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Saturday, July 8, 2023

"GHOST ROADS" by Avram Lavinsky - 2021 Brooklyn Non-Fiction Prize Winner




by Avram Lavinsky


If names are not correct, language will not be in accordance with the truth of things.

— Confucius.


One evening in 1920, Rose and Sam Kaplan opened the front door of their rickety, two-story, clapboard house at 134 Troy Avenue, Brooklyn, and greeted, for the first time, the latest beau of their daughter, Fannie.

They had some initial reservations. He did not work an “honest” trade as all the Kaplans did. Rose and Sam ran a paint and wallpaper business with a shop around the corner. Sure, Sam’s still in the shed out back supplemented their income, but their neighbors viewed that avocation with as much respect as the paint shop if not more. Their older son Archie worked as a plumber, their younger son, Alex, as a roofer.

Fannie’s new beau, Jack, was, as one family member put it, a shyster, a pushy and tenacious salesman of boots and raincoats for the United States Rubber Company. If asked, he would probably have confessed that the sign on the back wall of his manager’s office summed up his entire philosophy. It read, “The fellow who is shy of pep and pluck will always have the hardest kind of luck.”

He had courted Fannie with that salesman’s stubborn determination, and the Kaplans could see he adored her. He tried hard to please his future in-laws, showing them the reverence for family which comes only from the destruction of one’s own.

He was Jack Cohen, though no one knew him by that name in my lifetime. He was my grandfather. Two years after arriving at Ellis Island from Minsk, in what is now Belarus, shortly after the birth of his youngest sister, Razel, his mother made a fateful trip to the dentist that shattered his childhood. In a rare written recounting of those days, he shared, “He gave her too much gas[,] and she almost died in his office, [and] from then on [she] got sick. I did everything to help her with the children and the chores at the house. She got sick and passed away at age 31 years and left us children.”

His father deposited Jack and the four younger siblings in an orphan asylum, the Hebrew Sheltering Guardian Society of New York. It was a labyrinthine, gothic building, originally built to house orphans of Civil War soldiers when its location along Broadway between 150th and 151st Streets in Manhattan was still called Western Boulevard. It housed around eight hundred children and turned away as many annually. Food portions were kept, as one resident later wrote, “to a daring minimum.”

Jack’s younger brother, Philip, and his baby sister, Razel, both died there. Jack survived and aged out at the legal working age of fourteen years, though, as my mother later wrote, “He was plucky enough to run away on several occasions.”

His introduction to the Kaplan family went well, and my grandfather quickly came to respect Fannie’s younger brother, Alex Kaplan, with particular fondness. Everybody did. To say my (Great) Uncle Al personified the term “strong, silent type” would be an understatement. He never strung more than two sentences together, and his voice was never much louder than a whisper. All of five-foot-two and built like a fireplug, he broke walnuts with his fingers and could lift one end of the elephantine cars of the day while a friend or a random acquaintance changed a tire. Oddly, given the home he grew up in, he had no tolerance for alcohol whatsoever. He passed out every time his father asked him to taste a batch of wine. Archie joked that just smelling the corks would put his little brother down for the count.

Still single, both brothers lived at home, as did Fannie, but a chance encounter would soon change that. One Saturday, the two decided to drive to Coney Island. Advertisements bragged that the twenty-five-cent admission to Steeplechase Park bought you twenty-five amusements. Archie and Al joined throngs of other overdressed patrons tangled and tripping over each other within giant rolling tubes, at the end of winding chutes, or atop surfaces that slid and spun. Last of all, they rode the namesake of the park, gravity powered rolling horses which carried riders over sixteen hundred feet of crests and dips and turns on four parallel sets of rails.

Then the two brothers and other dismounting guests morphed into actors entertaining the lingering crowds in a manner which seems unthinkable from the distance of a century. Prior to exiting the park, patrons had to pass through the Blowhole Theater. One clown escorted guests to the edge of a small footbridge. Then a blast of air from underneath a grated floor lifted the skirts of departing women, while a dwarf in whiteface and clown garb shocked male guests with an electrified paddle. From there, the patrons took one of the theater seats facing the action, if they could get one, to laugh at the next victims.

As Alex and Archie Kaplan exited the park, a young woman approached them and asked for a pin to hold her friend’s dress down. When she pointed out her friend at the entrance to the Blowhole Theater, my Uncle Al promptly walked back to the entrance, paid a second admission price, circled around all the rides, and found her. He lifted her in his arms and carried her past the clowns and the grated floor to the exit. The young woman’s first smiling words to him were, “You saved my life. Now you have to marry me.”

She was Ethel Blumin, known to all as Etty. She stood all of four foot ten, diminutive, even relative to the Kaplans. She had a hint of a wave in her jet-black hair and full cheeks that gave her grin an impish quality. In short order, she had Alex Kaplan laughing, not aloud, but with his eyes, in the only way he ever did.

The girls must have had a good feeling about the Kaplan brothers to accept a ride home in My Uncle Al’s Model-T Ford that day. Etty’s nine siblings piled on top of each other in the window to get a look at the motorcar.

It was the first of many times he would drop her off there. The Blumins and Alex Kaplan marveled at the strangeness each presented to the other. The Blumin household rang with laughter and constant card games. They fought loudly and made up with great affection. They spoke over each other and gesticulated with every syllable. But none of them spoke more or evoked more laughter than the effervescent girl who called Alex Kaplan her Sweetheart.

Sweetheart, on the other hand, would stand at the door all night unless someone mercifully noticed him and invited him in. He would remain hat in hand until someone invited him to hang his homburg on a peg.

Lena, Etty’s friend from Steeplechase Park, married Archie Kaplan in 1922, and the two moved to the Hudson Valley to start a family.

The fifteen-hundred-dollar bonus my grandfather received that year from the United States Rubber Company would be worth about 22,000 of today’s dollars. He could well afford a nice ring for Fannie.

Shortly after their engagement, to my grandfather’s surprise, and to the less accepting Fannie’s relief, Alex no longer brought his loquacious little girlfriend around with him. My great grandmother, Rose, fearing an empty nest, had determined that the girl was not good enough for her Alex, though perhaps she believed no one was. She had told Alex to stop calling on her, and he had complied.

As my grandparents’ wedding neared, Rose, noticing Alex moping around the house, encouraged him to get out and find another potential bride. He quietly informed his mother that if he could not have Etty, he had no desire to marry. Empty nest or none, a permanently unmarried son was unthinkable. With Rose’s consent, Alex returned, after nearly a year, to call on Ethel Blumin. My (Great) Aunt Etty, in her inimitable way, proceeded to chat his ear off without questioning his absence, wounded though she was. It would be years before my Uncle Al explained the situation to her, unprompted, in a few quiet phrases.

My grandfather and Fannie were married Saturday evening, March 17, 1923, at the Congregation Chovevey Torah, Albany Avenue, Brooklyn, a synagogue better known as “Murphy’s Shul” in honor of the bar that occupied the site before its construction.

One of the invitations still survives. It claims, in a flowing cursive font, that Mr. and Mrs. Samuel Kaplan and Mr. and Mrs. Morris Cohen request the honor of the reader’s presence at the marriage ceremony of Jack and Fannie. Doubtless, few readers knew enough about the groom to question including the name of the father who abandoned him sixteen years before and not the mother who died the same year.

After the ceremony, guests gathered in the backyard at Troy Avenue to enjoy hard cider from the apple tree as well as wine and schnapps from the grape arbor.

The happy couple planned to move out as soon as they could save enough for a down payment on a place of their own. To that end, the United States Patent office registered the Crescent Rubber Company as my grandfather’s trademark on April 1, 1925. The certificate arrived in the mail with a blue ribbon and an embossed red seal with starburst edges, and my grandfather, armed with his youthful dreams, charged right into the teeth of the Great Depression.

With the birth of two daughters, as year followed penniless year, Fannie’s frustration and anger snowballed into daily hostility towards my grandfather by the coal stove in the little kitchen on Troy Avenue.

They named their first child, my mother, Dena Malka. Inexplicably, they named their second daughter Marsha, after Morris Cohen, the father my grandfather had not heard from in 18 years. To Evelyn, the first daughter of Alex and Etty, two and a half years my mother’s junior, they were Cousin Dinny and Cousin Marshy.

My mother recounted her childhood on Troy Avenue as a happy and carefree time despite the money troubles that plagued her household and every household she knew of. The place was cramped to be sure. Her sister, Marcia, generally did her homework kneeling by the toilet seat for lack of a better space. Alex and Etty, now living in Brownsville, brought Evelyn and later her baby sister, Gloryann, to visit often. They joined in stoop ball games with neighborhood kids and spent hours on the four-seat wooden swing in the back by her grandfather’s shed.

Finally, in 1938, my grandfather had amassed enough of a down payment to pursue Fannie’s all-consuming desire for their own home and a better life. A brick house in Ozone Park. No crowds. Clean air. Out back, beyond the dirt accessway to the garage, a farm.

The Balsam Farm had its entrance on a southward bend in Pitkin Avenue that had once been part of the Old South Road. Dena and Marsha never tired of watching the three hundred square-nosed, spotted Holsteins as they grazed and swatted away flies with their tails.

For a short time, Fannie believed she had finally left Troy Avenue and Brooklyn behind. It was only sheer chance that one of the darkest parts of Brooklyn’s history had followed her.

The men who played cards and waited for the payphones to ring at the back of the Midnight Rose Candy Store, located in the shadows of the elevated portion of the Number Three subway in Brownsville, referred to themselves as The Combination. Only later, in March of 1940, would the New York Daily Telegram first label them Murder Incorporated.

 Though their macabre business originated on Manhattan’s Lower East Side, most of the gang members lived in the Brooklyn neighborhoods of Brownsville and East New York. One member, however, bought a home in Ozone Park shortly before my grandparents did. Vito Gurino lived at 133-21 86th Street with his wife Gertrude Taccia Gurino, ten years his junior, and their two small children.

There was no 133-19. The sounds of violent physical altercations began before my mother’s family had finished unpacking at 133-17 86th Street. Gertrude’s screams. Something or someone smashing into the adjoining wall. My mother was terrified.

By all accounts, Vito Gurino and his associates showed courtesy beyond reproach towards my grandmother and grandfather whenever their paths crossed. They were, however, not quiet or secretive in their business machinations. In early 1939, an increasingly agitated Fannie told her brother, Alex, about “jobs” Gurino and his cronies planned form his back porch. My Uncle Al, understandably, thought there must be some mistake. Fannie asked Alex to take note of two names, Cesare Lattaro and Antonio Siciliano.

My Uncle Al was perusing the Daily News over breakfast a few days later when he read that both men had been murdered.

While running some errands together on a weekend in 1941, my mother rushed ahead to show Fannie a shortcut through the back entrance of a drugstore. My mother noticed Fannie wasn’t keeping up and doubled back. She came upon her mother flailing in mid seizure in one of the aisles.

Fannie was hospitalized. It was not a time in which adults shared truths about illness with the young. My mom learned of Fannie’s death when the Daily News called to confirm the details of the obituary.

My Uncle Al blamed himself and the stress of the murderers next door for his sister’s death. I don’t believe my mother blamed herself. I don’t believe she blamed her uncle or Vito Gurino either. My mother knew, though her uncle did not, that the Gurino residence had been uncharacteristically quiet for months. Aware that his home was being surveilled, Vito had been laying low in New Jersey.

Finally, on September 12, 1940, four New York City police officers carried him out of a Catholic Church on Tenth Avenue in Chelsea, kicking and screaming for his life.

The following year, my grandfather decided he no longer wished to carry on the name of his father, Morris Cohen. Hoping for a change of fortune, he decided to change the family name to Mazell, a westernized version of the Yiddish word for luck. Quite a departure for a man who had always believed that luck depended entirely upon stubborn tenacity.

Like the streets and the neighborhoods and the institutions around him, the change represented both a desire and an admission, both a cause and an effect. Like Murphy’s Bar or the Old South Road or Western Boulevard, his past continued to ground and inform him as he tried to pass down the accumulated wisdom, such as it was, of his experience to his children and his grandchildren. But we can never walk the roads our parents walked. Only far along our own path, only in a few artifacts and acts of remembrance, we can sense the ghost roads, just underfoot.


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