This is a very primitive sketch of apartment 4A in Pomonok Houses. I assume that all apartment 4As are exactly the same. It has two bedrooms, a living room, a kitchen, a bathroom, and a dinette. We were a family of five and we lived there for decades. It never seemed small to me until I moved out and made return visits to my parents, who stayed there until they died.
When I think that my parents managed to raise three kids in this apartment, it astounds me. When we were very young, my two younger sisters and I shared one bedroom. They shared a bed on one side of the room and I slept alone in a bed on the other side. After the lights went out, we were supposed to be quiet, but I remember a lot of whispering and laughing, resulting in my father coming in to yell at us or worse. In the quiet after the final warning, I would put my ear to the wall and listen to the talking and, sometimes, screaming, coming from the apartment next door.
In our imaginations, that tiny bedroom became much more. You could hide in the closet, which was piled up with all sorts of mysterious things, or under the beds, or behind the beds by the pipes, which were covered with protective sleeves, probably made of asbestos. Chunks of the sleeves would flake off and we would play with them. Our beds had little sliding door compartments in which you could store precious items, like comic books or secret pieces of gum. I would roll up my blanket and pretend it was a horse. Most kids would pretend to be cowboys, but since my father often brought me to Aqueduct Racetrack with him, I rode the blanket roll pretending to be a jockey.
One game I played with my sisters was called the “The No-Seeing Club.” The idea was to retrieve an item from the living room without being seen by either of our parents, who were in the living room watching TV. It required careful surveillance and stealth, and sometimes creating diversions, but if my parents were sufficiently absorbed in a program, it was possible to do. We would also create little dramatic vignettes in which we parodied our parents. We would then perform them for my mother and father and they would laugh so hard they cried.
When we got older, I was moved into the other bedroom and my parents slept on daybeds in the living room. I eventually got my own little TV set and would stay up at night watching the late show and the late late show. At one point, I became obsessed with playing pool and my parents got me a miniature pool table, which took up most of the space in the bedroom. Needless to say, I became a very good billiards player in my adolescence.
Our apartment was always a mess, with toys strewn everywhere. At one point we had a toy chest in our bedroom, but toys rarely found their way into it. Whatever costly toys we had ended up broken and we had to revert to the old standard: building blocks. With building blocks and a little imagination, you could make anything. Almost any object in the apartment was considered a potential play thing to us, especially the cushions from the couch, which always ended up ripped. I was amazed to go into my friends’ apartments and find their couches covered in plastic. That was no fun. Every once in a while there would be a general clean-up, which inevitably ended in screaming and tears.
I don’t remember having many responsibilities for the upkeep of the apartment, but I hated anything that took away from my playtime. The worst was washing the dishes, which took me forever. I would hear my family watching TV in the living room while I stewed in frustration and misery over each dish. I would try to bribe my sisters into taking my turn, but my father wouldn’t have it, so I ended up not only washing the dishes but giving up my share of Mallowmars.
Over time, we eventually migrated as a family from dinner at the dinette table to eating in the living room in front of the TV. In the dinette, we ate our meals listening to the radio, mostly the news, except for weekends when my father put on live broadcasts from the Metropolitan Opera House. My mother actually had a weekly menu. If its Tuesday, it must be lamb chops. On weekends my father took over breakfast chores – lox and eggs on Saturday and salmon pancakes on Sunday. On the weekend afternoons, it was always takeout, usually Chinese or deli. Also on the weekends, my father would take out the Victrola and play Caruso and Al Jolson. I knew most of Jolson’s songs by heart.
By far our favorite family activity in apartment 4A was on occasional Sunday afternoons when my father would be convinced to take out the projector and show us the home movies he took of us all. He would make malts with real malt and chocolate ice cream in our Hamilton Beach mixer and serve pretzel logs. Then we would gather in the darkened living room as he meticulously threaded the 8 mm film. It would be continual laughter from beginning to end, as we begged for more and more movies of us dressed up in costumes performing little silent skits my father devised. Those films eventually found their way into the Pomonok Dreams, providing documentation of an bygone era as well as continual laughter for our family.
Apartment 4A was a tiny space, but it held an entire world. Inwardly, our closets were crammed with our past lives: photo albums, old report cards and drawings, my father’s army stuff and my mother’s old lambskin coat. Outwardly, there were windows in every room, at which you could imagine you were piloting a ship or flying a plane. Your bed could be miniature baseball stadium, the bathtub a lake. The living room credenza held dictionaries and the Golden Book Encyclopedias, a colorful summary of all the knowledge you would ever need. Most of all, apartment 4A was a safe and protected world, a small but lush walled city garden which allowed us to grow up in our own unique ways.