I spent a year in Israel from 1972 to 1973. After six months, I was qualified to have my own room (but not a bathroom) in a wooden structure that had five of these rabbit warrens, all the size of a prison cell and only slightly less depressing. In one corner of my room was a small bed with a lumpy mattress that had just been vacated by a French volunteer who kept a running tally of her conquests on the wall above her pillow. As if a dark, dank room wasn’t depressing enough, I had to be reminded every night when I crawled into bed and glanced at those figures on the wall that I wasn’t getting any practice with my addition.
But then I got a radio, which in my spartan existence was a great luxury. This was a kibbutz that had two televisions for 750 people. The Israelis were fascinated by TV, especially American TV. Ironsides was the kibbutzniks’ favorite show. The other favorite was “Family Affair.” I remember a huge crowd in downtown Tel Aviv went crashing through a storefront window because little Buffy was inside on a publicity tour. One night we were watching the 1972 Olympics (before the tragedy) when one of the members tried to turn off the TV so the kibbutz could hold its regular meeting. He was nearly lynched. They weren’t going to miss their weekly dose of Perry Mason rolling around in his wheelchair.
So anyway, one day I came back to my room, all muddy from a day spent irrigating our chickpea field (which was blown up in the ’73 war), and there waiting for me on a table beside my bed was a big old wooden radio from the 1930s. I turned it on, and I remember the first song I heard on it was “Me and Mrs. Jones” by Billy Paul, courtesy of Dewey Hughes and his daily top ten on Voice of America. I was in heaven. For the rest of my time on the kibbutz, that radio, and the company of one Shari Jacobson, kept me sane.
Now it’s a year later, and I’m a freshman in college. There’s an auction on campus to raise money for something or other, and one of the items on the block is a big old Philco floor-model radio from the 1930s. Of course, I had to have it, and fortunately my bid of $10 let me take it home. That in turn set off some kind of mad compulsive disorder because within six months, I had an apartment full of big old radios. The best thing about them though was when they didn’t work, I’d take them down to a local TV repairman named Harry Smith to work on together. Harry was then 80. He could remember when the idea that the sound of a voice could be sent through the air was dismissed as pretty silly.
Harry, whose shop was pretty quiet, would growl when he saw me come through the door with my latest find. Still, despite his protests that he was much too busy to teach me radio repair, it was obvious when we’d we’d roll up our sleeves and pull the guts out of an old Atwater Kent, that he was enjoying it as much as I was. A few years after I graduated, I drove by the shop, hoping his old station wagon would still be parked in the rear, but the place was boarded up and the lot was empty. That was a sad day for me.
But it was during this time I also learned that radio was in my blood, (type-a-m), so to speak. Yup, open a vein and I bleed solder. Open a hole in my cranium, and you’ll find a #40 rectifier tube. It turned out that my grandfather, whose name was Lou Resnick, was in the radio business before the war. Those who know the history of New York, know that the World Trade Center was built over Cortlandt Street, which from 1930 to 1970 was known as Radio Row. Cortlandt Steet was the place to go if you were in the market for radios, parts or other electronic products. I didn’t know that my grandfather had a store there until after I started bringing radios home and my mother told me. I knew he had been in the electronics business. In fact, when I was a kid, he owned a tube factory, and my brother and I used to love to spend the day in the factory shoving little radio tubes into their boxes. (If anyone out there has a Best-Test or Triad tube, please let me know, as those were his.)
When I wrote my book on television, The Box, I interviewed a few people who sold TVs on Radio Row. They remembered my grandfather, and like me, didn’t care much for him. He wasn’t a very nice fellow. His favorite past time when we were kids was to tease us until we cried. Then he would call us names for bawling. I was probably five at the time. But if that was the worst thing he did, it might have been okay, but there worse much worse. He did, however, teach me to play a mean game of gin rummy though, and I guess without my knowing it, he instilled in me a fascination for old-time broadcasting. Still, we really never had much to say to each other until I started to bring home radios and suddenly instead of arguing about Vietnam, we could communicate civilly over something we had in common. I’d like to say things got warm and fuzzy after that, but they didn’t. He was still who he was. When he died, I shrugged my shoulders during a shiva call and confessed to my aunt, “You know, I just didn’t like the guy very much,” and she said, “I’m so glad you said that, I couldn’t stand him either. Let’s get out of here.” And we did.
Anyway, it was fascinating to talk to the people who worked down on Cortlandt Street who remembered the business only slightly less fondly than they did my grandfather. Two of them were Bob Elliott and Jerry Fishman. Here are a couple of quick stories:
“Jerry Fishman: There were maybe fifty stores. People came from all over to get the best deals, no matter what it was. If It was for a goddamned nickel battery, he was lookin’ to pay four cents.
“Most of the people who operated on Cortlandt Street were mom and pop shopkeepers without much capital. If that store cost a hundred dollars a day, no matter what, that hundred dollars had to come in. The most important thing was to make the nut. If you had to take a five-dollar bill or a ten-dollar bill for something you did it. The hundred dollars had to come. that was the way the whole street operated.
“The door was always open, no matter how cold it was, because people liked to walk into an open doorway. And no matter how cold it was outside, you had to stand outside along the window and when somebody approached you had to start talking to him and entice him into the store and try to sell him something.
“Bob Elliott: The salesmen had a lousy habit. If they thought a customer was chiseling them, when he was walking out of the store, they used to spit on the back of his jacket, so if he went in the next store he would be marked. That was called ‘marking the noodge.’
“Jerry Fishman: Or throw snot on him. I heard of that. I never did it.”
There was another sales technique I accidentally learned about. When I was in junior high school, for some reason my we were handed a box of 16mm films that my grandfather owned. My mother was excited, because my grandfather took a lot of home movies, so it was a big deal when when finally found a projector and set it up one evening. My father loaded the first reel and we sat to watch with great anticipation, except what came up on the screen was a young woman without any clothes on, smoking a cigarette, and when she nodded to the camera and planted the cigarette in an orifice through which no woman can inhale, this is the conversation that immediately ensued:
Me: “Dad, that doesn’t look like grandma.”
Dad: “You two, get out of here, now!”
I learned while researching The Box (unintentional double entendre) that these films were used by the storeowners to entertain the company reps. Good old Grandpa. I still have those films by the way. Maybe one day, I’ll hold a Lou Resnick Memorial Fuck-Film Festival.
I also still have a few wonderful old radios. There’s a shot of one posted below. Here’s another: an Atwater Kent Model 30, one of the radios I worked on with Harry. It’s an early electric set from the mid-1920s. Still works, too.
A few years ago, I opened up my mailbox to find an Antique Radio Classified Catalogue. The catalogue always has an article or two in the front. This one had a piece about Cortlandt Street, but what nearly brought me to tears was one of the photos that accompanied the article. Here it is. On the upper right is the only visual evidence I’ve ever seen of my grandfather’s former prominence during a time and on a street that was so vibrant that those who were there thought it would last forever. Of course nothing does. Especially in New York which buries its history like a dog does a bone.
Click on the photo to transport yourself back 60 years in time.