My Parents and My Friends
by Philip Penner
My parents lived in many houses in Sunnyside but when I was born we were on 47th Street, next to Freda and Leo Summers, and the Biens (Adolph was my pediatrician). We moved to 44th Street in 1947, when I was 6.
My first friend Charles was the son of the minister of the Episcopalian church on 46th Street. Charles and I shared a great love of Lionel trains. By junior high school, Charles was shipped off to boarding school and we lost touch.
I acquired new friends, Eric and John, and this is where I began to feel different. After school they went off to Hebrew school and were Bar Mitzvahed. My parents rejected religion—except for lighting the menorrhah. Why did they reject religion? I suppose in part because their families were in Chicago. And maybe it was to assimilate? At any rate I did not have a Bar Mitzvhah. I think I would have enjoyed learning Hebrew.
The other reason for feeling different was politics. My parents kept their distance from the parents of my best friends. My father was a leftist and was very sympathetic to the USSR and China and very critical of the US. My father was a sponge for facts and he could recount in great detail our nefarious doings in Guatemala. The reading material that streamed into the house consisted of the National Guardian, the Nation, the New Republic--but not the Daily Worker. Recently, I read “The Dulles Brothers” by Steven Kinzer and it filled in for me how our aggressive post-war foreign policy evolved.
My father was a journalist. During the 40s he worked for the NY Post, where he wrote the Press Digest, a summary of editorials of other papers. He then became managing editor of the short-lived Compass. By 1948-9, he was jobless. The New York Times, to which he aspired, apparently wouldn’t hire him because of his politics. Although my father was not called by the House American Activities Committee he knew fellow journalists who were. And I remember one case where there was a debate as to defense strategy—first or fifth amendment. Eventually he landed a job on the Daily News. It was a fairly well-edited paper but its editorials, written by a guy named Reuben Maury, were jingoistic and hysterical.
My father’s views vis-a vis the Soviet Union did not change despite the revelations of the Stalin era. He still was willing to give them the benefit of the doubt.
My mother studied art formally and worked in a variety of mediums—especially watercolors and clay. She enjoyed sketching, wherever she could--especially on the beach. Two of her quick sketches are included (unattributed) in Nikolaide’s “The Art of Drawing”. My sister and I have a lot of her sculpture which gives us great pleasure. She taught art in our basement and I and many other Sunnysiders benefited from her excellent instruction. When it came time to apply for the High School of Music and Art I already had a portfolio.
Music was an important staple of our life. My father amassed a large collection of records and was a regular patron of Sam Goody’s store on east 43rd St. My father’s main interest was opera, but he would buy folk music and chamber music as well. I vividly remember as a youngster listening to Martha Schlamme (Yiddish songs), Burl Ives, Tony Kraber, Joseph Marais (Songs of the African Veldt), and of course Pete Seeger (Songs of the Lincoln Brigade). At various period of my life I acquired a modest level of ability on piano, guitar, oud and most recently violin.
I went to the High School of Music and Art (with Vicky and Eric) and then to Queens College (with Linda, John and others from Sunnyside). I received a M.S. and Ph.D in Biology from NYU and spent my career teaching at the Borough of Manhattan Community College, a unit of the City University. Shortly after I retired, I was diagnosed with lymphoma. It has been two years since the diagnosis and I am doing okay.
I live in Teaneck New Jersey with my partner, Laura, who I met five years ago in a local photography club.