“Catskill Odyssey,”

a Memoir by Ken Miller

    This is my story of the summer of 1949. I was 9, chubby, not too athletic or to be more honest not athletic, but doted upon by many assorted aunts, maternal and paternal, and, of course, by my mother. I worshipped my fourth grade teacher, Mrs. Miriam S. Berkowitz, who likewise adored me. I was one of those kids older people could really talk to, a great listener, very sympathetic and a great friend of the elderly, the widowed, and other assorted lonely people who inhabited Rodney Street in a section of Brooklyn known as Williamsburg.

    For example, a great friend of mine was Mrs. Anna Goldberg, a very depressed grandmother whose granddaughter had died of some childhood illness. Mrs. Goldberg shared with me and my friends when we asked her where babies came from. “They come out of your ear, see; my left ear is bigger than my right one because that’s where my Sydell came from.”

    In those days in the New York City public schools you stayed with the same group of kids at least through the fourth grade. So you really got to know everyone in your class and there was a wonderful camaraderie, especially with those who lived on the same block as you did. You walked to school together; you shopped for Scripto mechanical pencils and 2-cent paper bookcovers at the beginning of the school year. You bought from the knish man outside your school who sold fat potato knishes out of a portable oven cart, onto which you poured lots of salt. Or you stopped for a sour pickle from the appetizing store on your way home where at least a two-course lunch was waiting.

    In my house the second course was milk and bakery-bought cake. After school you went home for more milk and cake and would later visit any number of candy stores. There was practically one at every corner.

    I usually purchased a Dixie cup of ice cream that showed a picture of a Hollywood star when you licked the ice cream off the lid of the cup, or a MelORol ice cream cone, a small cylinder of ice cream wrapped in paper with an accompanying waffle cone. The trick was to get the paper off when the cylinder was in the cone, rolling it and not letting it drop on the floor. Early Anxiety.

    A classmate of mine was Beverly Lowenstein, who from kindergarten through grade four, as best as anyone could remember, never spoke with any of the other kids in the class. She was not unintelligent, just painfully shy and very timid. Mrs. Miriam S. Berkowitz must have worked some magic on Beverly, for a strange and remarkable event occurred in June, at the end of the school year, which had great significance for me later in the summer of 1949.

    Beverly Lowenstein had left school three weeks before school ended. Later in June, Mrs. Miriam S. Berkowitz read from a picture postcard sent to the class from — yes — Beverly Lowenstein advising she was enjoying the summer. The card was then sent around the room so we could see the white and green stucco façade and long rolling front porch with a line of rocking chairs of the Greenfield Park Hotel set against blue skies and beautiful bottle-green Catskill Mountains. My close friend Sandra Gutstein, who Mrs. Miriam S. Berkowitz had named “Sandra Bigmouth,” exclaimed loudly, “Well as least Beverly can write.”

    The summer was a sad one for me. My mother was in the hospital having surgery, my father, who was never around too much, was even less around, and I was being shifted among various but caring relatives. My mother had arranged for my Aunt Martha to take over the bungalow my mother had rented in the Catskills and to care for me for the summer.

    My father arranged a car service for me to get to Potensky’s Bungalow Colony and Chicken Farm in Monticello. The car service limos, with a capacity of about eight, were known as hacks or hackies. They usually made a few stops at various destinations in the mountains, and transported individuals or family units plus all their belongings packed into gigantic cartons, which were stacked on the roof and in the trunk. You had to take your linens, quilts, pillows, pots, dishes, clothing, etc. It was formidable.

    Usually my mother, brother, and I shared the hack with Aunt Ida and my three cousins, and I have fond memories of the two women singing Russian and Yiddish folk songs along the way. A haunting rendition of “Otchi Tchornya” (“Dark Eyes”), or a bouncy version of “Bei Mir Bist du Shoen” (“To Me You Are So Beautiful”), was always on the program. My mother always arranged for us to sit in the front seat with the driver. If we sat in the back it was inevitable we would be carsick, if we ate. And how could we not eat during this three-hour journey?

    Of all things, after the hack driver, Abe, picked me up he stopped for his next passenger, who was Beverly Lowenstein’s grandmother. As I said before, you knew everyone and I knew who this lady was. Anyhow, Beverly’s mother was there to say goodbye and I certainly knew her. I forgot to mention that Abe did not let me sit in the front and of course this immediately set off anxiety about getting carsick. Should I eat? Could I not eat? Of course I was going to eat what my mother always gave me — a cream cheese and jelly sandwich on white and a glass of milk. 

    After about an hour, the hack pulled into the Big Apple rest stop on Route 17 around Suffern, N.Y.  Everyone was on their own with instructions to meet back at the hack in half an hour. Everyone came back except the grandma and Abe. We finally found them at the phone booth. The grandma did not know where she was going and Abe had neglected to get the destination information. No one was home. Would the grandmother have to travel all over the Catskills and then have to return to Brooklyn? I of course had a good idea as to where she was going and it was time to take action.

    “Are you Beverly’s grandma?” I asked. “Are you going to the same place she’s at?” Abe’s eyes narrowed and he asked me where I was going with this. The group watched.

    Suspense grew. It was a crucial moment. I was certain now that since I had eaten I would become carsick if I had to continue to sit in the back seat. With everyone waiting in suspense, I said I knew where the family was, but would only tell on one condition — if I got the front seat.

    Hours later with me sitting in the front as we pulled up to the Greenfield Park Hotel, there was Beverly, her cousin Max, who I knew, and some other assorted relatives. The grandma now adored me, but could not get Beverly to say hello or thanks. That Beverly!

    After that, we dropped some of the other passengers at the Tamarack Lodge and I saw two of my cousin Helen’s friends, Lucille and Arlene, walking. I had the car stopped and got out to be hugged and kissed by them. “This kid knows everyone,” remarked a now amused Abe.

    We soon arrived at Potensky’s Bungalow Colony and Chicken Farm. The home of 10,000 chickens. This was the third summer my mother had chosen this somewhat dismal place. She said she liked it because it was fairly new and clean. 

    Mr. Potensky would visit us in Williamsburg in the early spring to negotiate a rental for the next summer. The unmistakable aroma of the 10,000 chickens followed him wherever he went. We finally stopped going there as my Uncle Louie and Aunt Ida bought their own bungalow colony.

    Ken Miller, a longtime resident of East Hampton, is a recently retired social worker who worked for many years with individuals with developmental disabilities on Long Island and in New York City. He is working on his memoirs about growing up in Brooklyn and Queens.