A tribute by Harris Saltzberg

Overview of the Friendship

I knew Gene a very long time from 1956 to three years ago. We were friends and had frequent contact over those years. During the years of our late adolescence and into adulthood there were pleasant and very unusual elements to our communication.  We would walking down a street and suddenly simultaneously burst into the same song.  It could be Sholem Aleichem’s lullaby, Los Quatro Generales, Joe Hill, an Everly Brothers song or many others.  We would smile and Gene would say, “Synchronicity”. It was only with Gene that I shared this pleasant but baffling experience.  He may have shared it with others.  As Gene’s illness progressed these events became rarer and then no more.  But I had resolved to press on with the friendship even after it became apparent that his psychiatric difficulties were severe and chronic.  I knew the pleasure I found in our shared company would now be secondary.  The primary concern had to become helping Gene to remain stable, out of psychiatric hospitals, and helping him to realize as much of his remaining potential as possible.  Fortunately, there were still some wonderful times together, but also, long barren stretches had to be weathered. And then, into the sixth decade, the friendship ruptured and withered.  I am presenting here a statement about Gene’s life as I observed it and a look into our friendship.

The Heavy Lifter

In Gene’s support network, I was a pillar but not the foundation.  By far, that was his mother, Rivka Sherman.  She saw to it that he had an excellent living situation, especially when compared to his cohort, far beyond what people of similar economic means provide for their disabled children.  Her devotion and love were astounding, as was his love for her. If he returned from a psychiatric hospitalization disheveled, his thoughts barely coherent, she was planning how to get his clothing in order, apartment clean, how to improve his nutrition, how to help him ascend one step at a time so that he could begin to apply for work and land another job.  And she did this over decades, well into her advanced old age.  In this area of her life, she was tested far beyond other American Jewish mothers, mothers generally, and she soared. If Gene could not come into his parents’ home, she would sit with him in the stairwell.  And Gene too offered her great love.  The deep, great satisfaction of his last very troubled decade was being able to help her to continue to live independently: shopping for her, encouraging her, running over to her apartment in the middle of the night when she had fallen, lifting her off the floor and putting her to bed.  He would return later that day, to spend time together.

Pre Illness

I first became aware of Eugene’s singing in the chorus of the Bronx Mitlshul in 1956-57.  I had some pitch problems and we sat near each other in chorus and he helped me out.  In the Spring of 1957, on a Saturday during the lunch break, a group of the ‘Freshies’ were seated on a small hill in Bronx Park.  Gene was the youngest of the group. He hadn’t yet bounded through his adolescent growth spurt.  There was a speech impediment.  He was good looking, a face that conveyed warmth easily.  He said something that made me aware of an unusual sensitivity.  I felt there was an added dimension to him, just as his singing voice at times went somewhere and took you along.  In all, there were seven successive years of weekly Saturday gatherings at Mitlshul and Kursn.  For the first four of those years, we attended classes together on Friday evenings as well.  There were summers in Camp Kinderland.  Together, we directed the winning teams, Israel then Bulgaria, in the 1964 and 65 Olympics.  There were years at City College and living within walking distance on the Lower East Side in the middle sixties.  Gene’s brief turbulent marriage was celebrated by the young couples’ friends at Rapaport’s Restaurant but the marriage imploded shortly before the scheduled adult generation party materialized.   

Gene’s very special talent was of course his  beautiful, moving tenor voice.  People remember his singing in different musical styles and languages.  He sang many songs wonderfully.  For me, the height of his natural gift and artistry was achieved in his solo performances of Miko-Marshame-Lon, the Aramaic title of a Yiddish song with a text by a major Yiddish poet, Avrom Reisen.  It is really an art song, in which a young Yeshiva scholar, in a spiritual crisis, questions his experiences and ultimately his life. Gene was himself a young man in spiritual crisis and with his beautiful voice, the luminous clarity, he was able to realize the gripping potential of a masterful song.  Also, I join others in remembering Gene’s sterling  performances of Brivele.  That song, in which a hospitalized young man who has lost both vision and a limb, longs for his mother, an uncanny parallel to Gene’s real life experience.  

Gene wrote well.  He danced well.  But there were darker signs.  He could provoke teachers to the point that they almost humiliated themselves in front of the class.  He didn’t routinely behave this way. It was a rare event. But when he did, it was extreme and suggested much darker, intractable forces were at play somewhere behind that handsome face, the often carefully selected attractive clothing, the wit, the great charm, and the  rare musical gift.   Internal churning forces might take control and force a rupture.  His life could become a shipwreck.

Year of Illness

Gene graduated from City College with a B.A. in psychology and was admitted to a well respected graduate program in clinical psychology at the University of Massachusetts, Amherst.  He had a first psychiatric hospitalization.  He resumed his studies and then another breakdown.  It was clear to the school that this was not a one time crisis, rather a chronic severe mental illness.  He was let go from school.  He returned to New York.  He was medicated and received verbal therapy.  Eventually, he earned a Masters in early childhood education from City College.  Still, for an extended period there were frequent breaks, maybe averaging once a year.  His father flew down to Jamaica to bring him home after he endured another episode while on a visit.  He never described the circumstances in the holding institution while he waited for his father’s arrival.  But when he spoke of that experience, very rarely, he looked off into the distance and shadows seemed to move through him.

Gene the Giant

Gene managed to develop a work history.  It was sketchy of course.  There were many, many gaps.  He wrote well and could put together a resume that elegantly disguised red flagging gaps.  It helped also that he was a man in the field of early childhood/preschool education, had an advanced degree, played the guitar and would teach Woody Guthrie’s children’s songs.  With great effort, sometimes heroic effort, he managed to hold on to  several jobs over years.  The longest was one in a Harlem center, and lasted approaching five years, I think.  He could enjoy the children, rejoice in their development and feel pride in his contribution.  But work, sustained daily effort, grinding effort, could become extremely difficult for him.  Anxious, misreading cues, mumbling, fearful, over-reacting to minor irritations, feeling stigmatized: to have to live and work within the emotional extremes that he experienced took great effort.  He needed support.  There was an approximate six month period when Gene called me on the phone the evening of every working day and needed to speak.  A shorter call would be 10 – 15 minutes.  He needed go over his day and be listened to as he did.  He didn’t want much feedback, could only accept a little, but it was essential that attention was being paid.  He wouldn’t accept perfunctory yeses or ‘ha ha’.  Then he could articulate thoughts, quiet anxieties, consider alternatives and calm himself.  After six months of this, I needed a break badly, and told him so directly.  At this time, fortunately, he was able to ease off. 

There was one job he had in a more middle class preschool.  It lasted a little more than a year.  When he felt himself weakening and wanted to avoid being pushed out, Gene resigned on good terms with the school.  However in a troubled state, several months later, he wrote the director an accusatory letter and lost the possibility of a good reference.  

When he no longer worked fulltime, he sought out part-time work running music classes for preschoolers. He approached day care centers and offered music sessions on an hourly basis.  Briefly this worked for him.  He also found some part-time office work in night hours through the help of Fountain House.

High Points in Making Do

Up until his very last years, Gene had a stable living set-up in a safe attractive neighborhood a block and a half from his parents’ apartment in Inwood Manhattan.  The apartment was rent stabilized, in a lovely art deco, well maintained building that turned from private to co-op ownership.  His studio apartment had a separated eating area.  The fixtures and appliances were old and worn and the apartment was generally somewhat messy and could have benefited from a good cleaning.   But there were always some attractive furnishings, an unusual lamp from his boyhood home on Marmion Avenue, a comfortable chair, a few character-filled table top items. Best of all, he had an expansive view east across into the Bronx and if you stood at his window and looked sharply to the south, you could see George Washington High School sitting on the ridge and behind it, far into the distance, the forms of mid-Manhattan skyscrapers.

There were times that he dressed with some flare.  He enjoyed finding interesting color and texture combinations.  At other times, he could be seen wearing clothes that people turn away from. 

There were several long-term intimate relationships with women he cared for, though maintaining the relationships through time was very challenging. In later years, as the illness progressed, there were longer and longer periods of loneliness and longing.  I was with him when a friend, the adult daughter of a major jazz musician, sought to introduce him to someone.  He couldn’t begin to see her virtues.  His loneliness intensified.

That wonderful voice abandoned him.  Sometimes Gene seemed to partially accept that.  At other times, he might approach people organizing a program and ask to perform unaware of the deterioration in his voice and that his grasp of the melody had become unreliable.  He wrote, photo-copied and mailed out poetry.  Nothing approached the artistry of his music.  There was a lot of poetry.  Only a few pieces reached a level of coherence and polish. Still, a few pieces have considerable value and still move me.    

Moving Towards the End

With his father gone, and his mother’s health deteriorating, no longer able to work, unable to find intimate companionship, Gene’s world shrank.    He looked for opportunities to read his poetry.  Then came the terrible jolt.

Rivka’s Departure

I drove Gene to his mother’s funeral in Paramus, New Jersey.  That morning it was a treacherous drive with sheets of ice on the roads, harrowing.  As planned, I picked him up and we made it slowly out to the graveside service.  Gene’s old friend, David Yohay, couldn’t drive out of Brooklyn and had to cancel.  Over the years, Gene had worn out the tolerance of some family members.  (As talented as he was as a singer, so he could be as a provocateur.) His remaining family couldn’t offer him much.  I was terribly concerned that he might become psychotic at the ceremony.  It was a very cold winter day and he wore a coat that I only saw once.  It looked as if it had been manufactured by a high-end British firm. The tweed weave incorporated sky blue and shades of grey, but it was riddled with holes, the entire coat, collar, sleeves, every panel. It was too big by far, this tired remnant of better times.  His trembling body rattled inside it.  With great emotion, but holding on to core control, Gene read his prose poem expressing gratitude for the joy of caring for his mother.  My whole being with the exception of one small essence was sending out to the universe my hope: Survive this Gene . . . live.   We deposited dirt on the coffin.  I encouraged Gene and he invited his cousin Joel back to his apartment.  I had planned and provided a meal.  We sat and ate speaking softly for an hour, a little more, and Gene asked us to leave.  He wanted to get into bed and sleep.  It was still light and would be for almost two hours but it was clear that he needed to sleep.  We left.  

That small essence of me that was not emitting my hope for Gene’s survival on that day was harboring the wish, “I hope he says thank you.”  He didn’t. He couldn’t.  It had to be enough that he made it through the day and it was.

The closing down of a long friendship.

After his mother was gone, our friendship continued as before but increasingly there were bouts of attacks directed at me.  I didn’t fulfill a promise I made to host a poetry reading at my apartment in the city.  He hosted one at his apartment and I attended.  Time passed and he started accusing me of betrayal.  In his better moments, Gene told me about his new friend, a woman he met in the neighborhood, a true and generous friend, who offered him intelligent kindness of great quality.  Ultimately, Gene valued what she could offer him and the limits she set on the relationship.  Although, I am sure he vented on her too.  Carole, Mulligan, an extraordinary, polished person, and her son and his family, remained close to Gene after my relationship with him ended. 

Between his accusations, and nasty poems about me,   I insisted that the limits I would set on our contact had to be respected.  Gene offered a few suggestions of things I should do, and suggested a few places to visit.  The friendship was over.  He mailed me back a birthday card/small painting I had made for him in 1978.  I had no idea that he had saved it.  I had hoped to see our friendship through to the finish line.  It was not to be.  He reached that finish line three years later. However, I felt I had seen my commitment through.  I was proud.  I am proud. (I also know that what I did was somewhat foolish too.)  I quieted my few remaining regrets with an increased contribution to Fountain House, a charity with a facility in West 50s devoted to helping people with chronic mental illness. For years and years, Gene looked forward to the Thanksgiving feasts at Fountain House.  They provide valuable care for people with chronic mental illness. 

Honesty Compels an Insertion

I am not a New Age person.  For myself, I am skeptical about Eastern spiritual disciplines.  However, Gene valued the Integral Yoga Institute.  He particularly cared for the late Swami Satchidananda, who offered Gene some individual attention, and the present Swami, Ramananda, who was very generous to Gene.  They and that community offered Gene a place at the table.

To His Memory

I would like to see a small monument erected in the cemetery.  .  . lovely but modest.

More important, I hope that all the people who knew
Gene, in the youthful splendor of his gifts, or through shorter contact in his years of suffering, will devote some energy to breaking down the stigma we all carry to those who endure lives of chronic mental illness.  The intensity of fear each one of us experiences in the presence of mental illness can be moderated.  We can help each other accomplish that.  The stigma can be minimized.  Kindness can be created and nurtured and shared.  That journey begins within each of us.

I hope to participate in the committee. I hope that David Yohay, Carole Mulligan and perhaps Carole’s son too, will be part of the legacy committee. 

Harris Saltzberg