Howdy Doody and Harvey Rice

This is a repost from March 30, 2013.

That’s me on a tricycle, sometime around 1950. We were living at 2814 East 120th Street off Buckeye Road in Cleveland. The whole place was filthy with Hungarians. There were so many, in fact, that I did not know the English language existed until two things happened: First, we got a television set late in 1949, and I started watching the Howdy Doody show at 5 pm every day, just after Kate Smith closed her show by singing “When the Moon Comes Over the Mountain.” (It took me a while to understand what Howdy and Buffalo Bob Smith were saying.)

Secondly, I started kindergarten at Harvey Rice School on East 116th Street in January of 1950. My parents thought that, living as we did in a Hungarian neighborhood, the public school teachers would speak Hungarian. Nothing doing! Mrs. Idell sent me home with a note pinned to my shirt that asked, “What language is this child speaking?” As if she didn’t know!

That last factor decided my Mom that we had to leave our little Hungarian womb on the East Side and move to the suburbs. Gone forever would be the Reverend Csutoros and the First Hungarian Reformed Church; the Regent and Moreland movie theaters; Kardos’s Butcher Shop with its delicious Hungarian sausages; the College Inn, where my Dad would take me for French Fries; and the Boulevard Lanes where my Dad bowled and I kept score.

It was a cohesive little world, but my parents ate the apple from the Tree of Knowledge when they decided to raise me as a Hungarian. You know what? I’m grateful that they did. I made my adjustment to English (and I’m still making it), but my heart belongs to the Magyar Puszta.

A Hyphenated American

Although I was born in the United States, I prefer to think of myself as a hyphenated American, specifically a Hungarian-American. My native language is Magyar (Hungarian). I did not speak any amount of English until I was six or seven years old. Something happens when you grow up as a bi-lingual person: You find yourself not quite so committed to the land of your birth.

Let me be more direct: I find myself intensely disliking the political and religious beliefs of approximately half of our population, such as the young idiots in the above photo. At present, I am not likely to fly on any American air carriers because most of their passengers are Americans, and I don’t want to be involved in any violence in the air because some yahoo refuses to wear a mask as required by law. I feel safer on a foreign carrier.

When some stranger addresses me in public, I invariably reply to them in Hungarian. The last instance was on a commuter train on which two African-Americans were arguing about Covid-19, and one of them solicited my opinion. I politely told them, in Magyar, that I didn’t (really: wouldn’t) speak their language.

I typically do not celebrate national holidays because I find them more productive of stress than of enjoyment, particularly Christmas, which has evolved into some sort of national potlatch ritual.

Perhaps these responses of mine are the result of a growing lack of faith in my fellow Americans. Particularly white males, though the Republican Party has given us some really monstrous travesties of women.

Does that mean I am withdrawing in any way? Not really. I vote in every election. And I try to remain close to my friends. I’ll stick to being a Hungarian-American, even though the American side of things is going to hell in a hand basket.

Stuffed Cabbage

Not all my cooking creations are successful. The first time I tried cooking Hungarian stuffed cabbage rolls—a dish I was brought up on by my mother and great-grandmother—the rolls all fell apart. I didn’t know the trick of trimming the thick “veins” in the cabbage leaves, and I don’t remember parboiling and coring the cabbage.

This week, I got it right. First of all, I consulted with my brother, who is by far the best cook in the family. Then he sent me the recipe he uses. Here it is.

It took me five hours to cook the cabbage rolls from start to finish, though much of that time was waiting for the rolls to boil for 1½ to 2 hours. I used four different kind of meats in my recipe: smoked Hungarian gyulai kolbasz, Hickory smoked bacon, ground pork, and ground beef. Fortunately, there’s a great butcher shop at Alpine Village in Torrance which has several different types of kolbasz.

Once you make stuffed cabbage rolls, it’s easy to cook enough to feed a family for several days. Our lasted five days, with some left over that we had to discard because i have a rule that no cooked dish I make can be eaten for more than five days.

If you should try the recipe, be sure to get some fresh dill and some marjoram and—most important of all—real Hungarian paprika from Szeged, Hungary. The Spanish stuff has the color, but not the flavor.

Buckeye Days

Szent Erzsébet (Saint Elizabeth) Church, Where I Was Baptized

I have written before about my formative years living in Cleveland’s Buckeye Road Hungarian neighborhood. (See the links below.) For some reason, Cleveland was for many years—and still might be, for all I know—the most Hungarian city in America. Well before the Second World War, it became a magnet for Magyar immigrants. On Buckeye Road, there were Hungarian churches, butcher shops, bakeries, bars (Oroszláni’s tavern was at our corner of East 120th and Buckeye), and restaurants. The ,most famous was the Gypsy Cellar, which I never went to because it didn’t cater to children, followed by Settlers’, which I saw only years after I had left Cleveland for good.

The Gypsy Cellar Restaurant on Buckeye Road

In the late 1940s-early 1950s, Buckeye Road was a safe neighborhood and remained so until it was “blockbusted” by unscrupulous realtors in the 1960s trying to precipitate white flight by selling properties to black families. Today, it is a largely black neighborhood. When I visited with my father in the 1960s, a big Irish cop warned us to leave the area before the “niggers started waving their spears.”

We moved out in 1951, the year my brother was born. I had been having trouble in school, because it seems I didn’t understand English very well and caused a ruckus with my friend András by kicking our kindergarten teacher, Mrs. Idell in the ankles. By that time, my Dad felt more financially secure, so he bought a bungalow on East 176th Street in the Lee-Harvard area, just one block away from his twin brother.

I’ve always been afraid to go back to Buckeye Road because I never really finished first grade at Harvey Rice School. I was pulled out after one semester and immediately started Catholic school at Saint Henry’s in second grade. I paid a price for that, being considered something of a dunce and troublemaker until I made it to fourth grade.

This Is a Book I Need to Find

In the above photo, you can see the Regent Theater, where I was taken by my parents to see movies. Actually, I just ran up and down the aisles and messed around with the soda machine. At my age, there I was no way I could sit through an entire movie. That was a few years in the future.

“You Have To Give It Up”

Hungarian Poet Kukorelly Endre

To begin with, Hungarian is like Chinese in that the last name comes first. So what would be Endre Kukorelly in English is Kukorelly Endre in the Magyar tongue. I found this poem in the Hungarian Literature Online website—very sobering thoughts considering the season:

You Have To Give It Up

Soon you have to give it up. The body
and the heart and things, and the soul, too.
The soul flies up. Up, where. Soon you have
to give it up. The body leaves you.
Aches, falls, loosens. Aches, burns, burns
comes to an end, bone, the body flows away. How
easy it is. It leaves you.
You leave it, easier than you leave the street, a
bench, a glove, the sight of
pouring rain, the sobbing of it. The flowing rain.
Finally, the pain leaves, steps away. It won’t be worse.
It’s not worse, that’s it. Or it’s not cruel.
It rather might be sad—what isn’t?
The fallen fruit. Fragment.
For example, the sound doesn’t emerge. It sits far in
the back. Sat in the back. It sat in the back of a bus.
Sat back. To grieve. Or to run down. Thinking
it will run you down easier. Or
why. Why.
Soon you
have to give that up too.

The translation is by Michael Castro and Gabor G. Gyukics (or, in Hungarian, Gyukics Gabor).

Family Plot

The Hungarian Parliament in Budapest

In my family, there was a plot to marry me off to a nice Hungarian girl who would think nothing of giving up her life with me to take care of my aging parents. They had even settled on a distant cousin of mine, one Ilona Vörös (Helen Red in English), a resident of Újpest who worked for MAV, the Hungarian State Railways.

This all happened in the mid-1970s, when my parents brought Ilona to the U.S. to introduce her to me. Mind you, I had nothing against marriage per se; but something about this whole arrangement set all my warning lights blinking and alarms sounding off.

Me in Hungary 1977 on the Shores of Lake Balatón

Why would any self-respecting young woman want to enter into a kind of weird marriage in which would become a slavey to my Mom and Dad, whom I thought were being incredibly naive about the whole thing? When I backed out of the arrangement, my father was furious with me. Why? I had not made any promises to marry Ilona, and then send her to Cleveland to serve as a housekeeper for my parents. I was just going to meet her and see what came of things. (Which was naive on my part, I now see.)

I suspect that what my parents really wanted was for all four of us to live in one household. I had been in Los Angeles for ten years. This was a plot to bring us all together. But I didn’t want to live with my Mom and Dad, as much as I loved them. I rather liked living in California on my own. As for marriage, I preferred to find someone who was not hedged about with all kinds of weird expectations.

Then it came about that Ilona and one of her MAV co-workers had been carrying on a long relationship in Budapest. Then my Mom had words with Ilona’s mother, and within a year or two, Ilona and her family were persona non grata.

Probably just as well.

Plague Diary 1: Kárpátok

I Violate the Plague Laws Prescribing Social Distance

In the new environment of worldwide plague, I must carefully pick and choose what I can and cannot do. I started out with a major violation by attending a folk dance performance given by the Kárpátok Hungarian Folk Dance Ensemble. It was well attended with several hundred audience members, many of whom within the six-foot danger zone of contagion.

Martine particularly loves the performances by Kárpátok, and so do I because I like to revel in my Hungarian background. Of late, I have used the Magyar language primarily to damn to hell cruise ship passengers in Mexico who try to use me as an information resource. At the United Magyar Ház in Los Angeles, where the concert was held, virtually everybody present could cuss me out more correctly and picturesquely than I can do. So I am on my best behavior.

The Kárpátok Hungarian Folk Dance Ensemble is one of the best things about Los Angeles. Martine and I have been attending their events for upwards of ten years.

It is unlikely that there will be other plague law violations in the weeks to come, mostly because just about everything is being closed down. The supermarket shelves are being emptied by hoarders of food, hand sanitizers, and toilet paper. When I go shopping tomorrow, I will have to be careful about confronting hoarders: Particularly in Southern California, people who are the most guilty are also the most aggressively defensive about their deeds.

My postings here in the next few weeks will discuss how my life has changed as a result of living in a plague zone. I anticipate that my life will change in many ways over the next few weeks. I remain hopeful, however, because of the following reasons:

  • I have a personal library of several thousand volumes, including all the classics
  • My cable television configuration includes about a dozen movie channels
  • Plus I have hundreds of DVDs
  • One of my hobbies is cooking—useful when many restaurants are closing or cutting back
  • I make a point of maintaining frequent telephone contact with my old friends

Attenuation of Ethnicity

Picture from the West L.A. Buddhist Temple Obon Festival 2007

I have been attending the West Los Angeles Buddhist Temple’s Obon Festival for many years now, going back to the 1970s. Now Martine joins me and takes as much pleasure in the festivities as I do.

One thing that both of us noticed was that the festival was less Japanese. It was also not so well attended, and most of the dancers wore ordinary casual clothes. Only a few of the men and women wore kimonos, where in the past most of the participants were more traditionally dressed.

As a Hungarian-American who was born in a rich ethnic tradition in a Hungarian neighborhood in Cleveland, I am constantly aware that our ethnic traditions are being gradually attenuated over time. When I first came to L.A., there were a number of Hungarian restaurants. Now the count is down to zero. The same thing is happening to other ethnicities, such as the Japanese and even the Mexicans.

I suppose it is only natural that over time we are becoming more homogeneous. Even though the Obon Festival was a bit less Japanese, those of us who were present enjoyed it nonetheless. The Men’s Club udon noodle soup was delicious: This year it even had fish cakes with the barbecued pork.

In a way, one of the reasons I am no longer interested in belonging to a Hungarian group is that, in the long run, it will inevitably become a shadow of what it once was. If there are no Hungarian restaurants in town, I have some old Hungarian cookbooks and can make the dishes myself.

 

 

The Only Language the Devil Respects

Hungarian Poet Borbély Szilárd (1963-2014)

This post is a tribute to my strange native language, Hungarian, which is one of only four non-Indo-European languages in Europe. (The others are Basque, Estonian, and Finnish.) It is also a tribute to one of the great Hungarian poets of our time: Borbély Szilard. Get the pronunciation right: It’s BOHRR-bay SEE-lard.

I have decided to print the following poem first in English translation, and then in the original Magyar language. My intent is to show you what a strange language Hungarian is, so alien from any other language you may know. In his novel Budapest, the Brazilian novelist Chico Buarque writes that Hungarian “is rumoured to be the only tongue in the world the devil respects.”

Computer, Evening

There are certain moments in the evening when
one is too tired to do more.
Just to sit quietly. Not tired enough for sleep,
but not really energetic either. You read a few lines

from Kosztolányi about autumn and the soul, mysterious
way stations, the passing of time. For time is like life
itself: it leaves its imprint on the body alone.
In consciousness, on the soul, or the relational

structures of language. I don’t really know. Someone looks
out from the window, to see the stars growing distant
or whatever else they are doing. And thinks about

this: between the stars and the earth, he lived. Afraid
to sleep. Like a child in the evening, always seeking
a pretext. While the computer’s screen saver swirls.

Now for the original Magyar:

A Számítógép Este

Vannak azok a pillanatok este, amikor
az ember fáradt már bármit csinálni.
Csak ül csendben. Még nem álmos, de
nem is friss. Olvas néhány Kosztolányi

sort lélekről, őszről, titokzatos megállókról,
elmúlódő időről. Mert az idő is olyan, mint
az élet: csupán a testen hagy nyomot.
A tudatban, a lélekben vagy a nyelv

viszonyrendszerébden. Nem is tudom. Valaki
kinéz az ablakon, hogy távol a csillagok
vajon mit is csinálnak. Elgondolkodik azon,

hogy a föld és a csillagok közt élt ő. Fél
elaludni. Mint a gyerek este, kifogást
keres. Amíg táncol a képernyőkímélő.

I don’t expect you to understand a word of the Hungarian. It is one of the most difficult languages in the world to learn. But it was the first language I learned, and it has had a lasting effect on my life. First of all, it is an agglutinative language, like Turkish, Korean, and Swahili. It puts together elements into long words such as viszonyrendszerébden (relational structures of language) and képernyőkímélő (screen saver). Note also the double acute accent in words such as őszről (about autumn). It represents a lengthening of the umlauted vowel sound.

The reference to Kosztolányi is to Hungarian poet and prose writer Dezső Kosztolányi (1885-1936).

 

 

 

When You Strip Away the Surface …

Dancers from the Kárpátok Folk Dance Ensemble

… of me, what you will find is a strange sort of Hungarian. Although I have read no studies to this effect, I think that the first language you learn to speak is what determines, at the deepest level, who you are. My first language was an older dialect of the Magyar language from the region just to the southwest of Budapest. Today, when I speak the language—haltingly—Hungarians laugh at my choice of words and horrible grammar. Yet, my ever-so-sophisticated American English is merely an overlay on a base that was set in concrete before I was five. I feel myself to be a kind of Brummagem Hungarian.

Last night, Martine and I attended a Hungarian folk dance program at St. Stephen’s Catholic Church just south of downtown L.A. The dance was put on by the Kárpátok Folk Dance Ensemble, which has just recently celebrated its 50th anniversary. That a city like Los Angeles, which does not have that large a Hungarian population, could support an organization like Kárpátok is an unending surprise to me.

For many of the fifteen-odd dances they performed, I was in tears. There are certain themes in Hungarian music that take me way back to my beginnings. I could not lay my finger on it, but a deep emotional chord is struck deep in my core.

The people in attendance were curious about me. My pronunciation is near perfect, but I might as well be retarded. As for Martine, she doesn’t know a word of Magyar and depended on me for many things I was unable to explain.

Flyer for the “Thousand Faces” Dance Concert We Attended

That didn’t keep up from enjoying the music and dances—and the Hungarian meal that was served afterwards—even though we were both suffering from nasty colds. She might be French, but Martine enjoys these Hungarian events as much as I do, though in a different way. I do believe she prefers Hungarian food to the great cuisine of France, especially where pastries are involved.