Mendel Letters 55 — Coping with Near Blindness

1920s pony photo on the Lower East Side

November 27, 2021

Dear Mendel,

When I was teaching at Charles Evans Hughes High School in Manhattan, I found your high school records from Straubenmuller Textile High School buried away in the sub-basement. The Hughes building on 18th street between 8th and 9th avenues was Straubenmuller until 1954. In the 1930s, Straubenmuller offered vocational programs for students like you with visual handicaps. You had pretty awful grades and it took you an extra half-year to graduate. You probably were in no hurray to finish high school because there was still no work during the Great Depression.

Sometimes I wonder what life was like for you. Over the years you told me a few things and I witnessed others. Bubba, your mother, was nearly blind from cataracts and glaucoma and you inherited her conditions. In the 1920s, you were the subject of experimental surgery at the Manhattan Eye, Ear and Throat Hospital that seriously scarred both of your corneas and left them incapable of being repaired when medical technology had improved. One eye eventually completely died and was replaced with a glass ball.

As a visually handicapped kid growing up in poverty on the Lower East Side of Manhattan I think you had to be extra tough. Your sister Kate once told me that you and your brother Abie were terrors in school and she would be called to the school office to calm you down and carry notes home to your parents who ignored them and refused to show up at school.

During World War II you repeated tried to enlist. You begged the army to find something for you to do, but to your humiliation they turned you down. I think you lived with that rejection for much of your life.

Twice I saw you almost get into fights as an adult. Once my stepbrother Lennie was arguing with someone over a disputed parking space and suddenly you appeared carrying a hammer. Another time, in the Astoria luncheonette, a crazy customer was loudly complaining, I think he was refusing to pay for a cup of coffee he didn’t like, and he reached over the counter and slapped you with his glove. The next thing I knew you pulled a mini-baseball bat out from under the counter and were moving on him. I grabbed you from behind and pinned your arms until he left the store and you calmed down. We then returned to work and never spoke about the incident. I have no idea if you think I did the right thing or should have gone after him.

You could read with thick glasses and a powerful magnifying lens. This allowed you to keep the books for the store and scan the newspaper. You liked to follow the stock market. I think you even purchased a small amount of shares in some companies. Growing up we never had any books in the house but occasionally there would be copies of pictorial magazines like Life.

In our apartments, you always had the radio on for background noise. The Jack Sterling talk and music show in the morning and news in the evening. I inherited the need for radio background noise from you. I always have music or talk playing on my computer or Alexa, an Internet speaker that plays what ever I want. You would love her. You will also get a kick out of this. When you go to my stepdaughter Heidi’s house the radio is on in almost ever room — habits I think that are courtesy of you.

At the luncheonette we worked by placement and touch. Everything had its assigned place and had to be returned there after use, tuna, shrimp, chicken salad containers were lined up, coffee cups, rolls, butter, Danishes, and knives were all carefully placed, especially knives.

I know you and Mommy dreamed of becoming insurance brokers and signed up for classes, but after she died of cancer in 1961 you were unable to continue on your own. When we walked together I often held you by the elbow when we came to street corners, but for years you were able to navigate the subway to get to work. I know you frequently came home with bloody shins from banging into things you couldn’t see, but never said anything.

After my stepmother died you moved to a senior citizen’s Century Village in Deerfield Beach, Florida, because you couldn’t see well enough to travel on your own anymore. It was more contained with less traffic and you could walk by yourself to the local luncheonette and buy breakfast or lunch. You performed in singing groups, your great love, and met women there who were willing to cook for you and go with you to community events. You also sang at Heidi and Solomon’s weddings but wouldn’t let me sing along, just because I can’t carry a tune.

You worked on your feet and long hours your entire life which made my and my younger brother’s education and lives possible. This letter is a belated thank you.

Your son

Hard copies of these typed letters were discovered in an old camp trunk in the basement storage facility of one of the few buildings that remain standing in this Brooklyn neighborhood. The building is quite decrepit and is scheduled for demolition. The letters were found in November 2048 by a teenager who believes they were written by his great-grandfather. The letters are addressed to Mendel, the letter writer’s father, who appears to have been dead for at least six years when his son, whose name we are unsure of, started to write him. The son appears very agitated in some of the letters. With permission from the family, we are publishing them on the date they were written, only 28 years later.

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