Laskow, 1973 – Beth Adelman

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While I was growing up on the Lower East Side in the 1930’s, my neighbor Beryl Laskow, also growing up, led a double life. I didn’t see him in school (he’s four years older) but passed him on the street corners where he talked up a workers’ America to the down-and-out. Laskow had a lean athletic build, a rarity in our congested neighborhood. He combed his hair straight back to give his forehead a high intellectual look and reinforced that with the round glasses favored by the revolutionaries of the time. On the sidewalks of East Broadway, Laskow’s earnest voice drew passers-by around him. But if you stepped down into in his father’s candy-store when he was at work, you saw a different Beryl Laskow, trapped by family duties. He stood behind the counter, eyes lowered and rag in hand, waiting for his father to tell him what to clean next.

During the war, I served in the Pacific, and afterwards, life kept moving. I didn’t run into Laskow again until 1973. One Sunday in February of that year, a week after my wife and I moved to the Bronx, I was doing the wash and reading the Times in the building’s basement laundry room, when in came a skinny older man wheeling a noisy cart. He walked directly to the washing machines. The face under his gray comb-over looked familiar, and while he was loading one machine with white girdles and a second with black socks and plaid shirts, I tried to remember how I knew him. In the meantime, big Rogoff, an English teacher from my floor, came in and complained that all the machines were taken. At that, Laskow looked up with a sly smile. He’d made it to the laundry room in time. When I saw that smile, I remembered the lettering on the plate glass window of Faro’s Candy Store: I don’t know why it was called Faro’s when the Laskows owned it. I realized that that I’d wound up in Beryl Laskow’s apartment building. I called to him. He knew me, and with joy, sat down next to me on the plastic bench for our reunion.

“Whaddaya know!” Laskow slapped his thigh. He stuck his face so close to mine that the thick lenses of his glasses magnified his gray eyes. We examined each other, side by side on the laundry room bench.

I’m short, wiry, and still in good health, although the color of my hair has changed and wrinkles circle my neck. Laskow, no longer athletic, had become so pinched that he tucked a flannel shirt into brown slacks belted at the last hole.

He looked at me with a listener’s eagerness, and I obliged. I explained that my wife and I fled to his Bronx oasis after a gunfight on our Upper West Side block. The rest of my story followed the usual trajectory: war (I was in the Pacific), college, marriage, work (teaching high school history), children, and a toddling grandchild. Aside from leaving Manhattan, I’m satisfied with life.

When it was his turn, Laskow opened his arms wide to demonstrate just how far west were the public library archives where he worked. “Eleventh Avenue,” he said in an exile’s voice. Then he asked for advice.

Laskow’s daughter, Lena, attended a famous college, the kind with avenues of old trees lining the path to the administration building. Laskow agreed with me that she was brilliant to get in there. Otherwise (I kept this to myself), it was not the kind of school where civil servants from the Lower East Side sent their children. I thought his problem was going to be how to fit in on parents’ weekend, but I was wrong. Laskow explained: Lena had signed up for a class that required an oral history project. Laskow wanted to volunteer for it, but his wife didn’t like Laskow to talk about his activities on the Lower East Side, and that was what Laskow wanted to tell Lena.

The worn girdles Laskow stuffed into a washer had informed me further about the type of woman he was married to: heavy, thrifty, and concerned with appearances.

“I want to participate, I want to participate.” Laskow insisted.

Write to Lena, I said.

“But it’s oral history!” said Laskow, impatient.

“Write it down. Give her your history when she comes home to visit. Then take her for a drive and talk to her.” Resistance doesn’t faze me. It happens all the time at the high school where I work: the point is to show the way. “Doesn’t Lena ask you for lifts to her friends when she comes home? Write the facts, and elaborate when you talk in the car. And listen, get index cards. That’s what they use in college.” In person, Laskow was bottled up, but I had a feeling he’d overflow once he began to express himself. The cards would check that.

Our washing machines stopped, and we stood up.

Laskow plucked at my shirtsleeve. “I can’t keep the cards at home. Edie cleans everywhere. If I start writing this week, can I give them to you next Sunday, in the laundry room? To keep until Lena comes home?”

That’s how I became the keeper of Laskow’s history.

Comrades now, we walked together to our machines. Laskow took the girdles out one by one and bent over to lay them flat on the bottom of his shopping cart.

“Goidles, goidles, need a whole lousy machine for four goidles,” Rogoff taunted.

“Five,” Laskow corrected.

*   *   *

Next Sunday in the laundry room, I was sitting on the bench, watching the snow falling outside the big window, when a squeaky cart coming over the laundry room threshold announced an excited Laskow, with his index cards triple roped in by a loose rubber band. As he walked to the machines, Laskow held out the cards to me. One of us dropped them. Rogoff who had been reading a book in front of his two machines, came over to see the commotion.

Laskow retrieved the cards from the floor one-two-three, so Rogoff couldn’t see them. “What are you hiding, Laskow?” Rogoff said. “Is your cover-up worse than the crime?”

Laskow stood up with his cards, red-faced and worried that Rogoff, our building’s human public address system, would read and broadcast their contents. He sat down next to me, hunched over his cards.

When Rogoff was gone, Laskow handed them to me. I read his last name at the top of each card and figured that kind of labeling was standard for an archivist. But what ‘L’s! The capital letters of his last name were magnificently looped. All the Louis of France might have ordered such fine L’s to be embroidered on the corners of their tapestries…Speaking as a teacher who has compared students’ handwriting to their personalities, I would say that Laskow’s penmanship indicated pride and stubbornness—although to look at his skinny frame and hear about his fear of his wife, he seemed like a pushover.

“May I?” With Laskow’s permission, I read (and I quote from my copy of the cards, made with his permission):

I am very happy to take part in your project, Lena dear! When I was a little older than you, times were bad. There was a Depression caused by rapacious banks and speculation on the stock market. I devoted myself to helping my neighbors. You’ll be surprised to hear this, because all you know is that I helped my father in the candy store. I had to help him. That was what children did in those days.

(As a high school student, I used to find contentment in the half-dusk of Laskow’s downstairs soda-fountain, with the tart refreshment of an egg cream in a tall glass before me on the counter.) I read on:

“From 1931 to August 24, 1939, I worked for an organization whose name may shock you, Lena. Your mother never wanted me to tell you a word about it. But I was a cell secretary of the Communist Party of the US of A, on the Lower East Side. I want you to know that the Party here was different from the Party in the Soviet Union.  

Laskow read over my shoulder. “Your daughter doesn’t know this?” I said.

“No.”

Don’t be afraid of the word Communist, dear girl! I worked to alleviate the terrible problems of the poor. Now when your mother says, let’s move to the suburbs, I shudder, because the suburbs are for rich people. I don’t belong there. I have to stay in the city, where there are all kinds of people! When we visit your aunts and uncles in the suburbs, and we’re sitting in their dining rooms, there’s no view…no sidewalks outside…it’s too quiet….I feel out of place. You don’t like it there either.”

“Lena, I recruited Party members and organized meetings. I loved talking to people! On the sidewalk, I told people stories that made them laugh and realize the truth, and I was happy. For me, the Party was what was right. At that time, it wasn’t an outlawed organization. That came later, after the war. In the 1930’s, I told people what Earl Browder, General Secretary of the CPUSA, said, and I will write it down for you:

“The world is torn between two main directions of development: on the one hand, striving to maintain the rights and living standards of the workers, and to maintain world peace; on the other side are the forces of fascism, striving to wipe out popular rights.”[1]

 “I know you are against the war in Vietnam, and you’ll probably agree with me.

“Another thing I did was to lead the Lower East Side Unemployed Council, which I will tell you about. (Your mother knows a little about this.) In the 1930’s, landlords threw families who were short on rent out of their apartments. We saw beds and dressers, pots and pans, on the street. Parents stood next to the bundles and furniture on the sidewalk, and children ran in the curb. At a time like the Depression, families should have been left alone. The landlords could have waited for the father or sons to get work and pay the rent. You can’t have families squatting on the street. It’s not dignified. 

What the Unemployed Council did was put the families back upstairs. Winter or summer, landlords had no mercy. Imagine how your mother would feel with her things on the street! The wives saw their meat and dairy dishes thrown together into one box. Parents didn’t cry, but the children did. I remember a family with three boys and two girls gathered by mama. The crying children tried to hold her hands and make her comfort them, but she wouldn’t look at them.

“We Council members lifted heavy dressers, the beds, and carried them together up the tenement stairs. The women members carried things too. We worked together, bringing everything upstairs to second, third, fourth, even sixth floor flats. 

I told the families,The landlord won’t put you out again. They don’t do it twice.”

“After we put the tables and chairs and the beds back where they had to go, Lena, and the children were busy, I gave the husband ten or fifteen dollars out of the Party dues I collected. He didn’t want to take it. I said, “The money comes from the people, not me.” That made him feel better. Sometimes the men cried, and my heart went out to them. Then I saw that our ideas worked because we could give dignity to people. Do you know how many families we put back into their apartments in 1932 and 1933? Four hundred and seventy-five. You can be proud that your father was a Communist once, Lena dear!”

“And then?” I put the cards in their rubber band.

The door of the laundry room opened.

“There she is,” Laskow whispered. Edith Laskow, a short, broad woman in a striped housedress, walked into the laundry room. She moved with majesty although holding a small towel in her right hand. In the silent seconds that Mrs. Laskow stood before us to make her angry presence felt, I noted her aquiline nose that could not, however, mitigate her slack jowls and feathery gray hair. She handed Laskow the towel.

“I forgot it?” Laskow said.

“It was on the floor by the door.”

“It must have fallen off the cart. Can I do it next week?”

She turned to me. “If we had a house, I could do the laundry while I cook dinner.” Mrs. Laskow smiled. “But my husband’s afraid to buy a house.” Her voice was tuned into a sharp instrument for mocking.

“I’m not afraid, Edie.”

“You’re afraid you might have to fix something.”

I interrupted to say that the American dream of home ownership is a potent one.

Laskow’s wife didn’t know how to take this: was I on her side or not?

She left. We didn’t talk again until we heard the elevator open and close, taking Mrs. Laskow away.

Over the next few Sundays, my store of cards grew.

“Lena dear!” I read in the laundry room. “It’s better to keep quiet when your mother is around. She loves you dearly, and wants to protect you. Still, I must tell you these things for your project.

“I left the Party on August 24, 1939, the day that Stalin’s pact with Hitler appeared in the newspaper. I want to say what I felt when I read about Molotov-Ribbentrop. First I was angry. This was betrayal – for Stalin to make a pact with fascism. Then I was embarrassed. I and most of the people in my cell were Jewish…No matter how I felt about religion itself, I could not go along with a pact with the anti-Semite, Hitler. When I found out about the pact, I cancelled a cell meeting. I walked out of my father’s store and crossed the streets to walk by the East River. I had to avoid anyone I knew. I couldn’t explain what had happened. When Stalin’s minister, Molotov put his signature to the pact with Hitler’s minister, he showed what the Soviets were about. My heart is pounding as I write this.  

“Don’t imagine that I was in some way working for Stalin. But as head of the Communist Party, he should have upheld a good position. Good ideas about helping the people were mangled by that man. Now, I help people in my own way. I give a nickel to a bum on the street. I keep my heart closed when politicians talk. It’s this feeling of being betrayed I have, that I cannot get involved – involvement means to be used.

“To go back to the story. I wanted to join the army, but they turned me down because I have flat feet. The war was difficult for me. I went from being active to inactive, from a talker to silent. At thirty-one, without no path for myself, I enrolled in City College.”

I had to stop reading there. His self-pity–compared to my war experience–was sickening. Hard for you! But because Laskow was sitting by my side, waiting for me to finish reading, I went back to the cards.

I went to college. There were few men in the classes. Every day I wished I was in Europe fighting against Germany. Physically I was safe, but mentally in anguish. It was difficult to study, even though we didn’t know all the things that were happening to the Jews.

“I decided to become a history teacher. It was the closest thing to what I was doing in the Party but it wasn’t the same at all. I taught in an all-boys school here in the Bronx. Most of them didn’t want to be in school but I tried to reach them. It takes time to learn how to teach. I loved talking to the boys about politics.

I taught from 1946 to 1952. Why did I stop in 1952, the year you were born? Because a new sickness started, involving the man who is now President! Yes, Lena, Nixon was Vice President during the McCarthy era. He helped Congress investigate people who had tried to do good. The investigations spread from Washington to New York, where the Board of Education was grilling certain teachers to find out if they had been or still were communists.

Lena, religious people believe an imaginary being rules the world. Yet religious people are respected. They can teach in a public school as long as they don’t proselytize. But if you believe that the poor deserve a fair chance, you’re dangerous! Our political system is like that game that children play. They say, “Look at that plane,” and you look up. Nothing’s there, but in the meantime, they’ve taken your dessert or your money or your job and run away. The politicians use religion and war to distract people.  

“I married your mother in 1950, and we were looking forward to a good life. She got a job as a school secretary because she liked to have her own money. Our plan was to have summers together in the country. I also wanted to travel.

In 1952, when the Board of Education decided to find out if teachers ever belonged to the Communist Party, your mother was pregnant. I was afraid of the investigations because anyone who was investigated lost his job. I didn’t want your mother to go through that when she was pregnant. I told her that I’d had it with teaching. We argued. She already left her job and didn’t want to work after having a baby. What was I going to do? I asked her to talk to her brother (your Uncle Isaac) about a job, because he knew big shots—politicians—who gave out jobs. I went that low.

“Isaac liked to talk about his big house in Westchester, and he made fun of us for living in the Bronx. She didn’t want to ask him for help. Then the Board of Education started an investigation of Adler at my school and I figured I would be next. I told my department chairman that I was resigning as of January.

“Your mother called her brother, but didn’t leave a message. So I called him. He laughed when I told him what I wanted, but he told me to come to his office. It was on West 45th Street then.

“‘So, Beryl, you can’t take it in the classroom?’ Isaac put his feet up on the desk. I didn’t want him to think that teaching was too much for me, and I hated talking to the soles of his shoes, but I told him I quit because I knew teachers who had been in the Party and would not name names. ‘Are you in the Party?” he said. My answer was the truth, since I resigned 13 years ago. He didn’t press me. “What do you believe in?” Isaac asked. He questioned me for form’s sake. He was a businessman, annoyed with ideas about justice. I said I believe in ‘liberty and justice for all.’ Isaac raised his eyebrows. ‘I heard that somewhere,’ he said. I don’t think he remembered the pledge of allegiance.

“Isaac said politicians were sissies. They blow with the wind, he said, today it’s communism, next year it’ll be some other scare. He said he would find me a job where there would be no questions. That’s how I wound up working in the public library archives.”

I scolded Laskow. “Decades ago, before the war, on at least two high holidays,” I said, “I saw you in synagogue, wearing tallis and walking behind your father as he carried the Torah. What were you doing there? How could you do that, with the way you felt about religion?”

Laskow’s answer was “I love the Jewish people.”

“Did your father know you were in the Party?”

“What do you take me for!”

“He thought you were a devout Jew and an obedient son?”

Laskow beamed at the compliment.

“You were a devout Communist, not a religious man,” I said. “Did anybody tell him?”

“Nobody would do that.”

The contradictions didn’t faze him. I wanted to accuse him of something but couldn’t put my finger on it. He didn’t only try to help people: he did.

****

Lena came home for a weekend at the beginning of April.

In the laundry room that Sunday, a joyful Laskow gave me one more card.

Lena, I’m ending the story now. As a teacher, I had to sum up, and I want to do that now. I went from talking on the sidewalks to adults who wanted to hear me, to talking to a few teenagers who were receptive. At least, I was among people at the school, not like now in the archives. But that was long ago. I’m glad that I could ‘talk’ to you in these cards. I love you and wish you well. I hope that you will find work you believe in, and that you won’t have to hide it, my dear.”

Laskow told me his plan. When we finished the laundry, I would go home and get the rest of the cards. Lena was getting picked up to go back to college at two o’clock. He’d leave the apartment with her and meet me in the lobby. I’d give him the cards, which he’d pass to his daughter. They wouldn’t have time to talk about his story, but at least she would have it.

I returned to my apartment with Laskow’s last card. He had been happy writing them in the belief that he was telling about his real self to his daughter.

I waited for them on the wrought iron bench under the long window in the lobby that management had partly obscured with a window box of tall plastic flowers. Laskow and his daughter came out of the elevator silent and sad-faced. I stood up. In her tight jeans tucked into knee-high boots and long hair lying flat against her military jacket, Lena strode towards the front door and was about to pass me, when Laskow stopped and called her. She turned around. The expression on her long face was guarded, like a captive about to be released.

I handed Laskow the envelope with his cards.

“Lena,” Laskow beseeched. Her mouth quickened into a smile, then faded.

“What’s this?” She said when he held the envelope out to her.

“I wanted to be in your oral history project.” He had a hang-dog way of talking to her, as if she were always in the right.

“So you wrote on index cards?”

Laskow looked at me. I nodded, not wanting to speak at this awkward time.           “Who’re you?” Lena looked at me.

“He’s a neighbor, Lena. He said I should write my oral history down since I couldn’t speak freely to you at home.”

“No one can talk freely in front of my mother.” She took the envelope and slung her backpack off her shoulder onto the floor to unzip a compartment. As she was bent over the bag, Laskow bent over her, and whispered, “I was in the Communist Party.”

He stood back to watch her response. She had her mind on other things or didn’t believe what she heard. Kneeling by her bag to stuff the envelope into it, she said, “I already have an oral history, daddy. We went to a senior center and I interviewed somebody there. He used to be a car mechanic.”

When she stood up, Laskow said, “A mechanic?”

“Daddy!” she said. “He didn’t go to college but he knew how to fix cars. Foreign ones too.”

A car pulled up to the front of our building. Laskow followed his daughter out the door to the sidewalk, while I stayed in the lobby. “You’ll read them, won’t you?” was the last thing I heard him say to her. Before getting in the car, she turned to face him. I felt sorry for Laskow. He was crestfallen because his daughter interviewed a car mechanic for her project instead of her father, who had quit teaching to give her a secure life. She raised her arms and embraced Laskow, and even though the backpack fell onto her arm, she held him for longer than he may have expected.

She seemed like a thoughtful girl who might have understood more about workers than her father did.

On the following Sundays in the laundry room, Laskow said little.

At the beginning of June, Mrs. Laskow surprised everyone in the laundry room by coming down with the squeaky cart. Rifkin in his loud way demanded what had happened to Beryl. After she started her machine and was about to go home, she told us that Laskow had hurt his back and had to stay in bed. She made a face to show that she did not like doing Laskow’s chores.

* * *

June came, with the surprises of the Watergate hearing and Laskow’s phone call. He wanted me to come over.

I visited him on a half-day that teachers are given at the end of the school year. Mrs. Laskow led me down the hall to the master bedroom, where on either side of a huge mirror, there were prints of Chagall’s Jerusalem windows. Laskow lay in a big bed with a blanket pulled up to his chin. His haywire eyebrows stood on the ridge above his eyes.

After I sat down in the vinyl recliner next to his side of the bed, he nodded and looked away at the dresser in the opposite corner. I saw he had a cluster of framed brown and white photos of departed relatives.

The radio on the floor was tuned to the Watergate hearings, and I could distinguish John Dean’s unpleasant voice. Laskow held out a veiny hand to me. I didn’t want to hold hands with him, but Laskow’s sad face got the better of me. He once helped people and therefore he was my friend. Yet, as we held hands above the radio on the floor, I thought that if he were my student, I would have told him to chin up. When he retired, he and his wife would travel, as they had planned so long ago. He said that his back was getting better, and I squeezed his fingers before letting go.

“You’re listening to the Watergate hearings?” I nodded at the radio.

“Yes. Not on tv, I can’t look at them,” he said. “All those people get to testify. I want to,

too,” he said.

“Why, you wiretapped somebody?” I joked.

“I was thinking about my life,” he said. Laskow closed his eyes and leaned back against the pillows. “I want to testify.”

“In Washington?”

“I want to go there.”

“But you had nothing to do with Watergate!”

He opened his eyes. “I had a daydream yesterday. I wore on a new suit. I took the train to Congress, and they sat me at a table with my name plate and a glass of water. They were all looking at me – Nixon, Dean, Mitchell, Erlichmann–the whole crew!”

“That’s some dream!”

“Yes,” he said. “Here’s what I told them: ‘I, Beryl ben Avraham–’”

I interrupted. “That’s what you say when you’re called to the Torah, not to Washington.”

“It’s a dream, Marty. Can’t I do what I want in a dream?”

“That’s right, you’re right.”

“I’m testifying,” Laskow said. “They got television cameras on me, people are watching. ‘When I was young,” I say, “I believed in doing good. I helped people live better lives. Can any of you say that? Richard Nixon, what do you say? Speak up!’ He doesn’t answer me, so I go on.

“I tell them, ‘I believed in helping people. Then I stopped for a while because of the Hitler-Stalin pact.’”

“You’re telling this to the Watergate committee?” I said.

“These Watergate people get hours to talk. I want my turn. I told them, ‘I had to stop a second time. I was a teacher. It was a harder job than anything you ever did.’”

I agreed that teaching is one of the hardest jobs you can do.

“I’ll tell them, ‘I kept teenage boys quiet and got them to learn something. I worked hard, but you said, ‘Get out!’ That’s what you said, Nixon!’” He jabbed his finger in the air.

“Nixon’s not at the hearings,” I said, although it didn’t matter.

“So I got out,” Laskow continued.

I remembered there was a teacher in my school who was forced out.

Laskow said, “I’ll tell them, ‘In 1952, I quit teaching. I stayed silent so that I could earn a living. Now I’m going to tell you what to do.’

His wild gray hair was fanned up against the pillows.

“I tell them, ‘You took away our optimism. You took away our trying to do good. Now you have to make it up to us. Get the teachers who left my school in 1952: that’s Adler, Saltzman, Smith, and me, and put us in the White House. You’ll have to take our advice from now on.”

“Ex-Commies in the White House!” I said. ”Wha’d they say, in your dream? Wha’d Nixon and Mitchell say?” I was as interested as if this had really happened.

“Bubkis.”[2]

“Ha!”

Sam Ervin’s (3) voice came on the radio, and while Laskow listened, I thought about his double life. He gave up on his Party in one sudden afternoon and he gave up teaching to keep his wife comfortable. Yet the desire to be himself and say who he was still could not be stifled. I hoped that Lena would cherish his cards.

 

 

[1] Democracy or Fascism. NY: Workers Library Publishers, 1936. Laskow misquotes slightly.

[2] Yiddish for ‘absolutely nothing.’

[3] Sam Ervin was the chairman of the Senate Watergate Committee.

 

Beth Adelman lives in New York City, where she works as a university research administrator. She has won two awards for fiction from the Bronx Council on the Arts and has published short stories online and in print at Bodega, WORK, and Woven Tale Press. A novel excerpt appeared in Brilliant Corners, a print journal of jazz and literature, in May 2018. She is working on a novel about New York in the 1970’s.

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