Citizen of the Month

the writing and photography of Neil Kramer

Tag: childhood

Re-Remembering the “Juice” Story

I was watching a documentary on Helen of Troy last night, and the narrator reminded the viewer that much of what we know about the famous beauty comes from Homer’s Illiad, even though he wrote it four hundred years after her death.   By then, many of the details were forgotten, or changed with the morality of the time.

During the Bronze Age of the Trojan War, warriors fought in chariots, but by Homer’s era, it was considered unmanly.  Hand to hand combat was the norm, so the heroes of the Illiad fight on foot. The famous vivid battles in Homer’s Illiad are from a Trojan War re-imagined for a later time, much like Hollywood dressed up Charlton Heston as a twentieth century Moses.  We are always changing our visions of our heroes according to our needs.   Look at the many portrayals of Jesus throughout the ages – from wordly to godly, from emaciated to a long-haired hippy, from a black man to a white one.

Our personal memories are our own stories, and like Homer, we are just as eager to revise, edit, and mythologize as we grow older.   In order to live happy lives, we often emphasize the positive moments of our lives and forget the painful.

I recently found a box with some cassette tapes from my childhood. I had no idea they existed.  One cassette tape was particularly intriguing. It is from my first year at sleepaway camp. I am about seven or eight. It is visiting day, halfway through the summer in the Catskills, and my over-the-top father is interviewing me on his cassette recorder, as if he is Edward R. Murrow interviewing Eisenhower on the field of battle.

The cassette tape is very surreal, so I won’t play it all for you, but there is one section that shook me up, and I’d like to share it with you.

First, some background.

A few months ago, I wrote a post on the TueNight site titled, “Hey, it’s Juice! How My Camp Nickname Gave Me Confidence.” It’s about how I received a camp nickname that lasted for many years.   I always considered it a special part of my identity because it made me unique, and gave me confidence when I was young.  I even thought it gave me some sort of superpower.  The story of how I got my nickname “Juice” is one that I have told often throughout my life.

Here is the full post, originally published on TueNight on April 23, 2015.

When I was eight years old, I attended my first year of Camp Kinder-Ring, a sleepaway camp in upstate New York. Our first breakfast of the summer was served in a wood-framed dining room, where bunkmates sat together at large oval tables. The waiters, 16-year-old campers, served us soggy scrabbled eggs and individual boxes of Kellogg’s cereals, my favorite being Sugar Pops. In the center of each table was an aqua blue plastic pitcher which held the watered-down orange juice.

“Can you pass the juith?” I asked another bunk member.

“The juith?” he asked, and the rest of the table laughed at my slight lisp. “Do you mean the JUICE?”

Now I know some of you are already gripping your easy chair, preparing for an unsettling Lord of the Flies-type essay about mean boys and the bullying of the weak, but that is not the story here. I was lucky that the story veered off course into one of empowerment. Within a week of the incident, no one remembered WHY I was called Juice; it was just my nickname. When I returned the following summer, the lisp gone, I was still “Juice,” and for the next eight summers that I attended this camp, even when I finally became one of the waiters who served soggy scramble eggs to the other campers, the name remained.

The nickname gave me a special identity, despite its origins. It was my first experience of having an alias, much like Clark Kent had his Superman. During the winter, I was a goody-two-shoes, Citizen of the Month, grade-A student named Neil, but in the summer, I put on my shorts and tube socks, and became Juice. Yes, my mother still sewed my real name into a label attached to my underwear, but during the summer, I was only known by my camp name.

In many traditions, the naming of the child is an important statement, because tradition believes that it molds the child’s personality. My parents named me Neil. It was an OK name, but uninspiring. For every Neil Armstrong stepping on the moon, there was a Neil Sedaka or Neil Diamond singing sappy pop songs about love. To me, Neil was a nice Jewish boy who listens to his parents and teachers, and doesn’t smoke pot or drink beer.

But during the summer, I became Juice.

Juice, to me, meant energy, a spark, like currents of electricity. On paper, my personality didn’t change much from winter to summer. I was still a goody-two-shoes who was awful at sports, but my nickname transformed the perception of myself. Neil wouldn’t play football, go sailing, or build a tent, but Juice would. Neil wouldn’t take chances, but Juice might try pot or kiss a girl. Neil inhibited me, bounding me to responsibility of city life, while Juice freed me to be as wild as nature (within limits, of course). At school, I was invisible. At camp, everyone knew my name. Gradually, I learned to integrate some of this “Juice” into my “Neil” world, and learned that our personalities can be fluid. My nickname was my introduction into adulthood, and the complexities of identity.

I was lucky. My nickname, based on a lisp, transformed me in a positive way. Some children are not as lucky. A name like “Fatty” or “Freckles” can torment a person for a lifetime. Whether for good or bad, names ARE always powerful.

I use my full name “Neil Kramer” on my blog and in social media. I have friends who only use aliases, which helps them express their hidden personalities, away from their families and workmates. The anonymity of the internet is a problem culturally, because it tends to lead to abuse and bullying, but for many, an alias allows someone who is normally a Clark Kent to find their Superman.

Last summer, I traveled to upstate New York to attend a reunion of friends from my sleepaway camp. I was nervous while driving up the Taconic because I hadn’t seen some of these people in 30 years!

I rang the doorbell.

“Hey, it’s Juice!” said one of my long-lost bunkmates.

Neil is the name my parents gave me at birth, but ever since that breakfast in that camp dining room when I asked to “pass the juith,” I have also been Juice. I have two names, and I wouldn’t be the same today without both of them.

You can imagine my shock when, a few months after writing this post, I hear my father ask me about my new nickname.   My mouth flew open.   I was confronting my own personal history.  The “Juice” story was coming alive.   At the time of the recording, the nickname was brand new, and now here  was my voice, reappearing — dozens of years later – – like a surprise witness at my own court case, about to corroborate the story I had just published!

But the truly shocking part is the sound of my voice. It wavers. It creaks. This is not a child who feels like a superhero, confident with a brash new nickname.  He sounds like an insecure kid about to cry.

What happened to the story that I have been telling forever, where I was instantly energized by my new name?  Was the nickname hurtful at first, and I never acknowledged it ?

In the retelling of my tale, why do I always distinguish my cool nickname from those like “Fatty” or “Four Eyes?”   Yes, my camp nickname eventually became a positive one,  but how long did it take?  At what point did I  rewrite my own narrative, erasing the discomfort of the beginning?  And would I have gone to my last days believing every detail of this story if I didn’t stumble onto this cassette tape?

“Remembrance of things past is not necessarily the remembrance of things as they were.” – Marcel Proust

small excerpt of audio —

How I Became a Writer as a Fifth Grader

When I was attending elementary school, my neighborhood in Queens was going through “changes,” which was a code word for the “welfare housing” that opened down the block. There was constant talk of drugs and violence in school, and those who could afford it, started sending their kids to private schools. In order to keep the “good kids” at the public schools, local schools started academically advanced classes, where kids like me were pushed, isolated from the drug pushers in the classes down the hall. While this didn’t prevent my friends from being called “honkys” or “Oreos” at the basketball court, at least we received a decent education during school hours.

While I remember my teachers as being a hundred years old, they were probably thirty. Most of them were into the philosophy of education, having gone to teacher’s college, and were interested in “opening up” the educational experience for a new generation, especially for “advanced kids” like us.

I have no recollection how this all started, but somewhere in the third or fourth grade, our teachers allowed us to present our English and Social Studies reports orally – and in small groups working together. We were also allowed to bring objects, photos, even music that might enhance our oral reports, giving the reports a feeling of a multi-media presentation. These teachers were ahead of their time understanding the next generation – maybe the arrival of Sesame Street had made them appreciate the importance of visual stimulation to capture a young person’s mind.

This is where I became a writer.

I had no interest in personal expression. Much like I started blogging for the practical reason of flirting with mommybloggers, my goal in school was to use writing to create a entertaining smoke screen.  The problem needing solving: five of us had to do a joint report on some dull, serious topic (remember – we actually had to go to a library and do research back then!)   So, being an advanced student, I quickly realized that if I wrote some entertaining script that had nothing really to do with the subject — but captured the teacher’s imagination – we could sing and dance our way to an A+, and the teacher would never notice that we copied the reports out of the World Book the night before.

A tradition was born. For several years, I was the king of the “sharings.” These stories – done during our oral presentations, were more like one-act plays, usually movie parodies (I was into Mad Magazine) – and as time went on, they became increasingly elaborate, spectacles as complicated as the Beijing Olympics Opening Ceremonies.  These plays had songs and dancing and even “shootings” happening in the middle of the classroom.   I cannot believe that any teacher would let an elementary school kid do this today.  The school system would get sued by a parent.   Maybe, at the time I was there, the local public school was so happy to have any students that weren’t drug dealers, that they just let us do whatever the hell we wanted.

These sharings always took place in some imaginary locale created right in the classroom — there were scenes in discos and Vietnam.   My friend Rob and I once dressed up like Minutemen in Boston for a sharing on “The American Revolution,” tap-dancing while singing “Muskets and Defense” to the tune of ‘”Jingle Bells.”

This tradition continued up to high school, until it was time to study for the SAT — then all of a sudden everything got serious. At Columbia, writing term papers were a bore. You were never allowed to sing and dance while handing in the paper, even when it was for a dramatist like Shakespeare, who would have appreciated the effort.  Instead of having fun doing sharings, I sat by myself in the library and made up bullshitty “psychological literary analysis” stuff about Edmund Spenser’s sixteenth century snooze-fest “The Faerie Queen” instead.

These early dramatic works of mine were thought lost for the ages, but through some miracle, my father looked down on me this weekend from heaven and whispered in my ear, “Look in the back of my closet.” Hidden behind a slide projector was a folder which contained nostalgic stuff from my elementary school years that we hadn’t noticed before, including all of my famed elementary school “Citizen of the Month” certificates. Also included in the file was a five page “script” for one of these elementary school sharings.

I really don’t remember too many of the details about this sharing, but from looking at the “cast list,” I assume this is from the fifth grade. Our assignment apparently was to research totalitarian regimes of the Twentieth Century (pretty heavy for fifth grade!)  And what better way to explore this important historical and political theme of the horrors of the Twentieth Century than a light-hearted movie “parody” of the 1970’s classic movie “The Sting?!”

I won’t feel bad if you don’t read script. I was in fifth grade at the time. I’m mostly publishing it for my childhood friend Rob, who played the Paul Newman role. He should get a kick out of this. When I first discovered the script I was excited.  At last, I had proof of my genius.  Why was some dopey Hollywood producer telling me that my script doesn’t work yet.  Who the f**k is he?!  Doesn’t he know who I am?  I am like Mozart – I was writing brilliant scripts in the fifth grade.

But then, I read the script. Ooh boy, it is awful… and it makes no sense at all. NONE. How in the world did our teachers let us get away with this crap?!

Note: In the movie, the Paul Newman character is named Henry Gondorff. For some reason, I name him “Alfred Dreyfus,” the French Jewish artillery officer tried and convicted in 1894 on baseless charges of treason. Why? I have NO IDEA!

The following is copied verbatim:

The Sting 2

Johnny Hooker – Neil
Alfred Dreyfus – Rob
Alexander Slavsky (the Communist leader) – James
Snyder – Scott
Harold Mane (Snyder’s assistant) – Bobby

Music from “The Sting.”

Hooker runs in breathless.

Hooker:  They killed Luther, my best friend, the person who taught me how to be a con artist. That STUPID Communist organization. (to you) Hi, I’m Johnny Hooker. The place takes place during the Deppression. The Communists have all the money, especially the Communist organization that killed Luther. AND I’m going to get them back, but How? I’m going to put on the biggest con and get all their money. I’ll need a pro to teach me how, but who? I remember Luther once told me about someone, Alfred Dreyfus. I’ll go to him!

Exit. Carnival music. Hooker and Dreyfus enter.

Hooker:  So this is your hideout, a fun house, no one would look here.

Dreyfus:  It is a good hideout. Now, Hooker, you didn’t come here for a friendly visit, why did you come?

Hooker:  Well, you know Luther was killed by the Communists, I’m going to get them back by putting on such a big con that I’ll get all their money. I want you to teach me the big con.

Dreyfus:  Well, first you have to go to the Communist organization… (makes believe he’s still talking to Hooker as they walk out)

Hooker enters.

Hooker:  Now, I’m suspose to go to the Communist organization. Uh-oh, there’s Snyder and his assistant, Harold Mane!

Snyder catches Hooker, pushes him to the wall and bangs his head.

Manes:  We got you now, you can’t escape.

Hooker punches Snyder in the stomach and then the neck and runs out.  Hooker enters again.

Hooker:  So this is the Communist organization!

Slavsky enters.

Slavsky: You wanted me.

Hooker: Who are you?

Slavsky: I’m Alexander Slavsky, head of this organization.

Hooker:  My name is Johnny Hooker and I want to join your organization. I also want to get rid of someone.

Slavsky:  Who?

Hooker:  Alfred Dreyfus.

Slavsky: Any member of our organization can apply for someone to be killed. But how would you like him to be killed?

Hooker: Any way.

Slavsky: Oh, wait a minute, we’re having a Communist meeting today, will decide there.

Hooker: Wait, Dreyfus is just outside. He thinks I’m getting a drink of water. We better capture him.

Slavsky exits and enters with Dreyfus.

Dreyfus: Get off of me!

As Dreyfus goes in, he picks nose to Hooker. Hooker does back. They all sit. Snyder and Manes come and sit.

Hooker: Snyder and Manes, your Communists!

Snyder: We joined to apply to kill you, Hooker.

Manes: Let’s kill Hooker now!

Slavsky: One killing at a time. First, the Dreyfus case. Now for the question “how to kill him.” I say put him in a concentration camp, the Nazi Germany way!

Snyder: I agree!

Manes: Why don’t you kill him the Cuban or Spanish way!

Hooker: Put him in a labor camp, the Russian way!

Dreyfus: Why don’t you just give me hard labor like the Chinese?

Slavsky: I have an idea. Each person will tell about their punishment and then will choose. First me and Snyder will tell about ours.

(Nazi Germany report)

Manes: I’ll tell about my punishment.

(Cuba and Spain report)

Hooker: I’ll go next.

(Soviet Union report)

Dreyfus: Could a prisoner tell about a punishment?

Slavsky: You could, but it will probably not be used because it’s the prisoner’s choice.

(China report)

Snyder: Okay. Hands up everyone! I know that Dreyfus and Hooker are putting on a con. Hooker, you have to leave, thanks for telling!

Dreyfus: You squealed!

Dreyfus shoots Hooker. Manes shoots Dreyfus.

Snyder: Okay, let’s go Slavsky!

Slavsky: But my money is there!

Snyder: What’s more important, your money or your life?  Manes, take care of the dead bodies, I’ll take Slavsky to headquarters.

Snyder and Slavsky exit.

Manes: Okay guys, their gone, you can get up now.

Hooker and Dreyfus get up.

Dreyfus: Well, kid, you put on your first con.

Manes: The money’s over in the chest.

Hooker: Give it to charity. I’d only lose it in gambling.  At least we gave them the sting!

Walks out slowly as music plays.

The End

Childhood Clues to My Adult Personality


I was dependent on women from an early age.


This print has been hanging over our TV for decades.  I used to stare at this women for hours.  Since it was painted by Marc Chagall, I assume that this woman is supposed to be a Russian Jewish woman with dark hair and big, round breasts, probably very similar to that of… holy s**t!


WTF am I doing in this photo?


When Sophia first saw me trying to use a coupon at Olive Garden, she asked me, “Is your whole family so frugal?”  I told her that our couch was wrapped in plastic for decades (see the couch in the first photo), so today it is still in perfect condition.  The lamp is the original, too.   Does Architectural Digest ever make it to Queens?

On the Wall in Queens

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A Tour of my Childhood Bedroom in Queens

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I know the photo is awful.  Give me a break.  I just got off a plane from LA. 

This is the room I grew up in.  I lived here until college.  Behind me, is where my old, comfy bed used to be.  Now it is a “convertible bed” that my father put in several years ago  to make my room “more adult.”  You can actually feel the metal coils sticking into your back.

The clock in the background has not worked in twenty years, but no one has ever thought about taking it down.

The poster at the top right has changed throughout the years, from that of the New York Mets to long-forgotten rock groups.  The current poster is of Sophia acting in a children’s play she directed in Israel. 

My pants belonged to my father, but I don’t think he ever wore them.  My t-shirt is from a Target in Los Angeles.  I’m using an old digital camera that works so-so.

After taking the photos, my mother made me a turkey sandwich and we watched “What Not to Wear,” which is pretty much the same thing I would have done if I was sitting on the couch with Sophia.  

Popeye Attacked by Anti-Spinach Mob

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The title of this post is misleading.  I was going to write a humor piece about Popeye, but as I sat down to watch an old Popeye cartoon on YouTube, a long-repressed memory was awoken, much as the memories of childhood of Proust’s narrator in “Remembrance of Things Past” was awakened by the aroma and taste of a madeleine dipped in tea.”

As i listened to the final “boop boop” of the Popeye closing credits, I went back to my childhood, when I used to watch reruns of Popeye on a local New York TV channel.  I must have been very young at the time and I was fascinated by the triangle of Popeye, Olive Oyl and the villainous Bluto.

The plot lines in the animated cartoons tended to be simple.

A villain, usually Bluto (later renamed Brutus for a time), makes a move on Popeye’s “sweetie”, Olive Oyl. The bad guy then clobbers Popeye until Popeye eats spinach, which gives him superhuman strength.

I especially liked it when Olive Oyl melted in Popeye’s arms at the end, after he defeated Bluto.

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As an only child, I was competitive with my father for my mother’s attention.  I think Freud would have loved to analyze my childhood obsession with Popeye.

I would ask my mother to cook some frozen spinach.  After they were cooked, I would have her  put the cooked spinach into a used can of Spaghetti-Os so I could make believe that I had a can of spinach like Popeye.  I have no idea why we just didn’t use a can of spinach!   Once I had my can of spinach as my acting prop, I became Popeye — in the same way Sir Laurence Olivier became Hamlet.  My mother was Olive Oyl.  She would go into her bedroom or the kitchen and cry for help.  I would eat some spinach out of the can with a fork, flex my bicep, and rush in to save her from whatever danger she was in.

Jeez, no wonder I repressed this.  How embarrassing!

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I called up my mother tonight.

Neil: Guess what I’m going to write about in my blog tomorrow?  “Popeye and spinach!”

Mom: Really?  Be careful with spinach.  There’s all that bad bagged spinach coming out of California.  Remember to wash it first.

Neil: I’m not calling you about spinach.  Do you remember watching Popeye?

Mom: I never watched Popeye as a child.  I never liked him.   He had this one eye.  And creepy voice.  And weird body.

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Neil: But you watched him with me.  Remember?

Mom: Did we?

Mom: Mom, it was a big deal for me back then.  I would be Popeye and you would be Olive Oyl — and I would rescue you?

Mom: We did that?

Neil: Yes!  Don’t you remember you would cook frozen spinach and put it in a Spaghetti-Os can?

Mom: Wouldn’t it make more sense to just buy a can of spinach?

Neil: I was going to ask you that!  Why did we do that?

Mom: I don’t remember this at all.  Maybe you played it with your friend Robert.

Neil: I played it with YOU.

Mom: I remember playing Scrabble with you.

Neil: Oh my god!  You’ve repressed the memory — just like I did!

Mom: And well… maybe it’s better that way.

The Toothbrush

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Sometimes I feel a little frustrated with blogging, mostly because of you, my dear reader.  While I enjoy our interaction, try as I might, I still don’t feel I really know you.  Mathematically speaking, am I being too generous in saying that you only get to see about 15% of a person by reading their blog?

People are complicated in general.  It’s hard enough knowing yourself, so knowing someone else is especially difficult.  For all my time with Sophia, I suspect I only know 25% of her.  She’s always doing things that are surprising to me.   Last night, we played Texas Hold ’em poker with some friends, and she bluffed with a two of diamonds and three of spades.  That just wasn’t her!  It was shocking.

I love my mother, but having never seen her in her wild single days in Coney Island, I suspect I’ve only seen 35% of her true self. 

I don’t understand myself at all, especially with all my self-deception, so I gather I only know 60% of myself.

As a "writer," I’m supposed to understand characterization, but in truth, people are way too mysterious.  My interest in the human psyche started at an early age. 

When I was a kid, I remember my parents being involved in a  Jewish social group that met at our apartment every month.  There were about twenty members of this group.  On this night, my parents would let me stay up late.  Sometimes, I would come out in my pajamas and play a song on my clarinet,  or do a magic trick (I was a budding magician who did shows at childrens’ parties).  After doing a trick, Abe, a hefty optomotrist, would give me a quarter "tip."

I bring up this monthly event because something odd happened in my apartment every single month — something that became legendary in my household.  After all the guests left, we would find that one of the toothbrushes in the bathroom was missing, and we would then find it sitting in the bathroom hamper with the laundry.

The first time it happened, we assumed it was some weird accident.  But every month it would be the same — a toothbrush in the hamper after all the guests left.

My mother suggested that we hide all the toothbrushes, but my father, being an overly nice guy, didn’t want the culprit to know we were onto him — and make him feel bad.   My father worked in a hospital and was very understanding of all sorts of neurotic people.

One night, a year and 12 discarded toothbrushes later, my mother had had enough.  She gave me a secret assignment, something I wasn’t supposed to tell my father.  I would watch TV in my parents’ bedroom during the evening.  With the bedroom door slightly ajar, one could get a perfect view of the bathroom.  Each time someone went into the bathroom, I should make a note of the person, then run in to check the status of the toothbrushes as soon as they left.

I was on toothbrush patrol all night,  and I must have run into the bathroom at least 10 times for an examination, each time with my father’s handkerchief covering my face, protecting me from any smell and making me feel like a real sleuth. 

Then came the big moment.  

Abe had just left the bathroom.  As he passed from view, I ran inside — and there was the proof —  my father’s toothbrush was gone!  I opened the hamper and laundry scattered all over the floor.  On top of one of my t-shirts, was the toothbrush!

I rushed into the kitchen and told my mother.  It was Abe!  She said we should talk about it with my father later. 

After everyone left, I told my father about my investigative reporting.  He was not surprised, but insisted that we never bring it up and embarrass Abe.  The next day, my father and I went to our local dime store and bought a 12-pack of toothbrushes, enough to keep Abe happy for a year of throwing toothbrushes into the hamper.

My parents were friends with Abe for many years.  His weird toothbrush fetish was never brought up.  Why did Abe do this?  Did he have a bad experience with a dentist when he was a child?  Did he want us to launder the toothbrush?  And why only one?  Would he have remained friends with my parents if they confronted him? 

Did they ever really know more than 2% of the real Abe?

People are complicated and mysterious. 
  

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