This is contributor Jessica Hall’s weekly column, in which she interviews the street and homeless people she meets around the city. This week she spoke with Irv Olaik, 72.
I met Irv one afternoon when I was crossing 79th Street near Lexington Avenue. He was standing on the corner, brushing his teeth over a garbage can surrounded by his bags and shopping cart full of returnables. I stopped to ask Irv if he knew about some senior centers in the area where he could go for meals. Irv knew them all, and much more.
[On his name.]
That’s the only name like that in the whole country. When my father came through Ellis Island in 1921 the security guard gave him a card and said, "You can only put five letters on it." He used to have a long name. It’s Polish.
How old are you?
I’m 72, like John McCain is 72.
Are you going to run?
I wish I could. I agree with Obama that you have to change the tax code because there’s a lot of inequality; a lot of wealthy people are protected under the code and poor people are not.
Since 1963 there’s only been three democratic presidents, Johnson, Carter and Clinton. Many years ago I met a well-known figure in politics, Jerry Brown. He’s now the Attorney General of California. I met him in a hotel; he came to the convention here in New York many years ago when he was a young guy. He wanted to be a candidate himself but everybody said he was eccentric. He was in the lobby, he was very friendly, I told him all about my life and he said, "You have a more interesting life than I’ve had." [The former California governor Jerry Brown sought the Democratic nomination unsuccessfully in 1976, 1980 and 1992; coincidentally, the Democratic National Convention was held in New York City three times in the 20th century: in 1976, 1980 and 1992. âEd.]
Where are you from?
I was born in the Bronx in a hospital that’s no longer there. A tough area, now called Crotona Park East.
My father said we had to move from Crotona because there wasn’t enough room for all of us — my older brother and sister, me and my twin brother.
We moved to Yorkville, we were there not even one day and this individual showed up with a swastika, right there on his arm, it was 1938, and he said, "Listen, this area is controlled by Germans. You’re Polish, get out of here." I was two years old. It’s the first thing I remember. I was very scared. My father, he couldn’t speak English, he was an immigrant. This was because of our late great mayor La Guardia. He was a Republican, he was Italian, and he was friendly with the leader of the Italian government at that time, Mussolini. They were very close. [Though a Republican, La Guardia crossed party lines to support FDR’s New Deal; he was an outspoken critic of Hitler beginning in the mid-30s, though less information is readily available on his relationship, if any, with Mussolini’s government. âEd.]
The Nazis used to have parades on 5th Avenue. They had conventions at Madison Square Garden, the old one that used to be on 51st Street. A lot of people don’t know this.
My parents said, "Where can we go?" The man said, "I don’t care, it’s not my problem."
At that time they didn’t have moving trucks, they had junk carts with horses. There were a lot of empty apartments at the time; it was the Depression, so my father went out into the street, it was the middle of the night, and got one of those junk carts with horses and put whatever belongings we had, the horses had little bells on them that jingled when they went down the street, and took us to Willis Avenue.
You’ll never believe what happened. We moved into a two-family house, I remember, the owner said, "You can have both floors. I don’t live here. They want to take it away." The guy couldn’t make the payments. He says, "Come back tomorrow." So they went to the bank the next day and the bank said, "We don’t want to take over the building. A new president is going to come in and declare a moratorium on mortgage payments." My father didn’t know what the hell they were talking about.
You know what burns me up? President Hoover made a lot of money, he came in and said, âDon’t worry about the Depression.’ And you know what happened? The World War I veterans marched on Washington and he shot them! [The Bonus Army. âEd.] Finally Roosevelt comes in and declares a moratorium on mortgages and my father never had to pay.
People wanted to start a rebellion and Roosevelt had to work fast.
The mayor appoints a guy named Robert Moses, and says he’s going to redesign everything, he says we don’t have enough highways. He says this whole area, Willis Avenue, we’re gonna build the Triboro Bridge. But my father was lucky, they paid him to move out, and we went to Coney Island. That part of Coney Island to Brighton Beach, the amusement park used to make a lot of noise. People used to come from all over to go to the Steeple Chase and Luna Park.
I lived right on the boardwalk. I used to sell baseball cards, Tops Gum, they were autographed I used to sell âem for a quarter. There was a famous team, The Brooklyn Dodgers, and that’s where I met the great baseball player, Jackie Robinson. I used to go with the poor black kids to the ball games, there was a sandlot field at Coney Island, it was free, but it cost 60 cents to get into the bleachers. I went to Abraham Lincoln High School with Louis Gossett, you know who he is? [The actor Lou Gossett, Jr., 72 years old, graduated from Abraham Lincoln High School in 1954. âEd.] They didn’t have the Civil Rights Act.
Later I went to Brooklyn Law School at night and worked in a factory in the day. I graduated in 1963. I used to represent a lot of poor Black and Hispanic kids. In those days they called them juvenile delinquents and instead of going to court the police had their own court at 400 Broome Street. I used to go down there and get $10 a case from the police.
I would still be a lawyer but a lot of things happened to me. Now I live in an SRO on east 86th Street. I thought it would be temporary but I’ve been there 30 years.