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Climbing Jacob's Ladder by Michael De Rosa

Updated: Jan 2, 2022
The author, left, with his family, 1946

Climbing Jacob's Ladder is a half-forgotten idiom for the ascent to heaven or a path out of adversity. For me, the expression has always stood for my family's road from poverty to working poor over the course of my childhood and adolescence. Poverty then meant being on welfare and having few of the creature comforts most people could take for granted. I say most because the conditions I'm going to describe were the norm in the tenements of Manhattan and the other boroughs of New York City in the late forties and early fifties. My sister and I were too young to feel deprived and, besides, the other people we knew had a similar standard of living. It was our normal.

When we moved to 111th Street in East Harlem in 1945, we had hot water but no heat. Our neighbors across the hall had an electric heater that once caused a small fire when some clothes came into contact with the open heating elements. We kids found it the height of excitement to watch the firemen arrive in their big red truck and rush in to put the fire out. To warm up our apartment, we used a kerosene heater. My mom thought this safer than electric but it wasn't. Every winter a considerable number of families all around the City would be asphyxiated by carbon monoxide poisoning from kerosene heaters, or killed in fires and explosions caused by them. Mom kept careful watch over ours but one kerosene heater was not enough in the freezing New York winter so she'd also turn on the oven and open the door to help heat our apartment. She'd even place an old fashioned metal toaster on the gas flame, where its red glow helped a little to warm the kitchen. On especially cold mornings, my sister and I would stick our feet outside the covers, and my mother would put our socks on. No cold tootsies for us.

Our apartment was rent-controlled, like all tenement housing in New York at that time, but landlords were allowed to raise the rent if they gave tenants heat, charging extra for each radiator or steam pole added. When we finally got two radiators and a steam pole, our rent increased from $21 to $28 a month, which was quite a jump for our family but well worth it as our apartment warmed up properly at last and we were able to get rid of the kerosene heater with its smell and risks. How strange to think that an average monthly rent in East Harlem today is approximately one-hundred times what we paid back then, an amount which, in those days would have been enough to buy the apartment outright. Strange also to think that in the 1950s over two million rent controlled apartments in New York City provided affordable housing for low income families. Of these, only around twenty thousand remain, although around a million are at least still 'rent stabilized', a fairer system for both tenant and landlord.

Another convenience that most people living in American cities today take for granted was that we had a bathroom with a tub. Many tenement apartments didn't have bathtubs. When she first came to New York, my mom lived in a single room in a rooming house, sharing a toilet and a communal kitchen with the other tenants on her floor. Everyone had a chamber pot for emergencies. I had relatives who lived in a building where the bathtubs were in the kitchen. Why the kitchen? The hot water pipes ran in a single vertical line up the section of the building where all the kitchens were situated so this was the only place you could plumb in a tub. When someone took a bath, the rest of the family had to move out of the kitchen. The tub was covered with a top when not in use. For those who didn't have a bathtub, there were public baths scattered around the City. The one in our area was around the corner from us. I only ever saw men going in and out and they never carried any parcels so I suppose these baths must also have provided towels.

When I was little, a refrigerator was still a luxury. We had a wooden shelf out the back window with a block of ice to keep food cold during the summer — an icebox. The iceman made daily trips down our street, pushing a cart holding large blocks of ice covered with old blankets. Using an icepick, he would cut out a smaller block of ice and use special tongs to lift it to his rag-covered shoulder. As he chopped at the ice during summer, we boys would hang around waiting for stray chips to fly out. I'd rush in and try to grab a piece of ice from the pavement before my friends did, wiping it on my clothes before popping it into my mouth. It was a delight on a sweltering summer day, the frigid water washing down my throat. No three-second rule for us.

Twice a week, the iceman carried a heavy block of ice up three flights of steps to our apartment. Our building, like all tenement blocks in New York even now, had no elevator. I can still remember the long walk up three flights of steps when I was a small boy, my mom carrying my baby sister, and my father bringing me part of the way up the first time I ever entered Apartment #7. It was a four-room railroad flat, which meant that the rooms were all in a line with a narrow corridor running alongside and windows at each end. When my dad bought us a secondhand indoor icebox, we moved one rung up Jacob's ladder. Made of wood, it had two compartments, one for the ice below and another above for the food. Below the towel-covered ice was a drip pan, which was often my job to empty.

Eventually, my parents were able to afford a refrigerator but we still called it an icebox. Whenever the refrigerator stopped working, which was regularly since old fridges like that gradually lost their Freon gas and had to be recharged, my parents would put in a block of ice with a drip pan underneath, making it an actual icebox until there was money to repair the fridge. Until we got the refrigerator when I was already a teenager, there was little room to store perishable food so frequent trips to buy groceries were needed. When we moved in, there were an Italian grocery store downstairs and a Puerto Rican bodega across the street. At the bodega, you could buy on credit and play the numbers— an illegal version of today's "Pick-Three" type of lottery that was an essential source of revenue for the local mafia.

As I grew up, Italian grocery stores gradually gave way entirely to bodegas with their sacks of rice and beans, wooden boxes of bacalao, or salted and dried cod, and Caribbean vegetables. This was due to the great migration of Puerto Ricans to New York during the 1950s and 60s. Mom was actually the first non-Italian to live in our building and there were still some smaller apartment buildings on our block occupied only by Italian families. The owner, our landlady, lived in the building with her mother and sister, each with their own apartments. Aside from owning their apartments, they had the same standard of living as we did. We also had an Italian bakery on the block, which sold cannolis, tubes of crispy fried dough filled with ricotta cheese, heavily laden with sugar to help preserve it and dipped at either end in chopped nuts, dried fruits or even chocolate chips. During Easter and Christmas, the bakery sold traditional holiday loaves of bread. I remember that sweet bread fondly. At Easter, it held an egg in one of its twists. The baker also made wine. Dad would send me with an empty milk bottle and twenty-five cents, and I'd come back with an improvised carafe of homemade wine.

Around the corner was an Italian butcher who was always wearing a bloodstained apron. We kids would watch, enthralled, as he made sausages. He ground the meat and spices from a hand-cranked meat grinder directly into a casing of pork intestines that he'd twist to make the links. To get ground beef, you picked the cut of meat and watched the butcher turn the crank of the grinder. This was collected on waxed butcher's paper and then a spatula was applied to add the part still stuck to the machine. My mom always checked to make sure she got all the meat she'd paid for. If you ordered veal cutlets, the butcher pounded them for you on his marble counter to make them nice and thin. Then, Mom would bread and fry them...always a favorite dish with a squirt of fresh lemon juice. As the City modernized, the butcher and baker closed down and we depended more and more on the local A&P supermarket around the corner on 110th St. The A&P had a more extensive selection and lower prices. Luckily, by this time our family had climbed enough rungs on Jacob's ladder that we no longer needed to buy groceries on credit, which wasn't possible at the A&P.

Before we got our first washing machine early in the second decade of my life, Mom washed clothes in the bathtub using a washboard. I can still see her, kneeling on the cold, tiled bathroom floor, bent over the washboard, scrubbing away. Sometimes she would let one of us kids try our hand. It quickly went from fun to hard work and you had better watch out for your knuckles. The first washing machine we could afford didn't have a spin cycle, but rather a cranked wringer to get out the excess water. Mom would add bluing to eliminate any yellow sweat discoloration on our clothes. Combining blue with yellow gives you white. Cranking the freshly blued clothes was hard work, as I learned when it was my job to turn the crank. Once my sister and I were older and had jobs, part-time in my case, we chipped in and bought Mom a modern drum washer.

Like everyone else we knew, we never owned a clothes dryer, but used a clothesline to dry our laundry instead. After rolling the clothes, we'd hang them out on a clothesline fastened at one end to a pulley mounted in the lintel of our back window and at the other end to a pole like a telephone pole that stood in the backyard. This is the reason why, in photos of old New York, or inner city housing in other places, you always see rows and rows of washing strung out between the buildings. My sister and I both loved to pulley the wet clothes out, or the dry ones in, and often vied to see who would be the one to draw the line. If a piece of clothing fell off, it was an excuse to go down to the yard and play for a while.

When the line broke though, you'd have to dry clothes on every available surface until the lineman passed through the back yards on the block. I can still remember the call of the lineman — “Liiiiiiiiine!” — as he passed through the alley looking for customers. Lineman was considered a highly romantic profession by the boys on the block, myself included, as it offered the adventure of climbing the high poles to replace the lines, along with getting to meet all sorts of people in the process of fixing these to their windowsills. Becoming a lineman was, alas, a dream I was never to achieve, given that, like the iteration of New York City in which I grew up, it has long since been consigned to the annals of history.
Author Michael De Rosa

Michael De Rosa, a writer from Wallingford, PA, recently retired as a professor (emeritus) of chemistry at Penn State Brandywine. His interests are travel, photography, and birding. The writer published, “lil sis & BIG BRO” in Memoirist and an essay “Walking Through the Seasons” in Academy of the Heart and Mind.


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