Monday, October 1, 2001



Posted By on Mon, Oct 1, 2001 at 4:00 AM

From ÒDoing One Thing Well: Who is State Senator Steve Cohen, and How Did He Get That Way?" (Memphis Magazine, October 2001) ...When he was five years old, the age at which, Freud says, the psyche is achieving its first complete sense of itself, young Steve Cohen had an experience which is bound to have had an incalculable effect on him. Perhaps it even explains why his father, Dr. Morris Cohen, changed medical courses in mid-career, from pediatrics to psychiatry. In 1954, when Dr. Jonas Salk was developed the first successful vaccine to end the once endemic scourge of polio (a.k.a. infantile paralysis), Dr.Cohen was given one of the first batches of the vaccine to administer to his patients on a trial basis. "I don't know if he volunteered, or how it came about, but in 1954 they gave him the Salk vaccine to give to second-grade students for testing. And he gave the shots to my brother [Michael], who was in the second grade. He didn't give me the shots. I was in kindergarten. He had the vaccine, and he apparently thought about it and didn't give it to me. I don't know whether it was honor, a sense of responsibility, or whether it wasn't his issue - his purpose. Or I've also heard there was some concern that some people might get the polio from the vaccine. Maybe he was concerned,you know, what if that happened? I didn't know. But anyway, I got polio that fall. I was one of the last people to get it. And my father could have given me the vaccine. He didn't." One doesn't need an amateur psychologist's license to read in this the possible origin of some ambiguity towards authority and authority figures. "It didn't cause any stress between us," Cohen insists. "But it did cause my father a lot of angst. He goes on. "One good thing about polio: I've read this, that polio survivors tend to max themselves out, they tend to be over-achievers. " When he wears shorts, which is frequently around his house in the warm weather months, it is apparent that Cohen's left leg is thinned and attenuated from the ravages of his childhood disease. That didn't stop him, however, from playing football in high school -- at the position of center, no less, one which results in about as much hard banging as you can expect on a football field. As Dr. Cohen shifted jobs and specialties, he also shifted locales, from Memphis to Florida to California, back to Florida, and then back to Memphis. (ÉStranger in a strange land, man without a countryÉ.," indeed.) One of the ways in which the young Steve Cohen connected with the shifting world about him was through the appurtenances of popular culture: sports, Top 40 musicÉand politics. To go through Cohen's house on Kenilworth, adjoining Overton Park, is to walk through a theme park of the aforesaid personal artifacts. The button collection, for example, enchased here and there on his walls: There are campaign buttons for virtually every presidential campaign and every state political campaign of consequence, sports buttons, movie buttons. There are photographs of sports and music celebirities of every stripe, and photographs of Cohen with many of those selfsame celebrities. Notable among these is Orestes "Minnie" Minoso, the Chicago White Sox great from the '50s. When Steve Cohen was five years old, recuperating from the first ravages of polio and attending an exhibition game at Memphis' old Russwood Park, leaning on crutches, a White Sox player came over and handed him a ball, then pointed to Minoso, who was standing some distance away. "He wanted you to have this," the player said, and then explained that Minoso, a Latino black, was nervous about approaching a white child himself. "That was how it was in the '50s," Cohen remembers. "It gave me my first insight into the insanity of segregation." (It also, after the passage of some time, gave Cohen his email moniker, a variation on the name Minnie Minoso.)É

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