I grew up in a gully, according to my friend Max Burstyn. Max said, “You lived on one of those dead-end streets that had flooding. You lived in a gully.”
Yes, there was some flooding, Max. I remember a canoe on my street.
Max lived in the Jewish highlands on the other side of the public park. No flooding in the highlands there, and 99-percent yidlach. Max was equal to
1 ½ Jews. He spoke Yiddish and German. His dad was a Galitzianer from Krakow. Max was born in Munich and came to America as a baby in the 1950s.
I played tennis with Max in the park. That’s where we met.
Max still rants about the gully. He says, “You lived with the goys — like Stropki. I played Pony League with him. There were about eight Stropkis. What about Bobrowski? He was a Catholic too. Went to St. Joe’s. He played third-string for the Browns. He was from your street. There was Mastrobuono. He had a funny walk.”
True, I lived with Catholics, but I heard Jewish mothers shry gevalt (scream bloody murder) at their kids from across the park. Those Jewish moms had powerful lungs.
“Max, what about Willie Hendricks?” I said. “Why was he in your neighborhood?”
“Hendrick’s mother was Jewish,” Max said. “He could pitch.” Hendricks was about 6-4. He was drafted by the majors but never played pro ball.
Max was a self-described mischling ersten grades. (First-degree mixed race.) That’s a Nazi term, but Max used it — at least around me. Max’s mother was a German gentile and his dad was a Polish Jew. They met in Germany after the war. Max was halachically converted as a baby.
Max comes to my house for shabbes. I like his Yiddish. He knows words that nobody else knows. He talks about a kudraychik — a swindler. I can’t find that in the dictionary. It’s probably Slavic, not Yiddish. For example, Max says, “There was a kudraychik, a Jewish barber, in the occupied zone after the
war . . .”
Max books rooms for a hotel chain. He works out of his house. He occasionally talks German to Europeans who want to book rooms in Florida and play golf. Max also gets calls from drunken Englishmen who call him “your majesty.” He has to work 92 percent of the time during business hours. He can watch baseball and football games on mute. “It’s not a bad job,” Max said. The occasional call from Germany, no boss and no commute. Not bad.
Max beat me at tennis. I hadn’t lost to him in a while. Did I sully the honor of the gully? I don’t think so. I’m not Catholic and I’m not gully-proud.
The tennis instructors at Bexley Park were mostly college kids who didn’t care about the job. One year it was Stovsky; the next year, Nagy, the state champ. These “pros” rarely showed us anything. Maybe they showed us grips: the Western, the Eastern, the Continental.
The courts were asphalt with cracks and weeds. At least the nets were real, not chain-link.
My dad got me about 10 private lessons at the Cleveland Skating Club in Shaker Heights. The pro there called me Tiger. I think he called most non-members Tiger. He was John Hendrix. He went on to coach at Ohio State.
Some of my Bexley Park tennis friends became jealous of me because of my private lessons. I got better than most of the Bexley players. One player, Shelly Gordon, still harps about my private lessons, like I violated the South Euclid Tennis Court Oath: Don’t Be a Tennis Snob. Shelly played at Ohio State and became a teaching pro in Israel. He’s self-taught. His strokes are horrible, but he’s good.
A seeming midget, Denny A., ruled Bexley Park, along with a gambler, Twitch, and a tomboy named Annie G. They bet on everything, like who could hit the most first serves in, who could bounce a ball the longest on his racquet. Bexley Park was not a genteel place. Some guys didn’t wear shirts. Billings –- the court gentile — played so much shirtless tennis he wound up with skin cancer.
Krinsky was the best hitter. He could have been a regional player, but he preferred baseball, softball and chasing girls. He was voted the “best dancer” in the senior class.
Max was third singles. Not that good, not that bad.
Some of the best public court players were from neighboring Cleveland Heights. A couple Cleveland Heights boys took several private lessons at the Jewish country club, Oakwood. Garry Levy and Rich Greenberg became the number-one doubles team in Northeast Ohio.
The great public courts players of my day were:
Chuck McKinley, St. Louis
Billie Jean King, Long Beach, California
Pancho Gonzales, Los Angeles
Shelly Gordon, Cleveland
Shelly is remembered by all some in Cleveland, even though he moved to Israel years ago.
Yiddishe Cup plays 7:30 p.m. Thurs. (July 5) on the lawn at Wiley Middle School, 2181 Miramar Blvd., University Heights, Ohio. (Indoors if raining.) Free. It’s “Family Fun Night” with games and free ice cream one-half hour before the show.