20 minutes.

One of my favorite games was one I played with Jeffrey before Scrabble or Monopoly were even an option. In my bedroom, the room with all the unwanted furniture, there was a rotisserie that was only wheeled out once a year on Thanksgiving. It sat under a plastic cover, the kind you see old people place over their toasters, but this one was industrial size. We weren’t supposed to mess with the rotisserie, but we did anyway because it had a timer on it that was fun to play with. We would set the timer, lay on the bed, and when the timer went off we would roll onto the floor and pretend we had been transported into another time, where there were dinosaurs or knights on horses or astronauts in outer space.

As my brothers got older they stopped playing as many games with me and turned their attention to other pursuits. When Jeffrey was about 12, he invited a bunch of his friends over to the house. They made a huge tent in my brothers’ room, by placing blankets across the two beds and using World Book Encyclopedia’s to hold their makeshift canopy in place. They told me I couldn’t come in. I managed to quietly open the door and slither my way into the room on my stomach so they wouldn’t see me. I peered under the bed near the entrance of the room to see what they were doing. They were playing cards…poker…strip poker. After seeing more than I cared to of one of my brother’s best friends, I realized my days playing simple games with my brothers were numbered.