The Button Thief of East 14th Street by Fay Webern

The Button Thief of East 14th Street

Scenes from a Life on the Lower East Side 1927-1957
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The debut author, who has a long history in publishing as an editor, shares her stories about coming-of-age on the Lower East Side.

Webern’s minutely detailed memoir of growing up Jewish in downtown Manhattan from the 1930s through the early ’50s excellently evokes an era of pushcarts and projects, of hard times and harsh realities. Although the author doesn’t romanticize her memories, she drenches her anecdotes in affection. Even when her nearest and dearest are behaving their worst (as they often are), Webern writes with an eye for forgiveness—or at least understanding—and not judgment; that’s not to say she’s a pushover, but much of what she says comes with an Old World–style shrug. At one point, she thought nothing of gaming Eleanor Roosevelt’s free milk line: “We each got on line twice,” she writes of herself and her siblings. “Once with our hats on and once with our hats off.” Later, when she returned a dropped wallet to its proper owner, her mother screamed, “How do you know it was his? You think he’d tell you if it wasn’t his?” The younger Webern is, the better her stories are, and there’s a disarming naïveté in the way she talks about her mother’s various scams or how she earned her own “button thief” moniker. Every once in a while, she catches readers up short with the sheer, unaffected beauty of her observations. When her grandmother died, for example, she noticed that her mother’s once-lovely singing voice had become hoarse: “she has lost her voice crying for her dead mother.” However, there’s a perilously thin line between remembering and merely going on and on. Consider one saga, which begins innocuously enough with “My mother had a flair for plucking chickens.” After almost 15 pages of chicken filth, blood, and decapitations, readers will have had more than enough. The author’s seeming lack of an inner censor as a narrator blesses her with a hugely distinctive voice; on the other hand, a stronger editor might’ve helped. Still, readers who luxuriated in the 1987 Woody Allen movie Radio Days may find the 300 pages here to be not enough, as it shares that movie’s unique sense of time and place, of quarrelsome but beloved family.

A schmaltzy but affecting memoir of a mostly vanished world.

Pub Date: Dec. 1st, 2016
ISBN: 978-1-944697-11-2
Page count: 330pp
Publisher: Sagging Meniscus Press
Program: Kirkus Indie
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