Louis Proyect: The Unrepentant Marxist

January 8, 2016

Woodridge characters

Filed under: Catskills — louisproyect @ 6:55 pm

Yesterday when I was walking down Third Ave. with my wife for some exercise, we spotted a man walking his Pomeranian dog, a pet that has become trendy lately as a result of its exposure on the “Real Housewives of Beverly Hills” as Giggy Vanderpump.

My family owned and loved a half-breed Pomeranian we called Blondie when I was growing up. She was part of a litter of pups that was the result of an illicit romance between Maisie Zotel’s full-breed Pom and some mutt that came a calling at Maisie’s home halfway between Mountaindale and Woodridge, where I lived until I was 16 years old. Every so often I dream about Maisie’s house that had an old fashioned well on her front lawn from which you could draw spring water via a hand pump. As far as I know, Maisie never had been married and always wore pants. She was also very loud. When she came into my father’s fruit store, her voice carried over everybody else’s. I had no idea about her sexuality but she was like no other woman in our village except for one. If you’ve ever seen Marjorie Main as Ma Kettle, you might get an idea of what Maisie was like. Ma Kettle with a Yiddish accent.

Maybe Maisie was just rebelling against gender norms way ahead of her time. There was another personality like that in my tiny village, a motorcycle-driving woman in her mid-thirties named Nancy who had various jobs from driving a school bus to waitressing. I rarely saw her in a skirt. Like Maisie, she had an outsized personality. It was unusual enough for someone to own a motorcycle back then in the mid-sixties; it was even more unusual for the owner to be a female. When I bought my own motorcycle in the summer of 1964, I got Nancy to teach me how to ride it. She explained that if you can ride a bicycle, you could ride a motorcycle. She was right.

It was much harder for men to escape gossip if they departed from the cookie cutter gender roles in the late 50s and early 60s. Around 1959 a guy named Rene showed up in Woodridge, not long after leaving Cuba. He might have been fleeing the revolution but he could have just easily come here for purely economic reasons. He was married and had a kid but people could never figure out how that could have happened since he was a hairdresser and had all the mannerisms of a drag queen. He had arrived in Woodridge to open a beauty parlor that the local women loved and where his wife, who was Jewish, worked as a manicurist. In my hometown, he was accepted as one of our own although nobody expected Rene to join the volunteer fire department or to go out hunting deer in open season, a pastime favored by Jews and non-Jews alike.

When I was about ten years old or so, I used to look forward to visits from a middle-aged man named Harry Mason to my father’s store. Harry always wore a suit, tie and fedora, even in the summer time. He had a stooped walk like Groucho Marx and reminded me a lot of the White Rabbit in Alice in Wonderland. Harry was a CPA and a very good mathematician. He used to love to challenge me with math puzzles. From time to time, I rode along with my father’s deliverymen who were bringing fruit and vegetable orders to Harry’s ramshackle house. I followed them into the kitchen and as I walked behind them carrying a small bag of goods like an apprentice, I could never get over the stacks of National Geographics and books in almost every room. Harry was always a mystery to me. If I ever wrote a novel about my hometown after the fashion of Faulkner or Marquez, I’d create a backstory for Harry as a man with a mysterious past perhaps as a numbers runner or an accountant for Dutch Schultz. Who knows? Maybe the truth was even stranger than I could imagine.

Around that time, when I was 11 years old or so, I also used to stop by Rose Basner’s house on Highland Avenue. Rose was in her seventies back then and was another “character” in a village filled with characters. She had a room on the second floor of her house that was filled with about a hundred canaries. When we approached the screen door separating the birds from the rest of the house, they’d take flight and swarm around the room in a blur of pastel yellows and aqua with their beating wings making a small racket. I can see them now. But even more fascinating for me were her New Yorker magazine back issues stacked at the bottom of her stairs that I always loved to read for the cartoons. I only understood about half of them but those that I understood helped me define my sense of humor. Along with the Borscht Belt comedians that dominated television back then from Milton Berle to Danny Kaye, their absurdist sensibility was a major influence on my style.

None of this could be reflected in my comic memoir that Harvey Pekar stipulated should contain no more than about sixty pages of text—and mostly dialogue at that. If I ever get around to writing a prose version rather than a comic book, all of these people and more will get spotlighted.

3 Comments »

  1. Nice piece of writing, Louis!

    Comment by Benjamin Boretz — January 8, 2016 @ 7:05 pm

  2. I second that. Get around to it before you dream that well went dry.

    Comment by Peter Byrne — January 8, 2016 @ 10:14 pm

  3. When I was 14 or so I met Rene while sitting on the long concrete wall beside Sol’s across from his shop , were my uncle Gilbert worked . I remember Rene telling me to always be myself and to never let anyone form your dreams but you .

    Comment by Mike Holley — August 11, 2016 @ 7:51 pm


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