Guest Post by Author Richard Price
A NOTE FROM DCG FOUNDER ALLAN SHEDLIN: Richie (as I still think of him) and I first met as new 4th graders at a Bronx, NY, school. We were 9 years old, entering 4th grade. We remained classmates through high school. Our grandparents were still alive. Now we are grandparents. Much else has changed – the only Tablets we were aware of were of the cuneiform variety or those bearing the Ten Commandments. And the only person who talked into a wristwatch appeared in 1946 in the Dick Tracy comic strip. But some fundamental things have remained the same. One of those things is that we often consider various adults as parental figures when our parents are absent on occasion or regularly. Richie writes about the key influence his maternal grandfather played in his life. My maternal grandfather played an important role in my life as well.
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AUTHOR'S NOTE: The following is an excerpt from my memoir, Inside/Outside: Adventures in Caribbean History and Anthropology (University of Georgia Press, 2022). It shows that daddying – which my father certainly did seriously – can also be done by an admired grandfather. I try to set the scene and then say something about my “Pop,” Isador Swee (1887-1982):
A very early memory. Nose pressed up against a frosty windowpane by my bed, looking down Broadway at a trolley car surrounded by gesticulating people, stranded in the swirling nighttime snow.
The war was still on, it would have been 1944. Whenever my grandmother, who lived in that same 115th Street apartment house across from Columbia University, took me out with her, we’d walk hand in hand down that same stretch of Broadway to Shuck the butcher’s, where thick sawdust formed little mountains on the floor; we’d go past Yee’s Chinese Laundry, the flower shop, and Salter’s bookstore, and stop in at Saul the grocer’s, who might give me a piece of candy, before we went next door to the fruit and vegetable (and cut flowers) man, whose name now escapes me but who had brass scales with clocklike hands hanging from the ceiling.
Each time, it was, “Good morning, Mrs. Swee” (or if I was with my mother, “How are you today, Mrs. Price?”).
It seems to me that in the apartment – whether ours or my grandparents’ one flight downstairs – clothes were always drying on pull-up racks in the kitchen or, in good weather, on lines operated by pulleys, strung across to the next building. There was also the itinerant knife and scissors sharpener, who sang out his presence, voice echoing between the walls of apartment houses and who kept a monkey on a leash. And bottles of milk delivered at dawn by horse-drawn wagon.
Saturdays were special. My father, a dentist, took Fridays off, but worked on Saturdays. So, on Saturday mornings, my mother’s father, an immigrant from Russia who sang in the chorus of the Metropolitan Opera, would take me for walks down Broadway all the way to 110th Street, then over to Riverside Drive, and finally, slowly, back along the park. As we walked, Pop would tell me the story of operas and tales of travel with his Met companions – by train (which he loved) to Chicago and “Saint Louie,” by ocean liner to perform in front of kings and queens in Europe. He said Wagner was his favorite composer, Die Meistersinger the greatest opera, Parsifal, the most exquisite music. He told me the story of The Ring of the Nibelungen.
When I was six or seven, he started taking me down to the old Met for Saturday matinees, where the costuming ladies would dress me up, and we would enter the crowd scene in the marketplace and wander around the stage, hand in hand. Amply proportioned Russian and Italian women in the chorus would pinch my cheeks, call me endearing names, and envelop me in their bosoms, nearly suffocating me with their perfume.
It was in the market scene of Carmen that I first became aware of illusion: seeing twisted shreds of crudely painted cloth hung from hooks and being told that from the audience, they looked like chickens, geese, and ducks.
Pop, born in 1887 in Vyazma, not far from Moscow, arrived in New York in 1905 and debuted at the Met as solo tenor in 1918 in an opera starring Enrico Caruso. He’d begun singing in the chorus while still a teenager and continued till retirement. His first role was the Postman in the U.S. premier of Mascagni’s Lodoletta and he performed in it six times during the 1918 season.
But his favorite small part was as an apprentice in Meistersinger. My mother once told me how, when she was five or six, her father accompanied his friend Caruso back to the ship carrying him home to Italy, stopping for lunch near the docks, eating spaghetti and drinking wine, with her not understanding a word of their conversation. People always said my grandfather could pass for Italian. Besides his native Russian and Yiddish, he also spoke fluent French, German, and, of course, English.
In his 90s, he spent hours with a little blue grammar book, bent on learning Spanish…Pop was a true Voltairean, always trying to instill in me antireligious, Enlightenment values, including tolerance, the quest for knowledge, and the love of books.
To make ends meet, all his life, Pop also had another job, selling wholesale buttons out of a little suitcase to Macy’s, Gimbels, and other department stores to support his wife and three children, all of whom he helped put through college. His lifelong fear was that his buttons’ boss, Mr. Blumenthal, would come to the opera and recognize him – but he managed to hold both full-time jobs throughout his working life, with neither employer the wiser.
When the Saturday matinee at the Met didn’t involve children, my mother and I would listen to the broadcast, sponsored by Texaco and introduced by Milton Cross, on the wooden Philco console, taller than I was, in our living room.
I always listened for Pop’s voice.
Richard Price is a Duane A. and Virginia S. Dittman Professor Emeritus of American Studies, Anthropology, and History at the College of William & Mary. He has written extensively on the history and culture of African Americans throughout the hemisphere. His prize-winning books include First-Time, Alabi's World, The Convict and the Colonel, Travels with Tooy, and Rainforest Warriors. He is the co-author, with Sally Price, of Saamaka Dreaming, and, with Sidney Mintz, of The Birth of African-American Culture. He earned a degree in History and Literature, Phi Beta Kappa, from Harvard University in 1963, and Ph.D. in Social Anthropology from Harvard in 1970. He lives on Coquina Key, Florida.