You Think Things Are Bad Now?

Live During The Depression

I saw the light on the very first day the damn thing started. My parents were refugees from Europe, which was rapidly becoming Fascist; and though my father was a respected doctor in Budapest, he arrived in New York penniless and didn’t know a word of English. Because of that dearth of knowledge, the only job he could get was at a hospital cleaning out bed pans.

That odious employment and meager salary was just enough to buy food for a family of four, but the rent was a different story. To keep a roof over our troubled heads, we had to rely on family members who had migrated to America a generation before us. These relatives owned a decrepit shoe store and the four of us lived in its back room.

The store turned out to be fortuitous… but the falling apart place was our mean of survival. The family burned it to the ground every year or so, in order to receive insurance money that ended up getting us through the worst of times during the Great Depression. We never got caught, but there were other problems; my father still had a hard time with English and he kept failing the Medical Board tests. He was so desperate to pass the exam that one year he asked the young, would-be doctor next to him if pneumonia was spelled with an N or a P. Unfortunately, a proctor was watching my father and he was thrown out of the test for cheating. After several more tries he eventually passed the Boards, but he had no practice, so we were worse off than when he was swapping out bed pans.

There was an out besides burning down the shoe store. Prohibition was the law of the land but people could get booze if it were prescribed by a doctor. My father partnered with a crooked druggist and the two supplied our Brooklyn blue-collar neighborhood with all the hooch they could drink. Of course my father got caught. It looked like he was going to lose his newly-acquired medical license, or even worse, go to jail. After much consternation, the family found a judge who would exonerate my father for $7,000. That kind of money  in those years was the equivalent of $100,000 today. We burned down the shoe store twice that year, but it still wasn’t enough. We needed a miracle and it came in the form of a gentleman named Louis Lepke. Lepke was a killer and the head honcho of a bunch of Jewish thieves and murderers known as Murder Inc. Luckily, Lepke’s wife was pregnant with twins; and even more lucky for us, it was a difficult pregnancy and was in danger of aborting the babies. My father saved the day. Mrs. Murder Inc. had her twins and for payment, my father told Lepke to get the crooked judge off his back. Lepke paid the jurist a visit. The debt was immediately cancelled.

Still our doughty, little family had problems. Number one, our meager diet and cramped surroundings had left me with a raging case of rickets. The cure for this disease is a good diet and plenty of vitamin C. We didn’t have the money for a good diet, but the sun occasionally shone in Brooklyn and I remember my parents pushing me out to the stoop to lap up the sunshine. I’d sit there all day and my health actually improved, but besides my health problems, there were serious problems in the land. Because it looked like the Great Depression would never go away, a large consensus of citizens felt that capitalism had failed. One of the answers to this dilemma was communism. My older brother fell for this idea and became a card carrying member of the American Communist Party. This allegiance drove my father nuts. He had escaped Europe and he had escaped jail time, but he was a paranoid wreck  because of my brother’s radical politics and the fact that he kept a loaded suit case in the closet, just in case the family had to make a hurried flee down the fire escape.

Besides our own family difficulties, the effects of the Great Depression were all around us. Most people in my neighborhood bought their clothes from itinerant peddlers who wandered our streets. Pants went for 50 cents and you could get an entire suit with a vest for $3.00 from these vendors. There were also a lot of beggars on our street and they frequently came up to our door around dinner time. Since we had no money, my mother would give them a sandwich, and on those rare times when we were a bit flush, she would give them a nickel. My father would shake his head at his wife’s largesse, but he went along with it. Still there was much talk about money and the lack thereof at our dinner table. Every morsel that went down our gullets was monetized. How much did the carrots cost? What was the price of the strips of beef in the soup? How much was the apple sauce? This constant conversation about money at the dinner table made me neurotic. I felt guilty every time I swallowed.

Besides the ever present discussion of money, Hitler had become a threat. Mixing that monster with a depression made for a catastrophe that was about to envelope us all … and yet we lived through it. My brother gave up his communist credentials, became a loyal citizen, and joined the Air Corps and served as a bombardier on B27’s during the war. My father’s practice grew, and after that conflict he moved from Brooklyn to New York and opened a small office just off Park Avenue.

All in all, after the Great Depression and WW2, the world was a much better place. It was the American Century. The world was ours, it was a happy, heady time … and what helped to make it just that, were the tough times we went through to get there.

There are still great inequities in this country. The poverty rate is abominable. There is hunger, and disease and vast inequities in America. But we got through the Great Depression and we will get through these tough times. And the vast majority of us won’t have to commit arson to do it. I’m so positive of that fact—I’ll bet the shoe store on it.

Zen Is Great But A Bitch To Do

Staring At A Blank Wall

I’ve been meditating for a half hour every morning for over 40 years. I know half an hour is a paltry amount of time, but at my reckoning, that makes for 14,600 times of sitting in a chair trying to calm my mind. Most of the time this quest has been an abject failure, though a few times I’ve witnessed something with a little stretch of the imagination that might be called Nirvana—and it didn’t involve Curt Cobain.

What I was feeling was a deep-inner peace—but it didn’t last long. I started my meditation practice with Maharishi’s Transcendental Meditation. After a six week course, one of the Maharishi’s disciples gave me a mantra. The mantra was a Sanskrit word. I never knew what the word meant and I repeated it every morning, but never neared anything that even closely resembled a transcendental state.

I then attended three Yogi Ashrams. Along with Yoga, I was given a whole new group of Sanskrit words. They weren’t any more effective than the Maharishi’s had been, but then I discovered Zen.

The Zen center I went to was in downtown Los Angeles (well before the area was gent). In other words, it was in the ghetto, but it was an oasis in this tract of misery. The Zenists had taken over a turn-of-the-century house and turned it into a magnificent ashram that the locals respected. There was graffiti on the surface of every wall but not a touch on the Zen house. There was also something about this place along with the noise. The ghetto is a noisy place, but the closer you got to the ashram, the quieter it got. It was like there was an invisible shield that was guarding the building. From the first moment I laid eyes on the Hazy Moon Ashram, I was impressed.

After a week’s introductory course, I was allowed to partake in the group’s meditation practices. From the first day, Zen was a tough trip. First of all, Sanskrit mantras went out the Zen window. They were replaced with dictum, which was to just sit still and watch my breath. On top of that, I was supposed to watch my breath with my eyes open. This was different because in all other meditation practices, one’s eyes are closed and it is much easier than staring at a blank wall.

The neophyte doesn’t get a koan when he begins the practice. A koan is a paradoxical question to a student, and an answer is demanded. This is concentrated on until one rids oneself of rational thought and thus gains sudden enlightenment…hopefully.

I never got to the koan plateau. The roshi and the Zen leader didn’t think I was ready. He was right. I remained pretty much in the category of watching my breath and staring at a blank wall. The wall had a couple of knots in it.

My fellow Zenists (and I don’t mean to sound derogatory) and I admired the group. We would all arrange ourselves in the meditation room wearing black gowns. These gowns had to be purchased, and since I wasn’t sure if I was going to follow the practice, I settled for a black t-shirt. But there we would sit in our black garments, in absolute silence for 20 minutes, while looking at the knots.

A typical Zen mediation lasts 2 hours and 20 minutes of staring and 10 minutes of silent walking. The Zen center I attended had weekend-long sesshins (the Japanese word for staring at a wall for days). I wasn’t nearly ready for that, but for six months, I went to the 2 hour practice every day.

At the end of some sessions, I was certain that I flew back to my car because my feet never touched the ground. At the end of another session, I was so discombobulated and deranged. I felt that I should have called 911, and sometimes I felt that I should have drove directly to Forest Lawn without stopping!

After six months of this up and down existence, I just couldn’t take it anymore. I quit. I regret that decision to this day, and I’ve made a promise to myself that I am going back to Zen.

I have it all planned out; I’m going to ask the roshi if he’ll let me make up my own koan. If he allows it, I know what it will be. On my intake of breaths, my mantra will be:

“Ommmm…Oh mighty knot on the wall.”  And on the exhalation it will be, “Ommmm…oh mighty knot why are you there?”

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