Friday, September 28, 2012

September 28, 2012--Chapter 9: The Dead Rosenbergs

When we heard that Julius and Ethel Rosenberg had been electrocuted up in Sing Sing and that their bodies would be laid out and available for viewing at the I. J. Morris Funeral Parlor just six blocks away from where we lived on East 56th Street, Heshy Perlmutter and I raced over so we could for the first time see dead people.   
In our neighborhood we had seen cats and dogs that had been run over by cars, but no dead bodies; and thus Heshy and I had developed a fascination with death itself.
But a lot of others had the same idea that sultry June night, and we wound up near the end of a line that stretched around the corner onto Linden Boulevard. Since it took forever for the line to snake toward the entrance, we learned from what we overheard that no one else shared our morbid obsession:
We were there to see some corpses; everyone else was lined up to pay their respects to these “progressive martyrs” and to protest not just their executions but the injustice of the entire American and Capitalist System. We understood little of this—the raging about Judge Kaufman, the abuse heaped on President Eisenhower who refused to stay their “murder,” and especially the fury reserved for someone named Roy Cohn, who, as a Jew, was venomously vilified for his betrayal of his “people” and role in their prosecution.

“He should rot in Hell,” we heard these dialectical materialist atheists mutter.

Heshy understood what they were feeling. His father, fellow-traverlor, Mr. Perly, devoted reader of the Daily Worker, spent his days and sleepless nights raging about the evils of capitalism, the exploitation of workers’ “surplus value,” the on-going American nightmare of racisit lynchings, the virullant anti-Semitism, and the “witchhunts” conducted by Senator Joseph McCarthy which were aided and abtetted by that weasel Roy Cohn.
At least as important as Heshy’s version of Mr. Perly’s ideological lessons was the fact of his being there in line with me because, as we got closer to the door, word filtered back that to be admitted you had to be at least sixteen, and Heshy more than I could pass for sixteen.  We were a few years younger and were worried that we would have to wait two to three more years for subsequent executions before we would be allowed to see dead people. But when we got to the entrance, the man guarding the velvet rope took one skeptical look at me—though I was already almost six feet tall--and then fortunately at Heshy’s premature five-o’clock shadow. When he took note of that, he nodded and waved both of us in.
Once inside, things settled to a hush. No more sputterings about the running dogs of capitalism, just the muted sound of shuffling feet as we inched our way toward the chapel. As we moved forward, Heshy and I whispered about what we were expecting. We thought Julius and Ethel would probably look like the dead cats with which we were familiar—with stiff arms and legs and bulging eyes; but we grew increasingly nervous about how dead people who had been electrocuted would look.   We had never seen an electrocuted cat or dog.

What we knew from the Street was that when someone from Murder Incorporated went to the Chair, the next morning, screaming in black six-inch type on the front pages of the Daily News and Mirror would be the headline-- Bugsy Berkowitz Fries! And since I knew how my mother’s fried liver looked—the closest thing to shoe leather not worn on a foot—I was trepidiously expecting the dead Rosenbergs to look like slabs of fried liver in side-by-side coffins. 
We were thus rethinking the whole situation: Maybe we should wait until we were really sixteen and hope that someone would die of natural causes like a heart attack or something. That, Heshy and I were thinking, might be a better way to get started with dead bodies.

But before we could reconsider and slip out a side door, we were pushed from behind through the chapel door by an East 56th Street neighbor, Mr. Kaplan, the shoemaker father of the Kaplan twins.  If we had thought about it, we might actually have been glad to have a shoemaker around as we approached the leathery Rosenbergs.

And then there we were face-to-face with the dead Rosenbergs whose side-by-side coffins were tipped forward for better viewing. Dead they were, but under spot lights that turned their faces orange and so blackened their hair that it looked as if it had been touched up with shoe polish.  Julius’ mustache was so dark that he appeared more a semitic Hitler than a Jew from the Bronx. It was not hard to believe, from their squirrelly looks, that they had been spies and had indeed given away to Russia the secret to the Atomic Bomb, which as a result caused us to have to practice taking cover under our desks in school in case the Reds decided to drop one on the Brooklyn Navy Yard.

The undertakers moved us along quickly so we had time for just a quick but sufficient glimpse and, in truth, a sniff because all the dead cats and dogs we knew smelled awful. We were curious about that too. But the Rosenbergs smelled more like disinfectant or the science room in school, which was fitting since this whole experience was more like an experiment to us than a pilgrimage, except perhaps to Heshy who, when he got home, would be interrogated and lectured, we were certain, by Mr. Perly, about more than the Rosenbergs’ hair, painted faces, and smell.

I had entered this cult of death as the result of being responsible for taking care of the family plot in Mt. Lebanon Cemetery. The Malone family at the time couldn’t afford perpetual care for the graves so unless we were willing to let them turn into on overgrown jungle, someone had to go there regularly, spring through fall, to cut the grass and pull the weeds that were indigenous to that part of Queens. As the most dexterous family member this responsibility fell to me. So clip and pull I did with barely disguised eagerness for this sacred role.

As I would work my way among the headstones that multiplied through the years, as I drifted further from the bench where my mother and aunts sat huddled, talking silently to their sainted mother and beloved father, I began to think about more than what was growing above ground. What, I wondered, was happening below? That was not a question I could openly ask about poor Uncle Herman who, I had been told, died of a heart attack before he was fifty. The weeds, by the way, were thickest at his grave.

In the spirit of experiment, when one day Chirps my parakeet died, rather than leave it to my mother to do whatever she did to dispose of our dead pet birds and guppies--I suspected the guppies got flushed away--I absconded with him, found an empty Hellmann’s Mayonnaise jar, washed and dried it thoroughly, put him inside, screwed the top back on securely, and buried him in a shallow hole of a grave in the vacant lot next door, thinking I would dig him up periodically to see what was happening to him in that jar, interred as I imagined he was, not so unlike Grandma and Grandpa at Mt. Lebanon. That would finally answer my existential question.

A week later, when I exhumed Chirps, he looked a little dried out, sort of what an apricot left too long in the sun begins to resemble, with his flesh now shrunk tight against his tiny bones. The second week it appeared that his eyes had disappeared. Where they went I could not discover—though I turned and shook the jar the eyes were clearly missing. To me this was becoming profoundly interesting, and mysterious.

But when I went to unearth Chirps for the third time, about a month after he died, I could not find him or the jar. I had marked his resting place with a distinctive stone but it too had disappeared; and without it, I couldn’t remember precisely enough where he was buried. And so over the course of the next week, I dug up virtually the entire lot, which must have been 30 feet wide and 75 feet deep.
My mother wanted to know what I was doing out there at all hours. I reminded her that in the past I had planted a successful vegetable garden there and was thinking about doing that again next spring.
She said, “But it’s November.”

And thus I gave up on Chirps, but not on my quest.

The next focus of my obsession with death and decay was Egyptian mummies. Even before I was aware of King Tut and all the stories surrounding his discovery and his treasures, from Richard Haliburton’s Complete Book of Marvels, I learned about the Seven Wonders of the Ancient World, which included the Pyramids at Giza. And how they were in reality giant tombs for the most famous pharaohs. And that the dead pharaohs, turned into mummies, were sealed in those pyramids.

So when our public school class went on a field trip to the Metropolitan Museum of Art, I managed to sneak away from the group and got “lost” for an hour in the labyrinth of the Egyptian Hall where, secured in glass cabinets in open coffins, what the Ancient Egyptians called sarcophagi, I could see actual mummies, dead pharaohs’ bodies that were more than 4,000 years old.

I was getting closer to the real thing. But there was still a problem—I couldn’t actually see the pharaohs’ bodies since they were so tightly wrapped in cloth shrouds. But the fact that I could sense more or less full bodies obscured within those wrappings suggested to me that Grandpa, Grandma, Uncle Herman, and Chirps might still be recognizable if somehow I could only get to them. After all, if the mummies were in such good shape after 4,000 years, Grandpa and Grandma and Chirps might still be pretty much as I remembered them.

Little did I know that before very long I would have a close encounter with a dead body, right in my own family, when Aunt Madeline’s first husband, Morty, killed himself by taking an overdose of sleeping pills.

I barely knew him because they had been married less than six months. He seemed nice enough to me. Minimally he was the first of her husbands who wasn’t bald and, even more important to her, was taller than she and thus a better dance partner. Stories circulating in the family suggested that after living with Madeline for only a few short months, Morty took the “easy way out” by killing himself. Though he may have had enough of her, from her carrying on after his death, she appeared to have lost the love of her life.

Perhaps because of my experience weeding the family plot, I was assigned to help make arrangements for Uncle Morty’s funeral.

My primary responsibility was to give the mortician a suit in which to bury him. As you might imagine, at twelve, though tall for my age, I was not fully prepared for this. So I just grabbed the first one I saw in his closet and spent the rest of my time hoping that at the service they would have an open coffin so I could at last . . .

To my considerable disappointment the casket was closed. But at the chapel, the funeral director to whom I had given Morty’s suit, pulled me aside and directed me to a private corner where he whispered so as not to disturb anyone, “Was that his suit you gave me?”

“Certainly,” I said, confused and guilty, “It was in his closet.”

“Are you sure?”

“I think so,” I stuttered, my attempt to appear certain eroding, “Why are you asking?”

“Because it looked as if it was a suit for a ten-year-old.”

I looked over to where Morty’s son was sitting and saw that he was in casual clothes. He was not wearing a suit.

The undertaker rasped in my ear, “I can’t tell you what we had to do to get it on the body.” I was cringing, “But we did,” he added with a twisted smile.

And so, on that day in 1954 when I got to see the dead Rosenbergs, I was reminded of the guilt I felt because of what I had inadvertently done to poor Morty and his hapless son.  But more, I couldn’t stop thinking about what the I.J. Morris undertakers needed to do to get Julius’ suit to fit.

My education and interests took some new directions as I began to grow into my body. And though a total failure at Hebrew School, where I was sent to receive a religious education, in spite of this, I begin to think about what one might call “spiritual things.”  Adolescent meaning-of-life questions—Where did we come from (not just the mechanics of procreation what we could learn from discussions about the facts of life)? And where were we going (and by that I didn’t mean Mt. Lebanon)?   Heshy, under the influence of Mr. Perly and his own surging hormones, was ever the materialist and said, non-biblically, that we are merely made up of atoms and molecules and thus when we die into a version of dust we shall revert.

By then I also was into atoms, but the dust-to-dust answer didn’t work for me. I had begun to think there were higher issues and meanings to being human. I saw a very different place in the world and beyond for us as compared to the fate of Chirps and my guppies.

                                                *    *    *

Many years later my father, well into his eighties, began to fail. He had always been a force of nature. I know to children fathers often seem to be that powerful and arbitrary, but my father was truly tectonic. When he raged, all trembled; when he commanded, all obeyed; what he expected, we did; and when he in his own coded way showed love, we all were smitten. So when his big body was being reduced by time and he could no longer move forward but was afflicted by what the medical people called “retrograde movement,” which meant he fell backwards when he attempted to move ahead, I saw this to be a metaphor for his decline—he was heading backwards, even while attempting still to cut his way forward through life.

To see him like this raised many more questions about the meaning of life, at least the meaning of a life. The answers I came up with were not comforting. Everything seemed to reduce itself to biology—eating and pissing and shitting were the final summing up. Not so different from what Heshy had been saying some years earlier.

Dad lived in Florida and we in New York; and so when my mother called to say, “Come down,” we got right on a plane to Fort Lauderdale. After landing, we lost our way from the airport to the hospital, frustrated that we would miss the end. From my mother’s voice and her deserved fame as the family “witch,” invariably perceiving the future, we knew there was very little time and every missed turn made it less likely that we would find him still alive.

But with a sense of the miraculous, the hospital appeared just as we were about to make another futile U turn. Excited, we skidded the car into the parking lot and raced up the steps afraid that even to wait for the elevator would make us fatally late. We found his room and him in bed, unconscious, breathing with obvious final distress.

I sat beside him and held his withered hand, saying what I knew would be a few last words. There was no way to know if he heard me as I attempted to sum up what I had by then come to conclude about us (contested), his life (contradictory), and life itself (still imponderable). I longed to feel even a reflexive squeeze from him and perhaps there was one or at the very least a last spasm to let me know he understood, and that was what he too had come to understand.

And then all was utter, utter stillness.

I closed his quickly cooling eyelids and put my hand to his chest as he had done so many times to me when he would say to me as child and adult, “Such a good boy. Such a lucky boy.”

And then he was no longer there. Even during his last unconscious moments it was apparent that whatever he was was present but then when he died that was gone. Just gone.

I leaned closer and peered motionlessly at him to see if I could perceive his spirit depart or if whatever was left was still him.

But all there was was just a body.

Thursday, September 27, 2012

September 27, 2012--Middle of the World

One exceptionally hot but dry day in July more than 20 years ago, I drove hundreds of miles out of my way to reach the Four Corners--that arid spot in the western high desert where the southwestern corner of Colorado, the northwestern corner of New Mexico, the northeastern corner of Arizona, and the southeastern corner of Utah meet. Thus, the Four Corners.

I cannot to this day tell you why I was drawn to that spot on the map. There was nothing within hundreds of miles in all four directions to attract my attention but sage, cactus, lizards, and shimmering mirages. But pulled to that place as if in a spell I was.

And on another occasion, I found myself on a boat in the Thames River, heading out from a dock in central London to Greenwich, to the observatory and the brass line on the floor of the laboratory that marks where Greenwich Mean Time was established with the full force and authority of the British Empire, with all the clocks and timing devices in the world subsequently calibrated to it.

In both instances I took uncommon pleasure standing on the exact spot where the four states come together and straddling that line where earthy time begins and ends.

So I am not at all surprised that there in a small town in Ecuador, San Antonio de Pichincha, where people from all over gather to stand at what they there call the Middle of the World, on that location on the Equator where the northern and southern hemispheres are bisected.

Since the Equator circumnavigates our globe there and at literally limitless other places, locations where one can straddle both hemispheres--from Africa, to the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans, and of course to many other sites in South America--why then is the Middle of the World found in San Antonio de Pichincha?

According to the New York Times it is because 200 years ago the French Geodesic Mission arrived there with instruments designed to determine if the circumference of the Earth at the Equator is greater than other places where the circumference can be measured--for example, through the north and south poles.

As we know from high school earth science, because centrifugal force is exerted most forcefully at the Equator as the Earth rotates on its axis at about 1,000 miles per hour, there is as a result a slight bulging at the Equator--41.73 miles to be precise. And thus the Earth has the shape of an ellipsoid or geoid ("earth-like") shape.

But here's the hitch--San Antonio de Pichincha is not in fact on the Equator. Because of modern measuring devices, including GPSs, we now know that the Equator is about 800 feet south of it. Close enough you might cynically say since Ecuador is a poor country and needs tourism revenue and it is in that tiny town that there are all sorts of shops that bring much-needed hard currency to the people and government. Why then quibble about a few hundred feet? Last year, for example, half a million tourists visited the monument that marks the site and brought with them many dollars and euros.

But to folks like me who eagerly drive through the middle of nowhere to get to special (some would say magical) places such as the Four Corners, 800 feet from equatorial ground zero doesn't qualify.

There is a plan on the drawing boards to build a 5,000 foot tower nearby on the actual Equator. But it would cost at least $250 million to construct it and thus is unlikely to ever get off the ground.

In the meantime, if you find yourself in Ecuador, in San Antonio de Pichincha, close to the existing monument there is a small privately-owned site, Inti-ana it is called, marked with a hand-painted sign that claims it is located at 0 degrees latitude, 0 minutes, 0 seconds. But if you trek there you will have to get along without T-shirt shops or cafeterias.

Wednesday, September 26, 2012

September 26, 2012--"Barack, Call Me"

I have been trying to figure out what the Romney people plan to do a week or so before Election Day to destroy Barack Obama's candidacy. How will they swift-boat him the way the Bush folks successfully undermined John Kerry's bid for the presidency by calling his heroic service in Vietnam into question? Wasn't it ironic, I thought at the time, that someone who served honorably in combat was savaged politically by someone who avoided combat by hanging out stateside in the Texas National Guard.

What then is in store for Obama? Will the hundreds of millions of dollars of unspent Super PAC money be devoted to reminding us of the Reverend Wright? Will the birther thing once more rear its ugly head? Will we again see pictures of Obama in native dress while visiting Kenya as a young man?

Probably yes, but voters have been over this ground and it didn't work the first time--Obama handily defeated John McCain.

But here's the new dirt I think Karl Rove and the Koch brothers have up their sleeves--

Do you remember the Tennessee Senate race in 2006? The one in which Congressman Harold Ford attempted to become the first African-American senator from the Volunteer State? He was running neck-in-neck with Bob Corker, who up to the time was best known as a successful builder and real estate operative.

Ten days before Election Day--swift-boat time--Corker's campaign released a series of faux street interviews in which "everyday" Tennesseans told half-truths about Ford's record and platform. Familiar enough. Pretty much every campaign airs deceptive ads of this kind.

What was distinctive about these, however, was the appearance of a half-clad blonde who leeringly whispered into the camera--"I met Harold at a Playboy party."  And then at ad's end she reappeared, winked, and coyly said, "Harold, call me."

This played to rumors that the unmarried Congressman Ford had an eye for white women.

Immediately the polls turned around and Corker won narrowly with 50.7 percent of the vote.

From this experience, the one thing Republicans have steered clear from when attacking Obama is to float stories that he is interested in white women. The National Enquirer, among other supermarket tabloids, through the years has published stories indicating Barack's marriage to Michelle is on the rocks, that they are sleeping in separate bedrooms, that she plans to dump him after the election and return to Chicago. Also, standard fictional fare.

Now, I am predicting, there will be reports about Obama cheating on Michelle. Of course with white women.

There will probably be no "Barack, call me" moment; but Rove is a clever if evil boy and I assume that what he comes up with will resonate with the haters and might even convince an independent voter or two to vote for the seeming straight shooter--Mitt Romney.

However, this time it won't work. It will backfire.

The one thing even the anti-Obama crowd agree about is that he is a good family man. Such an assault on his character would also allow him to express moral outrage that Romney would allow such a slander.

But if ten days before the election Obama is still in the lead, stand back.

Tuesday, September 25, 2012

September 25, 2012--Lucky Duckies

Twenty years ago the estimable Wall Street Journal began to refer to Americans who pay no federal income tax as Lucky Duckies.  Here from the Journal is how they described them--
Who are these lucky duckies? They are the beneficiaries of tax policies that have expanded the personal exemption and standard deduction and targeted certain voter groups by introducing a welter of tax credits for things like child care and education. When these escape hatches are figured against income, the result is either a zero liability or a liability that represents a tiny percentage of income.
Mitt Romney isn't using this contemptuous language--he is leaving that to Rupert Murdoch's minions--but his now infamous 47 percent drips with the same kind of contempt. The Republican language, cleaned up a bit, refers to what they see to be  the two classes in America as the makers and the takers.

They rail against Democrats, Obama especially, for waging class warfare--that they believe in "redistribution." What they mean is that Obama and his colleagues want to take money away from the successful makers and redistribute it to the irresponsible and lazy takers. In dog whistle terms--people of color.

There are of course a number of problems with this GOP analysis. 

First, fewer than 47 percent pay no federal income tax--it is closer to 38 percent--and the majority of them pay Medicare and Social Security payroll taxes (at a rate of about 18%). Higher, in percentage terms than Mitt Romney who paid just 13.9% in 2010 and 14.1% last year. Most of the rest are the working poor who hold a series of part-time jobs that add up to less than $20,000 a year in taxable income--thus they are working hard but earn too little to pay federal income tax. I suspect that these working folks making less than $20,000 would be happy to pay income taxes if they could find work that paid them, say, $45,000.

Then there are members of the armed services, veterans on disability, college students, and the elderly who make up most of the rest of Romney's Lucky Duckies. 

Of course there are those who are ripping off the unemployment and food stamps system just as there are high flyers making millions a year ripping off the tax and financial regulation system. If they get caught, which is how we learn about them, they are occasionally prosecuted and sent to jail. The Enron executives, Bernie Madoff, and other white-collar perpetrators are evidence that it is not just people on welfare who cheat.

Second, there is the redistribution charge. There in fact is a lot of that. Taxes build highways that benefit those with cars and the trucking industry. Taxes from the middle and upper classes pay for school lunch programs. Airports are built with tax money and this benefits business and leisure travelers as well and tens of thousands of companies that ship products by air freight.  In general Americans are OK with these forms of distribution.

On the other hand, tax policy itself contributes significantly to redistribution. Redistribution upwards. Every tax loophole and deduction benefits only those who make money via capital gains; hedge funds; and deductions for things such as mortgage interest, property, state, and local income taxes; or receive federal farm and oil depreciation subsides.

As a result, the top 5-10 percent have seen their incomes and assists soar since the 1980s while the middle class and working poor have had to work harder to stand still.

But more than money and assets are involved in this social-Darwinian economy. People's lives are literally at stake.

Reported prominently in last Friday's New York Times is new research that shows that the rich are living longer than the poor. In fact, since 1990, over just twenty-two years, America's least educated whites, and lowest income people in general, have seen their life expectancy drop by four years. In other words, the poor are dying on average four years sooner than everyone else.

This too is redistribution, but of the cruelest sort. 

Monday, September 24, 2012

September 24, 2012--Chapter 8: Mr. Perly's World of Mirrors

Considering the daily mayhem on the streets of East Flatbush, it was essential for a glazier to be available at all times to fix broken windows in homes and stores.  The former, the result of wayward rocks, baseballs, and hockey pucks; the latter caused by criminals-to-be who saw breaking into Krinsky’s candy store to be the ideal preparation for later-in-life felonies. 
And since the foremost perpetrator of misdemeanors was Heshy Perlmutter, it was appropriate that the neighborhood glazier was his father, Mr. Perly.  This in truth was not as ideal as it might at first seem.  You might imagine that the father would show family concern for the victims of broken glass.  Or that he would make haste to repair what his only son had caused.  That is what one might have expected.  But Mr. Perly lived in a world so much of his own that, if anything, the victims would probably have been better and more expeditiously served if they had thought to import a glazier from far away Manhattan.
Mr. Perly always appeared to be preoccupied with higher thoughts and complex issues.  He was frequently seen to be in frenetic motion, prowling the streets in passionate discourse with himself.  Slashing the air, to punctuate his best arguments, with rolled-up copies of either the Jewish Daily Forward, PM, or the Daily Worker.  It was his baton, pointer, or weapon, depending on the subject at hand.  
This dialogue was conducted in four languages—German, Yiddish, Russian, and his own unique version of English.  And there always were multiple participants, with Mr. Perly playing all the roles.  One day when I was trailing him, in the manner of one of my heroes, private eye Sam Spade, trying to overhear, I thought I heard him fighting with someone called Trotsky. 
I was fascinated by the world in which Mr. Perly moved and spent much time attempting to learn about his polyglot universe of languages, glass, and mirrors  After a while I came to understand that the reason he had no “real” interlocutors was not so much because he was crazy but that he had concluded the ideas he was wrestling with were beyond the grasp of his neighbors.  There was an arrogance about him in spite of the fact that he was always disheveled and lived on the edge of poverty.  He felt that he did not have any peers because he inhabited a world of ideas unfamiliar to and above those of everyone else in East Flatbush, or perhaps all of Brooklyn, and because he practiced the art of glazing, which was an ancient and hermetic craft.  Everyone else either worked at a gas station, cut velvet in the City, or slaved away behind the counter in an appetizing store selling bagels and slicing Lox. 
Most thought that Mr. Perly’s work involved just fixing broken windows; when in fact, in the inner recesses of his shop, he engaged in his true calling—silver-glazing sheets of glass, alchemically transforming them into mirrors.  It was especially that world of mirrors I longed to enter.  But I knew I could only get there with the help of Trotsky, whoever or whatever he was.
To learn about Trotsky I asked Heshy, who told me that he didn’t know much about Leon Trotsky either except that he was some kind of a Russian, was involved in the Communist Revolution, and that his father talked about him all the time.  Even in his sleep, Heshy said, he would argue with Trotsky and would cry out what sounded like “Bonaparte.  Bonaparte.”   Or more mysteriously, “Bonapartism.”  Almost every night, waking Heshy and his sister Gracie.  Heshy said it was as if he were fighting in his sleep with Napoleon Bonaparte who had betrayed the Revolution.  Or something like that.  But Heshy was a good enough student to know that Napoleon had died well before the Russian Revolution but that he had his army invade Russia and almost subjugated it.  That was all he knew and so he too was confused and told me if I wanted to learn about Trotsky and Bonaparte I needed to search elsewhere. 
Since it was clear during the early years of the Cold War that it was not a good idea to wander into the neighborhood public library and ask about a Russian such as Trotsky, I figured out that I would have to take a more indirect approach to Mr. Perly.   Here Heshy was more helpful; he suggested if I wanted to learn about the mysteries of turning glass into mirrors, I should probably forget about Trotsky, the Russian Revolution, communism and Napoleon and just hang around his father’s shop, to see if I could make myself useful by offering to keep him supplied with endless cups of coffee and pack after pack of Old Gold cigarettes. 
So every day, after school was out, I went to Mr. Perly’s store on Church Avenue, and just sat, with averted eyes, in the back, near him, saying nothing, offering nothing.  Afternoon after afternoon, from 3:30 to 5:30, silently sitting on a battered work bench that was pushed back against one wall among the half-empty empty five-gallon cans of putty that he used to secure broken windows after securing them in their frames with tiny triangular nails. 
It was during that time in the afternoon, to supplement his glazing business, that he also fabricated Venetian Blinds, hanging two slotted fabric tapes from hooks on the ceiling into which he inserted the slats and then the cords that were used to raise and lower the blinds as well as open and close them against the light.  It was repetitive, rhythmic work and at times, though he didn’t speak or acknowledge me, he did make sounds that reminded me of my grandfather davening, praying in schul. 
And so I went there every day and sat on that bench, leaning back against the wall.  We didn’t acknowledge each other, but I did sense that Mr. Perly was aware of my presence and was not unhappy with the silent company I provided.  And then, after two weeks, without anything seemingly having changed, he growled over his shoulder in my direction, “Coffee.”
I sprang up from my half-reverie and stammered, “Sure Mr. Perly.  Do you want milk and sugar?”
“Right away.  I’ll run right over to Krinsky’s.”
“Old Golds, right?”
He continued to thread slats into the hanging tapes, saying nothing more, not looking over toward me.  But, excited by this breakthrough, I hopped off the bench, and raced across the street to get his coffee and cigarettes.  They knew it was for him and didn’t ask for money, adding it to his tab.
This then went on for another week—Mr. Perly humming and threading his slats, me tucked away waiting by the workbench, until he would bark “Coffee,” “Cigarettes,” or at times both.  I would attend right to it and be back in a flash with whatever he demanded.
Things began to shift again when one day he muttered “Paper” as well as “Coffee.”  I thought I knew what he meant but asked “The Daily Worker?”  Maybe this communist paper would get us to Trotsky.
“Mit the coffee,” he shot back.
I brought both to his workshop.  He got down off the small stool on which he stood to insert the topmost slats, he was less than five feet tall, and came over to a paint- and putty-splattered chair near where I was settled.  He slumped onto it, sipping at his coffee, sputtering and spitting as he always did after his first gulp, “Ach, zehr heys.”
“Too hot?” he nodded, “Sorry Mr. Perly.”
He opened the Daily Worker and spread it out on the worktable, smoothing the pages with his knurled fingers, talking to himself in the same agitated mix of languages that was familiar to me from the times I had shadowed him through the neighborhood.
Dat Truman.  Est ein dog.  Und his cronies.  Schwein, all of them.”
I decided to risk engaging him, “You mean the president?  But didn’t he stand up to Stalin?”
At that, Mr. Perly hurled his steaming coffee cup across the shop where it smashed against the wall, and he sprang off the chair with the coiled ferocity of someone half his age.  I was, transfixed with excitement, and also fear. He stomped around the room, spewing a stream of, to me, incoherent curses.  But among them I thought I did hear him talking about Bonaparte or, perhaps—he was difficult to understand--Bonapartism.
So I took a further chance, “What, Mr. Perly,” I asked tentatively, “is Bonapartism?”
“I don’t understand.  Won’t you  . . . ”
“What do they teach you in school?  Nicht. Nothing!  Mein Harold, he knows nothing except baseball and girls.  Ach, America.”
“But Bonaparte?”
“A fascist like the rest.”
“Do you mean Napoleon, that Bonaparte?”  Him, at least, I knew about from World History--that he wanted to take over the land of communism.  Before the revolution, before Mr. Perly’s beloved communism could take hold.
Yah, him.  But Trotsky, you know, he was really a Jew.  Bronstein.  He knew.  He knew fascism.  So they killed him.  Ramon Mercader that murdering hund.  In Mexico, mit an axe in his kopf.”   He sighed deeply and dropped his head as if to show me where the axe blow had landed.  I waited.  Palpitating.
He resumed, “But der Nazis were not Bonaparte.  Fools.”
“I still don’t understand.”
“Didn’t you read in school about Trotsky, his last letter in 1940 before they killed him?”
“No.  What did it say?”
“That fascism is not the same as Bonapartism.”
It was that word from his sleep.  Heshy was right.  That was what he was crying out from his dreams.
“That . . . ?”
Yah.  Fascism comes after, after the vanguard fails to lead der masses.  Look, it’s right here in white and black.”  He pounded his hand on the Daily Worker, still spread out on the table, with such force that the can of triangular glazers nails overturned, spilling its contents onto the floor and into the open cans of putty. 

He resumed his pacing and frantic mix of oaths.  Even though I was even more confused by what seemed to be contradictions in his version of history, I was afraid to say another word, move, or even breathe.  He was raging out of control.  During all his agitated walks through the streets I had never seen him like this.  He became violent, kicking at the putty cans, toppling the chair and his stool, tearing from its hooks the Venetian blind he had been working on so that the slats fell into a tangled heap like a giant game of Pick-Up Sticks.  He stalked about the shop, punching at the air as if fighting off invisible demons.
I thought I had better try to sneak out, get away from him.  This whole situation was turning out to be much more complicated than I had expected.  It felt dangerous, as if I might be hurt.  Though that in truth excited me, the danger, I was more frightened than eager to continue.  I did want to learn about glazing but didn’t want to get assaulted in the process.  So when his thrashing about took him into the sink room in the back, I slipped off the bench and ran out onto the street toward home and safety. 
After that terrifying afternoon I thought to take a break from visiting Mr. Perly’s store.  Maybe I shouldn't go back at all, ever.  But still I wanted to. I was that confused and conflicted.  Pull in all directions. Perhaps I should wait to let him and things cool down.  And for me to sort through what had happened and try to understand what I was really seeking from Mr. Perly.  Was it about fixing windows and making mirrors?  I had a desire to learn about that, true, but could not figure out quite why.  And I was still afraid about what he might do to me if I returned to his workshop. 
*    *    *
Thankfully I had school to distract me.  I was very busy and needed the extra hours to catch up with homework, including writing a report for World History about the Cold War, which from the perspective of someone who spent so much time each week diving under a desk as part the school’s take-cover drills that were designed to protect us from being vaporized in a Russian H-Bomb attack on the Brooklyn Navy Yard, seemed like a very hot topic. 
I caught up with my homework and during that time also realized that even though I didn’t yet understand why, I still wanted to learn about glazing.  I knew that if learning about making mirrors was that important to me I could probably find another way to do it; but I also now knew, whatever the danger, I was only interested in learning it from Mr. Perly.  
I was after other things I might learn from him though I didn’t then know what they were.  I was in a state of confusion.  All I knew was that I would have to get myself back there somehow, soon, and take the risk, if I were ever to get this straightened out.  I was also hoping that we would be able to avoid talking about Trotsky.
I lay awake the night before I planned to return to him, trembling about how it would be and what would happen.  Would he even let me in?  Would he still be raving?  Would he attack me as he had the furniture and air around him?  Heshy provided a little help, telling me that his father had withdrawn into an even darker mood when after work he returned to their apartment above the store.  Though Heshy reported that he was quiet through the night with much less crying out from his sleep. 
When I returned to his shop I was not entirely surprised that he treated me as if I hadn’t been away.  I did not have to go back to sitting on the workbench waiting for him to growl, “Coffee” or “Cigarettes.”  He put me right back to work fetching them for him.  And since he did not ask me to bring him the Daily Worker, I thought, without whatever it was that incited him in the paper, I might soon be able to ask him to teach me about making mirrors.
By remarkable coincidence, after I had been back with him for only a few days, Mel Lipsky’s mother, Mrs. Lipsky, came to his store to see about ordering eight two-foot-by-two-foot mirrors for her dining room wall.  She was redecorating.  Her husband, she told Mr. Perly, inherited some money from and uncle who lived in Florida and he told her, “For once in your life, spend big.”
So here she was.  Could Mr. Perly get such a large job done in only two weeks?  She was planning a large family Thanksgiving dinner and wanted all the work done by then.
I knew how he hated anything fancy and especially people who puffed themselves up, thinking of themselves as petit bourgeois and better than working people.  He had told me that people like that they were “running dogs,” and so I feared he would erupt into a stream of Yiddish and German ravings and we would be back in the violent realm of capitalist lackeys.  But he remained calm, though I sensed the tension beneath the surface, and he agreed that he could have the mirrors for her in ten days.  She gave him a deposit, and after she left he told me I would help him.
“With the mirrors?”  I almost fainted from the possibility.
Yah, this job is too big for me.  You will help.  I will tell you what to do.  I teach.  We begin later, tonight”
What would I tell my mother?  How would I get permission to go there at night?  She knew I spent time in the afternoon with Mr. Perly.  She knew how much I liked fixing and building things and understood that that was what I was doing there with him.  She also felt sorry for him, which for her meant she also liked him.  She spent much of her life tending to other’s suffering.  She once told me that he had lost his whole family during the War and this had made him the way he was.  But to go there at night, that might be a different matter.   I needed her approval, and for her to deal with my father, who as the only Republican in the family despised Mr. Perly and his subversive views. 
After dinner I just blurted it out—how Mr. Perly just got this big order for mirrors from Mrs. Lipsky and he needed me to help him and how I had always wanted to learn about silvering and that this was my chance and that making mirrors was a very ancient craft and to learn about it would be good for school and how after I learned about it I could bring a mirror I worked on to class for Show And Tell and . . .   
As I began to gasp for breath she stopped me and said, “All right, you can go.”  She also said she would not tell my father anything about my helping Mr. Perly.  She assured me that she would protect me.  My father and his brother-in-law, Uncle Harry, had recently bought a bar and grill in Downtown Brooklyn and didn’t get home until at least midnight.  He would therefore not need to know anything so long as I got home no later than 8:30, which I promised to do and then, before she could change her mind, bolted down the stairs and around the corner to Mr. Perly’s.
*    *    *
His workroom had been transformed.  It was no longer set up for making Venetian blinds.  Half finished blinds had been rolled up and placed in the corner.  The work able had been pulled to the center of the room.  An immaculate sheet of white cloth covered its scarred surface.  All the putty cans had been covered and pushed aside and on another table the size of a folding card table Mr. Perly had set out a glass bowl, a number of bottles that looked as if they contained chemicals, and another large bottle that looked as if it contained water.  It was always dim in the recesses of this space but he had draped another cloth over the window that looked out onto the vacant lot behind his shop toward our apartment.  The single unshaded bulb that hung from the ceiling directly over the workbench was the only light.  It was very hot and I was sorry I let my mother insist on my wearing a sweater.
I was throbbing and sweating with excitement.  Before I could say a word he told me to put on white cotton gloves.  I saw that he had already done so.  He directed me to go into the room with the sink and bring in the first piece of glass.  He told me to handle it only by the edges and place it on the worktable. I did as told and brought it to him.  It had been cleaned and polished as if it was a valuable jewel.  He pointed to the work table and I placed it in the very center right under the light, squaring it so that it was in perfect alignment.
Standing by the side table he carefully opened the largest bottle, which he told me contained the purest of waters, distilled water.  He poured about a pint of it into the bowl.  He next picked up one of the bottles of chemicals.  I saw from the label that it was Nitrate of Silver.  He meticulously began to dribble some of it into the water while simultaneously stirring it with a glass rod.  He said, “Never mit a spoon or stick.  Only glass.”  I nodded.
When he finished stirring it in, he removed the stopper from another bottle that I knew from the smell was ammonia, He said, “Yah, exactly 26 percent ammonia.  Just 30 drops I put in.”  Which he did–counting them carefully, “Drei, vier, funf, sechs,” pouring with his left hand while stirring with his right, until the solution cleared.  He then added more nitrate of silver, slightly less than initially, still stirring with the rod.  “Remember, immer with glass.”  I nodded.  “Now we let stand for half an hour then we do the filtering. But while we wait we make a second solution.  First bring me the pot from the stove there behind the screen.” 
I had not noticed it before but quickly found it and brought it to him.  Into a small porcelain lined pan he poured a pint of the distilled water and added to it two ounces of Rochelle Salts which he shook from another container.  He proceeded to boil this mixture for precisely one minute (I could hear him counting the sixty seconds).  Into this he stirred two ounces of the nitrate of silver, using a second glass rod; and when it returned to the boil stood over it while calling out the minutes until it reached funf, five.  “We now let sit for ein half hour and then we filter both like the first one.” 
When the second batch was settling, he took the first of two empty bottles and into their openings placed glass funnels.  He had blotter paper which he folded into cone-shaped triangles and then put them into the funnels.  When he had both bottles arranged to his satisfaction he said, “We filter now.”  He poured the liquid from the two batches into the funnels.  Clear liquid dripped through slowly, leaving a ring of sediment at the bottom of both filters.
He said, "Cork der bottles,” which I proceeded to do.  “Put them there,” he added, pointing to a place beside where I had placed the first piece of glass.  “It is almost time to begin.”  The light dangling above us blinked.  He looked up at it, not seeming to be concerned.
He made sure that the glass was perfectly level, bending over it, standing to one side, adjusting it by placing small wedges of wood under one corner or another, squinting along the surface of the glass as if he was playing pool and lining up a shot.
“Just the right hot," he said.  “The glass it must be just the right heys.  Ninety, a hundred degrees here,” which it surely was.  I now understood why he had turned up the radiators.
He next heated a small amount of the distilled water and after testing it with a finger poured a thin sheen of it over the glass, again bending over it, closing one eye to make sure it spread across the glass evenly.  He made a few minor adjustments in the placement of the wooden wedges to get the glass to be perfectly level.   He then tipped the glass to make the water run off onto the worktable where it was absorbed by the cloth covering.  The light flickered again, this time a few times before resuming its steady glow.  He settled the glass gently back on its wedges.
In yet another bottle that looked like a small pitcher he mixed equal parts of the two solutions.  He stirred them together with a third glass rod.  “Always mit the glass I told you.  Always stirring just like this.”  I nodded again.
He steadied himself.  Then raised the tiny pitcher from the table and moved to where the glass lay.  He began to pour some of the solution onto the center of the two-by-two glass for Mrs.Lipsky, allowing it to spread out over the glass toward the edges.  He moved to one corner of the glass and in a circular motion poured more of the solution around the perimeter until the entire piece of glass was equally covered.  To do this he literally danced around the table.  The light was blinking again, more off than on but this did not slow him.  Its flickering made him look as if he was a character in a stop-action movie.  He would disappear for a split second only to reappear a half step from where I had last seen him.  Like dancing on a string.
He said, as if to himself, “Must be doing the electrocutions up in Zing Zing to make the lights blink.”
Then the light went out and did not come back on.  He said, “Is OK.  Do not worry.  Get the kerosene lamp from the back, by the sink.  We will be gut.”
I stumbled toward the back, feeling my way along the wall and made it to the sink.  I held on to it.
Unter the sink you will find.”  Which I did.  He had lit matches and this helped me find my way back to him.  “Put there,” he grunted, pointing to the end of the workbench.   He joined me there and lit the lamp which instantly cast a warm glow on what had previously been a harsh space.
“Time to finish.”  The electrical failure had not slowed him or dampened his enthusiasm.  “We tip the glass again to let solution come off.”  He raised the glass by one corner, standing it on edge; and even in the half-light I could see the excess run off onto the cloth, which again sucked it up without a trace.
“Rinse,” he told me, indicating I should get the bottle of distilled water.  I brought it back to him and he waved at me as if to say I should do it.
I removed the cork.  He pointed to yet another small bottle and nodded his head.  I poured some into it.  He nodded again at the glass which now appeared to be coated with a shiny substance.  He lowered it to the table and nodded at it and the bottle I was holding.  I poured some of it onto what I now suspected might be . . . a mirror.  I tried to start in the center and move the stream of water in a circle to coat it as evenly as he had with the silver solution.  He nodded his approval.
He tipped it to allow the water to run off and resettled it on the table.  We stood on opposite sides, in the light of the kerosene lamp, staring down at the drying surface, as if at a tribal rite.
And when it was dry, Mr. Perly reached down for a small can of what looked like black paint.  “Backing paint,” he said when he saw my puzzled look.  With a brush that looked as ancient as the craft of glazing itself, he slowly applied it, back and forth, to the silver coating until it all was covered.  Again we stood watching it dry.  The power was still off.
After about fifteen minutes he said, “Done.  Dat’s it.”   The light blinked on and then off.  “You, turn it over.  It’s mirror now.  You see first.  It’s for you.  Not,” he spat, “that Lipsky woman.”
And even in the dimness surrounding us I saw at once that we had made a mirror. 
Vat do you see?” he asked.
“A mirror,” I whispered.
“No, dumkopf, vat do you see?”
“Reflections.  It’s a mirror.”  What was he after?  I felt lost again.
“And I thought you had a brain on your head.  Look more.  See what you see.”
I tried to look more carefully to find what I was missing, “Just me.  Just a reflection of me?” I shrugged.
Dat’s it!  I knew you war smart.  It’s you.  But now tell me more.  Look, what do you see?”
My initial excitement had by then turned quickly to frustration.  We had performed magic together.  I thought that had been what I had been after with Mr. Perly, to perform alchemy.  We had not made gold from lead but we had made a mirror from a piece of plain glass.
The bulb blinked and stayed on.  We emerged from the half-light of his glazier’s cave back to harsh electric light. 
What time was it, how close to 8:30?  I realized I needed to get home.  “I need to go Mr. Perly.  Thanks so much for everything.  It’s been a wonderful experience.”  I began to look for my jacket, turning away from the workbench, him, and the mirror.
I felt his hand grip my arm from behind.  “You stay yet,” my heart began to thump.  Were we headed back to a time like with Trotsky?  I began to feel afraid. My mother would never let me out of the house again.
“I have to go Mr. Perly.  My mother said I needed to be home by 8:30.”  I tried to pull loose.  But he held on to me and turned me to face him.  Though I towered over him he was much stronger than I and had no difficulty spinning me around like a top.
“You go soon but first you tell me wat you see.  What I ask before.”
“I told you,” I said with brave annoyance, “My face reflected.”
Gut.  And what did you see in your face?”
“Just me.  How I look.”
“Take another look.”  Still gripping my arm he now steered me back to the table and our mirror.
“Let me hold it up so you can see.”  He lifted the mirror and held it before me, obscuring his own face.  I tried hard but all I saw was my own puzzled face staring back at me.  I did notice, though, that a new pimple was emerging from the tip of my nose.  I forced myself to resist reaching up to probe it.
“I see you are not understanding so let me tell you ein story about the Greek god Narcissus.  He was told he would live forever if he never took a look at himself.  You heard?”
I shook my head, still peering into the mirror.
“He was loved by Echo.  A nymph also from long time ago.  But he did not return her love so she went to live in a place in woods where only she heard echoes of her harts, her heart.”
”I didn’t learn about that in school either.”  I was beginning to think about all the other things I wasn’t learning.  I could see my reflection beginning to relax as Mr. Perly’s words entered into me.
“So wen one of Echo’s friends called Nemesis, another goddess, when she learned of Echo’s broken heart she made Narcissus look into the water near where he lived.  He saw there his face in the water.  Maybe this was the first mirror.”  He actually smiled, “And as was said, he died.  Todt.”
I shuddered and turned my head away from the glass.  Mr. Perly noticed and said, “You are safe here.  I see to that.”  I let myself trust him.
 “So let me speak about dying.”  I wasn’t sure I made the right decision to trust him.  I really didn’t want to talk about dying.  “It is alright.  You will be OK.  It is not yet your time.  Not for zeyer, very long.  But you do know what Jews do when someone dies?”  I didn’t know what he was trying to tell me.  He noticed my confusion.  “They sit shiva.  You know what is shiva ?”
“Yes, when my grandmother died, after she was buried we all went to her apartment and sat on wooden benches.  We were not allowed to be comfortable, to sit on her chairs or sofa.”
Yah, but what else?”
“People brought food and we all ate.”
Then it came to me.  Excited I said, “And they covered all the mirrors with towels.”
Yah.”  He clapped his hands, which made me flinch.  “You know why?”
“My mother said so that you can’t see yourself, see how sad you look because if you knew you might kill yourself.”
Mr. Perly emitted a choked laugh.  “I know they say that, the Jews, but what do they know about mirrors?”  He looked up at the ceiling and then at me, “About mirrors I know.”
“Why then do they cover them?”  I again had turned to face myself in the reflecting glass that he was still holding, though it was beginning to tremble in his hands, probably from the weight.
“Because to remind you that todt, death is not about you and how you look but about the dead.”  He saw I was confused again.  “A mirror is too much about you.  What you would see is that you are still alive and think, ‘I am lucky to not be todt like grannie.’  Your face would say back to you, ‘I am alive and that is what life means—to be alive.’”
“What’s wrong with that Mr. Perly?”
“Life is not only about being alive.  It is wat you do with ayer, your life.”
“I think maybe I am starting to understand.”  But still another  question came to me.  I didn’t want to make him angry again, but I had to know, “Why then do you make mirrors?  Doesn’t it mean that . . . ?”
He put the mirror on the table, perhaps because he could no longer support it; maybe because he wanted to look directly at me.  Which he did.  
“Mrs. Lipsky, she will not understand.  But yeh, you, yes.  I make this mirror so you can learn about life.  You.” 
“Isn’t it also about how we made the mirror?  From only glass and water and chemicals?”  I felt I was moving onto surer ground.
One last time, pointing a bent finger at me, he said, “Later you will understand.  Farshteyn?
I checked my watch.  It was past 8:30 and time for me to race home.