by Charles Rotmil
From my first arrival to New York from France on December 11, 1946, via the Ile de France, I have had to work. Moving to Peekskill, New York, from war-torn Europe was traumatic in its own way. Peekskill seemed so artificial and unreal; the houses looked like cut-out cardboard fronts with nothing behind them. School was another matter. In those days there was no English as a Second Language; nothing like that. I was dropped into high school in January with not enough English to communicate or understand. I would listen to the radio and try to make out what I heard. Football announcers were speaking so fast it was just a blur. A student named Miriam was put in charge of my learning; she would show up and ask me if I was okay and I would say yes and she would disappear. Not much help. Geometry was the only course that made sense to me. English, like the football games, was a blur. Listening to Shakespeare on an old record player, all I could hear was thunder. Speech was like a rumble. Yet, by June I passed all my courses, with Ds and a B minus in French because I could not translate very well. Once I got laughs in class because I mispronounced “unique.” I said I was the “eunuch” child of the family.
My aunt and uncle set up a farm job for me in the summer in Saratoga Springs. I was looking forward to it, expecting a land of plenty. Instead it was a milk farm, with about twenty cows to milk at dawn. So no Garden of Eden full of vegetables. Food was bought at the supermarket. Days were spent out in the field turning hay into bales, which I would stack up behind the tractor that moved up and the down the field.
The farmer cursed all day long. I was stunned there were so many curse words. He put me on a tractor — I had never driven anything — the very first day going up and down a field spreading it with stinking manure. It was a John Deere tractor. I thought that was the farmer’s name. We had to get up at five in the morning because the cows were lined up moaning in pain with their udders bloated, needing to get milked.
A long trench behind the cows was filled with their shit and I would have to shovel it all into a wheelbarrow and then wheel it across a plank into the back of a small truck. Once I flipped it over, shit and all, onto the ground below.
So it went each day. I thought we were done after one day, but the farmer told me his would go on all summer: collect the hay, spread the manure, milk the cows, feed the cows, and let them out to pasture.
Once we had a tremendous thunderstorm and one of the cows got hit. The farmer and I ran out in the rain to her and he tried to revive her to no avail. Not only the cows were in danger. There was an electrical fence around the cows. Once I was throwing a bucket of water outside and it hit the fence. I got a huge shock and the bucket flew up in the air.
Later, I told the farmer, who I thought was John Deere, that I was Jewish and survived the war. He said, “Don’t worry, it is not your fault.” Yet he seemed to think there was something wrong with me. From that day onward, I got terrible assignments, like digging encrusted manure from the ground in one of the barns.
During my time off, I would join the other local kids and we would go to the All-You-Can-Eat Sundae place, and make the rounds there until all we ate was the toppings. There was a girl in town who was always hanging out with the boys. I would find used prophylactics on the ground near the river banks. I was dying to be with her too, but she totally ignored me. I guess at fourteen I was too young for her. Once I went to her house and asked to speak to her. Her father let me in and I sat in her room while she sat in a rocking chair knitting. I could not believe this. She seemed a different person. I left empty-handed. Later at the local movie theater, I sat behind her by chance. She was with a date. He was doing something to her and then she had an orgasm. Her head dropped backwards and we were face to face while she moaned. I said “Hi.” She was so embarrassed she stood up and ran out of the movie house. It was surreal.
I would fantasize about her coming through my window and we would make love all night. Never happened. My only pleasure then was chewing Black Jack gum by the ton. And, of course, fantasy.
One morning after milking the cows, the farmer’s family and I were having breakfast and the coffee had a strange flavor. Turns out the farmer’s little girl peed in the coffee pot. Mr. Deere said, “So what, it won’t hurt you.” He was right; I am still here.
In the end, it did not work out with my aunt. When I came back to Peekskill, there was still time before school started. My uncle worked nights in a bakery. He would bring warm Kaiser rolls to us in the morning, and before he collapsed on the living room couch, we would all have breakfast. The bathroom was L-shaped and that was where I slept on a folding cot. I had to wait for everyone to be done with their business before I could go to sleep. My whole world there collapsed due to a family incident that freaked out my aunt.
The next day I was carted out of town and a child psychiatrist suggested I live with a foster family in a less restrictive environment. While waiting for a social worker from a Jewish agency to figure out what to do with me, I moved to New York City and got a room on the Upper West Side near 96th Street. During one of the visits, she gave me a Rorschach test, in which all I could see were images of wolves or vaginas. It was odd. She could not understand the correlation between the war experience and sexual development. One was trauma; the other pure frustration.
I got a job as a messenger boy for twenty five dollars a week. My room cost me nine dollars a week and I had a hotplate I could cook on. Once I heated a can of Vienna sausages, thinking they came from Vienna. I worked near Times Square which in 1948 had a Horn and Hardart restaurant that served coffee for 5 cents a cup. The subway cost a nickel as did The New York Times. My job was to deliver posters, drawn by cigar chomping artists, of current movies playing in the area to the lithographers. I wish I had some of those posters of film noir movies with Bogart and company now. After taxes, I was getting twenty-two dollars a week. Once I told my boss about my war experiences, that I survived and I was struggling. He gave me a raise of two dollars and fifty cents a week.
Finally, the caseworker called me to say she found some options for me where I would not have to work and could go back to school. The choices were Milwaukee, because she thought I was German and would love it there, or Philadelphia. She gave me money to visit Philadelphia for the day and I spent it at the Franklin Institute. When I returned, I told the caseworker that I loved the city. Next thing I knew, I was living with a poor Polish foster family, not far from Moyamensing Prison in South Philadelphia.
I went to South Philadelphia High School for Boys. The girls went to a school on the other side of a wall, which we used to climb to see them. I got a job after school as a soda jerk at the local pharmacy. I could not do today what I did then, but I knew how to make all kinds of concoctions with ice cream. I was still learning English in those days. Once, a woman at the counter, who I had just served a sundae, asked me if I had dried nuts or wet nuts. At the time, I did not know how to answer her question. Once in the basement going over stock supplies, I saw cases of “sanitary napkins.” I opened a box to take a look and thought it was a neat idea to have all napkins rolled up and ready to use at the table. Later while getting a bottle of Citrate of Magnesium, the bottle fell to the ground and exploded. A shard of glass cut my wrist and blood gushed out of an artery like a fountain. The pharmacist created a tourniquet around my arm until the ambulance came. Everything was okay. Once again, I am still here.
Another boy lived at the Polish family’s house. The kids at school called him called Tojo, because he had slanted eyes. He liked gambling in the street and took me along. I would lose my seven dollars I made each week at the pharmacy. Sometimes a policeman wandered by and watched us shoot dice in the school yard. One of the boys gave him some money and he walked off. At other times, a creepy guy in a business suit stood by and watched us play.
The City of Brotherly Love
I asked the Jewish Agency if I could live alone when I reached eighteen. They allowed me to move into my own one-room apartment. I got one of those apartments with a Murphy bed that went into the wall. I was so close to the street that when a tramway came by the whole room shook. Eventually, I moved to a one-room studio off Rittenhouse Square, with a bed on the floor and a very small record player with Vivaldi Extravaganza concertos playing non-stop. People would stop by just to hang out. Philadelphia was a very musical city.
I went to Temple University. My freshman paper, which was required of all freshmen, was on Existentialism. I subtitled it: “The Age of Despair.” My teacher was a minister and loved the idea, thinking I was going to decimate it. But I didn’t. I ate it up, reading everyone I could: Camus, Heidegger, Schopenhauer, Kierkegaard, and, of course, Sartre. His book, Being and Nothingness, stated we are born like an empty page and become someone later. I got slammed by the teacher. He read passages out loud to the class wanting to show the absurdity of Existentialism. He gave me an F for the course.
Around this time, I met a young girl, Bina. My first love really, innocent to the end; she suggested I show my paper to her writing teacher, Dr. Lazarus. He read the paper in the student lobby and loved it. In my conclusion, I quoted from Dostoyevsky’s The Idiot, in which on his deathbed, Myshkin states how, if he had more moments to live, he would enjoy sunsets, nature, and the world around him. I stated that in essence was how one should live every day, as if it was your last. When you die, I wrote, there is no one there to tuck you in. Dr. Lazarus loved that line. I realize now how much that must have meant to him then, since he was old and thinking of death. He told me he wanted me in his class even though it was a senior class. Most of what he did for that class was warn us not to write pulp fiction. And he read out loud from Joyce’s The Dubliners, spending an entire class reading “The Dead,” as the ultimate short story, praising its “inside-outside description” as he called it. Every word Joyce put down had a deeper meaning. I wrote a piece about the ship I was on, the Ile de France, as it entered the New York Harbor on December, 11, 1946, fog and all, and how the skyscrapers emerged as if from a strange world. He thought my writing was too cinematic and knocked it. The class was way above my level, but it imprinted on me how important it was to write meaningfully.
In order to earn some extra spending money above what the agency was doing for me, I got a job working at Campbell’s Soup across the river in Camden. I took the subway after school and worked there from four to midnight. At first, I was lifting buckets of okra into large trays from which women sorted out the bad ones from the good ones. Eventually the okra would end up in the Pepper Pot soup. I noticed men walking around in white suits. I asked them what they were doing and they told me “Food Inspection.” I went to talk to Mr. Bean — his real name — and asked if I could do that. Since I was a college student, he said I could and the next thing I knew I was standing on a platform with the cook and several workers. There were about eight huge receptacles, in which stock would be poured from pipes above and then ingredients would be thrown in from buckets that were brought there by workers. Everything was stirred by the cook and heated. My job was to make sure the ingredients were still fresh and not laying around too long, or that they did not put double the amount in, especially the spices and salt. In the height of summer, all we made was tomato soup. Each receptacle would get a huge ten pound slab of butter.
When the soups got mixed, people below the platform came around with large receptacles and placed them under the soup. The cook would unplug the valve and let the soup pour out into the receptacles below. Once in a while he would miss and the soup would spill out on the floor below. The receptacles were then wheeled to another area where suction tubes sucked up the soup into cans, which were sealed. Who was the insatiable giant we kept feeding around the clock? The cans went into a pressure cooker. The chemist who came around to test the soups told me the heating process made it okay to have three rat hairs and fifty larvae eggs in the soup. They were cooked to death and pressurized. You could not get pure, clean soup no matter how hard you tried.
I also had summer jobs. One was with Publickers, a whiskey distillery. My job was to supervise the women employees to make sure they were putting labels on correctly. The entire factory was immersed in alcohol vapors, so we all were constantly inebriated and happy. One salvage cage was for broken bottles and the man inside it was floating on clouds. By the end of the day, we were hugging each other and singing songs.
Later I got transferred to another section of the distillery where the leftover potato peels were transformed into cattle feed. I became the operator of a huge kettle drum, the size of a truck, in which dried-out peel became desiccated. It was a horrendous job. Hot and endless. I worked strange, alternating shifts. Day to evening, night to morning. Horrendous, especially the midnight to eight shift. When I went home, I could not fall asleep until noon. By the time I woke up, I had to return right to work, exhausted and groggy. It was as if I lost a day each time. And then when you got used to one shift, you switched to another shift.
It was around this time that I almost became a full-fledged, card-carrying Communist. There was a man at the distillery, who used to come with books under his arms by Engels, Marx, and Trotsky. The distillery was the perfect setting that Marx talked of leading to a revolution. Eventually I got caught up in a wildcat strike, where we were ordered to walk out on the job, with the machines still running. Workers came around carrying wrenches and ordering us to leave everything running and walk out on the job. I did not belong to the union so it meant I was out of work.
I got another job with Domino Sugar as a centrifugal operator. I had to stand on top of a machine that spun around, separating sugar from the dark parts, in effect, refining it. It was so hot that we each had a salt tablet dispenser behind us for when we felt faint from the heat.
The last factory job I had was working as a high arc welder trainee. I was trained for a week, practicing on pieces of metal, cutting them instead of welding them. I got so badly burned that my entire chest was bright red. The doctor told me I was literally getting burned as I welded. My heavy plaid shirt was not enough to protect me. I had to wear a dark mask and saw nothing but a spark for four hours straight before getting a break. Eventually, I would have chased car chassis on a line, welding any hole that I would see. I quit that job fast.
Philadelphia had many great cultural attractions: the Museum of Art, at which Rocky Balboa runs up the steps in the movie. There is a statue of Rocky in front of the Museum now. The city’s Rodin Museum, which is replica of the one in Paris, immortalizes sculptures of a higher nature.
It was at this time that I ordered my first camera through the mail. It was a very small one, like a Minox, but cost $9.95. I took photos of Bina, my first love, right by the Musee Rodin. We used to make out there in the dark, among the statues in the garden. The Thinker, the Disciples, the Door of Hell. Feeling Rodin’s spirit as my hands traveled all over Bina’s body as if she were one of his sculptures
But it was not Bina I ended up with. In fact, she left me for another man. Once I stood under her window, five floors up, and cried out that I loved her. She leaned over and told me to go away, and then spit on me. So much for first love.
It was another woman that I married. One that I met at the Bucket O’ Blood, a bar on Rittenhouse Square. She was sitting at the next booth with another woman. I leaned over and said hello and asked them if they were musicians. Everyone in that area seemed to be one. She is a pianist, her companion said. I asked if she would teach me piano. Yes she would and we made a date. On my first date she said we could work on Bach’s Notebook for Anna Magdalena comprised of easy pieces. Up to that point, I had been hanging out with what was then called Bohemians. The women I met were very attractive, but so neurotic I could not get anywhere with them. One was stuck on this really handsome homosexual. He may even have been an actual toreador. Another woman came over to my one-room studio and ended up in bed with a bisexual, who finally gave in to her. But I never connected. So it was a total change to meet someone who was willing and able to go to bed with me. On our first date at her house, she cooked a huge porterhouse steak for dinner. Before you knew it, we were on the living room floor making out. At the momentous moment, rather than resisting as all of the other women I met up to that point had, she gave in. When I told her I needed protection, she said she used the rhythm method. Next thing I knew she was pregnant. I did consider finding a doctor in Pennsylvania who did abortions, which were not legal at this point, but that was very expensive then and almost impossible to carry through. I dropped out of Temple University, which was great for me while it lasted, and moved to New York City.
I Love New York
We moved to a small room on Tenth Street and Sixth Avenue. I got a job working for Wolf Bindery for 90 cents an hour. That job consisted of standing by a huge machine, which bound books en masse. It would kill me when some book, such as classics like the complete works of Shakespeare, had to be thrown away because the binding went wrong. The machine would go out of whack and destroy dozens of books.
I was still doing photography and bought my first used Rolleiflex. A friend led me to apply as a surveillant at the Lycée Français de New York. I was in charge of discipline. Me, in charge of discipline. The school was a world unto itself. So old-fashioned even then, as if stepping into old France. You could not bring in a ballpoint pen; it had to be a fountain pen so you could write in cursive. Of course, you had to speak French. When a student misbehaved, he would get a zero for conduct. Three zeros led to expulsion. The classes I led often became so chaotic it reminded me of the movie Zéro de Conduite directed by Jean Vigo, in which the students take over the school. In that movie the principal was a dwarf. That is about how it felt at the Lycée Français. The supervisor would walk in — a woman who spread fear and trembling in all the students — and it became instantly quiet. Once I wanted to reach the students more so I played my harmonica during study hall. I got called into the Supervisor of Discipline’s office, Monsieur Kieffer, who told me “la police, Charles, if faut faire la police.” You have to be the police. Me? Police?
When school ended I got into more trouble, because I had drawn a heart into a student’s school yearbook, wishing her well. I was not asked to come back the next year.
It was then that I was led to the idea of being an assistant photographer by a friend who had been doing it for years. After all, I had studied with Harold Feinstein, met Robert Frank and W. Eugene Smith, and took photographs left and right in the street. I was recommended to an agent at the Berhman Agency in a real dingy little office near Times Square. I showed him my photos and indicated that I knew how to print. That was all I needed. The agent was amazing. He had a Rolodex filled with all the major photographers in the city from Avedon on down. How would I like to assist a fashion photographer in the Upper East Side who did work for magazines? I accepted with some trepidation. I had taken photos of my three children and the Cloisters. (Yes, three children by then, born one after the other, rhythm method, nursing period when one could not get pregnant, and finally a diaphragm that could stay in for a week.) I knew even then that you had to shoot rolls and rolls of the same thing to get the right shot. Even in the street, Harold Feinstein used to encourage me not to use the rangefinder. We should not try to compose.
My first interview was with Allan Arbus who had a studio in a mansion around 77th Street in Manhattan. A big move from my thirty-five dollars a month, and living in a 10th Street and Avenue B apartment. We hit it right off and my accent came in handy to add flair to the job. He loved the contact sheets of my kids at the Cloisters and hired me. I ended up dusting off a Deardorff eight-by-ten large format camera and setting up shots. Models flowed in and out and I flowed among them, surrounded by a strange, beautiful world I could only imagine before.
Diane Arbus would come in to use the darkroom (Allan and Diane were separated by then) and their daughter, Doon, wandered in and out too. Once I did not let Diane in the darkroom because I had work to do. She was studying with Lisette Model and the school of the grotesque. Even back then Allan was studying mime and he loved Marcel Marceau. I was a follower of Jean-Louis Barrault, who starred in the film Children of Paradise about a mime. Eventually Allan Arbus had a role in the TV series “M*A*S*H”. He died just last year at the age of ninety three. I lasted about a year with Arbus and went on to assist others: Peter Basch, Robert Monroe.
I started to go to lectures given by a medium, Eva Pierrakos, and eventually attended a sort of new age group called The Pathwork. I had sessions with Eva, who was very perceptive and a good analyst. I became a helper myself, giving sessions to others. This grew into a practice where I helped about thirty people each week and made good money doing so. I could not call myself a therapist but a helper. I also conducted large groups of singles and couple groups and then family groups. I would always have a team to work with. I was good at it. The group grew overseas and I conducted week-long, marathon sessions in Holland.
This is when I met my second wife, Adrienne, who used to live with David Bienstock, who was then film curator at the Whitney Museum’s experimental film department. He was avant-garde and showed films of Stan Brakhage who is now well-known. But he was heavily criticized once in the New York Times. Bienstock committed suicide. I was of a team that comforted Adrienne, and eventually a year later, got involved with her and got married. We had a son, Adam, who was born in 1980.
I was supervised by Dr. John P. and we had weekly case presentations. If a session was over my head, I called others who were more qualified than I, or a psychiatrist. Then Eva died. And that was the end of that for me.
Maine: The Way Life Should Be
I moved to Maine with my wife and Adam, who was just two years old. He was born in New York Hospital in May of 1980, the same time the Shah of Iran was there for an operation. I had to go through a curtain of policemen to get to my son. Moving to Maine in 1982 was yet another turning point. I have always missed New York City and all its innuendos. It was a shock at first moving here from Gotham. Damariscotta had one main street with a couple of lights. All the stores were closed by nine at night. The town changed into an Edward Hopper scene.
By then my wife became a registered nurse and easily got a job in a nursing home. I got a job working in a group home for teens whom had gotten into trouble with the law and were given a chance to function in an open situation. I would sleep over for a weekend then get a week off. Again a strange schedule. There were usually two of us working and the other person was more experienced. At night I could barely sleep. I felt the kids were up to no good. Some were there from juvenile court for breaking and entering offenses. If I asked them what they did wrong, they would say they made a mistake.
That job started the undoing of my marriage. The week-long separation was odd. Not sure if I could trust my wife during that week, I got tense and tenser. At this time, we moved into a caretaker’s house on a property adjoining open wilderness. A huge change from New York City. But we adjusted. We used a woodstove and we had a huge room upstairs, an entire floor surrounded by windows. Once it filled with bees who had occupied the chimney. They all eventually died flying in a circle. I left my job and started working at the same nursing home as my wife. By then she had moved on to in-home nursing. For one day, I was trained as an activity coordinator. One day! Then I worked with another woman in a large room and created activities. If someone died, the funeral parlor sent over all the flowers and we did flower arrangements in small pots to put in all the rooms. The patients would always ask who died now?
I lasted nine months in this job and moved on to working in a state mental institution, as a mental health worker. A crazy job really. If someone had keys you knew they worked there. It was the only way one could tell a madman from a worker. Augusta Mental Health Institute. I was trained for one week, because I would have to take blood pressures and provide basic nursing care.
I was even involved in giving someone a cosmic enema. We practiced on an old man who had been constipated for days. We put a rubber sheet on the bed and then dispensed liquid from a higher post, and, of course, the results were apocalyptic, with water everywhere. I did not have to do more of those.
When it came to psychiatric training, the first day a group of us were told to wait in the other room and when we came back they had this dummy hanging from a pipe above. I was frozen not knowing what to do. But one of us climbed on a chair and cut him down. I should have quit right then and there. Eventually I worked on a small special unit that always had the most agitated patients at the time. One girl called me Merv Griffin and wanted to know why she could not be on my show. Eventually she accused me of stealing her throat. One young woman who was on suicide watch and had no clothes managed to commit suicide by stuffing a blanket down her throat. I lasted nine months on that job.
I went on to becoming a child protection caseworker. I worked in Lewiston and my job was to go to homes which had been reported as having some sort of child abuse. I had to be careful not to enter without permission. Sometimes I would show up and a kid only five years old would open the door. And that was the point, he was home alone unsupervised with his brother who was eleven. The brothers told me that the neighbor downstairs would check on them now and then while their mother was at work in a bar. I asked the neighbor if there was a fire upstairs would they be responsible? Of course not. Cases like that had to be addressed. There was one case, before I worked there, where the mother put her son in an oven and killed him because a voice told her to do so.
The worst case I dealt with, the one that burned me out, involved this seven-year-old girl who one day told her teacher that her twenty-one year old brother had sexually abused her for a year and that was why she walked funny, not because she had polio as she had told her teacher before. I got to the school and waited for the mother to show up. She did, in the presence of a detective, and she denied that anything like that could have happened. We took custody of the child and her brother was arrested. But because he was mentally challenged, he ended up in a psychiatric ward. Eventually the mother lost her parental rights for putting her child in constant jeopardy. Such cases caused my anxiety level to go way up. I lasted nine months in that job.
I did not work for a year until one day I substituted in a school. I liked the hours and the calmness of the job. I found out I qualified to be a full-time foreign language teacher with good pay, 178 workdays, and tons of vacation. That was my last job. I retired when I reached sixty-two and collected social security. I moved into subsidized housing, which in Maine is much more humane than in New York City. I pay almost the same rent as I paid when I lived on the Square on the East Side in the Sixties. I go to schools as a sub when I feel like working.
Now I juggle many things: photography, painting, writing, and, oh yes, talking to students about my war experience as a hidden child in World War II. But, that is another story.