To open the pages of Bronx Primitive: Portraits in a Childhood is to step back sixty years into the childhood world of the author, who arrived in New York as a four-year-old Jewish immigrant from Poland at the end of World War I. Kate Simon, best known for her travel books on England, Italy, Mexico, and New York, does an extraordinarily skillful job of re-creating both the atmosphere of the Bronx neighborhood in which she grew up and the perspective of her eight- to twelve-year-old self. Simon’s combination of humor, pathos, realism, and honesty makes this a moving record of an era and of a young girl’s struggle to grow up in a new world.
Simon begins her book with a tour of her neighborhood, the area around the Tremont El Station, near Crotona Park. She deftly depicts the major landmarks of her life there: P.S. 58, the public library, Mrs. Katz’s candy store, two movie houses (one for regular Saturday afternoon entertainment, the other for special occasions), and a white blossoming tree on 179th street, a rare example of natural beauty which she considered her private possession. The center of this world was the family apartment on the top floor of a tenement on Lafontaine Avenue. Each room, as she describes it, takes on a character of its own. The bathroom is associated both with the carp that swam in the tub on Wednesdays and Thursdays before becoming Friday’s dinner and with the lectures and whippings that her father administered there when she or her brother was disobedient. The kitchen was the center of family conversation, newspaper reading, and her mother’s storytelling, often tinged with macabre humor. The living room, used only for visitors and for piano practicing, contained her mother’s treasures, among them a tablecloth that was elaborately embroidered in pink and red roses and a marble bowl with tiny pigeons that rested in holes on the rim, providing endless fascination to Kate, who was considered careful enough to take them in and out.
Central to the book, appropriately subtitled “Portraits in a Childhood,” are sketches of dozens of individuals whose lives touched the author’s, some significantly, some lightly. She devotes a chapter to the neighbors who shared their fifth floor landing. The men, whose contact with the children was limited, are mentioned briefly; the women are described in more detail. At the time when her mother was preoccupied with the birth of her third child, Kate sought out Fannie Herman, “a skinny little sparrow, hopping, restless, a bewildered child in a strange room.” Fannie was housebound, terrified by the street where her young son had been killed by a truck, bewildered by the “machinkele” her husband drove, and powerless to control her rebellious daughter, Tobie. Kate spent long hours teaching her to write her first name in large letters on the dusty piano top.
Next door to Fanny lived Mrs. Haskell, who “resembled a melting vanilla cone.” Mrs. Haskell included her young friend Kate in her preparations for the end of the world, which was to come, she assured the child, on October 20. Kate felt sure no blond Christian God would save Jewish children, but she repressed her anxiety and watched with interest as Mrs. Haskell scrubbed everything in her house and purchased new white clothing from the faraway fantasy land of Macy’s. When October 20 passed without incident, Mrs. Haskell invited Kate in for a Fig Newton and announced that God had told her she must be patient. From then on, Kate noted, they carefully avoided looking at each other when they met.
The third of the neighbors, Mrs. Silverberg, was for a time Kate’s ideal of style and glamour, as well as the provider of delicious homemade cookies. Then she vanished, after a noisy night when she appeared on the landing covered with makeup and jewelry, shrieking about her affair with Rudolph Valentino. The memory of her, the author says, was forever after tied to the perplexing question of the boundary between madness and sanity.
Portrayed more briefly are many other neighborhood characters: Mrs. Santini, the Italian mother who persisted in chewing her babies’ food in her own mouth before giving it to them; Mrs. Rabinowitz, who was reputed to be able to cast the evil eye on unsuspecting acquaintances; Dr. James, the elderly New England physician who quietly performed thousands of abortions on immigrant women to keep them from killing themselves with knitting needles and poisonous home remedies. Especially alluring to young Kate were the older girls, both Italian and Jewish, who were eager to share their often-spurious information about sex and childbirth with her. She greatly admired Helen Roth for being brave enough to fail a grade in school—something she herself would never have dared. Helen also acted as the provider of young female company for an elderly musician who fed his young guests cake and showed them pornographic pictures. Invited once to his Sunday morning “party,” Kate left hastily, sure she did not want to be there, but equally sure this was not something to report to adults.
While each of these individuals made some contribution to Kate’s education in the ways of the world, the dominant figures in her life were clearly her parents. Significantly, except in the one chapter devoted to their early life in Poland, she never calls them by name. They are simply “my mother” and “my father.” In characterizing them, the author almost always keeps her vision limited to what she could have perceived as a child. They were presences in her life, rather than individuals bound up in their own problems. Yet on at least one memorable occasion, she had a fleeting glimpse into their separate existence. One evening, after a long period of silent quarreling, Kate found the apartment door uncharacteristically locked. Returning a little later, when the door was unlocked, she stumbled into one of the few moments of tenderness she relates in the book—her mother sitting in a chair with her feet in a pan of warm water, gently splashing her husband as he cut her toenails.
Battle was far more common than camaraderie for this strong-willed couple. Kate’s father was...
(The entire section is 2526 words.)