An Early Supper at Le Gamin

I sat at a table in Le Gamin on 10th Ave and 17th St.

Marchant, the proprietor of the café, with whom I had become well acquainted, and with whom, on occasion, I attended the bicycle races, approached the table.

When I came in, he was leaning back against the half-wall separating the kitchen from the dining area. I was early.

Too early for New York people to have supper. Those who worked uptown and lived in one-bedroom walk-ups in Chelsea or the West Village near the river, south of 23rd where you could still occasionally find place for under two thousand a month.

And where, in the hours after dark, after the meat packers closed up, narrow-hipped women and men in high heels walked the streets or stood with long legs outstretched and smoked on shadowed corners under the elevated railroad tracks and bent to look in the rolled down windows of the cars slowing along the curb.

He carried two glasses and an open bottle of a St. Amour Beaujolais. He set the cork and bottle down and placed one glass in front of me.

“May I sit?” he asked. I nodded.

He took the chair opposite me so that he retained a view of the kitchen. I had an unhindered view of the street. I could see the park across the street. One of those vest-pocket parks created in small vacant lots during the Lindsay administration.

Marchant raised his glass to me.

In the years before Giuliani chained and locked the park gates shut to keep unsavory characters out, I would sit with friends and smoke and talk books and writing. The Park has a sign now that says, “No adults unless accompanied by a child under 7.” It’s hard to say whether that keeps away the unsavory characters.

“Mr. Birnbaum,” said Marchant. His voice was hoarse. Perhaps he had been at the bicycle races that afternoon, but I had not seen him there.

“I have seen to it that your soup and fresh bread will be out in a moment.”

“Thank you,” I said. Marchant was not a gregarious man. He seemed weary. Wearier than when I had seen him last.

The M11 stopped at the corner. In front of the laundromat. The bus kneeled and a woman with a Burberry scarf around her neck and a cat carrier stepped to the curb. Spring had been slow in coming.

“Are you comfortable? I can put up the heat if you wish.”

I told him no. There was no need. The sushing of the bus as it righted itself came through the window.

“Very well,” he said. “And your wife. She is well?

“Yes,” I said.

“She is a lovely woman. A woman of great taste and beauty. Will she be joining you this evening?”

“No. It is Wednesday. We have our meals apart on Wednesdays. She works late and then sees some friends of hers from Hoboken. I must get to work myself.”

I write in the evenings. The room I rent by the month on the West Street is most quiet in the evening. I have found that I work best after an early supper. I work until I think I have written a draft that is not terrible and then I leave it to sort itself out a bit before returning to it the next evening.

After I finish for the night, I walk along the river to our apartment in SoHo. I will bring home a bottle of Sancerre for Alize. There is a shop on Little West 12th that stays open late.

“May I pour you another glass?”

“Yes. Have you the escarole this evening?”

“I am sorry. It did not look good to Franco. He purchased several bunches of Swiss chard instead. He is cooking it now. I hope it will be to your liking.”

Marchant, some years ago, inherited the café from his brother, Bernard, the oldest of three boys. Bernard had suffered a mortal wound in a scuffle with a few young toughs outside a bar on Christopher Street.

He was brought to St Vincent’s. He told the nurse who had cared for him that if he did not survive, he wanted to leave all his possessions to the younger Marchant.

Bernard, a careful and somewhat fearful man, always carried a note to that effect, the license to the café, and the lease to the family’s rent-controlled apartment in a leather wallet sewed into his waistband. He asked the nurse to remove the wallet and begged her to deliver it that night to his brother, which she did, at the risk of losing her job, or worse.

She was a beautiful woman. Marchant found her quite attractive, and they began seeing one another. A short time later, disgusted with the blood and misery she saw each day in the hospital, and finding the younger Marchant to be a man of integrity and some kindness, asked if he would let her work with him in the café.

She had learned to cook at her mother’s side in Marseilles and, as Marchant had little facility in the kitchen, he agreed and she soon became indispensable. The business grew. After a while they married, though the marriage did not last long.

Long enough, though for them to have a son they named Franco.

I found myself growing quite hungry. I opened the napkin and placed it across my knees. Franco makes a good bouillabaisse.

Marchant got up from his seat. He had some difficulty. He complained of an arthritic hip. His pre-existing condition, he called it. Though one evening he shared with me that he had taken a fall in a six-day bike race which unfortunately ended his hopes for the kind of life he had wanted to live.

He returned from the kitchen with the soup, a thick slice piece of bread and small plate of chard. “Bon Appetit,” he said.

I told him thank you and he turned back toward the kitchen. He seemed to pause, as if thinking of something he had intended to say and either had forgotten or had decided at the end not to.

The breeze off the Hudson had picked up as it does in the evenings. It came in through the open windows facing the street. If we don’t have rain, I think I might go fishing in the morning and perhaps the bicycle races in the afternoon will be good.

Malachi and His Mother: The Aftermath of the Altshul Incident

“Mel Rothstein called me this morning. He had such tight anger in his voice. Like he was trying to stuff it back down. Showing me how in-control he was.”

Malachi was sitting across from his mother at the kitchen table. She had spilled some sugar as she was adding more of it to her coffee. She pushed the crystals around on the slick tablecloth with her finger as she spoke.

“What did he say to you?”

“He said, ‘How could you?’ He said I had fomented an insurrection. An armed insurrection. At the temple. The ‘temple’ he called it. He said I had ruined the reputation of the whole congregation that he had worked so hard to make and that tweets or posts or whatever they call them had been posted across the internet. Pictures of me. Rage on my face. Leading a mob of radical Jews against the police. Calling them Nazis. Threatening them.”

“I saw the pictures.”

“He said that he expected more from me, which I know is a lie because he has never expected anything from me or any other woman beyond dull, mute, subservience and a look of thankful awe.”

She presses her finger into the mound of sugar she had created and picks up what has stuck to the finger into her mouth. Her lips curl, her chin wrinkling. She begins to cry. Malachi reaches across the table to toward her.

“I feel so terrible,” she says “I’m glad your father wasn’t there. I don’t know what he would have done.”

“Ma, I feel so bad for you. I know you meant well. In the most genuine, human sense, you saw a danger and you wanted to save everyone. You weren’t crying wolf, or ‘fire’ in a theater. You thought those cops were terrorists intent on shooting everyone in the room. The whole congregation was sitting like obedient sheep waiting for the doors to open and the shooting to start.”

“That’s what Rothstein called me. A terrorist. Worse than a terrorist, he said. He said I should be ashamed of myself for risking everyone’s lives for my own neurotic mishegas. He said I needed to get help.”

“Rothstein, ran out himself. He ran out without looking back, without offering to help anyone. He burst through the side door. He knocked down the officer there. He ran out of the building the second he heard you scream ‘get out!’ It’s only now that he feels embarrassed. He shouldn’t feel embarrassed. He did the right thing. You did the right thing. They had guns. They were acting like real active shooters. They meant to scare the shit out of you. Out of everyone. And, I may be wrong, but I think they got some sort of charge out of scaring the shit out a bunch of cornered Jews.’’

“Rothstein. I never liked him. But that is totally separate, Malachi. For the first time in my life, I feared for my own mortality. Not in the philosophical sense. Not just in conversation over cocktails. Not in that casual, intellectual, sense of ‘let’s all talk about death’ in some abstract, manageable, way. But in the real gripping fear of death in that very moment. Certain that you’d be shot and killed. Ripped through with bullets, and that my body, me, my mind, my thoughts, my very self, would be lost. Gone. Lost to consciousness. Lost to all reality, to all eternity. It is a fear unlike any other human feeling. That instant awareness of imminent death.”

“I can only begin to imagine how you felt, ma. When I was twelve or thirteen, at night, in bed, if I would think of the vastness of the universe or infinity. The blankness. The unending black void. I could feel my body exploding with fear. The fear of nothingness.”

“I don’t remember that. Why didn’t you tell me?”

“I wanted to. I’d get out of bed in the middle of the night like I needed to escape my thoughts as though they were a physical being. As if death and nothingness were physical beings. Even though the total lack of physicality of them are really what is the most incomprehensible and frightening of all. I needed to get out. Just like you did. I left my room and I went to your bedroom door. It was closed and I didn’t want to knock. I didn’t.”

“You should have, Malachi, that’s what parents are for.”

“It’s not that I didn’t want to wake you. It’s that I didn’t want to frighten you.”

“Frighten me?”

“I thought talking to you about death with you older, closer to death, that it would bring up those morbid fears for you. So, I just sat there until I went back to bed.”

“I’m so sorry.”

“That’s when I started saying a prayer at night.”

“What kind of prayer? I never taught you prayers.”

“The one with, ‘Our father who art in heaven.’ The one with ‘give us our daily bread’ and ‘the valley of death’. ‘Forgive us our trespasses.’ I didn’t know if it was a real prayer. It just made me feel better to say those things. And I’d say bless my mother and father and list of all the people who I wanted to protect, and say them in exactly the right order or I’d have to start all over again to say it right, no matter how many times. And then there was one night, when I was going to bed and I’d always say ‘good night’ and ‘see you in the morgen’ like ‘guten morgen’, but instead I said see you in the morgue.’ And my god, I apologized a hundred times and then I cried and cried and all I could think of was that what I said would really happen and that you’d die because I said that.”

“I’m so sorry.”

“Don’t be sorry, ma. And don’t be sorry for doing what you thought was right and good, no matter how it turned out. And forget about Rothstein. He’s not thinking of you, only himself.”

They look at one another. Eye to eye.

“My coffee is cold and I spilled sugar all over the table. Sit, I’ll make us fresh. And let’s talk about something else.”

“Critical Race Theory?”

“Oh, yeah, that’s a good one. You should hear what your aunt Frieda has to say about that. Like she might know what it means.”

Malachi and His Mother at the Altshul on Garfield Place

Malachi helps his mother step into the side entrance of the shul. The tall mahogany front doors on 8th Avenue were closed. Locked tight. And so, the two of them walked around the corner and up Garfield and then up the stairs through the side entrance, down the hallway to the sanctuary.

They took seats in one of the rear pews, passing the Rothsteins, the Arbeiters, and the Edelmans seated in the front pews. The ones they paid good money for.

The room was near full. A mixed, arrhythmic, hum of voices. Air conditioners whirring. The smell of aftershave and leather shoes.

“Why didn’t dad come with you?”

“Your father? He says he doesn’t do gatherings anymore.”

“COVID?”

“No. C-R-A-B-B-Y. He says he likes people well enough but he likes them much better when he doesn’t have to be around them.”

“That’s Bukowski.”

“What?”

“Charles Bukowski, the poet, said that.”

“Don’t tell your father. He thinks he made it up.”

“It looks like the rabbi wants to start.”

“Welcome all, I am Rabbi Plosker. Let us begin. We are all aware of the alarming increase in hate crimes and mass shootings. The Tree of Life Synagogue in Pittsburgh, the First Baptist in Sutherland Springs, the Chabad of Poway, the AME in Charleston. And while we work against violence of all kinds, visited upon people of all faiths, we must also protect ourselves with guards, and vigilance, and yes, with preparedness.”

“I have to get up.”

“Ma, wait. It’s starting.”

“I have to leave.”

“I’ll go with you.”

“No, you stay. I thought I could do this but I can’t. I have to go. I cannot be here for this.

She gets up and, clutching her purse, walks toward the side door. The way they’d come in. A police officer is now there. She turns and walks back up the center aisle toward the main entrance.

“Ma’am,” the officer there tells her, “I’m sorry, but you can’t leave.”

“I have to. You can’t stop me.”

“Ma’am,” the officer extends his arm, takes a step to obstruct her way. “Please, ma’am. We have a protocol we need to follow and I ask you to cooperate, for the benefit of all.” 

“Malachi!”

“I’m sorry ma’am you have to go back to your seat.” He touches her elbow and points her back down the aisle.

She sits down. She’s shaking. “Malachi, please say something. Look what is happening here.”

“Ma, it will be okay. Nothing’s happening. Trust me. Look, the rabbi wants to begin.”

“The rabbi? She wants to begin? She wants to begin with the Gestapo barring the doors?”

“What are you saying? The police do these trainings all over the city. In mosques, churches, synagogues. It’s for our own safety. We need to know what to do if, God forbid, something happens, and a someone with a gun comes in.”

“Let me tell you, Malachi, open your eyes. The someone’s are already here. There are two someone’s with guns here, and one is at the front door and the other is at the side door, and the Plosker herself, invited them in. She invited them in, yet. With guns, yet. Tell me, who comes into synagogue with a gun? I’ll tell you who. My dead grandmother knows the answer in her grave. The SS, that’s who.”

“Everyone is watching us, Ma.”

“Yes, they’re watching. With their goddamn eyes closed. They’re watching but not seeing. This is the most farshtunkene idea I have ever heard in my life and, you, my own son, brings me here.”

“Shhh!”

The officer at the back of the sanctuary is holding an air horn, a large orange klaxon. He’s wearing sunglasses, dark uniform, a peaked cap, epaulets, and a COVID mask. He nods. Touches his visor with two easy fingers.

“Sergeant Petersen here,” the rabbi says, “will lead us through a training in an active shooter drill. He will show us what to do, if it should ever happen, God forbid, in the very, very remote possibility of an active shooter coming into the sanctuary. If we are prepared, and we act quickly and with intention and preparation, we can save our lives and the lives of all of us.”

“That’s right,” says Petersen. “We are here to help keep you as safe as possible. I promise you, no one will be hurt. We ask you first to turn your phones off.” He waits. Everyone fumbles with their phones. “In a few moments, when you hear the sound of the horn…”

“Malachi, take me out of here. I can’t do this. I will have a heart attack. I can’t. I can’t… I will die in this room.”

“…and as soon as you hear it, I want you to immediately do whatever you would do if an active shooter came into the room.”

Sgt. Petersen steps back out of the sanctuary and closes the doors behind him. The officer at the side entrance does the same.

A long moment of silence passes.

The doors open. Both police officers, wearing COVID masks, both with the Klaxon horns pointed at the pews, step in.

Blam! Blam! Blam! The horns crack open the air. Again, and again and again. Like a pair of monstrous screaming jackhammers. 

A woman in the rear screams. Three men in the front row stand up and look to the back, then the front. Toward the blaring sounds. The rest stand, look around, and then duck under the pews, covering their heads and pulling the others down with them. Some grab for their phones. Malachi pulls at his mother’s skirt. “Mama, get down here.”

The cracking, blasting, sounds stop. There are cries from all sides.

Petersen, holding the Klaxon in his hand like a hand gun, walks down the aisle, pointing with it from one side to the other, pointing at each one of the half-hidden, half-crouching, cowering, people.

“You’re dead! You’re dead, you’re dead,” he says to each of them.

The one at the side door explains, “The worst thing you can do is to stand up and look at the shooter, giving him a target. The next worst thing is to crouch under the pews. You make yourself a stationary target. A dead one.”

“You’re all dead. Every one of you. Figuratively,” says Petersen. Now let’s try it one more time.”

The two officers step behind the doors again.

“See, Ma?”

“See what, they told us nothing about how we should react.” she says. She stands up. “This is their new trick,” she yells to everyone.

“Please sit down,”

“Yes, please sit down,” the rabbi calls out.

“That was a sham! One crazy kid bursting through the door like Dylan Roof or Gregory Bowers doesn’t kill enough of us. That was just old-school anger. This is the new and improved U.S. version of mass killing.”

“Someone, take her out of here,” says Rothstein.

“They’re not going to let me out of here. Not you either, Rothstein. Not peacefully. They have us where they want us. They have us all trapped, totally lulled into fearful, willing, trusting fools, placated, convinced they mean no harm. Like how they convinced my grandparents to wait in line for the boxcars, carrying their suitcases and children, and then in line at the showers, for godsakes. I know what’s coming. Everyone get out. Now. All of us all at once. Make run for it. Rush them. I swear, our only hope, is to take them by surprise. Because the next time those two doors two open they’ll have AR-15s and…”

Waiting in Line at the Church of the Transfiguration

Morriah held a place in line for Max. The sidewalk in front of the church was dry and grey and the late December wind banked around the corner from Fifth Avenue and west along E. 29th Street. It was all she could do to keep her balance against the wind, what with one hand atop her head to keep her fur Bergman-like pillbox firmly in place and with the other holding her grey overcoat gripped tight around her, and to hold the nosegay of three red tea roses and some frilled greens close to her chest.

The hat cost more than she could afford. The nosegay was unnecessary but her mother had paid for it. Reluctantly. Grumblingly.

Morriah touched her chin. She had covered a small raised pimple with cosmetic her mother had given her. She looked at the other couples in the queue. The way they were dressed. How tall they were. What shoes they wore.

She politely excused herself, changing her place in line twice, three times, moving to the end of the line, as couples, arms entwined, entered the church ahead of her, an apologetic look on her face.

Max had come. But he had left the license on the dresser in his bedroom at his parents’ apartment on Broadway and had to take two buses uptown, retrieve it, and meet her before the rector closed the doors at noon.

Her mother, if she knew what had happened would have said, “Don’t hold your breath waiting for him, Morriah. But, no worries, if he doesn’t show, I can return the flowers to Adler’s if they still have some signs of life in them.”

There was a rush to marry.

The war had started it. Pearl Harbor. The Nazi’s. The Italians. The Japanese. Roosevelt made it imperative, not so much the rush to marry, but the sense of existential threat. Everyone felt it.

The country was attacked and that demanded an immediate response. The need to martial resources, to rally to fight, to sacrifice, do what the country needed of you. Get your hands dirty. Offer up your life for it if that’s what it took.

Urgency grew up from the soil, filled the air with its pungency, flowed in the insistent streams of voices, radio, news hawkers on the streets, clutches of neighbors in the lobby. It was unavoidable and insatiable.

Morriah felt the threat to the well-ordered life she’d imagined, she’d invested in. Planned on. Hoped for. A marriage. A wedding. A home. Children. A happy life. All of it was threatened by a world she had no control over. If she could get a job, she would. What would she do though? Steno? War work of some sort. Not at all what she had planned on.

There was all that and then there was Max. Brown hair and soft brown eyes. An off-center smile.

They’d danced. Fast and slow. In the rushed rhythm of the moment. In the basement of the church.

Max had signed up. To fight. Do what he was expected to do. He asked her to wait for him though he had no idea what that actually meant. How that feeling would translate into something real in his life. It actually had no translation that entered his mind beyond the heroism of it. Of the sound of the words he said to her, “I have to go. Will you wait for me?” Words that seemed to flow out of him without thought. Without anything but the desire to go, to fight, to have meaning in life, to earn it, what ever it was. And to be wanted, admired, needed, waited for.

Of course, she would wait for him. Though she too had no of idea what that meant, waiting for him. Of course, she would wait until he came back. They’d marry. She would write him letters he would open in his barracks or in a trench somewhere with gunfire and aircraft overhead and thunder in the distance. There was magic in it all.

They both felt the magic. Life had become magical. You would do what you were called to do. It was your duty.

And for both of them. The magic erased the unknown. The war became the known. And the known was the urgency.

“Marry me,” she said.

She’d worn her hair up like Olivia De Haviland. A dark blue suit. The small bouquet. There was no time to plan for more than that.

In January, he rode the bus to Fort Worth. A green foot locker. Half-full.

Morriah lived with her mother until a month or two before the baby was due and then she would take the train to be with him, to have the baby there, in Texas. And they would be happy.

And all would be well. She would keep the house and care for the baby. He would see her when he could until his orders would come. And then she would wait again for him.

And she did. She made the meals, cleaned the spills, washed the diapers and the dishes and the floors, and called the landlord when the sink or the toilet backed up. She endured the heat and the Texas humidity, and paid the bills, called the doctor, held the baby, the crying baby, the baby boy she had named for her father. There was always something in the oven or bubbling over on the stove and the wash in the machine in the hall. She read popular novels. All, a measure of happiness because she was waiting.

And in August, in her housecoat and her hair undone, and she’d not seen Max in a month, she was not happy. “When we move to San Diego it will be better,” she told her mother.

“Don’t hold your breath.”

And then it was to San Antonio, and Eagle Pass, and Brownsville.

And on a hot December afternoon, on their tenth anniversary, when the boy was nine and the girl was seven, Morriah waited in the still air and shade of the front porch for the delivery of the dryer they’d bought.

She’d have to tell the delivery man she couldn’t accept it. They were moving again. She didn’t know where.

She’d called her mother; told her that Max got new orders. Korea. And ask if she could come back to New York and stay with her and wait until he came back.

“Of course, dear,” her mother said. “Of course.”

Reading the Book of Exodus by Candlelight in Scarsdale

Sally Leventhal turned away from the kitchen window. The first purple crocuses were pushing up through the last patches of crusted backyard snow.

It always starts with the crocuses.

Jesus Christ! she thought. “The damn crocuses,” she said.

Hennie, her husband of eleven years, heard her and said nothing. He knew what was coming.

A wave of dread seeped up like marsh gas from the pit of her stomach. Hennie saw it in her face, that underwater look. His heart sank.

She hated Passover. The preparation. The work. The house cleaning. The changes of the dishes. The food to be thrown out. The food she must prepare.

She was a smart woman. Patient, rational and reasonable. She was Jewish, but not that Jewish. She knew the story. Slavery. Oppression. The persecution. The killing. “I get it,” she would say. But in the end, she hated it in a way she could neither articulate nor explain.

Hennie, though, now felt that it was the right thing to do. His parents were not observant. They didn’t keep kosher. But he had been in the war. He had fought the Germans. Not in the actual fighting. But he would have if they had sent him over.

The war changed him. He’d seen the skeletal faces of the Jews. The piles of bones. Everyone had. The evil men could do and could abide. He needed a way to bear witness. He too found it hard to find the words for it all but the Passover seemed a foothold.

For ten years, more, it had been the same. Sally had her questions and complaints. And for each one Hennie had had an answer. “Please Hennie, just this one year can we simply wash the regular dishes in the dishwasher? The sterilize cycle? Twice?” she pleaded.

“Sally,” he said, “that is not what we were commanded to do, do you think they had dishwasher in Egypt?

“No, do you think they had two sets of dishes? Four, if you count the milchidik

 and fleyshik sets. Did they have Streit’s Matzohs, in three flavors and Easter colors?”

“Of course not. But we do. And we do this now because they couldn’t. And because of those who did it were killed for only that one reason.

“But Hennie, I don’t believe. You don’t either. This is your own crusade, not mine.”

“I am not asking you to believe. All I ask is that you do this for me, because I love you.”

“I know you do. But does that mean I have to turn this house upside down for two weeks? To show that you know that people have suffered? Been murdered? Have been enslaved? Spent forty years in the wilderness eating goats every night and manna every morning and drinking magic water? Where did that come from, anyway? And for what? So that we can eat cholent and drink Manishewitz, leaning on a pillow? There are other better ways… better ways to remember and to make a difference.

“We need to honor the suffering.”

“What? By making me suffer? I already know what that’s like.”

“Stop,” he said. “You’re sounding like your mother.”

“No, you stop. Don’t tell me about my mother. That’s your answer for everything. This is not about my mother. It is about me. Listen to me! I don’t want to do this. Not now. Not anymore. Why can’t you just hear that?”

Each year she gathered up the chametz, all the leavened food and whatever it might have touched. Cleaned the refrigerator, the freezer, the drawers, each room, each closet, the basement and the car and the donut crumbs, and the dog’s food, the cosmetics, burning it all in the trashcan on the porch.

And every year she stood at the bottom of the attic steps and Hennie handed down the cartons of green glass dishes with the fluted edges. And she soaked them clean and filled the cupboards she had scrubbed and lined with flowered shelf paper.

She shopped, chopped; made horseradish, roasted the egg and the chicken neck, and the brisket, the burnt offering it. “A burnt offering? Are you kidding?”

“Don’t walk away,” she said, because that was what he had started to do. “Stay with me. Here. Talk to me.”

He turned back to face her. “Can we do it just this one more year, and then no more?”

“No.”

“Why no?”

“Because that way is meaningless,” she told him.

“How can you say that?”

“Hennie. You mean well but you read from the Hagadah words you don’t understand while your father falls asleep and the dinner gets cold and your nieces fight over the afikomen for the dollar you will give them. And the next day we are no different from the day before. The symbols have become some self-congratulating abstraction. Do they ever make us feel better or change the state of the world?”

Her brown eyes were resolute. She had never talked to him like this before. He stood with his arms at his side.

“Pick one thing”, she said. “One thing that you can truly say means the most to you about Passover and I will pick one thing. But don’t pick the wine because that is what I want to pick. And that will be our Passover.

“Can I pick two?”

“Okay,” she said.

And on the first night of Passover, while his relatives gathered at aunt Ethel’s in Flatbush and hers went over to cousin Ida’s in Washington Heights, Sally and Hennie sat in their dark kitchen in the glow of two lit candles and ate matzohs that Sally baked from scratch and drank the wine that Hennie bought at the shop in town by the train station, and scooped up the warm charoses they made together.

And for the next seven evenings, by the light of two candles, they read the entire book of Exodus, a little bit each night, reading each and every line and every single one of the footnotes, and talked very, very late into the night.

Somebody to Love

Our first long run was along Ocean Parkway. A flat, straight road. Running east, from Jones Beach toward Gilgo and Captree. The beach on our right. Hidden behind high mid-day dunes.

Larry set the pace. Hard and tight. Like a driving Tom Tom: quarter notes in 4/4 time.

The two of us.

I was Jack Bruce on bass to his Ginger Baker on drums. My Keith Richards to his Charlie Watts. Jack Casady to Spencer Dryden running the bass line on Somebody to Love.

The parking lot at the Oak Beach Inn was packed full. All the beach lots were. Cars held in check by park rangers, waiting for spots to open. Lines of cars stopped between the beach entrances.

Girls standing beside pink-painted VWs, or leaning back, elbows bent, against wide, black, Ford F-150 tailgates, legs crossed, in cutoff jeans. White pocket flaps peeking out below the finger-like fringes high up at the top of their Bambi-colored thighs. Waving Coronas. Smiling like peaches in the sun. Radios set to BLS.

Larry looked at them without breaking stride. He always looked at the women. He loved looking at the women. His eyes were drawn to them like a robber baron’s eyes are drawn to a 16-ounce rib roast.

Doing eight-minute miles, we did the first twenty in a little over two-and-a-half. If we kept up, we’d do the 26.2 to Captree in three-forty-nine.

He was screwing a woman at work.

No doubt, she’d told him her husband didn’t understand her. He probably had said the same thing to her about Meredith. He probably told her he loved her. He probably thought it was true.

He never said a word about it to me. We never talked about that kind of thing. I knew, though, for a fact, that his wife did understand him. She totally and completely understood him. Without any doubt, she understood him fifty times better than he understood himself. She’s the one who told me.

“He’s thirty-nine,” she’d said, “and he has a dick.” What else do you expect? He can’t get over the fact that in ‘69 he had a kid, an 8.5% mortgage, and a bald spot. The river of free love, drugs, and rock and roll was flowing swiftly past him and that river flowed in only one direction. The only really free love he could have had then was the only one he didn’t want,” she told me.

We hit Captree in just under four. Took off our shoes and walked down to the water. He pulled off his shirt.

“Great run,” I said. He nodded.

The water is clear and green. The waves are high and loud. He grabbed my arm and pulled me toward the water. We dove through the waves.

When we came out, I turned away from him, out toward the water.

I love running with him. He paces me. Pushes me. Past what I ever thought I could do. Running beside him, step for step, breathing easily, it feels like I could run forever.

“Let’s get a drink,” I said, my back to him, peeling away my soaked, clinging shirt from my body.  When I turned back toward him, he was looking at me.

At my tits.

“Okay, tiger, enough!” I said.

“I wasn’t looking. Besides, there isn’t that much to see,” he said, in that thickened, fourteen-year-old, gonadal, hard-on-induced, voice he gets as if his salivary glands, in sympathy with his testicles, have swollen his airway half closed.

“You were too,” I said. “You had that Daytona Beach spring weekend look on your face.”

“It was only a quick glance.”

“It wasn’t quick and it wasn’t a glance. It was a full, two-handed, lingering, eye-grope. You thought I couldn’t see you looking.”

I leaned over the water fountain. He was a little behind me. I could see him rearranging himself in his running shorts. I’m thinking what it would be like if I turned around while he was doing it. “Just a quick glance, Tarzan,” I‘d say. But I didn’t.

His wife knows all about him. “The new one,” she says, “teaches English. She graduated two years ago from Barnard. You’d think she’d know better. God knows, he doesn’t. She has a flat stomach, a tight ass, and legs like steel.”

“How do you know that?” I asked her.

“How do I know that? He’s never uttered the word ‘Barnard’ before in his life. And now he’s said it two dozen times in the last month. I’m there slicing eggplant and he’s like, ‘hey, you think we could afford to send Lydia to Barnard when she’s ready for college?’ Or, ‘didn’t Chuck’s sister go to Barnard?’ I’m not saying he’s an idiot, but he could play a convincing one on TV. Lydia is four-and-a-half.”

“No. I mean, the ‘legs like steel thing,’” I recall saying.

“The woman who works in the principal’s office at the high school where he works, knows my friend Eileen, and she plays mah jong with us when one of us can’t make it. And so, she filled in for me the week I had my wisdom tooth out and she told Eileen she sees them sneak out for 45-minute lunch breaks together, and she swore Eileen to total secrecy. That’s how I know.”

We’d parked my car in the Captree lot and drove back to the lot at Jones Beach, Field One, where his car was.

In the car, he talked about running New York together.

“New York has hills, big ones,” he said. “It’s not like this. Don’t expect to finish in sub-four.”

“We should run hills,” I said. “Maybe in two weeks. Molly is away that weekend. We could run out to Sag Harbor.”

He never asks me about Molly. We’ve been together for almost as long as he’s been with Meredith. We sometimes have dinner with him and Meredith. Molly and I make like we don’t know what’s going on with them. He acts like Molly is my roommate. Even when she twirls her fettucine alfredo around the tines of her fork and guides it into my mouth, her palm just below my chin.

I know he’s a dick. With his desperately permed hair he thinks covers his bald spot. I don’t have to like him. I just love running with him.

The Millie and Mike Moskowitz’ COVID-Bubble Pre-Game Show

Mike: Boy, the Packers really bit the big Aaron Rogers-apple, didn’t they, Millie?

Millie: Yeah, it was a real Red Zone zombie-zone-out.

Mike: A god-awful goal-line goof-up.

Millie: A big Brady bad boy benefit bonanza boondoggle. But look, Mike, now It’s almost game time!

“Yeah. Ok. So, quick, Mom, did you ever suspect you had a half-brother, I mean before now?”

“Can we just not talk about it? Can we just sit quietly and watch the TV?”

“Aren’t you happy about it?”

“Happy? Are you meshuggeneh? The whole thing is ridiculous.”

“Cousin Shirley said this guy emailed her and he wants to meet you.”

“I should meet him, yet? No way. I’m not interested. I’m 68. I lived my whole life without a brother. And that’s the way I want to keep it,” Millie said.

“But you knew this Skip guy, didn’t you?”

“I don’t know. Vaguely. Maybe. A name like Skip, though, I should remember. A Shlomo?, maybe not, but a Skippy, yes. And who names a kid Skippy, anyway?

“So, you maybe knew him?”

“No. I didn’t say that. The 1960s were still the 1950s. No kid knew who was who then. Nobody told us anything.”

“He told Shirley he went places with you…”

“He said that?!”

“I think…”

“Michael. If this is who she’s talking about, there were friends of my parents with a kid. I saw them once in my whole life. Once. We went to Washington. To the Library of Congress. Us and this other family. To see the book my grandfather wrote. It was there in the library. My mother always talked about how he was a lawyer and he wrote law books. Like on the lawyer shows. With the kind of beige and red spines. And we sat at a table in this huge room with tables and lamps and someone brought us the book with my grandfather’s name on it. I never saw my mother so proud and happy. That’s all I remember. But these people had nothing to do with us. We never saw them again.”

“But this Skip guy, told Shirley your father came to their house with presents for his mother and all. Not just on holidays but once a month.”

“What? Once a month? That’s nuts.”

“Yes, and your father would give his mother money for groceries and the rent.”

“That’s crazy. He’s making this up. Or Shirley is. She never liked my father. Why, I don’t know. He was a good man. He loved my mother and me. More than anything in the whole world. He would never do anything like that. We lived in New York for god sake. He had a job. It has to be some other guy.”

“But Ancestry said there were DNA matches, she said.”

“Ancestry, Shmancestry. They just say that so you’ll click on it pay them more money. Look, I know about DNA from Finding Your Roots. You know there are matches from ten generations ago. But this Skip person saying it comes from my father is farkakteh (BS).

“He could be family.”

“Family he’s not. Family is caring, suffering, joy. Day after day. Missing them when they’re away, leaving a hole in your heart when they’re gone. Family is not DNA. We’re all DNA. That doesn’t make us all family. Somebody shows up willy-nilly and she wants right away to make them family?

“Listen to me, Michael. People like making something out of nothing. For fun. There was this TV show called This Is Your Life.” Some famous person would be tricked to come on and the host would say, ‘This is your life, Chaim Pupik’, or whatever his name was and then the person’s third grade teacher would tell some cute little story about how the guy once pulled a girl’s ponytail in class, and they’d hug and then the host, Ralph Edwards, would say, ‘and now here’s Mary Lou Lefkowitz’, or whatever, and a fifty-something with a pony tail comes out and everyone would clap and go ‘aaaahhh.’ Enough to make you sick. Who’s to say Lefkowitz was who she said she was? Look, people want schmaltz. Real or not real. TV gives them schmaltz. Life is not schmaltz.

“The past is past, Michael. Some things need to be left alone. What if this Skip guy was someone like my uncle, who lived with us for two years? He was a sleaze. When I was twelve, when he thought no one was looking, he’d touch me, brush his fingers across my chest, and say, ‘Millie, what a nice dress you’re wearing.’ Imagine how I’d feel if that low-life pervert ever tried to come back into my life saying ‘hey, let’s get in touch’ like nothing ever happened. How horrible that would be. For all I know this Skip person might be my sleaze-ball uncle calling himself Skip? Put yourself in my shoes.”

“I don’t think it’s anything like that. Mom, it’s only the genome. People are finding one another all over the place.”

“So, which is it, Michael? Family or the no-big-deal genome? Either way, I’m done. Would you please put the god-damned Superbowl game on and pass me a toothpick and the Swedish meatballs?”

“Okay.” He shrugs, reaching for the remote. “Let’s forget it.”

Then, Millie says, quietly, “I think it’s a scam.”

“What?”

“Look,” she says, “There are three possibilities: Number one, if it’s a real match, regardless of how many generations ago, I want nothing to do with it. Number two, it’s a total trivial non-story, so forget about it. And, Number three, it’s some kind of a scam. And, I’m going with number three. I watch The Impostors on Netflix. I know from this stuff. The guy’s pulling a fast one, and I’ll bet you fifteen bucks on it, and another twenty-five, two-to-one, on KC and my man Mahomes by ten points. You in?

“I’m in.”

Millie: And, now, welcome everyone to the 2021 LV Superbowl!

Mike: In the beautiful new Louis Vuitton Stadium

Millie: In the heart of downtown of Las Vegas

Mike: Brought to you by the makers of the limited edition, high performance, Lamborghini Veneno

Millie: And now for the National Anthem sung by the great Luther Vandross

Mike: With Lindsey Vonn doing the play-by-play

Millie: Me? I got nothing. I’m done.

Mike: Okay, I’ve got one, and our color commentator Lawrence Vickers, fullback for the 2012 Dallas Cowboys.

Millie: Wait, wait, I have one more. And stay tuned for the Mrs. Meyer’s Lemon Verbena hand cream half-time show.

These Uncertain Times

In recent days, I have been preparing to move from a large high-ceilinged loft in the West Village in which I’ve been living with a good friend I’d met in graduate school years ago and into a tiny one-bedroom space on Hester Street, across town on the Lower East Side.

Rune, my friend, had abruptly decided to move back to Chicago to be closer to his father given that Rune’s mother died suddenly of a COVID-related illness. She had, up until only a few days before her death, been a healthy and robust woman of short stature, high resilience, an indomitable spirit, and the steel-plated bearing of a person who, early in her life in Kyoto, had endured deep hardship and constant uncertainty. She’d been raised by her mother after her father died late in the war with the Allies, leaving them destitute, with no apparent means of support, and with only their desire to survive.

I could not afford to purchase the loft and Rune needed to sell it. Though it was a surprising turn of events, I understood and appreciated the circumstances and came to see the opportunity for a welcome change of environment.

In the midst of watching the Biden inauguration, I sorted through cardboard boxes stuffed with research notebooks, manuscript drafts, and reprints of journal articles I’ve accumulated over the years and which should have been tossed long ago, and I came across a scientific paper presented at the 6th International Conference on Agents and Artificial Intelligence in 2014, which Rune and I had attended together in the city of Angers in the west of France.  

Rune, being a member of the society, brought me along as a guest though I, a biologist, had only the most rudimentary understanding of the theoretical underpinnings of AI. The paper was titled ‘Quantum Probability and Operant Conditioning: Behavioral Uncertainty in Reinforcement Learning’ and I have no recollection of why I had felt the need to bring it back to the states and then to file it among my other papers, though it was likely a tangible reminder of our time together.  

I sat on the hardwood floor of the apartment. A warm mid-afternoon light streamed in through the floor-to-ceiling windows as I read through the paper.

For no reason I can identify, as I read the paper, I experienced a growing consciousness of a post-inaugural mental and emotional reset beginning to wash over me. It was akin to slowly immersing myself in a warm bath or to feeling the soothing, unexpected, touch of a long-lost lover. I had a growing sense of distancing myself from the ragged, rageful, and disorienting last four years of the Trump administration, though it had been only a matter of a few hours since I had watched the surprisingly peaceful transition to the new president’s administration.

The constant tension I had been gripped with during those years was dissipating. The reflexive need to check my email and the constantly breaking newsfeeds was no longer vexingly immediate. My ability to focus my attention on the details in the paper grew and I became caught up in a discourse on behavioral positive-negative basis vectors in quantum state space. The difficult concepts applicable to human and AI responses to uncertainty began to flow through my mind as easily as clear water in an unimpeded woodland stream at the start of a spring thaw.

Whether or not the former president and his witting and unwitting enablers, had planned the relentless perpetration of shape-shifting uncertainty and disruption we endured over the last four years, I saw clearly in this short theoretical paper a reasonable explanation of the social, economic, psychological, and political angst in which we had all been caught and perhaps also, a way forward.

In short, the authors presented a cogent argument, based solidly on the dynamics of  ψ wave function in quantum mechanics, for the way in which the behavior of systems as widely different as stock market movement, political opinion, and human behavior, operate when the degree of uncertainty increases beyond an experiential norm: namely, when the degree of randomness and unpredictability of a system feedback either strays or is pushed beyond the limits to which the system was designed to operate and for which there is neither an homeostatic nor a stochastic mechanism for the maintenance of a system stability.

We all expect a degree of randomness in our lives, a certain degree of unpredictability that we learn to live with and accept as normal. AI systems, too, accept and learn from unexpected responses and build them into their database. Algorithms are designed to incorporate a level of unpredictability. For example, a rat can adapt to being unsure of a reward or punishment for a while but when the unpredictability frequency goes beyond a certain expectation, it loses interest and no longer pays attention. It becomes unpredictable itself. Apathetic at one moment and violently aggressive at the slightest perceived provocation at another. It has lost its sense of control. It becomes berserk. Its life is disrupted. It becomes asocial. Sociopathic.

I set the paper aside and, in that moment, I was struck by the confluence of the many seemingly random and unpredictable events that had recently entered my life: the death of my dear friend’s mother, his impending move from the city, my need to move to a new and unfamiliar location and the possible risk of exposure to infection during the move, uncertainty of when, if ever, I would qualify for the COVID vaccine, the waxing and waning fear that the city would be beset by groups of rioters bent on disruption following the inauguration, the realization that my financial situation would change with an increase in my rent and the depressingly uncertain economy, along with the unexpected pleasant memory of a past time spent with Rune, brought to me by a scientific paper whose language I could only barely grasp but the meaning of which, I felt, in a way, had been transformational.

I saw that neither the system nor I had failed. That neither had exceeded the limits of its ability to recover, and that a young woman with a radiant mind had spoken with a wisdom we and the system had been aching to hear.

A Man’s Search for Meaning

Hello Malachi, it’s your mother. Don’t be worried.

I know it’s you Ma. My phone ringtone plays Ethel Merman singing Everything’s Coming Up Roses when you call. What should I not be worried about?

Oy! Your father is not doing well.

Not doing well? What do you mean?

I mean, I ask him, I say, Morris, what do you want for lunch? and he says, ‘lunch?’ Yes lunch. ‘I’m not hungry,’ he says. You want some herring? I say. ‘Herring, schmerring, whatever,’ he says. Come in, I tell him. And he comes and sits at the table like a cold noodle kugel. This is not like him, Malachi. First, he never used to miss a meal and second, he usually says ‘bring it in here’ so he can keep watching the television. He doesn’t watch any more. Only at night. I don’t know what to do. Morris, I say, what is wrong with you? ‘Nothing,’ he says. I tell him don’t tell me nothing. I know nothing when I see it and this is not nothing.

What do you want me to do?

Talk to him.

Ma, he doesn’t want to talk to me. I say, hi Dad, how are you doing? ‘How am I doing,’ he says to me. Yes, how are you doing? ‘How should I be doing?’ he says. I mean are you okay? ‘Okay? What is okay?’ he says. Then he says ‘I have to go, here talk to you mother’ and he hands you back the phone. That’s how our conversations go.

He used to yell at the TV. Scream, ‘Can you believe this crap?’ His face would get red. Turn it off I would say to him. ‘I can’t believe this is the country we are living in,’ he would say but he wouldn’t turn it off. Better you should have a stroke watching Wolf Blitzer? I told him. The Situation Room is not the situation room, Morris. You’re sitting in the Situation Room, I say, and you know what he says to me, ‘The situation sucks.’ My god, Malachi, I have never heard your father say that word in his entire life, not once, mind you. Not once.

Maybe he should see someone.

He should, but I don’t say anything about that. He wouldn’t do it. Men don’t go see someone, he says. They keep it in. They tough it out. He thinks he can take care of himself.

Ma, he must feel like he’s going through all of this alone. Living through every day in the same apartment. He doesn’t go out because he doesn’t want to get infected or infect you. He is losing his sense of connection with the city, his work, and his friends. He sees trouble in the streets, people being beaten, police beating others. When he was watching TV all day it was as if it would be him next being beaten, him next being gassed. Replay after replay of the same thing and seeing one man, night after night, calling for more of the same. He’s heard about this before. Hearing of his cousins, his grandparents, being rounded up and shot or shipped off in box cars to never come back. To be gassed and burned in an oven or kicked into a ditch. Viktor Frankl wrote, that when you live feeling that way, you’re shocked at first that this could be happening to you. You think it can’t continue, or it won’t be so bad, and then you wonder what will happen next and then you see that it keeps getting worse and that hoping for it to stop doesn’t make it stop. You scream at it. You’re powerless to make it stop.

Malachi, shouldn’t he be happy? We had an election. There’s an inauguration coming. There’s a vaccine. He’ll get it. He has underlying conditions.

We all have underlying conditions. Pelted each day with new miseries, new threats, new deaths, new things to fear. It wears you down. Nothing compared to what happened to his relatives, my relatives, but still, it wears you down. And what is going on now is not going to end anytime soon. It may even get worse.

I have never seen him so low.

With so many things to worry about, he’s apathetic. He’s past being shocked by what he sees and hears. The almost daily shocking atrocities have become for him, for most of us, the routine. So, you have to create a self-protective shell. You can watch police officers beat people protesting the killing of a black man for months, and bodies being piled in refrigerated trucks for more months, and then federal police get thrown down the capitol steps, hit with fire extinguishers and American flag poles, like a downward spiral that will last forever.

I know. It worries me in my heart. I want to help him.

Ma, please ask him if I can speak to him.

Hold on.

Hello.

Hello, Dad. Remember how you would always give me a book on my birthday and even on other days that were not my birthday and you’d say to me, ‘Malachi, this is a special book for a special boy on a special day.’

I do, Malachi.

Well, I am sending you a special book, because you are a special dad, and this is a special day. It will come in your email. It is an audiobook. It was written in the year you were born. And by a man whose name you might know, Viktor Frankl. I have listened to it and I thought of you all the way through, almost every line. Maybe you and Mom can listen to it together and maybe we can talk about it after. Will that be okay?

Of course, Malachi. Thank you. Here… your mother wants to talk to you. Bye.

Bye.

Bye, bye… here she is.

Dear Malachi, Your Sister the Zen, Is Moving to Alabama

Dear Malachi, how are you? I am at my wit’s end. Your father says not to worry, I’ve been there before and I always find that I have a little bit more string on that line. But this time I think he’s wrong. It’s your sister, Felicia. She told me she is moving to Alabama. I have nothing against Alabama, mind you, but, Alabama? I mean, who goes from Seventy-second Street and Fifth with a view of the park to Tuscaloosa? What does she know from Tuscaloosa? What kind of mishugas is that? I don’t know what to do. I hear they don’t wear masks there.

Ma, I’m okay. Of course, they wear masks in Alabama. Don’t believe everything you hear on the radio. Why is she going to Alabama?

Dear Malachi, I didn’t hear that on the radio. Don’t be so smart. Freida has a cousin whose son went to Alabama, Mobile, and he never came back.

What happened to him?

Dear Malachi, nothing happened to him. He got a job. He’s a big-shot lawyer. She says he makes good money, a big house, nothing like you could get here for the money.

So?

Dear Malachi, so, he met a girl and got married and Frieda says she never sees him, and she thinks he never goes to shul anymore. Your father says he’s an atheist. How many atheists do you think are in Alabama? Four?

Ma, but why is Felicia going to Alabama? And, I’m sure there’s more than four. Who cares anyway?

Dear Malachi, Felicia, my Jewish daughter, is going with her sensei, who I think she has a crush on, to what, become a Zen person like him? Your father says at least that’s better than being an atheist. Or a socialist. I don’t know what to do.

Ma, there is nothing to do. She’s an adult. She’s looking for herself. Her path, whatever. Looking for the meaning of life.

Dear Malachi, what do you mean, the meaning of life? You think life has a meaning? Listen, to me, you get born, you die, and in the meantime, you make dinner.

That’s funny, ma.

Dear Malachi, I’m not being funny. If life had meaning, don’t you think we’d all know about it? Someone would tell someone. Word would get around. Some things have meaning. Like algebra has meaning. Life doesn’t. Everybody knows about algebra. We learn it in school. That’s because algebra has meaning. You have x, and you have y ,and you get z. Boom. That’s the meaning of algebra. No big mystery. Your father says God tells us the meaning of life. Who said so, I tell him. My grandmother knew more about what’s what than God. At least she knew a good man when she saw one and she knew how long it takes for bread to rise. And it didn’t take her 40 years wandering in the desert, walking in circles, eating matzoh, to figure that one out. And don’t tell me they ate manna. Where’d that come from? God? Why didn’t he send them kasha varnishkes and some directions?

Ma, don’t you really think that life has meaning? I mean love and things like that?

Dear Malachi, I am sorry to say this to you, but in the words of Tina Turner, what’s love got to do with it? You should read your history. Mesopotamia, Gilgamesh, Peloponnesia, Genghis Kahn, Stalin, Hitler. Nixon, Pol Pot, Boko haram. Mitch McConnell. How’s all that for love? As you would say, give me break!

Ma, you sound so cynical. I’m surprised.

Malachi, Cynical? You live as long as I have and things start to add up. This has not been a good year. Maybe you think it’s unusual. It’s not. What’s unusual is that we have to wear masks and keep away from everyone. Big deal. First of all, that’s so horrible? And second, you think we have it so bad? You tell me how good the Melians had it by the Athenians? Or the Canaanites and Amalekites, all massacred by the Israelites, or the Congolese, Sumerians, Armenians, Yemeni, Aztecs, Anasazi. The Rohingya. Shall I go on? Do we learn anything from the violence, foreign and domestic? No, we just shake our heads and keep walking. Nothing to see here folks. You think COVID is a plague? It’s no plague. It didn’t have to get like this. The plague is politics. Ego, money, and politics. That’s the world’s oldest plague.

I’m sorry.

Malachi, don’t be sorry. Look, life’s no party. Never has been. If life was such a big party how come we didn’t invite the all the folks in Mumbai or Bangladesh, Nairobi, or Karachi. You think all the fat cats in the world just forgot to let two billion people who live on a dollar and a quarter a day, if that much, know about the big doings going on?

Ma…

Don’t give me Ma. I’m sorry, Malachi, I have to say it. I just don’t think we all get it yet. Maybe we never will. The seas will rise, the crops’ll die, the forests will burn the…. You’d think we might just give a damn about someone else, give a person a hand, ease up on the gas a little and say something nice. This year should’ve taught us that all-for-me-and-the-hell-with-you doesn’t work. You don’t shit in the stream because you can. It all runs downhill and that’s where the corn grows.

Ma, I know you’re right. I love you.

Malachi, I know you do. I love you too. I’m sad that Felicia is moving away. It’s not the Zen thing. She’s probably right anyway, hitting reset, with all that’s going. Maybe it’s good for her as long as a crocodile doesn’t eat her. I miss her already.

Alligators. Alligators live in Alabama, not crocodiles.

Ok. If an alligator doesn’t eat her. What a horrible thought, anyway. Call me later. I hate this texting thing.

Mama?

Mama?

Yes, yes. I had to go pee. I’m just so sad, Malachi.

I know. She’ll be alright. And, we’ll…

It’s not just that…  it’s everything. All of it together. All at once. It’s all so hard to take.

The American Red Summer

My mother was born into troubled times. She seemed to have absorbed the troubles as a window sash in a house by the shore might absorb the salt air making it forever hard to open or close.

She spoke little to me about those times. She made no judgments about them. Though what she did say, the words she’d chosen with care, the pauses in her telling, in which her eyes wandered over my shoulder and settled on whispered thoughts, words and names she repeated, soft as a heartbeat, and people and places which resonate with me still.

It was Tilda, she said, who told her about the world. Tilda was the only person who spoke to her about the troubles. It was Tilda’s voice she heard as her eyes wandered.

My mother was born in the summer of 1919. July 21. There was record heat. The flu pandemic, after raging for many months, had waned. Only to begin again in the fall. Unemployed men, black and white, young and old, soldiers having returned from Europe and the war, looked for work and found little or none, competing for the few jobs that could be found.

White workers struck for higher wages. They opposed the hiring of blacks. Black soldiers had seen a different, more accepting, life in France. Expecting that their country would have changed when they came back home. It had not. Unions kept them out and were, in turn, busted by the companies and the police.

Politicians claimed the Bolsheviks, the Reds, the unions, and the Blacks were behind it all. Wilson, in his second term, did not disagree.

The economy had slowed. The country was divided. Boundaries had been set, solidified, and fiercely defended. They rubbed up against one another like flint and steel.

Cities were riven. The Blacks and the socialists were hunted down and beaten. Blacks marched for civil justice. Union workers went on strike. White supremacists patrolled the hot white streets. White terrorists mobbed and burned Black communities. Set fire to homes and shops. Courthouses. Jails. Churches.

Black men and women were pulled from their homes, hung from tree limbs. Roped and burned in parks and town squares. Large white crowds gathered to watch. Black and white photos appeared in the newspapers. The soil on the ground beneath the dead men ran red with blood, appearing in the newsprint as a benign shade of black. White men and boys in slouch hats looked to the camera. Stood with shotguns and shovels. Living and breathing, though lacking the light of humanity in their eyes.

Seventy-six men and one woman were lynched that summer. Their deaths, their names, ignored or diminished in the press.

Tennessee burned in January. The first. The burning spread as pogroms spread. Like the rush toward war. Like seeds strewn in a breeze. Or like contagion in a pandemic. The infection builds momentum and moves along social fault lines. Detroit. Omaha. Elaine, Arkansas. Washington. Wilmington. Jenkins County. Charleston. All followed.

Twenty-six cities succumbed. Mobs and masses roved unchecked. Men in uniforms, complicit, standing by or instigating or pitching in.

On the July day before she was born, two men, one black and one white, argued about something: the war, politics, jobs, or a woman, on the corner on 127th Street and 2nd Avenue in Harlem. A short distance from her parent’s home. The men, shoulders back, goading. Pushing and shoving. Some boundary had been crossed. A white line. People sat and watched from high granite stoops in the heat. A gun was pulled from a pocket. Shots fired. A woman was hit and lay bleeding.

In minutes, the length of 127th Street from 3rd to 2nd Avenue was filled with men and women. Black men and women who, now ready and resistant, who had seen and heard of the killings in Omaha and Knoxville. Who had known people who knew people there. Men and women who could take no more violence in silence. People who Tilda knew.

Police came. Shots were fired. Blood ran along the side of the street into the sewers.

It was the American Red Summer.

Tilda, the name my mother would whisper, I learned, was the young black woman from Southern Pines, in Moore County, North Carolina, who lived with the family for many years. She cooked and cleaned the apartment for them. Cared for my mother. She cut out articles and photos each day from the newspapers my grandfather read in the evening and then left for her. She saved them in a drawer in her bedroom in a thick manila envelope. A chronicle of the troubled times.

One article told of a day, July 27, when my mother was only six days old. On the hottest day of the year in Chicago, 17-year old Eugene Williams, escaping the heat, drifted in the cool water into the “whites only” area of the 29th Street beach on Lake Michigan. He was soon surrounded by white men and stoned and he drowned to death. No one was charged. The Red Summer had spread from 127th Street in New York to the South Side of Chicago.

On that day, when my mother had opened her eyes and first saw her own mother, the American Red Summer was only less than half over.

When my mother was ten, and her family lost everything at the start of the depression, Tilda returned to her home in Carolina. She left the clippings in her dresser drawer with my mother’s name written on the envelope and, inside, a note to her in which she asked that they be kept safely for her until she could return one day for them.

 

Seize the Day

During a protracted period of convalescence following a rather routine, though nevertheless unfortunate, surgery which resulted in a quite unpredictable and unexpected series of complications, more serious by far than the condition for which the surgery had been performed, I fell into a time of deep despair for which I could assign no reasonable cause and out of which I saw no apparent avenue of egress, though, I must admit, due only to an ill-considered intransigence on my part, I sought neither professionally-qualified help nor the possible mitigation that might have been afforded by the use of widely available and efficacious prescription medications, or the less-costly advice of friends and the array of psychoactive formulations from which they routinely found relief from their own feelings of despair or disquietude, nor, as a last resort, the advice of my parents, only one of whom, my father, was still alive and in less than full control of his faculties, and with whom I had little contact and with whom I had a strained and awkward relationship,  and who, as circumstance would have it, if I remember correctly, resolutely, for only the reason that he distrusted doctors and others in society who professed to have knowledge or skills he lacked, had refused to have the same surgery I had undergone, despite having sustained a similar injury during a weekend game of doubles with three men of his approximate age and social status, all being solidly hard-working men living then in the relative comfort of a new suburban development, hastily created outside of the bustling city in which they had been raised, and for which they had deep affection and allegiance, and from which they left, with no little reluctance but with great insistence from their wives, as their financial circumstances improved, resulting, in no small degree, from the relative economic prosperity that devolved in the post-war period and spread, as tantalizingly as might the aroma of a cooling apple pie left on an open windowsill, during the rise of the Eisenhower middle-class, and in a time when that sort of outward population diffusion, fueled by the rapid expansion of the network of interstate highways and interchanges, as well as the general perception among some groups, that that was what was being done and what seemed to be expected of modern young families, what with modern appliances, wives who did not work and children who, according to the advice of well-respected clinical experts of the likes of Dr Spock and others, were being encouraged to spend their time at home playing out-of-doors being free, even though, contrarily, in their own minds, that is, in the minds of the men themselves, the time they had spent playing stickball, skelly, or handball in the city streets dodging sedans or riding subway cars far afield from their own neighborhoods seeking fortune and adventure, was the freest and best time of their lives, and from which the memories that most sustained them in times of their own malaise and self-doubt were made, and which bore little or no resemblance to the fey, childish pursuits of their own children, which, again in the minds of the men themselves, were of little benefit and which provided little of the toughening of body and spirit which the men felt was the object of the short time spent in youth and which would undoubtedly lead to a generation of coddled complaining namby-pamby soft-skinned man-children in ill-fitting and unsubstantial suits, tight underwear, and thin-soled shoes from foreign countries, who would be wholly and woefully ill-prepared for the challenges that life would set before them, and from which they would learn nothing and which would send them crying back to their mothers for succor and protection, from whom they would undoubtedly receive the unflagging confirmation of the belief that the world, in fact, neither understood nor fully appreciated them and from which they should be parentally shielded, rather than forcibly separated from the unquestioning, commodious, and all-too-welcoming maternal bosom, and from whom, it was inevitable, the type of relief sought by the wet-behind-the-ear men-children could not be obtained because it was from these very same eternally capacious bosoms from which they had been weaned so incompletely and so belated, and so well-beyond the time at which a clean break could have afforded both mother and child the distancing needed for the mental health of both of them and which would prepare them both for the harsh but inevitable exigencies of life in an exotic but unforgiving world full of both wonder and woe, opportunity and opposition, and, to be sure, the inescapable reality of death, regardless of the good intentions of one’s heart or the resolution of their beliefs, and the contribution, evil or beneficent, they had made in their lives to the commonweal, and so, casting aside any hope of receptivity from my father, I sought to find some refuge and relief in a perusal of the books I accumulated on my shelves over the years in the times I was flush with some expendable cash and relying upon the recommendations of the New York Times Book Review as well as books I had seen being read by strangers on trains, selecting particularly those books that the engrossed reader had been more than halfway through and which had that ineffable qualities associated with the dimensions of the book as well as the thickness of the pages, their rag content, and the presence or absence of the deckling of the edges, more often favoring the deckled edge for reasons I cannot well explain, and oftentimes finding an attraction in the way that the book might lay in the hand with the spine firmly held in the center and pages falling softly left and right over the palm as might a book of psalms or a bible in the hands of a Southern Baptist preacher as he commands the hearts of the faithful holding the book aloft as if it were a loosely-swaddled babe in his hands with the strength of both his fingers and of his convictions, and which he then cradles, the pages against his chest, as his voice falls in gentle cadences, his point having been made, and I, hoping to find such a book, running my fingers across their spines and sensing, what I could, by mere contact, what lay within the bound pages, as if the community of words contained within were communicated to me by an ineluctable and welcome force, that it came to be, through no volitional act on my part, that my fingers came to rest upon a used copy of Bellow’s Seize the Day, which I recall purchasing on an afternoon in a long-ago September at the Brattle Book Shop in Boston, and which I had never read, as I was not familiar with either Bellow or his writing, and it was within the pages of this this book that I sought, with great hope, to find the solace I so sorely desired and could no longer find in the welcoming arms of my departed mother.

Cooking with Joyce Carol Oates in the Fibonacci Kitchen

[Soft Italian music plays. Masterclass title appears on screen, fades, Joyce Carol Oates comes into focus, behind a kitchen counter, her back turned to the camera, an oven and a rectangle of walnut-veneer cabinets behind her. Kitchen Aid French door refrigerator, stage left.]

Oates:

(Blue hospital-type mask on, turns slowly to face the camera. Tight-curled black hair fringes her face. Simple, thin-framed glasses circle her sad, serious, wondering eyes)

As a famous writer and amateur chef, I know how the need to write and the need to cook are elemental and necessary to the creative human spirit, especially in these challenging times, and how much they have in common. One might say they both, quote, (show double “quote” finger gesture) “put food on the table”, as it were. Continue reading Cooking with Joyce Carol Oates in the Fibonacci Kitchen

Texting While Kvetching

Dear Malachi, Forgive me, I don’t want to bother you. I know you are very busy with schoolwork. I don’t mean to be such a nudge, but I am a mother. How are you? I haven’t heard from you in a long time. You know, children have to keep in touch with their parents. Cuomo said that.

Hi, Mom. I’m doing fine. I texted you just this morning. Are you and Dad okay? Continue reading Texting While Kvetching

The End of the Roll

Bessie Levin waited to see the manager.

“How may I help you Ma’am,” he said. He was well-groomed, polite, and had Bernard Sopotnick stitched on the pocket of his red Costco vest.

There are nine Costco stores within a one-hundred-mile radius of Bessie’s apartment in Bensonhurst. She has spoken in-person, face-to-face, with the store manager of eight of them. She got nowhere with any of them. You name them: Sunset Park, Elmhurst, Staten Island, Bayonne. Nothing. Continue reading The End of the Roll

Malachi’s Mother, the Precipice, and the Wild Strawberry

“Ma, where’s Dad?

“I sent him to the market.”

“It’s ten o’clock. He shouldn’t be out this late. I would have gone for you. What did you need so late?”

“Strawberries.” Continue reading Malachi’s Mother, the Precipice, and the Wild Strawberry

Things I Did Not Say When I Was Alive

There are things I never said to you. Things I didn’t think needed to be said. Others I just didn’t know how to say. Things I want to say now.

Maybe if I’d said them before, maybe if I had acted differently, it could have made things different between us. Better than the way they turned out.

We had a rough time, your mother and me, after you were born. I don’t think we were ready for you. Some people are. We weren’t. That’s not your fault. It’s mine. Ours. We all paid a price for it.

Some nights, when you were real little, when I needed to go to work in the morning, I couldn’t sleep. It was your mother. She worried me. She’d cry for hours at night. You know how people get when they don’t get enough sleep. I didn’t know what to do. You were sleeping through the night by then, but she wasn’t. Neither of us were.

What is it? I’d ask her. Nothing, she’d say. Or she’d say, you wouldn’t understand. Or she would say she didn’t know. Worse, she’d say, you should know why. I didn’t know why. That made me feel so bad that I wished I could cry myself.

I can’t remember my own mother ever crying. Or my father. They were strict people. They didn’t laugh much, or at all. They worked. They ate simple meals. Boiled chicken. A brisket on holidays.  Rye or Challah with pickled herring or whitefish chubs. Potatoes with cucumber. And tea. Tea in the morning and with dinner. In a glass with a cube of sugar.

They worked hard. Shnayders, tailors. In our apartment. Neighbors brought them suits to repair. To let out or take in. Seams to sew. Hidden stitches. My mother had her sewing machine by the bedroom window. My father worked on the table in the living room under the ceiling light. At six, the clothes came off the table to set it for dinner. People came and went all day dropping off clothes and picking them up. My father did the cutting. The ironing. He hummed and smoked while he ironed.

They never went out. Not to the park or to sit in chairs in the sun with the newspaper like some of the other families in the building. In the sun along Broadway. The smell of pickles from the store on Nagle Avenue. My parents looked like shut ins. Gray faces with creases in their foreheads.

My mother called me her Meir, mazel tov. The Spanish flu was killing millions of people. Babies like me dying in hospitals and at home. But I lived.

You were a year old. Small and krenklekh. Sickly. I worked a lot. There was work for men coming back from the army. And school, at night. I didn’t see you that much. Your mother would shiver like it was winter when I came home. She wasn’t like that before you were born. And she would cry in the night. I didn’t know why. She would go to your crib and stand there. Come back to bed, I would tell her. There was nothing I could do.

Maybe we shouldn’t have had a kid. Maybe we should have waited. Maybe we shouldn’t have gotten married in the first place. Maybe we were too young. Everyone was getting married then. That was it. That was what you did.

I think you felt the same way. I saw that and I didn’t say anything to you. You were what, twenty when you got married? Too young. I looked at you and I thought, this kid should wait. I should have said something. You wouldn’t have listened to me. Would you?

Maybe you would have. I thought if said something, your mother would kill me. I looked at you and I saw no happiness in your face. When I got married, your mother and I were all over one another. But you? Nothing. Blank. Like you two had taken a ticket and were waiting on a line to buy a pound of flounder.

Your mother and I had something, once. I thought we always would. But things changed. I think a lot of it was my fault. I remember being so tired I felt nauseous all the time. I can’t remember what I said to her once, maybe, leave the kid alone already. And she said to me why don’t you leave me alone? I was angry, and I said Christ, knock it off already. She was acting crazy. She went into the kitchen, where the phone was, and she called her mother. It was maybe two or three in the morning and she called her mother and there she was sobbing into the phone and I grabbed the phone away from her and said stop it and I hung it up.

My father never once raised his voice. I don’t know where it came from. My anger. But from then on things were different between us. I felt like I was in a box. I worked. We went out sometimes and had a good time, but it wouldn’t stay that way.

I don’t know where it went wrong with you. As a kid you seemed distant. Even more when you got older.  I didn’t know what to say to you. How to start a conversation. And it just stayed like that. You were more like your mother. You weren’t like me. And so…

I guess I was more like my father was. We never had much to say to one another. I can’t remember him putting his arm around me. I’m not saying that’s an excuse. It was just hard.

I did not want to put that on you. But then, I don’t think I ever told you I love you. I did. Love you. I didn’t know how to say it.

I’m sorry you grew up with me like that. I know how that must have felt.

Never once in my whole life did I ever feel like your mother so often did, with her heart so filled with either happiness or sorrow. So much that she felt it could just burst open and have it all pour out.

If only once I could have felt that, maybe then I could have been able to say the things I should have said when I was alive.

Boxing Day, New York, 1947

A young mother holds her son in her arms, snug against her hip. He’s in pajamas. It is snowing and her husband has his high-buckled, black snow boots on. His pea-green army overcoat buttoned around his chest and narrow waist, standing at the door.

“I don’t think you should chance it,” she tells him.

His back is already turned to her. It is winter-morning dark. He snaps down the brim of his hat. Continue reading Boxing Day, New York, 1947

The Golem on the X38 Bus

Simon Appelfeld was a good boy. He went to school each day. He obeyed the Sabbath. He did his homework. He brushed his teeth. He loved his parents and they loved him. He did not know how unusual he was.

One day on his way to school he saw that someone had left a book on the empty seat beside him on the bus. Continue reading The Golem on the X38 Bus

Malachi and His Mother Deconstruct Good and Evil

“Malachi, you’re not eating. What’s wrong?”

“Nothing, Ma.”

“Don’t say ‘nothing,’ I know you. I know it’s something. You haven’t touched the tsimis and you love my tsimis. And you have that look on your face.”

“What look?”

“That ‘Ma, something is wrong but I’m afraid to tell you because you’ll be upset and maybe have a heart attack look on your face.’ That’s what look.” Continue reading Malachi and His Mother Deconstruct Good and Evil

Two Rooms With A View

Max lived at home. He was a junior at a small liberal arts school in the city on 68th Street, near Central Park. It had no dorms. Students commuted to school. Every single one of them. Walking down Madison or Park from high rises on the East Side or taking taxis or cross-town buses or subway trains from different parts of the city.

A few, like Max, lived outside the city, in slow moving suburbs with driveways, no sidewalks, lots of grass and azalea bushes, and golden retrievers that wandered along streets with names like Oak Lane or Spruce Street, until it was time for dinner.

He lived in a house with his parents.

A house they bought in the mid-fifties. A house built on what he thought must have once been a farm since all the houses were new and looked alike and the land was flat and the only trees that grew in the neighborhood were small maples the builder planted along the roads and which one day were expected to grow to be thick-trunked and tall with branches full of leaves arching over and shading the streets like in a Doris Day movie.

But when Max looked out of the window from his bedroom on the second floor with the windows facing the street, the trees look puny. Like tiny fake trees in a diorama or in a scene you’d make around a model train set which looked real only if you lay your head down on the green-painted plywood table so that you could watch the locomotive coming toward you around the curve with the faint puffs of smoke coming out of the smoke stack and the piston rods driving wheels with a clicking sound on the track joints like real trains and the smell of the electric engine inside it as it passed by your face.

His father had built the bedroom for him in the unfinished attic. He worked at night after dinner and on the weekends, framing the room with fresh-cut two-by-fours, and nailing the sheetrock against them along the walls and up on the ceiling joists and then laying tiles on the subfloor. He did the wiring and the outlets. He plastered and sanded and painted.

Max hated the room. The color of the walls. The door that didn’t lock. The built-in drawers that stuck. The lone light in the center of the ceiling. No chair to sit on. The empty feeling he had sitting on the bed, flipping the pages of Introduction to General Biology, the floor strewn with clothes he had worn and dropped where he taken them off, the dust in the corners.

He hated living in the house with his parents. The isolation he felt. The scrutiny. The questioning. They way they had of making every conversation seem like an inquest of some sort. ‘Where were you?’ and ‘Where are you going?’

The way words were twisted like the frayed prickly wire wound around the little hooks on the back of a thick picture frame. He hated himself for hating it all.

He looked once for another place to live. One closer to the school. In the city. A place of his own where he could read and study. Come and go when he wanted to. A place where he had his own key and the door would lock and where he could keep his things.

The place he found was on Nagle Avenue up near Dykman Street and the number 2 train. It was advertised in the counseling center. A rooming house. He took the paper down.

The woman who owned the place showed him the room. She walked up the stairs ahead of him. Her large wide hips swayed. Her legs struck each step hard. She smelled of cigarette smoke, sweat, and unwashed feet. She said he could share the kitchen on the first floor with the others. He needed to bring his own dishes and towels. Clean up after himself.

She tried the door to the bathroom down the hall from his room and someone said, “I’m in here.”

In the room, there was a bed by the window facing the side alley. A chair and a table with a lamp with a pull chain. A wooden dresser. A waste basket.

He told her he would take it.

She left him to get the paperwork. She said it was one hundred a month. She needed one month up front in cash today. No checks. No trouble.

He sat on the bed, put his book bag on the floor and looked around the room. The screen in the window. The brick wall across the alley. City noises.

Before she came back, before she saw him, he picked up his bag, walked into the hall and closed the door. He walked down the stairs and out onto the street.

In his pocket was a token for the subway and the only three dollars he owned. He had no bank account. No job. He had an exam in the morning.

He walked up Nagle Avenue past the rows of two-story brick buildings. Past trashcans at the sidewalk edge. Past parked cars with the brown dust of time and the city on them.

He took a seat on the uptown number 2 and then transferred to the bus up through the Bronx and past Mount Vernon.

To the room on the second floor that his father built with his own hands, with the grey-blue walls, and the door that did not lock, and the bathroom down the hall with little pink tiles on the floor that he hated but did not have to share with anyone.

The Man in the Mirror

There were some men that Bertrand could not stomach. Tommy Bahama was one of them. Bertrand could see him down in the back yard, in his lemon yellow Polo shirt, collar up, maroon sweater, draped over his fey, weak-looking shoulders, and loosely knotted in front. The sight of the man was enough to raise his gorge.

Bertrand carefully drew the bathroom curtain closed and stepped back from the window. The movement caused barely a ruffle, just enough to coax a breath of Cape Cod Fog from the air freshener on the sill. He was sure he had gone unnoticed. Continue reading The Man in the Mirror

The Death of A Good Man, All In All

The funeral service for the late Herman Kaminski was not well-attended. The Riverside Chapel in Mount Vernon was near enough to the Cross County Parkway for a quick on and off for mourners up from Manhattan or down from lower Westchester. It also offered an ample parking lot as well as a compassionate understanding of the religious traditions in a Jewish memorial service. For no extra charge, they provided the services of a Rabbi, one Arthur I. Shankman, who spoke with the bereaved family before the service. His fingers interlaced in front of him, he asked Kaminski’s two sons for any remembrances they wanted him to mention. They declined. Continue reading The Death of A Good Man, All In All