Different Slants

Seeing the World from a New Angle

Ed and Margery Bernstein Weren’t too Busy to Care

Filed under: Uncategorized — Bob at 4:05 pm on Thursday, March 23, 2023

Ed and Margery Bernstein Weren’t Too Busy to Care

By Robert M. Katzman © 3/23/23

 I knew different members of the Bernstein family: Ed, Margery, Amy and Hal, when I was operating Bob’s Newsstand during the ‘60’s and 70’s. Mostly Ed, though, who taught Social Studies at the University of Chicago Lab School where I was a student between 1964 to ’68. I wasn’t in his classes.

When I contacted Amy to help with my memory, now that I’m older than many trees, she told me that her younger brother Hal worked at the newsstand for a while when he was in grammar school. She did not. I remember her mother Margery clearly for one particular moment, but it mattered, in 1970. Mostly, I remember Ed.

He was a handsome guy, wore white shirts with the sleeves rolled up on his forearms, medium height, always smiling and approachable, had thinning hair combed back and was popular with students and other teachers. I remember him smoking a lot; but it had to be in other places, but not in school.

I met him when one day he stopped me in the hallway in near his classroom in 1965 and told me to wish Sue Phillips a Happy Passover. A stunningly beautiful blonde woman, she was my English teacher for three years, and I would have delivered a message in Swahili to her if it meant being near her for a random minute. She had been a model at some point during or after college, and had this distinct New York accent, though she was not from there, never lived there or had parents from there. A mystery.

But back to Ed.

I had a periodical distribution business from 1975 to 1980 and after that I had five stores, 4 of which carried paperbacks. They spread between Hyde Park in the south to Devon and Broadway streets near Loyola University in the North. At that time, after a paperback book was pulled off sale, the whole book wasn’t returned for credit to the originating source, only the covers which were ripped off. They were expected to be thrown away. It was illegal to sell coverless books, and also, which certainly matters to me, the authors received no payment if one of them were sold. They were “ghost books”. Still true today.

The Hyde Park store carried thousands of paperbacks and had morphed from periodicals and newspapers only, to becoming about 50% bookstore. This happened after the original wooden stand burned down twice in 1970 and 1973 and the owner of the Village center agreed to build a brick building in 1975, 20 feet by 40 feet. In 1978, this was expanded to 112 feet long, running along the perimeter of the parking lot toward Hyde Park Blvd. It was a remarkable thing for longtime Hyde Park residents to witness the newsstand – originally a 4-foot by 4-foot box with an overhanging roof — to continuously expand like a newspaper monolith creeping north every few years. Today, if anyone remembers Bob’s Newsstand at all, it is because of the 3,000 periodicals it carried from all over the world. No one thought of it as a bookstore, but it was. Memory can be elusive.

I never threw the books away. As a person who read compulsively all my life and had a growing library at home, a book was holy thing to me and not to be treated carelessly. I had a storage area which gradually filled with thousands of books over several years. I was in a quandary because I couldn’t sell them and wouldn’t dispose of them. Then I learned from a friend that Ed Bernstein was a volunteer at the ancient YMCA on 53rdstreet, maybe a mile west of Lake Park Avenue, and taught reading to disadvantaged children and teens there. I don’t know if he still taught at Lab School, but that doesn’t matter.

I stopped by there one day to talk to him and asked him if he could possibly use “some” more books? He smiled, as always and told me they never had enough and more variety was always welcome. Not sure, but I may have been around 30 years old then, and he may have been in his 50’s. I maintained several relationships with my most influential Lab School teachers, who became friends as I grew into an adult, and with Sue Phillips, into her 90’s. She was the woman who gave me the confidence to become a writer, God bless her.

She died a few years ago. I still miss her.

I was vague about exactly how many books I was offering to donate to the YMCA, thinking Ed grasping that, might be reluctant to accept them, even for free. I felt, if I could donate them, it would solve my own problem with the excessive books piling up in my storage space too. In a legal and honorable way, too.

I mentioned to him that he might want to have a few boys to make a chain as I pulled my truck up toward the “Y’s” entrance, because it would be too heavy for the two of us to transport them alone. He said no problem because one thing he did have plenty of was kids.

A few days later, bringing my own crew of a few guys to move the seemingly endless boxes of books from the back of my old and very large distribution truck to the edge where Ed’s boys would unload them into the building. When Ed came out with me after I went into the Y to fetch him, he was stunned, really stunned to see the tens of thousands of books I was offering to donate to his reading program, for free. But not unhappy.

It took a while for the two chains of boys to empty the truck, mine inside of the truck – his snaking into the building. But when it was done and I jumped down of the back of the truck to say goodbye, I remember how happy and still amazed he seemed to be. He thanked me, we shook hands and I drove off. I felt good, too.

But the main thing that lingers in my mind over the decades weren’t moments with Ed in the Lab School in the 1960’s or that truck full of books in the early 1980’s. It was a single moment in a Chinese restaurant in Harper Court in 1970. I was 20.

I had cancer in my left jaw in December 1968. After it was removed, the jawbone was replaced by a piece of titanium wire which was bent to the same angle as my jaw. The doctors told me it would last for the rest of my life. But the rest of my life turned out to be about two years in terms of the stability of that wire.

A doctor I knew, a Dr. Ben Gans, who happened to be the father of a Lab School classmate of mine had done significant oral surgery on me prior to the jaw transplant beginning in 1964 when I was 14 and about to get braces. We remained friendly as time passed and he knew about the transplant I’d had. He saw me one day in Hyde Park and was curious to see how well the wire rod was doing after two years had gone by. He invited me to come to his office, at no charge, to take a “Panorex” which is when a person stands still and a circular x-ray camera takes a total image of the person’s entire skull, in a long strip of film. This is what I believe it was, even if my description now is inaccurate.

What matters is that when Dr Gans came back in the room to see me, he was quite disturbed and told me to sit down so he could explain something to me. He told me the titanium wire had dissolved in the center where it was bent to simulate my jaw line, likely due to body acids. The ends of the two pieces were sharp, he told me. He said the two loose pieces had to be removed or one of them would soon rip through the flesh of my face and that could cause a deadly infection. He offered to do the surgery, though he hadn’t done the original surgery.

I won’t go into what happened after I chose the wrong doctor leading to numerous subsequent transplants over the next 12 years and eventual facial paralysis of the left side of my face. How could I know who to choose to do the surgery? How does anyone? My original surgeon had died in the two years since the surgery, and I decided to pick his assistant surgeon. My first wrong choice turned out to be a life sentence. But I didn’t know that.

Not that day, when I was sitting in that restaurant alone, morose over what by at the point in my life were already too many surgeries even at 20.

What would I have done if I had known then that by age 72 it would be 42 surgeries?

What if I knew in advance that the transplants weren’t the worst of it for me, but that two brain surgeries were toxically awaiting me like coiled Rattlesnakes in my skull, thirty years later. Better not to know our futures.

I knew the restaurant’s owners, very nice people and was often found there for dinner, usually with my girlfriend or alone. I would sit there and read the New York Times. It was a very quiet place with soft Chinese music playing in the background. The food was excellent and cost very little.

But by that Autumn day I had already made a date to have the two sharp wires removed. When my new doctor asked me what I would prefer to replace the wires with, the doctor suggested either the top of my left hip (called the “iliac crest”) or one of my ribs, because it was very unlikely either would be rejected by my body. I chose my hip. As if I knew.

I was very depressed at what I already knew about how much pain was coming to me and how long my recovery would, based on the last transplant. It would be two weeks in the hospital, away from my business and the (at that time temporary) paralysis of the left side of my face for about six months. Both eating and talking would be very difficult.

But what else could I do?

At any time one of the sharp wires could pierce my cheek. I was trapped.

I was sitting alone then, possibly tears were falling, my hands cradling my small teacup, when Ed and Margery Bernstein walking into the otherwise empty restaurant. They were talking, smiling, happy and hadn’t see me yet. I recognized them but didn’t say anything. They took a booth by the window and were facing me when they sat down.

Then they noticed me, and apparently, my wet red face.

They immediately came over to talk to me. I tried to explain what was soon to be happening, but when the words “another transplant” passed my lips, I burst into hot shaking tears – which I must admit is happening right now, fifty years later.  So real, so immediate. I shouldn’t have opened the damn door to let the toxic memories out.

Even though I knew that my reliving this moment would make the misery fresh again, I owe the Bernsteins my appreciation, even if they are no longer living. I’ve never written about them. I wish to pay my debts, however late that may be, to the Bernstein children.

They both sat down, with Margery next to me with her arm around my back; Ed opposite, talking to me, both trying to comfort me which was not something they were expecting to be doing when they entered that restaurant. I was in complete and very embarrassing misery at the moment, furious with myself that I couldn’t hide my emotions. I never wanted people to see the emotional part of me. The public only were allowed to see the smiling friendly Bob, and that was all. But in that restaurant that night, my walls crumbled.

So really, it was two things happening to me and those two very kind people sat with me for quite a long time, trying their best to assure me that everything would be all right. In a while, no idea how long, I did settle down, I did gain control of myself again, my ‘public face’ firmly in place. I hugged both of them, calmed by the obvious sincerity of their concern, and gathered myself together to leave the restaurant.

It may be half a century ago, Amy and Hal, but your parents did a real “mitzvah” a very good deed, in deciding to enter my life at that moment. I wonder about encounters like that where one life intersects another, seemingly by chance.

It could have been anyone entering that restaurant during that ragged moment in my life. But Karma and fate conspired that it be your wonderful parents and you deserve to have this special story for yourselves and your families, so all of you know something Ed and Margery decided to do, once upon a time and very long ago.


Dr Danely Slaughter, my original surgeon died at age 58 in April 1970. I was almost 20.                                                                                                   I remember vividly how I thought he was so ancient when we first met in the ICU at the hospital after my first cancer surgery, when he was 56.

Dr Benjamin Gans,the doctor who discovered the break in my wire in 1970 was 47 at that time.                                                                                 He died at age 60 in 1983, a year after my last transplant, which went off the rails. I was then 32.

Must be incredible pressure in that line of work for two good men like these to die so young.

Me? 73 in April. I guess I shouldn’t complain…too much.








Comment by Brad Dechter

March 23, 2023 @ 5:36 pm

You made me cry!
Good for you and good for them. Nice to know that you were such a good person in their eyes that they took care of you! You’re a good man Bob!

Comment by Charlie Newman

March 23, 2023 @ 8:25 pm

Aces…as usual, Bob. Well done, Man!

Comment by Jim Payne

March 24, 2023 @ 8:33 am

Bob, with all you have lived through it takes a lot to overwhelm you, as you were overwhelmed in your story by terror, and to share such personal feelings takes courage. Thank you.

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