Page One

Before La Dreck

By Dana M. Chernack
Wednesday December 30, 2009 - 08:51:00 AM

I was born on a street without a name, in a world of its own, pushed up against Gravesend Bay by high-rise housing projects and summer bungalows turned into year-round residences for real live gypsies. 

Occasionally a body would wash ashore with his hands tied behind his back; a high contrast photo for the next day’s Daily Mirror. 

I was a quiet little boy, pudgy and soft, often referred to as the fagele because I was so odd. I just never knew how to be. The world was an irritant at best. 

My mom was a showgirl and my dad an entertainer. He had started out as one of the Katz Brothers, Manny, Moe and Jack. My father was Jack, the suave, debonair crooner. Mom’s career was going strong in 1945 when handsome Jack Katz came back from the war. Manny and Moe had tired of show business and decided to become commercial fishermen, trolling Sheepshead Bay for Gefilte fish.  

I was born April 24, 1947. We moved to land’s end Brooklyn. My father made ends meet scaling Gefilte and stuffing ‘em in jars for his brothers although this was seasonal work as the Gefilte swam upstream to the Bronx, to spawn in the summer. Dad’s heart was in show business, though. He did Bar-Mitzvahs, weddings and of course the Catskills. So when the Gefilte headed north, so did we. Me and my mom would travel with him, staying in furnished rooms with the bathroom down the hall and a community kitchen on the first floor.  

My father worked in the Casino, a large wooden structure, with a stage and folding chairs, which was the locus of night life, in the low-end hotels and bungalow colonies, favored by Jewish butchers and cabdrivers and postal workers, the occasional schoolteacher, up from Brooklyn or the Bronx, to escape that primeval humidity, buzzing with mosquitoes, the kind that would bite me, till my arms were red and swollen. Those summers sharing a room with my parents taught me how messy life could be, they were a tempestuous pair, I was so quiet and unassuming they often forgot I was in the room. My parents were good-looking people and were quite beautiful together. 

I graduated Brooklyn College, June ’68, with a major in cross-cultural engineering, only to find that the bottom had fallen out of the cross-cultural market, most of the jobs having fled offshore. I took a job pushing ice cream to the good people of Brooklyn. I would schlep the sandy shore of Coney Island trying to earn an honest dollar. One day startled by the sight of Julius the Pinhead in his Speedo, I tripped over a small child and fell face first onto the commodious behind of Carol Velensky. Needless to say, we were married within the year, Julius the Pinhead, our best man; wearing a yarmulke with red on white polka dots custom made to fit his pointy head. 

I fell in love with Carol’s soul, her face was odd and her body, everywhere. In 1972, Julius was offered a part in a play, all the way out in San Francisco. It was as a family, we hitchhiked cross country. Julius was a wild success playing Doctor Allen Konigsberg, a clueless intellectual; the play was to run two years. 

In 1974 I took a job as a shipper in a windowless warehouse staffed by the tattooed, the pierced and the newly arrived, who even in their strange tongues made more sense to me then the witless ravings of the anarchist hordes who were the real power on the warehouse floor. I worked hard. At 30, I finally lost my baby fat. I was muscled and ripped. I became quite the hunk; women were chasing me with mattresses on their back. 

Feeling full of myself, I became a writer. 

I enrolled in a fiction writing course at Vista College in Berkeley. I was much taken with Ms. Leshinsky, the teacher, moderator, guide to the perplexed and perspiring, aspiring, writers of Fiction Writing 10A thru Z. I pictured the two of us holding hands, giggling over obscure references, discovering we preferred Malamud to Mailer, Brooks to Allan. We’d differ over the Marx Brothers vs. the Three Stooges, till she would say “Why you!” raising her dainty hand in V formation, feigning to poke out my eyes. 

“Nyuk! Nyuk! Nyuk!” I’d reply, my right hand perched perpendicular on my nose to parry, then we would both laugh and collapse into each other’s arms. 

Alas it was not to be. Ms. Leshinsky’s screenplay What up G? about a millionaire’s spoiled son who’s mistaken for a cold killer had been written with a young Dustin Hoffman in mind, but Dusty had opted out to do dinner theater instead, a musical production of Queen Victoria and Murray, co-starring Gina Lolabridgida. In any event the film was to be made, on a more modest scale with Bruno Kirby in the lead role. Ms. Leshinsky took the money and ran. 

Broken hearted I turned to cheap booze and cheaper women. One night, I had a vision. That vision became my first novel, To Lose in La Dreck.  

“La Dreck,” according to Susan Sontag “is a tragi-comic tale portraying the psychic dislocation of crap-shooting Franco–Jewish sewer workers, shunned by a world increasingly alienated from its bodily functions.” 

All of a sudden the eyes of the literary world were on me. I decided to return to New York. It was June 1983, I was 36 years old, at the height of my powers as I walked down University Avenue, a suitcase in each hand heading for the park bench under the University Avenue Extension that served as Berkeley’s only railroad station.