Peter Marks and Samuel Marks
DescriptionFather told son about his childhood in New York City and how the city changed and became less safe but why he has always stayed here and always will
Subject Log / Time Code
- Peter Marks
- Samuel Marks
Recording LocationGrand Central Terminal
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00:04 This is Saint Mark's. I am 33 years old. Today is March 26th 2006. We are the storycorps booth in Grand Central Terminal and I am the son of Peter marks who I'm interviewing today.
00:21 I'm Peter marks. I'm 71 and is my wonderful son is convened to be with me. So I was trying to think of a way to sort of get started here cuz we only have an hour and you have 71 years to talk about so I was I thought the sort of the angle we could take is you as a New Yorker in your relationship to the city and how it shaped you and how you shaped it and start off. I thought I mean I consider you to be kind of like a quintessential New Yorker and I mean, you know what? I mean when I say that is that I know exactly what you mean. You're absolutely right and what like, how how would you drive yourself a federally Urban person I have.
01:13 Bertram but my interest in the country on a Countryside on a scale of 1 to 10 is -12 I find living in the city to be the most you silly writing a fascinating way to spend my life and I would want to live anywhere else. The the indication I always explain about our family and how close we are as New Yorker to the city is our sort of the automobile status. Can you just explain the last time you owned a car? The last time I owned a car was in 1956 when I was in college. I had a blue and white Ford Fairlane turquoise blue and white witch my parents bought my brother and me and once we got back to New York, there's no place to park it and we got rid of it. Somehow. I can't remember and you haven't you haven't missed having a car over the last 50 years.
02:13 And other places because they just that jaw-dropping. They are just completely amazed that I could have gotten this far in life without having a car. I feel the same way. That's exactly what I what I do to see past that leave at least pass that along to hear your son. I always say when we get back from Vermont having does it been since family that that you can't make eye contact with a tree and that's one thing I one of the things I missed when I go to Vermont that as much as I adore all of you, you're really basically the only people I make eye contact me for a week or two. Where is the New York you're you know, you walk in the street and you you you engage people even for a nanosecond in this to me is very exciting and fascinating to two.
03:08 Did engage in these many encounters wonderful hopefully over the next 35 to 40 minutes. We can talk about how you got this way. So but let's start from the beginning. I got I'm really interested to hear you. Talk about your childhood in New York and the neighborhood that you grew up in where you lived for the first how many years until I basically graduated from college. We lived on West 86th Street between Riverside Drive and West End Avenue. I was actually when I was born my parents were living in the Bronx with my mother's parents were born in the Bronx and if I was born in hospital shortly after birth, I never knew that and my grandparents my mother
04:03 Parents were first-generation, Jewish immigrants and I did rather well, so they lived in a half of a of a of a free-standing house and my brothers born a year before me from by the time I was born my parents are ready to to move and start their own family and in their own place. So we moved first to Central Park West and later went Public Schools started for both of us. We moved 86th Street, but we stayed until I was in my early twenties see moved into the 86th Street apartment when you were held I must have been three. Dre started kindergarten you before me said that was the neighborhood that for all intents and purposes you grew up in a gesture of conscious your life. So I know that that intersection very well, but I've only known it as
05:03 You know for the 1970s through now, so what was that like in the thirties in the forties? Actually Western Avenue and Central Park West strips of middle-class and upper-middle-class Jewish families and on Columbus and Amsterdam Avenue where
05:32 Blue Collar Irish and polish families and in-depth Spectre very hard for these poor Irish kids to to look at us. Rich Jewish kids and and feel.
05:55 Inferior in a way and as a consequence, there was a considerable amount of of anti-Semitic feeling among kids. I was regularly beaten up and robbed in the park and leave me by regularly. I mean what what is hell maybe certainly more than once and I was always humiliated that I was such a physical coward that I'd never fought back and they would always remind me that I killed priced. So I mean it was definitely a kind of Aura of this kind of conflict that had something more to do than simply economic differences.
06:43 It was it was wonderful being in my in my grade school years. We lived for walks away from PS now.
06:56 And we everybody went home for lunch and
07:02 So it was a real neighborhood. I mean all my friends were in the neighborhood and Bob Bell Stone and Alex knife block.
07:12 Who refinishing who who were in my class but still friends. So, you know, I have to get the street that I that I grew up on exactly the same as it was every building is Notre Dame building building in the trees planted and I know it looks different from that point of view by the jarring to see your old street with trees. I mean does that does it you still noticed that every time you walk down that street? Yes, I do. As a matter of fact, I have a strong distaste for 4 plants that grow on buildings like Ivy and Wisteria all over stairs, very beautiful and I have a recurring fantasy of of buying a chainsaw and going around at night cutting off the Seas.
08:12 The root system so that all of these green things he withering can you talk a little bit more about serve with the with the street culture was like in your neighborhood. I mean you talked about, you know, the differences between the different Avenues in the class differences people living cheek-by-jowl. But what was is that something that you think about like what it was like to walk down the street as a kid with your friends or you know,
08:46 Well, we we
08:49 Replace Street games tropical Chinese handball with you. Do you know what Chinese animal is a on the pavement you each have a box and you you used the course of pink Spalding ball and you you hit the ball against the wall of the building, but you have to bounce it first. So it's a it's a sort of crisscross. Can we replace tooth ball?
09:22 And we played stickball on 85th Street, which is a narrow Street. And then we had I had roller skates the ones that you put on with a skate key attach it to your shoes.
09:40 So it sounds like I was a big jock, but of course, you know.
09:47 And I mean, but but was this was just the kind of neighborhood where you know, you knew all your neighbors on your block and dance in that area. Right York, you know, you didn't even say hello people.
10:02 And it was my my my parents didn't know 20 people in the neighborhood, you know as Neighbors.
10:13 So it wasn't it didn't have.
10:18 It didn't have the feeling of Little Italy or some ethnic Enclave. It was some personal.
10:29 What about what about the public school experience in PS? And I'm in my first question I guess would be was was it was it a school that brought together all those various ethnic groups in the neighborhood of me with the kids were beating you up in the park sitting next to you and now they went to a different school public school. But I mean they were we had classes of amount channel 25 to 30 kids and maybe two were not Jewish.
10:59 So it was a very parochial experience. Although course, we didn't we didn't experience it that way but everybody pretty much came from the same kind of socioeconomic background. There was all kinds of shared culture that we weren't even aware of. Can you give an example of that?
11:25 But I remembered it was a girl in my class named Granada who was Italian and I thought and she wore she wore thick cotton stockings, which is the standard and she must have been that the daughter of first-generation immigrants and she was so exotic. Do you know I'd never seen a child looks like that before. So this shared culture was more evident by the few people who didn't fit to somebody's house apart apartment house apartment. They were pretty much the same as everybody.
12:10 They're with my lights. My two closest friends lived in the neighborhood. So we went to the park together. We went to the movies together. We went to the last movie on 42nd Street together later on. We went to the burlesque show in Union City. What was that? Like
12:35 Dirty Prado teenager's how we even we even knew about it, but these things it's it's like the way we had this dirty comic books. I don't know who had them, but you know, they're all this stuff Tijuana Bibles and yeah.
12:57 But when we were must must have been 11 or 12, maybe 13, we used to dinner with telling parents guide to movies or something, Oregon going to somebody's at the house and and we would go down to Port Authority and get all the bus to Union City and there was a burlesque theater there. That was New Jersey was at the closest one or that was just the one you knew my lovely mayor LaGuardia shut down all of the burlesque houses during the thirties. So and this was the Howard Howard Theater.
13:38 Anyways, I had at the storm and you know, all these things burlesque Headliners and they had this pathetic course of about 6 girls and then the burlesque Comics it would doing all of these classic burlesque sketches, that would just hilarious.
13:59 Tell nobody playing tonight at these 12 year old kids were.
14:08 So, you know, I mean those are things that that I sell Urban anyway, you know and definitely lost now have done something that you haven't told me yet. But there's actually a whole Revival of sort of like neo-burlesque, you know, all these people my age and younger, we're sort of Reviving all those Traditions. So we should we should definitely check it out sometime but let me go on to another topic you were how old were you when World War was going on.
14:43 I was well 1945 I was 10. So it was from 6 to 10 and then
14:56 I remember I had this discussion about the ward she felt very threatened by the Nazis and I didn't I made it ironic since she was Virginia, right?
15:09 But till the war felt very far away for you or we we we had air raid drills which were before the Duck and Cover hear of atomic bombs and and we were escorted to our homes and instructed to 2 to walk close to the buildings.
15:34 We had a bond War Bond drives. We were War stamps, but you were kind of the nickel-and-dime things children could come in with a quarter and you know.
15:50 And then they were scrap metal drives and we used to.
15:57 Go to people's houses and start at the top floor and walk down and knock on the doors to get tin cans and they would bring them to some Redemption Center somewhere. So do you remember feeling a sense of like Duty and Patriots? I never in a million years imagined that we would ever be attacked it always was so there was also this.
16:32 Trainspotting we were they with these funny kind of viewers that had silhouettes of messerschmitts various things or the we could hold them up to the sky and and if we're playing fit the silhouette 3, you know, you would call I don't know. What was I remember doing that sitting in the park on a rooftop and look watching the skies for playing so but then after the invasion after after Normandy there were
17:14 Maps of the front of the of the events of the Allied troops and was in the on the front page of the times everyday.
17:23 So that brought the somehow brought the war closer cuz I could could see it and I can visualize what was happening. And of course they were newsreels, but the but the newsreels were censored to that was never an image of a Dead Soldier.
17:44 So it's difficult to 2 as I recall they weren't they weren't too many fathers of children. I knew who were in the war in the Army cuz I would too old by then all of my father Pearl Harbor happen here and out who enlist and he was sent home because he was too old and my mother was just curious, So he must have felt a real sense of Duty or I mean was that something that was talked about with the adults in your life is wanting to
18:22 Well, you know my parents was so frightened of any kind of of of emotional engagement that had anything to do with anxiety or enemies do with anything. Pleasant that we never discussed the war. It was it was something that was out there, but it was never something that was brought home with we discussed. I mean you would not have talked about the arrival after the war of of of a couple the man of whom was my father's cousin who Ed and his wife and young baby who survived Auschwitz
19:08 And they they were brought over by my father at his brother's name is Jonas Globe. They somehow located this man in one of those post-war camps.
19:26 And since we were in New York, they were met at the boat and my parents brought them home and they were discussing their experiences things for spoke. No English for my
19:40 My parents spoke very little Yiddish at that point, but but I could tell them that they had gone through something. That was so profoundly horrifying. I never seen people look that way. There was something about there.
19:58 Demeanor that that that was different from anything I've ever seen in a way I suppose that was when the war
20:08 Finally became real.
20:13 And very shocking and I was I was at 11 then 12 to sleep after the war. They were a couple of years before they nobody can find them or something.
20:28 So it was said I should have Caillou setting into me.
20:35 Let's switch tracks here.
20:38 When you attended High School, you attended music and art which is now merged with the Performing Arts to form LaGuardia, but it was a specialized high school in New York City for young people who are interested in the Arts. And how did that come about do you remember?
20:58 My mother knew about the school and she
21:02 She she tells the surgery went to the principal of the junior high school that we were going to Joan of Arc.
21:10 Who she knew quite well because of her involvement with with Community Center activities on the upper west side, and she said she know she should my kids go to music tonight. And apparently the principal said it was made for that and it was I mean
21:34 Apart from the normal kind of anxieties and and and problems of adolescence the environment it at the school was so exciting. And so I made for me was just
21:52 I mean we had an hour and a half of painting or or involving with with making our everyday and
22:02 No basketball team already Athletics. I mean that anybody could play anything in in that building but also kid will was made for you that kids were coming from all over the city some spending an hour on the subway to get there was one kid in my class who who came from Staten Island on the ferry at bday 230 5th Street, Davenport.
22:30 And it was so it was just
22:37 Wonderful to be in a place that that
22:42 Was so respectful of of creativity as a matter of fact when I later went to Amherst one of the things that was struck me most about that kind of culture was this content that for creativity and nobody was really interested in.
23:01 In in the sort of thing that I had had been nurtured by so high school was was very important for me and as matter fact now that I'm painting again, I decided Well,
23:22 Music and art was the first Public School in New York to have a Blum knife Association? I don't know who else might be Brock science does now and I'm Performing Arts because it's LaGuardia high school begun by the Guardia anyway.
23:51 I I've given money to the Alumni Association of the years, but when I started painting in Prospect them selling
24:02 Things that I made I decided to type myself every time I do something I would give 10% of the for the proceeds to the music tonight.
24:13 I've done that and I feel very good about it. So it's and I still have I have friends from high school and it's very is Linda Finch. It's another.
24:28 And because so many people ended up in the Arts and related areas. I keep meeting people who who had that experience and they all feel exactly the same way that I do. I have no I have no Nostalgia at all for for my for my college Years. I mean that was something quite different and important but have the same residence that the high school the memory of high school did for me. He said that your peers and school came from all over the city all boroughs and I'm just wondering whether what your social life was like in high school and how having such a far-flung group of peers impacted the way that you knew and understood and navigated the city.
25:22 What my social life was on the subway.
25:27 And it was that way for everybody.
25:32 Because there were parties in the Bronx and queens and put date. It was a problem because if you
25:40 He had to step up to the Bronx and then go down to Times Square then go up to the Bronx and then come home alone on the subway at 1 in the morning. You know, it was it was.
25:51 It was so interesting. I had the first girl I ever kissed was a girl in Barbara Hurley who who lived way way way up in the Bronx. I had to take a Subway and then either a bus or walk to where she lived in a neighborhood that was not quite there was still a wood frame houses.
26:19 Hurt her grandfather was Italian on her mother's side who was one of five brothers who carved most of the scope of Memorial bosarts Sculpture in in in New York that had a big Studio capture studio in the Bronx.
26:46 Anyway, she was attacking in the neighborhood was pretty Italian and we we were walking home from from the subway. And she said you want to stop and get a pizza. And I said, what's that? I mean I had never seen a pizza before and it was still a completely ethnic.
27:10 You know and I didn't I didn't have pizza again until years later when it became just telling the truth size of anywhere with her other experiences. You have like that in high school as you got to explore the rest of the city where you you found yourself in just a totally alien landscape on way was was visiting just ordinary Jewish kids who lived in the Bronx and one of those six story houses of which there are thousands and thousands of thousands.
27:48 I remember I went to some kids house for dinner and it was the apartment was very small and very dark and we were eating an in kind of a hallway that wasn't really a dining room and there was a blue bottle of Seltzer on the table and it just felt that I visited this completely alien world that I never seen before and what was it? Was it the Seltzer bottle of lower-middle-class Jewish life, you know, it turned out when I went to my 50th High School reunions. A lot of my classmates said we thought you was so rich cuz they would come after my first of all we had a we had and housekeeper and was on 86th Street and then get as light as I was.
28:48 Quite glamorous these people and I can remember, you know, some of them saying how how how how how glamorous I'd seem to them because this is the way I live tonight and I said, I'd chat what she's telling me that a child would have been such a help to my ego my Fraley go.
29:10 About some
29:14 We spent a lot of time on subway.
29:20 And it was no question that anything bad could happen to you on the subway at 2 in the morning. There was no sense of Jeopardy. Everything's completely safe Do You Remember When people's perception of the city or maybe the reality of the city started to change in terms that sense of safety that you felt or did you always feel it or
29:45 Well, I felt it until I was held up at gunpoint in Central Park and in bed and how old were they at the time having sex but them that was in the early 70s in.
30:06 There was a gradual kind of slip of the city into a an into a place where where people didn't feel safe. They were
30:15 It was a lot of of of of stories of muggings and then do that sort of thing. One of my friends was killed on the street.
30:27 So I don't remember. Do you remember what sort of precipitated that are or what? Well, you know all of the socio-economic things that happened so bite flight to the suburbs the the the the decline of the inner city the
30:50 Public School of debacle The Rise of ghetto culture
31:01 Up and down the pituitary rayshun of the Physical City the Subways covered with graffitis in Central Park going to rack and ruin.
31:11 I kind of Siege mentality of the white middle class.
31:21 And what was what does that feel like to see the city? It seemed like the city could implode or go away forever or I mean, well at that point we're raising a family and we were very insular. I mean all of the anti-war protests the whole Vietnam era.
31:44 I went to a couple of marches but I wasn't I feel guilty that I didn't do more to to engage myself in the things that were so horrendous.
31:59 I've never been a particularly political person and I avoided crowds and groups all of my life. I have a passionate interest in being alone.
32:13 We were so involved with each other and with our children that we sort of unconsciously created the world.
32:28 That was our own that had very little contact with with with what was going on in the in the in the greater greater world. Did you ever have a moment where you thought you would join this region of white flight from the city. Never never never never never why I mean
32:48 Well, or when I think that I'm the most parochial of New Yorkers, it seems to be the only decent place to live on earth no matter what state it was in and there was still there was still in the Museum's which I'm which I couldn't live without.
33:10 The other places that I knew and identified with so I never occurred to us to to leave.
33:24 What do you think has changed the most about the city since your childhood years?
33:33 I think
33:37 I think it is increasingly difficult for young people to come to the city to establish themselves because of of rent being so colossal. I think it's difficult for young people to be alone. Because which is something that I feel very strongly about I think that people should live live alone. I know people who have never lived alone because they got from home to college to roommates to marriage.
34:10 And I think that's something that that is is missing the city. I think it's it's difficult for to raise families because of the state of of Grants and the state of public schools and
34:32 I think that's to the detriment of the future city to have families and children who will be Urban people and take advantage of everything that the city has to offer. And I think that's that's one of the worst thing. That's that's happening. I think it's the gentrification of the outer borrows is I don't know where poor people going to go.
35:03 And the gulf between rich and poor has is becoming so fast. When is such a huge amount of money these town houses that have been kanri converted to single family ownership in that cost?
35:24 20 million dollars to to to to buy and then takes another 10 million dollars to to renovate. I mean it is this so much money and this so little
35:36 It under so much poverty. I think it's it's very corrosive.
35:43 Very dangerous
35:46 I think
35:50 I think immigration has tremendously and Rich the city in ways that for inconceivable even 20 years ago the arrival of Indians and Mexicans and Koreans Chinese interesting leave all the people who were excluded under the old immigration laws. I think that's been a very positive thing for the city would it would have some of the things about the city you hope will never change about it.
36:28 That's a tough question.
36:32 Well, let me let me do a different one at you. And what ways do you think the city has sort of like?
36:41 Encourage your creativity and do you see any connection between what you're painting now and the city and nurtured you or well only in the sense that because they see the visual resources the museum. So so fantastic that if if I need to look at Japanese screens, I walk 10 minutes to the mat. There. It is in all of these wonderful The Riches of the cultural museums are are very important to me, but I'm not going to live long enough to see real changes in the city. I mean, even the changes that have happened in my own lifetime in the last twenty or thirty years are
37:35 A very small
37:37 I like to be around 500 years to see what the city looks like.
37:43 But of course that's not going to happen.
37:48 I was thinking after my parents died that it's only been three three four years that if if they if they could get out of the grave and look around they would see the same city that they they saw when they were like so and I think the city is going to be the same for you.
38:11 Your children might start to kind of have a different a different experience.
38:20 So I think so. I mean it when I when I came back to New York from collagen and plugging place to live the idea of living in Brooklyn was inconceivable to be like living on Mars and you could really get it an apartment in Greenwich Village for a hundred bucks a month.
38:42 So I think the life in the borough's I mean I can imagine that you will eventually come into the city.
38:55 Infrequently because if you continue to live there with the family that your life will be there.
39:05 Interesting to see
39:10 Thanks. This is great. I learned a lot.
39:14 I had a good time. He just does not a better than talking about yourself for 40 minutes straight reminds me of my psychotherapeutic hours. Hopefully more fun now.