I was born in Bamberg, Germany, on February 20th, 1947. My parents, Alfred and Rachel Birnbaum, had been displaced by the war from their homes in Lvov in the Ukraine. My parents are the only two survivors of two large Jewish families. After a brief stint in an American displaced persons camp our family of three immigrated to the United States of America and in December 1951 landed in Chicago, Illinois.
My father was trained as a civil engineer at the Gymnasium. He spoke no English, so he took a job as a baker. We lived on the South Side of Chicago a neigborhood once proudly inhabited by Jews but which was turning ‘colored’ (Black). My first American friend was a neighboring black boy who owned a German Shepard. I was sent to the JPI (the Jewish People’s Institute), an institution that mirrored the horrors of the Catholic parochial school in its adherence to a medieval approach to education.
Around 1954 we moved to the North Side of Chicago and a mere three blocks from the Chicago Cubs’ ball park, Wrigley Field (there was also a mini Puerto Rican enclave). I knew this because of sounds that came from their neighborhood (not barrio). I began to attend public schools at the LeMoyne school, a mere one block from Wrigley Field. My father (who is multilingual) had mastered enough English to take a job as Fuller Brush Man. My mother was employed in various office-worker positions. I became a United States citizen in 1956 and in the spirit of assimilation changed my name from Isadore (not Izzy) to Robert (not Bob). I had adjustment problems at school and was double promoted in the 4th grade. Also, my sister Faye was born in 1956.
In 1957, we moved to West Rogers Park, yet further north within the Chicago city limits. I attended the Phillip Rogers Elementary school. It was a relatively benign period. I continued to have deportment problems in school. I also got into my one and only fight in school. I won handily: neither party to the scrap suffered injury. My one friend, who was quickly anointed my best friend, was interested in music, both jazz and folk. The seeds of my fascination with the island of Cuba were sown by my introduction to the Afro Cuban music of Charlie Parker and Dizzie Gillespie and Chano Pazo.
In 1959, the beatniks of Cuba triumphed over the puppet dictator Fulgencia Batista. If nothing else their efforts in trying to govern a former de facto American possession made for interesting television. Like many impressionable young American males I admired Fidel, Che, Sandy Koufax, Dave Brubeck (I’ve already mentioned Charlie and Dizzy) and Steve Allen. I graduated high school in 1960 and entered the virtually new Stephen Tyng Mather High School in the honors program carrying five majors including German. Which is to say that I was studying five courses that I had little interest in. I was dismissed from the honors program by the second semester of my freshman year. I continued to have deportment problems all through high school. I did excel in European History and occasionally English. Mostly because my history teacher, Dawn McKee was compelling in many aspects. I am tempted to say sexually, but at the time I didn’t recognize such an impulse about an older woman. She did have nice legs.
My English teacher with whom I also had a controversial relationship predicted I would never get into college. I graduated 451st out of the 551 eager Americans that comprised our Class of 1964. I think I was still technically a virgin. I had my driver’s license. I had a girl friend, Lois Jacobs. I think I spent the summer between high school graduation and college as a drug story delivery boy and hanging out at the corner of Pratt and California in Rogers Park. I had heard rumors of a such a thing as the American dream.
In the fall of 1964, I matriculated at Loyola University’s lakeshore campus in East Rogers Park, Chicago. The previous year Loyola had won the National Basketball championship. It was a grand time to be there. One friend from high school, Bruce Bahrmasel, attended with me. I was passingly friendly with the incoming freshman basketball players (we all took compulsory non-denominational religion classes) and I became friends with another freshman from Nebraska.
In 1965, having been sufficiently alienated from the collegiate educational experience as rendered by the Jesuits, I flirted with dropping out of college. Viet Nam was — as they say now — ramping up. My mother’s good sense prevailed and I enrolled at the local outpost of the state junior college system. I spent one year at Wright State College and applied for and received a scholarship to the University of Wisconsin. My interest in Wisconsin was based on the reputation of historians George Mosse and William Appleton Williams. And the fact that some good friends from my high school days were at Madison, Wisconsin, a very picturesque Big Ten town situated on a lake.
Just days before I was to register at the University of Wisconsin I was arrested (the charges were later dismissed in Federal Court) for the sale and possession of two kilos of Indiana ‘gold’. The progressive U of W refused to allow my registration based on my legal travails. Again, for the sake of appearances I was told to register in school. I promptly registered at Roosevelt University, a liberal arts/ commuter university located in one of Chicago’s architectural treasures. I began majoring in philosophy — the Anglo American ordinary language strain — and in 1967 married a Jewish girl from the neighborhood (we divorced as friends three years later). I was no longer a virgin.
After three years at Roosevelt University I graduated, fully intending to pursue an academic career
The more visible social dislocations of Mid-century America were a great entertainment and influence. In August 1968, in Chicago, I was both an observer and a participant in the Grand opera of the 1968 Democratic Presidential Convention. My most treasured image from that era is a foto I have of William Burroughs on the stage, in a group, at the Grant Park band shell, flashing a peace sign. Jean Genet is sitting in the far background. In the first election I was eligible to vote in, I voted for the Peace and Freedom Party’s presidential candidate, Black Panther Eldrige Cleaver. Looking back on it, I am glad he ran and glad he lost.
After a string of amusing odd jobs (record company promotion man, Earth Shoe salesman, short order cook, elementary school teacher) I moved to Boston, Massachusetts in August of 1973. More odd jobs, until I began teaching at a middle school in Hyde Park. Boston Public Schools were going through their so-called busing crisis and it was a compelling time to be in the public schools. At night, I went to graduate school at Boston University, focusing on American history.
Some time in the late 70’s, I switched careers
By 1982, after some experience at a number of publications, and with a new partner (an innovative retailer and frustrated art director, Don Levy) we began to publish an advertising supplement to the New York Times called Dazzle and shortly thereafter we began the re-engineering of STUFF Magazine. In 1998, I was fired from my position as publisher/creative director of STUFF Magazine, by the short-fingered vulgarian who purchased it from me in 1990.
I was married to Robin Lapidus in 1996 at the Hall of Philosophy at the Chautaqua Institution in upstate New York near Lake Erie. In spring of the following year our son Cuba was conceived (we believe) the night of my return from a trip to Havana, Playa Giron and Cienfuegos Cuba. Cuba Maxwell Birnbaum was born at Brigham and WOMEN’S hospital at 9 am on January 24, 1998 after about 24 hours of his mother’s labor(s).
Amongst the blessings visited upon me by my parents was the devotion and attention to reading. This was begun by weekly trips to the Chicago Library. It even continued through my woefully inadequate public and undergraduate education. In fact, to this day
Which could go some distance to explaining my ongoing conversations with practitioners of the narrative arts (amongst which I number photographers) as diverse as Isabel Allende to Howard Zinn. In the publication of STUFF Magazine through the 90’s I interviewed hundreds of writers. Young old, first time and accomplished and wizened veterans. My conversations continue and the fruits of those chats have occasionally appeared on IdentityTheory.com and other places.
I am currently living in Brookline, Massachusetts with my five-year-old
Labrador. Rosie, learning how to be a good father to my precious
son, Cuba, writing and dreaming in Cuban.