Tuesday, October 6, 2009

An Excert from Beg, Borrow, Steal: A Writer's Life

Tomorrow writer Michael Greenberg joins Edmund White for a Tenement Talk on their new books, both memoirs. Below is an excerpt of Greenberg's Beg, Borrow, Steal: A Writer's Life, in which he visits the Tenement Museum.

It's always interesting to view our little museum through a visitor's eyes; we know its stories and spaces so intimately that we sometimes forget what kind of a first impression 97 Orchard Street makes on people. The experience is always personal, as you'll see with Michael's story.

Join us tomorrow night, 6:30 pm, at 108 Orchard Street.


By Michael Greenberg

Excerpted from BEG, BORROW, STEAL: A Writer's Life by Michael Greenberg. Copyright (c) 2009 Michael Greenberg. Reprinted by arrangement with Other Press LLC

Having a couple of hours to kill on the Lower East Side, I wander into the Tenement Museum at 97 Orchard Street. Five choked railroad flats have been recreated with a realism that throws me anxiously into what I imagine to have been the squalor of my paternal grandfather’s first years in New York. The apartments are on display, like artworks into which you can enter, and Pedro, one of the museum’s “educators,” guides a dozen visitors up the building’s tenebrous stairs.

Seven thousand immigrants from twenty countries lived in the tenement between 1863, the year it was built, and 1935, when the landlord, too stretched to comply with a fire-proofing ordinance, turned everyone out. Afterwards, a discount clothing store on the ground floor stored its excess merchandise in the cold rooms upstairs. In 1998 [TM note: it was actually 1988], it had the undisturbed look of a nineteenth century time capsule and was turned into a museum.

Pedro leads us into the reconfigured digs of Nathalia Gumpertz, a German-born single mother of four who moved into the building during the Panic of 1873, when businesses failed, the Stock Exchange temporarily closed, and unemployment rocketed. Tiny windowless rooms; an outhouse shared with customers of the bar downstairs. “The neighborhood was known as Kleindeutschland back then,” Pedro informs us. “It had the fifth largest concentration of German speakers in the world.”

By 1890, East Europeans had overrun Kleindeutschland, and the Lower East Side was the most densely populated neighborhood in America. Twenty years later, my immigrant grandfather hit these streets, “a shtetl nobody,” as he called himself, fifteen years of age, patching discarded trash cans and selling them to slum landlords about town. He bounced from place to place, sleeping where he could, until he was married and moved into a cold water tenement a few blocks from Orchard Street, on Grand. “Mrs. Gumpertz’s great-great-grandson was killed in the World Trade Center,” says Pedro, showing us the picture of a dark-eyed middle aged man.

Pedro ushers us in to the carefully assembled apartment of Harris and Jenny Levine, who lived in their own sweatshop. Everything is organized in its joyless way for work: flat irons on a coal stove, piles of dress sleeves waiting to be basted. A steel bucket with a blanket set in it is where the newborn baby was kept. The single stained bed is no more than a place to collapse. Peeled layers of pasteboard, enamel and linoleum on the floor give it the look of a trampled collage.

After the tour, I feel mildly rebuked when a museum spokeswoman tells me: “This is a site of conscience, not of nostalgia. People personalize what they see, it’s only natural. But we invite our visitors to reflect on the tenement’s contemporary implications. ‘What now? What next? What does life look like to an immigrant in New York today?’” Some people in the museum world thought this approach absurd. “They said we sounded like a social service agency.”

Leaving the museum and walking around the corner, I am confronted with a luxury condominium tower with blue pixilated windows like so many sparkling computer screens. The Lower East Side is one of the four most lucrative neighborhoods in the US in which to buy real estate, with a price appreciation of 125 per cent during the past two years.*

I pass the lopsided former tenement on Grand Street where my grandparents brought up their four children. It’s spruced up now as a one-family home. I picture my Uncle Ellie in those rooms. Seven years older than my father, he bore the mark of those harsh times in a way that my father, more confident and American, did not. Instead of joining the family scrap-metal business, Ellie worked as a crane operator, sliding about in his perch near the skylights of one warehouse or another like a demon in a flying cage. Even near death he was a seething heap of a man, six foot three, his outsized face lit with shattered capillaries and veins.

In 1983, at my father’s request, I accompanied Ellie to the hospital emergency room. “I can’t get myself to do it, Michael. He’s my only brother.” When Ellie was settled in his room, I helped him put on the standard hospital gown. “Where’s Bernie?” he wanted to know, referring to my father. “Why isn’t he here?”

As I was hanging up his pants, an enormous wad of money tumbled to the floor. Ellie insisted that I count it: $493 in singles and fives. “Keep it,” he said. The bills were almost untouchable -- Ellie had been incontinent -- yet without hesitation I stuffed them, reeking and soiled, in my pockets.

I returned to my apartment on the Lower East Side, in a public housing project with a concrete playground that had replaced dozens of razed tenements. Improved living for the poor. I laid out Ellie’s money, with all its sordid, scavenger power. My need for it was a mockery of my attempts to transcend what I regarded as my family’s grasping, immigrant-minded ways. Yet in a crisscross of logic, my very desire for the money drove me to hand it over to my father. As a grown man my father sometimes came home from their scrap-metal yard with blood dribbling out of the corner of his mouth where my grandfather had slugged him. They fought over the business that had lifted them out of the slums. Was it because it had been so scarce that money brought its new version of misery?

After drying the bills on a clothes-line in my bathroom, I invited my father to come over. “Ellie gave me something for you,” I told him. He had never visited me there, and I tried to imagine what my life in that building would look like to him. Two of the three elevators were out of order, and he had to wait fifteen minutes to ride up to my apartment on the nineteenth floor. Walking down the hall, he glimpsed the interior of my Chinese neighbors’ place, their door ajar, as usual, ten or more restaurant workers lying side by side on red blankets across the floor. Maintaining my illusion of purity, I handed him Ellie’s money, folded neatly in a plastic bag.

He took it and left. Or so I thought -- until I found it on the little table by the door. It was just enough to pay a month’s rent.

*Prices calculated from September 2004 to September 2006

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