Half-Broke Schwinns: A “Guess which part might be true,” Story.
- I am the hero of my own life.
Few people remember the wild and woolly days of South-Central Brooklyn of the late 40’s and early 50’s. We had a sheep ranch at the foot of the Canarsie Swamp in Brownsville. I was born there in February, 1946 to Stanley and Bertha Adelwild. It was hard country—it had been paved in 1943 by my idiot cousin Jeffrey, in the hope that he could make his fortune in overflow parking from Manhattan, a good hour and a half away. My mother, who came from great wealth and learning—it was said that her uncle’s aunt had been a servant in the household of the Rabbi of Minsk—had married my dad thinking his name was Idlewild and, that one way or the other, he owned an airport in Queens1.
Stan inherited the ranch and little else. In my early years, we lived in a large hubcap. By the time I was four, and could change not only my diaper but my sister’s as well (I may also have a brother—I promise to check), I was my dad’s right hand girl. He would zip around the ranch on an old Schwinn bicycle, to herd sheep, mend twine fences and plant, wherever he could, tiny cottonwood seedlings. I asked him once about the seedlings, but he would only say, cryptically, that they were invaluable in case of a flash flood.
My dad’s first task was to teach me to ride a two-wheeler. He found an old half-broke Schwinn, as gentle and as ugly as my grandmother in the morning, before she put her false teeth in, and lifted me on up. I promptly fell off, and while breaking my fall, broke both arms. Stan carried me into the house where my mother, who was preparing my pretty sister Helena for her early demise, could only manage to say, “It’s god’s will,” before she passed out. Bertha said this in Yiddish, we think. My dad, my sister, (my brother?) and I were always amazed that Bertha spoke Yiddish, as her parents, Harold and Sylvia, didn’t, and Bertha had gotten her education at PS 142 in Queens.
Do you speak Yiddish? I didn’t think so. Anytime, you see Bertha’s name in this story; try to imagine her saying, “It’s god’s will in Yiddish. Frankly, the story could do fine without her, but she is my mother.
After snapping the bones back in place, my dad used Cottonwood seedlings as splints and my brother’s (really, wow—I have a brother— I am so excited) shirt for bandages to bind my arms. A few hours later, after I had healed, he put me back on the bike and carefully explained to me the ins and outs of riding a big Schwinn without being able to reach the pedals. I would come to love that old Schwinn, and named it Patches because of its tires. In a rare bit of parental advice, Stan said, “Never try to break a fall.” I have taken his advice now for more than sixty years, and although I never again broke an arm, I have broken my tailbone sixteen times.
- Get thee to a Yeshiva.
My family was very frugal. We sheared sheep with sharpened bricks. We ate no meat but homegrown mutton and no sides other than the “good and plenty” candies that my father had gotten for a song at the local army surplus store. For entertainment, we nursed toothaches. When our clothes got dirty, we would wear them inside out. To wash them, we would stand in the rain, and when they wore out completely, we would ranch naked. I remember being taunted, as a little girl with:
I see England, I see France,
Marsha has no underpants,
by the neighborhood kids. It toughened me up. We didn’t bathe much either, to help keep, as my dad, Stanley, would say, “our natural enemies away.” Here, he pretty much defined a natural enemy as anything with a sense of smell.
What little money we had, we reserved for essentials—hooch, poker, and bets on horse or sheep racing. That’s why I was surprised when my dad sent me to the local Yeshiva, across the boulevard in Canarsie. There the Rabbis spent the first few days washing me down with a fire hose, untangling my hair and finding something for me to wear. I spent the next week or two thoroughly learning Latin, Classical Greek, Hebrew, Rhetoric, Literature, Science, and Mathematics through elementary Calculus. It was fun, and so much less work than ranching.
At the end of two weeks, the Chief Rabbi, Lenny, called me into his office to let me know that he was sending me home. “Your father,” he said sadly, “invested the tuition money in the 4th race at Aqueduct this past Wednesday.” “Unfortunately, he bet on Lazy Lady, out of, Bottom Feeder2, by Don’t Wake Me3, and lost both dollars.” The Rabbi was kind and suggested three possible careers for me—brain surgery, nuclear physics or elementary education. The first two, it seemed to me, were more suitable as hobbies.
- A wild sheep chase.
That year there was some war or other on, the price of mutton skyrocketed and my dad, Stan, decided to bring the sheep to market in Hoboken, New Jersey. My dad asked our cousin, Jeffrey Schmendrick4, and his clan to help. And Jeffrey’s son, my first cousin Ernie Schmendrick, who grew up thinking he was a sheep dog, would finally get to be one.
The plan was simplicity itself. We would drive the sheep up Rockaway Avenue to the elevated subway stop of the IRT, herd the sheep up the steps to the subway, and keep them calm and quiet on the subway until the Canal Street stop. Then, we would usher the sheep up the stairs to ground level and march them through the Holland tunnel to New Jersey and the docks at Hoboken. The Schmendricks would take the sheep on the first train, while Stan and I would round up the bikes and follow on the next.
The drive up Rockaway Avenue was glorious. As the herd moved through the streets surrounded by Schmendricks on Schwinns, traffic stopped, pedestrians stood open mouthed and staring, and more than one startled Brooklynite was heard to say, “What stinks?” Our problems began at the staircase to the elevated on Rockaway and Livonia. While it was easy enough to drive the sheep around the staircase, it was not so easy to get them to climb the stairs. Finally, Jeffrey and the boys decided to carry them, one by one, up the stairs. There was also a hitch at the ticket counter. While my dad and I offered to pay for the sheep by the head, the clerk was sure we should pay by the hoof. We compromised, and each sheep was charged as a human and a half5. We would put three tokens in the turnstile and push two sheep on through. After we had gotten six or eight on the platform though, we realized that the sheep were simply crossing the track, jumping up on the return platform and walking down the stairs—where we would have to round them up, carry them up and pay for them again. Finally, we slipped Ernie through to the other side where he could keep the sheep in order by pretending to be a dog.
As the first train was coming in, my dad carefully explained to Jeffrey how to position the clan. “At local stops” he reminded him, “the outside doors of the train open.” “At express stops, the inside doors of the train open.” I worried a bit that Jeffrey might not be getting the message. The sheep were bleating, Ernie was barking and snarling, the train was roaring in, and most of the Schmendricks were shaking boxes of good and plenty to the rhythm of the train and screaming, “good and plenty, good and plenty…good and plenty.” As the doors closed, with the sheep aboard, I thought I heard Jeffrey say, “What?”
When Stan and I came to the express stop at Borough Hall, there were sheep everywhere. Jeffrey and his bunch were standing on benches and waving shirts at them. Poor Ernie was everywhere, barking and snarling and nipping at the heels of sheep and passengers alike, but we could see it was hopeless. It was a sign of the times that The New York Daily News published, on every Sunday that year, recipes for mutton.
And that very day, my dad, Stanley, told me that my brother—what’s his name—would inherit the ranch, and that I should seek my fortune in the wild and unwoolly world beyond Brooklyn. First though, I had to help shovel sheep poop out of the subway cars and off the platforms.
- Hi Ho, Hi Ho, It’s off to work I go.
With only two weeks of formal education, I could not get a full time job teaching in New York City, although I was able to land a teaching job in inner city Newark. I loved the children, who ranged in age from 6 to 34; but as I settled in, the war ended, the men returned, and the women who had left teaching jobs for work in the defense plants came back to claim the men and the jobs. I hadn’t been in Newark more than 45 minutes before the superintendent of schools came by to fire me.
I was forced to move west, one small New Jersey town after another, until I came at last to Columbia, along the banks on the Delaware River. I arrived one morning in early spring, and as the fog lifted, I could clearly see across the river to Pennsylvania. And, when faced with the wilderness that was Pennsylvania, with people who spoke and dressed strangely, with people, who for all I knew, rode English racing bikes, I felt, for the first time in my short life, fear.
- How You Gonna Keep ‘em.
It was my fear that drove me back to New York City, where that Spring I enrolled in Hunter College, to complete my education. I took a job cleaning apartments on 5th Avenue to earn my keep. Typically, I would put in about 120 hours a week, between school, studies and work. It felt as if I were on an extended vacation. My transportation, Patches, was a godsend. I would zip up and down the island of Manhattan like someone on a bike.
I shared a one room, cold water flat on Ludlow Street in the lower East Side, with six women named Hazel. The room was above The Pink Pony, a coffee shop that let “up and coming” rock bands play all night. My love of alternate music and the band Gang Gang Dance, began in that apartment. In a few short years, I had moved from a hubcap in Brownsville to a room with a ceiling in Manhattan. I could not believe my good fortune.
Three letters from Brooklyn had been chasing me through New Jersey and finally caught up with me on Ludlow Street. My mother had died of tooth and mouth disease. Her last words were… (All together now. Louder, please, haven’t you been paying attention?) My sister had gone to Hollywood to break into the movies and was, as she put it, willing to do anything for her art. I also learned that my brother had abandoned sheep ranching to open Joe and His Father, Stanley: Used Schwinns and Other Junk. This last bit of news was astounding. Not only did it confirm that I had a brother, but it also told me his name was Joe. A photo of the sign the Schmendricks erected on a small cottonwood tree was also in the envelope. I so wish I could show it to you.
Hazel 3 introduced me to Daddy’s Cafeteria on 3rd Avenue near 30th Street. On Thursday, Friday and Saturday nights unmarried women ate for free. It was there that I met Jack. He was like many of the men in the place, with too much grease on his hair, a big, forced smile, and a strange pale circle on his ring finger. He was a great talker and generous to a fault. Every Thursday, Friday and Saturday night, he would offer to pay for my dinner. Jack told me he was a salesman. He peddled tall stories in Baltimore.
Jack began to let me take him to the movies. Every Sunday, we would see his favorite, Lawrence of Arabia, at the Rialto on 14th Street. After the movie, the two of us would stand close to each other by the soda machine in the lobby, draining can after can of Coke, in a frantic attempt to rehydrate. We were married in the fall. It was a small wedding, attended only by the six Hazels, one or two of Jack’s current wives and a few of his younger children. I could sense, even on my wedding day, something was not kosher.
I found that Jack was a bigamist’s bigamist. He was married to six working women and had a woman and a paycheck for every day of the week, except Sunday, when he would find a woman to buy him a ticket for Lawrence of Arabia. I got my paycheck and my visit from Jack on Wednesdays. Always a realist, I quickly figured out in only a few short years that Jack would never change. In fact, Jack’s multiples bigamies continue to this day. You can catch his story on the reality TV show Jack’s Jills on CBS every Monday at 9 PM. I’m told that Lawrence of Arabia finally moved out of the Rialto a few weeks ago. I fear that Jack took it hard.
I was able to get the marriage annulled by, Lenny, the Rabbi of Canarsie. Annulment is a very serious business in the Jewish religion. First, the Rabbi must say, with as strong a New York accent as possible, “Forget about it.,” three times, and then the woman—it is always the woman, must reconstruct a broken glass. It took me three weeks, 16 old shirts torn up for bandages, and 6 bottles of Mercurochrome to do it. The Hazels’ are still angry about their shirts.
Never idle, I used the early morning hours to finish my degrees.
- Hi Ho, Hi Ho (reprise)
By now, Stan was in a nursing home for retired sheepherders in the Bronx. It was a very small nursing home. To honor him, I felt I had to face my fear of Pennsylvania, so I took a job teaching in the Pocono Mountains. Although my salary was a pittance and I was to make a bed in the schoolhouse by pushing chairs together, I loved my job in the Poconos. For entertainment, I would take Patches out on the winding mountainous roads. On the downhill, I’d eat my good and plenty, pray for working brakes on the half broke Schwinn, and love the wind in my face and hair. On particularly bad stretches, I couldn’t help but hear my mother, Bertha, and Elizabeth Gilbert6 chanting it’s god’s will in what might have been Yiddish.
The only children who gave me trouble, and the only ones I had to discipline were the thirteen sons and daughters of the evil sheriff of Nottingham (I hope I am haven’t switched stories. I hate when that happens). This was a bit distressing, as I only had fourteen students at the school. The sheriff was often by to warn me against punishing his children, usually by shooting a flaming arrow into what would have been the door of the school had it had one. I ignored him. When his children were sassy, I disciplined them by making them stand as if they were holding violins and hum Pachelbel’s Canon for minutes on end. Within hours of my arriving in the Poconos, the sheriff had turned the populace (mostly black bears) against me and I was forced to move west again.
I found a teaching spot in the sheep ranching region of central Pennsylvania, up near Seven Mountains. It was there that I made my first real friends—Spring Creek Pete, Billy the Adult, and Jim. The three amigos were sheepherders, and the youngest, Jim, was about twice my age. Together, we’d play poker, drink the local hooch and race sheep around the mountains. It was great fun. Jim had a half broke Schwinn bicycle from 1896, the third bike to come out of their Chicago factory. It was an amazing machine, and the fact that Jim could keep it running raised my estimation of him tenfold.
I had two bits of news that spring. First, my dad, Stanley, died unexpectedly at the age of 119 and, second, my pretty sister Helena was coming to live with me. She did. When she arrived, she was about six months pregnant and quite despondent about not landing an acting job in Hollywood. Worse, she had been dating three Hollywood directors simultaneously and worried incessantly about having triplets. I made her write to Lenny, the Rabbi of Canarsie, for spiritual advice. I felt better when they began to correspond, but I still worried about pretty Helena doing something crazy. I would lie awake at night and fight against the vague feeling that I had read a story, somewhere, that had a character in it just like Helena. That character had ended not only her own life, but the life of her baby (Creepy music would be terrific here. Feel free to hum anything but Pachelbel’s Canon.)
Later that spring, I got a call from the superintendent of schools; but before he could fire me, I quit. When I got home later that day, Helena was gone. There was a note from her on the chair I used as a kitchen table. I feared the worst. Why, oh why, I thought, hadn’t I brought Ernie Schmendrick out to lick her face and shadow her every move. My hands shook as I read: Marsha, it said, I’ve run off to Israel with Lenny, the Rabbi of Canarsie, to raise the triplets. I will name the girls Bertha and the boys something else.
In my wild relief, I married Jim.
- A Thousand Acres.
Jim was offered a job running an enormous sheep ranch, for a group of Saudi investors, in the wilds just west of Boalsburg. It was so large that it took an entire year for Jim and I to circle to fenced ranch on our half broke Schwinns. We spent our time mending twine fences, digging huge lakes for water for fear of droughts, and filling in the lakes with reams of political ads for fear of floods. We would spend every April clinging to the limbs of a Cottonwood tree during the spring floods. We loved to do this, and sometimes spent Februaries up in a Cottonwood tree as well. Spring Creek Pete, Billy-The-Adult and several dozen of the Schmendrick clan rode the range with us.
Jim and I had a baby girl. We named her Jean. She was as tenacious as Stan, as pretty as Helena, as wise as, Lenny, the Rabbi of Canarsie, as strong as the cottonwoods that lined the property back in Brownsville, as kind as Jim, and as whatever-it-is I am. I may also have had a son. Jean grew up very quickly, as I’m getting tired of typing. At sixteen, she married a flyboy returning from some war or other. His name was Jack. He spent an hour one Sunday teaching me to fly a hypersonic bomber he borrowed from a friend in Oklahoma. We crashed three times in that hour, but never once did I try to break my fall. After each crash, Jack casually smacked the nuclear weapons on board a few times with a tire iron, to make sure they weren’t armed, and off we would go again. That hour of flying, of crashing, and of bashing the H-bombs with Jack won me over. I can’t imagine her finding a more careful and giving man—this side of Lenny, the Rabbi of Canarsie.
Jack and Jean have found a career in sales. They hope to write tall tales and sell them all over the world. They write in what I think may be Yiddish and will call their first book, a true life novel: It’s God’s Will.
The Saudis fired Jim three years ago, and sold the ranch to three directors from Hollywood, who hoped to make their fortunes filming sheep operas, in the wilds outside of Boalsburg. They hired my cousin, Ernie, as their sheep dog. Spring Creek Pete and Billy-the-Adult dressed up as sheep, and were hired as extras7.
At the time, Jim and I were in a bind. Neither of us had a job. To see us through, Jim was forced to sell his half broke Schwinn on EBay for an obscene amount of money, and the two of us moved back to Brownsville.
- Home, home near the range.
We got an apartment across Rockaway Avenue from the old sheep ranch. My brilliant cousin Jeffrey has made the property into a very successful parking lot for people visiting Manhattan—only an hour and a half away. The Schmendricks also have a Schwinn bicycle shuttle to and from the elevated station at Rockaway and Livonia Avenues. For no additional charge, they carry their parking lot customers up and down the stairs to the train. Jim found a job driving a garbage truck to the big landfill in Carnarsie Bay. I teach English as a second language to fourth generation American kids born in Brownsville.
Jim was able to buy a half broke Schwinn from the Schmendricks, and I still have Patches. Every evening, the two of us ride our bikes west along the Belt Parkway to watch the sun set over Coney Island. Life is good.
- Now, Kennedy Airport
- Lazy Lady’s mudder, and
- Her fadda
- Schmendrick means stupid man in Yiddish
- For those with sheep apnea, the proper way to count sheep is to think one and a half for every one that passes by in your mind’s eye. If you have not been sleeping in spite of counting sheep, you have no doubt been doing it wrong.
- Elizabeth Gilbert wrote “Eat, Prayer, Love,” and a few good books, also. Look at the sentence before this one in the text. Clever, or what?
- We saw their first production, True Pluck, at the dollar theatre in Canarsie last week end. It made us miss both the ranch and better movies. Ernie Schmendrick, however, won an Oscar for his depiction of a sheep dog.