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Robert H. Lieberman with his older
brother George in Forest Park (1943)

Click image to enlarge
Robert H. Lieberman is an author and filmaker. His latest novel is The Last Boy. He has written and directed two films entitled Last Stop Kew Gardens and Green Lights. He is also a member of the Physics Department at Cornell University.
Kew Gardens Remembered

by ROBERT H. LIEBERMAN
(P.S. 99 Class of 1954)

Growing up in Kew Gardens shaped my existence, catapulting me (for better or worse) into the world of novel writing and filmmaking (not to mention science).

In the winter of 1941, when I was just a couple of months old, my parents, Oscar and Gertrude Lieberman moved from the Bronx to Kew Gardens. They had fled Vienna in 1938 with my older brother, George, barely escaping with their lives- much of the rest of the family would be murdered for the sin of having been born Jewish.

We first lived first in a one-bedroom apartment in "Old Green Towers" at 118-40 Metropolitan Avenue (where I allegedly contracted polio from a neighbor). The war in Europe was raging, bustling Manhattan was but a few miles away, yet in Kew Gardens there was an air of provinciality and peace.

My first years are but snapshots... I remember staring out the window at the electric trolleys plowing their way through a snowstorm as they clanked up the tracks on Metropolitan Avenue, sounding their warning bells. I recall watching as the milkman made his rounds, pulling his cargo of bottled milk in a horse drawn wagon. (Itís hard to believe that they were still using horses in the 1940ís). From the alley behind our house (close to Arden Terrace) I could often hear the familiar chant of a street peddler calling "Buy your old clothes! Buy your old..." or the man offering to "Sharpen your knives." There was berry picking in nearby Flushing which still had open land, and the wonders of "Richís Bakery" on Austin Street with tempting Hungarian and Viennese pastries (which turned out to be owned by the parents of my P.S. 99 classmate, Evelyn Rich).

Kew Gardens was a unique place in time, a sanctuary for refugees from Central Europe. It seemed to me that everybody on the streets spoke German (my parents certainly did at home, making German essentially my first language). Even the Hungarians were German speaking. I recall my father, Oscar Lieberman, always dressed in a suit, lifting his fedora and greeting friends with a "GrŁss Gott." This was usually followed by the friend inquiring "Wie gehtís im Gescheft, Herr Doktor" (Howís business?). As far as little Bobby knew, everybody in the world was German speaking, though they all spoke a fluent and often erudite (though heavily accented) English. This would later prove a problem for me, since I would tend at the end of sentences my verbs to put.

Early memories are spotty, but I still recall a strange scene. It was 1945 and I was four. I remember my mother, who had been listening to the radio, suddenly breaking into tears and dashing out of our apartment. I charged after her and watched as she fell into the arms of our Italian neighbor who was also crying. Other women started pouring out of their apartments, weeping and hugging each other. Puzzled, I asked why she was crying. "Iím crying because Iím happy. The war is over," she explained, clutching me as tears welled in her eyes. "Yes, the war is finally over!" cried our neighbors in relief. "Hurrah," I chimed in, "the war is over!" Could I at age four even begin to gauge the significance of V.E. Day? Perhaps not. But I certainly knew about the Nazis, those verflŁchte Schweine, my mother constantly spoke about.

Soon after the war we packed for the move from Metropolitan Avenue to Park Lane South. The change had been long in the making. From the start my mother had had her eye on Kent Manor. Finally an apartment in Building C became vacant, she leaped on the opportunity. Plying Mr. Wagner, the superintendent, with bribes of cigars, fancy candy and boxes of personal letterheads from my fatherís fledgling printing company, she finally got him to succumb to her charms and gifts. "Trude" was electrified by the move. Kent Manor was a step up in society. It was the classy place to be- even if it was just another one bedroom apartment for a family of four.

From our fourth floor window in apartment "4N" we overlooked the length of Park Lane South and could see the edge of the upper park. By todayís standards, the street had plenty of parking since only a few people actually owned cars and the majority of others relied on the subway at Union Turnpike to get to the "city."

A couple of years later (after more cajoling of cigar-smoking Mr. Wagner and his wife) we took over the adjacent apartment. "4M" had been occupied by the family of my classmate Alfred Miller (They were one of the first in our building to have a television, and generously shared the small round-screened Dumont TV with the neighbors. It was here that I first set eyes on my beloved Howdy Doody and spent side-splitting hours watching pies thrown into the face of Milton Berle.)

Our new digs not only gave us a second bedroom and extra bath, but granted us a view of "Overlook Park" with its broad expanse of tree-studded lawn encircled by an oval of sidewalk. The walkway was lined with park benches and directly below our window lay a fenced-in playground replete with swings and slides and sandbox. When the weather was warm and our windows open, the mingled sounds of dozens of children, playing and yelling and crying, mothers calling after them, slides banging, swings colliding, kids on the baseball field shouting out commands and complaints, washed into our apartment and became the white noise I still associate with the advent of summer.

For me and my two brothers, (Eliot, a change-of-life baby, joined us eight years later after my birth), summer also meant camp. Labels with our names were sewn into our clothes and towels, and we were packed off for two long months to Camp Pembina in Canada, Farm Camp Lowy in Upstate New York, and other concentration camps whose names fortunately escape me.

Forest Park. It became central to my life. It was a place where bullies lurked waiting to pick fights ("Hey, faggot, who you lookiní at?"); the site of baseball games where sides were heatedly chosen and I rarely got picked- or if I did was begrudgingly taken because they needed a body to complete the team. But key to me were those magical woods with ancient oaks and sturdy maples that went on for miles. Down in the hollow behind Kent Manor sat "The Big Rock" where I often climbed on top and sat daydreaming. My house seemed sheer pandemonium. A quiet spot was hard to find as the radio blared, my mother yacked on the phone at high volume or banged pots in the kitchen. Directly across from my bedroom Mrs. Strickerís radio sat on the ledge of her fifth floor kitchen window blasting Opera or the news with "Your Esso Reporter" (a famous gentleman who actually lived in our building!).

So the woods became my sanctuary, especially as I grew older and was allowed to go out on my own and disappear for hours- to my motherís relief. Here I was in the woods smack in the middle of New York City, a tranquil forest where I could be alone with my thoughts, gaining a measure of quiet and solitude. I spent literally hours walking alone through the woods, holding long, one-sided conversations or telling myself stories. It was here that I became a writer, though not destined to recognize it until I was at least eighteen.

The Park. Here it was that the boys built their forts. Some were nothing more than a gathering of branches around brush, others were elaborate, excavations covered with plywood and topped with earth to hide them. Below were candles to light the dark interiors. Of course, sooner or later they all got wrecked by other kids who thrived on the destruction. The gangs. The Gerhardt gang. The Miller gang.

I dwell on the park, because it was a central gathering point, not just for the children, but a cultural institution for the adults. Many, if not most, of the refugees who frequented the benches, especially on the nicer weekends, were intellectuals. They were serious readers, not just of newspapers but literature, fiction and nonfiction, lovers of art. And the discussions were heated and substantive- politics, economics, the Nazis, the war, the atomic bombs dropped on Japan, and then the warís aftermath, Truman, Eisenhower, the Russians, you name it.

I grew up in a world where my father spent Sunday mornings reading every section of the New York Times from beginning to end (a time-consuming habit I have inherited). Afternoons were dedicated to washing and "Samonizing" our car as it proudly stood in front of Kent Manor-our first was a used 1941 Lincoln Zephyr, its 12 cylinders giving it the power of an infantry tank. Later in the 1950ís we would buy a brand new car. It was a two tone, yellow and black Mercury with large fins and a huge chrome grillwork that looked like smiling teeth. The washing and waxing went on in the hopes of preserving the car, my older brother and I helping because we felt sorry for my father who worked 12 hour days in the city. (He never seemed to have enough money to satisfy my mother who, married in Vienna at the age of 18 to an established lawyer 12 years her senior, had somehow quickly got used to having servants at her beck and call. In America she became a professional shopper, explaining to my father how she had saved him fortunes with every purchase).

I recall endless walks with my father, who taught me European history without my ever quite realizing it. As we strolled through Forest Hills Gardens ("restricted," which meant no Jews) he told me tales of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, the Kaiser, the assassination of the Archduke Ferdinand and his memories of W.W. 1.

From the beginning, school was a nightmare for me. At P.S. 99 I was bored, restless, constantly scolded by my usually humorless teachers (many of whom were aging spinsters). I was ridiculed and threatened by the tougher kids because I was different. (Thank heavens for my girl friend, Helen Anschel, who protected me telling my tormentors to "Leave Bobby alone.")

I spent an inordinate amount of time in the principalís office. I donít think I ever had a grade higher than a "D" when it came to that dreaded report card entry: "Self control." My teachers were always threatening me with the principal, but when I ultimately reached Mrs. Oliverís office, I found a woman with a relaxed sense of humor who treated me with surprising indulgence verging on kindness. Whenever my mother was called in because of my "behavior" (the two got to see a lot of each other), I caught Mrs. Oliver smiling. What could she do? Ritalin had still not been invented. I was a hopeless case, known to the teachers as "The Atomic Bomb. The country couldnít handle the Russians, so how could they ever hope to control me?

I still recall my teachers. Mrs. Reilly in the first grade (who left because of a nervous breakdown- was I responsible?). Mrs. Parish in the third (a tough nut with bluish white hair). In the fourth grade I was lucky to get Mrs. Fuller who lived in Building B in Kent Manor. She was a "young" married woman with a poodle and one of the few teachers who treated me with any civility or kindness. For a class project I drew a slide show which I could display on the wall with a reflective projector I had gotten for my birthday. My show was about Henry Hudson arriving in America and finding that famous river on the west side of Manhattan. Mrs. Fuller was very impressed by my show, and kept complementing me in front of the class. Believe it or not, fifty years later I still recall my singular moment of glory granted by a woman who recognized that this troublesome little boy might harbor a spark of originality.

Teachers. Yes. There was Mrs. Smith in the seventh grade who told us kids from the first day-and reminded us every day thereafter- about her unflinching hatred of Communists. "Why, if they ever called old Smitty in front of that committee, you could be sure Iíd tell them Iím no lousy Commie." She was referring to McCarthyís House Un-American Activities Committee. Fortunately she never had a discussion with my father about his letist leanings.

I must return to the benches of the park, for that was where I received my true education. From older neighbors and acquaintances of my family, from my "Uncle" Friedman, and younger men like Irwin Marcus, who mentored me, who told me about women and love and sex- the things that shocked and repulsed and utterly fascinated me.

Kew Gardens. To me as a little boy, it seemed a hotbed of sex. It was in Kent Manor at age five that I began discovering the secrets of life. Forgive me all you countless girls who submitted to my examinations; though if you were to be a little honest, you were certainly curious about me, too - why else would you have so willingly played doctor or those other original games we so cleverly invented?

One day I suddenly woke up to find myself sitting in Forest Hills High School. I say this, because until then, the years of elementary school were spent staring out the window or watching the slow progress of the clock in a state approaching unconsciousness or distraction. (Needless to say, in Hebrew school at Temple Anshe Sholum I fared little better. Here I was being forced to read prayers in a foreign language that I didnít understand and pray to a God I didnít really believe in (after all, he wasnít punishing me like my mother promised he would, so how could he exist? That is, unless having to attend school after a full day in school struck me was his ultimate punishment. In the end, for some strange reason, I ended up being left back a full year just for singing "Onward Christian Soldiers" in class.). Those Jews just had no sense of humor.

As mentioned, once in High School I experienced an epiphany. Suddenly, as if the heavens had opened and the God I didnít believe in had shaken me awake, I suddenly came to realize that I had spent eight tedious years in elementary school without learning much of anything. Determined to never again be the class dunce, from my freshman year on I became a serious student. I was college bound (could my father with his three doctorates imagine anything else?), and my grades soared to meteoric heights (relative to my earlier "Dí in "Self Control.". A late bloomer, I got accepted at Cornell, and entered the world of Engineering and Science and ultimately university teaching.

Forest Hills High School. An interesting aside: The two best students in Physics-at least the two who always had their hands up with an answer to Mr. Pollackís questions- were yours truly and another kid, a cherubic looking boy with curly blond hair by the name of Arty Garfunkel. One day in auditorium during a talent show, he and another kid by the name of Paul Simon got up and played guitars and sang for us. To me they sounded an awful lot like "Tom & Jerry," a group who were high on the charts with a gold record. "You know, I said turning to a friend sitting next to me, "They sound just like Tom & Jerry." "Hey schmuck," he responded, "They are Tom & Jerry." Here I had been sitting in Physics class with a boy who was already famous, yet had not uttered a word about it. Hell, if it were me, the whole world would have known.

Kew Gardens. Forest Hills. Queens. New York City. How can I even begin to attempt to distill it, when even today itís all in a state of flux. But the place that I know and remember and almost love, was a fleeting point in time, a unique moment in history. It was great. It was often miserable. But no matter what, it was a community which had fabric and substance, which granted the children who grew up there a unique and never to be repeated slice of life... Oh, how I sometimes miss it and wish my own kids could have experienced a taste of its bitter-sweet richness.

Source:
  • Photograph courtesy of Robert H. Lieberman

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