Of Makers and Takers

Full disclosure: I come from a long line of Takers, in the strict sense of the (idiotic) term. My grandparents, on both sides, came to this country from eastern Europe, in steerage. They lived in the Bronx -- my much maligned New York City borough -- and worked hard all their lives. Though they never went on "relief," they were never Makers, again, in the strict sense of the (equally idiotic) term.

My Dad enlisted in the Army at 18, fought in World War II, and was bombed and strafed while stuck in the frozen tundra of Belgium during The Bulge. Surprising even himself, he survived and went to NYU on the GI Bill. This made him, definitely, a Taker.

And my sister and I went to publicly funded schools, all the way through college, making us Takers too.

Recently, this Taker had good cause to visit my school, Lehman College, part of the City University of New York (CUNY) after an absence of many decades. I was invited back, with my publisher, Scott Adkins, to read to students, faculty and alumni from my recent collection of short fiction, Home Front. The reading was sponsored by the college's Alumni Relations Department and hosted by the Library Department. There, I met a most dedicated group of education professionals: Christina Necula, Director of Alumni Relations, Ken Schlesinger, Chief Librarian, Allison Lehner-Quam, Education Librarian, Jennifer King, Science Librarian and Janet Munch, Special Collections Librarian.

Munch curates remarkable collections such as the Bronx Regional and Community History Oral Collection and the Bronx African-American History Project. Here, under advanced temperature controlled conditions, the words and deeds of centuries of Takers are kept pristine, for study by the scholars of today and tomorrow. Learning of the existence of these collections resonated with me, since I strive, through my stories in Home Front, to keep the awareness of life in post-World War II New York alive.

Like Rod Taylor in the 1960 film, The Time Machine, I catapulted forward through the years as I walked from Bedford Park Boulevard, down Paul Avenue, through Gate 8 and onto the Lehman campus.

It was the same. Yet it was very different. The key difference was largely in the physical plant. There were so many more buildings, with new walkways and concrete bridges. The Leonard Lief Library itself was a new, to me anyway, and impressive building. Libraries, as Dr. Schlesinger wrote in his department's newsletter, had forever been steeped in tradition. The charter of today's experts, however, is to keep apace with the velocity of technological change that rattles the hallways of the Leonard Lief Library, of every library. In that way, the library acts as the heart of the campus, the muscle that pump the oxygen of thought to every department, efficiently, relentlessly.

The school's key similarity, I decided, was to be found in the determined eyes of the students. Forty years ago, my Taker friends and I also studied hard on this very (changed) campus, determined to carve a future for ourselves. I saw that same Eye of the Tiger look on the faces of the students as I walked to my reading.

Tuition back then was free. The only charges were for various fees and for books. Think of it: a four-year college education, free, for those who had the grades to get into a school in the City University of New York system. Today, there is tuition and it is not cheap, by any means. But it is modest compared to the cost of New York State schools (SUNY) and private colleges.

So there I was, walking through the Leonard Lief Library, packed to the gunwales with students of all races, creeds and colors, their heads in books or staring at computer screens. Up to the third floor Tree House Conference Room I went, to my reading. My mind reeled at the impressive furnishings, fixtures and appointments that seemed so new, so inviting, so...professional.

It was then that my mind raced back in the Time Machine and I remembered: as a 14-year old, I applied, and was hired for, my first on-the-books job, as a page in the New York Public Library, in the Marion Avenue (Bronx) branch, only a mile or so from here. There, I worked after school and earned a gaudy $1 per hour, $15 a week. This made me a rich kid, at a time when a typical monaural rock music album cost $2.89 at Alexander's Department Store on Fordham Road ("Uptown, It's Alexander's," the store's slogan went).

Why work in the library? Even then, I knew: for us Takers (that word, again) the library was a safe haven, a port of entry and embarkation, where our ideas were crafted and fine-tuned to make sure they were seaworthy. Here, in the library, one could dream big dreams, safely away from the bad guys on the street -- as well as from the disapproving and simply small-minded among us -- and plan a daring escape into a bold, better tomorrow.

So, yes, we -- in our Bronx of long ago -- were Takers. One taker became the CFO of a large multinational bank. Another went to Congress. Another developed the technology that made online purchasing possible. Some sold insurance. Many taught the children of Takers, in the New York public school system.

No matter what our profession, though, we were all Takers, starting at the home plate of life, taking our cuts, and rounding the bases, to varying degrees of success. Some of us hit homers and others only got to first base. But we all tried. And kept trying. And paid taxes with metronomic regularity, and raised families, and fueled a middle class that floated the world's economic boat, and contributed to our society. Every. Day. Of. Our. Lives.

My reading in the Tree House conference room went very well. My stories of the New York of long ago hit the mark with my audience. I left the library elated and walked through campus and back to Bedford Park Boulevard.

It was then that I passed a student in yellow sneakers, a backpack slung over his shoulder. He smiled at me. "I liked your stories," he said shyly.

I smiled back. "Thanks," I said. "Hey, how do you like it here?"

"I love it," he said. "The class work is tough, but the professors are great. And," he said, as he looked up at the many trees just turned to autumn's blaze, "look at this place - you'd never know you were in the Bronx."

I smiled back and wished him luck, proud from my nose to my toes that I am a Taker.