Giants of My Youth II
Thursday, January 12, 2012 • 10:34am
My maternal grandparents, Rose and Lew, were carnival people. I learned from them that you can be both tough and loving; that you can make choices in life that are frowned upon by society, but if they are right for you, what society thinks doesn't matter.
Rose and Lew were very different from mainstream people in many ways. Facts about their young married life were always tentative. How had they met? When were they married? Why did my mother talk about moving from relative to relative as a young girl? And why did she talk about her father and Lew as if they were the same but different people?
It wasn't until I graduated from High School that I learned Lew was not my biological grandfather. After giving birth to my mother, my grandmother had divorced and later remarried! It was a family secret that was considered shameful, even in the Roaring Twenties, and not admitted, even within the family, until the more liberal 1960s.
I called Lew "Zadie" as a respectful title, but I learned during my university years that the term was initially used as a sarcastic joke. To differentiate Lew from my biological grandfather, they decided to call him Zadie, which is Yiddish for grandfather. The term Zadie conjures up the image of an old man with a long beard and a big black hat. Only Lew was the antithesis of such a character. In the vernacular of the day, he was a "Broadway Guy" -- a slick, tough, conniver, but his love for us, and in turn, our love for him, transformed the joke into a serious compliment. .
Since they were our only family that lived in Miami, Grandma Rose and Zadie Lew were my entire, full-time extended family. Only they weren't full-time family, since they were carnival people (Carnies) they were away from home, on the road, from April until September every year.
Lew was a tough-looking guy with a cigar habitually clenched between his teeth. To the outside world he was someone to whom you gave a wide berth. When you got to know him, he was a funny, tolerant and extremely intelligent character who people often consulted for advice.
Lew ran away from home to join the Navy in World War I. He was under-age and needed his mother's consent but that didn't stop Lew. In his youth, he was a gambler and a union organizer, suitable activities for a tough guy. He was friend to a few iconic gangsters of the Prohibition era, including Arthur Flegenheimer, a notorious bootlegger and numbers operator, otherwise known as Dutch Shultz. I have an autographed photo of Dutch, addressed to Lew "with fondest regards" and I often wonder what that was all about.
Lew also worked as a candy butcher in Madison Square Garden and during World War II he worked in the Brooklyn Navy Yard during the winter. But his main calling was as a circus worker and later a Carny. Lew never talked about his circus days but whenever the Ringling Brothers circus came to town he would take me to the lot, which was adjacent the Sears Building in Coral Gables, walk up to the box office and get free tickets. Who he knew was just one of the mysteries of his life.
Lew and Clyde Beatty, the famous animal trainer, were friends. Lew got Beatty to allow me to interview him on a university radio show I hosted. I remember Beatty telling me "you can train lions and tigers but you can never tame them." A lesson that applies to all wild animals, and a few humans I have met over the years. Over the years I met many interesting people in Rose and Lew's home, including George Hamid, owner of the famous Steel Pier in Atlantic City. Lew once told me he was friends with Tidee Bimbo, the self-proclaimed king of the Gypsies, and I never doubted him.
Lew often reminisced about the time he worked at the Madison Square Garden during the Seven Day Bike Races in the midst of the Depression. At 2 a.m., Lew and his co-workers shut off all the water fountains, filled bottles with water and sold bottled water to the spectators. Lew would say with wonder, "Can you imagine? Spending a dime for a bottle of water?" I wonder what Lew would say today if he saw the grocery shelves filled with Evian, Poland Spring and a dozen other brands of bottled water!
My parents didn't have a lot of money so I lived at home during college and spent summers "on the road" with Rose and Lew. Working over the summer I could earn enough for a semester's tuition and expenses. During the school year I had multiple odd jobs to pay for the rest of my education.
One of Lew's friends once told me that even decades later, no one ever provoked Lew because of his reputation as a fierce fighter. I remember one day a young guy on the carnival lot tried to provoke Lew into a fight. Lew's body remained loose, his face turned into a scowl and through cigar-clenched teeth he muttered in his raspy New York dialect, "C'mon, I'll make you wish you was born dead." The young guy backed down, which was an amazing feat considering Lew was in his sixties at the time.
Lew had his own Lewisms. "Never make a left-turn into a gas station" hence we would often drive for miles, risking running out of fuel until he found a station on our side of the road. In the days before GPS, driving down New England roads too small to be shown on maps was an arduous task. We would often get lost, but Lew had a Lewism for that eventuality, "Never ask directions from a guy wearing a hat" he would say. We would drive on until he found a man not wearing a hat, which was almost impossible even in the summer. More often than not, after ten minutes of arm waving and cigar chomping, Lew would return to the car just as confused and lost as before, but somehow we always made it to our destination.
Lew taught me that "you can't cheat a man who isn't greedy." He used to say "If a man isn't looking for somethin' for nothin', he can't be cheated." Lew would wave his arm at the carnival midway and tell me that it costs a lot of money for a carnival to come to town. Rides, games and shows, living in hotels and eating in restaurants for a week were all expensive. He would ask, "Why do some people think we would lay out all this money so they can come on the lot, beat a Carny at his own game and take his money?" It was a great lesson that taught me to respect someone's ability when you are on their turf and to avoid gambling in Las Vegas or Atlantic City. To this day I look at the huge hotels, employing thousands of people and see a permanent version of a carnival midway. Thanks to Lew, I ask myself, what kind of people would believe they can swoop into town and take a jackpot from people who invested millions to build these businesses?
The people I met on the carnival came straight from the pages of Damon Runyon. Lew's closest friends were Jackie and Virginia Feldman, a mixed marriage between a New York Jew and a Southern Gentile, which was unheard of in their day. But religion and ethnicity didn't matter in the carnival world; they all belonged to the same tribe - Carnies.
Jackie always had a stogie in his teeth but never lit it. The joke was to ask Jackie if he wanted a light and hear his string of epithets. Of course Jackie and Lew were a perfect fit because Lew would never give someone a light, even when asked, because once his huge springer spaniel, Stormy had ripped an expensive, new coat while Lew was holding the leash and fishing in his pocket for a match to give someone.
One of Lew's friends when I was very young was Bill Moore, the show manager of the Cetlin and Wilson carnival. He was a handsome man with silver-gray hair and a refined demeanor. Bill Moore died suddenly at a young age and several years later, his wife Irene married Larry Levy, the head bartender of the Fontainebleau Hotel. My mother referred to Irene as her "fairy godmother" because of her generosity. One dare not admire something in Irene's home because she would insist you take it.
Irene was a beautiful woman with a tight figure. I remember her as a gracious lady and have been told she was an excellent stock picker. Irene was so proud of her looks she commissioned a painting of herself sans clothing in a pose resembling the famous calendar pinup of Marilyn Monroe and hung it in the middle of her living room.
When I was in the Army and being investigated for a Top Secret clearance I gave Irene as a reference, because in our family sphere she was a prominent person. Irene later told me how frightened she was when two FBI men knocked on her door one day and said they wanted to ask her a few questions. She said, when they told her it was to investigate me for a security clearance she relaxed and gave them a glowing report. I often wonder how the G-men felt interviewing Irene while staring at that picture. I haven't seen Irene for many years now, but in March she will celebrate her 100th birthday and I am told she is as gracious and gentle today as when I saw her regularly.
There were other people in Lew's sphere. Sam Crowell, who ran the concession stands for the Orange Bowl festivities, and always made sure I made a few dollars during the big game and its preceding events by letting me sell souvenirs, Coca Colas and sun visors. I often joke that some people went to college on a Fulbright Scholarship; I went on a Crowell.
Another memorable character was "Chocolate" Bazeman (no relation) who drove me from town to town while we were on the road. I dared not drink coffee on Sunday mornings when we made our jumps because Chocolate had a prostate condition and wouldn't stop for a bathroom break. Chocolate seldom spoke and refused to turn on the radio. During our first trip he would point to a sign and say "Sign; Read sign!" After a few times I got the message and from then on I dutifully read every sign on the road -- billboards, street signs, speed limits, deer crossings, gas stations -- any sign we passed. Eventually Chocolate loosened up and told me about his family and a nephew at Tufts University of whom he was extremely proud, but I always had to interrupt our conversations to read the signs.
One day Chocolate was asked to take along the wife of the head roughy, a request he could not refuse and which he resented. When we met at her hotel, I politely got out of the cart and she automatically got into the front seat. In his threatening monotone, Chocolate said "Henry sits there." She meekly got into the back seat. But no one had warned her of Chocolate's non-stop jumps and I later learned she had several cups of coffee that morning to wake up after a long Saturday night. A couple of hours down the road she started to fidget, then squirm, then she suggested it was time for a stop, then she asked when Chocolate planned to stop. Chocolate didn't respond to any of these increasingly frantic entreaties -- I mean, not a word nor even a change of expression. She finally begged Chocolate to stop at the next gas station, which he did, and she jumped out of the car while it was still rolling and made a beeline for the bathroom. Needless to say, that was the last time she rode with us.
There were many others in this roguish group who treated me with gentleness. I think they saw in me a promise they could never have fulfilled. I was a college student and an aspiring Army officer. With all their toughness and in many ways seedy behavior they cared for me as if I were their legacy. Most of them are buried together in the Showmen's section of the Southern Memorial Park in Miami, Fl. You can tell their section by the lion, tiger and elephant that guards their graves. I will never forget them.
Lew kept me away from temptations of the 1960s and 1970s with his street-wise advice. In single-word descriptions he would point out the different kinds of temptations and the way they could ruin one's life. If he saw someone stumbling and bleary-eyed, he would say between his cigar-clenched teeth "alky" meaning drunk; he would look at someone with wild eyes and say "goofballs" or "bennies" to indicate someone who was taking barbiturates. He would indicate some guy with a good job and disheveled looks and say "gambling degenerate" or a lethargic person who constantly sucked Charms sourballs and tell me that person was a "hophead" meaning an opiate addict.
Lew helped temper my youthful idealism with his advice. For example he would tell me, when dealing with underworld characters to "be their friend, but never do business with them" and with slogans like "there is no honor among thieves" and "there is no Marquis of Queensbury in a street fight."
But most of all Lew taught me that a tough guy, and he was that, could also have a gentle and loving side. Not only was he gentle and generous to me and my sisters, but during the winter he would devote his spare time to helping others. He gathered food and turkeys and distributed Thanksgiving baskets for poor families. He organized Christmas parties for poor children and he ran contests at Masonic picnics so the kids could go home with souvenirs. Even when I was an adult, he would take me aside and slip me a fifty dollar bill or sometimes a hundred dollar bill, in the days when this was real money, and say, "Here kid, show your girl a good time."
I will describe Rose in the next episode of my family chronicle, but one event characterizes the love I felt from both of them. My wife and I stayed in their condo in Miami some time after Rose and Lew died. Their home was just as they had left it and we slept in their bed. When we turned out the light the first night there, my wife asked if I believed in ghosts. I told her, "If there are such things as ghosts, and if Rose and Lew are ghosts in their home, they will protect us with all the power at their disposal." It was the best night's sleep I had in years.
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Henry Bassman has lived in Summit, NJ for 37 years. Henry retired from AT&T where he wrote about high-technology science and engineering. He now writes about biotechnology, medical devices and healthcare companies and issues. Articles by Henry can be seen on ABCNews.com, CNN.com and other business Web sites. You can write to Henry at email@example.com.
Henry Bassman has written about high-technology and medical technology (biotechnology, medical devices and healthcare issues) for more than 40 years. He retired from AT&T, served in the U.S. Army where he became a captain and worked for ABC News. He is now affiliated with a small investment bank. Articles by Henry can be seen on ABCNews.com and other business Web sites. Henry has lived in Summit, NJ for 37 years and has been married for more than 40 years. He has three daughters who graduated from Summit High School.
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