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Simon Sobo Writing

A collection of opinion pieces and chapters from his novels

Describe your background

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I grew up in a kosher home during the 50’s in Kew Gardens Hills, Queens, mostly a Jewish garden apartment town,  four rooms for 5 of us.  When my sister entered adolescence, she got the second bedroom and my parents slept on a Castro Convertible in the living room.  By today’s standards we were poor, but we always had enough to eat and we actually had very nice clothes; a priority for my mother, whose father came out of the garment center, where “clothes make the man.”  My grandfather owned a sweater factory and, while he had the money, was a local benefactor of his shul.  He was typically President of the congregation.  According to my mother’s ga ga memory of him he was a great orator.   Other synagogues often asked him to speak,  He  helped found a Yeshiva.  That was while he had the money.

 

So Kew Gardens Hills was a step down in my mother’s eyes.  She was forever on  guard that one of us not pick up the speech patterns of our neighbors, recent arrivals from the Bronx and Brooklyn, particularly Shoilee (Shirley) actually a lovely woman who loved us and watched over us when my mother was at work.

 

It was a step down for my father as well.  He was kind of a waspy type like his brother Cecil. Both went away to college and law school in the middle of the depression, although my father managed to fail out of Harvard Law, (the story goes) playing too much bridge instead of studying.  He was brought home to finish at Rutgers.

 

To be charitable he was broken by the depression.  He got out of law school in 1933, not a propitious time to try to make your way into the great cruel world out there.  Although he secured a job at Milton Unger a toney law firm in Newark  (Also in the family mythology: he knew William Brennan another young Newark lawyer at the time, who went on to become a justice in the Supreme Court.)  Unfortunately, while Unger was a well known prestigious law firm they paid junior lawyers nothing.  He followed that with a partnership with his brother, Sobo and Sobo which was so disastrous that both of them stopped practicing law and did what they had to do to earn a living during the depression and for the rest of their lives.

 

While I was a child my father was a salesman for Decca Records (before records became a hot commodity) and then he worked as a manufacturer’s representative for Gold Brothers, a very Jewey  47th street jewelry outfit that needed my waspy father to visit Tiffany’s, Cartier  and other places where 47th street jewelers didn’t feel comfortable.  He did very poorly moneywise.  The one interesting thing about his job was that celebrities would go to Gold Brothers to get their jewelry wholesale.  The list was long, the Ford family shopped there.  So did Leonard Bernstein, Elizabeth Arden, Betty Furness, and all kinds of movie stars, and owners of companies throughout the New York area.  The only other interesting thing was how (if I remember correctly) Van Cleef and Arpels never paid their bills, which was bad luck for my father since when that happened he wouldn’t get paid.

 

Later, I was ashamed of where I grew up.  My assumption is that my parents’ view of how far they had fallen gave me this shame (although they would never admit it).  But I knew.  My mother would talk about her rich childhood friends (when her father was doing well) and where they are today.  She could not exactly invite them to tea in Kew Gardens Hills (though my parents still polished the silver in case that day might come).

 

My father also knew.  We were the poor cousins.  As a a result of the depression,  my mother’s two brothers didn’t finish high school, but both now owned factories.  One of my mother’s brothers had 2 sweater factories, one in Mineola, Long Island and one in Puerto Rico, running in three shifts, 24 hours a day.  The other had a cardboard box factory in what is now Soho, and they owned their own homes.

 

My father was a lot like the character I created as Commodore’s father.  A broken man.  Later I would see him as Willy Lomanish  in Miller’s Death of a Salesman. That play left so many people bowled over.  I imagine a lot of men in the audience could understand the disillusionment and desperation of a Willy Loman.  They had seen it first hand in their own fathers.

 

People like to glop on to the successful father imago, the Warren Buffetts, the Cornelius Vanderbilts.  Having a career is the way to go in terms of meaningful things to do with your life.  But countless fathers have been smashed to smithereens by the ferocity of the countervailing forces that stood between them and success.  I wouldn’t recommend it for anyone, except for most people there is no choice, other than having your wife go out and have the success.

 

Fortunately for me, before I became ashamed of being a resident of Kew Gardens Hills, (when I reached adolescence) I thought it was the greatest place in the world to grow up.  There were tons of kids, nice kids, living in our court, the arrangement of garden apartments around a “courtyard”  (really a huge area for us to play punchball,  stickball, and stoopball (there were a million stoops), hit the penny, touch football, and basketball).  We had perfect walls to flip our baseball cards at  (the closest card won the other cards).  The only books I read, that weren’t required by school, were baseball books.  I knew all about Ty Cobb, Honus Wagner, Babe Ruth.  And then there were the grand debates I used to engage in (long before politics occupied my mind).  Who was the best centerfielder, Duke Snider, Willy Mays, or Mickey Mantle?

 

I had no doubts about my future.  I was going to play shortstop for the Brooklyn Dodgers.  I oiled my Rawlings PM endlessly with linseed oil to make it soft and pliable.  I played catch hour after hour after hour, grounders to my left, to my right, fly balls in front of me (I loved Snider’s shoestring catches- he would do a somersault as he caught the ball).  Then there was climbing the Ebbett’s Field   wall, saving the Dodgers from a home run.  We’d play catch to the sound of Vince Scully, the Dodger announcer,  who I had learned to imitate.  I would catch pop-ups exactly like Pee Wee Reese- a graceful, almost ballet movement,  where he seemed to embrace the ball high above his head, bringing it down into the bosom of his chest, as a continuation of its arc.

 

I practiced so much that I actually thought I had a shot at the majors.  My coach in the Queens-Nassau League was going to bring me to a Philadelphia Phillies try out (but that was actually because when I pitched I could throw the ball very very fast).  I was also the starting All Queens shortstop in the Kiwanis League.  That all star team became our Queens Nassau League team, just as the Forest Hills Babe Ruth All Star team had become my Kiwanis League team.  My coach loved pulling that off.

Only problem was that like most shortstops, I couldn’t hit.  I’d feast on lousy pitchers but when a good one came along forget it.  There were very few lousy pitchers in the Queens Nassau League.  One of the pitchers, Howard Kitt, on a different team from Cedarhurst, Long Island,  had been offered $$60,000 dollars by the Yankees.  My lousy batting average in the Queens Nassau League League put an end to my baseball career.  I realized I didn’t have it.  Probably because of my fear of getting beaned by a  pitcher with a blazing fastball.  Fear interferes with total concentration in your swing.  Actually, the eye hand coordination was there. I was a thousand times better hitter in stick ball (we used a Spalding not a hard ball).  But fear did me in.   The Queens Nassau League ended my career at 15.

The funny thing is, only now, decades later, do I remember a different Kew Gardens Hills.  Actually, it was a cool place. Simon and Garfunkel came from there.  Art Garfunkel used to sing at our synagogue, as part of Cantor Koussevistky ‘s Rosh Hashanah program.  The same voice as Bridge over  Troubled Water crying out in Hebrew in a chapel with  perfect  reverberating acoustics.  Every note.  I can still almost hear it.   Cantor Koussevitsky was a relative of  Sergei Koussevitzky,  conductor of the Boston Symphony. (Interestingly Art Garfunkel in various biographical sites says he came from Forest Hills not Kew Garden Hills.  I used to do the same thing out of embarrassment until I reached 70 and my coming clean mode.  It’s just ironic that he wrote (with Paul Simon) “And ev’ry stranger’s face I see reminds me that I long to be, Homeward Bound,” but can’t come clean about where his home really was.)  Believe me I understand.

Not just the music was high end.  Judy Thurman, today a regular at the New Yorker, was my sister’s friend. She described where she grew up as a slum (which it wasn’t just lower middle class.)  My mother wouldn’t forgive Judy Thurman for that. Those aren’t the only two notables from the neighborhood. Next door Howard Shulman went on to write musicals in London, and practically everyone I knew went on to careers in law, medicine, academia and the like.  And the strange thing, when I think about it, was that the other Jews in our court even then, weren’t exactly from the bottom rungs of society.  One guy owned a Chrysler dealership. Sidney, who played ball with us, owned a gas station and two car washes.  Teachers and former lawyers (like my dad) lived there, as did small businessmen. Shoily ‘s husband was a middle man for nylon stockings.  Howard Shulman’s father used to go all the time to Japan where they manufactured cheap toys for his company.  Just shows you how much shame can distort perspective.

 

Later when the counterculture  came to America I went to Berkeley, first in the summer of 1965 and later, in 1968 for my internship  year at Herrick Hospital.  It was  the year of the People’s Park.  Governor Ronald Reagan sent the National Guard, including tanks.  The Alameda Sheriff’s men used 00 shotgun shells.  They killed a student on the roof, James Rector, who I spoke to before he died in the ICU.  I called all the newspapers (including the New York Times and national magazines, Time, Newsweek (trying to let it be known  that they had shot 00 shotgun shells at the students).  No one would accept the story (They weren’t yet left wing and antiwar).

This was before Kent State.  The only media outlet that  would listen was the Oakland Tribune, a Hearst paper who ran a big story, quoting me.  It got me in trouble with the president of the hospital who was ready to kick me out should I open my mouth again.   Although I was starting to be disillusioned by the Left, (it was starting to get very crazy)at the time I identified with the best sides of  60’s Berkeley.  Not with the radicals, or macrobiotic food freaks, but the rest of it.  I thought, at the time, it was the politics I loved, C Wright Mills, the rightness of our cause, the great music, Zen, the exciting culture that was exploding everywhere.  Now I am not so sure.  I think far more important was the mindset it gave me, the opportunity to make money and class  irrelevant in my (our?) minds.  It was a way to leave behind the shame of my background.  Thinking about it now, I honestly believe that.  So reconnecting to money and all of its reverberations for self esteem in my novel  Commodore has been a way to reconnect to the dynamics of my true background.

 

One other thought.  Linda, my wife, is surprised that I am not including as “my  background” my entire career as a psychiatrist.  That will have to wait until After Lisa  which is all about psychiatry (written with the freedom given to me by  retirement) a tell all novel about the business.

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