'Al' Margolis, the Mench Who Worked in DOC Fiscal 40+ Years
A bitter-sweet story
My father, Al Margolis, worked for the DOC for more than 40 years, from about 1929 to 1973 or thereabout. When he retired, he was the director of fiscal control.
He worked under a number of commissioners but the only one whose name I recall is Anna M. Kross.
Perhaps I will be able to resurrect an unforgettable Christmas photo which is especially grim. It is of him and Mrs. Kross at what might be a holiday party. There on a desk is the tiniest of tiny Christmas trees. There at the desk are -- looking about as stern and dispassionate as possible -- the Commissioner and Dad, his J. Edgar Hoover vaseline hair slicked down.
I regret to say the memory of that "office holiday photo" stayed with me a long time as a warning of what a lifetime in corrections and prison life, no matter which side of the bars, might do to a person.
Not all the memories are as grim.
On numerous occasions I met with my dad in the Tombs' Officers Dining Room. When he would travel to the prison farms upstate [New Hampton and Graycourt], I felt lucky to journey out of the city and into the countryside with him. These lunches and excursions acquainted me, if ever so slightly with prison life.
Dad did good, for I have always made it a point to be on the right side of the law. I know he gave yeoman's service to the department. He deserves recognition.
It was a different era when I as a 7th grader would take the subway down to Canal Street and rendezvous with my Dad. It was his purpose to take me shopping for clothes on Delancey Street and while we were at it he would treat me to lunch in the Tombs Officer's Mess.
I vaguely remember there were murals on the walls and that the warden [Harry Silberglitt] had a Ph'D in Criminology.
One of the fellow workers was Ruby Tuchman [Department Administrator Reuben Tuchman]. I recall a lunch, I had done this a few times, where they were talking about the quality of chefs or cooks. It seems that they could depend on having inmates who had quite a background in what might be called today culinary arts.
That would lead to a discussion of other notable residents and I distinctly remember being there coincidental with Norman Mailer's incarceration. Much of their conversation with me at those lunches revolved around the purposes of incarceration, rehabilitation and recidivism.
They were frustrated by the rate of recidivism and were bent on promoting a humane penal system. It surprises me to pull this out of my mind at this moment because what I often remember was the slow movement through the institution as one set of iron gates led to another.
In trips to the upstate correctional farms we always came away fascinated that the farms purified their waste water so that it was used for irrigation and was actually potable -- if you dared to drink it.
Dad would invariably come home with a flat of farm fresh eggs.
I had the ability to walk around through some corridors and remember once being mistaken, by some group of individuals, for a prisoner because I was wearing a white shirt and tan chinos. Little did I know that my father's choice of clothes for me did not depart very far from typical simple prison wear. This provided another instance of being sure that I for one was not going to land behind bars.
Dad served under many Commissioners and I can recall his conversations at our dinner table about their earnestness and their naivete. It was men like him, Ruby and the warden, "lifers" who kept the department running smoothly.
I remember a Civil Service newspaper that referred to both Al Margolis and his brother Moe who was a metallurgical engineer with the Transportation system as being part of a cadre of major bureaucrats who kept the city running.
Al and Moe were handball sharks. They in their youth reportedly won weekends playing handball in the Catskills. Early on Sunday mornings I used to go to the Park on E.18th St and Ave. L with Dad and watch the men play handball. Handball was and continues to this day to be THE New York City sport.
Those men played hard . When they took their serves, it sounded like a gunshot coming off the wall. The court was yours as long as you could hold it and you took on all comers. Dad's shirt and trunks would be drenched with sweat.
During the Vietnam War, I was an anti-war activist and it was his business to set up detention facilities capable of housing thousands of detainees. . . . .
There I was at loggerheads with Al, the protector of the Establishment. It took us years to regain respect for each other. I didn't see him for years . . . .
Dad used to work nights at AS Beck Shoes. A civil service job didn't pay enough. It wasn't until the Supreme Court decision of Baker v. Carr that legislatures were reapportioned and gave representation to urban populations that money began flowing into the cities. Thus, with the advent of the New Frontier and Great Society, money began to flow in and Dad's salary could get us through.
He used to tell us about how on occasion he would be placed in a "line-up" as a "filler" and sometimes even be misidentified as being the "perp." That gave us all food for thought: how people are able to misconstrue what they saw.
In retrospect, I recognize now, whatever my differences with my father, no STRAIGHTER ARROW was ever fired. He was as honest, thoughtful, realistic, practical and as loyal as they come.
I worked for five summers with the Department of Parks as a lifeguard in Coney Island and sustained a couple of serious injuries. Dad wouldn't consider making a case against the City even though there was clear negligence on the part of that municipal agency.
The both of us strayed as far from the Big Apple as one could possibly get. I married in my senior year and recently celebrated our 47th Anniversary. So, as my mother used to say, "We had a marriage made in heaven."
Shortly after graduation I took a civil service job with the Michigan State Bureau of Social Aid. I stayed there for a year and that proved to be my first, last and only job. After observing my dad's 9-to-5 lifestyle I was determined not to let that happen to me. Now I happily work from dawn 'til dusk.
Rarely is my work day less than 11 hours, but I pace myself. I live in a rural area and I wander from my store to my garden or orchard and do what I please when I please, except I am swamped all the time with either my business or my commitment to civic affairs and our community here in Van Zandt, Washington State.
Although my folks looked upon me as a hell-raiser as a youth, it was all a manifestation of civic involvement. I've spent over a decade on our Van Zandt fire department and I have been on the boards of numerous cultural organizations, environmental groups and county committees.
Following my stint as a social worker I got my MA in political science and then went on for the Ph'd,. The Masters program was far more rewarding and I wrote my dissertation about Mass Society. I did my Ph'd work in constitutional law and political theory.
But between my civil rights and meshugeh or cockamamie anti-war activity in the early Vietnam War years, I didn't gain the respect of either my father or the UMass poli sci faculty. After passing my Comprehensive Exams, I literally drifted off into the sunset. By this time, my daughter was six and we were "the voluntary poor" or what is now known as homeless, living in a milk truck (a modern day Conestoga wagon), that we had driven from Amherst to the Pacific Northwest.
Living on the edge of the knife of economic necessity and longing for a house in the country, we found a store with a house in the country and bought in with a few years of my wife's teaching retirement money and a few hundred bucks from a friend here and there.
Of course I was a complete outsider and on the first day of business I was informed, via a message scrawled in manure on the front wall that I was a "---- Hippie"!
Well, there we were starting at the one yard line, living on a shoe string, a 1000 bucks worth of merchandise and a 600 square foot grocery store.
Eight years later Al visited us in Van Zandt. He realized that I was indeed a very busy and serious man. He really enjoyed shooting my guns in the "back 40." Old grudges were dropped.
Not long after, he died.
So this is kind of a bitter sweet story.
It took me a while to grow up and realize how much my dad gave me in terms of working so hard to provide so much for us. Even more important were the habits and character traits that he displayed and left for me to emulate. Like working for 42 years.
Dad would take the BMT to work. He would read the NYT on the way in and the NY Post on the way back. My life would probably have unfolded in a more sedate manner if he had brought the Times home in the evening. Who knew?
Dad used to send me with the apartment rent check, down to the Super's apartment every month. The Super, Martin Moksvold, maintained the building, 1289 East 19th St. in Brooklyn. This was near Ave. M and Ocean Ave. in the general area of Flatbush, more specifically the Midwood neighborhood.
If you read Plato's Republic, you'll find that the foremost element of Justice is paying one's debts. The legacy that Al inherited from his father was to be a mench, a yiddish term for an absolutely reliable person of honor.
From this, the New York City Department of Correction benefited.
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