My Hero

Let me tell you about John Goldberg, my Dad.  Keep in mind he never told me a lot about himself.  He didn’t talk of his life as a kid in rural Belarus before immigrating to the US in 1913 at 9 years of age.  He never told about how and why the family found its way from Ellis Island to Hartford, Connecticut.  The little bit of family history he’d share began in Hartford and only used occasional flashbacks to round things out.

Dad was the oldest of the three kids who accompanied Osne, his mother, out of Telechan and somehow onto the ship that transported them from Rotterdam to NYC.  The folks at Ellis Island put it this way:

First name: Yonie

Last name: Goldberg

Ethnicity: Russia, Hebrew

Last place of residence: Pelechany, Russia

Date of arrival: Apr 10, 1913

Age at arrival: 10 years

Gender: Male

Marital status: single

Ship of travel: Campanello

Port of departure: Rotterdam, Holland

Manifest number: 0027

Next came Uncle Jack, listed as Jankel and one  year  younger than Dad, followed by Aunt Sarah, called Sure (pronounced Shoo-rah) in the manifest and one year younger than Jack.

Grandpa Goldberg, here photographed in 1942 and exactly as he is in my memory,

came to the US in 1906, seven years earlier, to earn enough money to send for his family.  In Belarus he’d haul lumber from the forest to the mill in a horse-drawn wagon, that was till the winter of 1906 when snow made his work impossible.  The story goes that, stuck in the snow, he cut the horses loose, walked home, told Osne to pack up the kids and move in with his folks, said his goodbyes and headed off to America and Hartford.  Why Hartford?  Almost undoubtedly because some earlier Telechanik had somehow found his way there.

Here’s a photo Grandma sent  to Grandpa around 1910 to remind him that he was a married man with children.  Dad is on the left.

Now here they are 5 years later in Deh Goldene Medina, the promised land, the golden land.  Dad’s moved over to the right in this one.

All this to explain why Grandpa with Dad in the back, drove a horse-drawn wagon, now full of newspapers, through the streets of Hartford to feed his family in it’s new location.

OK, so see Johnny, my Dad, immigrant kid with no English in the back of that newspaper wagon.  Cut to him as an 8th grade dropout.  Cut again to him at the Hartford Market, working his ass off learning the art of grooming and selling produce.  Next we have a memory contributed by Frieda Galinsky, seen here–I am sure–exactly as she appeared in my father’s dreams…

Mom told of meeting Dad at a dance in Hartford in the Autumn of maybe 1930, of how he walked her home to Front Street and then walked himself home through the swirling Autumn leaves to Earle Street or Acton Street way up in the North End.  She told of how the sound of those leaves scared the living shit out of him alone and late at night.

Dad loved Mom.  They married in 1931.  Mom wanted to move out of the ghetto and be real Americans.  Dad loved mom.  They moved to South Marshall Street so my sister and I would grow up surrounded by Irishmen, French Canadians and lotsa folks from Maine and lose any meaningful touch with Judaism.

Dad loved baseball, so, more often than not with Uncle Jack, we saw a lot of Hartford Chiefs games and, in 1950, my first New York Yankees game.  We’d always take the 8:04 a.m. New York, New Haven & Hartford train express to Grand Central Terminal, eat early lunch at the Horn & Hardart Automat, then take the Jerome Avenue & Woodlawn train to Yankee Stadium where we would always sit behind 3rd base just as we did at Bulkeley Stadium where Dad, Uncle Jack and I would cheer on the Chiefs.

Dad was a quiet man and a Democrat.  “You vote the party, not the man,” he’d say.  “Ideas and policies come from the party.”  He smoked Camels.  He didn’t have a car.  If we drove somewhere with someone who didn’t allow smoking in their car, he didn’t object.  He also didn’t ride back with them.

Dad loved history and read it when he wasn’t reading the Hartford Times.  When I became a big deal Ivy League college student and would bring a classmate home for the weekend, the classmate would inevitably fall into conversation with Dad and not  do whatever I’d brilliantly and thoughtfully planned for the evening.  I  hated that while being secretly so proud of it.

He never wrote me letters when I went away to Boy Scout camp for two-week stretches in the summer.  He never said “I love you” except for in the one letter he wrote to me while in college.  (Where is that letter???) We never talked a lot and, when I needed him most to tell me what a man’s supposed to know, he died.

His death, coming between the last day of my college classes and the first day of my final final exams, was the most important thing to happen to me to that point in my life.  It threw me off the perfectly conventional track to tedium that I’d been so diligently following and left me–without my consciously acknowledging it-terrified and alone.  It left me dropping out of graduate school (studying history, of course) 15 months later, moving to New York (no surprise here either), becoming infatuated with jazz, poetry, sex and intoxication.  It left me frequently wondering, “How did I get here…doing this…next to her?  What would Dad do?”


Now the story’s becoming about me when I don’t want it to.   I set out to write about him and how I loved him because I wanted to and not because of what happened between us.  I’ve left out a bunch of stuff: the wondrous diversity of his friends and associates, his becoming an Assistant Cub Scoutmaster, his devotion to his mother and his occasional displays of temper. Lotsa stuff. Maybe later…

Published in: on December 31, 2010 at 7:27 am  Comments (10)  

Joe D’s memorial, sort of

Joseph Dankowski ws born in Camden, New Jersey on September 2, 1932.

After moving to New York City in 1958, he took up photography, working mostly in black and white reportage style, as influenced by Eugene Atget, Harry Callahan and Robert Frank.

In 1972 he received one of the first National Endowment for the Arts grants bestowed on a photographer.

Joseph moved to Shirley, Maine in 1974 where he continued to photograph, while working as a carpenter.  His work in Maine focused on the portfolio “Fall in Black and White” and a sequence of “Ice on the River” photographs.

Joseph’s (1969-71) “Manholes and Gutters” 50 print portfolio are in the Museum of Modern Art in New York City, the Smithsonian American Art Museum in Washington, D.C., the Bowdoin College Museum of Art in Brunswick, Maine, the Joy of Giving Something Collection and in private collections.

He is survived by his loving sister, Stella Lizambri and Many friends.

I love The Simpsons.  I love particularly the way the first plot piece leads into the second plot piece which then leads into the actual story for that particular episode.  More and more I’m coming to see my life as working in that same mode.  If not my life, then certainly some of my blog postings.  This one for instance.  You see, I’m not going to write about Joe  D’s memorial held today.  I’m not going to write about Wesley Waites, who looks like this…

and who informed me of Joe’s death, who lives deep in my heart

  • despite living in Saugerties, more than bike-riding distance away,
  • despite my not having been in his presence for 10 or so years until today,
  • and certainly not because, in his role of vital connection to the two bars of my New York Past, he has become the Messenger of Death in my life.

Ultimately this about Richie Velez, seen here at that memorial for Joe, the one he put together.

All of this centers around the year 1965, more specifically the autumn of that year.  I had freshly dropped out of graduate school at UCONN, conned my way out of the Vietnam War and found my way to the Lower East Side and work as a short order cook at The Annex, a bar on Avenue B between 10th and 11th in New York’s Lower-East-Side-about-to-become-East-Village.  I was 23, depressed at the death of my father, overwhelmed by New  York City and, consequently, madly in love with intoxication.  Richie was also 23 and, along with Gus Rodriguez, owned the Annex.  Richie played the congas and lived on stage.  Richie was my boss.

In November of 1965,  two months after having started my work as a short order cook at the Annex and a few weeks after the blackout when Richie gave me a baseball bat and a comfy beach chair with built-in leg extension and told me, someone he barely knew,to guard the bar against intruders while he and everyone else at The Annex went down the street to Stanley’s Bar (where they had enough sense to leave the cash register open as the power failed) to drink, I came to the realization that I had been working 9 hour days with, yes, an unlimited amount of scotch but also without a dinner break.  I decided to bring the second part of this to Richie’s attention, and, after a significant amount of that unlimited amount of scotch and with significant irate-atude, I did so.  Even now I recall the frequent appearance of the phrase, “What the (or Who the–)  fuck…” in my presentation.  Richie, never shy or reluctant to reply in kind, more than matched my vocabulary and attitude in his response.  Words led to words (and probably some gestures) before he told me I was fired and I told him I’d already quit.

I don’t remember what happened next, but no more than 20 minutes later we were sitting together at the bar.  He was buying me drinks and providing me with a list of places to look for work with  him as a reference.  All his anger of the moment before had utterly disappeared. To him I was no longer a big-mouthed, hostile employee.  I was a guy he knew who needed work.  Nothing in my New England background had prepared me for such an abrupt shift in attitude.  I come from the land of steady habits, of eternal grudgery.  With Richie, it was, “once it’s over, it’s over.  What’s next?”  Wow!

Joe Dankowski photographed the things we all see but don’t notice.  Wesley Waites lives one day at a time, coping graciously with whatever life throws him.  Richie taught me,  Once it’s over, it’s over.  What’s next?  The Buddha teaches the same things under the umbrella of mindfulness.  I now try to teach this to my clients at Samaritan Village.  Sometimes–like right now–I wonder, if I hadn’t run into the Buddha, how much would I have valued the lessons taught by Joe, Wes and Richie?

Published in: on December 18, 2010 at 3:15 pm  Comments (9)