THE MAGIC MIRROR
All Original Written and Photographic content is Copyright MEL BIRNKRANT
Detroit in the 1950s was all about “Conformity”, a word that, at the time, was not in my vocabulary. And, yet, it was the very basis that held the society I grew up in together; sort of like gravity, you couldn’t see it, but you knew that it was there. I was aware of its influence on me, but I didn’t have a word for it. I tried so hard to meet its standards, and be like everyone around me, and failed, at least, in my opinion, miserably. Nor did I understand that my father naturally and innocently embodied, its polar opposite, another word I didn’t hear, or know, until I got to college: "Individuality".
It took me a long time to realize that the most valuable attributes in life are not those that make one the same as everybody, but rather those that render one unique. In my father’s case, that realization came to me, too late; too late to appreciate and celebrate his uniqueness, while he was still living.
In my youth, I had the audacity to wonder where I got my share of that thing called talent and creativity. It was a mystery to me, at the time. In retrospect, I see so many things more clearly. When viewed from a more mature perspective, the answer was right before my eyes. Many of my Father's virtues escaped my notice, then, as I vied with him for my mother's attention and affection. Sons and only children, sometimes, do that sort of thing. I mistook him for a simple man, content with small pleasures. Now, of course, I see that he was touched by Genius, and had a kind of Magic in him.
The house on Seven Mile Road was the canvas on which he visualized his dreams. Whenever I think about Sam’s self-made Paradise, the first things that come to mind are his glorious garden and Magic Fountain, on the outside, and inside the house, his Magic Mirror. I wonder if it is still there. It was actually the dining room window that, for years, looked out on the back yard. When he, later, added a rumpus room, he left the old window in place, and covered it with an amazing mirror that consisted of several panels of sand blasted glass.
The design was both mysterious, and ridiculous, not easy to describe. Essentially, it consisted of two horses in the sky, with banks of clouds below and Grecian trees behind. One horse is standing beside a stream, with a man behind him who resembles a satyr, but one cannot know, for sure, because his legs, be they human or goat, do not show. The other panel depicts a wingless horse, flying. The two narrow panels, on either side, effervesce with giant bubbles. And all this is effectively illuminated, from behind, by concealed florescent lights. It really must to be seen to be believed, and you can do that in the photograph below, reflecting the Christmas tree; a double dose of Birnkrant Magic!
My Father called my Mother: "Sweetie Pie". Which reminds me; Sam invented something; well, thought it up, anyway, but never proceeded any farther than talking about it, repeatedly. Basically, it consisted of a dish or bowl made out of chocolate, in which one could serve ice cream. As he, so dramatically, described it: "First you Eat the Ice Cream, then you Eat the Dish!" And he called his invention: "Sweetie Pies", in honor of my Mother. I thought the whole thing was fall down laughing funny at the time. Ironically, it seems like a great idea to me, now; and an even better name!
These were just a few examples of my Pop’s unique creativity. When I was a kid, I saw many of the crazy things he did as ridiculous and funny. And I didn’t hesitate to make fun of them and him. Yet, I would stand around for hours watching him, amazed and amused, at the same time. For example: He did all the electrical wiring in our house, himself, and by observing everything he did, I learned how to do it, too. But, being that it was Sam, I also learned what not to do. He seemed to take it as a challenge to work on electricity, without ever turning off a fuse. And I would always see it coming: “Pop! Don’t Touch Tha…….” ZAAAAAAAAP! Too late! It happened every time. That was a painful way to turn off the power. Thank god he wasn’t standing in water. Then with the fuse blown, and the power out, he would complete the job, replace the fuse, and turn it on again.
I was keenly aware of the strange dichotomy my father embodied, a curious combination of bumbling and brilliance. As a fascinated spectator, he kept me mesmerized, smugly giggling at the bumbling, to the point that I was often blinded to the brilliance that, in the end, shone through. But, I can see it now, across the barrier of time, radiating from ancient images of the house he transformed into a thing of beauty, and, of which he was so proud.
He poured his heart and soul into that house, and it showed. People thought he was a show off, because he was so proud of what he had accomplished. But that was not his motive. He was really like a child, innocent and naďve. Still, some of even his closest friends took offense. The small minded, among them, believed that he was trying to make them jealous. Even as a kid, I could get inside their heads, and feel what they were thinking; my Pop could not! He didn’t have a clue.
As the expression goes, he didn’t have a mean bone in his body”. He would never, knowingly, hurt anybody. Because he had, seemingly, done so well in life, he was often misunderstood. How could a man so pure and simple be so successful? To some that was incredible.
My Grandmother Tillie, came to America from Austria alone, in 1884, when she was thirteen. The little money that she had in her pocket was stolen on the boat, coming over. And she landed on these shores with nothing. She married my Grandfather, Maurice, ten years later.
Tillie gave birth to thirteen children, of which my father was the second eldest. There were ten boys and three girls. They lived on the lower east side of New York City, and, later, moved to Detroit.
There, eight of the ten boys, my dad included, became lawyers. My father, was a member of the law firm, “Birnkrant, Birnkrant, Birnkrant, Birnkrant, Birnkrant, Birnkrant, Birnkrant, Birnkrant, and Grant”. They actually appeared in “Ripley’s Believe it or Not”
But Sam was very independent, the essence of a self-made man, and not a member of the clique, made up of his nine brothers. He was forty, when he married my mother, and 42, when I was born. He always seemed like an old man to me, even when I was a baby.
At the time I joined the family, he owned a building that he rented to small variety store, in a place called "Flat Rock" Michigan. I can still remember it, including the smell of the wooden floor, although, I visited there, just once, when I was three or four.
Sixty years ago, most "dime stores" had wooden floors, and they always smelled the same. The store also had one of those fascinating pneumatic systems, in which cash was rocketed through a network of overhead tubes, extending from the cash register to the Mezzanine, "wooosh!" and back again, with change. That day, I was given a "Blondie and Dagwood" Peg and Nail Set, to keep me amused on the drive home. I have one, identical to it, now, in my collection. It is one of the few objects that reflect my childhood. Such a toy could not exist today. It came with a small hammer and a bag of nails, sharply pointed, and tiny enough to swallow in one gulp, bag and all.
He sold that store, when we still lived in Berkley, and with the proceeds, built another, then, mortgaged that to build another, and another, and another, until he owned a mini-kingdom of property, all mutually mortgaged. He built it all, himself, and passed away, believing that he had left my mother well provided for. But the writing was already on the wall. Mercifully, he did not live to see his Empire fall.
My Father's Magnum Opus was "Harper Avenue", two entire blocks of "chain-stores", linked together by "imported marble fronts". His A&P went down in history, as the first store, in Detroit, to have an automatic "Seeing-Eye Door", as my Father called it.
I remember the Gala Grand Opening. Surely it must have been the BEST day of my Father's life. He was deservedly proud of himself. And my Mother and I were proud of him, as well. Multi-colored flags were hung from everything, all up and down the Avenue. And, children were given their fill of helium-filled balloons. This was Harper Avenue's BEST day, too!
When twilight transformed into night, enormous Spotlights sputtered, momentarily, then, hissed into a blaze of light. Their powerful beams moved back and forth, slicing through the autumn sky. Occasionally one would catch a runaway balloon in its beam, illuminating it, briefly, in a final burst of color, before it ascended, into the darkness, and out of sight. The sound of the giant spotlights was surprising; a loud sizzling, like bacon frying; and standing close to them was exciting.
But, it was the Seeing-Eye Door that stole the show. Awestruck crowds clogged the sidewalk, as they gathered around to watch the magic door that opened and closed "all by itself". My friend, Bucky, and I walked through it, in admiration and amazement, at least, a hundred times, that night.