by Robbie Harrold
Fay Webern. “The Button Thief of East 14th Street: Scenes from a Life on the Lower East Side 1927-1957.” Sagging Meniscus, 2016. 311 pages. $19.95. Paperback.
Sentiment, nostalgia, self-pity, recrimination, revenge — Montpelier resident Fay Webern has brilliantly resisted all of these temptations that face the memoir writer in “The Button Thief of East 14th Street,” her engaging account of growing up as the child of Russian Jewish immigrants in New York’s Depression-era Lower East Side.
The genre isn’t known for producing can’t-put-it-down page-turners, but “The Button Thief” is all that, something new and fresh. Webern’s coming-of-age story is compelling in itself as we watch the initially insecure young girl develop a transgressive “spirit of defiance” that comes to define her. It is also in miniature the story of first-generation immigrants in America, who must navigate the uneasy balance between the tribal traditions binding their elders and the cultural assimilation that unlocks the opportunities and freedoms for which the tribe journeyed in the first place. (This recurrent pattern in American social history, by the way, should allay the concerns of those fearful of today’s Muslim immigrants).
Webern’s writing style — edgy, unflinching, mordantly humorous and economical yet rich in sensory detail — could be an oral history transcript. The individual voice is so persuasive, the vignettes at times so suspenseful that it feels like sitting in a room listening to a particularly interesting raconteur, wanting only for her not to stop, to tell one more tale.
Take the story of her being in the world at all:
“I wasn’t supposed to be born. When my mother broke the news that she was in the family way, she already had three children and was living in a one-bedroom railroad flat on Avenue D and 8th Street…My father was beside himself…But she would not agree to a scraping. She was afraid of infection.”
Webern’s father buys “flushing pills” from a druggist, but her mother, fearful of complications, doesn’t take them; her father assaults the druggist, thinking he’s sold him expensive fakes. When, years later, Webern hears the story and confronts her mother, she breezily replies that “as soon as Papa saw you he changed his mind…even before you came into the world you brought luck…If not for you we would still be buried in that miserable grave on Avenue D and we would never have come to live in Lavanburg Homes, may God protect it.”
The Lavanburg Homes, the setting for much of the memoir, is an enlightened low-income housing development founded, and funded, by a Jewish philanthropist with the goal of uplifting its residents and the neighborhood as a whole. Its tenants, however, bring their impoverished realities with them, each of them facing a daily round of adversities in the wake of the Depression that is only overcome by a stubborn spirit of determination and, indeed, defiance.
Bessie Weber Kessler, Webern’s mother, emerges in the text as the avatar of this spirit, which she passes on to Fay, her younger daughter. To keep the family sheltered and fed, she tries every sort of scheme — illicit peanut-selling at the Liberty Island ferry, chicken-plucking for the kosher butchers, parlaying a minor accident at work into a lucrative lawsuit settlement, selling eggs from upstate farmers on consignment, peddling leather shopping bags she’s sewn herself among the Orchard Street vendors’ carts. In the face of her husband’s inability to find steady work, she manages to hang on in the Lavanburg Homes, saving the family from starvation and homelessness, but there’s never enough of anything to go around.
Fay, meanwhile, overcomes hostile teachers, lice infestation, broken friendships and being caught in a minor (though devastating to her) shoplifting episode instigated by her mother to discover her own passions and become a devotee of modern dance. She finds her own ways to thrive, running errands for a grocery store’s back-room gamblers. Already a serious reader in her early teens, she wins the interest of a sensitive and considerate admirer, resulting in a charming “rooftop romance.” And then the dancing ends, with an accident she describes briefly in the book and which is foreshadowed by the hostile reception of her last solo recital and by her parents’ refusal to let her enroll in a summer program with a famous teacher at Bennington. Nonetheless, dance has defined her: “This is my language. What I am.”
In the lovely late chapter, “Norma’s Studio,” Webern has an epiphany: as she looks at the portrait her artist friend Norma has painted of her, she recognizes in it the spirit of defiance that has kept her going, that has brought her a place in the post-war New York world of artists and performers and led her out of the constrained world of her immigrant family and their peers. (She has gone on, we learn elsewhere, to a long and distinguished career in publishing, parlaying her knowledge of what makes for strong writing into her own compelling story).
The arc of this coming-of-age story isn’t overdetermined. It’s punctuated by at times seemingly random renditions of incidents, memories and observations of life in this very particular time and place — as, for instance, an encounter with future jazz great Thelonious Monk in the Palisades Park. They add texture and flavor to an atmospheric collection of stories from a life which leaves the reader wanting to hear just one more.