My Parents’ Friends
by Jacob Margolies
When I remember my parents, I often end up thinking about their friends.
My father, the son of Jewish immigrants, grew up in Boston. After serving in the army in World War II and four years of college on the GI Bill, he ended up in New York in the 1950s. He taught at different public schools and worked at a small advertising firm, while going to night school at NYU.
My mother, a first generation immigrant from England, grew up in the town of Banbury and in 1956 came to America to teach at a girls high school in Garden City, Long Island. When she was returning to visit her parents in England, she found herself sitting next to my father on what back then was a 16-hour plane ride. Two years later they were married. A couple of years after that, my twin brother and I were born, and we moved into a rent-controlled apartment on the Lower East Side at the corner of Avenue A and 3rd Street.
As kid and as a young adult, I spent a great deal of time with my parents’ friends; so much time that they assumed in my mind the role of an extended family. My mother’s parents never came to the United States and we only visited them every couple of years. The family of my father was closer, but his relations with them were strained. My father had married outside the faith, a disappointment to his relatives. During our rare visits to see his mother in Boston, my father’s bleak mood filtered down to me and my brothers and my mother.
So it was my parents’ friends whom I got to know and who got know me. A collection of visitors regularly appeared at the apartment. On occasion some would camp out in our living room for a week as they moved from one sublet to another. And my parents’ very best friends, nearly all displaced persons in one way or another, were for over 40 years regular guests for great feasts at our 10th floor apartment on Thanksgiving and Christmas Eve.
The guests have arrived and are gathered in the living room. An elderly man with a stoop in his back is talking to slightly less elderly woman. They are sharing confidences of some kind. I’m a kid, and when I start to listen in they switch from English to Russian and then to French. A woman wearing a yellow scarf is speaking in Italian to a Black man. They are sitting next to me on the sofa. Across from me there’s a fleshy-faced middle age man whose nose has been broken a few times. He is telling my father a story that goes over my head. My father doesn’t laugh often, but this evening he is laughing. A Benny Goodman and Charlie Christian number Boy Meets Goy is playing on the turntable. Some people are drinking cynar, an aperitif, derived from artichoke and other plants. I’m hungry. My mother and a man named George, who is wearing an apron and helping her with the cooking, are dashing back and forth from the kitchen to the living room. I am ready for dinner. These grown ups though are an interesting cast of characters.
One of the regulars at holiday meals was a sad-eyed man with a reddish brown beard who wore a perpetual expression of incredulity. George Wellwarth had taught at Staten Island Community College for a couple of years where he became friends with my father. George’s subsequent academic peregrinations, much to his everlasting sorrow, had taken him out of New York City, first to the center of Pennsylvania and later to Binghamton, New York. He had a nasal English accent with a faint Teutonic tinge, and his speech was accompanied by a constant stream of grunts and snorts. The effect was accentuated by a collection of facial expressions and double takes that made one think of a comedian—maybe Groucho Marx or Jackie Gleason.
George had been born in Vienna in 1932 and escaped the Nazis as part of the Kindertransport that brought thousands of refugee Jewish children to England. After the war, he moved to New York.
George and my mother were the same age and shared the war experience of young children in England–air raids, rationing, gas masks. I remember my mom sorrowfully saying to me, “I don’t think the English children were very nice to him—imagine being a small boy separated from your parents, living with strangers, not speaking the language, and the children that you go to school with looking at you as an enemy German.”
Despite his unhappy childhood, George loved English food and sometimes for a big holiday dinner, he would share in the cooking.
Those meals often included about a dozen guests. We might have a leg of lamb, Cornish hens, or roast beef. There would be potatoes, a vegetable, and Yorkshire pudding—a batter of eggs, milk, flour, and beef fat that was heated in the oven in my mother’s 12-cup muffin. For dessert my mother would make a trifle, a layered dessert that contained custard, a sherry-soaked cake, and jam, and topped off with strawberries and whipped cream. The appearance of the trifle on the dining room table would send George into paroxysms of joy. I think that I liked eating it even more than he did.
When I was very young, after dinner, George would perform bad card tricks for my brother and pull quarters out of my ear. Marcia, his wife at the time, would observe this after-dinner spectacle, while drinking scotch and smoking. She was thin and nervous with long red hair and had a long cigarette holder, similar to Audrey Hepburn’s in Breakfast at Tiffany’s, which to my young eyes seemed exotic.
When I was nine years old, my mother signed my brother and I up to become Cub Scouts. I wasn’t happy about it. It was 1969, a magical year in local sports history. The New York Jets and the New York Mets were world champions in football and baseball, and the Knicks basketball team was on its way to winning a championship. I wanted just to hang out in the schoolyard and play basketball and stickball. My heroes, Joe Namath and Walt Frazier, embodied a subversive cool and toughness.
Cub Scouts were not cool. After the second week’s meeting with my troop, my father and George came to pick me up at the meeting hall where we were gathered, a church on 14th Street. We were all asked by the scoutmaster, a tall and lean middle-aged man with a stern and imposing countenance, to hold hands and say the Scout’s Prayer. The adults who had arrived to pick up kids were asked to join. “Absolutely not,” a loud English-accented voice boomed. It was George, who was soon engaged in a very loud and contentious exchange with our scoutmaster. Much of it was beyond my comprehension, although I remember the word “brainwashing.” At one point, I wondered if George and the scoutmaster were going to begin fighting, although when I noticed my father doubled up with laughter, I felt somewhat reassured.
Afterward, as we walked back to our apartment, George said, “You don’t really want to wear that awful uniform, do you?” Actually, I had been dreading having to parade around in the scout cap, yellow and blue scarf, and blue shirt. New scouts were required, after several weeks, to buy a uniform, and that time was going to be coming soon. As we walked down 2nd Avenue, my father looked at me, and said, “You know you don’t have to be a cub scout. It’s up to you.” It was the best thing, he’d said to me in weeks. Thanks to George, my two-week career as a Cub Scout was over.
The Cub Scouts contretemps was the first, but far from the last time that I came into contact with George’s hostility to religion. Years later there was a large dinner that came to an abbreviated end when George’s relentless jousting with another family friend, who took his Catholicism quite seriously, led to angry words. My mother later told me she was quite sure at one point that the two men were going to start wrestling with each other under the dining room table.
George, who was a professor of theater, wrote a book that argued that modern drama was “an extended meditation on existential rootlessness brought on by the death of God.” I later learned that as a young boy in England he’d had been very enamored with an orthodox Rabbi who helped several hundred of the Kindertransport children, finding them non-Jewish foster homes in the countryside during the war’s duration. But for whatever reason—perhaps the Holocaust or maybe something else—George’s later attitude to religion in any form was one of resolute hostility.
As I got older and left home, I saw less of George. He remarried a British South African woman named Pam, and they seemed happy together. I remember them in my parent’s living room, a middle-aged couple, tickling each other and laughing and screaming like little children. The last couple of times I saw him his health was failing. He’d almost entirely lost the ability to speak, but he still consumed prodigious amounts of food at my parents’ apartment at Thanksgiving. The final time that I remember was when I was 40. I had developed a tiny bald spot at the top of my head. In the middle of the dinner meal, George stood up and walked behind my chair and stared at the top of my head for a full minute and laughed and laughed before returning to his chair.
He died exactly three months before two planes crashed into the World Trade Center.
In 1956 my mother, newly arrived in America, was in the teacher’s lounge on her first day of work at St. Mary’s School for Girls when she was startled by a disembodied voice instructing teachers to assemble in the school auditorium. It was the school’s principal, and the sound was emanating from an intercom system. “Oh, that’s Big Brother. Never mind him,” an older woman, noticing my mother’s surprise, commented in heavily accented English. And that was how my mother met her best friend, Radja Cuic, a history teacher at St. Mary’s.
Radja was somewhat secretive. As best I can construct the fragments, her life had not been easy. She’d survived the war years in Serbia, and afterwards had moved with her two young sons to Australia, before ending up in New York..
When I knew Radja, she lived alone, except for two parakeets, in a small one-bedroom apartment on the 5th floor of a walk-up tenement building on West 10th Street. She did a reverse commute, taking the Long Island Railroad out to Garden City. Every couple of weeks, my family would take the 9th Street crosstown bus to her home for dinner. She’d shop for us at Balducci’s, a fancy grocery store on 6th Avenue that had a butcher and green grocer. It was far superior to the neighborhood’s regular supermarkets, and Radja would describe its gourmet offerings with reverence. Like my mother, she had faced food shortages during the war and the abundance of fine food was astounding to both of them. She would usually serve us a pork and rice dish, djuvec, which she made with red or green bell peppers and tomatoes and spices that turned the rice yellow. It was fine, but what was truly spectacular was her homemade baklava, a pastry she made with layers of phyllo, a syrup made up of sugar and water, lemon juice, and walnuts.
On our birthdays, Radja always gave my brother and me five dollars each, a present that was extremely generous, especially as she had very little money. Years later, my mother told me that shortly after coming to the United States, Radja had given up one of her two children for adoption. Two boys were more than she could handle, and there was a family she knew in North Carolina that was ready to adopt one of them. Her other son Chuck, twenty years older than me, had taken up something of a 1960s hippie vagabond existence by the time I was a kid, and she was close to him.
Radja had political convictions. Perhaps because she’d experienced the brutality of war, she had no doubt that the United States should not be fighting in Vietnam. Although she led a fairly solitary life, I remember she had a little fundraiser in her apartment for Eugene McCarthy, the anti-war candidate, when he was running for president in 1968.
The West Village building she lived in was rundown, and the block did not have the gentrified ambiance of wealth that it does today. On a bus ride home from one of those dinners, I remember my parents discussing how someone had gotten into her apartment and robbed and assaulted Radja before fleeing back out the window he had entered. But she made a life for herself in New York and would talk to my parents with acuity about a foreign film she’d seen in the neighborhood or an article she’d read in the New York Review of Books.
Many years later, in the 1990s, when a series of wars engulfed the former state of Yugoslavia, I saw a different side of Radja. She was so distressed by what was happening that her dinner conversation at my parents’ that once might have involved a discussion of Shakespeare, or Ronald Reagan and Nicaragua, was instead devoted to lamentations about the displacement of Serbs from Croatia and Kosovo. During World War II, the Jews and the Serbs had both been victims of Germany and the Croatian fascist puppet regime. So there was a historical affinity that my father and the other older Jewish guests who gathered around the dinner table at my parents’ apartment felt for Serbia. But Radja’s description of what was happening in Bosnia and Kosovo was so at odds with what I was reading in the pages of the New York Times and seeing on the television news that it was hard to believe her accounts. Even for someone as brave and enlightened a Radja, the ties of family and blood seemed to take precedence over dispassionate assessment.
When she was over 80 and the stairs of her walk-up apartment were becoming more challenging, Radja moved back to Serbia. With her Social Security pension, she was able to live a better life there than she could have if she remained in New York. And she had relatives there who would help take care of her. My parents traveled to Belgrade to see her one final time, and she took them around to the city’s landmarks, including the ruins of buildings destroyed by the NATO bombing in 1999.
When my twin brother Peter was about ten years old, he used to have regular phone conversations with a middle-aged Black man named William (Bill) Demby. Their talks, as my brother recalls them, consisted of banalities, and he suspects, the calls to him were made when Bill had been drinking. My brother is blurry on the details, but thinks that they talked about baseball and TV shows. What was unusual was that Mr. Demby, who was nearly 50 years old at the time, was calling my brother at all. I can only guess that in some way Peter was filling in for Bill’s son, James, who was thousands of miles away in Italy.
Bill had written a book called The Catacombs in 1965 that my father had happened to come across at the local library. It was an “experimental” novel involving a man named Bill Demby, living in Rome, who is writing a book about a black actress who is having an affair with an Italian count. It merged real life and fictional events and included translated excerpts from Italian newspapers. My father liked the book and wrote to Bill, and a correspondence ensued. He had recently left Italy and was working at a small New York advertising agency. One of his copywriting credits was for a flea collar and had the tagline “Let Sleeping Dogs Lie.” Eventually, my dad helped Bill get a job teaching at the College of Staten Island in 1969.
Bill had grown up in Pittsburgh. During World War II he served in an African-American infantry division in North Africa and then in Naples where he recalled a ghostly landscape of bombed out buildings and stepping around dead bodies. After the war, he had gone to Fisk College, and then in 1947, determined to become a writer, he returned to Italy and settled in Rome. It was a gritty city in the immediate aftermath of the war, and Bill fell in with a group of artists. Before long he was writing English subtitles for the movies of Fellini and Roberto Rossellini and writing for American magazines. He spent nearly 20 years in Italy before returning to America.
I can picture him and my father in our living room, listening to jazz records for hours on end, the two of them tapping their feet in syncopated joy and carrying on conversations that went over my head. Fats Waller, Benny Goodman, and Thelonious Monk played on the turntable.
Bill had a low-key presence and was more likely to offer a wry observation than make a pronouncement or declaration. Several years after arriving in New York, he started living with an ebullient South African woman, Barbara Masekela. Her brother was the musician Hugh Masekela. My little brother William was especially enamored with Barbara. At the time, he had a fascination with snakes and Barbara told him, “We have lots of snakes in Africa!” She indulged my brother’s infatuation, not just with snakes but the African continent in general. His many questions were answered by her in a way that only magnified his curiosity and enthusiasm. I suppose she may have had some maternal feelings toward William. They hit it off so well that my brother went for a sleepover at Bill and Barbara’s apartment on the Upper West Side.
In the early 1980s, Barbara left Bill and New York and joined the African National Congress in Lusaka, Zambia. I suppose it would be accurate to refer to her as a revolutionary, but she was the gentlest and kindest one you could imagine. After Nelson Mandela was released from prison in 1990, she would end up becoming the head of staff in his office.
Where Bill Demby’s demeanor was understated and relaxed, Herbie Engelhardt was brash and confident. In a room full of melodic violins, he was an amplified saxophone. After turning 18 and enlisting during World War II, Herbie and my dad had both been sent by the army to Harvard to train as engineers. Several months after they arrived at Harvard, the army terminated the program. My father ended up guarding Italian and German POWs in the United States. Herbie, less fortunate, went to the South Pacific. He was wounded in Okinawa and came home with a Purple Heart. I didn’t know any of this as a child, but, even as a kid, I could tell that Herbie was grateful to be alive and hungry for experience.
He was short and wiry, and good looking with a full head of white hair. I have a memory of him sitting at our kitchen table one afternoon and picking up my mother’s little black phone book and flipping through pages, stopping each time he came to the name of a woman. After ascertaining the person wasn’t married, he would pick up the kitchen phone and dial the number and charmingly introduce himself. He made more than one girlfriend in this manner.
Herbie lived in Greenwich Village. He was divorced with two daughters, one of whom went to high school with me. As far as I could tell, he worked doing business consulting for different companies. I recall him talking about a very abbreviated stint at the CIA where his work consisted of him reading newspapers.
My father liked to recount the story of how Herbie had challenged the biggest anti-Semite in their army basic training to a boxing match, and fought him to a draw. They were both, even as old men, sensitive to the slights that they’d experienced as Jews when they were younger. For my father, it included memories of hearing Father Coughlin railing about the Jews on the most popular radio show in the United States, fighting Irish kids in Boston, and seeing signs outside hotels in Maine saying “No Jews allowed.” For Herbie, it was being turned down by one big ad agency after another in the 1950s because they didn’t hire Jews. Both of them had a visceral disgust for bigotry and prejudice.
At the age of 75, Herbie started writing poetry, explaining, “You get old and you have nothing else to do. Some people do carpentry, some people fix automobiles, and some people write poetry.”
The thing is though, as my father told me with amazement, a lot of his poems were really good. . Some were about his life in the army, some were about his sex life, some were about art, and some were about being an “assimilated American Jew.” In 2018, at the age of 93, he published World War II Poetry: Memoirs of An Ordinary Soldier.
It’s a big holiday dinner. I am on the cusp of puberty. There is a crowd around the dinner table. Food is being devoured and there are several conversations going on at once. Herbie Engelhardt is recounting to my mother, who is looking at him with an expression between bemusement and disapproval, an episode that involved him hurrying down a tenement fire escape in his underpants as a woman’s boyfriend, or maybe it was her husband, unexpectedly arrived at the apartment where his assignation was taking place. As he tells the story, the woman throws his clothes out the window after him. “Herbie, there are children here,” my mother says, which, of course, makes it much more interesting to me. Bill Demby, who played in jazz ensembles as a youth in Pittsburgh, is talking to the saxophonist Archie Shepp, who is here because his son is one of my close friends. Bill and Archie, eventually end up humming in tandem the saxophone solo of Coleman Hawkins’ version of Body and Soul. A man from France is having a lively conversation with George Wellwarth about “irony” and asks him in accented English, “Why don’t you answer my question?” It’s a question George considers for a full ten seconds before he answers, “Because you are an idiot.” The two men, as well as the others at the table, are wearing blue tissue paper crowns on their heads. It’s an English holiday tradition that has been adapted for this Thanksgiving occasion. My father’s cousin Lazare, who as a young man came to the United States through Ellis Island in 1927, is speaking with Radja. They keep switching languages, somewhat mysteriously, perhaps because they don’t want others at the table to know what they are talking about.
As all this is happening, I am getting seconds on roast beef. I am getting another muffin of the Yorkshire pudding. I am getting more potatoes. I am even getting more of the cooked carrots.
This particular dinner was nearly 50 years ago. What I have no doubt about, and what makes the greatest impression as looking back on it, is the high-spiritedness of that evening. Thinking about that and other similar nights all these years later, I am struck by the realization that these adults were all in one way or another scarred by the history of war and indiscriminate killing, racism, and genocide. None of it was ever remarked on in my presence, maybe because to talk of such things in the presence of children would be bad manners. But I don’t think that explains it. In a novel by the Spanish writer Javier Marías, the protagonist says, “Some things are so evil that it’s enough that they simply happened…They don’t need to be given a second existence by being retold.” This seemed to be the view that prevailed in that generation.
Then again, it was just a dinner party and maybe that is explanation enough.
If you’re a hungry kid, the best part of the dinner is dessert. After dinner, my mother brings out the salad because that’s how she does it. Dinner first, then salad, then dessert. I am bursting at the seams, but I will keep eating. Norwegian scientists have discovered there is a reason why the stomach makes room for dessert. Glucose—sugar to make things simple—stimulates a relaxation reflex, decreasing pressure on the stomach and reducing the sensation of being full.
When my mother brings out the trifle, I am determined to eat as much as I can. George Wellwarth, eyeing the trifle, is grinning and rubbing his hands together like a mad scientist. Even the French guy, he insulted looks happy. Herbie Engelhardt has finished talking about climbing down fire escapes in his underpants and is looking at the dish with curiosity. Lazare, in his old-world accent—he’s from Lithuania with stops in Belgium and France, before making it to the United States—is commenting that there is nothing like trifle. The Italians have zuppe inglese and the Germans have punchtorte, but neither of them can compare with my mother’s trifle, he says. Then Lazare says something to me in a foreign language, maybe Yiddish. I have no idea what he is talking about. And as we are admiring the trifle, Radja brings out the baklava that she has made and brought over for the festivities. Do these people, these adults, know how lucky they are? Yes, I think they do. They know.
A plate with trifle and a triangle of baklava is passed down to me. I’m pretty sure that when I’m finished I’ll be asking for more.
Jacob Margolies reports on American society and politics for The Yomiuri Shimbun, Japan’s largest newspaper. He is also the Managing Editor of Mr. Beller’s Neighborhood, a site that publishes non-fiction stories that take place in New York City.
Photo: Annie Spratt/Unsplash