Food, Clothing and shelter


How many times was it drilled into us in elementary school that food, clothing and shelter were three basic necessities of life? Yet, an increasing number of our citizens find themselves in the newly labeled category of the “unhoused.” Recent reports indicate that in Los Angeles alone, there are 70,000 people in this most unfortunate position.

Like most, if not all, of my readers, I find it unimaginable not to be firmly rooted in a house or apartment at every stage of my life. Each of those dwellings left its stamp on my identity, and I’d like to journey through that history and, perhaps, to encourage a similar journey of your own.

When I was six months old, my parents and my sister, Lorraine, moved into a one-bedroom apartment in the East Flatbush section of Brooklyn. For the first 21 years of my life, 64 East 95th Street, Brooklyn 12, NY was what I inscribed on the “address” line of thousands of forms and documents. It was a central part of who I was.  Note the two-digit identification that prevailed before zip codes were born. Most of you will be surprised to know that phone numbers were not all numbers at one time. We didn’t always have a phone, but when we finally got one, our number was PResident 3-7286 or PR3-7286. 

Our block consisted primarily of two-story buildings with two similar apartments on each level.The houses were attached on one side, so we had windows only on two sides – one set facing a small back yard, the other looking out on a narrow alley that barely separated us from the neighboring house on that side. My sister and I shared the only bedroom where we slept on twin beds with only a small space separating us. My parents slept on a pullout couch in the living room.

I’ve described some parts of what amounts to my physical autobiography in other contexts before, but I’m circling back to them here, not simply for descriptive purposes, but in an attempt to understand how each home helped shape me. For example, the limited space left no room for the privacy that middle class kids expect today in their own rooms, equipped with a personal tv and computer. I was the captive of my parents’ sleep schedule. Their lights-out time at 11PM was enforced on me as well because any light or sound would disrupt their sleep. No reading in bed and no listening to the radio, which would have been impossible in any case, with my sister’s bed only an arm’s length away.

The kitchen was big enough for a table that could seat four, despite the fact that one long side rested against the wall to allow room for traffic between the sink, the gas stove and the old-style refrigerator with a freezer only large enough to contain a single item, like a brick of ice cream. Dinner was promptly at 5:30 every day when my father returned from work. This was not the occasion for Leave it to Beaver conversation about “How was your day?” Or “What did you learn at school today?” My father and I read the newspapers my father had scavenged on the subway on the trip home. My mother rarely sat down at the table. Instead, she played waitress, delivering each course when our bowls or plates were empty. Eating was not pleasurable. It was something you had to do, like going to the bathroom. It took me a long time to get past that hurdle.

I had no desk, so I did my homework on the kitchen table during the permitted hours. I often read on the reassembled couch during the day, which was complicated by the fact that my mother was in a state of perpetual housekeeping, so once again, privacy was at a premium. When she wasn’t puttering, she was on the phone with one of her many friends and her voice echoed throughout the apartment, invading the space in which I was attempting to communicate with Ernest Hemingway or Thomas Wolfe. Most of my reading during those years occurred either on the subway traveling to and from school or in the bowels of the check room of a local catering hall where I spent long, lonely chunks of my weekends hanging the mink stoles and fake Persian lamb coats of the aunts and cousins of the bride and groom of the bride and groom or the bar mitzvah boy.

In the warm months, I took my show outside, as residents of cramped space the world over have learned to do. If I had to stay close to home, I was on the bench in front of our building, usually listening to a Dodger game on my portable radio or in the schoolyard or the park only a block or two away from our house.

When you live in the same space for 21 years, your relation to it changes through the different stages of your growing up, even from season to season. I’m not doing justice to that in this abbreviated account. The common thread was that the apartment was a safe harbor, always providing those three basic elements we learned about in school. But at the same time, it was an anchor that weighed me down, kept me from exploring the new worlds and new relationships that were available to people who went off to college or who got a job after high school and left the nest. Looking back, I can see how that extended stay too close to the womb stunted my social development, limited my opportunities to act boldly.

Like all things in life, it’s all a matter of trade-offs. That apartment and the loving, though often stifling, family with whom I shared it gave me a sense of security that enabled me to finally move on, however belatedly, to Dwelling #2, my graduate school dormitory room at Harvard. But it also left traces often more visible to me than to those around me — failures in decisiveness and leadership, discomfort in social situations and more. Perhaps these limitations were already imprinted in my genes, but I’m convinced that some of it was cultivated in that little apartment in Brooklyn.

I think you can see how this one foray into my housing history could grow into a sequence like The History of My Hair. I’m not going to walk you through all the stops along the way, but I may try another one next week to encourage you to think about beading your own personal necklace of homes. It’s sure to conjure up a lot of rich memories.

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Marv Hoffman

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