Chapter II • A Bronx Tale
Sweet Success • The Albert Sweet Story
Chapter II • A Bronx Tale
As part of a fundraising campaign initiated to help establish the placement of the Statue of Liberty in New York Harbor, Hebrew Emigrant Aid Society associate Emma Lazarus penned an article titled The New Colossus in 1883. Twenty years later, a plaque etched with the celebrated words excerpted from her article – “Give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses yearning to breathe free” – was attached to the base of the statue. These words have spoken to the hearts of immigrants ever since, and have solidified the vision of America as a safe haven for those denied basic freedoms in their native lands.
During the first quarter of the 20th century, over two million Eastern European Jews came to America in an attempt to escape persecution and experience economic opportunity. Many clustered in the downtown areas of New York where they joined the working class and built strong cultural allegiances. Most spoke Yiddish, some exclusively. And this was certainly true of the Sweet household…
Yiddish was my first language. But English was the language of the streets and the main language you heard outside our house. I went to kindergarten and I guess that’s where I learned English. But I spoke with an accent. Everyone thought I had been born in Europe.
Immigrant families from various parts of the world lined both sides of Vyse Avenue there in the heart of The Bronx. And it was only natural that the children of these families would want to play together, despite the existence of deep cultural and ethnic differences…
There were a lot of immigrant kids. We all got along – especially while in school or playing ball. We all played in the street, which was not very safe. We played stickball and what have you. I had nothing but good experiences in the building we lived in.
There were more than 80 families there, with maybe 25% being Jewish, quite a few Italians, and a few Latinos from Cuba. I was very impressed with the Greek people in the building because they were wonderful cooks. We lived on the 3rd floor and they were on the 1st floor, and they always invited us down to eat. We were very close.
Al enjoyed associating with all of the kids in his neighborhood, regardless of their cultural heritage. To him, it didn’t make a bit of difference what religion or color they were. In fact, when it came to playing ball, Al was even a bit jealous of one friend in particular…
I was always envious of Blacks. There was this guy, Ed Warner, who was a great basketball player and we were good friends. He was real nice. I would always joke that my ambition in life was to be seven feet tall and Black because I was becoming pretty good at basketball.
But associating with Gentile children on a day to day basis did not sit well at all with Al’s mother Rose.
My mother had been emotionally injured growing up in Russia. The little house in the town she came out of was just like the one in Fiddler on the Roof. Periodically the Cossacks would ride in on their horses and pillage and steal, and when you’re young, living under such conditions, you become traumatized. So she became very fearful and very prejudiced.
She didn’t want me to play with or talk to Gentiles, Blacks, or Puerto Ricans. I had two friends who were brothers and they were of German background. And if my mother ever knew that they were German instead of Jewish, it would have been a disaster.
It’s a favorite saying of mine that you learn two things from your parents – how to be, and how not to be. I learned how not to be from her. And I learned how to be from my father.
Al and his father Sam, who was not prejudiced at all, shared a special bond. Indeed, Sam was proud of his son and found him to rarely be in need of any kind of motivation, correction, or discipline…
My father was not strict with me. My father trusted me. We had a wonderful relationship. He didn’t need to be strict. I was a good kid. My mother tried to be strict with me and it didn’t work, because I didn’t trust her. I even told her that. But my father just knew I was a good kid. I would do a lot of things that any father would be proud of.
Being exposed to other cultures occasionally had its downside, especially when it came to religious differences regarding the celebration of holidays…
It looked like with the holidays, especially Christmas, the Gentile kids had a lot more fun than I did. I never said this to my parents, but I didn’t really want to be Jewish.
His desire to jettison his Jewish heritage notwithstanding, Al’s interaction with the other children in his multi-cultural neighborhood would prove to be a largely positive and rewarding experience that he would fondly look back on. There was one incident, however, that was destined to have a thoroughly jarring effect on young Al…
When I was about five or six years old, this kid who was a couple of years older and bigger than me whacked me across the side of the head and called me a Christ killer. So I came home crying. I was hurt, I was afraid, I was angry, and I began praying that he would die.
Then one day I went out into the street and I heard drums beating. And there was this parade going on for some reason. It turned out to be a parade for this kid. It was summer and this kid had been swimming. He had jumped off the diving board, hit his head on the bottom of the pool, and died. And I thought I had killed him.
That same year, the Sweets decided to change locations and move from Vyse Avenue two miles north to 2063 Mapes Avenue – still inside the heart of The Bronx and only a block away from the famed Bronx Zoo. But despite the new surroundings, space was still limited, and Al would have to continue sleeping in the living room.
I never had my own room. I had what was called a daybed. It folded up and went between the piano on one side and the door on the other. That was my job. I got up each morning and made my bed, put it together, and rolled it away.
Meanwhile, the effects of the Great Depression on young Al had made their impression and he began to actively seek out ways to earn money – not only for himself, but also to help with his family’s needs…
I started getting jobs, little jobs. Making money was very important to me. But what can you do at eight or nine years old? The local drugstore had prescriptions. A lot of the people were older and couldn’t climb the stairs. So the prescriptions had to be delivered. And I was the kid that was hustling for those deliveries. I was reliable. If I was told to be there on time, I was there on time. So I got the orders for the prescriptions. I also delivered dry cleaning for tips. I always found ways to make some money.
Everybody had a hard time, even before the Depression. Remember, most of the immigrants that came over had very few skills. There was just this whole culture of people competing for jobs.
I ended up working for a grocery store delivering fruits and vegetables. I hustled the whole neighborhood. No one had to encourage me. I was just looking for opportunities. No one said you gotta do these things. I just did them. As I got a bit older, when I had reached nine or ten, it felt like I was really fifteen because by then, I had already done a lot of things and been exposed to a lot of people with money.
During the final year of high school, we were asked to predict what we thought we were going to do with our lives – and they would print our predictions next to our pictures in the yearbook. Mine simply said “to make good”. That’s what I said. Others said they wanted to be doctors, lawyers, or musicians. Mine was “to make good”. That phrase became ingrained in me.