Hy Meyerowitz, the subject of the film "Pop," was born January 10, 1908 in a tenement on East 100 St. in New York City's East Harlem, the youngest of six brothers and sisters. He barely knew his mother who became ill and bedridden after his birth and died before he was three years old. His sisters Jean, Mae and Rae raised him while his brothers Phil and Murray pushed him out to work at an early age, which he did like a scrappy little guy from "The Dead End Kids."
Hy was small, referred to himself that way, and as a small guy he learned the tricks one needs to learn in order to survive the hostile, rugged, ghetto life of New York in the early 20th century. He used humor, body language and fast footwork to avoid trouble and as a consequence of this perception of himself as small he made these attributes work for him in surprising ways. He became the comic, the dancer, the boxer. By the time he was twenty years old he had won the first Golden Gloves Championship in the lightweight division. At about the same time he won a Chaplin look-alike contest which served as a starting point for his act in vaudeville and the "Borscht Belt" in New York's Catskill Mountains. There he became what he called "The Physical Director" of one of the larger hotels where his charm, energy and good spirits brought him the kind of attention and affection that was part of his life-long quest; a search no doubt initiated by never really having a mother's love in his life. Even as an old man he would sigh and shake his head when that childhood memory was evoked.
Hy's show biz aspirations were left behind when he married my mother, Sally. Coming out of the Great Depression she couldn't see how show business could provide the financial stability she wanted and Hy succumbed to her wishes and I think regretted it his whole life. He had an instinct for comedy. He was a natural and although one can't possibly know with any certainty what would have happened, it's easy to see from how funny he was that he had the right stuff. Perhaps this film is his first and final bow to an audience he longed for but thought he could never reach.
I was born in March of 1938 and for nearly seven years had the undivided love and attention of my parents until the birth of my brother, Rick, and seven years after that came the birth of my brother, Steve. My brothers and I often talked about how each of us experienced a different father. I had the young athlete, the comic, the tough guy. Rick had a more conservative man in his forties already settling into the routines of family life and Steve had a man in his fifties dealing with the first signs of aging, the health food and the vitamin fad of the 50s, the search for a house rather than an apartment, a man caught up in trying to please his wife.
During the 50s and 60s Hy was a salesman with New York City as his territory. The boroughs were well-known to him. He knew Greek, Italian and Chinese restaurants in every corner of Brooklyn and The Bronx. Anywhere he went, I traveled with him a lot, he was known and loved--a little like Willy Loman. He had a great act. He never, ever asked for an order when he went into stores on his route. I would watch him from down around waist level, kibitzing with owners, counter men and pressers (he sold Dry Cleaning supplies) until they were holding their sides with laughter. I remember once tugging on his jacket as we left a store and saying "Hey, Pop, you forgot to ask for the order." He looked down at me, smiled and said, "They know why I'm here. I don't have to ask. If they need anything they'll tell me." And sure enough, as he was finishing the sentence, the store owner called "Hey! Hy! I got an order for you." Pop squeezed my hand and gave me a knowing wink as if to say, "Remember this." And I always have.
There was also an incident when I was five or six that burned into my memory. Pop was a truck driver then, for the same company he would later sell for. One day he was making a delivery down an alley, rolling a 700 pound drum of chemicals to the back door of a dry cleaning plant, his helper, an old Negro named Blue, was sitting in the cab of the truck with me. I loved Blue, he had a way about him that I never experienced with anyone else. He was a rural southerner one generation removed from slavery, a cotton-picker with innate wisdom and the dignity of an Egyptian prince, yet he could roll his eyes in mock terror like a vaudeville pickaninny in blackface. While Blue and I waited for Pop to come back, three men in coveralls and caps came into the ally and when my pop came out, they blocked his way. I can still see him with the brick wall behind him and the three toughs in front. Blue started saying, "Oh lawdy, lawdy" and his teeth began to chatter. Then my father did an amazing thing. He stood there in his long leather apron like a western gunslinger and with both hands he beckoned the men to come to him. I watched as the first man moved in ahead of the others and I saw his head snap up as he flew backwards against the wall and slid to the ground. Pop quickly stepped over him as the middle guy came forward and with a shot to the gut, bent him over and then an uppercut to his face as he was doubling over dropped him to his knees, blood pouring down his face. The third guy panicked and tried to make a run for it but Pop caught him by the straps of his overalls, turned him around and with a flurry of punches sent him to the ground, he didn't even look back as he was walking to the truck. Blue's eyes were wide as fried eggs as Pop jumped into the cab and started the engine. I yelled over the noise, "What did you say to them, Daddy?" He said, "One at a time or all at once?"
Even though Hy thought of himself as small, he seemed larger than life to me both in the way that every parent is to their children and also because I witnessed him do heroic deeds. He played baseball for money every Saturday during the summer. He and his guys traveled all over New York for games in the glass strewn sandlots and makeshift ballfields in the Italian, Irish and black ghettos of the city. These were tough guys playing tough games not only playing for the money, but playing out their ethnic prejudices as well. Although when I think back on it now I see that the tolerance of those times was, in some ways, more generous than now. One day during a game against a team of younger guys, Pop was at bat when an infielder, talking it up for his team called out, "Hey pops, see if you can hit it out of the infield." Now Pop was a long ball hitter and a tough competitor who was always ragging the other team, but I saw him go red when he was called "old man"--on the next pitch, swinging one-handed --he hit a long fly ball, going, going, gone, out of the ballfield (they were playing in a neighborhood playground with a field and a kiddie park and pool attached) over the bath house and bounced it off the flag pole 300 feet away where it fell into the kids' pool. As he rounded the bases, he peppered the other team, "Old man, huh, who you calling an old man!"
One other time I saw something that has defined my relationship with my pop in a way that I could not possibly imagine then, and it has stayed with me all these years. He was playing ball in an empty lot on our block, on a ballfield that the neighborhood guys cleared out themselves from the coal and ash-filled dumps that had been there before. Pop hit a triple and rounded the bases as the winning run crossed the plate, but was forced to slide into third base where he tore up his leg on the shards of old ash buried in the dirt. His leg was bleeding heavily and he leaned on the guys' shoulders as he limped back to our building. Once inside, we got into the shower together and washed out the deep gashes on his leg and ankle. I remember watching his blood pooling around the drain and going down it in a lazy spiral. He never complained or winced, he just washed it away, and now when I think about Pop, that image, of all the hundreds of memories, is the one that always comes up first. I don't know why.