After he was born, Carl was later told, he was taken to his new family in a cardboard box, and an adoption official went over his health and family history. But after the presentation, young Carl’s adopted family decided not to take him. The official had no choice but to take the baby back to his mother.
“So here I am,” Kruger said.
He was rubbing his runny nose with a paper towel. He sat in the conference room along with his lawyer, Ben Brafman, composed himself, and told me his personal myth, now a tragedy. “I take on the impossible mission,” he said. “Maybe it was an impossible mission for me to achieve what I did in life. Maybe I belonged in that cardboard box.”
Irene practically forbade young Carl to play with kids his age. She walked him to school; brought him lunch, which he ate in the hall with her and not the cafeteria with the other boys; picked him up from school to give him his Hebrew-school books. Kruger often wondered if it was his mother’s guilt—giving him up—that made her so protective.
“She clung to me very, very much,” he said. “We had a very, very close relationship.”
He grew up poor. For Kruger’s bar mitzvah, he received a pound of honey cake, a pound of sponge cake, and a bottle of schnapps. During winter, the heat would go out in the apartment and the water in their toilet bowl would freeze.
Irene tried to reunite young Carl with his father. When she learned that Abe Tack was living in Flatbush, she took Carl to his building on the bus. He remembers seeing the tennis court in front, a sign that his father was well off. His mother rang the bell, but Tack didn’t answer. His apartment was on the ground floor, so Irene walked over to a window and picked up Carl so he could look in—maybe hoping that Tack would see his son and want to support him. In the window, Carl did not see his father—just people milling about, perhaps his other family.
After high school, Kruger found work in the computer department at Marine Midland Bank, earning $72 a week. At night, when he was coming home on the sketchy streets of Brownsville, his mother would open the window and, wearing a coat over her shoulders and a handkerchief to cover her head, watch for him. One day, she started to scream. Carl turned around—two men were on him. They threw him down some marble stairs. After that, the Krugers moved near Canarsie, and Carl got into politics.
In Canarsie, all roads to power led through the Thomas Jefferson Democratic Club. Located in a barn-looking building on a quiet block, “the T,” as members call it, is arguably the most powerful political club in the state.
“There were all these big shots,” Kruger said about the time he first walked in. Stanley Fink, who became Speaker of the Assembly, was a member; so was Meade Esposito, the former bail bondsman and political boss of Brooklyn. Esposito was such a kingmaker that he was credited with swinging the ’77 mayoral election in Ed Koch’s favor, and once bragged that he was so powerful that he’d “made” 42 judges. Short, stocky, never seen without a cigar or cigarette, Esposito had a weapon in winning the wars in Brooklyn politics—a heavy, gruff, and inspiring assemblyman named Tony Genovesi.
“There was an upstairs and a downstairs,” Kruger said. “All these big shots were upstairs, and I was certainly downstairs.”
Kruger wanted to get upstairs, and swiftly. When local state senator Howard Babbush was indicted for allegedly abusing taxpayer dollars, Kruger voiced an interest in running for his seat, a move that was widely perceived as overly aggressive, considering that Babbush was a beloved member of the T. Eventually Kruger backed down, but many became wary of him and wondered where such ambition came from.
By the early seventies, Kruger was a neighborhood activist. He’d legally changed his name from Tack to Kruger, and he and his mother and stepsister cobbled together their savings to purchase a house on Avenue L with a small yard out front. He and his mother were concerned about the neighborhood, and they co-formed a civic association that met in diners and bowling alleys. Taking on quality-of-life issues made Kruger feel worthy. It also got him out of the house.
“I was looking for something other than tragedy,” he said.
His energy caught the attention of City Councilman Herb Berman, who hired Kruger to be his chief of staff, and later Assemblyman Genovesi, who saw that Kruger could organize people and run ground operations in Assembly races.