This is a writing sample by “nycghostwriter,” AKA Barbara Finkelstein. It is “Childhood of a philanthropist,” a ghostwritten memoir for a NYC-based accountant and philanthropist. You can get professional ghostwriting services from a published non-fiction writer. Email me or fill out the short form on my contact page.
My closest friends were the three Wren brothers. They lived in my building at 751 Forest Avenue. Their father and mother both worked for Consolidated Edison. That means they had a steady job and a check coming in every week. They were extraordinarily wealthy for those days.
The brothers were older than me, but they let me go around with them.
Jewish kids were very careful, very studious, very afraid. They wouldn’t do anything. The Wrens weren’t Jewish and they were fun.
They taught me how to steal. I had an army of toy soldiers made out of lead and painted different colors. They were stolen, every single one of them, from the five and ten store. The Wrens told me sneeze, drop your handkerchief and pick up your handkerchief with the toy soldier wrapped up inside.
Ultimately, my mother, who could ill afford it, moved us out of the neighborhood just to break up my relationship with the Wrens. Years later we found out that two of the brothers ended up at Sing Sing.
I was not a full-time crook. I was just street smart. I had to be. We had a small apartment. My parents, five of us kids, and a boarder. That’s eight. The house was crowded. The street had plenty of room for me.
Our first boarder was a German refugee. He made a living by selling eggs. He would candle the eggs to make sure they didn’t have blood spots. Without blood spots they were kosher. He had a whole thing going.
My father hated our next boarder: a communist. He must have been getting Home Relief because when the Welfare Department came around to make their inspection of relief recipients, this man hid his copies of Morgen Freiheit, a communist newspaper for Jews. Oh, my father hated him.
But you didn’t get rid of a boarder just because you hated him. He helped pay the rent. You waited until circumstances in his life changed before you got a new one.
Education was something I sought out myself. I tried to get into Townsend Harris, a four-year high school you did in three years. It was part of City College. But they rejected me because my English grammar wasn’t good enough. I remember I wrote a sentence for this woman, I guess she was an admissions tester, and I used the word “offering” instead of “offing.” She told me I didn’t have control of my vocabulary, I wasn’t particularly good, and so on and so forth. She turned me down.
I ended up going to Stuyvesant High School. I chose it over Bronx Science because I wanted to get away from home.
Money and making money dominated my time at Stuyvesant too. I didn’t participate in clubs or after-school activities. But Stuyvesant did something important for me: It showed me I could compete with the best.
In those days, my sister had a boyfriend who was a chemical engineer. This was in 1942 or 1943. He was 4-F, so he wasn’t going into the army. Didn’t matter. Every engineer was employed. But he contended that the bias against Jews in technical fields was such that you had to work outside New York, so every Sunday he traveled to some place in South Jersey and he would come home on Friday afternoon. I figured I should be a chemical engineer too, but that kind of life was discouraging. I had to think of something else.
My best teacher was the wrestling coach, a man by the name of Thrush, or something like that. Whenever I got into a fight, I took the first blow on the top of my head. I’d bleed and hemorrhage and then surprise my opponent by getting my arms around him. I was pretty good.
The easiest thing to do was to put a chokehold on a guy, the same as the police did to that man on Staten Island in July 2014. Every time I did that, my coach would hit me on the side of the head. I’m sure today he’d get arrested for doing something like that. Finally, I quit the wrestling team. The chokehold was the only way I knew how to wrestle—and it was illegal. But Thrush was a great guy. I could talk to him about a lot of things.
By the time I went to law school at Fordham, I had a system for cutting class and not getting caught. When the semester started, you were assigned a chair. Somebody, a proctor maybe, would walk through and count the open chairs. If your chair was open, you were marked as absent from the class. So, if the class was going to be a bore, I would arrange with somebody to take my chair and park it in another room.
One of my teachers, a woman, figured out that I was cutting classes. She would ask me where I went and what I did, and I’d tell her the truth: I was at the movies. So, she knew and she wouldn’t turn me in, especially as I did okay on my grades.
I always knew my way around.
How I Met Your Mother
I took a job at the accounting firm of Oppenheim, Appel, Dixon & Company.
Arthur Dixon was one of the most brilliant tax people around. Henry Oppenheim inherited a lot of accounts when his boss died, but in his early days he was a good business getter. Every Jew living in New York City knew Ed Appel and his father. They belonged to all the right clubs and knew all the right people. Ed, you wouldn’t trust to add one and one because he certainly wouldn’t come up with three. He was real hail-fellow-well-met and that sort of stuff.
In the final analysis, Ed and I both respected what each other did, but he didn’t like my way and I didn’t like his. He fired me on more than one occasion, and I quit on more than one occasion. It went back and forth like that for years. We were like Steinbrenner and Billy Martin, but the question was: which of us was Steinbrenner? I thought I was. Ed thought he was.
Ed needed a secretary. He had a close friend who recommended Wilma Golden. She had just left the Sheraton Hotel where she was the banquet manager. Working for Ed was supposed to be a temporary job for her. That had nothing to do with me.
She was there about a year when we both had to work late one Friday. I says to her, “Hang around. We’ll have dinner.” So we went out for dinner.
In those days, we would get a dinner allowance of five dollars. When the check came, I said, “Give me your five dollars. I’ll pay the excess.”
She says, “What do you mean?” She refused to pay her five dollars.
What? This was no date. We were just having dinner together.
I had a strict rule: Never have anything to do with the women at the firm. Dating was the way to get into trouble. I forget exactly how, but Will eventually conned me into a real date. I went but I was still mad about the five dollars.
She told her aunt the first day she met me that she was going to marry me.
I was in my thirties and not anxious to get married. I had bad examples. My parents were close, but they were always fighting about money—because they had none. What they had was too many children to take care of. Marriage didn’t seem to me to be the glorious end of anything.
But Will and I started going out together. I must have tried to break it off half a dozen times. I knew this was a serious romance and I didn’t want to get married.
We came from totally different backgrounds. For Yom Kippur, she went to the track at Saratoga. My parents kept kosher and Shabbos and we went to Yonkers. Will grew up in Newburgh, a town where you could count the number of Jews. She knew relatively little about Judaism. As a matter of fact, the first rabbi my father wanted us to use refused to marry us. He didn’t believe she was Jewish. She didn’t look it either.
I give her credit. She is the best thing that ever happened to me. If she hadn’t been aggressive, I never would have been. I have been thankful to her all these years.
Ain’t Got A Barrel of Money
My parents’ marriage was one continuous argument about money.
The trouble began in Poland long before my parents came to America. My father was born in Probuzna, a Polish shtetl under czarist rule. In 1913, when he was twenty-two, he had one goal: Get away from the grabbers.
The grabbers were Russians in the service of the Czar. They would kidnap Jewish boys and coerce them into the Czar’s army. If they caught you, you would be trapped in there twenty, twenty-five years. Long enough to forget you were ever a Jew.
My father decided he had to escape to America. He made the trip in an ocean liner; steerage, like most other Jews. He came without money, documents, or English.
He ended up living in the Bronx. One day he got a letter from his father telling him not to marry anybody because Sophie was coming. Sophie was from a shtetl nearby called Husyatin. I don’t know how their families knew each other. I can only say that if my father was like me, he would never do anything to shame his father. Sophie arrived and soon after they got married.
Their life in Poland was grim. Their life in America was impoverished.
If my mother worked, I don’t know. She was an intelligent woman, but in those days, more so in the Jewish community than outside, women were restricted to their role. Between 1920 and 1931, she had five kids to deal with. And none of us were easy.
My father started his working life in a cousin’s fur business. He tried his hand at making linings for fur coats. It was all piecework and he couldn’t sew them fast enough to make any real money.
Later on he made a living as a tailor in a very good dress shop. He had a partner who was very fast. My father would go over his partner’s work and correct the mistakes. When it came to dividing up their profits, they had some kind of sharing arrangement.
My father hated being a tailor. After a long day at work, he was determined to get some education. He took courses at Morris High School and learned how to speak and write in English very well. To each other, my parents spoke Polish, or goyish, as we called it. For himself, my father preferred English. He could probably count on two hands the number of times he had a long conversation in Yiddish.
Under better circumstances, my father would have been a doctor. That’s what he wanted for himself.
When I came along in 1925, earning a living was still a big problem. There was so little money, my mother didn’t have enough to buy chicken for Shabbos.
One of my early memories is of my older brother Harry. He got a job delivering The Bronx Home News. Whatever money he made he threw into the house.
The papers were heavy and a lot of the guys would hire kids to help deliver them. One of them hired me. It was the first money I ever made. I was eight.
All of the buildings in the Bronx back then were five stories high. No elevators. You didn’t need a key to get to the roof, so what I would do is take enough papers for two buildings. I’d start my deliveries in the first one from the ground floor and go to the top, and then I’d cross over on the roof to the second one and work my way down. A lot of the little kids didn’t do that.
The YMHA felt bad that kids like me were out earning money instead of being kids, so for a couple of summers my parents sent me to one of the Y’s Eddie Cantor Camps. It was free. I fractured my arm every summer I went. Eventually, I refused to go back.
My mother or father, I don’t remember which, got me my second job with a neighborhood family, the Millers. These people had a row of fruit stands on a little street between Union Avenue and Prospect Avenue near 161st Street. I don’t know anything like that street today. It was very segregated. From 161st to 163rd was all black. Blacks stayed on their streets, Whites stayed on theirs. And in this mix the Millers ran their fruit stands. I might have been ten.
The Millers taught me some great tricks, like how to make a sale. Say they were selling three cantaloupes for twenty cents. I would take those three cantaloupes and start putting them in the bag, but I’d drop the first one. Instead of picking it up, I picked up one of the soft ones we couldn’t get rid of. I was very good at that.
Before welfare, there was a system called Home Relief. I have a theory my father felt there were people more needy than he was and he just wouldn’t take it. He used to gather money from here, there, and everywhere to send to his shtetl. We always had stacks of envelopes in our home that were meant for Poland.
One time Home Relief introduced a program that distributed excess food to people whose income was below a certain level. You had to shop at this particular store on Jerome Avenue way up in the 170s, 180s. My mother wanted to go up there, but she couldn’t tell my father because he would have been opposed to her going. So she had me go with her. We came home with two baskets of fruit.
But it bothered my mother that she was deceiving her husband. That’s the one and only time she ever made that trip.
Times were bad. I was unhappy. I did not like to see my parents struggle. They were good people. They shouldn’t have had to struggle so much. So hard.
In my early life and for a long time afterwards, what influenced me more than anything else was the lack of money. I remember that I had two very close friends at Hebrew School. Henry Colter and Fred Tessler. At Passover time, we would deliver Passover orders. We would share tips. One time we got into a fight about a quarter. Henry and Fred felt they earned part of that quarter. Don’t ask me about the details. All I know is that that argument over the quarter was the end of my friendship with them. That’s how important money was to them. And to me.