So this other story, that Beck thinks is going to join his Castle story starts in Cleveland. And to tell it, Beck has to jump back even further to when his paternal Grandmother – Fannie – arrived at Ellis Island.
He hates biographies that drag you all over the past, but that’s is their nature. At least it’s not chronological. And in fact it may not be pertinent at all to the story of her oldest son Hy (see previous chapter) but Fannie…
Was she always called Fannie? Beck didn’t know. Arrived at Ellis Island in the far distant past as a little orphan girl. Maybe she was seven years old?
Her parents were dead (hence the melodramatic orphan description) but she had a whole lot of older brothers. Each one of them had paid someone to pretend to be their parent.
Beck didn’t know or understand the setup, but apparently they had arranged for little Fannie to work in Philadelphia as a house-girl for a wealthy family.
And again, apologies for the fogginess of this early history, but Fannie had an uncle who worked in early Hollywood as a screenwriter (I imagine before talkies). And he had driven cross country to pick up little orphan Fannie to deposit her in Philly.
Frankly, the whole thing didn’t make much sense, but Beck had a video tape of his father, Hy’s younger brother, telling the story just this way.
Where did her older brothers scatter to?
Why would this mysterious relative travel cross country to take Fannie to Philly? And if there was a former relative who was a screenwriter, why would Beck, who would himself have absolutely never heard about him until his own father told him the following story?
After Fannie got settled in what Beck imagined was a Model-T – she saw a black person for the first time in her life (having arrived from Poland and living in a Jewish ghetto).
She pointed him out to her screenwriter relative, and asked “why is that man so dark?”
“Oh that,” said the screenwriter. “After you are in America for a while, you’ll turn black too.”
This scared the little girl who would become my grandmother. She was taken to the house which my father describes as a mansion, and put to work scrubbing the floors.
Beck wasn’t sure how long she spent in Philly, but eventually she caught the eye of the skinny nervous guy, Max, who was to become my grandfather.
And for all that, what made Beck even write this bit, was Max.
Beck was sitting on his new shower chair (after you’ve had a few strokes, a shower chair is needed, because you can’t stand very long) and so the water was pouring on him and he was wondering how he ended up poor and disabled, and it struck Beck that characteristics often skipped generations, which brought him to Fannie and Max, and that seemed like a good bridge to their son Hy who this story is really about.
The thing about Max, was that he was always poor. He tried his hand at hat-making (I think you can write a history of hats that mirrors world history) and failed. He ran a small grocery on Bainbridge Avenue, in the Bronx. And failed.
He worked the story with Fannie, who by then was half blind with coke bottle glasses. If you asked her to slice a half-pound of cheese, it was anyone’s guess what you’d get.
A salesman came by one day and convinced Grandpa Max that there was going to be a great shortage of canned Pineapples (maybe this had to do with WWII?) but he ended up filling the cellar with hundreds of Pineapple cans, and Beck’s father laughs about how Grandpa Max never sold a single can because he paid too much for them?
He did some house painting, but was sloppy and generally not re-hired.
They had three children by then, Hy (the oldest), Aaron (10 years old) and Teresa (maybe 8). Why they would call her Teresa, which is in no way a Jewish name, Beck never found out. But a tiny amount of research brought the names and ages of the Beck family to light in a census report from Cleveland.
So by the 1930s, the Becks had moved to Cleveland which had and still has a thriving Jewish community.