Bronx born and raised, storyteller, writer and author, Martin Kleinman, returned back to his birthplace after a 36 year journey living abroad — in, Queens, Manhattan, and 25 years in Park Slope, Brooklyn. (Sorry, Staten Island, as he quipped in an article in the Huffington Post back in January on a de Blasio Mayoralty).
Since Kleinman’s return to our great borough of the North, the writer of the blog, ‘The Real New Yorkers‘ — and Huffington Post New York writer — he’s published a book called Home Front: The Collection.
The New York-centric assemblage of fictional tales is an account influenced by our own great metropolis and its denizens. From the Bronx, to Brooklyn, to Manhattan, and bungalow communities of the Catskills, each short story is bright and alive with that real New York flavor that, well, a true New Yorker would instantly recognize and relate to.
Home Front: The Collection, is by no way meant to be a whitewashed account of our city and even our borough but an accurate portrayal of how things were, and now are.
The several stories that take place in the Bronx, provides a window into a Jewish Bronx or rather the end of that era from when once upon a time the Bronx was home to more Jews than any other borough. Some accounts estimated that almost 60% of Bronxites in the early to mid 20th century were Jewish.
Bronx Synagogues, an online repository on Bronx Jewish history, reports that in 1940, there were, “260 registered tax-exempt synagogues and at least twice as many unregistered synagogues in the South Bronx.”
These stories written by Kleinman show a city in constant flux and a Bronx that has alwsys been home to a variety of immigrant communities. As the calendar changed, so did the motherland of the immigrants who settled in our borough.
Home Front: The Collection is a must read for Bronxites, and all New Yorkers and those who love us. Follow the links after the interview to purchase your copy!
BronxQ&A with Martin Kleinman
Why did you write this collection of New York-centric short stories and poems?
I actually HAD to write these stories and poems. There was no way around it. Writing them down was the only way I could find relief from the pressure that would build inside me. The characters, the places, the situations — they had to come OUT.
Each piece in Home Front contains specific elements of my Bronx and New York area experience. Many of these elements were less than pleasant. Others were very funny, at least in retrospect. Others were iconic situations that we — true, blue New Yorkers — faced, and still face. I wanted the wider world to know about them.
The writing of Home Front was my pressure relief valve. I am lucky enough to be able to use my writing as a way of simultaneously entertaining readers and pumping out some of the psychological toxin that’s been in my system for many years. And, frankly, I wanted to tell the world what it was like here in the Bronx — as well as around New York City and surrounding areas — during a time of tremendous upheaval. It was a time that led to the point where the entire nation basically gave the big middle finger to New York City. Remember the famous headline in the New York Daily News: Ford to City — Drop Dead! And today, even though we’ve bounced back from those days of the 1970s, we live in a time when many of us are getting priced out of our homes. Remember, the Bloomberg administration would brag that prices were necessarily high here because “New York is a luxury product.”
Your characters and stories recall a bygone era of New York and New Yorkers — the kind of quintessential New Yorker of yesteryear. You give us a very raw, real look into that world without sugarcoating it. Where did you draw your inspiration from to develop them?
Home Front is very deliberately “no frills.” I intended to make it accurate and ring true, so that my best buddies from The Bronx would read it and say, “Yep, that’s what it was like, alright.” Make no mistake — Home Front is not reportage. The stories are completely fictitious. But “stuff like that” happened, and “people like that” behaved the way they’re portrayed.
There are several stories that take place in the Bronx, like Rain, Carlos and Almond Head Cruise Eastern Parkway, and of course Home Front.
Were these stories based on actual events you experienced (or any of your other stories for that matter) or just pure fiction? All the stories are fictitious. I grew up in the world where Rain happened and where, as a young man, situations like those in Carlos and Almond Head actually did happen. But none of my characters are based upon actual people, and none of the events happened like that. The great part of being a writer from The Bronx is that there is NO shortage of situations or characters in your memory bank. Some are hysterically funny. Others scare me to this very day. When we Bronxites talk with people who lived nice manicured quiet lives out of our region, they can’t believeour stories. And those are the stories I can remember — and your readers can recall — without digging very deep. We, here, live in a very colorful land. I’m sure when those of your readers, who’ve moved from the area, start to reminisce, they find it easy to outdo each other with crazy stories from their days back in The Bronx.
The hard part about writing the stories in Home Front, though, was capturing the feel of the stories and the characters and placing them in compelling narratives.
Where did you grow up in the Bronx and which schools did you attend here?
I grew up near Devoe Park, near Fordham Road and University Avenue. I went to P.S. 86, JHS 143, De Witt Clinton HS and Lehman College. Three years at Clinton taught me a lot. So much talent, from all walks of life, went through those doors over the years: from Nate Archibald to Tracy Morgan, from Paddy Chayefsky to James Baldwin, to lyricist Fred Ebb and Burt Lancaster — even Ace Frehley, the guitarist from Kiss. In retrospect, I had great teachers in The Bronx and a solid education. A special shout-out to a few educators who were especially supportive: John Halvey and Gail Simon at Clinton, Jerome Charyn at Lehman College.
When did you move from the Bronx and why?
I moved from The Bronx in 1974. I moved from my childhood home in University Heights after I graduated college. It was time for me to leave that neighborhood and that apartment building. Around 1972-73, the break-ins, muggings, shootings — all kinds of things — started, in my neighborhood and in my building. Once I graduated from Lehman College, I moved in with a friend to an apartment he found on Hunt Avenue, just south of Morris Park Avenue. We had a ball there. We both went to college in the Bronx, and now we were out in the working world and out on our own. The world was ours. We had no money but at that age, it did not matter. The next door neighbor kept roosters and chickens and the roosters woke us up well before dawn every day. The apartment had no heat and various forms of Bronx wildlife. We could care less. Then, we both met girls. My friend moved to Yonkers and I moved in with my girlfriend in Chelsea, years before it become “CHELSEA.” It was still the 70s-era New York, and junk and crime was everywhere. But — I was living in Manhattan, and sky high. We got married and lived across the grungy street from a promising young Broadway star. His name was Andre de Shields. The year we moved in, he was cast for the title role in The Wiz. I felt my life was about to change and I enrolled in writing classes at NYU’s School of Continuing Education. There, I met writers at the Village Voice, who said I had talent and should stick with the writing. One, a Harvard grad from a family of great wealth, suggested I “take a year off and devote myself to writing.” Ed, he had no idea. No idea at all…taking a year off was a complete impossibility. I lived paycheck to paycheck.
When did you move back to the Bronx and what prompted your return?
The great circle of life. We moved back in 2010, after living in Chelsea, Jackson Heights and, for 25 years, in Park Slope, Brooklyn. We saw the phenomenon of gentrification, up close and personal. We saw a down-at-the-heels neighborhood rise to the point where brownstones fetched more than
$3 million and cheaply constructed condos lined Fourth Avenue, where once only taxi garages and U-Haul shops stood. We saw the monstrosity called Barclays Center rise, like a giant rusted turtle on Flatbush Avenue. When the neighborhood was mixed, it was fine. Everyone got along. But, in my opinion, gentrification got out of hand. Park Slope became some kind of distorted Frankenstein monster of what it once was.
We looked for a new neighborhood when we realized that 25 years of Brooklyn was more than enough. We moved back to The Bronx. It actually reminded us of Park Slope, circa 1985. That is, a nice blend of the old and the new guards.
How was it growing up in the Bronx during your generation? How do you feel it prepared you for the world?
Growing up in the Bronx back then made you tough enough and strong enough to overcome hardship and deal with adversity. We had a certain edge and resiliency. We Bronx people learn, early-on, how to handle ourselves in certain situations and survive. So, on the one hand, being a Bronx kid who would leave the apartment early in the morning during summers and come home around dinner time — out all day — made us self-sufficient.
However, in some ways growing up in the Bronx was a distinct disadvantage, at least in some ways, when I entered the working world. This was because I wanted to earn my living by using my writing skills, and this narrowed the playing field to areas such as advertising, public relations and publishing. In this world, entry level applicants were suburban-bred, from prestigious schools, with more polish and poise. I was more creative, more assertive, and mentally faster and tougher. But, Ed, let’s face it. In the interview situation, people like to hire people like themselves. Money hires money. The way I spoke, the way I dressed, all said B-R-O-N-X. It took time to understand how to stay true to myself and still “fit in” in the world of Manhattan achievers. Growing up, I could see the Empire State Building from my kitchen window. But the business world of midtown Manhattan was — in many respects — much much more than 15 miles away. In my early years, it might as well been on the Moon.
Rain, and Home Front both feel to me to be rather a personal tale, is this the case? I love how these two stories are perfectly connected and describe a Bronx when it was dramatically changing in so many ways.
Yes, they are very personal stories and, not surprisingly, two of the first stories I wrote for the Home Front collection. Over the years, I think back to what my grandparents went through, coming to New York from eastern Europe as teenagers, with virtually no money, living with distant relatives, dealing with a new language, and trying to make their way. New York City and the immigrant experience are forever intertwined. To a large degree, that’s a big theme in “Rain.” My story “Home Front” takes this in another direction: the culture clash of the various immigrant groups. It always made me bitter to hear a member of one ethnic group insult another. Very few of us who grew up in New York City have relatives who came over on the Mayflower. We really have to work together, especially in times of economic distress. And perhaps that’s why these stories resonatetoday. They were written about an era of dramatic social and economic change, in the 70s. And, guess what? Here we are in 2014, and the tectonic changes in our society are again shaking us to the core.
Are you working on any other books?
I’m writing a second collection of short fiction and already have five stories done. And, I have many many story fragments, filled with people and places that are cool, but are not yet ready for prime time. Hopefully, I’ll be finished by 2015.
Also, I’m working on another non-fiction book, Robert’s Rules of Innovation II, designed to help business owners — from start-ups to multinationals — implement sustainable innovation programs that can take organizations to the next level. The first Robert’s Rules of Innovation was published by Wiley in 2010 (http://www.amazon.com/Roberts-Rules-Innovation-Corporate-Survival/dp/0470596996).
What advice do you have for any aspiring writers here in the Bronx?
Read, read, read. Read everything, from the classics to current books. Read Dickens AND Junot Diaz. Read stories that are out of your comfort zone, and that explore people and places completely unfamiliar to you. Then, write, write, write. Don’t stop. The more you write, the better you get. Don’t let anyone or anything discourage you. The finest writers all have a shoebox full of rejection letters. If you’re a writer, you HAVE to write. You have no choice. The stories come bubbling out of your head. Don’t deny your stories their place in the world. Let them out. Write!
And, finally, Bronx writers have a unique perspective and point of view. The Bronx forges a certain type of personality, one that is both very sensitive and very tough. We’ve seen it all. We’re strong, but there is an emotional price to be paid for living here. Maybe that is why the voices of story tellers from the Bronx are unmistakeable. The world needs to hear more from us. So please, keep writing.
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