“The Coldest Winter” is the title of a book about the Korean War (during which I was drafted) by one of my literary heroes, David Halberstam. I’m appropriating it for this story because that’s how I remember that time in New York, about which I’m about to write, which I guess was a turning point in my life. I’d returned from San Francisco, to which I’d gone three years before because I didn’t want to follow what appeared to be a preordained path in New York, get a job after returning from the Army, marry a nice Jewish girl (one of my many aunts would supply the girl), have 2.5 children, buy a house maybe in Queens or Long Island, commute to my job in Manhattan, and all the rest of it.
Unfortunately, the job I had in San Francisco disappeared when the small market research firm I worked in suddenly went bankrupt and I was left out on the street. It happened to be a time of one of California’s periodic recessions and another job seemed impossible to find. Besides this, I’d just broken up with my girl friend. I had no close friends. In New York, I did have friends, not to mention my family, and it was after all the center of market research activity so it seemed logical to move back there and, despite my previous misgivings, start, or resume, a life there.
I moved into my old bedroom in my parents’ apartment in the Bronx, not a satisfactory situation for a 30-year old, I know, but I told myself it was temporary, and it was rent-free. I pored through the want ads in the New York Times. I went to every employment agency in downtown Manhattan. Maybe the recession had hit New York, too, because all of my efforts came up empty. Finally, thanks to an introduction by one of my uncles, I was given a temporary job with a Jewish fund-raising agency that was beginning its annual drive. There was a carrot hung out that if I did well the job might become permanent.
My salary was enough to cover my expenses, such as they were, but certainly not enough to have my own place in New York City so I remained in my parents’ Bronx apartment. During the week I took the subway down to Grand Central and walked to the fund-raising outfit’s office. The work was not demanding. I did a lot of filing---there was a folder for each prospective donor---and made a lot of phone calls. I usually brought my lunch. On my afternoon break I walked to a nearby Automat and had coffee and a pastry. The Automat’s coffee at that time was the best in the city. Sometimes I stayed downtown after work, had dinner at an inexpensive restaurant and went to a Broadway play. On most weekends I visited one of the old friends I’d re-connected with. I had one friend who lived in Yorkville and we went to a lot of German restaurants. I resisted the efforts of my aunts to find me a girl friend; I wasn’t ready for that yet. I still pored over the Times want ads and sent out letters and resumes.
Autumn in New York, nice title for a song, was pleasant enough. On some weekends I went down to Central Park, went to the Metropolitan Museum of Art, then strolled through the park, sometimes going as far down as the zoo. It was a nice way to spend the afternoon. One weekend I even went to Yankee Stadium to see a game. I mentioned that David Halberstam was one of my literary heroes. One reason, besides that he wrote some excellent books, was that he was also from the Bronx and a Yankees’ fan. Maybe New York wasn’t such a bad place after all. If I could only get a job.
Autumn turned into winter. It got cold. I dug my old topcoat from out of the closet. I bought some gloves. I found an old woolen hat that I could pull down over my ears. The walk from the subway to my office now seemed like a hike through the Arctic tundra. I’d arrive half-frozen. I no longer went to the Automat during my afternoon break. Instead, I had the office coffee, which was terrible. I no longer went down to Central Park. I no longer went to German restaurants with my friend who lived in Yorkville. It was too cold to go out. When I came home from work I unfroze, then stayed inside. It felt like being trapped.
My most vivid memory of that coldest winter was of taking time off from my office and walking to another building to register at an employment agency. When I came back out onto the street a cutting wind was blowing and I hesitated about even walking back. I eventually did and arrived chilled to the bone. I immediately had a cup of our terrible coffee and at least it warmed me somewhat. But my standing at the fund-raising agency had gone up. I’d read in the newspaper that the current Miss Israel was visiting New York and, prior to one of our big efforts, at a building housing a dozen or so furniture companies, I suggested we get Miss Israel to appear with us. I did so half-jokingly but, to my surprise, phone calls were made and, what do you know, Miss Israel did appear.
She was, as befitting a beauty queen, stunning-looking and quite young. Somehow I managed to get through the swarm of furniture company men clustering around her and have a few words, informing her I was the one who suggested she come. I asked her what she was doing next. She said she was going to Hollywood to see about making a movie. I told her that I’d lived in California and that it would be much warmer there than in New York.
At the end of the fund-raising drive my boss told me that I’d done a good job and that they could take me on permanently. The salary was not great but might be enough for me to move to my own place. Maybe I could find something with my friend in Yorkville. I told him I’d think it over.
As I said, that cold winter was in a way a turning point in my life. I decided after all to return to San Francisco. I got a job with the State of California. It wasn’t exciting, but it was secure. I eventually married; we moved to Sacramento so I could get a promotion, we had three children, all sons, and now I’m retired. “The Coldest Winter” is on my bookshelf. Whenever I look at it I remember that coldest winter in New York. If it hadn’t been so bad, maybe I would have accepted that job and stayed. I’ll never know.