My real education in New York City came from Barnie Carnal, my then wife’s uncle. Barnie was old left, a member of the Communist Party in the Thirties and Forties. He’d been a labor organizer and co-ordinated the 1948 Henry Wallace campaign in West Virginia. He was blacklisted during the anti-Communist crusade. Barnie and Gretel and their teenage son Robbie lived in a large rent controlled apartment on the upper West side where most New York lefties lived after the war.
Barnie worked from home as a fund raiser for Yeshiva University. The work was one of those made-up jobs for lefties who were otherwise unemployable, but it had turned out to be a real benefit for Yeshiva. Long before the age of computer data processing, Barnie gathered information about the personal habits of everyone who gave money to Yeshiva. By cross referencing the file cards on which he kept this large data base, he could tell you which clubs, which golf partners, which dinner companions a potential donor had with people who had already given to Yeshiva. Current donors could be contacted to put pressure on their golf partners or club members who hadn’t yet contributed.
Barnie was short, wiry, intense, jiggling his leg as he worked at his desk, his energy demanding more space than the New York apartment offered. He delighted in the cleverness of his work for Yeshiva and seemed tolerant of its tedium. In his spare time, Barnie studied Greek, translating Greek works of philosophy with the intention of writing a book on freedom. He drank one two ounce shot of whisky each night, drawing attention to his self-discipline with the righteousness of a former heavy drinker.
What’s missing from this sketch is Barnie’s sense of humor, his constant search for the joke, his amusement at life’s absurdities, his hesitancy to take offense. Barnie’s son, Robbie, came home from school one afternoon, and told his dad he’d heard a joke at school, and he wasn’t sure if it was anti-Semitic or not. He wanted to know what his dad thought.
“Jesus comes back to earth in New York City. He walks into Houlahan’s Bar and he says he’s Jesus Christ, and he asks people to change their sinful ways. Nobody listens to him and the bar tender, escorts Jesus to the door. Jesus gets the same treatment from Guissepe the shoe maker, Kravic the sausage maker and Jarvis the door man. Then he goes into Moshe, the butcher, and he asks, “Do you know who I am?” Moshe looks at him carefully then walks out from behind the counter. “Move back against that wall,” Moshe says. “Put your arms up.” And holding up a hammer and a couple of large nails Moshe proceeds to drive them in the Jesus’ hands, as he murmurs the punch line, ‘You guys never learn.’”
There was very little Barnie took offense at except the avarice of the ruling class. In 2015 we call them the Elites or the Oligarchy. I prefer ruling class, but I’m probably showing my age. Robbie’s story bemused Barnie. He asked us what we thought.
Barnie introduced me to the New York Left scene, people who had made a good run for it, but their run was over. There was no attempt to lead me into party membership or even into left-wing activity, with the exception of the rare peace march or labor demonstration. These lefties, communist or not, were simply wonderful people, like Barnie Josephson, a big bear of a man who had opened the first inter-racial nightclub in the United States. It was 1938 when he opened Café Society in a basement room at 1 Sheridan Square. Later he started Cafe Society Uptown on East 58th Street.
Josephson featured Billie Holiday who sang Strange Fruit every night at the end of her set. Josephson wasn’t a Communist, but his brother had been a party member. New York State took Josephson’s liquor license away when he refused to testify against his brother in one of the communist trials. When I met him, Josephson owned and ran The Eatery (without booze) on the corner of 5th Avenue and 8th Street. Some of his former performers would occasionally come by and do a couple of sets at the eatery.
Barnie Conal had an extensive library of classic left-wing books. I devoured essays and pamphlets by Marx, Engles and Fauerback, the epic novels of Mikhail Sholokhov and Ilya Ehrenburg and plays by Bertold Brecht. I was thrilled to see Lotte Lena as Jenny in the Three Penny Opera, playing at the Christopher Street Theater in the Village. The old left felt like a comfortable community of decent people, committed to helping others..