What You Find in the Basement

pocket memoTonight I went down into our basement looking for something. A moment to provide some context — we don’t have a big house and relatively little storage space. I generally don’t accumulate too many things of real sentimental value. To be fair, I would characterize the contents of our storage room as consisting of about 70% Mel’s crap, 25% crap for the kids that we don’t know what to do with (because, who knows, maybe someday we’ll need it again) and 5% my crap. Unfortunately, you have to penetrate the rock-hard shell of all the other crap and drill-down through layers and layers of boxes which envelope the 5% which is my crap in progressively thick strata of white-dwarf like density.

While I was at the very beginning of my excavations, I noticed a box off to my side that housed my crap and had somehow percolated to the surface — sort of like the way, every now and then they find a a fossil of some broken branch of the human family tree, millions of years old under some brush in an Ethiopian Rift Valley riverbed? I thought maybe this was my lucky day, and the box I needed would be found with relatively little effort. As I pried open the lid I saw a familiar, little spackled-red notebook standing on-end on-top of some old newspaper clippings, like it had been piling the papers up in an attempt to climb out of the box. I knew instantly what I was looking at.

A few years ago I was looking for this notebook for an essay I was writing about how we relate to a family history that includes some ancestors who participated in less-than-legal behaviors. In it I recalled a story my grandfather had told me the year before he died about some relation of his who ended-up married to the madame of a brothel in Alaska. I distinctly remember writing the story down in a notebook I carried around with me while we walked through Rittenhouse Square and I even remembered the kind of powdery red color of the notebook. But of course, back then I couldn’t find it, and lacking the details of the story, ended up writing a less whimsical piece about my father’s uncle who was killed for unpaid gambling debts.

Now it is miraculously returned to me, and in celebration of its arrival, I share with you, the story of Morris and Bruno Zirker. I do not vouch for its historical accuracy.

Morris Zirker was my grandfather’s maternal grandfather, which I guess makes him my great-great-grandfather. There are two mentions of Morris’ brother, Bruno Zirker in the online database of the Ellis Island Foundation: one in which he arrives on September 11, 1901 as a 23-year-old single man from Cologne, Germany; and a second in which he arrives from Bremen on August 3, 1905 as a 28-year-old married man with Rosie Zirker. Whether he came to America and then returned home, got married and then came back, or came to America, got married and went back to the old country just for giggles, I can only speculate. My grandfather claimed that Bruno “had a shirt factory in downtown New York that went under.” When that business went bust Bruno joined-up with Morris in Baltimore in 1905 (perhaps with his new bride in-tow) and purchased a “Nickelodeon.” Apparently that endeavor was also unsuccessful, and the day before they closed down the theater, “they let all the black kids in for free.” After that, the brothers stopped being business partners and went their separate ways. Morris died in 1929. Not long after, again the details are sketchy, Bruno gets in-touch with Morris’ widow Ida. He’s in New York with his wife Rosie and they are back from Alaska, where family legend has it, Rose was a madame in a whorehouse. My grandfather, who would have been twelve at the time, remembered that Bruno had tons of money and how unusual that really was in 1929. After some period of time, Bruno and Rose went back to Alaska, never to be heard from again.

I am not sure how literally I can take that story. I have a hunch that to my newly-widowed great-great-grandmother, (as well as my great-grandmother who at that point was separated from her luftmensch husband) Alaska could have easily meant “the Midwest” and “madame in a whorehouse” could have been her creative translation of “hotel clerk.”

Either way, I am glad to have this lost story, this tale from my grandfather whom I miss every time I look at my son’s hands, that look so much alike across generations.

Oh, what was I actually looking for in the basement? An old copy of FinalDraft scriptwriting software that I was going to see if I could load onto my Mac. Why? Because it had been awhile since I had done any writing for myself, and I thought maybe that would get me started.




Filed under Facts as we see them, Family History, Half-Truths, Lies

6 responses to “What You Find in the Basement

  1. journals, scripts, blogs. it’s all stories. may that cool discovery jump start the words.


  2. a

    What a great story! I wish I remembered (or had written down) all the family stories and secrets. Everyone in my grandparents’ and great-grandparents’ generations did something scandalous at one point or another.

    I hope you’ve found your inspiration – and I love that a jump start comes from a notebook rather than a computer program.


  3. Bea

    Looks like you found what you were looking for!

    I still can’t quite bear to tackle the boxes of old notebooks and English assignments… luckily I have a lot of other clutter to get through first.



  4. LJ

    That’s a pretty cool story. We go through our stuff a few times a year, and always, ALWAYS we find something long lost and amazing (or at least hilarious).


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