Tuesday, January 24, 2012

Red Diaper Memories: The Safest Boys in Brooklyn

My brother and I were two of the safest little boys in Brooklyn. Every day for a decade in the 1950s, our personal FBI agents followed us to and from school, our friend’s homes, the shoe store and the bakery, on foot or by bus or subway or the occasional taxicab.

They, of course, were not waiting on the street corner near our house, or across from the schoolyard, to insure our well-being. They were looking for our father who, along with most of the Communist leadership, had “gone underground” after the Smith Act outlawed the U.S. Party in the mid-1950s. Dad was the head of the Party organization in Brooklyn. He was not a “hidden agent” of any kind; he was a public figure, his name on brochures and handouts, his reports featured regularly in the Daily Worker. Mom was head of the Brooklyn Young Communist League, and as little children, we first lived in the basement apartment of the house at the end of 18th Avenue occupied by Simon Gerson, head of the New York State CP.

Soon after Dad "disappeared" and the Party outlawed, Mom found a job working for her brother-in-law as a bookkeeper in Manhattan. Every day she went to work, and every day the same two guys followed her on the subway. Peter and I had a different team. Every day these guys would ask us if we knew where our Dad was, as they had a package to bring him, or a letter or a prize that he won, or a message from an uncle or family friend – the stories were always pretty much the same. Our job was to ignore them, not to talk to strangers, especially those with shiny black shoes.

When we were really little, we were told that Dad had a job “selling records” and was always traveling. This seemed possible. One of my first memories is of my brother and I rolling black vinyl disks – Dad’s collection of 78s – across the living room floor. Later, we were told that our family was part of community that wanted to make life better for all the working people and Black people and poor people, and that the bad men who had all the power, wanted to take all of our parents away to jail – or possibly, the electric chair. This was never said out loud, but we all knew of the Rosenbergs, awaiting execution at Sing-Sing. This was very frightening, and you can be sure that we never wanted our loose lips to be the cause of losing Mom as well! Learning how to be a consummate liar was one of the unwanted legacies of my childhood.

We did occasionally get to see our father in his “underground” hiding places – winter visits to deserted summerhouses on Long Island, hot 4th floor walk-up apartments in Harlem. These places, with their late night gatherings and the shades drawn tight during the day, stood out like a sore thumbs, and were, despite the over-dramatic efforts of the Party, fully under FBI surveillance.

A visit to Dad usually involved 2 to 3 hours of subway and bus travel, much backtracking between Brooklyn and Manhattan, all to avoid the FBI, only to arrive at an apartment ten minutes away by cab from our starting point. Many times we wound up on Avenue J, at an apartment occupied by my father’s true love: a woman named E and her daughter L.

E was my father’s girlfriend from Young Communist days in the 1930’s. My Dad, having left Karl’s mother years before, was now living with my mother, Fay Caller. Fay and Carl were seen as the Dylan and Baez of Brooklyn: two powerful organizers, always ready to lead a demonstration, to fight the cops. My mother was a real tomboy, but Evelyn was a ravishingly attractive redhead. Everyone in the Party adored my mother, and came down hard on my Dad for having this “distracting affair” with this young woman. He agreed to end it, but their love simmered for over a decade before they had a chance to reactivate their passion.

Dad married my mother before he shipped out with the Army in World War II, but his heart never left Evelyn. After the war, he returned to live, and father two children with, my mother. But, when it was time to “go into hiding,” he didn’t go alone: Evelyn left her husband and took her child, and joined him in the underground life. I think they were hiding as much from my mother and her circle of New York “comrades” as they were from the government. Dad and E were an inseparable couple for more than fifty years.

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