A reminiscence of spending time in the old Borscht Belt.
In 1974, when I was 13, my family went with our cousins to the Concord Resort Hotel in the Catskills. There were nine of us — me, my two brothers, my three cousins, my mother, and my aunt and uncle.
Why this trip recently popped into my head I can’t tell you, but a memory of it was probably jogged loose when I read or heard something that reminded me of disco lessons, bunny hills, second-rate stand-up comedians or Grape Nuts.
Books have been written and movies have been made about the Borscht Belt, particularly about the famous summer bungalow communities that thrived in the Catskills during the middle part of the last century.
I don’t have vivid memories of our trip to the Concord, which we took the winter after my father died suddenly at 42. Neither, it turns out, do my cousins. What we all have are impressionistic and fragmented memories — of the crowded car ride, the puny ski slopes and the absurdly bountiful food offerings.
I remember you could order whatever cereal you wanted. I wanted Grape Nuts, which sounded delicious. I remember being informed that Grape Nuts weren’t what I thought they were and I wouldn’t like them. They weren’t and I didn’t, and I think of this as the beginning of a lifelong career of choosing the wrong thing on a menu.
I remember our going to see comedians perform in a big theater (probably the Imperial Room), but I couldn’t tell you who the comedians were except that they, to our disappointment, weren’t anyone famous.
But I do remember that one comedian, when informed by the audience that the joke he’d just told had been told the night before by another comedian, said, referring to that other comedian, “I hope his ass locks.”
All of us remember that my younger brother, in a room shared by the four male cousins, woke up screaming from a terrible nightmare. He had been having these nightmares for years, but this was the first one in front of a cousin.
Mostly, we all remember Harry and Miriam, the middle-aged duo hired to give disco dancing lessons in the hotel. Miriam, evidently, was demonstrating what she kept insisting was an “easy” dance combination but which the guests were kvetching about — “Easy!? Easy!?” they cried. Harry wasn’t having it. He remonstrated, “If Miriam says it’s easy, it’s easy.”
It was the way Harry said it — think Paul Lynde, in his prime, on “The Hollywood Squares” — and also the way I repeated it later, that made that phrase stick with us for many years.
Much of the Borscht Belt, the resorts and summer bungalow camps are now long gone, victim of myriad causes — changing tastes, air conditioning, cheap air fares, assimilation. The Concord closed in 1998 and was demolished in 2008. Even in 1974, it was arguably past its prime but not in rapid decline, or if it was, we didn’t know it then.
How would cousins know such a thing?
It was my mother who remembered that the trip happened during the oil embargo. She remembers this somehow affecting the travel plans, but not exactly how. Mostly, she remembers that the trip was a nice thing that her sister-in-law and her husband did for our family, driving us all up to the Catskills, the year after my father died.
My eldest cousin remembers that her father, my uncle by marriage, told the same joke every day at breakfast. I don’t remember this but I love the joke, so here it is:
A group of older women came up to the Concord together. At their first meal, one of the ladies says to the waiter, “I’d like a cup of tea, nice and hot, nice and hot.” The second lady says to the waiter, “I’d like a cup of tea also, in a nice, clean cup, nice and clean.” The third lady says to the waiter, “I’d like coffee, nice and strong, nice and strong.” The fourth lady says, “I’d like an iced tea, nice and cold, nice and cold.” When the waiter comes back with the tray of drinks, he says, “OK, which one of you ordered the clean cup?”
Richard Gorelick is a Baltimore-based freelance writer.
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