Road trips and the fine art of tipping (Epilogue)

Following the election of Republican Donald J. Trump as president of the United States in 2016, I immediately began to donate small sums to a wide variety of organizations and political candidates. And as the race to the be the 2020 Democratic presidential nominee began to take shape, I began making $10 donations to my favorite candidates. Specifically, I donated to eight different candidates (including one Senate candidate in South Carolina), four of the them twice.

As a consequence, however, my e-mail Inbox is flooded with fundraising pitches; nearly all of them go directly into my Trash folder, unopened (ditto for text messages). I did open e-mails that offered to put me into a raffle of sorts if I made another donation, one to meet and have a drink (alcoholic or otherwise) with Massachusetts Senator Elizabeth Warren, and one to be flown to the first Democratic debates, courtesy of California Senator Kamala Harris. I did not win either prize, though, to be fair, I had already briefly met Senator Warren in Logan International Airport in 2013.

Another e-mail I opened revealed that South Bend, Indiana Mayor Pete Buttigieg was going to be speaking in Somerville, Massachusetts, a short drive over the Charles River from our Brookline apartment. Intrigued, I soon learned that attendance required a minimum donation of $50. I passed.

But that meant when I received an e-mail from the campaign of former Secretary of Housing and Urban Development Julián Castro alerting me to three town halls the candidate would be holding in July 2019, I was wary. Nowhere in the e-mail could I find a payment requirement, though, so I tried registering to attend the Thursday, July 18, 2019 town hall at Nashua Community College (NCC), scheduled to start at 7 pm.

It was not until I had completed the process that I discovered there was no donation “cover charge”—and I was, in fact, registered. For the day after my wife Nell, the girls and I were scheduled to return from a three-night vacation in Maine…itself the day before I planned to rise at 7:30 am to watch Special Counsel Robert Mueller testify before the Judiciary and Intelligence Committees of the United States House of Representatives (“U.S. House”). I figured the last thing I would want to do was make the hour-long drive (likely twice that at that time of day) to attend a town hall meeting.

But then Mueller’s testimony was postponed until July 24…and I decided, what the heck?

The only question: would I go alone or with one/both daughters?

**********

In Part 1 of this series, I observed that my zeal for tipping stems from three sources:

  1. My father’s example, especially the year he spent driving a taxicab in Philadelphia
  2. My own experience delivering food
  3. Observing how hard folks in the service industry work for a low base salary

I also presented photographic evidence of the appeal of Bath and described an epic six-hour drive (in which I tipped multiple able servers) one recent Sunday night/Monday morning.

Part 2 details that trip to Maine, mixing family adventure (and ample tipping) with two visits to the Denny’s in Augusta, Maine, where I encountered a female manager and a waitress who exemplified matter-of-factness (and, in the latter case, sunny optimism) in the face of personal setbacks.

**********

Our social butterfly nine-year-old daughter had a previously-scheduled engagement that Thursday afternoon (requiring Nell’s oversight), leaving our 11-year-old daughter free. Grudgingly, she agreed to make what I anticipated would be a two-hour drive north to Nashua. I mitigated her reluctance somewhat by promising that if she got too bored, she could take her book and read quietly somewhere, just so long as I knew where she was.

Meanwhile, while the Denny’s in Salem, New Hampshire that used to be the endpoint of many a meandering solo nocturnal drive had closed, the one in Nashua is still open…and still open 24 hours a day. I told “11” (hat tip here) that we could stop for a meal there after the town hall.

“What kind of food do they have?” she asked.

I answered something to the effect of “a little bit of everything” before “9” chimed in with, “They have crepes!” Apparently, the latter daughter had seen a commercial for Denny’s highlighting their new crepes. I was dubious but said nothing.

Because the doors would open at 6:30 pm, my plan was to leave no later than 4:30 pm, knowing that our route—Beacon Street west to I-95 north to US 3 north—would put us in rush hour traffic. And, in fact, we pulled into the NCC parking lot shortly at about 6:25 pm, giving me time to make a mad dash for the men’s room.

Having answered that urgent call of nature, we checked in at the table covered in bumper stickers, window placards and informational brochures. I grabbed a handful of bumper stickers and brochures, provided my e-mail address (“You already have my e-mail address.” “Yes, but we like to have an accurate head count.” Fair enough), and found two seats for us. They were about three rows back from the platform on which Secretary Castro would speak, to the right if you were standing on stage.   4130-32

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And we waited. I instantly regretted not bringing my coffee thermos (black, half regular/half decaf) from the car, but I did not want to risk missing anything.

I need not have worried. Seven pm came and went, with no sign of Secretary Castro.

At 7:23 pm, I began tweeting…more out of boredom than annoyance (“11” was engrossed in her book):

Waiting for @JulianCastro to start his Nashua, NH town hall. (Running 22 minutes late)

The two young women in pink Planned Parenthood t-shirts sitting behind us are cracking me up, dissecting the admittedly-eclectic playlist and the relative heights of the various candidates.

Ten minutes later:

32 minutes and counting…

Finally, at 7:40 pm, some news:

“He should be here very soon. His flight was extremely delayed from San Antonio.”

Oy.

40 minutes and counting…

Soon after, a young female aide began to distribute blank pieces of white paper (hastily cut into halves) for attendees to write questions for Secretary Castro. I had hoped that I—or even “11”—could ask a question live, but they were trying to save time. The question I wrote (“11” demurred), having just read Rachel Maddow’s excellent Drift, was “Under what circumstances, if any, would you bypass Congress to deploy American troops?”

At around 7:50 pm, a local student organizer took the stage to explain how Secretary Castro’s position on strengthening public schools was why he was backing him. He then introduced a longtime leader of New Hampshire’s Latinx Democrats (I neglected to record his name).

I noticed that once they started to speak, the previously apathetic “11” started to pay close attention.

Finally, at 8:04 pm, the second speaker gestured to our rear…and I turned to see Secretary Castro standing there, smiling widely, wearing a white dress shirt open at the color and black suit pants.

And the entire room came to life. As I tweeted:

8:04 pm — Secretary Castro takes the stage to standing ovation.

**********

Cynics may mock the first-in-the-nation status of the Iowa Caucuses and venerable New Hampshire Primary, primarily because they are predominantly white rural states, but I have two counter-arguments:

  1. Recently, both states have become swing states at the presidential level, with Iowa just 4.7 points more Republican than the nation as a whole—and New Hampshire all of 0.1 points more Democratic.
  1. For all that you can follow various presidential candidates on television and other media, nothing better reveals what a candidate is like than to see her or him negotiate a town hall, where anyone and everyone can ask any and every question they choose. And said candidate must answer every question.

There are many versions of the apocryphal story of the New Hampshire voter who, when asked whether she was ready to support Candidate X, responded that, well, she had only met him four times, so it was too soon to say.

Conversations I overheard in the audience confirmed that notion, including the young ladies sitting behind us who were both remarking on the height of former Texas U.S. House member Beto O’Rourke and dissecting the eclectic playlist that, with great foresight, did not repeat a song for nearly 90 minutes. New Hampshire (and Iowa) voters take their roles as the earliest voters very seriously.

And besides, the 2020 Massachusetts Democratic Primary, in which Nell and I cast our ballots, is on March 3, only 24 days after the 2020 New Hampshire Primary.

**********

Secretary Castro has been a top choice of mine since I watched his announcement video on January 16, 2019. His remarks that Thursday night covered much of the same ground, including the fact his grandmother emigrated from Mexico to Texas when she was seven years old, supporting herself as a maid and house cleaner. Her daughter became a single mother to Secretary Castro and his twin brother Joaquin, now a Democratic member of the U.S. House from Texas, when her husband died while the Castro brothers were young. Those same brothers would ultimately attend Ivy League universities, earn law degrees, and achieve high-level political offices.

I single out these biographical elements because they resonate deeply with me. Both of my grandfathers[1] were born it what was then called the Pale of Settlement, arriving in Philadelphia (where I was born) when they were four and seven years old, speaking only Yiddish. One became a successful business owner and community leader, while the other served on the Philadelphia Police Department for nearly 20 years. Ten years after I was born, meanwhile, my parents would separate, and my mother (who would soon buy the small carpet-cleaning company she first joined as a telephone solicitor in 1976) raised me alone; my father died a few years later, aged 46. I would then attend Yale (BA, political science, 1988) and Harvard (MA [ABD], government. 1995) before earning a doctorate in epidemiology in May 2015. That said, the highest political office I have yet won is Chair of the Ezra Stiles College Council.

Still, while his remarks were familiar, he was even more charismatic in person, speaking completely off the cuff about a wide range of domestic issues, including health care, education, jobs and wages, and immigration. Curiously, it was only during the latter discussion that he mentioned President Trump. The question of impeachment never arose.

What also never arose, including in the four questions he answered (I only remember the first one—”How will you make immigrants feel welcome?”—because it was asked by a local nine-year-old girl) was any discussion of foreign, national security or military policy. That is not, apparently, what interests early-state voters at this point. I made this same observation to two high school girls who interviewed me for their newspaper as I stood in the “selfie line.”

Or, as I tweeted at 9:05 pm:

45 minutes of remarks followed by four questions. Audience rapt. My 10-year-old daughter even interested.

Striking, though, that outside of immigration—not a single word or question about foreign or military policy.

Now waiting in line for photo. 🙂

Yes, that is an egregious typo regarding “11” s age. I make no excuse.

As the selife line snaked slowly forward, Secretary Castro excitely announced that he would appear on night 2 of the July 30-31, 2019 Democratic presidential nomination debates. He also read of the names of the nine other candidates with whom he would be appearing.

Shortly after this news, “11” asked how much longer we would be. I said, in that hopeful parental way, “not too much longer…but you may sit down if you want.” Relieved, she did just that.

And then something remarkable happened.

She quietly put down her book, walked over to the registration table, and picked up one of the placards. As she sat down again, she asked me to make sure she went on stage with me so that she could get Secretary Castro to sign it.

Well, I’ll be. (To be fair, she still prefers Harris or Warren…but if Castro ran with a female vice-presidential running mate, she would be down with that).

Finally, we walked on to the stage; for the record, I am a hair under 5’10” tall.   4135

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As a young male aide kept his finger pressed on the photo app of my iPhone, I introduced myself, thanking Secretary Castro for adding his voice to the most diverse field of candidates ever; I have never been prouder to be a Democrat, I added. He then turned to “11,” who politely (and with great maturity) introduced herself, after which he asked what grade she was in.

Oh, and he signed her placard.

Castro 2020 poster 1.JPG

Castro 2020 poster 2.JPG

And that was that.

*********

We made our way to Denny’s, and not a moment too soon because I was famished. “11” ordered the banana chocolate hazelnut crepes (“9” was correct) with scrambled eggs, hash browns and bacon (she ate about half of that, which was fine) along with orange juice. I ordered their version of a chicken cheesesteak with peppers and onions, seasoned fries (of course) and decaf.

Our order was taken by an older white-haired waitress best described as “a lifer.” She was cheerful and efficient, and when a rowdy party was seated in our section—with a husband sitting in a booth with four other patrons, while his wife and two men sat a nearby table—she never lost her cool.

I tipped her accordingly.

The drive south to Brookline was much faster, and we arrived home shortly after 11 pm. “11” and I chattered incessantly, both about the town hall and more personal, edge-of-adolescence matters, the entire way.

*********

I end where I began, pointing out that all servers must be adequately tipped, both because it is primarily how they earn a living and because it simply is the decent human thing to do. Mr. Pink’s cynical aversion to tipping is flat wrong, as the opening scene of Reservoir Dogs makes that clear.

One final note about art.

On June 2, 2019, I drove to Providence, Rhode Island to spend time with a close college friend who lives in Beirut, Lebanon; he was there for a mathematics conference. We ate a superb meal here, then we walked and talked for a bit. Down one street, I came across this passionate call to artistic arms.

Until next time…

[1] By which I mean my “legal” grandfathers. I was adopted in utero.

Happy July 4th! Here is my American story.

Happy 4th of July!

Let me first note, transparent in my pedantry, the Declaration of Independence was actually approved on July 2, 1776. Nonetheless, it was dated July 4, 1776 and signed August 2, 1776.

Allow me next to relate I was physically born (at long-since-closed Metropolitan Hospital, then at 3rd and Spruce) roughly 1/5 of a mile (about 4½ city blocks) southeast of Independence Hall, where both the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution of the United States were written.

And permit me to conclude with the fascinating coincidence that both the 2nd president of the United States, John Adams, and the 3rd president of the United States, Thomas Jefferson, died on this day in 1826—50 years to the day from the day we designate as our official day of independence from England.

That is, I conclude these introductory paragraphs that way.

**********

A few hours, I began to write a thread on Twitter. It opened thus:

1/ For July 4, I present my American story.

I was born in Philadelphia–where the Declaration of Independence and Constitution of the United States were written.

I was adopted in utero in the late summer of 1966. Both of my (legal) grandfathers were born outside the US.

The thread ties together the various elements of my background into a single, “American” story. Regular readers of this site will not be surprised, given a series of posts I have written (collected here) telling parts of this same story.

Moving right along:

2/ Morris Berger was born in what is now Poland in 1894 and came to the US when he was 4 years old. A Yiddish speaker, he became a successful business owner and Jewish community leader in West Philadelphia.

His son David Louis was my (legal) father.

He went the other direction.

Two things here (besides proudly observing I was given the Hebrew name Moshe ben David Leib in his honor).

One, the year of my (legal) paternal grandfather’s birth is incorrect. Twitter, however, lacks an edit function, so I could not correct this tweet once it was posted.

Two, there is some uncertainty as to when, exactly, Morris Berger (and three of his siblings) was born.

Next:

3/ Charming, gregarious and generous, “Lou” spiralled down after his iron-willed mother died in 1972. A gambling addiction cost him the business his father and uncle had built. He also lost his marriage–though he never lost me. He died, broke, from a heart attack at 46 in 1982.

David Louis “Lou” Berger died on June 30, 1982, meaning the 37th anniversary of his death was four days ago. By an egregious act of bad timing, June 30 is also the birthday of a close cousin. In fact, my mother and I spent the evening he died at a birthday party for this cousin. As we walked in the front door of our apartment after the celebration, the phone was ringing shrilly. My mother walked behind her white-and-chrome desk to answer it. It was her ex-husband’s—what is the adult form of “girlfriend?”—calling from her hospital bed to inform us of Lou’s sudden passing.

At the time, he was driving a cab for a living (quite happily, I hasten to add, because it gave me a freedom he had rarely known). He was headed to Little Pete’s diner (which closed in 2017) to meet some fellow cabbies for a meal, when he collapsed on the sidewalk in front of the Warwick Hotel (where my wife Nell and I stayed a few times early in our relationship). He was dead before he hit the ground from his third heart attack in 10 years.

Ignoring decades-old tears and moving on:

4/ Yisrael HaCohen was born in what is now Ukraine in 1904. He came to the United States when he was 7, speaking Yiddish. To join the Philadelphia Police Department in the 1930s, he changed his name to Samuel Kohn (sounded less Jewish) and changed his birthplace to Cleveland.

This story I have told before, so let us proceed:

5/ He served for nearly 20 years, rising to Detective. He ultimately retired to Atlantic City.

His daughter Elaine was my (legal) mother.

Serious reproductive health issues (and hysterectomy) led her only natural child (b. 1962) is “severely intellectually disabled.”

Again, one cannot edit a tweet—that should read, “led…to be.”

Because it is better to laugh than to cry, I sometimes tell the following “joke”: My mother had two miscarriages and a hysterectomy, and then I was born!

It was not until I became my sister’s sole legal guardian and began receiving her annual Life Enrichment Plans that I knew the extent of my mother’s reproductive miseries. Besides the two miscarriages—and a prolonged, painful labor resulting in her daughter being deprived of oxygen at critical moments during her birth process—Elaine Berger also had uterine cancer. Thus, the hysterectomy.

Oy.

Next:

6/ I am my sister’s legal guardian. She lives in a facility run through private-public partnership; she is funded through supplemental Social Security income. Thank you, FDR.

Elaine took the opposite path from Lou. After her marriage ended in 1977, she worked a minimum wage job.

She actually took that job—cold-calling folks on behalf of the A-1 Carpet Cleaning Company—some time around October 1976, as her marriage was inexorably coming to an end.

And I must say this: the end of my (legal) parents’ marriage was about as amiable as such an event can be. As painful as it must have been (the night before they officially separated was the only time I saw my father cry), I will always be grateful to them for this civility.

Meanwhile, this is what I mean by “supplemental Social Security income.”

Moving on:

7/ Eventually, Elaine bought that business and, with some help from her own business-owning mother, made a good living for nearly 25 years.

But her reproductive issues returned, and she died from ovarian cancer, aged 66, in 2004.

Oh…her mother. Irene Gurmankin, later Goldman.

Yes, my (legal) maternal great-grandfather—or, at least, his four daughters—also Anglicized his name.

Three years after Elaine Berger began as a minimum-wage-earning telephone solicitor, the owner—a lovely man named (if memory serves) Schwartz—retired. My mother worked out a deal with the man who owned the actual carpet-cleaning machinery to run the business together. A few years after that, this other man retired (or something, my memory defies interrogation on these points), and Elaine Berger took over the A-1 Carpet Cleaning Company (a two-person operation—three when I pitched in, mostly by filing or placing leaflets on car windshields—to be sure) for good.

Here she is in 1988 running that business (same desk, different apartment) with her two children framed in the background:

1988-2.jpg

Next:

8/ After divorcing Samuel Kohn in (I believe) 1964–a rarity in those days–she started a cosmetics and costume jewelry business. That business–and her own iron will and fierce work ethic–became fairly successful, allowing her to live comfortably until her death at 92 in 2007.

For some reason, Irene Kohn (she kept the surname) soon moved 60 or so miles west to Lancaster, Pennsylvania, where she set up shop at the newly-opened Host Farm. Because of her beauty and extroverted (if sometimes cruel—my relationship to her was complicated) charm, she quickly established herself as the unofficial hostess of the sprawling resort. This was a great boon to my cousins and me, who effectively had the run of the place (two pools, a game room, a gift shop, three great restaurants with employee discounts, endless hallways to explore, a superb daylong program called the Peppermint Parlor). Heck, I got to see my man Rupert Holmes perform in the Host Farm Cabaret (for free) in the summer of 1981!

She finally moved back to Philadelphia in 1984, though she never actually retired, running a mail-order business for loyal customers well into her 80s.

Next:

9/ Meanwhile, Morris Berger died, aged 61, in 1954 (correction, he was born in 1893–if only Twitter allowed editing), and Samuel Kohn died, aged 73, in 1978.

OK, that is my legal family, the only family (prior to marriage and parenthood) I have ever known.

I really wish I could have known my namesake—whose death was one of a series of blows to young Lou Berger, who was asked to shoulder more responsibility than he was prepared to. As for “Pop Pop Sam,” for all his “combative personality” and temper, he was a kind and loving grandfather, and I miss him still.

The next few tweets in the thread speak for themselves:

10/ Here is what I know about my genetic family.

My maternal grandmother could trace her ancestry–and family presence in the United States–to the 1700s. English, Dutch. Her ancestors primarily lived in the southeasterern [sic] United States.

Where they fought for the Confederacy.

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11/ Alice Mulkey married an Irish Catholic Philadelphian named William Dixon, and moved to Philly. Their first child is my genetic mother.

They lived in what was then a working class area

At 19, while working at Philadelphia’s Drexel University, she met my genetic father.

**********

12/ This part is…fuzzy…so I elide it.

However, the man she met was almost certainly the only son of legendary naval historian Reuben Elmore Stivers. Assuming I am correct, my genetic father died in 2006.

The Stivers family also goes back in the United States to the 1700s.

I exaggerate only slightly when I use the word “legendary” to describe the man who is almost certainly my (genetic) paternal grandfather. When I explained to a different cousin, who serves his country ably and proudly as a Lieutenant Commander, Naval Intelligence, “Smokey” Stivers was likely my ancestor, he said admiringly, “Oh, THAT Reuben Stivers!”

Continuing the thread:

13/ Except they were primarily in Kentucky.

And those men fought for the Union during the Civil War.

“My” branch settled in the Maryland suburbs of Washington, DC. This could explain my (legal) mother’s belief that my genetic father was Colombian.

I miss her (and my father).

Two points.

One, it was not just Kentucky. It was specifically around Lexington, Kentucky, based on what I have learned on Ancestry.com and through discussion with newly-discovered genetic cousins (who have been unfailingly gracious).

But more to the point, I was shocked to learn my genetic ancestors fought each other (perhaps literally, I do not know) in the American Civil War; ponder that counterfactual for a while. This discovery also fits well within the context of my “split identity” first post.

Two, Elaine Berger was so convinced (after a bad game of Telephone: my genetic mother conveyed what she knew to Modell, who passed it on to his client, who probably misunderstood “District of Columbia”–which had only just received its three electoral votes—as “Colombia”) of my genetic paternal heritage she went to the library to see what Colombian children looked like. I do not know what photographs she saw, but she told me numerous times she thought I would be black, or at least much darker-skinned.

She was one of a kind, my mother was.

14/ Upon learning she was pregnant, my genetic mother–unmarried and lacking means–chose to put me up for adoption.

That adoption was arranged through another child of Jewish immigrants, Herman Modell.

How, you ask, did my (legal) father and uncle know the powerful Mr. Modell?

I scrupulously avoid injecting my own political beliefs onto this site, but I make an exception here.

Had I been conceived seven years later, my genetic mother could have had her fetus legally aborted, thanks to Roe v. Wade.

Now, because of her Catholic upbringing—and this is pure speculation on my part—my genetic mother may have carried me to term anyway. She also may have been living in different economic and/or personal circumstances after January 1973. The counterfactuals make my head spin.

And let me back up a second here.

Nell and I have discussed on more than one occasion how much of a role privilege (read: white privilege) plays here. Her own mother was raised with a modicum of wealth, and there is no doubt that if she had found herself with an unwanted pregnancy early prior to 1973, her family would have quietly arranged an abortion for her. It is a near-certainty my genetic mother had no such option (which is why, as long as I am shouting from my soapbox, I have always been opposed to the Hyde Amendment—it denies less well-off women access to a Constitutionally-protected medical procedure and is thus, frankly, unconstitutional. Talk about an “undue burden!”).

But if, under ANY circumstances, my genetic mother had chosen to abort the fetus gestating in her womb—the fetus that would not really become yours truly until the end of September 1966—I would absolutely and unequivocally support that decision.

It was her body, so it was her choice. As it is for all women, everywhere. If you do not like abortions, do not have one, but do not sit in any sort of judgment on any woman who makes that most painful of decision in private consultation with her medical providers and selected loved ones.

Just as I do not get to sit here, more than 50 years later, and judge my genetic mother for any decision she made (or did not make, or could/would have made). I did not yet exist as an autonomous being…and I if I had never existed as an autonomous being, so be it. It was never my decision to make.

My (legal) mother would often remark something to the effect of “If men could get pregnant, you would be able to get an abortion on any street corner.”

For a woman with only a few years of post-high-school medical technician training, she saw things with exceptional clearly.

Returning to my Twitter thread:

15/ Through their simultaneous membership in La Fayette Lodge No. 71.

Yes, my (legal) father, his uncle and the powerful lawyer who arranged my adoption were brother Freemasons.

To be fair, my (legal) father was asked to leave La Fayette Lodge No. 71 for non-payment of dues.

I have told some of this story before, so let us move on; see also here. I would just add that to the extent you knew my father—and realize he was a Freemason for about 10 years—any support for the myth of the controlling influence of the Freemasons evaporates.

16/ But consider this.

When the unplanned child of two people who could trace (mostly) ancestry in the United States to the 1700s was placed for adoption, with whom was he placed?

The children of Yiddish-speaking immigrant fathers who had built successful lives in Philadelphia.

And there it is…thank you for continuing to “just bear with me.” Often lost in our collective squabbles over immigration: the descendants of recent immigrants often do better economically and socially than the longer-term “original settlers.”

Speaking of bearing with me:

End/ I was fortunate to be raised by loving parents of some means in the leafy suburbs north and west of Philadelphia. Nature and nurture cooperated successfully, and I enrolled in Yale College in 1984, sparking a fairly successful life of my own.

And that is #MyAmericanStory

Here is a photograph of those leafy suburbs, as my (legal) father holds his two children (backstory here):

Sue Ellen Drive Feb 1967 or October November 1967

And here I am with my legal mother and maternal grandmother at my graduation from Yale in 1988.

Yale graduation with Nana and Mom 1988.jpg

Here is the first postscript:

PS/ I am writing a book (inspired by, of all things, trying to explain why I love #FilmNoir so much) detailing this history. Working title: Interrogating Memory: Film Noir, Identity and a Search for Truth.

For more, please see justbearwithme.blog.

Thank you, and Happy 4th!

Hmm, this is getting very circular.

And, finally:

PPS/ My profile picture is from my (legal) parents’ wedding in January 1960. Their wedding, literally and metaphorically, took place about half a mile south of City Line Avenue. They were on the Philadelphia side, but maybe they could see their future home in the suburbs.

For those of you who do not follow me on Twitter (tsk, tsk–@drnoir33), here is that photograph:

Elaine and Lou Berger with parents January 17 1960.jpg

I do not know who the gentleman on the far left is (a great-uncle?), but from left to right are Rae Caesar Berger (mother of the groom, Lou Berger, Elaine Kohn Berger (photograph taken after exchange of vows), Irene Kohn (mother of the bride) and Samuel Kohn (father of the bride).

I LOVE this photograph, even if the men on either end look dyspeptic.

Please have (or continue to have, or I hope you had) a safe and festive holiday!

Until next time…

Samuel Joseph Kohn: exemplar of the Jewish immigrant experience

He had been a powerfully-built man, which served him well when he spent nearly two decades as a Philadelphia police officer (rising as high as plainclothes detective in the late 1940s). His 1940 World War II draft card lists the then-36-year-old patrolman as 5’10” tall and 210 pounds, dark-complexioned with black hair and brown eyes. But the stroke he suffered at 73 had left the right half of his body paralyzed, making him seem much frailer. Nonetheless, as I stood next to his bed in the rehabilitation center, he had more than enough strength in his massive left hand to grip my smaller 11-year-old hand tightly.

As he held my hand, he made me swear to him that I would become either a doctor or a lawyer, the professional pinnacles for late 19th– and early 20th-century Jewish immigrants and their immediate descendants. At that age, I was far more interested in math and history—and not particularly good with blood (I still am not)—so neither option appealed to me.  However, I adored my grandfather, so I did as he asked.

None of us in that room, in the early fall of 1978, had any idea what “epidemiology” was, but that is the field in which I earned my doctorate 36 years later.

That counts, right?

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Wednesday, December 12, 2018, would have been Samuel Joseph Kohn’s 114th birthday. Here he is, with my grandmother Irene (who he would divorce only a few years later), at his younger daughter Elaine’s 1960 wedding to David Louis Berger. Six years later, the young married couple would adopt a boy and name him Matthew…but that is an entirely different story.

Irene and Samuel Kohn January 1960

More precisely, what I learned growing up was that a man named Samuel Cohen had been born in a town near Kiev (in modern-day Ukraine) called Shpola (sometimes Shpolakievagubernia[1]) on December 12, 1904. And that date of birth is clearly recorded on his headstone:

IMG_0012 (2).JPG

However, as I wrote with regard to my paternal grandfather Morris Berger (and his four younger siblings), dates of birth are hard to pin down when official American birth certificates are not available. Decades after the fact, researchers (and curious descendants) are forced to rely on documentation such as naturalization papers, military service documents and United States Census (“Census”) records.

But it is not just dates of birth that can be difficult to verify. Things as supposedly straightforward as name and place of birth may prove tricky as well…especially when those facts were deliberately altered to fit in better with an early 20th-century urban American milieu.

I do not mean this to sound sinister. It was no secret when I was a boy that sometime between 1930 (when the Census records 25-year-old “Samuel Cohen” living at 1842 N. 32nd Street) and 1934 (when his marriage record to Irene Goldman lists him as “Samuel Kohn”), my grandfather changed the distinctly-Semitic (and distinguished) last name of “Cohen” to “Kohn,” believing it to be more ethnically ambiguous. He had done this, supposedly, anticipating anti-Semitic resistance when he joined the police force (and even when that occurred is a bit of a mystery). When you consider that his father, Joseph Cohen had been, variously, a rabbi, a shochet (Kosher butcher) and a Hebrew school teacher—and that he and his 11 brothers and sisters were purported to be direct descendants of the legendary Shpoler Zaide [2] (“the Grandfather from Shpola” or, as I knew him as a boy, “the Dancing Rabbi of Shpola”), the surname change is even more striking.

It may not have been simply joining the police department, though. Sometime after landing in Philadelphia in 1911, Yaakov Gurmankin of Cherson (in modern-day Ukraine) became “Jack Goldman” of Philadelphia—and his four daughters (of whom Ida—or Irene—was the eldest, born August 11, 1914) became the “Goldman Girls.” Adopting a less “Jewish” sounding name was a fairly common occurrence for these newly-arrived immigrants, a natural part of their slow assimilation.

But let us return a moment to his 1940 draft card. It lists his date of birth as December 12, 1904 (so far, so good) and his place of birth as…Cleveland, OH?

When I located this draft card via Ancestry.com sometime last year, as I began my family research, I was less surprised by the birth location as I was by how early Samuel Kohn had begun claiming it.

In February 2015, “Snowmageddon” shut down Boston’s Logan Airport, forcing me to spend two extra days in the San Francisco area (Burlingame, actually) following the conclusion of that year’s NOIR CITY film festival. As I enjoyed dinner (including a nice chianti) at Café Figaro my first night in Burlingame, I had a long text exchange with my maternal aunt and her children (which, unfortunately, I have since deleted). It was then I learned Samuel Kohn had changed his birthplace from Shpola to Cleveland, adding to his slow Americanization.

OK, so how do I know he was born in Shpola?

Let us start in 1979, when a grandson of Joseph Cohen (first cousin of my mother and her older sister) took three sheets of orange paper and wrote out the family tree of the descendants of Joseph Cohen and his wife Bat-sheva (later Bessie) Koslenko Cohen. I have no photographs of Joseph (so far as I know), but my great-grandmother struck quite a pose:

Bessie (Barhseva Koslenko) Cohen

The 1979 record lists the eight children of Joseph and Bessie Cohen who eventually made their way to Philadelphia: Sima, Bella, Sarah, Benjamin, Sophie, Samuel, Anna, Jack. Some 60 years earlier, meanwhile, Joseph Cohen’s United States of America Petition for Naturalization (dated June 4, 1918) listed eight children (with dates of birth) of Joseph Cohen (and wife Bessie):

Sima (later Sarah; July 3, 1887[3]),

Rebecca (later Bella; November 10, 1890),

Sara (October 4, 1897[4]),

Benjamin (November 28, 1901),

Sofia (February 12, 1903),

Israel (November 22, 1905),

Anna (April 1, 1908[5])

Jacob (January 1, 1912)

According to this same document, Joseph Cohen (and his wife Bessie) hailed from Shpola, Russia (forcing him to “renounce forever all allegiance and fidelity to any foreign, prince, potentate, state, or sovereignty, and particularly to Nicholas II Emperor of all the Russias[6], of whom I am now a subject.”). The eldest daughter, Sima, also hailed from Shpola, according to the Naturalization Petition of her husband Leib (later Louis) Goldstein. Put two and two together…

Joseph, Bessie and six or seven of their children[7] were among the 1,091 steerage (I presume) passengers who sailed on the SS Haverford from Liverpool, England on November 18 (or 20), 1912, landing in Philadelphia on December 3, 1912.

SS Haverford

Photograph from here.

It was quite a harrowing journey, according to the front page of the December 4, 1912 issue of the Philadelphia Inquirer. I wonder how close my grandfather and his family truly came to perishing in the North Atlantic (only eight months after the sinking of the Titanic), which would have rather dramatically altered my family’s history.

Rough voyage of Haverford 1912

Wait, hold on, back up a second.

Who the bleepity-frick is “Israel Cohen,” born November 22, 1905?

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When my mother died in March 2004, I acquired a handful of documents relating to my grandfather. One of them was a small white piece of paper on which was written my grandfather’s Hebrew name as it was supposed to appear on his headstone; I recently came across it digging (again) through the “genealogy” folders in my filing cabinet.

Samuel Kohn headstone information.jpg

Clearly, at some point between December 3, 1912 and January 14, 1920–the date on which the 11-person Cohen household (including 15-year-old “Samuel”) at 729 Morris Street in South Philadelphia was enumerated by A. S. Burstein—”Yisrael (son of Yosef) HaCohen” became “Samuel Joseph Kohn.” I do not know why Rabbi Levin did not put this Hebrew name on the headstone; perhaps he simply could not reconcile “Yisrael” with “Samuel” (whose Hebrew equivalent is Shmuel).

As for when a date of birth of “November 22, 1905” became “December 12, 1904,” it is telling that the latter date is more consistent with the ages listed for Samuel Cohen on the 1920 (15) and 1930 (25) Censuses. The former is consistent with a date of birth between January 15, 1904 and January 14, 1905, while the latter (conducted April 4-5, 1930) implies a date of birth between April 6, 1904 and April 5, 1905.

The bottom line is this: upon embarking from the SS Haverford onto the Washington Avenue pier 106 years ago (what must the city have looked like to him, his parents and siblings coming from a town that had a population of about 12,000 in 1897?), a sea-sick Yiddish-speaking seven-year-old boy named Yisrael HaCohen from Shpola, on the rural outskirts of the Russian Empire, slowly transformed into the English-speaking Philadelphia police officer Samuel Joseph Kohn from Cleveland, OH. Why he chose “Cleveland” and moved his date of birth back 11 months and 10 days remains a mystery.

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In April 1930, Samuel Joseph Kohn was an attendant at a Gulf Refining Station—and probably starting to play pinochle, which would be the great passion of his life. Sometime in the next four years, he met a lovely teenager who lived about five blocks north of his packed house at 1842 N. 32nd Street. He married Ida “Irene” Gurmankin, I mean Goldman, at the Jewish-catering Imperial Hotel in Atlantic City in the summer of 1934. The would have two daughters, including my mother Elaine in January 1938. It was a contentious marriage—two hotheads separated in age by eight or nine years—but he was a great father. Later, he would be a beloved grandfather—and family patriarch.

As I have noted, his time on the force remains a large black box, but a handful of articles in the Philadelphia Inquirer[8] and conversations with my aunt (plus this book) tell me he was stationed in at 28th and Oxford (not far from his Strawberry Mansion house) in February 1937, where he was an incidental part of a post-shootout car chase. By 1948, he was a plain-clothes detective working on the Crime Prevention Squad (which targeted juvenile offenders); in November of that year, he and partner Jack Auerbach arrested two brothers at 23rd and Venango for running a numbers bank with a daily take of $1,200.[9]  In 1951 and 1952, a patrolman again, he worked in South Philadelphia (7th and Catherine) busting rackets under Acting Staff Sergeant Frank Rizzo (who would serve as a very controversial police chief, then mayor from 1972 to 1980); Rizzo and my grandfather looked very much alike, actually. My aunt told me he always voted Republican (despite living in a family that adored Democrats like Franklin Roosevelt) in those years because he thought his career depended on it.

A few years later, he had retired from the force and begun to operate a series of taverns in “seedy neighborhoods” (according to my aunt), at first with his brother-in-law Harry Alterman. I would love to imagine David Goodis frequenting one of those taverns.

His father Joseph died in October 1930, followed by his mother Bessie in November 1941. In January 1922, his sister Sophie had died seven days after giving birth to her only child, a daughter named Evelyn; she was only a month away from her 20th birthday (as I put it to my wife Nell, this is when this type of research “gets real.”). His sister Sima died in October 1944.

And by 1930, his brother Benjamin had moved to New York City to start a family. This left Samuel the male head of a rapidly growing family that would meet every year (becoming known as the “Cousins Club”) to celebrate the first night of Passover with the ritual Seder meal. (This tradition would continue for decades; as a boy, I looked forward to seeing all of my cousins at the vast Doral Caterers—which closed in 1989—near the intersection of Bustleton and Cottman Avenues, where inevitably one of us would be injured after an evening of high-spirited shenanigans).

Here he is, standing alone in the back, running the show in 1946 (my eight-year-old mother is sitting alone in the bottom center)…

Cohen Family Seder, 1946

…and again in 1953 (my 15-year-old mother is in the white blouse, seated on the right edge).

Cohen Family Seder, 1953.jpg

Five years after this Seder, in 1958, both his brother Benjamin and his sister Bella died.

But on January 17, 1960, he proudly watched his daughter Elaine marry a charming and handsome young man named David Louis Berger. His first (of four) grandchild, Mindy, was born on March 8, 1962. And then I arrived (literally) in September 1966.

By 1964, meanwhile, he had divorced his wife of nearly 30 years and moved to Atlantic City, where he drove a jitney for a few years before retiring; I used to spend hours riding them up and down Pacific Avenue for only 35 cents in the summer of 1974 and 1975.

It is those summers I remember when I think about my grandfather. By then, he had settled into the Warwick Apartments, just off the beach on Raleigh Avenue; I would occasionally spend a weekend with him there over the winter (I loved it, but let us just say that my grandfather could give Oscar Madison a run for his money).

619963-large-fullheightview-view-from-the-southeast

Occasionally, he would take me for a ride on one of the double-decker (we always sat on top in the open air) boats that departed from Captain Starn’s seafood restaurant and sailed lazily south along the beach then north again. He would treat me to an ice cold can of Coke or Dr. Pepper from a vendor with a cooler; they remain the most delicious sodas I have ever tasted.

And then there was the night—probably in the summer of 1974—when my mother and I had dinner with him in his apartment. At the start of the meal, I was served a steaming hot bowl of tomato soup (most likely Campbell’s cream of tomato). It was a hot night, so I sat at the table shirtless. Then, somehow, my grandfather tipped the entire bowl of soup onto my bare chest.

Owwww!!!!!

At this, my grandfather—tough-as-nails Philly cop, tavern owner and Cohen family patriarch—became completely distraught; I have never seen a man look so shattered. And while my chest was still stinging in pain, despite the butter (yes, butter) being rubbed on it, his reaction had me feeling sorrier for him than anything else.

Just over four years later, on November 15, 1978, Samuel Joseph Kohn (and Yisrael ben Yosef HaCohen) succumbed to complications from his stroke (“cardio respiratory collapse” from “myocardial infarction”), ending an extraordinary rich life that typified the 20th century immigrant experience. Less than one year later, I wore his yarmulke at my Bar Mitzvah. Despite being a Jewish-raised Atheist (married to an Episcopalian-raised Agnostic), I still wear it (with my father’s tallit) when I light the candles of the menorah on Chanukah.

IMG_3304

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I end where I began, with this excerpt from page iv of my doctoral thesis.

Dedication

          This dissertation is dedicated to the memory of three late members of my family whose love and support I miss every day.  

          First  is  my  maternal grandfather,  Samuel  Kohn.  Toward  the  end  of  his  life,  he  made  me  promise  that  someday  I  would  become  either  a  lawyer  or  a  doctor.  

Pop-Pop  Sam,  I  kept  my  promise.

Until next time…

[1] “Shpola in the governing district of Kiev”

[2] In early November 2018, a man reached out to me on Ancestry.com, seeking information about Joseph Cohen. He believes (and there is some decent evidence in support) that his great-grandfather Yankel Cohen—a rabbi from a town just 10 miles south of Shpola called Zlatopol (now part of Novomirogrod), whose younger brother were also rabbis—was my great-grandfather’s older brother. And he alerted to the researches of Dr. Jeffrey Mark Paull, who has traced, through Y-DNA, the male descendants of the Shpoler Zaide. Somewhere in here lies the truth of our descent (or not).

[3] Curiously, the date of birth listed on her husband Leib (Louis) Goldstein’s Naturalization Petition is July 10, 1886.

[4] Or was it July 4, 1894?

[5] This was actually a guess based upon her being born on the third day of Passover in 1908, which she later learned was April 19.

[6] The italicized words were handwritten on his Declaration of Intention, dated June 1, 1915.

[7] According to the 1930 Census, Sima Cohen arrived in 1914, though that date is almost certainly 1913, when she and her husband Leib arrived in Philadelphia on the SS Breslau. Meanwhile, the 1930 Census says Bella arrived in 1899, though she would only have been eight or nine years old then; I suspect that is a miscommunication.

[8] “GUNMEN FLEE POLICE SHOTS IN TWO DUELS,” Philadelphia Inquirer (Philadelphia, PA), February 28, 1937, pg 4; “Brothers Seized On Numbers Count,” Philadelphia Inquirer (Philadelphia, PA), November 27, 1948, pg 15.

[9] A little over $12,600 in 2018 dollars.