Authors: E. L. Doctorow
My mother was impatient with all of this. She was a prag-matist. She probably thought he wasted too much of himself, and me, on what should be accepted as a matter of course. It was nonsense to distinguish one capitalist perfidy from another. She put them all down and that was the end of it. But my father dwelled because he couldn’t help it in the abuses of justice and truth which offended his natural innocence. He couldn’t get them out of his mind. He took a peculiar kind of bitter joy from them. He gave me pamphlets with titles like
Who Owns America
Rulers of the American Press.
When I could barely read. He told me things I could never find in my American History about Andrew Carnegie’s Coal and Iron police, and Jay Gould’s outrages,
and John D. Rockefeller. He told me about using imported Chinese labor like cattle to build the West, and of breeding Negroes and working them to death in the South. Of their torture. Of John Brown and Nat Turner. Of Thomas Paine, whose atheism made him an embarrassment to the leaders of the American Revolution. I heard about the framing of Tom Mooney and the execution of Joe Hill, and all the maimed and dead labor heroes of the early labor movement. The incredibly brutal fate of anyone who tried to help the worker. He described to me the working conditions and wages of the steel-workers, and coal miners, in the days before the unions—how men would be crippled for life or buried alive because the owners were so busy draining every last penny from their work that they wouldn’t even put the most primitive safety measures into effect. He told me about Henry Ford and Harry Bennett’s goons and the sit-down strikes, and the Depression which came like a blight over capitalist America at the very same time Socialist Russia was feeding every one of her citizens and providing each of them a fair share of the country’s wealth. He told me about Sacco and Vanzetti. About the Scottsboro boys. He ran up and down history like a pianist playing his scales. Reading to me the facts and figures of economic exploitation, of slavery in the eighteenth, nineteenth, and twentieth centuries. Putting together all the historic injustices and showing me the pattern and how everything that had happened was inevitable according to the Marxian analysis. Putting it all together. Everything was accounted for: even my comic books which he studied with me, teaching me to recognize and isolate the insidious stereotypes of yellow villains, Semitic villains, Russian villains. Even the function of public games like baseball. What its
purpose was. The economic class of baseball fans. Why they needed baseball. What would happen to the game if people had enough money, enough freedom. I listened because that was the price I paid for his attention. “And it’s still going on, Danny,” a famous remark. “In today’s newspaper it’s still going on. Right outside the door of this house it’s going on. In this house.” He said Williams, the janitor in the cellar, was a man destroyed by American Society because of his skin and never allowed to develop according to his inner worth. “The battle is not finished,
the struggle of the working class is still going on. Never forget that, Danny.” And it seemed to me then that I was marked. Because
had a lot more power than
had. And it seemed to be even in the clouds which blew up through the sky over the schoolyard, that power of theirs to destroy and put down and take vengeance on the ideas in my head, on the dangerous information put in my head by my reckless father.
But I was a smart-ass kid, I wasn’t that innocent. I took what he gave to have him. On Sunday morning I went with him from door to door to sell subscriptions to the
This was the Sunday Mobilization. It was arduous—he talked a lot to everyone, not just me. How much of it didn’t I hear except for the sound of the voice itself? A quality difficult to remember now, except that it was nasal, sing-songy, a voice I associate with the expression on his face of complete self-absorption. Yes, that is how I remember him: talking, developing some dialectic with great relish, the words very liquid; he spoke with a wet mouth, as if, sometimes, his tongue lay in bubbles, that type of speaker who in his excitement sometimes sprays his listener; developing some idea, overdeveloping it tiresomely, I could tell by my mother’s face, although I may have personally found it interesting. He was tendentious! Yes! A word he loved to apply to others. Tendentious. Also indiscriminate in his attention to ideas, problems, from the most mundane to the most serious, giving them equal time in his tireless broadcast, high or low, serious or stupid. It was Rochelle who worried about having enough to eat.
Was there one like him on the Black Tennis Court?
She wanted him to make more money. The family mythology was that in practical matters of the world, Paul Isaacson was a more or less irresponsible child. He couldn’t be trusted. He couldn’t be trusted to make a living, to find his glasses, to remember to come home for lunch, to take the garbage out, to wear his rubbers when it rained. There was between my mother and Aunt Frieda and Aunt Ruthie a maternal rivalry for his irresponsible heart. Frieda and Ruth, his older sisters and his only living relatives, felt that he was a genius; and that his genius had never been given a chance because he had married too early and been overcome by family responsibilities. Rochelle was bitter about that. She had to prove
to them that she could take care of him better than they had. That the girl he met at City before the war, and married during the war, the girl who went down to live with him in Washington, D.C.
they were even married, was good for him and would help him fulfill himself. In this, though a Communist, she was totally bourgeois, wasn’t she. Tacitly I know she accepted their judgment of Paul as a failure; but who was to blame—that was the real issue. There was a degree in engineering that was never taken. Unlike Rochelle, Paul had never completed college. He’d gone off to war and come back a married man, a father, a provider—their Pauly! They never forgave her for Paul Isaacson’s fate as a radio repairman or for his political views. They believed he would have outgrown his radicalism if not for her.
I cooperated in this myth of my irresponsible father. I enjoyed it. It pushed him into childhood with me. Sometimes I felt as if Rochelle was mother to us both. Sometimes I felt that in practical knowledge of what had to be done for the moment, I was his older brother. I imagined my father subject to Rochelle’s discipline, to Williams’ wrath as he threw the garbage pails around the cellar, to Grandma’s curses. Just like me. There was truth in it and I’d laugh.
But when he was in the back of his store the natural order of things was recovered. My father was skinny, nervous, selfish, unreliable, full of hot radical passion; insolent in his faith, loyal to Marxism-Leninism, rude-eyed and tendentious. He scared me. But when he repaired radios, I was released. The pressure was off me and I was free in his concentration. I loved him in that lousy store. I always wanted to go there. On rainy days when I got on my mother’s nerves, she sent me there. Or at lunchtime when he hadn’t come home, she’d give me his sandwich in a bag and his coffee in a thermos and send me to the store before I went back to school. Or sometimes I’d have to go bring him home for dinner. I went along the school fence to 174th Street, then down 174th Street still along the school fence, to Eastburn Avenue; across Eastburn; and another block past the shoemaker, the dairy, Irving’s Fish Market, Spotless Cleaner, to Morris Avenue; across Morris; and in the middle of that block right between the candy store I didn’t like,
and Berger’s Barber Shop, was Isaacson Radio, Sales and Repair.
In the window an advertising cutout faded from the sun: a modern housewife, smartly turned out in a dress that reaches almost to her ankles. She has her hand on the knob of a radio and does not look at it but out at you, as she turns it on. She is smiling and wears a hairdo of the time. She is not bad looking, with nice straight teeth, and she obviously has a pair though not trying to jam them in your face. She is in green, faded green. Her dress, her face, her smile, all green. Her radio is orange. The table it is on is orange. She is a slim, green woman for whom the act of turning on an orange radio is enormous pleasure. Maybe it was a defective radio and gave her a jolt. Maybe she was turning it off. I never thought of that. On the bed of the window, resting on old curled crepe paper, bleached grey, are two display radios—a table model and a console with cloth-covered doors and a combination automatic record changer. When you go inside you see that the two window display radios have nothing inside them. They are empty cabinets. Not many people buy radios here. Mostly they have their old ones fixed. There is no irony in Paul Isaacson’s owning his own business, because he makes no profit. He employs no one and, therefore, exploits no one. Isaacson Radio, Sales and Repair, is not a good business. There were lots of poor or lower middle class people in that neighborhood. They all knew someone who could sell cheaper. And they did not support big repair bills. He was honest and he never overcharged. Rochelle, who kept the books at home, was supposed to figure out how to pay the rent each month.
Most of the store was used for the shop behind the counter. Behind the counter were boxed display shelves of unpainted plywood. There was an opening with an old living room drape of Rochelle’s hung from a rod. Then you were in the shop. Here were the racks of tubes with their numbers. And on the worktable the dusty radios, each with its tag. A patterned ceiling that drooped in the middle. I loved it there. It was a place to feel safe. It was all enclosed. And if he was busy, he didn’t talk. And I’d be engrossed with the mystery of the problem, the tracking down of the trouble inside the guts of a machine.
It would hum, or beep, or sputter, or wouldn’t light, or make no sound at all. And he’d fix it. With his elaborate breathing he’d fix it. Sometimes he’d let me vacuum out the insides, clear the dust of years out of a chassis with a small powerful vacuum that was like a flashlight. And completely occupied with the problem he wouldn’t talk. History had no pattern in those moments. I didn’t have to worry. Imperialism, the last phase of capitalism, did not exist. There were tubes and condensers, and speakers and soldering irons and wires—a technology that was neutral and had no ideological significance. No, that’s wrong. He merely relented in noting it. When he was busy, I could secretly feel about him as other boys felt all the time about their fathers. And I didn’t have to worry about the Forces set against us in our struggle.
But sometimes he would listen to the radio while he worked on it. And he liked to listen to the commentators—it didn’t matter which one. They talked for fifteen minutes at a time. John W. Vandercook, Raymond Gram Swing, H. V. Kaltenborn, Johannes Steel, Frank Kingdon, Quincy Howe, Gabriel Heatter, Fulton Lewis, Jr. They were carry-overs from the Second World War when people really wanted to know what was going on. They were an industry. My father listened as he worked. He shook his head. He poked his soldering iron into the heart of the radio as if trying to repair the voice, trying to fix the errors of analysis and interpretation. He stabbed it in the tubes, like a primitive again, as if the machine was talking, as if trying to re-program the lie box. I remember Radio Town Meeting of the Air. He used to turn that on at home. It would make him furious. The question to be debated was always loaded. The strong speaker was always a right-winger. The town crier would ring the bell and announce the program and he’d sit and listen until he couldn’t bear it any longer. It was the ritual of eating your heart out. That was my mother’s phrase for these things: “What are you eating your heart out for? Pauly. You know who owns the stations. You know it’s all rigged. Why must you eat your heart out?” Her contribution to his self-esteem was in warning him that his sensitivity could ruin his health. Who owns the airwaves? Who owns the American Press? Who rules America? Like Du Pont dealing
with I. G. Farben. Evidence, there was never enough evidence. He swam in it. That was it—physical training, it was the way he stayed in shape. That has to be it. You ate your heart out to keep the revolutionary tension. But Rochelle didn’t have to do that. She didn’t have to go through the primer again and again. She knew the lesson. She was truer to the idea. In her way she was the more committed radical. Because, look, the implication of all the things he used to flagellate himself was that American democracy wasn’t democratic enough. He continued to be astonished, insulted, outraged, that it wasn’t purer, freer, finer, more ideal. Finding proof of it over and over again—the struggle is still going on, Pop!—like a guy looking for confirmation. How much confirmation did he need? Why did he expect so much of a system he knew by definition could never satisfy his standards of justice? A system he was committed to opposing because he had a better one in mind. It’s screwy. Lots of them were like that. They were Stalinists and every instance of Capitalist America fucking up drove them wild. My country! Why aren’t you what you claim to be? If they were put on trial, they didn’t say
Of course, what else could we expect
, they said
You are making a mockery of American justice!
And it was more than strategy, it was more than Lenin’s advice to use the reactionary apparatus to defend yourself, it was passion.
My father never really believed it would happen. My mother wasn’t to be surprised from the day they were indicted. But he never believed it was possible. He believed in the beneficence of his ideas, and could not appreciate that anyone would find them offensive enough, threatening enough to do—that. His ideas were an extension of himself, and he meant only well. Because the other side of finding confirmation over and over again, of dwelling in evidence, was that he would never believe any of it. He would never believe that America was not the cafeteria at City College; and as often as it was proved to him he forgot it.
Pauly. Sometimes he used to cut my mother’s hair. I don’t remember her ever cutting his. She would put a towel around her shoulders and spread newspaper on the floor in the kitchen and sit on a kitchen chair in the middle of the floor, and he would go to work; holding a scissors and a comb in his long hands, he would comb through her hair, get a short bunch of
it off the comb and between his fingers, and with the comb like a harmonica in his mouth, pick up the scissors and slice off the hair. He was very deft. She had thick hair that tended to curl and she liked to keep it short. I wouldn’t say she enjoyed saving money, I would say it gave her satisfaction. I would say it was a righteous pleasure. She wore plain clothes that were bought to last. All our clothes were bought to last. She always bought things that were too big. “She wanted us to get use out of them,” I once explained to Susan when we were talking about this. “She wanted us to grow into them.” But Susan said: “She bought Daddy’s things too big, and her own things too. She dressed us all like bags. Why must you always think she was perfect? Why can’t you admit she just didn’t know how to buy clothes?”