Burch and Florence
By Bob Grand
Florence was dead. Josh cried at the cemetery. He even said Kaddish, the Jewish prayer for the dead. Josh’s family wasn’t religious. He’d never even been bar-mitzvahed, so saying Kaddish was a lot. Josh later said he’d wanted to do the right thing for his mother.
We went back to his house in New Jersey from the cemetery. Florence’s sister Anna was there, now in her nineties, feeble and almost blind. “Why couldn’t they take me,” she wailed. “She was so good.”
Josh, almost fifty, his eyes puffy from crying, took me down to his basement playroom. “I’m an orphan now, Bobby,” he said, his voice breaking. He’d been holding it in all day except for the time at the cemetery. I hugged him.
I looked over at the mantle of his fireplace. “Hey, you’ve still got the elephants.”
Josh smiled. “Yeah, and the chairs, too. Come back upstairs and I’ll show you.”
Burch and Florence
They lived in a stoop apartment at 1353 Sheridan Avenue, three short steps up from the sidewalk. Their living room windows were about six feet above street level, and fronted Sheridan Avenue. On nice days Burch and Florence opened the windows wide and leaned out on the sills. From there they could see all the way up and down the block.
Florence, usually dressed in a housecoat, talked to the neighborhood women or to her sons’ friends as they passed by; or held a running conversation, window to window, with one or both of her sisters, who lived in the building directly across the street.
Often, still dressed in her housecoat, a pocketbook dangling from her wrist, she’d wheel her wire shopping cart down the hill to Bollinger’s Grocery, or to Leo’s Fruit Store (around the corner on 170th Street). Florence was a heavy-set woman of fifty then. Her protruding stomach made it seem as though she were perennially pregnant.
Burch, whenever he was home, was at the window in his undershirt (the type with two narrow straps across the shoulders), with the uppermost part of his very hairy chest exposed to view, and the ever-present dark brown twisted Brazilian stogie between the index and middle fingers of his right hand, or tightly clenched between his teeth. He was a dancing bear of a man, about five-foot-five, bald, squat and muscular. His icy blue eyes seemed always to scowl. They were alert to every movement on the street. His face was round and full, his lips thick, his nose surprisingly straight and narrow for such a face. His arms and forearms were short and powerful, his neck thick, his chest as broad as a barrel. He looked like a man you wouldn’t want to mess with.
Burch would stop the neighborhood men, or his sons’ friends, as they passed in front of his window. ”Hey, Chief,” he’d say, in his gruff voice, “C’mere, I wanna talk to ya.”
They were my best friend Josh’s parents. I spent more time in their apartment than I spent in my own. If Josh wasn’t at home, I’d spend the time with them. Burch and Florence were considered permissive parents in those days. When Josh was five he was still out on the street after midnight. By the time he was eight he was allowed out until two or three in the morning as long as he stayed around the neighborhood. At age ten or eleven it was all right for him to cross the George Washington Bridge to New Jersey on foot.
As teenagers Josh and I often came into his house at two or three in the morning. Everyone was awake. Burch, if he was home, Florence, and Josh’s older brothers, Rube (who was my brother Herb’s friend), and Zeke. Florence would walk us into the kitchen and cook for us. I remember the delicious aromas of fried onions and other delectables trapped in that small kitchen in the rear of the apartment. Florence was always there, always ready to cook regardless of the hour; a sweet, gentle, soft-spoken woman whose life revolved around her family.
In 1947, Burch began a new career as a cook on a merchant marine ship. He was out at sea for up to six months, home for three or four, and then he shipped out again. When he came home he brought gifts for the family. One of those gifts, from Ceylon, was a hand-carved set of eight miniature mahogany elephants with ivory tusks. It sat atop the piano in the living room. The elephants were linked trunk to tail and seemed to be constantly on the move.
It was always an event when Burch returned from one of his trips. We’d all sit in their living room while Burch, his blue eyes full of life and his gruff voice animated, delighted us with descriptions of the places he’d been and the experiences he’d had this time out.
“In Singapore,” I remember him saying one time, “we got a little boisterous in a restaurant. This little Chinese cook started chasing us through narrow winding streets with a meat cleaver. We got back to the ship by a whisker, but until we did, y’know, there were a few minutes when I thought we’d bought the last bit of the breath of life. ‘Course, on the plus side, we ended up saving the price of a great dinner, and had the exercise of runnin’ it off.”
Their apartment had two bedrooms, a living room and an eat-in kitchen. Burch and Florence slept in one of the bedrooms. The three boys shared the other. There were two twin beds in the boys’ bedroom. Josh and Zeke were both slight of build, so they shared one of them until Zeke, the first to leave the house, moved out. . It was in that bedroom where I, in my early teen years, developed my love of jazz from Josh, when he spun a record called “This Here” played by Bobby Timmins.
Every room in the house was in complete disarray. Not dirty, because Florence always cleaned. I remember her dressed in a housecoat, wielding a dust mop. But it always seemed as though they had an agreement, conscious or not, that there was no sense making up a bed. Someone would only sleep in it the next night and muss it up again. Nor would it do any good to return things to their former places because they’d probably be moved again anyway.
Their furnishings were likewise helter-skelter. They had a wonderful set of chairs in the living room. There was a lathed-back mahogany chair with hand-carved open-mouthed lions’ heads at the end of each armrest, and a matching rocker. Aside from those chairs, in an era when it was a mark of good taste to have each room appointed just so, Burch and Florence’s apartment did not have two of anything that looked remotely alike in style or color. Pretense just wasn’t their thing.
Whenever I walked into their apartment, Burch would come to the end of the long, narrow entry foyer that faced the front door. He’d call out to his son Rube, “Hey Rube, Robbie’s here. It’s sandwich time.”
Rube would join his father in the foyer. He was a carbon copy of Burch, except that he was younger and wasn’t bald. They’d give me their traditional greeting (which, according to Josh, they only gave to people they really liked). Rube pushed his fist into one of my cheeks and Burch pushed his into my other cheek. They tried to make their fists meet in the middle.
My part in this ritual was not to exhibit any sign of pain. I never did. After a respectable period of time they’d release me.
“You’re all right, Robbie,” Burch would say. “but you’d better behave or I’ll give you a shot in the mahoska.” Then he’d fake a punch to my stomach, pulling up an inch or less short of the “target”.
One rainy evening I came into their house with a splitting headache. Burch was waiting for me in the entryway.
“Please,” I begged, “no sandwich, my head is killing me.”
“I hear you, boy.” Burch affectionately tousled my hair, put his arm around my shoulders, and guided me into “his” chair, the lion-mouthed rocker. He began to massage my temples. Within five minutes my headache was gone.
“I learned that technique,” he said, “from a barefoot, baldheaded little priest in Punjab.”
Burch and Florence often drove into Manhattan at one or two in the morning to eat. Whenever I was around, Josh and I went with them. Their favorite restaurant was Sam Wo’s in Chinatown, on Mott Street at the end of Pell. It was a small, narrow restaurant with a row of perhaps six tables on either side wall. The atmosphere was hectic. Four or five waiters ran around serving each table. Even at that hour of the morning, people lined up in the tiny vestibule, and out onto Mott Street, waiting to get in.
There were no knives or forks brought to the table. Burch patiently taught me how to use chopsticks. Whenever I dropped a piece of food, he’d tweak my nose with his chopsticks. Because he was so adept with them, that tweaking really hurt. I quickly learned how to use those chopsticks.
Almost every time we went to Sam Wo’s, there was a celebrity or two there. I imagine that because of the late hour they were less cautious of being bothered. Among others, several times we saw Woody Allen and Anthony Quinn. What a thrill for a young kid!
The boys, especially Josh, who was the baby of the family, had very close relationships with Burch and Florence. Josh often brought his dates home to meet them. He felt that if they met his parents he’d have a better chance of scoring. It often worked. There were a few girls who maintained a relationship with Burch and Florence long after they’d stopped dating Josh.
By the mid-1960’s, things had changed. Zeke was away from home getting his doctorate in psychology. Rube had married and moved out. Josh got an apartment in Manhattan. With their sons out of the apartment, Burch and Florence decided it was time that they, too, leave the neighborhood. They moved to Far Rockaway, near the ocean that Burch loved so much. I didn’t see them very often after that.
In 1975, Rube had a heart attack in his sleep, and died suddenly and unexpectedly. He was forty. I went to Rube’s house on Long Island to pay a condolence call. I hadn’t seen Burch and Florence for eight or ten years. They’d both aged dramatically.
Burch’s face was lined and his shoulders were stooped. The hair that ringed his bald pate was disheveled and gray. He looked like an old man. Florence’s hair had a lot of gray. Her face was worn and haggard and she, too, looked very old.
I went out to the back yard with Burch. He put an arm around my shoulder. “I’m glad to see you, Robbie. My boy is dead, y’know.” He started to sob and wept unashamedly. There was nothing I could say. I hugged him, and I cried also.
Burch died in October, 1979. Florence died in April, 1989. Sometimes I see them when I close my eyes.
Josh died in June, 2003. I still talk to him.
About Bob Grand:
Bob Grand was born in the Bronx in 1938. He lived at 1348 Sheridan Avenue until 1959. For the outlandish rental of $ 65 per month they had a three bedroom one bath apartment in which, for the first ten years of his life, Bob lived with six other people – his Mom’s two sisters, his mom and dad, his older brother, and his widowed grandfather.
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