When I was growing up in Philadelphia, my parents and all their friends were first generation Jews whose parents had emigrated from Eastern Europe. They were all politically liberal, not a Republican in sight, and many if not most of them had been commies in the 30's. They had left that behind as they matured, and by the time I hit my teens and became aware of them. They were doctors and lawyers and one friend, Vince Young, owned a lumber yard. The women were stay at home moms, mostly, cocooned and impeded by what the world did to women in those days, except for my mom, who went back to school to be a social worker when I was in my teens. We were four children in our family, two boys and two girls, and I was the oldest. We were a close family, informal and loving, and they included the kids in their talk, at least to a certain extent. In fact, there was a lot they held back, and I think if asked I would have said, yes, that's the way it is. I knew enough not to speak too much when their friends were there, I don't think I was a very good talker anyway, but I listened, I noticed a lot, and viewed the world and their friends mostly through the eyes of my father, I think. I didn't know then that I had a good memory, but I guess that I did, because I seem to remember a lot.
My parents had what I guess it's best to call a circle of friends. They seemed to have known each for a very long time and seemed to have a band of trust. It might have been the times, it might have been memories from the shtetl of how communities interacted, it might have been the 30's and radicalism, it may have been Jews, I don't really know. But they had a circle of friends who all knew each other. Today, we move around so much, that my circle of friends is all over – thank goodness for email and free long distance. But then they were all right there in Philly.
Among this circle of friends, the famous Jewish sense of humor was alive and well. Especially among the men, I think, a good joke was never far away. Mom and Dad appreciated the jokes, but they weren’t too good at telling them. My Mom loved to laugh at jokes but could never tell them. My Dad loved to laugh at jokes, too, and he could tell a joke OK, although he would laugh after telling it, lean toward you and say, “Pretty good, huh?” which a good joke teller usually doesn't do. A good joke teller just tells the joke and looks for the reaction. My Dad made actively sure you were laughing, too.
Apparently, our families best joke teller was mother’s father, Ike Friedenberg, who grew up in Baltimore and was a boxer in his younger days, a haberdasher in downtown Philly as an adult, a wiry, bald man who seemed friendless in his old age, when I knew him. He was well known to be funny, but since my parents and grandparents didn't get along, any of them, we didn't get to see it, and we could enjoy his humor only by reputation. What a shame. Fortunately, maybe because of genetics, my younger brother and I can both tell a joke. My mother always said that I was the best audience for my brother Bobby could hope to have. “Buddy always thinks Bobby is so funny!” she would say. My Mom looked at us and sized us up a lot, and she and Dad would talk about us as though we weren't there, which was disconcerting, but there it is. They watched us, and watched out for us. As for Bobby and me, siblings always jocky for position, and since Bobby was the jokester, although he could laugh at my jokes and enjoy them, his goal was always to then say something even funnier. It's still the same way. Families, families. Brothers.
In my parents circle of friends, the funniest one, apparently, was their friend Lou Wilderman. Lou was a labor lawyer and represented unions, as would befit the politics of the circle. My Dad told me that Lou’s stories about his clients were so funny they left his audience of friends in tears. “Oh, the stories he would tell, his clients were so nuts!” said my Dad. For some reason I never met his wife. I guess that was because my parents and Lou weren't really close friends, they were just part of the same circle. But it was well agreed that Lou was the funniest man any of their crowd knew.
Lou was of average height, wore tortoise shell glasses, I think, was rather pale, and spoke self-consciously, interspersing short little laughs as he told his anecdotes, keeping people going with his ability to modulate his speech, and build to a climax. He had a little urgency in his voice, he talked in little spurts, and then there were the little chuckles as he delivered the little humorous observations along the way. I think what was more remarkable to me than just him, was the regard all the others had for him when he talked. They were all primed for the joke, or the series of humorous observations, even before he started talking. They wouldn't want to miss a word.
The other thing that was remarkable about Lou was that he was also a serious, verified hypochondriac. It was the days before health foods, but if there were a rumor that cinnamon was good for one’s health, be assured, Lou would be taking cinnamon regularly. What a combination that was for a man! An extraordinary sense of humor, and a serious case of hypochondria.
The best story about Lou, and the only one that I retain, is one that Lou told about himself. I doubt that I heard him tell it first hand, but I know my father told it more than once. I know that because my father told every story more than once. Here's how it went.
It was springtime in Philadelphia, and it was a beautiful day. The leaves were on the trees, the birds were chirping, the sky was very blue. Lou was walking down the streets of center city Philadelphia on this beautiful day. He felt great! What a time to be alive! Then he thought - what should he do when everything was so perfect?
By happenstance, he was walking up Lombard Street and came to 19th Street. There on the corner was the Graduate Hospital of the University of Pennsylvania. Immediately, Lou knew what to do on this beautiful day. He said to himself — what better thing to do on a beautiful day like today? I’m going to treat myself to an X-ray!
I'm laughing again as I recount this story, told by Lou about himself, gathering all his friends into his own mishegoss. My Dad loved to tell this story, and to laugh with astonishment and affection, and to make sure that you laughed, too. Imagine Lou – he knew he was nuts with his hypochondria, and he knew he couldn't do anything about it, and he knew that he could laugh at himself as much as he laughed at the antics of his clients in the unions. Maybe with today's drugs Lou could have been cured, I guess, probably, but maybe not, I don't know. In those days you lived with a lot of stuff we give medicine for today. Then they only had psychiatry, and everyone was distrustful of the Freudians, and that was pretty much all psychiatry had to offer. So they laughed.
Like so many funny people, I think that Lou might have been one of those people funny on the outside but tortured on the inside. Maybe his humor and his hypochondria were accompanied by racing thoughts, I don't know. Maybe he was tortured and creative. He did write a play, or a movie script. I remember I actually saw the bound script, and was amazed — an ordinary man that I knew actually wrote a script? I imagined, knowing Lou, that it was a comedy.
But it wasn’t. It was a tragedy of some sort. He showed it to his friends in his crowd and they marveled that he had written it. Someone asked, I think it was Vince Young, the owner of the lumber yard (who sold the lumbar yard and retired for a while, then reentered the labor force as a social worker of sorts for a hospital), who would you like to get to play the part of the protagonist, if you could actually get a movie made? Lou came up with an answer that showed he had been ruminating about it, although he had to know that getting it produced had to be a pipe dream. Anyway, he answered that he would like Paul Muni to give it a shot. Paul Muni, I thought, that's pretty strange, a man of the past. Paul Muni? I knew him only as a name. You could see that Lou was a dreamer. But what a dream – Paul Muni, a man of serious mien and purpose, to be the star of a play you wrote. Wow. That would have been something. But I knew it was kind of crazy when I heard it.
I think that this play was the last time I saw Lou in person, and maybe after that there could have been a mention or two of him, but times changed. My family had started out in West Philadelphia not far from the Penn campus, moved to the suburbs for the schools, and then moved back to center city when all the kids were out of the house and to college and beyond. I think they lost track of Lou as everyone got older and moved on to other friendship groups, but only to a certain extent. The group kept in touch enough so that my sisters heard that when Vince’s wife died and Morrie Samitz, the dermatologist member of the group died, Vince and Morrie’s wife Doris lived out the rest of their lives together. My sisters wondered if anything had gone on before the spouses had died, with a little spice of prurient interest. Strange, I thought, Vince and Doris? Things sure do change.
I really don't know what happened to Lou after the play. I have an inkling I heard something once, but I'm damned if I know what it is. I wish I knew. I wish my parents were still here and I could talk it over with them, ask them for the followup, and so that my father could correct my story as I have written it down here, as he surely would, hiding his admiration for my writing, and his pleasure at having his own life remembered and even chronicled a little. But I would know that his love for me would be in there.
If they were here, and if we would talk about Lou, I know that they would smile, perhaps a little sadly. Sometimes you are happy and you don't know it, or think about it, until afterwards.