In August, 1987, while the East Coast was in the grip of a prolonged hot spell, I attended a medical conference in New York City. My friend and fellow physician, Dr. Stan Feldman, invited me to stay in his home in Stamford, CT, and each morning we took the one-hour train ride into the city. We decided to skip the closing session on Saturday morning, and at dinner Friday night Stan asked what I would like to see and do. Knowing that Stan had grown up in Brooklyn, I expressed my longtime desire to visit Brooklyn’s fabled Coney Island.
Saturday, Stan, his wife Arleen, their two children, his mother, Rose, and I all packed into Stan’s Buick Park Avenue and set out for Brooklyn. Only after we had travelled 45 minutes did I begin to feel embarrassed that I had foolishly failed to ask how long a drive we faced. I felt discomfited that I had not been sensitive enough to consider that the trip might be too long for Stan’s mother who was in her late seventies and frail from Parkinson’s Disease. But there was no complaint from Rose, or the kids – about the lengthy drive or the mildly cramped conditions in the back seat. Stan and Arleen had plenty of room in front, while Rose, Ricky, Susan and I sat in the back seat. The kids were small enough and the Buick spacious enough, but I still fretted that Rose might feel a little crowded. Meanwhile, the air conditioner kept us comfortable on this oppressively hot summer day.
Rose, a widow for 24 years, had moved in with Stan and his family a year earlier when her Parkinsonism had progressed, making independent living problematic. Rose looked older than her 77 years because of her stiff, slow and uncertain gait, slightly stooped posture and mild tremors of her hands. She was a slim, petite woman with short gray hair. Stan later told me that in her youth his mother had bright red hair and was a vivacious, active and athletic woman. During my three day visit in their home I observed that she was mentally sharp with occasional expressions of subtle humor, but she was mostly quiet and reserved; Stan also acknowledged that her neurological condition had taken its toll, not only on her physical abilities, but also her spirits. Her doctor had prescribed medication for depression until unpleasant side effects became intolerable.
Rose remained quiet during the drive while Stan told me about his grandparents:
“Mom’s father – his name was Heinrich Frager – was born in Austria. He made a comfortable living here in the clothing business in the early 1900s. Then he received a contract from the government to manufacture uniforms for the soldiers during WW I, and he made a lot of money. A couple years later, he built a house on E. 21st Street between Avenues K and L, in Brooklyn.”
Rose became more animated as we approached her former home on E. 21st Street, and she remarked, “When I was a child this was the last house on the block, and there was nothing but country beyond here. On hot summer days, just like this, my father drove us to Coney Island in his Model T Ford. It was a bumpy road and it took us a few hours, but I always enjoyed going there.”
Stan stopped the Buick for a couple minutes on the one-way street while we looked the four-story grey stucco house over. I noticed the stoop with five wide steps leading up to the front door. Several small flower pots with geraniums lined the brick porch, and a large oak tree stood on one side of the small lawn.
“Stan, do you remember how the wooden stairs creaked going up to the second floor?”
“Yes, but Mom, what I remember best was how you enjoyed playing the piano in the den.”
“Yes, my mother made me take piano lessons with Dr. Schiller. I didn’t like him then, but later I really did enjoy playing.” Rose smiled faintly. “It was very relaxing.”
When we slowed while driving by her nearby childhood elementary school, P.S. 193, only four blocks away on Avenue L, Rose really perked up. “When I was in the sixth grade here, the school had a contest for the students to write the school song, and my song was chosen. I think the school had only been open a couple years.” Stan expressed amazement that he had never heard this story. He was astounded to learn that when he himself attended P.S. 193, almost thirty years later, he and his schoolmates still sang the school song that his mother had composed.
Rose then told me how she had met Stan’s father. “Jack was a senior at Cornell and he needed one last credit to graduate, so he took a summer course in ornithology. I was there for the summer term. I was eating lunch in the cafeteria, sitting alone, and he came up and asked if he could sit down with me.”
Rose’s narrative was interrupted when, finally, after a ninety-minute drive, we reached Coney Island. Stan let us all out in front of Nathan’s hot dog stand, on the corner of Surf and Stillwell Avenues, before he parked around the corner. Rose sat at a small outdoor table while the kids and I lined up with the two-deep crowd of customers, all of whom simply stood at the long outdoor counter eating Nathan’s world famous hot dogs, ridged French fries, and all washed down with a Coke or a beer. This was an unexpected treat for me, but now I wonder, was it really the tasty hot dog, or was it the ambiance that exceeded my expectations –standing among these locals and hearing them chatter away in Brooklynese while enjoying their hotdog?
From Nathan’s we took a short walk to climb a few concrete stairs to reach the Coney Island Boardwalk, a wide wood plank walkway elevated about a foot above the beach. A street sign declared the official name: the Riegelmann Boardwalk.
Arleen hurried ahead to keep up with the children on the crowded Boardwalk while Stan and I kept a much slower pace with Rose. She spoke in a low volume voice, typical of Parkinsonism, and I walked very close so I could hear her. When I continued to express interest in her life, Rose eagerly resumed telling me her story while we walked.
“My father died of a ruptured appendix when I was fifteen, but his financial success allowed us to continue living on E. 21st St. I always loved that house. In 1931, I graduated from Adelphi University, on Long Island, and then I started teaching English at Midwood High.
Stan added that his mother later received a Masters degree in English, and that she eventually became Director of Guidance for Southeast Manhattan for the New York City Board of Education.
After meeting Jack Feldman at Cornell, romance rapidly blossomed over the next few months. “Jack proposed to me just before he left for London where he enrolled in medical school at St. Mary’s Hospital. His professor of bacteriology was Dr. Alexander Fleming. Do you remember who he was? He was the one who discovered penicillin only four years earlier, in 1928.” A hint of a smile played around her lips.
Rose, accompanied by her mother, sailed across the Atlantic on the Mauretania in 1932, and she and Jack were married by a justice of the peace in London’s Paddington Town Hall where, she laughed as she told me, “The only two witnesses were my mother and the Town Hall janitor.” Mrs. Frager returned to the USA shortly after her daughter’s wedding. I dared not ask Rose about her mother’s thoughts and feelings about her daughter marrying Jack and living so far away in London. Stan told me later that he suspected Granny Frager probably had some concerns about her daughter crossing the Atlantic to marry a medical student.
Both Rose and Jack were born into Orthodox Jewish families in Brooklyn, but Stan later told me they fell away from religion until Stan, upon turning eleven, wanted to join a synagogue when all his friends began studying for Bar Mitzvah.
After graduating from medical school in 1937, Jack became a resident in psychiatry at the London Psychoanalytic Institute for two years. Rose explained, “When the Nazis began to bomb London in September, 1940, we returned to Brooklyn and moved in with Granny Frager on E. 21st St. I’ll never forget the explosions of the bombings and the air raid sirens that warned us the German planes were coming at night. But, most of all, I remember the smoke and the smell. It really was terrifying. The smell of the burning never left the air, even after the fires were put out.”
Upon returning to Brooklyn, Jack continued his psychiatric residency at Bellevue Psychiatric Hospital, while Rose and a psychologist friend started a preschool that Stan and his siblings later attended. During this period Rose completed her Masters in English and resumed teaching at Midwood High.
As Rose responded to my repeated prompting, she really got rolling and poured out her story with gusto. She spontaneously picked up her compelling narrative after several interruptions, such as happened when we arrived at the Cyclone, perhaps the most famous roller coaster in America.
Ricky and Susan got there first, then came running back to urge me, goad me and challenge me to ride the Cyclone with them. I hadn’t ridden a roller coaster after my one and only coaster experience at age eleven, almost fifty years earlier, on the Comet at the Forest Park Highlands Amusement Park in St. Louis. Although reluctant, I instinctively knew I couldn’t refuse the kids – Hey! I was the one who insisted we come here! We piled into the deep low-lying reclining old wooden seats, and I summoned up all my courage. I was so energized that at the end of the ride I shouted, “Let’s have a re-ride!” secretly hoping that Stan would insist we move on instead.
Near the Cyclone stood the original Coney Island carousel. Stan reminisced that as a child, while riding the wooden horse, he would daringly reach out for a brass ring that would earn him a free ride. In the distance we saw the tall, silent, deserted steel tower of the parachute jump; I was relieved this amusement ride had closed several years earlier so I wouldn’t have to really test my nerve to jump with the kids.
We walked along the Boardwalk, which bordered the wide expanse of Coney Island beach, and observed the masses of people lying or sitting on towels and blankets on the sand. I felt compelled to just step onto that beach and at least get my feet wet in the foam of the Atlantic Ocean surf. My five friends indulged me while I removed my shoes and socks, rolled up the cuffs of my dress slacks, almost to my knees, walked barefoot over the hot sand across the wide beach and stepped into the swirling water for about thirty seconds, just so I could say that I had done it.
From Boardwalk to shoreline, I threaded my way between the hundreds of sunbathers, young and old, seeking some relief from the dazzling heat on this Saturday in August. The air was filled with the jarring sounds from the many boomboxes which competed for the loudest volume. An indistinguishable mixture of Afro-Cuban-Latino rhythms overlay the shouts, laughter and low rumble of chatter of multiple languages and dialects.
All this catalyzed visions of my own ethnic tradition and culture, and I imagined a similar hot summer Saturday, over half a century earlier, when this same Coney Island beach was populated by Brooklyn Jews sun bathing, shouting and laughing – minus the boomboxes, only because they had yet to be invented.
Leaving Coney Island, Rose asked Stan to drive by the house on E. 21st St. once more, and mother and son recaptured moments when Granny Frager had lived with Rose and Jack until she died in 1968. Stan, born in 1942, remembered it all, and when he mused how he had walked those same four blocks his mother had taken to attend P.S. 193, Rose turned her face away and looked out the window.
Our last stop was at the nearby candy store where Stan had bought hand made egg creams, Mission grape soda and the pink Spaldeen balls of his youth. I felt disappointed when Stan told me the long-time store owner was gone, along with the 1950s character of the store.
We returned to the car, our sojourn to Brooklyn concluded, and Rose reflected on her husband; upon completing his residency Jack opened his practice of psychiatry, treating adults and children. Initially his office was in their home, and he also treated children at a Jewish orphanage. Later, he opened an office on West 54th Street, right behind the Museum of Modern Art, and there he died suddenly, in his office, in 1963 at age 55.
Rose sold the house on E. 21st St. several years after Jack’s death, and she lived with her cousin in Manhattan.
Her mobility and balance became an issue in 1985, and Rose moved in with Stan and Arleen in Connecticut. Her grandkids loved for her to read to them. When their parents were away on vacation, Rose was more strict with the children, insisting they make their own beds and keep their room tidy.
A couple years later, her balance began to further deteriorate, and she fell for the first time. Rose certainly remained intellectually sharp when I visited in 1987.
Rose’s gait and balance progressively worsened and she was told not to use stairs without assistance, but when she tried the stairs on her own one day, she fell. She was hospitalized for a skull fracture resulting in a massive brain hemorrhage, and she died shortly afterward, in 1988, one year after I had met her. She was 78 years old.
Stan has told me, several times, how that day we spent together proved to be an uplifting tonic for Rose. Her progressive physical deterioration had dampened her enthusiasm and motivation for her daily life, but her return to Brooklyn, for what proved to be the last time, rekindled in her heart the charm and vitality of her beloved Brooklyn and raised her spirits. The trip stirred up happy memories about her life, her youth, memories about that house on E. 21st St. where she lived with her parents, then with her husband, and where they raised their three children. Stan told me how in that last year of her life Rose fondly and frequently spoke of our pilgrimage to Brooklyn.
As for me, I thought I was just having an enjoyable time with my friend and his family that day; only later did I realize that I was unconsciously inspired for a higher purpose – doing Mitzvot – fulfilling the ancient Hebrew Biblical Commandment to perform deeds of loving kindness.