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Berger’s Burg: The good old days were filled with brotherly love

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I am the second-youngest in a family of eight children and I want to tell you about the second-oldest, my brother Larry. Now, Larry was someone special. He was personable, handsome, charming, funny and possessed a wonderful...

By Alex Berger

Larry, this column is for you.

I am the second-youngest in a family of eight children and I want to tell you about the second-oldest, my brother Larry. Now, Larry was someone special. He was personable, handsome, charming, funny and possessed a wonderful speaking voice. In addition, Larry was a great dancer. My mother literally had to shoo away the girls who waited in droves at our door to see him. I wanted to be just as personable when I grew up.

Larry was also bright, oh, so bright. In every school he attended, from elementary through high school, he was always the smartest, the most popular, achieved the highest grades, and his clear handwriting was a model for all the other students. He was elected to many high student offices and he won many scholastic awards.

The boys would try to best Larry in intellectual games, from spelling to geography to authors, but they never could. One evening, our upstairs neighbor, Walter Matthow (yes, the same Walter “Matthau” who later achieved Hollywood fame), challenged Larry, who was on his way to a date, to a game of word-definitions. To prepare, Walter had spent a week memorizing the dictionary. Larry needed only a few minutes to beat Walter and still be on time for his date. There wasn’t anything Larry couldn’t do once he set his mind to it. I wanted to be just as intelligent when I was a teenager.

Larry was also an outstanding athlete and strong as a bull. His firm handshake made grown men wince. He never once shied away from a fight instigated by others, and he had many brawls. Despite bloody noses and scratches, he was usually the winner. It soon got around that nobody should mess with Larry. I wanted to be just as dauntless when I was older.

On any given day, Larry was always upbeat and humorous. His jokes and comedy routines left everyone with a smile. In good times and bad, he always looked to make the other person laugh. I wanted to be just as funny.

Because of my parents’ financial straits during the Depression years, Larry opted to seek employment after graduating from high school at the age of 16. He accepted that he couldn’t take advantage of the many college scholarships he was offered. Larry tried many diverse occupations, including watch-maker, post office clerk, boilermaker, private detective, salesman, etc., but he never settled into one line of work. He needed to conquer his ever-expanding horizons. Larry married twice, was a widower twice and has three sons.

Larry is presently confined to a wheelchair, but he is still as jovial and high-spirited as he was in his younger years. Despite major obstacles throughout his life, he never asked anyone for anything — that is, until now. Larry had enjoyed my columns about our lives on the Lower East Side and he wanted to “add his two cents.” He e-mailed me the following (excerpted) essay with a request to print.

That would be the least I could do for brother Larry, who taught me how to fight, shave, treat girls with respect and hit a baseball. He also cured my desire to smoke when he brought me a “real man’s” smoke — an “Italian Stinker” cigar — when I was 14. So, Larry, the rest of the column is your time to reminisce:

“In the good old days, there was no such thing as a refrigerator. Every apartment had an icebox with a chunk of ice in the top compartment. Underneath the icebox was a pan (a ‘shissel’) to catch the water as the ice melted. The omnipresent ice man was on every corner, tuned to the cries of housewives, with heads sticking out their front windows, screaming for 10 cents worth of ice.

“The ice man would measure the required dimension for a 10-cent chunk of ice with his tongs, chop off the piece with his ice pick, sling a weather-beaten canvas over his shoulder, lift the cut ice with the tongs, place it onto his shoulder, and then climb the stairs to the woman’s apartment. We kids would run behind to gather pieces of fallen ice chips to suck on. It may not have been the cleanest, but it tasted the best.”

Another Larry recollection: “Our settlement house was unique. It was a place for socializing, playing indoor games and learning how to dance. It was our school after school. The first jobs I ever had were at the settlement house. In the winter I checked coats. Later on I became the group leader on dance night. I played records on the phonograph while introducing the new rumba, waltz, tango and fox trot dance steps.

“Ms. Gutwillig, the director, invited many notables to the settlement. Mrs. Harriman, wife of Averill Harriman, the former governor of New York, visited quite often. She always arrived in a chauffeur-driven limousine. One afternoon, when I was 9, I heard a call on the intercom summoning me to the second floor. I rushed there, and Mrs. Harriman greeted me with a sweet smile. She asked me how I liked the city. I said that the city was great, especially when the snowfalls accumulated on the street and created huge ice mountains. Some were as high as three stories. The kids would slide down the ice playgrounds and climb through holes we burrowed in the snow. What fun that was.

“I asked Mrs. Harriman how she endured the cold weather, living on her mountaintop estate in the family-owned Harriman State Park. She smiled and answered that it was quite comfortable there. Then Mrs. H. took out a brand-new five-dollar bill and a crisp one-dollar bill and handed it to me. I quickly ran home, with the money held tightly in my clenched fist. I gave it all to my mother to help feed our large family.

“Since I was the second-oldest, I also felt a responsibility to the younger Berger children. I notice that there are so few large families today. The children of today will never know what they are missing.”

Larry, thanks for your stories, thanks for being my big brother, and thanks for being you.

Reach Brother Larry by e-mail at timesledger@aol.com or call 718-229-0300, Ext. 140.

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