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Cleveland (Becks)

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.

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Beck’s Paternal Grandparents

That’s a mouthful. But Beck was sitting on the shower seat for the disabled, thinking about how he had ended up in the Castle for the Poor and Crippled and it suddenly struck him why he was writing in the first and third person. In other words, it was obvious that Beck was me, and I was Beck.

But there was a weird logic coming through when he thought about his grandfather, who generally was poor, and his own lapse into the Castle.

Beck had two stories he wanted to tell, and was hopeful that in some way they would connect at some point that he didn’t see logically but felt.

In some ways it was an obvious choice to write about his ancestors from a glorified nursing home. He was his own story, and here was their stories. But it was more than that.

For example, when Becks’s uncle Hy was dying of brain cancer, and Beck was in his 20s, his Uncle Hy, the one who had been a bombarder during WWII, shot down early on, and spent years (was it years, Beck wasn’t sure) in a German POW camp told Beck to come closer so he could whisper something in Beck’s ear.

That was many years ago, and Uncle Hy died shortly afterwards, but he and Hy were close in many ways.

When Beck was close enough to Hy, who was stuck full of tubes, and needed to whisper louder than all the beeps that fill the single room, Hy said: Don’t screw up your life the way I did. Okay?

Beck nodded. What else was he to do?

The next day Hy was dead.

What exactly did Hy mean about his own life? That wasn’t too hard to figure out.

And for sure it was clear how Beck was in the process of screwing up his own life. Beck must have dropped out of college twice by then. Still was volgering around (I’ll look that up later. It’s a Yiddish word that translates roughly into not having a set path, moving from place to place… not like a hobo but as Dylan said, No Direction Home. Like a complete unknown. Like a Rolling Stone).

At that point in Beck’s life he was working as an order clerk, without a diploma, at a publishing house called Schocken Books which oddly enough specialized in Jewish writers. They published nearly all, possibly all, of Kafka, including the Castle and a two volume set of Kafka’s diaries. Which I believe were edited by his best friend (Max Brod – thanks GR) who easily outlived Kafka who had TB most of his adult life and worked as a law clerk.

Those journals were a big influence on Beck. He himself had gone on to write journals in green ledger books for the next ten years and eventually burn them along with his younger sister, (her journals not his sister) at a garbage dump in the Bronx.

In point of fact, the journal fetish may have started with my father, who had 40 years of journals which he pledged me to destroy before he died, which I did.

My journals were just too horrible to re-read. How many pages of mental and emotional agony, some drawn as cartoons, some where there are tears on the pages, are too much. Yes, the raw material, but only for my eyes only.

But so it was obvious how he must’ve been seen by his Uncle Hy. A drop out. Mostly a waste of potential. What that potential was – that wasn’t clear. But it was up to Beck to figure out.

What about Uncle Hy?

That was a long and disturbing story that somehow, Beck wanted to intertwine with his own story. Some of it is factual, and some of it is filled in with Beck’s imagination.