Tuesday, June 30, 2009

Aunt Jean

On July 4th, smother your hot dog with "the works" - mustard, onions, sauerkraut & pepper hash. Here is a recipe mixed in with some history which I hope you'll relish!

Aunt Jean read philosophy on the #50 trolley as it bounded down Fourth Street in fits and starts toward Passyunk Avenue. Rocking back and forth in her seat as if she were praying, she read and swayed until the brakes squealed and wheels ground to a screeching halt for the fifth time. Then she closed her book, grabbed the pole beside her and stood erect, climbed down the steps and walked the block to Lenny's Hot Dog Stand, where she sold sandwiches.
On Saturdays when I was ten, I rode the trolley and walked to Lenny’s along with her. She fed me, before I walked on to my art class at Seventh and Catherine Streets in South Philadelphia.
Aunt Jean stuffed hot dogs, fish cakes, mustard, chopped onions, sauerkraut and homemade pepper hash into warm buns, and handed them over the counter to customers she addressed as "Baby" and "Doll."
"Hey Baby, what can I get you?"
"Something to drink doll?"
She must've said this at least 50 times a day, never wearing out her smile.
“Eydie Gorme! Sugar, no cream, right?” Aunt Jean complimented her customers, citing a slight resemblance to the popular celebrities of the day, to make them smile.
Aunt Jean wore pink, frosted lipstick to match her painted fingernails. Her hair was set and heavily sprayed to a ‘J’ I thought, with a flip at the bottom. Her uniform was white, embroidered with "Jean" in red above the chest pocket. Her freshly polished white shoes were flat, wide, and made for comfort and support as she stood all day in a ten by twelve foot trailer, at an open window above a slight counter. Inside were steam ovens with stainless steel doors and black knobs on top, which she flung open with a large pronged fork to pluck moist doggies and plump patties of potatoes and fish.
Babobop! The doors bounced and settled backwards, as steam enveloped her, and the acrid smell of hot fermented cabbage and freshly chopped onions permeated the air, inside and out. She must've smelled that in her dreams. Sauerkraut was kept in a bowl in the oven. Its overflow doused the steaming hot dogs with a signature tang. But pepper hash was what scored Lenny's Hot Dogs its local fame. Bubbe Ida's recipe from the old country - a few carrots, a whole green pepper, a head of cabbage, white sugar and distilled white vinegar, all chopped together.
“How much sugar and vinegar?” New employees would ask.
"Sh'terein! Just throw it in!" Aunt Jean said with a slight wave of the right hand, repeating her mother's Yiddish words and recipe.
She arrived early each morning to light the urns and chop vegetables. This was her job, performed as if it were a chosen profession.

On Tuesdays before I started kindergarten, Aunt Jean emerged from her cubicle of sweet and sour steam, to spend her day off with me. We had a standing date for breakfast at Linton's on Castor Avenue in Northeast Philadelphia where we lived.
On Tuesdays, Aunt Jean wore black. Her blouse was off-the- shoulder and her skirt was flared out by the stiff, layered crinoline beneath. It sounded crinkly, as if I were forming snowballs, when I pressed against her skirt. Her black heels clopped on the street in short, quick steps. We took my stroller in case I got tired, but I usually walked beside her, holding on to the handle. We would need the stroller later to hold our purchases. We didn’t bother with sidewalks as we made our way toward Castor Avenue. The up-and-down of sidewalks was hard to negotiate with heels and a stroller. We walked in the street, alongside the curb. Aunt Jean trusted that drivers would see us. Indeed, they often slowed down just to look at her.
Aunt Jean liked her coffee black, her toast dry and her cigarettes unfiltered.
“Short stack, side of toast, hold the butter,” Bea, our steady waitress, announced over the microphone to the cooks, as we entered Linton’s.
Heaping dishes of sunny side up eggs, bacon, fried potatoes and thick pancakes with a scoop of butter on top that looked like melting ice cream, rolled out of the kitchen on a long conveyor belt. We always sat where I could follow the route of my perfectly plate-sized stack. I couldn’t smell much of anything except for cigarette smoke. Aunt Jean took long, languorous drags on her cigarette, held the smoke in her chest, then exhaled with a deep sigh. She relaxed back into her chair. The cigarette sat perched on the elegant pedestal of her consciously positioned fingers and tapered, painted nails. I knew that she had taught piano with those fingers, and I’d seen her play duets with her daughter. What I didn’t know at that time, was that she had been offered a career as a classical pianist in New York, when she was a young woman, but her mother was afraid to let her go. Instead, she was paid to improvise on the keyboard in silent movie houses in Philadelphia during the nineteen twenties.
“Can you teach me to play piano?” I’d ask.
“I don’t have the patience to teach or play any more,” she said from behind her smoky curtain at Linton’s.
“But, how about you?” She’d lean forward, holding her cigarette like a pointer toward my face. “What do you want to be when you grow up?”
“An artist,” I ‘d say, while doodling on the paper placemat.
“What do you like to draw?”
“Stars,” I’d say, showing off the blue, intersecting lines on my paper canvas.
“They sparkle, just like you! You’ll be anything you want because you’ve got personality,” she’d insist.
Then we’d walk out of Linton’s and down the avenue singing, “’cause you got personality, walk with personality, talk with personality, smile with personality, charm…”*
We’d end up at Woolworth’s five and dime store, where she bought my crayons. For herself she chose a new lipstick, perhaps a bottle of nail polish or a stiff, sandy emery board.

Aunt Jean and I remained close for 35 years, until she died of emphysema. In her later years, I became her confidant. She told me about her husband Leon.
“He said he was sickly, and didn’t want to have children. So I had three back-alley abortions, and almost bled to death the third time. When I became pregnant again, the doctor said, ‘You better have this baby.’”
“When you’re young, you do dumb things,” Aunt Jean said. “I could've had four children, like your mother.”
The fourth pregnancy resulted in a daughter whom she adored, fretted over, and raised alone. Her daughter was born with a hip deformity and had to wear a bar separating her legs for the first five years of her life. She needed to be carried, and her sickly husband wouldn’t carry her.
“Divorce him. What good is he?” Jean’s sister Lena advised.
“I liked him well enough, but Lena kept nagging,” Jean said. “And perhaps she was right. He wasn’t much help.”
So she divorced him. Aunt Jean and her daughter moved in with her parents, never asking for child support from Leon. Meanwhile, sister Lena remained unhappily married for 55 years.
“When I turned 50, I got a nose job and started going to dances,” Aunt Jean said. “I met a man and we dated for awhile, then he told me he was married with children. And yet he went to singles dances! We continued until I said, ‘Enough. Enough, already!’ I never dated again. All my life, I lacked confidence. I joined the library, thinking books would help.”

Aunt Jean sold sandwiches most of her life for her brother Lenny. She read self-help and philosophy books while shuttling to and from work. She took care of her nieces and nephews on her days off. She gave her money to her daughter and grandchildren.
When she retired, she kept busy and remained social by making weekly dinners for her family. Osteoporosis robbed her bones of minerals and stature. Her hands shook wildly while salting the soup she prepared for her family. At eighty, she cut a familiar figure in the neighborhood, bent over her shopping cart for support, pushing slowly and carefully toward Castor Avenue. She’d return home with it full of groceries for her weekly soiree.
Aunt Jean pushed ahead toward each new day, filling her life with simple pleasures, deflecting her larger dreams. When I consider the forces that helped shape her life, I can understand why. Aunt Jean grew up in an immigrant family. Her parents arrived in Philadelphia from Russia in 1909. Jean was four. They lived in tenement slums, until they got a foothold. She and her nine sisters and brothers depended on each other for emotional support, while their parents struggled to feed and clothe them.
“F’moch dinah pisk! Shut your mouth! Open your eyes. Watch. Listen. Learn. Don’t make trouble.” This is what Jean heard.
This impacted Jean’s life decisions. She didn’t want to disrupt anything or make trouble. She just wanted to please. Her attitude towards her dreams was inherited from her struggling parents. Who are we to dream such dreams? Just be good-natured and fit in. That’s all she could hope for. She knew it wasn’t enough. Still, she couldn’t oppose the people she loved. Simpler became easier for her.
I fight this tendency in myself to fall back on what is easier, diluting my spirit. But I feel we all have guardian angels, and Aunt Jean guards my dreams. At times in my adult life, when I have felt deeply overwhelmed by a task and ready to succumb to the prevailing winds, she has visited me. She arrives early in the morning, lights my urn and sings the song in my heart. I awaken and walk into the day with confidence and personality.

* Lloyd Price topped the rhythm & blues and popular music charts in 1959 with his song, ‘Personality.’

Recipe for Pepper Hash

My grandmother Ida Kravitz, was one of the early hot dog vendors. During the Great Depression, she was known as Mom, selling hot dogs with the works - mustard, onions, sauerkraut and her own recipe of pepper hash (she couldn’t afford the pickle relish) from a pushcart on the corner of Fourth and South Streets in South Philadelphia. She charged five cents and included a complimentary orange soda. She supported a family of thirteen from her efforts. In the late forties, she sold the business to her son Lenny, who created a chain of hot dog stands lasting through the seventies in Philadelphia and Margate.
The economy has changed again. It’s rare now for Mom and Pop to succeed in the free market. Hot dogs have changed for better or worse depending on whom you talk to. One thing remains the same. The recipe for life that Mom carried across an ocean from Mother Russia is still contained in a forkful of pepper hash. Life can be sweet and sour. If you respect, honor and make something beautiful of it, while it may bite, it will never lose its appeal.

Mom’s Pepper Hash

One head of cabbage, minced
Two large green peppers, minced
Two large carrots, minced
One cup sugar
One cup distilled white vinegar
One half cup water -or more if vinegar taste is strong
Salt to taste

Prepare vegetables. Add dry and liquid ingredients. “Sh’terein!” Mix and taste as you go. Smother your hot dogs with “the works” -mustard, onions, sauerkraut and pepper hash.

Tuesday, June 9, 2009

South Philly Southpaw

Father’s Day will come and go. Some will spend time with their fathers; others will remember or try to forget. Fathers give the gift of life and, if you are lucky, they give more. If you are really lucky, when they are gone you have something memorable to say or display. Sometimes as children, we don’t appreciate what we have. Often as teenagers, we keep our hearts sealed from our parents. But memory saves us from ourselves. We grow older and our memories become the stories we savor and share.
I’m thinking about a story my dad shared with me not long before he died. He was a professional boxer in the 1930s and ‘40s, long before I knew him. My dad was “Irish Abe,” the South Philly southpaw who boxed his way through larger cities and smaller towns. As the youngest son of Jewish immigrants from Russia who settled into the Irish-Catholic neighborhood of Fifth and Wolf Streets in South Philadelphia, Dad spent Saturdays in synagogue with his father and Sundays in church with his baseball buddies. When he was 12, his father died. Dad’s life became consumed with sports, and trying to make a buck to help his widowed mother. At 15 years old, he established himself as an amateur fighter, won 50 fights and many titles. The local parish priest attended the fights and recognized him. Dad recalled, “The priest jumped into my corner and remained there throughout the three rounds, cheering and yelling for the boy from his parish.”
The following week the promoter of the show presented Dad with a pair of boxing trunks - blue on one side with a white stripe and Star of David. The other side was kelly green with a gold stripe and harp. The Jewish kid, Abie Kauffman became Irish Abe of 5th and Wolf. Then, in his senior year at Central High as a lettered athlete, Dad turned down a baseball scholarship to Penn State and chose instead to go pro as a boxer when he was offered what in Dad’s view was the once-in-a- lifetime opportunity.
Professionally ranked as a lightweight contender, he fought anybody and everybody for twelve years. The promoters matched him in all categories, regardless of weight because he could dance around his opponents, give the audience a show and go the distance. One time though he went too far. Somewhere down south in the 1930’s, two locals grabbed him before the fight and taunted, “I hear you’re a Jew-boy. I ain’t never seen a Jew-boy before. Show us your horns! Come on, Jew-boy show us your horns.” He was matched up with the local favorite and asked for his show, but was told to “throw the fight, fix it for the homeboy and don’t tell or you’ll never get outa here alive, ya stinkin Jew.”
Dad rebuffed, “My name is Abraham. I come to fight!” And that’s how they read it in the morning papers the day after he beat the hell out of the homeboy. He got out of there fast, and never went back.
Irish Abe went north to New York and west to Chicago fighting the likes of Ike Williams and Willie Pep. He believed that Ike Williams might have been the best fighter of all time, since Ike fought and beat Joe Louis and Ray Robinson. Dad didn’t always win or even get the decision, but the promoters liked him because at the last bell, he was usually still standing.
From his chair in the living room 50 years later, Dad welled up with tears when he spoke of the “squared circle.” He said, “There is no question in my mind that a one-on-one situation like boxing can bring out the best in all of us.”
Although Dad was a stoic through the painful challenges of old age – knee and hip replacements, wrist cartilage removal, dependence on a pacemaker and hearing aid, Dad sobbed when he told me this story from his youth. In the end he braved his ultimate opponent, prostate cancer, and lost the fight.
What did I get from my father? I inherited his muscular frame but not his drive. I can approximate his dimpled smile, but I can’t shine it back at him; as I wish I had done more often in my teens. I can display his photos, tell his story and let my heart go the distance.