We walked the two blocks to the polling place slowly, Grandpa taking deliberate steps, aided by a walker or maybe it was a cane. Hard to believe it was more than 20 years ago!
It was a first walk together to the courthouse, but not a first view into Morris’ election views. I was raised on his proud exclamations that he had never missed an election – and equally proud claim that he had always voted Democrat, but for Eugene V. Debs (Socialist) in 1920. These affirmations came from a man born in Jassy, Rumania who grew up on Eldridge Street on the (Lower) East Side and earned his own naturalization – not needed, mind you, due to derivative citizenship from his father. Why? Well, if you knew Morris, you’d understand.
Grandpa’s American pride was not surprising. He was the first on his block to go to college. He wanted desperately to serve our country, and worked his connections unsuccessfully on numerous occasions to get a commission in the United States military. He did get in uniform with the Student Army Training Corps (SATC) in World War I – or, as Grandpa called it, the Saturday Afternoon Tail Chasers – but then the war ended. Morris ultimately served some three decades with the Selective Service (draft board) and carried out his tasks with the utmost ethical integrity.
I had heard the stories and knew the values, but I had never gone with Grandpa to vote. That day we walked up 161st Street toward the Grand Concourse. Our destination? The Bronx County Courthouse. The courthouse was legendary in my memory. How many times had we called Ruth and Morris in the evening, to learn that Grandma had served on the mysterious thing called grand jury that day? And how many times had we driven past the massive stone building driving around Dad’s childhood neighborhood?
The Bronx County Courthouse was built 1931-34, a project of the Works Progress Administration (WPA) of Roosevelt’s New Deal. It’s a grand building with a sculptural frieze and WPA murals in its main hall. Located at the Grand Concourse and 161st Street in the Bronx, it is a stone’s throw from Yankee Stadium, and a pebble’s throw from 831 Gerard Avenue, where my grandfather lived for some 70 years, most with my grandmother, and two decades with my father, their son. That day it felt awesome indeed.
Grandpa was in his mid 90’s that Election Day. I was in graduate school and living in the West Village. For years, Grandpa had taken the subway to meet me for lunch – wherever I was in Manhattan. Toward the end of my rabbinic school years, as Grandpa’s mobility lessened I began ignoring my father’s prohibition against taking the subway to Bronx, and would board the B or D uptown to 161st Street, where the trains are elevated and the sound brought me back to countless sleepovers at Grandma and Grandpa’s. I’d exit the train look out toward the Stadium and walk to the once beautiful Art Deco building where my dad had grown up. As I did, I wanted to bottle up the memories, the history, the stories Grandpa raised us on, the comfort and safety he provided but which I am sure I could not name at the time.
That day was no exception. Nor was today as I opened that bottle of memories for my children.