The Cross Bronx Expressway cuts through the heart of the
place I used to call home.
ANNETTE FRANCES LEVINE
Mr. Lipschutz was Daddy's friend. But that didn't give a doctor the right to congratulate him, instead of Daddy, right
after I was born on March 28, l930 in Fordham Hospital in the Bronx.
To Daddy, his firstborn, Annette Frances Levine, was a visa malachel (long "i")--"little white angel." Apparently, Mama
wasn't as impressed. In those days, newborn babies didn't wear identification bracelets. So when the nurses brought a little
Christian baby to Mama one day during that first week, she didn't complain. But the Christian mother looked at me, and screamed,
"This isn't my baby!"
All through my childhood, whenever I did anything to annoy her, Mama contended that the other mother in the hospital was
wrong. Chana Freidel, (my Hebrew name) was really the "shiksa," (Christian girl) and that lovely little baby who went home with
the Christian woman should have been hers, Mama said.
Mama, who charmed everyone she met with her beautiful smile, vivaceous personality and uninhibited Russian dancing, was 3l
years old and I was her second child. She had been divorced for several years from Beryl Flier, and my older sister, Shirley
Flier, was seven years old when I was born. Daddy was a forty-five-year-old ladies' tailor, an "intellect" who loved classical
music and philosophy. He had been a bachelor before he met Mama.
We lived in an apartment house at 2168 Prospect Avenue, the first in a long series of East Bronx apartments. Mama changed
apartments the way some women change their outfits. It was easier to move than to have the apartment painted, she said.
And Daddy said proudly that she could pack belongings faster than most women change their clothes.
We moved from Prospect Avenue to Washington Avenue, to Bathgate Avenue, then to Brook Avenue, Fulton Avenue, Clinton
Avenue, Belmont Avenue, back to Prospect Avenue, and to Crotona Park East. When I was eleven years old, and a student at P.S. 44
on Prospect Avenue, we lived at 854 East l75th Street, in an apartment house where actor John Garfield supposedly grew up
before my time. Two years later, we moved to a seven-room apartment on the same corner, 870 East l75th Street, across the
street from Crotona Park and a long block up the hill from Southern Boulevard. We lived there with countless boarders until
I was eighteen and married Sol Wexler, a lithographer's apprentice from Williamsburg.
I remember very little about Prospect Avenue, my first home, but I do remember some of the stories Mama and Daddy told me
about those early days. According to Mama, I was a beautiful, delicate very bright baby, who was addicted to a pacifier, had
frequent temper tantrums, and cried so much that she repeatedly warned me my "face would freeze that way."
Seven years my senior, my sister Shirley was a skinny delicate extremely quiet child, who hated to eat breakfast. I
can remember the mornings when Mama shouted, "Eat your egg!" as she held Shirley's nose and forced the ugly yellow liquid down
the poor girl's throat.
Mama had very few problems feeding me. I loved everything except sour cream. So aside from the few occasions when the
cream was served with strawberries or bananas, I was considered a "good eater"--despite the fact that I was built like "a long
drink of water" and had “legs like two sticks."
On the other hand, my sister Miriam, three years my junior, was, according to Mama, a "blooming rose." Miriam was chubby,
with dark hair, eyes and skin, and Daddy called her "pumpernickel."
The little cry-baby with the long blonde braids, her parents who are no longer alive, her sisters who, like her, are now
middle-aged women, seem to be part of another lifetime. They return in dreams--compartmentalized in the numerous East Bronx
apartments we called home.
Along with the assorted apartments were the assorted schools I transferred to, proudly carrying my record card filled with
"A's" in work and conduct.
I loved school, but not at the very beginning. Kindergarten started as a disaster. Mama left me at school the first day. I
recall hanging my coat in the wardrobe, and I vaguely remember that the teacher frightened me. I don't know how I did it, but I
got my coat out of the closet, walked out of the school and somehow found my way home to Washington Avenue. Mama walked me
back to school the next day, but she boasted about my escapade to anyone who would listen.
"Mother and Baby" was the name of the first story I learned to read in class lA. "Mother and baby. Mother sat by the
cradle. Baby was in the cradle. Mother sang, 'Bye, bye, baby bye, shut your little eye.'" I memorized that, but I also
learned to read by sounding out the letters--combining vowels, "a, e, i, o and u, and sometimes y," and consonants. I learned
the long vowels, the short vowels, the "hard sounds" and "soft sounds" and loved it all. I found a permanent home in the
library on Washington Avenue, where I was presented with my first treasure--a library card--when I was six years old.
My name, Annette Frances Levine, was printed on the card, and the books transported me to worlds I had never known existed
outside of the Bronx. I chose the books according to the author, from A to Z--Louisa May Alcott, Charles Dickens, Jack London,
Robert Louis Stevenson, Joanna Spyri, Booth Tarkington, Mark Twain . . .
"You'll go blind," Mama told me, when she caught me reading in bed in the early mornings before the sun came out. I loved
"Little Women," "Mary Poppins," "Ann of Green Gables," "Call of the Wild," "Heidi," "Treasure Island," "Penrod," and "Tom
I loved and appreciated them even more, when at age seven, my world became blurred and I was taken to a doctor and fitted
with glasses for nearsightedness, a condition Mama said was caused by eyestrain from reading so much. It was wonderful to be
able to hold the book away from my face again, instead of having it practically touch the tip of my nose as I read.
We lived on Bathgate Avenue then, a couple of blocks away from the market where my sister Shirley sold sour pickles from a
barrel. "Pickles, two cents!" I can remember her shouting--which was probably the most aggressive thing she had done as a child.
Although we continued to move further east, and further away from the library, I always seemed to find my way back there,
walking through Crotona Park and down the endless blocks to that beloved old brick building.
The market area on Bathgate Avenue in those days offered a wide assortment of food, including fresh fruits and vegetables on
outdoor stands, meat markets, appetizing stores where you could buy lox, herring, white fish, and my favorite halvah. There were
also dry goods stores, where Mama, when she could afford it, would purchase some of the clothes that made up our meager
Although he was brilliant and loving and charmed us with endless bedtime stories, my little bald father never made much of
a living. I remember owning three dresses, courtesy of the Salvation Army, and "the Communist," Daddy's friend at work who
let us have her daughters' outgrown clothing. I remember also, being very embarrassed because I was one of the children (and
there were probably many of us) who received free lunch in
I was also embarrassed many times when Mama, endlessly bargaining for fruits and vegetables, shouted at the men who sold
food on Bathgate Avenue. Wanting to disappear off the face of the earth, I'd stand at a distance, turn my back and shut my ears
to the loud voices of the men who hawked their wares and Mama's voice, louder still, accusing them of being "goniffs" (thieves).
My sister Miriam recalled recently that Mama had similar arguments with taxicab drivers. Miriam said she didn't
understand how Mama could have afforded taxis in those days.
Reading paid off for me because, as Mama and Daddy proudly told all their friends and relatives, I was the "smartest girl in
the class." But I also learned to experience feelings of envy. There was a little girl in class 2A named Evelyn Sondberg (I
wonder what she looks like as a grandmother), the daughter of a doctor. Evelyn's blonde hair was cut in a fashionable "boyish
bob," and she wore a new starched dress to school every day. My three Salvation Army dresses didn't go very far, but I managed to
alternate them, never wearing the same dress for two days in a row. I also learned how to use the big heavy iron, because Mama,
although she did a good job of washing our clothes, never seemed to produce a wrinkle-free garment.
Left to right: My sister Miriam, me at age 16, and best friend Sylvia.