On Incentives

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Writings & Speeches



I was born in Philadelphia, January 19, 1930. My father, Irving, was a lawyer. My mother’s name was Blanche. She never worked. My first home, a row house, was on “F” Street. My earliest recollection was when I was five years old. I was sitting on a stone step with Bobby Newton, my best friend then. We wondered whether we would remember each other when we were eighty years old.  We made an agreement that we would remember our conversation on the steps about whether we would remember each other when we were in our eighties. I said I would remember. I have.

We hardly had any money in the early/mid-1930s. Our next-door neighbor needed to borrow a quarter to put into the gas meter for heat. We didn’t have it. I also remember how embarrassed I was when I over-heard the Metropolitan Life Insurance agent on the pay phone at the corner drugstore telling his manager it was the second week in a row that we didn’t have the $1 weekly payment for my college fund.

But I didn’t think we were “poor” or deprived. After all, my father was a lawyer.

One day I was playing outside and hit a baseball which broke the window of Bill Hockfueld’s house. We didn’t have the money to fix it. My father bought the glass and the putty and fixed the window. The whole neighborhood was watching. I was ashamed.

I remember my parents crying in their bedroom after an election for Governor of Pennsylvania. The reason was my father always had a political patronage job because he was a precinct leader. That meant he could turn out 700 Democrats out of 800 voters or 700 Republicans depending on which party offered him the best job at City Hall or in Harrisburg in return. Anyway, his party lost that election, and he lost his job – the only source of our income – the next day.

My father only had one corporate client, Augustine Brothers, a construction company. He had a retainer of $1,000 a year. He also worked for Herman Ozleck, a tool and die company. Ozleck helped us a lot during the depression of the 30s. My father’s first fee as a lawyer was from one of the Ozleck brothers. As a fee, one of the Ozlecks made a beautiful inlaid, tall wooden lamp which is now in our living room. My father went to the Ozlecks’ factory two or three times a week. Mostly, my father had only poor clients: torts, workmen’s comp claims, divorce cases, people falling on cracked sidewalks. Otherwise, he had political jobs in the smelly City Hall in Philadelphia or in Harrisburg.

My mother supplemented the family income by letting a neighbor use our family telephone by calling in “numbers” – an illegal lottery.

Telephone lines were shared – then called party lines. So, when you picked up the phone, someone else might be talking.

In the forties, things got better. My father got a huge fee, about $2,000 in a negligence case. My mother bought a mink coat!

My mother was always sick. My strongest recollections were ambulances coming to our house when my mother had either a heart attack or a stroke to take her to a hospital. I remember my mother lying on the kitchen floor – my father trying to revive her – Blanche, Blanche. I remember visiting her in the hospital many times. My father, years later, told me she had over sixty hospitalizations. She did not have an easy time of it. To this day, I have no idea whether they were heart attacks or paralytic strokes or psychosomatic/hysterical reactions. I remember when we built our house on Brickyard Road, my father was concerned that the driveway was too narrow “in case the ambulances had to get in.”

My father was constantly giving speeches against Nazism, domestic and in Germany, and the persecution of Jews; he spoke for hours in the 1930s and 40s on street corners, synagogues, churches. I still have those speeches, very powerful. He was an orator of the old school – rhetorical, patriotic, oratorical – like in the 18th century. That is the technique he taught me. Many years later I changed after coming in last in a public speaking contest. The judge said to me, “where on earth did you learn to orate like that?” It wasn’t a compliment. My Dad also wrote short stories, funny poems, plays, often in dialect. And he did portraits and cartoons by the score, usually in ink or colored pencil. I still have them.

On my mother’s side of the family, my grandfather and grandmother had been very rich. My grandfather had built many houses financed through Savings and Loan Associations he owned in northeast Philadelphia. Levick Street was named for my mother’s maiden name. She had fur coats and jewels in the 1920s. Then in 1928 the banks collapsed and my grandfather went bankrupt. It happened during my parents’ honeymoon. My father rushed back to Philadelphia. My grandfather soon opened a “candy store” on Montour Street and sold candy, ice cream, cigarettes, sodas, magazines, tobacco. I used to love to go there on the way to and from Creighton Elementary school with my friends. I unpacked all the comic books and read them all. The store also had a pinball machine. Every Sunday morning, my grandfather would leave bagels, lox, sliced corned beef, cream cheese at our back door on F Street and later on Whitaker Avenue for Sunday breakfast. My grandfather in the 1920s also owned some “vaudeville” houses. He would tell stories about Houdini and other magicians. My grandparents lived in an apartment above the candy store.

Across the street from my grandfather’s candy store was a baseball field. Every Sunday a semi-pro team would play another team. One day when one of the teams did not show up, they asked for a volunteer team of the fathers in the neighborhood. My father was one of them. I remember having a blackberry ice cream cone from my grandfather’s store lying on my stomach in the far outfield waiting for my father to come to bat. I was very nervous. I can still taste the blackberry ice cream. I haven’t been able to eat it since. Too sour.

On Friday nights, at least once a month, my father and I would visit “Aus” Meehan – the political boss of the 35th ward in Philadelphia. He was huge, bald, smoked cigars. He gave out the political jobs. About twenty men would hang around him as if he were king – nodding their heads. I would sit on a stool – a ten-year old boy who was being introduced to the “boss.” I later found out why. When I went to Temple years later, I had a “political’ scholarship of $200 a year given by the State of Pennsylvania to “deserving” boys.  The tuition at Temple was $200!

My father was very active in the Jewish War Veterans. He was National Judge Advocate and National Vice Commander. He believed it was very important for Jews to serve in the military. He had served for 59 days in the First World War.

Milk was delivered every morning by horse and cart. In cold weather, there was cream on top. Every week a “Rag Man” would come through our back alley yelling, “rags for sale….Raaags for Sale.” Who was buying rags; I never knew. 

Our house was heated with coal which came down a chute into our cellar. My father then shoveled it into a large furnace. I helped my father take out the ashes in a basket every few days. Later, in the 1940s, we converted to oil.

When I was seven years old, my parents couldn’t make the payment on the mortgage for our house on F Street. Somehow my father got a lower cost for a row house on Whitaker Avenue –four blocks away – where we lived until I finished high school. On the day that we moved and I was beaten up by the kids in our new neighborhood, I remember lying in bed with parents hovering over me and Dr. Schless who said I would be fine. I later played stick ball and two-hand touch football on Whitaker Avenue with the guys who beat me up!

On Saturdays we would visit my father’s parents – the Rotbergs, who came to the U.S. around 1890 from Ukraine, and the Old Age Home – the “Moishe Zekanium,” which my grandfather founded in 1900. It was horrible, awful and smelly. You would see these dying Jewish men and women in their 90s lying in filthy beds alone – no family, no nurses or doctors – in awful conditions at the home. My grandfather’s house – a few blocks away - was not much better. (Now the neighborhood is gentrified and the Old Age Home is in a suburban neighborhood and very elegant and spiffy. It is called the Uptown Home for the Aged.) Later in the day we would go to my Uncle Sam’s – my father’s brother. He was a pharmacist in downtown Philadelphia. His wife, Aunt Sadie, would make us tuna fish and onion sandwiches which I hated but was too embarrassed to say. Their children, Bob, Sydney, and Bernice, are my first cousins.

Passover was a big deal at our house. Every Spring we would take our two sets of dishes – one for meat, one for dairy – and pack them up in cardboard boxes and put them in the cellar for the week. During Passover week we would use two other sets of dishes – one meat and one dairy – which had been stored in our basement to be used for the eight days of Passover. Passover Service was always held at my grandfather’s, my father’s father. Neither he nor my grandmother spoke any English. It was a very long Passover Service in Hebrew. I didn’t understand a word. After the service and food, we would listen to old records of Caruso on a wind-up machine. The black chair in our living room came from my grandparents’ house.

I had an old Hebrew teacher who came to our house a few times each week. He had a long, gray beard and taught me Hebrew. I was six, seven years old. Later, after elementary school, when I was ten to thirteen years old, I went to the local synagogue two or three days a week for Hebrew School. I didn’t understand a word I was reading. After my Bar Mitzvah I wrapped “Tefillin” around my head for about a year. I was well on my way to becoming an atheist.

One day, I remember calling my Aunt Vivian an Old Maid. I was eight. She was born in 1913 and she wasn’t married. I was sent to bed upstairs without dinner. I remember slowly sitting on the top steps leading to our second floor and slowly coming down one step at a time on my backside. It took a half hour. My parents ignored me. When I reached the bottom, they asked me to apologize to Aunt Vivian. I would not. 

One day I got in an argument with my brother, Jay. I threw a screwdriver at him. It flew over his head, fortunately, but it broke a huge glass mirror on the wall. Generally, my brother, Jay, was treated badly. Even the teachers used to compare my grades to his and compared publicly his grades to mine. My parents used to call him flat-face – all very unfair. I was three and a half years older and got most of the attention. Jay survived and got a Ph.D. He taught at the University of Miami for many years, still plays basketball in his eighties and is a fine sculptor.

My grandfather on my mother’s side – the one with the candy store, had eleven siblings. Nine of them were in Philadelphia. About twenty cousins would get together every few months at our row house on Whitaker Avenue to exchange and buy odds and ends from each other – hats, shoes, handbags, perfume, dresses, etc. The women played Mah Jong.

One day when I was about nine or ten, I was taking care of my brother, Jay. I called for him. He ran across the street and was hit by a car. He rolled under the car and miraculously was hardly hurt. I was terrified and ran home, leaving Jay in the street.

I had pretty bad headaches every month. I was told it was a sugar deficiency. I would go to sleep on a couch for a couple of hours to get rid of them.

I had a recurring dream which started when I was very young and continued into young adulthood. I dreamed I lived in a house with large windows looking down a deep forested ravine. There were wild animals there which came out at night: lions, scary beasts, hippos, wild dogs, very scary. The second dream, which started much later, was about my Aunt Vivian’s house (she had by then married an antique dealer). I visited her huge house in the dream. I climbed up the stairs, each room getting larger and larger, unoccupied. Finally, at the very top, I went outside on a balcony, and down below was a huge ravine with meadows and beautiful gardens as far as one could see. Sometimes I went down to the meadow and looked back up to the house on the hill. I wished I could live in a house like that.

I had two dogs, Duchess and Lucky. They both were hit by cars about a year apart and were killed. Lucky lay dead in the street and someone took chalk and drew a box around him and wrote, “Lucky wasn’t so lucky.”

There were no supermarkets. There was a fish store, dentist, drug store, fruit store, butcher store, candy store. I did most of the shopping.

The grocery store man was uneducated and could only speak Yiddish. He would write down the costs of purchases on brown wrapping paper. Then, with amazing speed, he would add up the costs in Yiddish – fere and tswonsik, sibitseen -- ….. I was amazed at how he could do that – add up in less than two seconds twenty items – even though he never went to school!

Starting when I was twelve years old, in 1942, there were black-out curtains in case there was an air raid. I used to go over to the Dentist’s house because he had a niece named Arlene Parness, and we did a little necking in the dark. I looked forward to the air raid. Black-out curtains

Our neighbors were 2/3 Jewish, 1/3 Christian. No blacks or Asians. My elementary school was all white. So were the teachers. All women.

I can tell lots of stories about my mother and how she would embarrass me. For example, she would yell out when I was playing touch football outside, “Euuuugene, Euuuugene,” at the top of her lungs. Very embarrassing. Everyone would say, “Huey (that’s what they called me), your mother is calling you.” Later, when I was in high school and even in college she embarrassed me more. One time, when I was in law school, I was with my fellow students and met my mother. For no reason, she slapped me very hard across my face and said to my friends, “that’s just to show him that I am his mother and can do what I want to him, even though he thinks he is a big deal because he is in law school.” My mom had lots of problems.


My Aunt Vivian took me to my first day at kindergarten at Creighton Elementary when I was five years old. My mom said she was too sick to take me. We played with large wooden blocks and made a boat. Joe Bonomo was the captain. I had to walk a mile to school. There were no buses. Sometimes there were snowstorms. I wrapped my feet and legs in rags and dirty clothes so my feet wouldn’t get wet. Sometimes there was a pretzel man, named Gino, outside the school.

I was known as the class sissy – a goody, goody. So, the teacher in charge of Safety Patrol would not let me be on Safety Patrol where kids were stationed at every corner at the streets leading up to the school. My parents wrote a letter complaining. The compromise was I was allowed to be a Safety Patrol inside the school to make sure kids didn’t run up and down the steps.

I used to recite and write a lot of poetry at the school, very emotional, patriotic stuff: “Where are you going, young fellow, my lad”…and “The Hill of El Guitar.” Or, “A poem I tried to write and tried and tried with all my might”…I also gave a lot of speeches that my father wrote for me. I took elocution lessons after school, privately, which taught me how to do Spanish, Scottish, Italian, British dialects and radio announcing when I was nine or ten years old. Public speaking and debate was a major part of my life from a very early age until very recently. You may want to see my website, www.generotberg.com, password: verdi, and then “Letters in Response to Speeches.” I gave the graduation speech at my elementary and my high school. My father wrote both of them. I still have the high school speech. After I gave it, walking down the aisle, my father said to me –“Great speech – terrible delivery; but he loved me very much. Now, many decades later, I have panic attacks before I make a speech. The attacks started about five years ago. Before that, I had no anxiety, no nervousness and loved public speech and debate. No more speeches.

At elementary school, Sheldon Rappaport was my best friend. I started with him in kindergarten. He lived two blocks away. His father was a “socialist.” I went to high school, college, law school, the SEC and the World Bank with Sheldon. Sheldon was a great public speaker, actor and debater. When he was eight years old, he was scheduled to be Christopher Columbus in a school play. He never showed up. In fact, he did not show up for three more years. He had rheumatic fever which severely damaged his heart. I took his homework to him every day for three years. He went back in eighth grade and graduated number two in the class.

Every morning the school had “Auditorium” where we marched into the auditorium to a Souza march. On the front wall, there was a very large copy of a painting called, “The Girl at the Fountain.” I looked at this painting every day for eight years. Many decades later, to my surprise and with tears in my eyes, I saw the original painting, by Bonat, at the Metropolitan Art Museum in New York. My teachers at Creighton were: Miss Levice, Miss Gray, Reese, Nieman, (the one who kept me off Safety Patrol), Hazeldine, and I believe Miss Garland in the eighth grade.. Miss Moran was the high school principal. I was terrible at gym, exercise, ropes, parallel bars, push-ups. (I never saw my friends of eight years at elementary school after graduation other than Sheldon and Ralph Reeder because only we three went to a “magnet” all boys’ school – Central – where my father had gone years before.)

When I was thirteen, I graduated elementary school. The girls gave the boys “knockers” and vice versa. So, they gave the vainest boy a comb, they gave the best student a book; the best looking – a mirror. They gave me a dress. The girl who did it was named Renee Feldman; she wrote, “To Gene – who really is one of us!” That was recited at the school graduation. Her phone number was Davenport 4-2468. Her friend was Elaine Targonski.

I took clarinet lessons for a few months, but I never practiced and was falling behind.  My teacher thought I was hopeless. So I quit. My father was very upset because he had contracted for a much longer period. He said only because he knew the lawyer who represented the teacher did they waive the full payment.

During Christmas, we would sing Christmas carols at elementary school. When the carols got to sentences like “Christ our Lord our Savior,” the Jewish kids would mouth the words. They were scared of saying “Christ,” but nobody complained.

After School

I started modelling when I was twelve years old: Coca Cola, Blauners Department Store, short story illustrations, magazines. I used to wear formal hats and smoked a pipe in my early teens. I remember at six years old sitting on the back steps with Wilma Gordon playing with each other. Naughty. Naughty. Her mother saw us!

I wasn’t permitted to go to the wooded “dump” at the end of Whitaker Avenue. I did once and was spanked. That dump no longer exists as Whittaker Avenue has been extended to connect with the other side of the dump.

In the summers, we went to Atlantic City. Our family took one-bedroom in a group house. There was a communal kitchen shared by eight families. My father came on the weekends. Everybody dressed up and were pushed along the boardwalk, in “carriages,” by African-American men.

We had no car or bike. I never learned to ride a bicycle or swim or ski or fish. I had a sled and roller skates. I never went to a museum or “show” – until I was in my later teens. I never went to camp. I used to meet my father at the bus when he came home from work. I walked to the movies—The Felton. That cost 11 cents. Ice cream was 3 cents.

My main home entertainment was the radio. In the afternoons, I listened to soaps like “Stella Dallas” and “Our Gal Sunday.” In the evenings I anxiously awaited the exploits of “The Lone Ranger,” “Fibber McGhee and Molly,” “The Green Hornet,” “The Goldbergs,” and on the weekends, “Jack Benny” and “Burns and Allen.” For news, I was glued to “Walter Winchell” and H.V. Kaltenborn. I learned to imitate their style which I duly emoted on stage in elementary school.

One morning, when I was seven or eight, I remember washing my face, the water running in the upstairs bathroom. The news on the radio reported the Japanese had just occupied a city in China (Shanghai, Nanjing?), had shut off the water supply, and children were dying of thirst. I felt terrible that I was wasting all that water at the same time thousands were suffering because they had none. Eighty years later, when I see water running, I often think of that news broadcast.

I remember when Roosevelt died. I heard about it while playing basketball in a back alley. I walked home crying. I remember Pearl Harbor. I was listening to an Eagles/Redskins game.

I sold shoes at Block’s Cancellation Shoe Store. I loved selling shoes. I got used to talking with total strangers, women mostly. Years later, I told a reporter that selling shoes was a lot like selling bonds: you had to make sure the price was right; that it fit the needs of the consumer; that there was no risk that it would fall apart; etc. Al Block put the article up in the front window of his store. I worked for him on Friday nights and Saturdays from the time I was fourteen years old until law school. I listened to opera every Saturday afternoon at the store. I also worked, starting when I was fourteen, as an “office boy” after school, three days a week, running errands, filing papers, doing stock room work (40 cents an hour) at  Peoples Bond and Mortgage in downtown Philadelphia.

I built model airplanes. I still can remember the glue, colored tissue paper, and the balsa wood.

My father wrote short stories, even in his nineties, which I have, about his childhood.. These stories also will give you a good picture of the lower middle class immigrant environment in the early years of the 20th Century.