Tuesday, July 25, 2006

The Ties That Bind

Sometimes, the things that bind us to our own culture can also link us to others. That’s the lesson I learned July 20 when I visited the Teresa Roldan Apartments on Paseo Boricua at 2501-11 W. Division St. in my old Humboldt Park neighborhood. Constructed by the Hispanic Housing Development Corp. (HHDC) for those 55 and older, the five-story, 59-unit affordable rental building was designed to reflect an architectural style typical of buildings in Old San Juan, Puerto Rico.

My original goal was to see the property that had blossomed on the site of my childhood home and grocery store – the places I describe in my memoir, “The Division Street Princess.” Also, I hoped to donate signed copies of my book to the building’s library. But thanks to the residents of the Roldan apartments and leaders of the Humboldt Park community whom I met that day, that intent soon evolved into a heart-to-heart conversation that proved enlightening for all.

When I consider my Jewish heritage, I’m blessed by concern for family and a desire to make life better for those we love. In the 1940s, that took shape in my parents’ American dream of education for their kids (immigrants from Russia, my dad –- one of six -- never went to high school, let along college; Mom and her seven siblings graduated from Tuley high school) and economic success for their mom-and-pop grocery store.

During my visit to my old neighborhood, I found that same concern and dream along Paseo Boricua, the section of Division Street anchored by two, 45-town steel Puerto Rican flags. I learned that our similarities trumped differences. True, shopkeepers now sprinkle their patter with Spanish instead of Yiddish, building facades can be sunburst yellow instead of faded red brick, and a sleek No.70 Division Street bus speeds along its asphalt path rather than the old Red Pullman that was hooked to overhead cables and ran along streetcar tracks.

But these changes are simply history book entries that color an era, give evidence to what came before and what is now. They are links, not barriers. Guideposts, not fences.

The men and women I met during my visit to Paseo Boricua welcomed me as if I were their own returning daughter, and they shared their stories: Paul Roldan, president of the HHDC, told me how his parents met on New York’s Lower East Side despite growing up in the same Puerto Rican town, Aqua Villa. Ignacio De La Rosa, who had owned a grocery in the neighborhood like my parents, said he loved the same statue I had placed in my memoir – the one at the entry to Humboldt Park and now needing attention and repair. Pablo Pepsin, Sr., a longtime resident of the community, studied my father’s photo on “The Division Street Princess” book cover, and said, “I knew him. I shopped in your store.”

Pablo Pepin, Sr. and me.

Left to right: Ignacio DeLaRosa, Paul Roldan, and Candida R. Agron. Standing Angel Lopez

Along with Roldan, I met other community leaders, like highly respected Billy Ocasio, alderman of the 26th Ward for the past 10 years who has fought to halt discrimination, and encourage affordable housing, economic development, and school reform.

Left to right: Paul Roldan, president, Hispanic Housing Development Corp.; me, Billy Ocasio, Alderman 26th Ward; and Jose E. Lopez, executive director, Puerto Rican Cultural Center

Enrique Salgado, Jr., is executive director of the Division Street Business Development Association (DSBDA), a 22-year-old organization that nurtures and enriches the neighborhood by celebrating the cultural heritage of residents, and at the same time, striving for economic success for business owners. The steel Puerto Rican flags, plus stabilization of existing shops, and influx of new businesses and jobs, are testimony to the DSBDA’s progress.

Jose E. Lopez, executive director of the Puerto Rican Cultural Center, which is considered the intellectual anchor of the community, also serves as local historian. Lopez and the Center promote social service programs to answer health and educational needs while reaffirming the neighborhood’s cultural legacy.

My visit culminated at lunch in Nellie’s Restaurant, 2458 W. Division St. (773-252-5520), cattycorner from Irv’s Finer Foods (1940s) and the Teresa Roldan Apartments (2006). And yes, I found another similarity between our heritages: we love food! I enjoyed a delicious ceviche salad recommended by Lopez, while enviously sampling Roldan’s plate of fried pork and plantains. (Note to kosher or Weight Watcher friends: I know, I know…)

This visit to Division Street in its reincarnation as Paseo Boricua, encouraged me to declare myself an honorary hija; and my new friends -- sensing an ally to their cause – are including me and “The Division Street Princess” in future plans. Watch this space for more ways this grocer’s daughter and Paseo Boricua’s residents will work together to prove that history, plus respect and admiration, can link, rather than separate, people who truly care about their families, their community, their city, and yes, their cultural heritages.

Today's immigrants much like early arrivals
July 22, 2006

Stirring the melting pot
July 27, 2006

Tuesday, July 18, 2006

Women Who Love Books + My Yen for Yates

Today’s post was inspired by my July 11 appearance at the Women Who Love Books (WWLB) book club. Actually, this group of readers who live in Lincolnwood and in Chicago’s Peterson Park neighborhood doesn’t have a name, but I gave them one for the purpose of this blog. My friend and booster Beverly Fischmann Steinberg is a member of the WWLB club and proposed my memoir “The Division Street Princess” as it’s monthly selection.

I’ve been a book club member in the past but this was my first experience as the guest author. My longtime friend Ruth Gilbert joined me in reading passages from the book and in the discussion that followed. I had a wonderful time being the center of attention, answering thoughtful questions about my book, and revealing secrets about publishing and marketing. It’s obvious this group’s devotion to reading justifies the tag I’ve given them.

The special event sent me musing about books and their place in my life, in my home, and about my favorite author. As evidence of my love for books, I’m revealing a list of sites in our home (my husband Tommy is an enthusiastic reader, too) where I stash books currently being read. In my backpack, “Family History” by Dani Shapiro; powder room (also known as the Library, as in “I’m going to the Library.”) “Stories,” T.C. Boyle; living room coffee table “Queen of the Oddballs" Hillary Carlip; upstairs bathroom, “Children Playing Before a Statue of Hercules” David Sedaris; and nightstand, “Gardenias” by Faith Sullivan.

Tommy is a fan of mysteries and historical novels; Buddy patiently waits for someone to put down his book or her camera and pay attention to their pup.

The Library

You can meet talented and ingenious writer Hillary Carlip in person on Thursday, July 20, 7:30 p.m. at the Bookslut Reading Series to be held at Hopleaf bar, 5148 N. Clark St., 2nd Floor, 773-334-9851. Hillary’s book is a special treat. For verification, read my review on her Amazon page.

As you can see, I enjoy a variety of writers and genres, but I confess to a passion for Richard Yates, whom I discovered November 14, 2003 in an article in the Chicago Reader. Written by J.R. Jones and titled “Out of the Wreckage,” the nearly 5,000-word piece reveals Yates’ “compassion for life’s losers that made his stories heartbreaking,” and describes Yates’ most well-known book, “Revolutionary Road” (1961) that “peers…into the anguished soul of middle-class America in the 1950s.”

Richard Yates

Jones’ intriguing write-up (perhaps Yates’ four-pack-a-day cigarette habit and his frequent themes of failed dreams reminded me of my dad) sped me to bookstore shelves. After relishing “Revolutionary Road,” I went on to read all of Yates’ novels and short stories available at the time, as well as a 2003 biography by Blake Bailey, “A Tragic Honesty: The Life and Work of Richard Yates.”

Although Yates was praised by critics; and “Revolutionary Road” was a finalist for the National Book Award, his short stories were regularly published in major literary magazines, and four Yates’ novels were Book-of-the-Month club selections, he never sold more than 12,000 copies of any one book in hardcover. Along with this dismissal by the general reading public, Yates is considered a tragic figure because he suffered from alcoholism, tuberculosis, emphysema, and bipolar disorder. He died in 1992 at the age of 66 never fulfilling his own dreams of happy family and successful career.

Yates may be an odd choice for my muse, but I became so enamored of his work that I selected lines from his short story “Saying Goodbye to Sally” to be on the epigraph page for “The Division Street Princess.” Somehow, this quote evokes my feelings about revisiting my childhood: “He stood watching until after she’d gone inside, and until the tall windows of one room after another cast their sudden light into the darkness. Then more lights came on and more, room upon room, as Sally ventured deeper into the house she had always loved and probably always would – having it now, for the first time and at least for a little while, all to herself.”

Tuesday, July 11, 2006

Blue Skies: Starring Three Irvings

Today, July 11, is my dad’s birthday. If Irving Shapiro were alive today, we would be celebrating his 97th year. My father would have never reached this milestone, though, because he managed to accumulate at least four risk factors for heart disease: obesity, diet, diabetes, and smoking. I won’t reveal his age at the time of his death because that would spoil the ending of my memoir, THE DIVISION STREET PRINCESS. Let’s just say it was younger than two other Irvings you’ll meet in today’s post: Irving Berlin, the American composer and lyricist, and Irving Berlin, a 1940s grocer like my dad.

The more famous Irving Berlin never learned how to play a piano or read music beyond a basic level, but wrote over 3,000 songs and also produced 17 film and 21 Broadway scores. Born to a Jewish family in Russia (like my father) this Irving died of a heart attack at the age of 101. Lyrics for Blue Skies -- the 1926 hit song that was featured in the first talkie, Al Jolson’s The Jazz Singer -- close out this post. I selected this number out of Berlin’s enormous repertoire because it seems to capture my dad’s philosophy of life.

The second Irving Berlin is the father of Howard Berlin, who is married to my friend, Norma. I chose the story of Howard and his father Irving because these Berlins were a grocery store family like mine. Perhaps these two Irvings have already met in the food aisles of the afterlife; but if not, they can get acquainted here in cyberspace.

This is a photo of Howard taken recently at 4138 N. Sheridan Rd. in Chicago’s Uptown neighborhood where one of his family’s two stores stood. Howard’s experience as a grocery kinderlach mirrors my brother Ron’s because both sons helped out by working in the store and by making deliveries.

An anesthesiologist today, Howard recalls his early “mom & pop” days: “One of the major problems of having a small store was the time needed to keep it going. My father was a hard worker and spent long hours in the store. I remember, especially after the war, my father bemoaning the growth of the chain stores – the A & P and National. When my father was forced to retire in 1949 his complaints stopped. Now he was a big fan of the chain stores and looked for the bargains. I don’t think my family ever shopped in a small grocery store again.” (Howard’s dad suffered two heart attacks before he retired, and lived another 20 years. He died at the age of 73 after his seventh – yes, seventh – and final attack. What’s with Jewish men and heart disease?)

As for my own dad, Irving Shapiro, he left the grocery business in 1951; and once more, I’ll send you to the pages of THE DIVISION STREET PRINCESS for details. But here his similarity with Irving Berlin (the grocer, not the songwriter) ends, because my Irving was hardly a bargain hunter. Dad lived life in excess (remember the four risk factors) and spent money even if his pockets were bare.

I’ve included a photo of my dad taken at Ronnie’s bar mitzvah in 1948. I love this picture because it shows Dad having a swell time. My mother’s youngest brother, Hy Elkin, is pictured dancing with my boozy father. To accompany the photo, I’ve submitted a paragraph from the book -- evidence of my childhood angst about carefree Irving Shapiro:

“Several of my young uncles took turns breaking from the ring to dance the kazatska in the center. With arms folded across their sinewy chests, they squatted almost to the floor, shot their legs alternately out in front of them, then hopped upright with a whoop. We clapped and cheered to egg the boys on. But when my shikker father leapt dizzily into the spotlight, I became alarmed. Didn’t the doctor tell him to watch himself? To stop smoking? To lose weight? Didn’t the doctor warn Dad that his diabetes could weaken his heart as it did his feet, his gums? He had almost lost a limb to gangrene, and I had already witnessed Dad’s false teeth floating nightly in a drinking glass. What other part of his body would be next to fail?

Yanking the elbow of his herringbone suit, and shouting to be heard over the orchestra’s horns and relatives’ hoots, I screamed, ‘Daddy, stop, you’ll get sick!’

With his brown eyes as bright as the morning’s Eternal Flame, Dad brushed my anxious hand from his sweat-soaked suit, and slurred, ‘I’m having a good time, Princess, let me have a good time.’”

Blue Skies by Irving Berlin

I was blue, just as blue as I could be
Every day was a cloudy day for me
Then good luck came a-knocking at my door
Skies were gray but they’re not gray anymore

Blue skies
Smiling at me
Nothing but blue skies
Do I see

Singing a song
Nothing but bluebirds
All day long

Never saw the sun shining so bright
Never saw things going so right
Noticing the days hurrying by
When you’re in love, my how they fly

Blue days
All of them gone
Nothing but blue skies
From now on

I should care if the wind blows east or west
I should fret if the worst looks like the best
I should mind if they say it can’t be true
I should smile, that’s exactly what I do

Tuesday, July 04, 2006

I Forced a Mac on My Daughter

Scratch a Jewish mother and you’ll likely find a woman itching to buy her daughter apparel. (See excerpt below from THE DIVISION STREET PRINCESS.) But for this first generation Yiddish Momma, I wasn’t content until my daughter Faith let me buy her a Mac.

Some history: I’ve been a computer user and fan of the product since the 1980s with my first army-green Kaypro and WordStar software. I eventually graduated to Gateways and Word Perfect. Over the years, I accumulated and discarded several desktops and one laptop.

“You’re not a Mac person?” friends with Macs would ask in surprise. “Too tricky to change,” I’d answer, “and besides, Macs are for graphics people.”

Finally, in December of 2004, plagued by viruses, spy ware, and the programs intended to bar them, my computers ceased to be fun. It was time to switch, but first, as is my wont in new pursuits, I got immersed in Mac manuals, visits to the Michigan Ave. and Old Orchard Apple stores, and free classes. Also, I waylaid any Mac coffee shop user who erred by working on his laptop in my line of vision.

Persuaded I could handle change, I bought an iMac G5 desktop and gave myself and my new pet a few weeks to get to know each other. Then it happened: I was hooked, addicted. Ripping and burning to iTunes, importing to iPhoto, dragging files to the Desktop or Trash. Soon, an iPod Shuffle, a Nano, and finally a PowerBook entered my iLife. I became – drum roll here – a certified M.O. (Mac Obnoxious).

Not satisfied with my own collection of Apple products, I vowed to win over everyone else in my life, starting with my own family. Figuring my 8-year-old grandson would be most amenable to conversion, I wooed him during a visit to Los Angeles. “Just put these in,” I cooed as I gently stuffed Shuffle buds into his tiny ears. “Nice grandma,” he said as Carmen McRae continued the seduction. His 9th birthday won him a Nano from all grandparents, and an iBook from his parents. My first success!

My L.A. grandson being wooed in the Apple store at The Grove.

Emboldened with the taste of tech, I tried my spiel on PC friends, but recognizing they were beyond salvation, and also because they ran whenever they saw me approach, I returned to my original scheme and targets: my two daughters.

When I learned Jill was borrowing her son’s laptop for Starbucks visits, I cackled to myself. To my Macs I said, “It’s just a matter of time. She’ll soon be ours.”

Jill, pre-Mac and unaware of my devilish plans.

Finally, her e-mail, “You’ll be happy to hear…” was the subject line. Two down, one to go. Not only did Jill get a Mac desktop, but her machine included a camera and iChat. Video conferencing from L.A. to Chicago (okay, early shots were of Jill and my grandson making silly faces) followed, with a hunger on my part, for a new Apple product, an iSight camera.

As for Faith, my last holdout, fate intervened. A visit to her home in Boston required my laptop’s participation. As Faith and her daughter watched her sister and nephew cavort on the West Coast, I sensed an opening. “You need a Mac,” I said. “I can’t afford it,” she answered, “although my Dell is driving me crazy.”

Did my eyes brighten with lust, my heart quicken? I’m ashamed to admit such emotions as my prey slacked before me.

“I’ll buy it for you,” I said, the words spilling before my brain could calculate my income to debt ratio.

“Oh, Mommy, I can’t accept it,” she said, and quickly added, “but how could I turn you down.”

If I knew how to link a sigh of contentment to this essay, it would go right here. We plugged in her Mac iBook upon our return from the Apple store in Chestnut Hill, MA. And before we could say “Steve Jobs” my daughter and grandson’s punims sailed wirelessly to the East Coast.

Faith, success!

Buddy, our golden retriever, not certain if my iPod Shuffle is his thing. I didn’t press it.

My work here is done. And now, from THE DIVISION STREET PRINCESS, Chapter Six, “From Your Lips to God’s Ears,” my mother Min’s misguided attempt to gift her only daughter:

“I remembered my excitement on the Saturday Mother had returned with the skirt. Racing to the door to relieve her of her Carson’s, Stevens’, and Fair’s shopping bags; I shouted, ‘Let me see, let me see.’ I tossed out the tissue paper, seeking something delightful, but instead fished out the homely, scratchy skirt.

‘Isn’t it pretty,’ Mother had said excitedly. ‘I got it on sale. Try it on.’
‘Yes, Mom, pretty,’ I had said, my voice a bass to her soprano. ‘But I’ll try it on later. Okay?’ I considered telling her the truth then and there, but kept my mouth shut.

What I wanted to say was that I not only hated the green skirt, but I loathed all of the clothing she bought for me. I wanted to tell her that pleated skirts made me look fat, that none of my pals wore black pullovers with red satin roses stitched above the heart, and that the one-inch wedge on my slip-on leather shoes wouldn’t stop me from being the shortest child in the fourth grade. But I feared honesty might hurt her feelings or turn her against me, so I had feigned delight.”