“You have to clean the toilet today, Marion.”
“Why me, I’m the worst at it and I hate it the most.”
“Tough cookies, Marion. It’s your turn. You can’t get out of it this time.”
At P.S. 36, the Bronx, as in every other junior high school in all the boroughs of New York City, girls in 8th grade had to take a class called Apartment. In the 1950’s we had to participate in this as part of a three segment series that included cooking and sewing. The boys had shop all year.
The wicked old maid marm who taught the class had a wiry hair coming out of the mole on her chin. She was always dressed in black and was anorexically thin. This woman promised to prepare us for marriage.
This was accomplished by teaching us all the intricacies of cleaning an apartment. It included lessons on the importance of cleanliness and the joys of neatness. I don’t know how this teacher was able to dirty the apartment for each class meeting, but it was always a filthy mess, the bathroom especially grimy.
Of the three segments, I liked cooking class best. I especially loved putting huge globs of mayonnaise in the tuna fish, egg salad and green jello molds. None of which I ever had at home. The aroma of delicious chocolate chip cookies was followed by stuffing as many as we could into our mouths before the bell rang.
“Those are my cookies, I know the ones I baked.”
“Yeah, yours all have weird shapes.”
“Now girls, they all taste delicious.”
I loved the little mandarin oranges peeking out of cool whip ambrosia. We hated cleaning up there too, but we giggled hysterically as we all pitched in. Not so when it came to Apartment.
The struggle to master the treadle sewing machine was almost as bad. Thread kept getting stuck and stitching was always crooked. It was impossible to get the rhythm of your feet on the treadle and the push pull of the wheel all at the same time. We had to make jumpers in preparation for making our own graduation dresses. Mine was a, not too ugly, green waffle patterned cotton which hung crookedly, with lumpy pockets and twisted bodice. My girlfriends and I decided to wear our jumpers all on the same day and suffered the raucous laughter of the boys.
When it came to the graduation dress I was at a complete loss. Mom bought me a few yards of beautiful white piquet material and helped cut out the pattern. The actual sewing was another thing entirely. I ended up with a torn, gathered up mess. Fortunately, when I came home crying, my mother took me and the dress upstairs to 5B to Mrs. Becker, the seamstress. At times like this I really appreciated living in our apartment in Parkchester. Our building held the wonders and talents of a hundred people.
“Oh boy, this is quite a challenge. But don’t worry, I can fix it.”
She tore the dress apart, pinned me up with what was left of the soft white cloth. In two days she made me a lovely, capped sleeved graduation dress. I proudly wore it on graduation day with several crinolines and felt gorgeous.
Back to the Apartment.
In the beginning I had no idea what “Apartment” was. It was in the basement of the building down a dark sinister hallway. It had an old dingy door which creaked when it opened. We were always frightened to enter, tiptoeing in the dim light. You were assigned to “Apartment” with nine other girls in order to learn how to clean house, not to mention ironing and proper dress.
On the first day we were given a lecture by our old, stiff necked teacher about how important it was, when dressing, to put your skirt on first and then your freshly ironed blouse, which had been on a hanger. After the skirt was on you could undo it and tuck in the blouse very carefully. We were all choking and gagging to squelch our laughter. A demerit here could mean detention.
I am dying to know if the curriculum was exactly the same in as far away as Brooklyn.
Each time we met in “Apartment” we had to decide among the group who would team up for kitchen, bedrooms (hospital corners), living room, closets and bathroom. Who would Hoover and who would dust. Somehow there were always old clothes in the closets and dirty dishes in the sink. Did someone actually live here?
You never wanted to get the bathroom with its rusty faucets and rank odor. In the corner stood a plunger to be used every time, for the stuffed toilet, bathtub and sink. Why were there always wads of hair stuck in the drains? Who actually used this bathroom? An old gray mop was used with Ajax cleanser for the floor.
Lucky for me I had one good chubby little friend who I could bribe to do my bathroom duty.
“Sandy, if you do it today, I will take you to the candy store after school.”
“I don’t know Marion, you only got me an egg cream, a pretzel and three marshmallow twists last time.”
“How about I add to that four chocolate jelly rings and a coffee ice cream cone.” I calculated it would all come to fifteen cents. So worth it.
“Ok, Marion, but don’t ask me ever again, or else I’ll tell on you.”
We have come a long way, baby! Can you imagine our daughters ever actually taking a course in house cleaning? It is, of course, obvious that they haven’t.
It makes me feel very old to think that we were segregated and subjugated in that way without complaining. We did have an inkling that this was ridiculous, causing lots of joking and laughter.
We wondered too, what went on in the awesome, brightly lit wood shop where the boys made birdhouses and bookshelves, and sometimes came away with bloodied fingers. They would show their wooden objects and war wounds with pride. We never even thought to even ask if we could try it.
About the author:
Marion Pollack is a memoir and poetry writer. She is a therapist at Aroga Behavioral Health. Marion lives in Lawrenceville, NJ with her husband Bob. She has two grown children and six grandchildren.