A Budding Artist

My Oldest Surviving Kid Drawing

The notation at the top right was written by my Mom in Hungarian: “Jimmy drew this 1949 March.” I was a little over four years old at the time. I had not yet entered school only to find that I was a retard who couldn’t speak English. (Of course, now I would prefer to think I was smart because I could speak a foreign language.) In fact, this ratty little pencil drawing is probably the oldest thing I have, and the only thing dating from my early years in the Hungarian neighborhood on Buckeye Road.

At the time, Mom liked to take me to the library on East 116th Street and pick a book to read to me. As the children’s books were all in English, she would pick something with nice illustrations and make up her own stories in Hungarian to fit the pictures, more or less. I have fond memories of that library. Was it perhaps because there was a great doughnut shop next door?

I just checked a map. Not only is the library no longer there; but Harvey Rice Elementary School, where I had my traumatic introduction to the American educational system, is likewise gone. They seem to have been replaced by healthcare facilities, which makes sense as St. Luke’s Medical Center is nearby. That’s where I was taken a year later because my parents thought I was too skinny. The doctors there told my parents, “Don’t worry: He’ll wind up eating you out of house and home.”

My memories of life at 2814 East 120th Street were for the most part good ones. I had good friends, like András and Joycey—Hungarians like me. We had not yet been introduced to television: That was to come a year later. And it was probably television that taught me English as much as anything else. I remember the TV station started broadcasting around 4 PM with the Kate Smith Hour, followed at 5 PM by the Howdy Doody Show, which I dearly loved.

 

“A Hundred Windows Opened on All Sides of the Head”

Old Building on Buckeye Road

Old Building on Buckeye Road

This morning, I started reading G. K. Chesterton’s Autobiography, and it set me to thinking. I thought it would be fun to put all my earliest memories in one place, lest I forget. Chesterton had it right:

What was wonderful about childhood is that anything in it was a wonder. It was not merely a world full of miracles; it was a miraculous world. What gives me this shock is almost anything I really recall; not the things I should think most worth recalling. This is where it differs from the other great thrill of the past, all that is connected with first love and the romantic passion; for that, though equally poignant, comes always to a point; and it is narrow like a rapier piercing the heart, whereas the other was more like a hundred windows opened on all sides of the head.

I was born in a house on East 177th Street, a few houses north of Glendale. Because we moved shortly after I was born, all my earliest memories are tied up with 2814 East 120th Street, just off Buckeye Road. We lived on the second floor of a duplex. I remember lying in my crib. One of my first memories was of an argument between my mother and father about money. Both were working, my father at Lees Bradner & Company, my mother at the Cleveland Woolen Mill.

Like most toddlers, I was fairly rambunctious. Mrs. Nebehaj kept shouting from her first floor rooms, “Missus, the ceiling is coming down!”

From a very early age, I was cared for by my great grandmother Lidia and great grandfather Daniel. As Daniel died when I was one, I do not remember him. I was always told he wanted to live long enough for me to buy pipe tobacco for him at the grocery store on Buckeye Road. It was not to be.

My oldest friend was Joyce. Now for the sex: I was fixated on the crook of her knees, which to me was smooth and lovely. There wasn’t too much I could do about it, but I remembered it nonetheless. Once, when I was playing with her, I lost control of my bladder, and the pee ran down my leg. My landlord saw me and asked why I was dripping. I said I stepped in a bucket of water, and it was running down my leg. Was that my first lie?

On Buckeye Road, near East 120th, there was a ramshackle old building that sold furnace pipes and such like. I remember playing in the small yard that fronted the building. There were a number of tree stumps on which I could play with my toy soldiers.

Of course, everybody spoke Hungarian. So did I. It was almost a 100% Hungarian neighborhood, and we didn’t have a television set until 1949. Broadcasting would begin around 4:00 PM with the Kate Smith Hour, followed by the Howdy Doody Show, which I watched religiously.

Once, I remember going with my father to pick up Mom at the Woolen Mill, and there was a big fire in a nearby building.

My life changed when I attended kindergarten beginning in January 1950. Trouble emerged at once when my teacher, Mrs. Idell, refused to understand my Hungarian. My friend András, who was similarly afflicted, and I began kicking her shins. Also, my brother was born in April 1951. It was time to move, and that signaled a new epoch in my life.