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My Haunting Heritage

Steve Abramowitz

“AMORTIZATION, STEVIE, amortization. When I make a mortgage payment, part goes to the bank, the rest comes back to us.” My father’s cigar flailed as he patted his back pocket. “Listen to a man who worked his way up through the college of hard knocks. Don’t be a jerked-up kid.”

Wearing a sharkskin suit, charcoal shirt and wide red tie that preceded The Godfather’s Michael Corleone, my father confused talking about himself with teaching me.

Amortization? I couldn’t care less about stupid amortization, or even real estate for that matter. I was worried Sandy Koufax wouldn’t pitch the first game of the 1965 World Series because it was on Yom Kippur.

We turned onto the Long Island Expressway for our monthly sojourn to “The Buildings,” two apartment houses inherited by my mother. They were monuments to my father’s cunning and a highlight of family lore. My maternal grandfather didn’t leave a will and, as Jewish immigrants, my parents trusted neither lawyers nor the courts. Unperturbed, my father wrote and signed a will on behalf of his deceased father-in-law. Aunt Sarah and my mother each got two apartment buildings.

Enter Uncle Lou, Aunt Sarah’s husband. Louie was a bungler. He proved to be a bumbling landlord and disgraced himself by never making it “really big.” He came close. On one of his misadventures, Louie produced a record by the Aquatones, a rock group he discovered and managed. Their heart-wrenching ballad You rose to No. 3 on the Billboard charts in 1958. The Aquatones had potential, but not with Uncle Lou. He neglected to get a signed contract and lost them, along with his entree to the entertainment world.

In the end, Louie frittered away his rental income and had to sell both buildings, a family “shanda.” Tired of the ridicule, he tossed a grenade that ensured him a place in family purgatory.

Louie reached back some 30 years and accused my father of having taken the best buildings when he wrote the will for his father-in-law. Uncle Lou may have been shrewder than his reputation let on. But in the end, the accusation came to nothing.

My father struggled with Louie’s flirtation with fame. “Stevie, how much money could he have made on that record of his?”

How the hell did I know what Uncle Lou made? But I hastily guessed about 30,000 records at a 50-cent profit each. “About $15,000,” I blurted out, hoping for a show of approval from someone who regularly beat me in flash-math at dinner.

“That’s all, you must be kidding?” He pounded the steering wheel three times and looked up at the sky as if in prayer.

It was raining hard by the time we reached 2-0-1, reverential shorthand for our apartment building on Eastern Parkway in Brooklyn. The black Cadillac Fleetwood with the taillight fins screeched to a stop, with my father bolting from the car without an umbrella, an affirmation of his indestructibility. We went directly to the superintendent’s apartment on the first floor.

The month’s only problem was Mr. Schoenfeld in 3C. Ralph Schoenfeld was a widower who owned a toy store and had been a steadfast tenant for many years. But he missed last month’s rent and now he was late.

“Okay, Winston, what’s up with Schoenfeld?

“Business stinks, short on cash. Says store traffic usually picks up right before Thanksgiving. He’ll include the back rent in his December check.”

“On a lease?”

“No, month-to-month.”

“Don’t jerk me around with that nonsense, Winston. He’s got a week to make things right, including the late fees. Otherwise, it’s 30 days and he’s out.”

Schoenfeld out? One bad move and you’re gone? If he could be so easily banished, how safe was I?

I was born in 1945, the year after Allied troops discovered thousands of bodies and the mass graves of Eastern European Jews. Like many, my father never forgot. “Stevie, don’t get too comfy in a VW bug. You may be sitting on your grandpa’s hair.”

We are all wounded in youth, and spend a lifetime trying to repair and overcome those assaults. Embittered and enraged by the Holocaust, my father resolved to avenge centuries of religious persecution. His belligerence and self-aggrandizement concealed layers of vulnerability and fear.

The world was cruel and unpredictable, and he would seize a piece of the dignity stolen from his forebears while he could. By threatening to uproot Ralph Schoenfeld for his rent hiccup, my father temporarily fended off his panic that the dam could break at any moment. Schoenfeld was Jewish, but even that couldn’t spare him from my father’s wrath.

Last month, my 36-year-old son asked if I would help him learn about the real estate business. I’d been angling for an opening for several years, but Ryan had been preoccupied with his own dreams, much as I was with the World Series 58 years ago. My grandfather bequeathed a gift to his daughter, my parents paid it forward to me, and I will soon bequeath that legacy to Ryan.

When we talk, there won’t just be a treatise on rents, capital appreciation and amortization. Like the rest of us, Ryan needs to control the impulse to retaliate indiscriminately, and to recognize that a sense of protection is an illusion and not a solution.

Steve Abramowitz is a psychologist in Sacramento, California. Earlier in his career, Steve was a university professor, including serving as research director for the psychiatry department at the University of California, Davis. He also ran his own investment advisory firm. Check out Steve’s earlier articles.

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