CHAPTER TWENTY ONE
DREAMS AND REALITY
1 . Schooling
July and August passed quickly in working, reading for several hours every evening, and some diversion on Sundays, the only free day I had. A visit to Coney Island was my first encounter with the seashore and proved disappointing. The packed crowds, the dirty beach, and the carnival atmosphere of Luna Park did not live up to my idea of enjoyment of nature. A picnic on the grass under the shady trees of the Bronx Botanical Gardens with uncle's family was on the contrary delightful and a welcome escape from the heat and humidity of the tenement and city asphalt. I attended a couple of Yiddish plays on Second Avenue, the Jewish Rialto of that time, but could not see any English plays because none were being performed on Sunday. I also saw some movies at two theaters on 125th Street, in Harlem, on free passes given to uncle for displaying posters in his store window. The movies were still silent then, except for a tinkling piano accompanying the jerking movements on the screen; and the crunching of popcorn, rustling of paper bags, catcalls and other sounds contributed by the audience. A visit to the movies took several hours at that time, because the program usually featured two full-length films, one a melodrama and the other a so-called comedy, plus one or two cartoons, and followed by a complete vaudeville show--all for twenty five cents. The vaudeville usually had some or all of these acts: a song and dance team; a wisecracking comedian; jugglers or acrobats; a solo vocalist or instrumentalist; and a team of misfits, one of whom was the stooge who got the cream pie in his face or the bucket of paint over his head. It was all meant to be entertaining, and most of the audience apparently thought so, but I found it shallow, without meaningful content, and boring. After seeing a few shows I passed them up in favor of curling up with a good book. All this while I was looking forward to the opening of the school year, to continue my formal education which had been interrupted six years earlier, in 1915, by the outbreak of war.
0n the advice of my relatives I enrolled in a special evening class for foreigners at a neighboring public school as soon as it opened after Labor Day; and became a "dropout" after the first session. The course was designed for people who knew no English at all, and learning to say "Good evening, teacher" and to spell "cat" or "dog" was not what I needed. After the class was over I consulted with the instructor who readily agreed that I require more advanced instruction. He suggested that I try to enroll in Morris High School, the nearest one to my residence which had both a day and an evening program. I went there the following evening and was at first denied enrollment because I had no documentary evidence of my prior studies, but they relented after hearing my case history and giving me a short test in reading and writing. I was allowed to register for only two courses during the first semester: American History and Civics. Thus began my schooling in the United States. where tuition had to be paid for, but by then I had changed jobs and was earning twenty-five dollars per week as a clerk in an A&P grocery store, considered a good salary at the time for a young fellow like me. The Rhodes School gave cram courses in high school subjects, preparing students for the Board of Regents examinations, the passing of which in the prescribed subjects and number of credits was equivalent to a High School Diploma and consequent eligibility to matriculation at the College of the City of New York--the goal at which I had set my sights. At Rhodes the student was not limited in the number of courses, like at Morris High. Here he could take as many as he himself felt he was able to carry and pay for. Classes were held year round, and one who had the time, ability, money and determination could complete the full four-year high school program in two years or even in a year and a half. I crammed at Rhodes for eighteen months, and by June 1924 added sufficient Regents credits to those earned at Morris High to qualify for admission to City College.
The job at the A&P, like my first one, also came through a deliveryman, who told me of the opening and may even have said a good word for me. I suspect though that there occurred some misunderstanding. The A&P at that time did not have supermarkets like now, but operated many small neighborhood stores. Most of their employees were Irish or German, and a Jew did not have much of a chance of getting a job. There may not have been any deliberate discrimination, but in a tight job market it was natural for vacancies to be filled by relatives or friends of existing employees. The man who recommended me apparently got the impression that I was German, and Pat Cassidy, my manager at the A&P, also thought so until I chanced to mention that I was a Jew, to his obvious surprise. But that did not prevent Pat and me from becoming good pals--he appreciating my application to the job and help in preparing his inventory and financial reports which he found more onerous than lugging hundred-pound bags of sugar or cases of canned goods; and I appreciating his Irish humor and the "fringe benefits" he gave me. At the A&P I was not entitled to meals like at the prior job, but Pat had a little stove in the back room on which he cooked the most delicious stews I had theretofore tasted and which he generously shared with me, since there was no need to scrimp on the ingredients which came from the store. Additionally, he always gave me a dollar or two out of his own pocket on paydays, depending on the week's volume of business of which he received a certain percentage, supplemental to his stipulated salary.
One reason for Pat's generosity was his perception that he need not fear my tattling about some of his private operations not prescribed by the management. For example, we sold three grades of coffee, in the bean, which was freshly ground for the customer upon purchase. There was a price differential of about ten cents between the brands, so by mixing let us say a hundred pounds of the cheapest grade into the others, fifteen dollars was gained without anyone being the wiser for it--people bought the coffee anyway, drank it, enjoyed it, and came for more. Another way of making an extra buck was through manipulation of the weekly "specials" featured by the store. When peaches priced at fifteen cents a can were put on sale at two for a quarter, the manager got two and a half cents credit for each can on hand at the start of the "sale" and was charged an equal amount for the cans remaining at the end. By overstating the number of cans in stock at the start and understating the number at the end for the various "specials" each week a tidy amount accrued to the manager's credit. Pat knew all these and other tricks of the trade, and appreciated my discretion in minding my own business. Thus Pat and I got along very well indeed.
The A&P job had for me even more important advantages than the extra earnings. The store was located on Columbus Avenue, west of Central Park, inhabited at that time by a predominantly non-Jewish middle class. Here I heard a much more refined English, enunciated in a manner that I felt was "native" American, which I tried to copy because of the awareness that my pronunciation left much to be desired. In addition, the working hours were somewhat shorter than at the other place, giving me extra time for study of the heavy load of courses I carried at Rhodes Prep.
2. City College
By June 1924, having accumulated the required number of Regents credits, I applied for admission to the College of the City of New York. To my consternation the application was rejected because a newly adopted rule required the taking of College Entrance Board examinations despite the completion of the Regents credits. The Regents exams were taken usually within a short time of the study of each subject, while it was still fresh in one's mind. To pass the tough College Entrance Board tests a year or two later, when many details have been forgotten, was a much more difficult undertaking, and I had serious doubts of being able to accomplish it. It looked as if all my hard work would come to naught, and the higher education so anxiously looked forward to would remain an empty dream. I thought the new requirements very unfair, and resolved to put up a fight. I wrote a letter of protest to the College pointing out the inequity of expecting me to abide by the new rules after I had put in so much effort in reliance on the old requirements; called attention to the incompatibility of ex post facto laws with our judicial concepts and the principles of democracy; and implied that I might take my case to the court of public opinion through the medium of the press. It worked. I was offered admission to the Evening Session only, by way of a face-saving compromise, and since I was in no condition financially to attend the Day Session anyway, I happily agreed and became a student at the College in September 1924, my dream finally realized.
My original plan was to take an academic course, majoring in education for a teaching career, but was dissuaded by well-meaning people who felt that because of my strong foreign accent I would not be accepted as a teacher in the city's school system. This misgiving was enhanced by the difficulties I encountered in the public speaking courses, obligatory for all students, which led me to the conclusion that I will never speak like a native American. By the time I found out how wrong this advice was, too much precious time had been spent in studying other subjects, and it was too late to go back. So, after two semesters at the main campus uptown I transferred to the School of Business and Civic Administration (now Baruch College) on East Twenty-third Street, and switched to Accountancy. At that time classes were still being held in the original red-brick building which had housed City College since its foundation in 1847. It remained in use until 1928, the year I was graduated and presented with the Diploma of Graduate in Accountancy. The building was thereafter torn down and replaced by a large modern structure able to accommodate the greatly increased student body. We all felt sad at the end of the last semester when we said good-by to the "old red schoolhouse" which we came to be fond of despite the creaking floors, rickety stairs, and cramped accommodations. Sic transit. . . .
The four years (evenings) spent at City College were very fruitful. In addition to broadening my education and providing me with a profession, the college atmosphere, the contact with other students and the instructors, and their matter-of-fact acceptance of me helped me to acquire a sense of belonging and of having broken into the mainstream of American life. A powerful boost in this direction came when I reached a new milestone on August 26, 1927. On that memorable day I was admitted to citizenship at the Supreme Court of Bronx County and swore allegiance to the United States of America. I was happy indeed to acquire all the rights and assume all the obligations of citizenship, and readily forgave the Founding Fathers of this republic for the one disqualification that set me apart from native Americans--I was and remain ineligible to become President of these United States.
With one exception, all the professors and instructors at college came up to my expectations. They exhibited devotion to their task, helped the students to understand and really learn the subjects, and lived up to the high standards of their profession. Especially memorable is the professor who taught business law, because of the way he made that apparently dry subject come to life by citing actual cases, giving the pros and cons of the intricate legal principles involved, and then asking us to render a decision. Another unforgettable instructor was a gaunt elderly man with a dour countenance who taught English composition. His betes noires were stereotypes and hackneyed expressions. Whenever he came across one of these he would mutter contemptuously in his pronounced Irish brogue: "Mary Pickford! Whether in a love scene or shipwreck, her curl is always over the left shoulder!" We found out soon enough that his stern look belied the inner warmth of his soul, and we all loved and admired him.
The one exception mentioned almost shattered my faith in America. I met the man the very first evening of my attendance at CCNY in September 1924, when I reported to his class in Public Speaking. There were about twenty-five students in the class, and he began by having each one read a phrase that went somewhat like this: "The burly young man with the curly long hair was singing a song and ringing a gong on the way to Long Island early in the morning." At the end of the hour he asked several students, including me, to see him individually in another room. He told me that my pronunciation was very bad, and that I needed special tutoring. He asked when it would be convenient for me to come to his residence for additional lessons. In my naivete' I assumed that it was part of his job to give such help to backward students, and expressed my profound gratitude. I explained that Sunday was my only free day from work, but that was not suitable for him. He suggested that I come during my lunch hour on Saturday, asking my employer for some extra time off. I came to his residence at the appointed time, eager for the lesson, but what I learned almost put me in a state of shock. The man told me amiably that he normally charged twenty dollars per lesson, but in view of my financial situation (which he made sure to learn at the original interview) he will charge me only ten dollars; and that I will need at least ten lessons, for a total of one hundred dollars. After overcoming the initial shock I told him that I am helping to support my parents and seven children in Poland, and consequently cannot afford the lessons. The man persisted, stating that without the lessons I will not pass the course, but that if I take them he will guarantee that I get "not just a C, but a B and possibly an A." As I still refused to agree, he lowered the price to five dollars per lesson, but by then I had enough. I told him that in all the years of my schooling I have never failed a course; that I am going to work doubly hard in his class; and that if I get a failing mark I will file an appeal. To my utter disgust he came out with: "At least pay me the five dollars for this lesson!". "I am sorry," was all I could bring out, and stalked out of the room, angry, bewildered, and ashamed that such a person should be teaching at a government institution. The bribery of school officials in Brisk came to my mind, but that was in Tsarist Russia, where such things were common. But this was America, the land of freedom and democracy! How could it happen here? What should be done to put a stop to this outrage?
After brooding over the shocking discovery during the rest of the weekend, I decided to search out the other five students whom I recalled having been singled out during the first session, to learn if they had undergone the same treatment and to coordinate with them some action for putting a stop to it. Three of the boys flatly refused to talk about the matter; the remaining two admitted having agreed to take the "lessons" and pay for them, justifying their conduct with the argument that they knew of their deficiency in pronunciation, could not take any chances of getting a failing mark in the course, and that it was worth for them to spend the money if the man was going to help them. I pointed out the immorality and depravity of the deed, on their own part as well as that of the instructor, and urged them to join me in a complaint to the college administration, but they flatly refused, stating that if questioned they would deny everything. I was thoroughly disgusted, but could not give up. I went to the dean of the department and told him what happened. He was visibly embarrassed, and I gained the impression that my account was not the first one he heard. He was sympathetic, but made no promises, suggesting that I try to persuade at least one of the other boys to testify, since without corroborative evidence "it is your word against his." I tried again, but got no cooperation. Nevertheless I think that something was done behind the scenes, because the following semester we had a different instructor. As for me, the man apparently thought better of his threat that "you will not pass the course" and gave me a C, and there the matter ended.
This incident perturbed me greatly when it happened. In the Jewish tradition teaching is one of the noblest professions, as witness the honorific titles Reb, Rav, Rabbi, Rabeinu, all derived from the root word meaning teaching or enlightening. I just could not make peace with the fact that a college instructor could resort to blackmailing poor struggling students and extort money from them. I am glad to be able to say that this was the only sordid occurrence of that nature I ever heard of at City College. I consider this episode as the exception which underlines its general excellence, and am grateful indeed for having been privileged to attend this great institution.
3. Rough Path
My employment as a store clerk was not a matter of choice, but of necessity. Not having any trade and in need of supporting myself as well as helping my family in Poland, I was only too glad to take the first job offered to me--that of clerk in a delicatessen store. Having acquired some experience in this line, I was constrained to stick to it, changing jobs only for a better salary, better location (nearer to school), or when fired. Since the days of our krom in Shershev I had a distaste for retail selling, involving as it did a dependence on, and a certain subservience to the customer. Even though there was no crass bargaining here, one still had to listen to complaints about prices being cheaper at a competitor's, fruit and vegetables being either not ripe or over-ripe, eggs not being fresh, and so on. I abhorred the thought of ever operating a store of my own, and in fact turned down a lucrative offer of a partnership that would have tripled my earnings. I did my work conscientiously but always hoped to advance to some professional position, and knew that only education could lead me to it. The determination to study caused me to be fired from not a few jobs.
I always took three courses at college, requiring me to be there from 7:30 to 10:30 every weekday evening. My working hours were usually supposed to be from 7:00 A.M. to 7:00 P.M., leaving me only thirty minutes to get to school. For this reason I could accept a job only on Manhattan's upper West Side when attending the uptown campus, and further downtown after transferring to the School of Business and Civic Administration. When applying for a job I always pointedly explained to the prospective employer that I must leave at seven o'clock sharp, and refused the job unless he agreed. However, a store is not a factory where you can stop when the whistle blows. At 7:00 P. M. people were just getting home from work and the food stores were crowded with shoppers. Though forewarned, the boss resented my taking off the apron and leaving the customers, who were in a hurry to get home and sometimes voiced complaints about the "clock-watching" clerk. No wonder then that my week's wages on Saturday night were often accompanied by a notice not to report on Monday morning. I understood the boss's predicament, but that did not make my own plight any easier.
One job I lost for an entirely different reason. The store was operated by an elderly couple who were quite happy to have me, in addition to my normal duties, take care of their little record keeping, bill paying, et cetera, since they were a bit rusty at figuring. One of the deliverymen working for the Borden milk company customarily left his products outside the store entrance very early in the morning, before the store opened, and would come back about noon to collect his money. By that time he had had a few drinks, and the bill he presented seldom agreed with what was due, as I knew from the record I made when I took the stuff in. His errors were as likely to be in our favor as in his. My employers did not mind when I corrected the overcharges, but objected when the situation was reversed. "We are not paying you to take care of Borden's business," was their complaint. It did no good when I explained to them that Borden will charge the man the full value of the products he got at the warehouse, regardless of what he collects--they still thought I had no business protecting the man's interests. The controversy went on until the day a Board of Health inspector was due for his monthly appearance, supposedly to check on the sanitary conditions in the store. As he did not show up by the time my employers were ready to go up to their apartment above the store for lunch, as was their wont, they told me to give him three dollars should he arrive during their absence. I demurred, but my objections were brushed aside. "It's not your money, so what do you care!" Well, the man showed up while they were still upstairs, hung around for a while waiting for the handout, and finally realizing that he was not getting it issued a summons on some pretext. This was the last straw, and by Saturday night I was out of a job again.
4. The Goal
Shortly after becoming a citizen I took examinations for three civil service positions: clerk in the New York City Finance Department; Yiddish / Russian court interpreter; and United States Immigrant Inspector. I passed all three examinations, coming out as number one on the interpreter list. I felt elated, and expected to be appointed as an interpreter within a short time. But weeks went by, and I noticed from the lists being published in the civil service magazine The Chief that people below me were being selected while my name still appeared on the top. Inquiries elicited only vague and noncommittal answers. Finally some people advised me to "see" the block captain of the Democratic Party in my neighborhood, as otherwise "You'll never get the job." This was repugnant to me, but in my great anxiety to get away from the retail store work, and obtain such a distinguished position as a court interpreter, I decided to follow the advice.
On an evening during the winter of 1928--1929 I put on my best clothes and set out through the snow toward the party clubhouse a few blocks away from my residence. As I kept on walking my feet became heavier and heavier, my progress slower and slower, and my resolution weaker and weaker. On reaching the place I said to myself: "You must go through with it!", walked up the few steps of the porch and opened the door. A cloud of vapor from the overheated room almost obscured my view, but once inside I took in at a glance the men sitting or standing along the walls and around the desk at the far side, some in shirtsleeves, some with their hats on their heads, and all eyes turned upon me as if saying: "Who are you and what do you want?" All my resolve vanished at once, I turned around and left the room without a word, breathing in the fresh air outside with a feeling of having just escaped the clutches of Satan. Needless to say, I never got the job of court interpreter.
After completing school in June 1928 and receiving my Accountancy Diploma I began looking for work with an accounting firm in order to get the two years of practical experience prerequisite for taking the examination of Certified Public Accountant. Here I struck a new, and insuperable, snag. Several firms were willing to take me on, but either without any salary at all, or with such miserly pay that it amounted to the same thing. The highest offer was eight dollars a week! In bitter disappointment I gave up my quest and settled for a job as a bookkeeper, actually a euphemism for an accounts receivable clerk, with a private company at twenty-five dollars a week. Even this was a setback financially, since I was already earning thirty-two dollars as a store clerk, but I just had to get away from that work and salvage something from my accountancy training.
The search for a bookkeeping job also led to my direct encounter with antisemitic discrimination for the first time. In addition to answering newspaper advertisements I registered with several employment agencies. At one of these I was told that they had a position for which I was eminently suitable, except for one drawback- my being a Jew. It was not put to me that crudely--they asked if I knew any German. To my question as to what bearing that had on a bookkeeping job, they said: "Your name sounds German. If you want the job state on the application that you are of German nationality." Curious to see how antisemitism works in practice in America, I took the referral slip from the agency and went to the office of Bernarr Macfadden Publications, in the vicinity of Columbus Circle. A very polite, and pretty, receptionist gave me an application to be filled out then and there, and sure enough, one question asked for nationality (in addition to another question about citizenship). I wrote "Jewish" in answer to the first. The receptionist examined the completed form, smiled sweetly, and said: "Thank you, Mr. Auerbach. We will let you know if we decide to take you on." That was the last I heard from them, but the man at the employment agency berated me for my foolishness: "You could have had the job--you have just the qualifications they asked for!"
In June 1929, without the blessing of a ward heeler, I was appointed as a tax examiner at the Finance Department of New York City at $1560.00 per annum. The work was only a notch above clerical, but it appeased my ego somewhat and brought proof that not all city jobs were cleared with party block captains.
Then, six months later, came an offer of the position I had practically given up as unreachable that of Immigrant Inspector with the United States Immigration Service. After an oral interview and the usual paper work involved, I received the appointment in January, 1930 at the to me fabulous salary of $2100.00 a year, with an assured promotion to $2500.00 within two years if I successfully passed the probationary period. Thus after eight and a half years I returned to Ellis Island, not as a frightened and penniless immigrant, but as an arbiter over the fate of countless other aliens seeking a haven in the promised land. I remained with the Service, in various positions, for nearly thirty-six years until I retired in December 1965 with honor and the feeling of having done a good job.