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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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?
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!
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.
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.
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.
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
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.
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.