In his debut as an author, television, film and Broadway star Robert Klein takes his signature observational humor back to his roots. Klein recounts both the light and dark moments of his childhood as he describes his overly cautious parents, innocence lost on the New York streets, and adventures as a busboy. Read an excerpt from “The Amorous Busboy of Decatur Avenue: A Child of the Fifties Looks Back.”
My grandparents came from the two largest cities in Hungary — Budapest and Debretzen — in 1903. My mother and father were born and raised in Manhattan, and my childhood and that of my sister, Rhoda, were spent in the Bronx, so the great outdoors was not exactly in the lexicon of my urban parents, being a concept as alien to them as reading the catechism. The only hunting my father ever did was for bargains at Macy's, though he did bring home a copy of Field & Stream once that he found on the subway, and read it on the toilet. When he moved his bowels he liked to price kayaks. My mother hated eating at outdoor barbecues and was particularly disgusted by insects, so when a picnic was unavoidable, she never packed rye bread with seeds, because the seeds looked like ants. She made a big deal about mosquito bites and the danger of infection, and I got the impression early on that the world outside our home was a dangerous place. Any contemplation of an activity that involved risk was discarded as foolhardy. As a result, I was not destined to be an explorer or a test pilot or an airborne ranger or a motorcycle daredevil.
My mother and father were careful, cautious people; wary people. This ensured the certainty of careful, cautious children; wary children. In my sixteen years living in our apartment building, there was never a crime committed on the block. Nevertheless, when our doorbell rang, my sister and I were instructed to always ask: "Who is it?" and never open the door unless there was a response and the respondent was someone known to us. Anyone else had to be viewed through the peephole in the double-locked steel door. We lived on the sixth floor and viewed the world through well-placed window guards and stern warnings about leaning out too far. Parental invocations repeated over and over again like mantras became well absorbed and governed a good deal of how I dealt with my childhood world. This was, of course, their purpose. "Be careful, be careful, watch out, watch out, don't take any chances, it's not safe, it's not safe, that can take your eye out, stop that, you'll get hurt, you can lose a leg doing that, don't take candy from strangers." These were just a few.
Not unexpectedly, caution became my modus operandi. My entire childhood was pervaded by endless warnings and pleadings and reminders of dire consequences: "Watch out for that lamp cord! If you're going out at night, wear white so the cars can see you! Never touch a light switch with wet hands! My God, don't cut that bagel toward your neck!" Statistically speaking, the possibility of severing one's head while slicing a bagel seemed remote indeed, yet Ben and Frieda Klein took no chances. Danger lurked everywhere. Even the garbage incinerator had a poster full of warnings promising five years in prison for throwing carpets or naphtha down the chute. I didn't even know what naphtha was, but I pitied those naughty souls in Sing Sing who were doing hard time for throwing it out with the garbage. I felt equally bad for those criminals who, in a fit of pique or defiance, had torn the tags off their mattresses. Yet it was their own fault, as they should have been forewarned by the clearly visible printed admonition.
This atmosphere of constant vigilance and circumspection put a definite crimp in my activities. For example, it was the passion of the little boys on the block to act out the movies we saw every Saturday at the David Marcus Theatre on Jerome Avenue. Period pictures like "Robin Hood" and movies about pirates, the ones with dueling scenes, were special favorites. We would fashion swords out of appropriate pieces of wood or branches that we found where we played, in the vacant lots that would not be built on for another five years. One day my father, in his bellowing voice, called me to supper from the sixth-floor window while I was in the middle of a furious duel with Michael Newman from Apartment 2F. Then my father screamed at the top of his lungs a bone-chilling addendum to the dinner call, that embarrassed me in front of all the other pirates: "Stop it now! You're gonna take your eye out! Oh, you're gonna get it when you come up here! Are you gonna get it!" I reluctantly cast away my sword, which everyone leaped for because it was a beauty. I had spent much time shaving the bark and shaping a large twig from the sumac trees that abounded in the area and had survived the ecological insult of castaway junk and discarded tires. Alas, I was not as hardy as they were, and it was I who had to face my furious father.
It was an anxious and unhappy trip up the elevator home. Though my father was frequently more bark than bite, that bark could be terrifying, along with the anticipation of an occasional smack. I did receive a hard one across the face this time, signifying the seriousness he attached to the issue. In short, my dueling days were over, at least during the hours that my father might be home, though I had to be careful lest some adult neighbor tell on me.
I was forbidden a cap gun for playing cowboys and Indians because my father considered caps to be explosives, and besides, he said, "It gives me a headache." My mother said she'd heard of a boy who went deaf from a cap gun. Certain bad boys would light fires among the rubbish in the lots, sometimes bringing a fire truck to the scene — an event that caused much excitement and heads popping out of windows. In order to make sure I never lit fires, my father issued a two-pronged warning. First he reminded me of the pain associated with fire, and second that if I were caught, I would have a criminal record. Could reform school be far behind? The possibility of a life behind bars, like the animals in the Bronx Zoo, was quite an unappealing prospect.
No lesson was more repeated than the absolute command to look both ways before stepping into the street, which was referred to as the gutter. This was boilerplate stuff for all neighborhood children, as we lived in an urban environment with a fair amount of vehicular traffic, and the street was our playground. We were taught a song in school called "Let the Ball Roll," though we all forgot at times. These were the words of the song: "Let the ball roll, let the ball roll. / No matter where it may go, let the ball roll. / Let the ball roll. It has to stop somewhere, you know. / Often a truck will flatten the ball. / And make it look like an egg. / Though you can get many a ball, / you never can get a new leg." The song notwithstanding, there wasn't one of us who had not had a frightening close call while chasing a ball into the street, with a car screeching noisily to a stop and a cursing driver relieved to know that he had not killed someone's child.
As usual, my father took the radical scary approach and made use of object lessons, frequently showing me newspaper accounts and pictures of boys hit by cars, maimed by firecrackers, burned by starting fires, killed by falling out of buildings, disabled by baseball bats, and paralyzed by horseplay they saw in the movies. On-site object lessons, when available, were also part of his repertoire. On one occasion he pulled me out of a curb-ball game hard by the arm and began walking me down the Decatur Avenue hill toward Gun Hill Road. "Where're we going, Dad? I was in the middle of a game."
"Never mind your game. This is more important. This is life and death." I could see a crowd and a police car in front of Frank's fruit store. My father, never letting go of my arm, forced his way through the crowd toward the object of everybody's curiosity. It was a horrifying sight. A woman was lying barely conscious in the gutter. She had been hit by a car, her grocery bag spilled over, with potatoes and apples rolling down the steep hill toward Webster Avenue. Her right leg was terribly mangled and bloodied so I could see the bone. The blood flowed down the hill as well, forming tiny eddies in the grooves and bulges of the cobblestones. I was stunned and felt sick. My father grabbed me aside. "See that? That's what happens when you don't look both ways."
"How do you know she didn't look both ways, Dad? Maybe she did and the driver didn't see her."
"Don't be a wise guy," he replied.
My mother had her own crusade for safety and longevity. When I requested her written permission to play hardball in the Police Athletic League, she looked at me incredulously, like I was a lunatic asking to eat a bicycle, and said, "Hardball? Hardball?" She hardly contained her emotion as she launched into a quick and illustrative horror story (she always had one on hand) of a boy mutilated by a hardball. Her voice would always drop to a somber sotto voce whisper when she got to the description of the affliction: "Hardball? Sure, like that boy on Hull Avenue who got a hardball right in the head. [whispers] He walks backward now."
"How about football?" I suggested.
"Football? Football? Like that boy on Perry Avenue who got hit by all those boys and now [whispers] he can't spell his name and thinks he's Abraham Lincoln. He was an excellent student, and now he sells The Bronx Home News and plays potsy with the girls."
Even playing checkers had its risks and parental provisos, though it was not forbidden. "A boy on Webster Avenue [whispers] died from a checker." Yes, the idiot had tried to swallow one and choked in full view of three friends, or so the story went. Anyway, what could you expect thirty years before the Heimlich maneuver? I never had even the slightest desire to swallow a checker.
My father played baseball as a kid on East Seventy-seventh Street, and he regaled me with stories of his adventures as a catcher in hostile neighborhoods. He referred to the oft-quoted definition of catchers' equipment as "the tools of ignorance," because it was, he emphasized, the most dangerous position on the field and was to be avoided. Never mind that he played catcher; the point was that his experience should be enough to keep me from a similar fate. There was an implication that he had suffered so I wouldn't have to, though I suspect he had a lot of fun playing catcher despite the lumps and bumps. Like many American fathers, he taught his son to catch and throw. When I was very little, he naturally threw softly to me. The trouble was that in the name of safety, he continued to throw like that to me when I was twelve and older. At a time when my friends and I threw fast and hard in pepper games, my father was lobbing baby throws and yelling, "Careful! Watch out!"
Softball was acceptable as long as I didn't play catcher or slide, and watched out for swinging bats. There came a time, I believe it was the age of nine, when my father decided I was old enough to get a proper glove, bat, and hard ball — with conditions. "Listen to me," he said. "Never, never throw a hard ball at someone's head." This admonition seemed self-evident, but I solemnly promised. "Keep your eye on your mitt, and don't let anybody steal it. Most of all, watch out that you don't get hit in the head with a bat and never never swing your bat around anyone else."
"Okay, Daddy, I promise."
The Hijinks sporting-goods store, located under the noisy elevated Woodlawn train across from the movie theater, was the sports-equipment mecca for the neighborhood boys. Anytime we passed the store, we would press our noses to the window to admire the merchandise. But today I was not just looking. Today was to be that most joyous and rare occasion when an actual purchase would be made. Jinks himself, the proprietor, showed us an assortment of left-handed mitts and beautiful bats. The smell of new leather permeated the place, with row upon row of boxes holding treasures that every boy wants, school jackets and authentic uniforms. I chose a first-baseman's glove, a Ferris Fain model, and a smallish brown bat, a Frankie Frisch model. Actually, my father chose the bat. Frisch had been an excellent bunter for the New York Giants of the thirties, and I think my safety-conscious father reckoned that I would emulate the bat's bunting namesake and rarely swing it. On the walk home, my father extolled the virtues of bunting and how important it was to the game. He strangely omitted the fact that bunting involves facing the pitcher with your legs spread and your fingers exposed, so if no contact was made, a boy could take a ball in the balls.
I carried the bat, rubbing my hand along its smooth surface, feeling its heft and the perfectly formed knob on the end. I shadow-bunted as we walked, in homage to my father. His warnings in mind, I nevertheless wanted to try a swing, so I ran thirty feet ahead of him to a place on the sidewalk without people. I swung and announced in radio fashion that I'd just hit a home run to win the World Series. "Watch out there," my father said. Then he caught up to me, and I ran ahead again and swung again and homered again. On the next at-bat, I took an imaginary pitch for a ball. On the next pitch, I swung and hit something. It was my father's head. He let out a "Yow!" and grabbed his head, and I was afraid that I'd killed him like that boy in the New York Post who had whacked his brother. "I'm sorry, Daddy, oh God, I'm sorry! Are you okay?" He just rubbed his jaw and said, "See? I told you not to swing it around people! I told you!"
I went from horrified to ashamed as he took the bat from my hands. The amazing thing was that despite his pain, he actually seemed pleased that the incident had happened, that it had vindicated his lectures on caution. "I told you. Now you'll learn." He preferred being someone who was hit by a bat and could say "I told you so" to prove his point. After all, what would I have learned if I hadn't hit anybody? He made sure I knew he was feeling pain. As a lesson, in addition to fear, there was guilt, which could also make a strong impression on me.
One of the most interesting of the ironclad safety measures was that my father insisted I wait one hour after eating before going in swimming; something about dangerous cramping. This was probably derived from some myth about a kid who drowned in the East River in 1924 after eating an entire pot roast. Waiting a bit after a meal before swimming is not a bad idea. But with true Ben Klein hyperbole, I was warned that if I didn't wait one full hour and not a second less, I would instantly sink like a rock and die a choking, gurgling death. "You'll go right to Davy Jones's locker," my father would say ominously. I had a rough idea of what Davy Jones's locker was: a place of ruin and dead bodies and sharks eating them. The specter of death by drowning is a potent one to a ten-year-old. I recalled a scene from a movie in which a man was tortured by having his head held underwater until he was begging for mercy and nearly dead. I remembered being held underwater myself by bigger boys during horseplay, and I had never forgotten being knocked over by an ocean wave, most of which I inhaled, and the desperate fight for breath, which I thought would never come again.
I was therefore scrupulous about waiting the full amount of time, regardless of the hot sun and the sight of other kids swimming happily ten minutes after eating. Their parents were evidently irresponsible. The idea of waiting exactly one hour was etched into my brain like a mental tattoo, as if the food would know precisely what period of time had passed since I ate it. One hour — okay; fifty-nine minutes — dead. When I got a little older, my father explained that I really didn't need to wait a full hour. The actual amount of time a child would have to wait before swimming depended on what the child ate, and my father was the arbiter at the pool or beach who would decide such things. "What did you have, a tuna-salad sandwich? With a pickle?"
"Thirty-three minutes. Peanut butter and jelly? Twenty-seven minutes. Bologna and cheese? Forty-two minutes. Frankfurters and beans? Too heavy. You can't go in swimming this year."
Protecting the children from harm is admirable, but there are limits, and I sometimes got the sense that my mother and father would have preferred to keep me wrapped up in a padded room at home for safety's sake: hardly a prescription for an intrepid child. In retrospect, I would say my parents had a different approach to child rearing than, say, Evel Knievel's parents, or the Flying Wallendas of circus aerial fame. With all due respect, the family Wallenda has exhibited certain lemming-like tendencies and has diminished considerably in size over the years. This is a result of their specialty, the most dangerous aerial stunt ever performed. It is called the Seven and consists of a pyramid of seven Wallendas with a young lady on a chair at the top. It is performed about sixty feet above the arena with, quite literally, no net. The unfortunate dearth of Wallendas can be traced to this questionable no-net policy stubbornly adhered to by the family and its patriarch, Karl Wallenda. My mother would not have approved of my participation in such an enterprise, and never would have signed the permission form. My father would have shown me newspaper photos of a splattered aerialist on the circus floor to discourage me from such pursuits. It was a sad fact but true, something I had to live with every day of my childhood: I would never climb Mount Everest.
From the book “The Amorous Busboy of Decatur Avenue: A Child of the Fifties Looks Back,” by Robert Klein.” Copyright ©2005 by Robert Klein Company Inc. Published by Simon and Schuster. No part of this excerpt can be used without permission of the publisher.