Different Slants

Seeing the World from a New Angle

My Immigrant Grandmother Celia, A Burning Hyde Park Newsstand, a Bar Mitzvah Gift and How it all Fits Together: An American Story

Filed under: Uncategorized — Bob at 7:42 am on Saturday, March 19, 2022

by Robert M. Katzman © April 14, 2022

Been writing poetry since 1958 – that’s before Castro came to power – and I was thinking about my justifying offering a passionate new one here about: the slaughter of innocents in Ukraine, my Grandmother, Bob’s Newsstand, and what the hell does it have to do with Hyde Park history in Chicago?  This is what happened.

Celia Baumwahl, born in 1901, daughter of Fanny Turkingkopf, was later married to Nathan Warman of Minsk, Byelorussia. She once lived near Lvov when it was part of Poland. Later, borders were moved after World War One and it became Lviv, Ukraine. She spoke a dialect she called “Ukraina” which allowed Poles to speak to Ukrainians. She arrived in Ellis Island, New York City, America in 1917 during the War then traveled to Whiting, Indiana, very quickly married my Grampa Nathan in 1918 and eventually I showed up thirty-two years later. 

A real American Boy.

On April 13, 1963, during Passover, I was Bar Mitzvahed and my successful Grandmother gave me a thousand dollar United States Savings Bond, maturing in 1970. A year later, on June 8, 1964, I ran away from a dangerous home with next to nothing, but I did take that bond. I landed in Hyde Park, five mile south of my house in the middle of a cold rainy night, like an immigrant crossing the border in the dark, seeking refuge.

Three months later in early September 1964 I began attending the University of Chicago Laboratory School or Lab School for short.

Almost a year after that, August 21, 1965 I built a wooden newsstand and placed it at 51st and Lake Park, eventually naming it Bob’s Newsstand in December 1966. I was sixteen. It remained there for twenty years.

Five years later on November 28, 1970, a Saturday night, the newsstand caught fire and burned like a Roman Candle. People stood around and watched it burn, burn like the dead trees it came from. It roared as the wind whipped it.

But what about Celia? What about Ukraine? What about Bob? I was twenty.

Celia was then 69, three years younger than I am today, in April 2022.

With no insurance money, no nothing, just a wooden floor with a couple of burnt two by fours still standing, I wondered what I was going to do. I knew something, but not what, yet. I sifted thru the ashes with my hands and found all the burned coins in piles where the paper tubes had burned away. Maybe $30, and the coins were as black as my hands. The Hyde Park Bank agreed to take them even though they smelled like smoke, and they already knew about the fire. That amazed me. Not so good to be the latest news instead of selling news. But it seems everyone knew Bob’s Newsstand was gone.

I also collected and washed all of the nails which were recoverable, buried in piles of ashes as well, straightening the bent ones. I didn’t feel pathetic doing something like that. In my mind, I was preparing myself to somehow start over. The act of washing blackened coins and nails was a way of steeling myself for the impossible situation I was in.

Then I remembered the US Savings Bond, now seven years old and mature, ran home and got it, took it to the Hyde Park Bank on 53rdStreet. They cashed it and gave me $1,000 in real money, worth about $7,300 in 2022, a fortune for me in those circumstances. It also bought me food, gas, rent and paid for those newspapers I was still selling. Cash to pay all the kids still working for me. Not a single kid or adult working for me was laid off while I was rebuilding. In fact, they made it possible for me to work, mostly alone, in a frenzy of hammering.

I raced over to my favorite lumberyard, figured out exactly how much treated wood and waterproof nails I would need, how much roofing paper, galvanized roofing nails, rolls of gritty asphalt, two solid-core doors with hinges and I paid for all of it in cash. Cash from the Grandmother who lived next to what became Ukraine after she sailed for America in 1917. 

I immediately began rebuilding the now somewhat larger newsstand, (What the hell? Why not? I sure needed the space. Who would remember? No one did, no one cared.) while my crew of local kids kept selling newspapers to cars. I never closed, never missed a day.

I built the frame, attached construction grade 4 x 8 sheets of plywood, installed insulation, found a local retired 80-year-old carpenter to show me how to hang a door while I watched him, but who abruptly decided to quit helping me after finishing one door. I felt I’d learned enough to hang the other one by myself – which to this day I am very proud of. Hanging a door is an art.

Another carpenter I knew, a local alcoholic from Norway, taught me how to attach the roof and waterproof it so it would never leak, but he also soon left maybe using the cash I paid him to help me to buy more Thunderbird or whatever he drank. I married a mostly Norwegian woman eight years later in 1978, so no prejudice here. 

Just saying…

I finished the roof alone and promised myself to never do that again because it is absolute Hell on the knees. 

As I pounded away, and especially when sawing the 2 x 4’s, I imagined my Grandfather Jacob Katzman, a carpenter himself who escaped Mogilev-on-the Dnieper River in Czarist Russian Byelorussia, in 1900. He died of a heart attack at 78 sawing wood in Windsor, Canada in July 1961, when I was eleven. I inherited all of his tools. 

I pretended Jacob was watching me, encouraging me, as the light began to fail each night and I hammered my fingers more and more. Sometimes a person’s will can flag when the work is so overwhelming, and I needed my invisible Grampa to keep me going. His hammer is one of my most prized possessions, because he held it.

Within ten days, by December 8th, 1970, new magazine racks were installed, a zillion magazines dropped off to fill those empty racks, my electricity was restored, my sliding window worked and my phone could ring again. 

So…if my Grandmother who lived near Lvov, Poland which became Lviv, Ukraine never gave me the $1,000 Bond 53-years after she got to America when I still lived on the South Side of Chicago, I never would have been able to rebuild Bob’s Newsstand and have the chance to make it what it became — as visiting people from both coasts told me — eventually known about all over America. A “Hyde Park Attraction” with 3,000 periodicals from all over the world, and selling 1,000 Sunday New York Times every Sunday. 

Whatever people may remember that was good about my newsstand, you can thank my now long dead immigrant Grandma who lived to be 96 in 1997. I was 46. Maybe I should have renamed it Celia’s Newsstand? 

***

Related Poem: Ukraine Became Masada

5 Comments »

Comment by Brad Dechter

March 19, 2022 @ 8:10 am

Well said Bob! Unfortunately, because of a madman having a finger on a nuclear trigger, the argument you make is not as simple as you state it. My own feelings are we should help and Ukraine should start bombing the Kremlin and Moscow to see if they can send a murdering , gutless dictator a message.

Comment by Kumari

March 19, 2022 @ 8:54 am

yes, I feel so defeated, like I am I reliving my mother’s life, she saw a war now I’m seeing a war – and why? such an awful way to solve anything. . . why is there so much hate? I can’t understand it

Comment by Steve Shay

March 19, 2022 @ 9:08 am

I’m sorry nobody was there to intervene when you were attacked as the underdog.

Comment by Jan

March 20, 2022 @ 10:44 am

My heart breaks because of the childhood you suffered . Forgiveness is a must and even when we feel it not , it helps too write that letter to the offender and tell him threw god you forgive. then burn it and let it go so YOU can be healed and free. We are living in the days of revaluation, as they say read it and weep. Its always a choice

Comment by Jim Payne

March 20, 2022 @ 5:31 pm

Bob, This is the most vivid personal poem I have read from you. I saw the bombs destroying and saw you being beaten. The devastation of war and abuse of a child shared the horror. You have come a long way from that time to be able to share this. Thank you.

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