Thursday, January 14, 2010

Daydreams and Nightmares: Reflections on a Harlem Childhood

Daydreams and Nightmares: Reflections on a Harlem Childhood

Irving Louis Horowitz

Fiction or Nonfiction?
Nonfiction. Memoir. Winner of the 1990 National Jewish Book Award.

What led you to pick up this book?
Horowitz's memoir covers the 1930s and early 40s in Harlem. I'm interested in that period of American history and this also seemed like a fresh perspective.

Daydreams and Nightmares is Horowitz' memoir of "growing up absurd" (i.e., Jewish) in Harlem. His parents immigrated from Russia in the 1920s. His father came to America first, followed several years later by his mother and his older sister. His father owned a small locksmith shop. According to Horowitz, "...based on crude but not unsound reasoning, my father decided to settle in Harlem because of high crime rates -- windows were always being broken, locks were constantly being picked. Small tinkering was a needed skill."

Soon after the family was reunited, Irving Louis Horowitz was born in 1929. He was born with a cleft palate and a harelip, which made several years of surgeries necessary. Horowitz claims that he received excellent care at Sydenham Hospital in Harlem, attended by highly trained and skilled doctors who were fleeing Europe. "I was a beneficiary of fascism." he writes. He also said that while he was in the hospital during these times, things at home were easier for his family because they didn't have to be bothered with looking after him or feeding him.

Horowitz returns to this theme often, writing in varying degrees about "the coldness of family life." At first glance, it would seem typical and understandable, since the parents were struggling to make their way in a completely new world, but Horowitz points to his father's brother's family, who immigrated to Argentina (by mistake -- they thought South America meant the southern United States, like Georgia or Alabama) but that family constantly exhibited affection and laughter.

Horowitz discusses being terrorized by black kids in Harlem; day-long performances on weekends by extraordinary talent at the Apollo; how Central Park seemed to be some sort of special turf where all classes and races seemed to tacitly agree to get along; his devotion to the New York Giants and his adventures as a turnstile boy and later a scalper; Saturdays at the movies where he could see six features for ten cents and finally, the 1943 Harlem Riot, which took place in August after an African-American soldier was shot and wounded by a white New York City policeman. Hundreds of businesses were looted and destroyed, including Irving's father's store. Shortly thereafter, the Horowitzes moved to Brooklyn, where Irving had to learn to file down some of his survivalist, street-smart edges to fit in with his new friends.

What did you like best about this book?
In the preface, Horowitz declares that he used George Orwell's memoir essays as a model. He admired the way Orwell wrote unsentimentally and unromantically about childhood. Horowitz was successful in what he set out to accomplish.

What did you like least about this book?
So interesting but so short! (116 pages) Daydreams and Nightmares is of course meant to cover Horowitz's childhood in Harlem. I was glad that he went a little further as he discussed the difficulty to transitioning to Brooklyn, then his early years at City College, but I became so interested in his story I wanted a longer biography that extended into his adult years.

Share a quote:
Above all, the movies set Saturday apart from the rest of the week. Saturday meant life, reality, action. The films, even the deadliest of them, touched my heart in ways that school never could. Saturday was a daydream and nightmare combined in a singular, intensely private experience. Thus to be deprived of a Saturday at the movies was more than a cultural deprivation; it was a form of punishment unparalleled in my young life.

Horowitz wrote that on the average, he was able to get his father to give him the dime for the movies about 2 Saturdays out of 5. One week, when he couldn't get the money, he decided to take matters into his own hands while he was working the cash register:

Stealing in Harlem was a way of life -- an act of faith in the viability of the operating system itself. The test of character was doing so artfully, brilliantly, so that no one ever knew.

Unfortunately, his father caught him and for punishment, he tied Irving to the hot-water pipe and beat him severely:

The word spanked sounds so genteel, so perfectly bourgeois; beating across my bare ass more aptly describes what happened.

Horowitz can also be wickedly funny. In another incident, the father decided that a guard dog would be a good idea for the store, so he brought home a German Shepherd, Rex. Irving and the dog bonded, but the father decided to "put the dog in its place" by beating him. Predictably, Rex turned on him. The father then set out to "lose" Rex in Central Park. He failed; actually, the dog beat the family back home. Finally, in 1940, he was successful in ditching Rex while Irving was at summer camp. Irving was furious and inconsolable when he got home and realized what had happened. Fast-forward to 1973. Irving's mother and father were visiting him and his family. Irving got the word that there was a German Shepherd nearby available to a good home. The reason? The father in that particular family didn't care for the dog. Everyone piled in the car to go get the dog. When Irving came out with the dog, who was a dead-ringer for Rex, his father "blanched and was quiet during the ride home", much to Irving's grim amusement.

Have you read any other books by this author?
No, I wasn't even familiar with Irving Louis Horowitz.

After reading this book, do you plan to read other books by this author?
Horowitz has done most of his work in political sociology. He researched and wrote about the influence of Korean evangelist Sun-Myung Moon (whose university is just down the road from mine!) and the Unification Church on American politics. I would be be very interested in reading about that particular connection.


joemmama said...

Very interesting! Remember ewes not fat, ewes just fluffy!

Eva said...

I hope my library has this one-you've made it sound so good!

marion said...

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