Maury Z. Levy

Archive for the ‘SJ Magazine’ Category

Mother’s Day

In SJ Magazine on January 3, 2010 at 9:43 am

You want heroes? I’ve got mothers.

The last time I saw Lincoln was a dozen years before. I had sat on this high school stage with 406 kids whose mothers thought they were smarter than me. They won the awards and the prizes and the scholarships. I got nothing.

“You know,” my mother said, shaking her fist in my face, “you should have won every award up there. You’re smarter than all those kids combined. You just don’t apply yourself, young man.” It was when my mother called me “young man” that I knew I was in big trouble.

I would, out of fear, eventually learn to apply myself. I would become a writer and I would go to work for the city’s magazine, and I would win some awards. First some local ones and then some national ones. Big awards with crystal trophies and lots of money. Now, my mother would be proud.

“The University of Missouri?” she said. “That’s who gave you an award? Do you know anybody who goes to the University of Missouri? I don’t even know where it is.”

Luckily, she had heard of Lincoln High. When Lincoln asked me to be in their Hall of Fame, I made sure my mother had a front row seat. And there I was, resplendent in my return, with a whole auditorium full of kids waiting to cheer me on. Oh, sure, there were other inductees. Some science nerd who invented a new Petri dish. Or something. And a guy who had a regular role on television. If you could call a soap opera television.

They introduced us one by one. As we each rose, the principal read a long list of our achievements. I stood up straight, smiled at the big crowd and looked down at the first row. My wife was beaming. My sister was smiling. But I couldn’t see my mother. All the flashbulbs were in my eyes.

When it was over, I walked down to where she was sitting. “So, mom,” I said, “what do you think now?”

“Very nice,” she said, dismissing me. “Listen, can you introduce me to the TV star? He’s on my story.”

We went back up on stage. I introduced her to the TV star. It made her day.

Meanwhile, others were congratulating me. Old teachers and counselors. People who truly looked proud. And then I saw him. Walking right at me. A little Jewish man with glasses. “Maury,” he said, “I’m Nate Weiss. I always knew you’d make it big.”

Before I could even answer, my mother turned around and yelled at him. “Nate Weiss, you son of a bitch!”

What you need to know about Nate Weiss is that he was boys’ vice principal when I was there. In 12th grade, just a couple of month short of graduation, he tried to kick me out of school because he saw me in the lunchroom with a copy of Playboy. I told him that, as editor of the yearbook, I had it on hand because of the design. There was no way he was buying that.

Within minutes, he had my mother in his office. He threw the magazine down in front of her. “Do you know where your son gets this smut?” he said.

“Yes,” she said. “I buy it for him at the newsstand in front of Horn & Hardart. Do you have a problem with that? Last time I heard, this was still a free country.”

Weiss could say nothing. He just growled and asked us to leave his office. And, now, he was congratulating me.

It took three of us to hold my mother back.  “Mom,” I said, “forget about it. We won. I’m in the Hall of Fame and he’s still a grumpy old man.” As we pulled her off the stage, she managed to get in one more volley. “He wants to shake your hand?” she yelled. “Tell him he can kiss my ass.”

You want heroes? I’ve got mothers.


Copyright 2011 Maury Z. Levy. All rights reserved

The Dream

In SJ Magazine on September 2, 2009 at 3:42 pm

He was, this young man with the round face, an artist. Give him a needle and some thread and a little bit of cloth, fine cloth, wool cloth, nothing but the best cloth, and he could make you anything. He never had to measure, he never had to plan. He just knew. It was this magic, and little else, that my grandfather brought to this country, this land of opportunity. He came here, from a small town in Poland, with his wife and his son and his dreams.

He came speaking Yiddish, a language put together like a hearty beef stew. A little German, a dash of Polish, generous helpings of Hebrew, salted and seasoned with just enough English. He came, like so many others, to the melting pot that was America with names that were unrecognizable and highly unpronounceable. He came, with hopes and aspirations and one good pair of shoes, to Ellis Island, to the
Statue_Of_Liberty_ NewYork _Harborsolemn stone building that served as the waiting room for the promised land. The immigration workers, now an upper class, would name these would be citizens, give them simple names, names they could spell, names based on their trades or their tribes. My grandfather took the name Levy. It was a name he could pronounce, a name he could remember.

What mattered was that he had left oppression and pogroms behind him. He had fled to a land that spoke many tongues, except his.He came, as he had left, with tattered clothes and shattered memories. He came to this new land, where schools were as free as spirits, to this land of milk and honey, where all men are created equal. Some more equal than others.

“When I came here,” my grandfather once told me, “I was a nobody. I worked 16 hours a day and 90 hours a week. I worked to become a somebody.”And that’s what he became, a man with a talent and a trade, a family and a future. He never had proper schooling. But he was smart and he was savvy. He would teach himself the one foreign language he needed to know.He would teach himself English. It didn’t matter that he spoke it with a heavy accent. It didn’t matter that he substituted a Yiddish word every sentence or two. What mattered was that he tried.

And now, 95 years after my grandfather came here yearning to be free, there is a controversy in this land, a great political debate about the language our fellow citizens should speak. English, as many of you know, is a hard language to learn. The words have more connotative meaning than almost any other language. At home, to those who understood, my grandfather spoke Yiddish. But outside that little walkup in Brooklyn, he made a deal with this great country. You give me freedom and promise and hope, he said, and I will give you my soul. And I will work to speak your chosen language.

It was a simple enough concept. No matter what you spoke at home, if you wanted a job, you needed to learn English. To be a tailor, it was the common thread. And now, as we continue the great national dialogue started by demagogues and fed by cheesesteak shop owners, we are teetering on tutoring.

Personally, I don’t buy the politics of prejudice. I think every man, woman and child is entitled to free speech and at least one cheesesteak. But if my grandfather, after 25 years in Poland, could learn the language, is it asking too much of those who come here now, those so full of possibility, to at least try?

Money in the Bank

In SJ Magazine on September 1, 2009 at 4:44 pm

I remember the days, the days when dreams were lightning and thunder was desire. I had a car back then, my very first car, the car I took to the drive-in movie, the car I drove to my job selling ratchets and sockets at Sears on the Boulevard, the Boulevard of broken promises. It was, at its best, a ’53 Dodge Coronet, with a smooth cream white body, and a rich royal blue roof. It was my father’s car, the car he drove to work on Market Street, the car that took us, with certainty and surety, to visit our family in South Philly and then again in Brooklyn.176560
By the time I got to drive it, on May 22nd, 1962, the day after my sixteenth birthday, the tires had been patched like an old football. “You take care of this car,” my father told me. “It has a lot of life left.” My father wasn’t big on buying new things when the old things would do. It made no sense to him. We begged for years for a color TV. “They’re not perfected yet,” my father would say. “And there’s nothing wrong with the black and white set. Ed Sullivan’s a white guy, Sammy Davis is a colored guy. What more is there to see?”

My father was a man of thrift. He didn’t trust the banks, because the banks had failed him. Didn’t trust the financial experts because the experts had lied to him. So he kept his money where all smart people did – in a Florsheim shoebox in the back of the hall closet, underneath a pair of black rubber galoshes, size 9 and a half, that he had bought from a guy who knew a guy. Read the rest of this entry »

Independence Day

In SJ Magazine on September 1, 2009 at 4:38 pm

liberty_bellBack then, back when men were men and wars were wars, the seats on the Frankford El, the city’s first low speed line, were made of hardened cane. They ripped at your skin and tore at your pants but they could never break your spirit.

Every year, on the Fourth of July, we would put on our Sunday best, my mother, my father, my sister and I, and take the B bus and the El train to the cradle of liberty, better known as the Fifth Street El stop. There, we would join the thousands of other sweating citizens who didn’t have barbecue plans that day, to sizzle in the sun while bands played and politicians did what politicians do.

This was back when the Liberty Bell was still in Independence Hall, before they moved it to that barren building that looked like a bad Burger King. This was back when patriotism wasn’t considered corny, back when this country was considered to be the smartest country in the world.

I remember sitting on those folding chairs on what would become Independence Mall and looking at all the military men in crisp, clean uniforms, thinking that was a good thing to do, to be a soldier.

In the years that followed those lazy lemonade days, I would grow up way too fast. Just like all the boys I knew, I would quickly be facing manhood, highly eligible for the war that everyone said would be the last ground war of our lifetime. Read the rest of this entry »

Here’s Looking at You

In SJ Magazine on September 1, 2009 at 4:26 pm

mauryWe always had supper at six. And we called it supper. Dinner was something you went out to. When the money was good, when my father worked seven days a week instead of just six, we would go to the Horn & Hardart.

“You get anything you want,” my father would tell me. My eyes would open like a lightning bug in a jar. I would order steak, Salisbury steak with thick brown gravy, and peas and mashed potatoes. If I had enough room, and my father had enough money left, I would finish with rice pudding. The Horn & Hardart rice pudding was creamy and rich, with raisins as plump as tapioca balls.

When we got home, my father would do what all fathers did after a good meal. He would sit in his club chair, put his feet up on the ottoman, and unbutton his pants. Now this was living. Often, as all fathers did, he would call to my mother, “Rosie, get me a Schlitz.” My father was always a Schlitz man. Sure, when company came, he’d lay in a six-pack of Miller High Life. But the Schlitz went so much better with his El Producto Blunts.

I did most of my growing up in a time and a neighborhood where men drank. Not some sissy cocktail like martinis. A working man had a two-choice drink list. You had a shot or you had a beer. Sometimes both.

I grew up in a neighborhood that had a taproom on almost every corner. We never called them bars. They were places where you could get a cold one from the tap and a more than generous fill of a shot glass. They were places where men went to forget and women went in the back door.

This time of year, as we played in the street until you couldn’t see the wire for wireball, we would watch our fathers come home. Many arrived in time for dinner. Then there were the men who came late. Billy Flanagan’s father never made it home in time. As the darkness crept, we would see him stumbling down the street, the brim of his hat pulled down over his eyes. His nose – red and bright and bulbous – would light the night.

Drinking wasn’t the answer, but it sure helped with the questions. As I grew up, I drank in moderation. Beer at the beginning. Then I worked my way to wine. Boone’s Farm Apple wine, now there was good drinking. There’s a study that just came out. I don’t know if you saw it. It says that, compared to their grandparents, young people in New Jersey today start drinking alcohol at an earlier age and are about ten times more likely to have used illegal drugs.

The survey says that 43 percent of 13- and 14-year olds now drink in some form. And 61 percent of young people have used illegal drugs. It would be easy to blame this all on advertising. All those beer commercials with people having the times of their lives.

The thing of it is, kids do what kids see. They don’t need messages from commercials. If they see their parents or grandparents drinking, that’s message enough. If they hear old war stories about how a little pot never hurt anyone, how could you blame them for experimenting? This isn’t about Madison Avenue. This is about Carlton Avenue and King’s Highway. This is about what happens at your dinner table. This is about making sure there is a family dinner table. As a parent, you have a pretty simple choice. You can act as a role model. Or you can answer the phone when the cops call.

The Old Ballgame

In SJ Magazine on September 1, 2009 at 4:01 pm

mzl baseball copyI grew up in a land where men were men and women baked cakes. A land where fathers worked all day and slept all night. While the rest of us watched Milton Berle, my father, exhausted from bringing home the kishka, would plop in his overstuffed green sateen lounge chair and snooze ‘til he snored.

That was the daily routine. That was what work was. In our humble house, celebrations were few and far between. There were birthdays and the Fourth of July and Mother’s Day and Father’s Day. They were days of rest, they were days of play.

My favorite Father’s Day ever was when I was eight years old. My father loved watching sports. This day, we would celebrate by doing what my father and I loved most. We would go to Connie Mack Stadium. I loved that place. It was other-worldly. No grass was that green. No bases were that white. We got seats in the upper deck. That way, there was money left for food. My father bought me a hot dog, slathered in bright yellow mustard, and an ice cold Coca-Cola in a cup I needed two hands to hold. It was my favorite meal. Read the rest of this entry »

TV or Not TV

In SJ Magazine on September 1, 2009 at 3:55 pm

old-tv-setGrowing up was a numbers game. We had six rooms in our little brick row house. Six rooms, three bedrooms, five people, one television. It was a little black and white set with Howdy Doody on it. It sat, a 15-inch screen in a giant mahogany cabinet, in the middle of our living room, with all chairs, sofas and slipcovers facing it.

It was something we all enjoyed, television. It brought us music and laughter and drama and sports. From that little room on Calvert Street, it was our window on the world. Even more important than our one telephone. This was before cell phones. Hey, this was before pushbutton phones.

We loved TV and all that it gave us. I remember the small smile on my father’s face when, after the dregs of a 12-hour workday, he got to be entertained by Berle and Benny and Burns and Allen.

As important as television was to us, it had its place. And its place wasn’t at the dinner table. Dinner was a time to talk. Read the rest of this entry »

Eat, Eat

In SJ Magazine on September 1, 2009 at 3:48 pm

salisbury-steak-2The first time I ever ate filet mignon was at the Pub on the Airport Circle, the circle with no airport. It was after my junior prom, which I remember like it was 44 years ago. The salad, disguised as half a head of lettuce, was covered with creamy Russian dressing. The girl was covered with dreamy pink organza.

The memory that lasted the longest was that steak, so thick and red and juicy. To that point in my life, the best cut I’d eaten was a rib steak, smothered in canned corn, accompanied by a baked potato with half a cup of sour cream on top. In those days, in my house, sour cream was a condiment.

The steak would be for special times – birthdays, anniversaries, pay days. The rest of the week, we ate the usual. Sweet and sour meatballs with kasha and bowties; boiled chicken with matzoh ball soup; brisket with brown potatoes and rice; and tuna with blintzes and sour cream or a big bowl of Creamettes, the Jewish pasta.

It was such an immovable feast. I loved to eat back then, except for Thursdays. Thursday was liver. I hated liver. I hated the look of it, the thought of it, the taste of it. I used to try to hide pieces of it under the lumps in the mashed potatoes. But my mother always found them and made me finish. “There are kids in Korea who don’t have food to eat,” she said. “Can we mail them my liver?” I asked.

It was years later that I learned the food I grew up on was horrible for me. Liver is an organ meat, full of impurities. And who knew about carbs or artery cloggers? “Eat, eat,”my mother would say. “It’s all good for you.”

Back then, it was done with premeditated love. Mothers only wanted us to have the best, the best their limited resources could provide. They did it out of love and they did it out of ignorance. Who knew that those pains I had in my stomach every day on the way to school were from an intolerance to sour cream? Who knew that the pure sugar I used to dump by the tablespoon on my shredded wheat and my French toast would result in diabetes? Nobody knew.

But we do know now. We know that over 60 percent of Americans are obese.And we know that you’re not supposed to supersize. And we know you can’t eat meat at every meal. And we know you shouldn’t always have fries with that.

I read a report just last week that radiologists are having increasing trouble taking x-rays of people because the machinery wasn’t made to penetrate so many layers of fat.

We were in a casual restaurant in Cherry Hill the other day. A family walked in and asked for several tables to be pushed together because they were too big to fit in a booth. There was grandma and grandpa and mom and dad. Together, they outweighed the Eagles’ offensive line. I felt sorry for them at first. But then I watched them order and eat. Fried cheese, loaded potato skins, big double-decker cheeseburgers. A pizza on the side. It was their kids, the little four- and six year olds who I really felt sorry for. What kind of a chance do they have in life? And what are these parents thinking?

Listen, if you want to kill yourself, you have the right to main line all the cheesecake you want. Hey, put some sour cream on top, for all I care. But, knowing what we now know, if you continue to stuff your kids silly, you’re not a good parent.You’re an abuser.Nothing less. If you really care, you should stop. Stop, in the name of common sense. Stop, in the name of love.

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