Wednesday, October 31, 2012

October 31, 2012--Power Failure

So no blogging for me today. Hopefully tomorrow.

Tuesday, October 30, 2012

October 30, 2012--Teflon Romney

How can flip-flopping, dissembling, gaff-machine Mitt Romney be running even with the more consistent, well-informed, accomplished, by comparison straight-shooter Barack Obama?

To search for an answer one has to begin by acknowledging that the more likable president, who actually achieved much during four years in spite of Republican intransigence, engendered entirely too much hope during his first campaign and seriously over-promised, as is common for non-incumbents. And, as a campaigner, especially as a debater, Obama also turns out to be a much better insurgent than incumbent.

More significant, hope felt to be unfulfilled is politically toxic. As they say, "The first time shame on you. The second time shame on me." When it comes to hope and belief this pretty well sums up how one can understandably at reelection time feel jilted and betrayed.

This is a powerful emotional and political reality for anyone, much less a president, to overcome. So Romney, or whatever candidate Republicans nominated, begins with this advantage--at least 40 percent of voters are eager to vote for any GOP candidate as long as he isn't Obama. Even such a desperately ambitious empty-suit as Mitt Romney.

No matter the limits of his vision and the deep flaws in his character, Romney seems as Teflon coated as Ronald Reagan. Reagan could stumble and bumble his way into Iran Contra and such but nothing ever stuck to him politically.

During the Republican primary season earlier this year Romney talked about how "Corporations are people, my friend"; and when attempting to represent himself as just an Average Joe, in spite of his seven houses and car elevators, he talked about his NASCAR friends--the owners; and how he loved "cheesy grits." And then of course, he reached out to make a friendly bet with opponent Rick Perry--a casual $10,000 bet. He even refused to release more than a year or two of income tax returns, causing many to wonder what he had to hide, considering from the ones he reluctantly released we learned he paid only 14% in income taxes.

But, in spite of this, one-by-one the opposition fell by the wayside. Each of them, even preposterous Michele Bachmann and ludicrous Herman Cain for a few days or a week took the lead in the poll--as, of course, did the out-of-control Donald Trump. They tumbled. Then more credible candidates Newt Gingrich and Rick Santorum rose to the top only in turn to be bested by Romney.

In spite of the way in which the Mitt Romney, who was opposed by many from the Republican base (recall how they viewed the Mormon religion as a cult), dodged and weaved his way through the field, and though east and west coasters thought of Romney as not much better than the "clowns" he had run against (even some Republicans referred to their field this way), he turned out to be the last one standing and was thought to be an easy opponent for Obama.

But Romney didn't get to be a successful corporate raider, my friends, and amass hundreds of millions in personal wealth just because he looks good in the mirror. He in fact did not inherit his business or his millions from his father--he is in many ways self-made. And he learned a few things along the way.

Most germane to the election--he learned how to win. And he may be on the edge of winning the biggest prize of all.

My favorite little-reported story about Romney's political smarts was the meeting he had with the Rev. Billy Graham. In October, he made a pilgrimage to Graham's home in Montreat, N.C., and after a chat, the reverend's website, which had a page devoted to how Mormonism is a cult, no longer had that page.

Graham then said,
I realize this election could be my last. I believe it is vitally important that we cast our ballots for candidates who base their decisions on biblical principles and support the nation of Israel. I urge you to vote for those who protect the biblical definition of marriage between a man and a woman.
Forget for the moment that there is no such "biblical definition" of marriage (though there there are many that support bigamy (for example, how many wives did Solomon have? Hint, the Bible says 700 wives plus 300 concubines), this statement from Billy Graham sounds like an endorsement to me.

Teflon Romney even appears to be getting away with his infamous 47 percent tape. What other candidate could still be standing after something so offensive to those 47 percent?

It can only be that there is so much frustration with what Obama promised and only partly deliver and the fact that he isn't white.

Monday, October 29, 2012

October 29, 2012--Sandy

Taking the day off to batten down. Everyone stay safe.

Friday, October 26, 2012

October 26, 2012--Chapter 13: My Liver


This is about a love letter from my father to my mother.  While he was quarantined up in the Adirondack Mountains, with a form of Tuberculosis.  It’s dated about six months after they met, well before she convinced her parents to allow her to marry him. 
Growing up, my favorite days were those when I was sick.  Not that sick, but sick enough to stay home from school but not too sick to enjoy the soap operas on the radio, tea and toast served by my mother, and the chance to play with her button box and clothespins.  These she brought to me on a wooden breakfast tray.  And truly best of all, she brought them to me in my father’s bed where I would be ensconced until I passed two days without any fever. 
This was in part to take me out of my bedroom, which I shared with my younger brother, bringing me into a version of isolation to protect him.  But there may have been another reason why my mother set me up this way, in the bed besides hers.  Perhaps it was all to keep my germs away from him.  Then again, maybe not. 
*    *    * 
I was reminded of this during a recent visit to Florida to see my elderly mother.  She is fully compos mentis, and so when she raised her sweater to show us where some of the capillaries in her chest had apparently ruptured, causing a fan-like pattern of discoloration, I was, I must admit, shocked and averted my eyes.  Not because I am squeamish about medical things, but because, by doing this, she was also exposing her bra and bear midriff.  The sight of both was not only unexpected but set off memories of other, much earlier such sightings.  
I wasn’t prepared to have those resurrected either; and so I quickly moved to divert all of us, her from her exploding capillaries, me from that bra, asking, almost as a non sequitur, if she had found that picture I had asked her to search for of me and Henry Cross.  From the time when we lived together as brothers even though he was the son of our maid, Bessie Cross, and I was white and he was black.  She in fact had and rushed to her bedroom to retrieve it. 
The photo showed us squinting into a harsh summer sun, me on my tricycle and Henry, shirtless, standing behind.  We were six and eight; but already, peering at this through time, and with the knowledge of what ultimately drove us apart, I could see his handsome threat and a sense of his awareness of how temporary this arrangement would be.  I also noted enough strength to comfort me that maybe he had managed to survive.  I knew at once, if these stories were ever to become a book, this picture must be its cover. 
It was in a leather album of the kind many families keep, with the images displayed chronologically, affixed to the pages with small stick-on corners.  In this case beginning with foggy pictures of my grandparents arrayed in hierarchical rows with their brothers and sisters and then subsequently with their own children, my aunts and uncles.  Thereafter was the appearance of the cousins.  
But slipped in among these were others of my parents, taken well before I was born, perhaps even before they were married.  Most were from a weekend outing in Tamiment, Pennsylvania, at a rustic camp, with log cabins in the woods surrounded by pristine lakes.  There in one, alone in a canoe, was my very buff father, bare chested, with his legendary perfect posture, perfect moustache, and a look of enormous accomplishment—it wasn’t every Jewish man of his era who was so obviously capable of maneuvering a birch bark war canoe on a lake in the wilds of Pennsylvania. 
But then again, from the picture next to it, of my mother in quite short shorts, framed seductively in the doorway of the first aid cabin, sporting a bandaged knee, of which she was clearly proud, hips tipped alluringly forward, I sensed that his feelings of accomplishment and her pride were perhaps more interconnected than the separate photos would suggest.  
I was eager to know if this weekend in the woods was after or before they were married and vowed I would ask my mother about that, before returning to New York, hoping that since my father had died nearly ten years earlier, she might tell me the truth; and if she did, I would finally be able to pose the many other questions I had been gathering throughout my life.  Including what had happened subsequently to transform, let me call it what it was, their animal intensity into anger.  
We were in Florida on this occasion for the unveiling of my cousin Larry’s gravestone.  He had died suddenly the year before, while on a treadmill, the first of our generation to pass away, sending seismic waves among the cohort of cousins; and so as the weekend was ending and it was getting to be the time for us to leave, it was not feeling propitious or appropriate to break the mood of grieving to ask my mother about things that might only add to her unhappiness.   
It was getting late, all the relatives had left my mother’s apartment where we had gathered after the service.  I was moving toward the guest bedroom, wanting to begin to end that difficult day, when my mother said, “I think there is another picture of you and Henry that’s a better one than I gave you.”  And although we were both weary, she asked if I could pull yet another box of family mementoes and photos from the floor of her closet because she was certain that’s where it would be.  
She began to sift through envelopes of unsorted pictures, humming to herself in a melody of remembrance--  
“Look at Uncle Morris always with that cigarette dangling from his mouth.  You know he died of lung cancer.  How he suffered.  And my sister Hattie with the leaf pasted to her nose so she wouldn’t get sunburned.  Look at Rose.  She was so tall and beautiful; it’s so sad that she was never happy.  But her mother, my sister Estelle, was no mother to her, leaving her home alone when she was only three in such a dark apartment.  And Mark in his uniform.  He was so handsome.  Dad’s sister Madeline.  She was some athlete.  Look at this picture of her when we went to Tamiment together.”
Tamiment again.  Exhausted as I was I could not resist, “Mom, when were you there?  There are those photos of you and dad from the same time.  The one of him in the canoe and you with the bandage on your knee.”
“Oh that was some time.  Though Madeline was impossible.  She was with us and she never let your father alone.  All she wanted to do was have him play tennis or handball with her.  That’s how I skinned my knee—I insisted I too wanted to play handball.  You wouldn’t know if from looking at me now, but I was quite a good player.  I could kill the ball with either hand.  Dad and I played in tournaments together in Brighton Beach.  But that Madeline.  She almost ruined that weekend.  We didn’t get away that often and I’m sorry your father insisted on bringing her along.  I didn’t understand why at the time; but now . . .”  She trailed off.
I wanted to know, “Was this before I was born?” 
“Oh sure.  Many years before.”  I knew it wasn’t until they had been married for nine years that I was conceived.  “In fact,” her voice became a hush, “I shouldn’t be telling you this,” she flipped back to the picture of him in the canoe, “but that’s silly because it would not be a big thing today.”  She looked up at me, “You know I was quite liberated for the time, I didn’t need to wait for Women’s Lib. I had my hair bobbed, I smoked and drank whisky in Speakeasies.” 
She smiled up at me.   “Yes, I want you to know, we were there together before we were married.” 
“I always wanted to know, but why do you now want me to?” 
“Because you only saw us after things had become so awful.  At my age, you never know, this may be the last time we have a chance to talk like this.”  I shuddered because I knew it was true.   “I want you to know that we loved each other at that time, and in that way too.” 
She paused to gather her strength.  She was seated on a bench beside her bed, hunched over.  Her breathing had become labored.  “You know that’s why I was attracted to him and why, in spite of my parents not wanting me to see him much less marry him, I insisted.  I fought with them.  Because he was, look, so handsome.”  
She was smiling now in her remembering, looking down at the photo in her lap, holding herself, rocking gently, “And, and I loved having sex with him.  That too.” 
I waited to see if she would say more.  But she resumed her humming, clearly not wanting to continue.  I of course wanted to ask, “But what happened?’” but it felt like too much for this day.  Maybe for any day.  So I reached over to her and we hugged for a while.  And she fell asleep in my arms.  I was reluctant to let her go, but I did and lifted her to her bed, tucking her in as she so many times had done for me.  
Over coffee the next morning, we did not refer to the night before, just talked on about nephew Mark and his wife Judy and their new house and the weather in Florida and New York. 
Then it was time to leave for the airport.  I could not help but think, as I had the last few years when departing, considering her age, that maybe this would be the last time I would see her.   But she as always, as she waived to me, shrinking in the rearview mirror asI drove off, asked again if I would be warm enough back in the city.  
*    *    * 
In New York, with that picture of Henry Cross, we never found the second one, I returned to my reveries of being sick and staying home from school and being taken care of by my mother.  Some of these now altered by what I had learned in Florida.  That time which had seemed so innocent to me was now clearly more ambiguous—I knew how happy my mother had been to have me there, in my father’s bed, and to be able to tend to me so lovingly.  But I also knew, without ambiguity, that something very disturbing had happened between them, after the love and passion, and that somehow I had been drawn into the middle of it. 
The literal middle because, I was now remembering, even when not sick, my mother frequently invited me into their bedroom to protect me from the terrors of my recurring nightmares.  I would scream out from my bed, which was pushed up against the wall separating our two bedrooms, and to calm me she would come for me and bring me into their room where she would settle me between them, actually in the crack between their two adjoined twin beds, where I lay face down, peering at a sliver of floor, trying both to resume sleep and somehow create enough white noise in my head to drown my demons as well as whatever sounds or words they might utter.
One winter I developed a severe case of the croup; and since I had what I later came to understand to be a weakness in my lungs similar to my father’s, there was fear that it would become pneumonia, which was much more life threatening then than now.  I was thus in for a long siege and would be taking over my father’s bed for at least a week.  My mother therefore not only needed to make sure I was comfortable, fed, medicated, and above all warm; but she also needed to make sure there was more to occupy me than just the boxes of buttons and clothes pins—they might be enough to get me through a cold, but the croup cum pneumonia was a different sort of challenge to her preoccupying skills.  So she arranged for me to have a steady supply of comic and coloring books, as well as cardboard, oak tag, scissors, paste, and various kinds of tape.  With these I was able to construct crude airplane models and, as my culminating project, I managed to fabricate a tiny Jeep, using, I thought ingeniously, the cellophane wrapper from a pack of my father’s Camels for the windshield.  It was quite a little masterpiece; at least my mother and I thought so.  Though when my father got home and my mother showed it to him, his only comment was a curt, “It’s good to see for once that you managed to complete something you started.”  That did not help speed my recovery. 
There were also times when I was left alone—my brother was in school and my mother needed to go grocery shopping.  These were sweet moments when all was quiet except for the periodic ticking of the radiators.  I daydreamed about the coming spring when I would prepare my vegetable garden and thought about summer trips up to the Catskills.  But I also seized the illicit opportunity to go through my parent’s closets and chests of drawers.  Tentatively at first but then more boldly.  There was the forbidden excitement of slipping into my father’s green corduroy jacket and even more when wrapping myself in my mother’s fox stole, trying on a pair of her high heeled pumps, and wobbling in them as I clopped across the room, catching fetching glimpses of myself in the mirror above her vanity. 
I loved the silken feel of my mother’s stockings and the intricate engineering that went into the construction of her boned girdles and brassieres.  Though tempted, I was never adventurous enough to try them on, fearing that I would somehow get trapped in them and would be thus discovered, writhing on the floor, a miniature Houdini, while attempting to free myself, of course, just when my father got home from work.  
There was nothing in his closet quite so tempting except perhaps his athletic supporter, but this I knew would somehow fall right off me and thus did not present an equivalent opportunity, as did my mother’s lingerie, to be so daring, though in its most important dimension it was more than daunting.
One time when my mother was at the beauty parlor, I found a small locked box at the bottom of her lowest dresser draw, but needed to slip it back under her nylon slips where it was clearly hidden when I heard her coming up the steps.  But I got right back to it the next day when she went out; and with the same dexterity I felt had been on display in the fabrication of the cardboard Jeep, with a crochet needle I quickly managed to pick the tiny lock. 
It was full of letters from many years ago—I knew this from the cancelled stamps from that earlier era.  They were all addressed to my mother, using her maiden name, and, it was obvious, all were from my father.  From the postmark I knew they were written in 1927, it looked like May, and were apparently mailed to her parent’s home in Brooklyn from Saranac Lake, New York, up in the Adirondacks. 
The first time I just looked at the envelopes, turning them over and over, examining the images of George Washington on the three-cent stamps, holding them up to the light to see what might be in them, to see if somehow I could read a phrase or sentence without removing the letters from the envelope. This proved fruitless, though I did see a word that looked like educable or edible through a translucent corner of one envelope.  Nothing more.  
And so the next time I was sick and home alone I quickly snuck the box back to my father’s bed where I was again settled, and on the breakfast tray opened the lock, determined that I would at least take out one letter and read whatever I could without fully unfolding it.  The one on top, which I had previously rotated in the light, was as I had left it a month ago.  I lifted it again and this time took the letter from its sleeve.  It was folded in a manner so that I could read what appeared to be a third of it without unfolding the rest.  It was dated May 22, 1927, and I read:
My Dear Pullet, 
They even manage to get the New York Times delivered all the way up here.  Not that anyone who lives in these parts can read anything more than the label on a bar of Lifebuoy, though from the smell of things in these woods I wish more of them would unwrap that bar of soap than just squint at it.  And so I read that story about Lucky Lindy who somehow managed to fly himself across the Atlantic Ocean without winding up sleeping with the mermaids.  Though from his reputation I’m sure that wouldn’t make him too unhappy.  And it wouldn’t make me unhappy either if I could be sleeping with my own Mermaid.   I promise you I’d even figure out a way to play upon her scales.You asked me how I’m feeling—well come a little closer so you can be the judge of that.  And you asked about my lungs—when all I think about are yours.  And about my liver you were wondering, we’ll it’s in edible condition.  So much so that . . . 
His remaining words slipped away under the fold and before I could even think about what to do, my heart was thumping, I heard my mother on the steps.  Somehow, though quivering, I managed to get the letter back into the envelope, it into the box, the lock secured, and the box back in the drawer before she appeared at the bedroom door radiant in the afternoon sunlight streaming in.  
Was I warm enough, would I like some toast and tea?  I made a chocking sound in response, attempting to say, “Yes.”  It was such an unearthly croaking that she was alarmed and asked anxiously if I was relapsing and should she telephone Dr. Handleman to see if he could come right over to give me a shot.  To that frightening suggestion I managed a miraculous recovery and a clear-throated, “I’m fine.  Yes, tea.” 
*    *    * 
Now, every Sunday at the stroke of noon my mother calls.  I know she attempts to place the call at that precise moment as yet another way to keep track of her decline, which she insists is occurring, though it is undetectable to the rest of us.  She remains quite perfect. 
So when she called the Sunday after my most recent visit to Florida and my recovering the memory of that letter, since she had said she wanted me to know I told her that I had just remembered finding dad’s letters to her from Saranac Lake when I was still a child and sick in bed. 
She was silent for a moment.  Then said, “Someone’s at the door.  I need to call you back.”  While I waited, I fretted that in my greed to know I had pushed too hard, too far.  I knew she had said she wanted me to know about that time and what had happened; but why hadn’t I let her tell me at her own pace, in her own way?  I know she had said there might not be much time remaining.  But still. 
I was beginning to wonder if she would in fact call back when the phone rang.  Without even a hello, she said, “I have six of his letters in a box in my dresser.”  I could see it again.  “I have been wondering what to do with them as I have been going through my papers, making arrangements.”  I knew she was getting everything ready even though it seemed, I hoped, premature.  “When I just got off the phone I put them in a manila envelope and am sending them to you.  Do whatever you want with them.  I don’t want them here anymore.  I’m not even sure why I kept them.  I meant to throw them away when he died.  Maybe I thought you would want to have them.  So you will.” 
“Mom, it’s OK.  I’m sorry I went back to that time, but you had said you wanted me to tell me what had happened. 
She interrupted, “There’s the doorbell again so I have to run.  I’m going downstairs now to put them in the mailbox.  I love you.”  And hung up. 
I must admit, in spite of my unyielding guilt for upsetting her so, I could not wait for the letters to arrive.  Would they be as I remembered them?  What else might be revealed?  And what more did I really want or need to know?  
The mails were swift that week and I had them in two days.  But I let them sit, now out of their leather box, beside my bed on my night table next to Tony Judt’s Postwar, through which I was slowly making my way.  For more than two weeks they sat there.  I also made little progress in my reading.  I considered that maybe I too should let them be and do what my mother had thought to do—get rid of them.  As my Aunt Madeline used to say, when insisting on just living in the moment, “That was then and this is now.”  That seemed to be good advice in this circumstance as well.  To let the past alone. This was certainly now. 
During the two weeks, on Sundays, at noon, my mother and I maintained our routine, talking in turn about every living member of the family with her concentrating as always on all the illnesses, near deaths, losses of jobs, and marital tsouris, not out of any feelings of schaudenfreud, but rather out of her unending love and concern for everyone’s health and well being.  
The second Sunday, at the instant we rang off, I stopped resisting and opened the letter on top, almost tearing it in my new haste, the same one from May 22, 1927.  It did in fact have the wily reference to his liver; and below the fold where I had been reluctant to venture decades ago, he continued: 
. . . And about my liver you were wondering, we’ll it’s in edible condition.  So much so that when Lindy makes his way back here maybe we’ll broil it up and make a small private party out of my organs. 
The rest of it, and the rest of them, were in a similar playful, sexy vein.  I confess that then as before I was instantly aquiver.   Who had been that man who I certainly never knew, so forbidding and unsatisfiable?  When I would bring home a report card with a 98 in Algebra he would say, “What happened to the other two points?”  It was inconceivable to me that this fierce and dour man could at one time have ever been thinking about using any of his organs for anything other than digestion or elimination.  I could only learn that from my mother. 
And so on the following Sunday, I sat by the phone watching the digital clock flip toward noon.  And at its stroke, there she was, still obviously in full powers, not further declined from last week.  So I took the chance.  After an update about Cousin Herman’s latest surgery, I said, “Mom, I read dad’s letters,” expecting her doorbell to ring again.  But there was silence at her end.  “They are amazing.  He seemed like a totally different person than the one I remember growing up with.”  I wasn’t sure she was still on the line, “No?” 
I waited.  There was only the static of a long distance connection.  “He was.  You did not know him.  He became bitter.  He grew up with money and when he wasn’t able to make much on his own, always scheming and failing, he grew angry at the world.  And especially with me.  He blamed it on me.  When I went back to work he saw that as evidence for all to see that he had failed.  He couldn’t make enough to support the four of us.  Now everyone knew.  His wife needed to work.  It was not a time when women worked because they wanted a career.  They worked because their husbands didn’t earn a good enough living.  He resented me for it.  He didn’t talk to me for four weeks after I started, though he took my paycheck and put it in his checking account.”  I thought I heard her snicker, “That he did.” 
“You did once tell me that.  And how from the money he gave you, from the money you earned, you managed to save enough to help pay my college tuition.” 
“Yes, that’s true.  And of course you remember, how could you not, what he did when my brother sent me a washing machine so I wouldn’t have to do the laundry by hand?” 
“I do remember that.  That was awful.  And,” I took a chance, “and cruel.  He made you send it back.” 
“It hurt so much.  He was so jealous of anything my brother did.”  She paused. “How ironic considering his own brothers, and especially his sister Madeline.  How he would make excuses for her.  I can’t tell you.” 
I knew we were moving into even more painful territory and told her, for a change, that I needed to run, that there was someone at our door. 
*     *    * 
For some inexplicable reason, my mother’s mentioning Madeline brought back another wave of memories.  All still from those times when I had to stay home from school to recover from a cold or Strep Throat, and even once Scarlet Fever.  Always in my father’s bed; always lovingly tended to by my mother.  She once, when inspecting me, found a tiny corn growing on my smallest toe and cared for it as if it were a tumor, dabbing it with ointment and wrapping it with lamb’s wool. 
I think it was then when I had Scarlet Fever that I recall my father being in the bedroom, his bedroom, more than was typical when I was sick.  But I am not sure because Scarlet Fever induces such high fevers that during those ten days there were times when I was so delirious I am not certain if what I experienced was real or imagined.  So I share this only tentatively. 
I remember it being late afternoon because of the light that had flattened in the room, illuminating the window that looked across a vacant lot beyond which was my friend Heshy’s house.  It was at this window that I signaled to him with small mirrors of the sort the Lone Ranger used to signal his scout Tonto, special mirrors that we obtained by sending in ten Cheerios box tops and 25 cents.  But then again it must have been evening because when I roused from a hot, dream-filled sleep, I saw my father standing by that window.  Had he come home early from work or was it later than I thought? 
Since I had done nothing that day but lie in a half sleep and thus did not have anything to show him that I had accomplished, I lay still pretending to be asleep.  
I had never seen him so interested in what was going on outside.  When he came home so tired from his long days he always just collapsed in his scuffed corduroy chair in the living room and waited for supper.  Even if there were street games going on he never showed any apparent interest in them or anything else.  Just seeking to recover, have something to eat, smoke a few final Camels, maybe listen to the radio for a half hour to Stan Lomax’s sports news, and then slump off to bed.  I was thus quite surprised to see him so interested in what might be out there, that was capturing his attention.  I thought something must be going on at Heshy’s.  There was certainly nothing occurring of any interest in that lot.  The most that ever happened there was when from time to time the shoemaker, John Inusi, would drag out a canvas sack and from it dump another load of leather shavings onto the small mountain he was building. 
I began to cough and this alerted him to the fact that I might be waking.  As if I had caught him at something, he turned and bolted from the room.  As you might imagine, this further aroused my curiosity; and though my mother had forbidden me to get out of bed on my own, fearing that if I did the fever would attack my brain, I did pull myself up and managed to get to that window, supporting myself along the way by leaning against her dresser and when I got to the window, holding myself up by clinging to the poll of the standing lamp. 
The fever also had the effect of blurring my vision, but in spite of that I could see quite well enough.  There framed in her bedroom window was Heshy’s sister Gracie.  Her father, Mr. Perly’s pride, literally manifesting the truth of his belief in the progress inherent in dialectical materialism, since she was as endowed above as Heshy was below.  
The light was such that even I, in my bleary state, could see that framed in her window she was packed into just her panties and brassiere.
*    *    *
It was another Sunday and at 12:00 and the phone rang.  Without preliminaries, my mother picked up our conversation as if a mere few minutes had passed since last week. 
“I to this day do not understand the things he let his brother Sonny get away with.    Always calling attention to your father’s used cars, flaunting in his face his own new Cadillacs.  He needed to get one every year?  I always thought he bought them to belittle your father. And why your father accepted his bags of hand-me-down pajamas I will never know.  True they were silk and from Sulka, but it was humiliating.  And as rough as your father was to all of us, so critical of everything we did, why did he make such excuses for his brother?”  Without pausing she answered her own question, “I can tell you why, because he was rich and lived in that house on Jamaica Bay.  Even though he was a crook and made most of his money in the Black Market.”  She spat, “I hated that house and all the antiques.” 
“I always wondered about the same thing.  What power did Uncle Sonny have over him?  And that was an awful house.  Not just the way it was furnished.  But also because everybody living there was so miserable.  What I remember most was Uncle Sonny sitting alone upstairs in that leather-lined room off their bedroom, watching westerns on TV, Hopalong Cassidy, with a never-empty glass of Johnny Walker next to him.” 
“And his sister.  Madeline.  Did you ever wonder about her?”
I could not think of what to say.  
Though we did not have a good connection I thought I heard her crying softly.  Though I asked, “Are you OK mom?”  I was I confess hoping that maybe someone would knock on her door. 
Before she could again make that excuse, the line went dead.  Then there was the dial tone.  I called right back but it rang and rang and rang.  She had switched off her answering machine.  I tried to reach her repeatedly through the day but always met with the same frustrating result.  I was so tormented by the pain I felt I was causing that I even made a few calls to the airlines to see if I could get to Florida that evening.  There were no seats to be had.  I did pledge to myself, in my now mountain of guilt, that if she wouldn’t take my call by early Monday afternoon, no matter the cost, I would fly to Florida no later than Tuesday morning.
So you can imagine my relief when at precisely noon Monday, the phone rang and it was her.  This time there was no roll call of family matters, no inquiries about the weather up north. She just began, “You saw those pictures of us in Tamiment, you know from before?”
“Yes.”
“Remember how you noticed that his sister Madeline was with us and I told you how she spoiled the weekend?”
“Yes, I remember.”
“Well she did more than spoil a weekend . . . .  She ruined my life.  At least that part of it that we have been talking about.  How he stopped touching me.”
I whispered so as not to interrupt her, “I do remember your mentioning that when I was in Florida.”
“And you also remember, darling, how when you were little I took her into our apartment after she had her hysterectomy?” 
“Yes, I do.” 
“How she stayed for two months?  How I cooked for her and changed her dressing?  I did everything for her.  I even put her in your father’s bed.  You remember that?” 
“Yes,” and though I knew this would bring back the pain, I added as gently as I could, “And I always wondered why .” 
“Me too, my sweet.  I wondered why I did this.  Because she was not a good person.  I know you came to feel differently about her toward the end of her life.  You had a special relationship with her.” 
“That’s true even though I knew you never liked her and I felt guilty to be so involved with her.  That it might hurt you.” 
“It did.  You know I Iove you but that did hurt me.  Deeply.”
“I’m sorry, but I felt she needed someone.  She was growing older and alone in the world.”
 “That may be true but to me and to your father she was evil.”
I was shaking, realizing how oblivious I had been at that time.  That through my devotion to Madeline I had betrayed my mother who had given up so much of her life for me. 
I now more than ever needed to ask, to go with her to wherever this might lead, “She was evil?”
“Yes, that.”  I could hear her labored breathing.  “She made him do things.  He was a very stubborn man and I couldn’t get him to do even the simplest things for me.  But for her, there was never anything he wouldn’t do.” 
“I sensed that.”  
“He even made me bathe her when I took her in.  That was the worst.” 
“I can only imagine.” 
“My darling, you cannot imagine.”  I was trying to. 
“He even brought her flowers.”  She began to sob, “He never, never brought me flowers.” 
We cried together until I heard the phone rattle as it dropped to her counter top.  In the background I could hear her running water in the sink.  She then hung up the phone.
*    *    * 
As I struggled to take in the full flood of what my mother had been telling me during our interrupted bits of conversation, knowing she would say no more and we would need quickly to resume the former structure of our weekly calls—more about the family and the weather in New York and Florida and less about it--finally, as I went back over my memories of especially those times when I was sick and my mother was out of the house, when she left me alone in his bed, there was yet another flicker of remembering something real or perhaps hallucinatory. 
I think it was again when I had Scarlet Fever, and thus my uncertainty about its reality.  Feeling somewhat stronger, I moved into the living room, to sit in my father’s chair to listen to the radio and to take in the odor of his body that had penetrated the fabric.  Perhaps thinking that breathing in some of it would somehow strengthen my lungs. 
I must have slipped into a half sleep or reverie because the next thing I remember noticing was that the sun had shifted, flattening against the window that looked out onto East 56th Street.  The house was still and so I assumed my mother was not yet back from her chores—she had indicated she needed to make three stops, the last one at the bank which was quite outside the perimeter of our neighborhood so I should not worry if she returned later than usual. 
I was in fact feeling much better.  So much so that I thought I would go “camping.”  There would still be time for that.  By camping I meant gathering my hard-rubber flashlight, my Cub Scout mess kit, and illuminated compass (all hand-me-downs from cousin Larry) and “hike” to the campground “cave,” in reality the interior of my mother’s walk-in closet.  Where I would settle down by the “fire,” nestled in against the wind among her scented nightgowns and dresses.  
In my mind I would conjure up images of the Lone Ranger and Tonto alone under the stars on the High Plains of the Old West.  Waiting to ride into town the next morning to help the grieving widow make the mortgage payments on the ranch and drive away the cattle rustlers who were plaguing her.  And then depart, before anyone could thank them, leaving as their only trace, a single silver bullet. 
I went to my bedroom first to gather my equipment.  And then to my parent’s bedroom and her closet.  The sun was clearly setting—it was streaming from the front of the apartment all they way back to my parent’s bedroom, probing for the door of my mother’s closet as if it were a spotlight. 
It was not latched.  It had been over-painted so many times that it never did.  All was silent.  
I pulled the door open.  The smell of camphor jumped out.  And the light fell in among the coats and dresses and shoes and garment bags.  Reaching all the way back to where I was planning to settle. 
If I am remembering correctly, it fell on my mother as well.  
Who was crouching in the back, at my campsite.  Naked.  Pulling silently at her face. 

END OF PART ONE

Thursday, October 25, 2012

October 25, 2012--Mobile

Everything these days seems to be about mobile.

Apparently Americans are abandoning their computers--PC desktop computers and laptops--and moving more and more to mobile devices such as iPads, iPhones, and Androids. Things you can carry around with you and are thus . . .  mobile.

I need to confess that I am not one of these. I like my 4.46 pound, immobile MacBook Pro and use it only for emails, googling, and word processing; and I have an old fashioned cell phone (not a smart one at all) that I use mainly for emergencies. I do not text (don't know how) nor do I take Instagram pictures (have no idea what they are) and though I am a Facebooker, I hardly know why and have never posted anything on it (again, have no idea how to do it). But I have been following the mobile news.

Most of that news is about how Facebook, Google, and Intel, among others, are having trouble making money from mobile devices. When Facebook went public, allowing people to buy stock, immediately there was bad news. Before the IPO, some estimated that Facebook was worth up to $100 billion dollars. After all, they had nearly a billion subscribers and if and when Facebook turned its attention to making money--in addition to signing up more folks--because of all the information it has about members "likes" and "preferences," making money was thought to be a proverbial piece of cake. But skeptics wondered if there was an easy way to commodify Facebook. Especially as more and more people were switching from computers to smart phones.

This is also true for Google and others. With their relatively tiny screens, mobile devices are not ideal places to run ads. If someone is using a smart phone to connect to Facebook the space left over for an ad is about the size of a postage stamp. Not many car makers, for example, want to send out images of their latest SUVs if limited to a square inch. So almost overnight, the value of Facebook shares plummeted by nearly 50 percent.

Intel is finding that the chips required by iPhones are much less profitable than those they make for PCs and Macs. Thus there has also been downward pressure on the value of Intel shares.

All this talk about mobile products has caused me to wonder more about why I so dislike them. Dislike them, I again confess, based on little direct experience. The closest I come in contact with Androids is when I literally come in contact with them--when walking down Broadway in Manhattan. People who look spaced out walking along plugged into ear pods while texting, oblivious to the flow of traffic or pedestrians, crash into those of us not willing or agile enough to twist out of their way.

I also wonder what all the communicating and social networking is about. What are iPhone users surfing for? What can anyone say that is meaningful by Tweeting? The only thing I can think of in any way interesting when limited to 140 "characters" is the occasional haiku (where one is restricted to up to 17 syllables) or a witticism from W.C Fields.

In only 9 syllables, I get--
old pond . . .
a frog leaps in
water's sound
Or, from W.C., in just 53 characters--
Start every day off with a smile and get it over with.
When we get back to the city, while jumping out of the way on Broadway, I'll see if I can read a Twitter or two and report back about what I discover.

In the meantime, googling most popular Tweeters, here's what I learned--

Lady Gaga has the most "followers"--nearly 31 million; Justin Bieber is next with 29.3 million; President Obama is in 6th place, right after Britney Spears, with 21.3 million followers.

And one of Lady gaga's most recent Tweets was--
i miss my fans so much, the show too. listening to music and cooking, thinking of you all
#now i get it.

Wednesday, October 24, 2012

October 24, 2012--Lanced

Officials this week took away Lance Armstrong's seven Tour de France titles. They finally marshaled the incontrovertible evidence they had been seeking for years to prove he cheated by taking cocktails of drugs designed to boost his performance. Much of that testimony came from teammates who rode with him under the sponsorship of the U.S Postal Service. (Why our bankrupt mail system spend millions on this is beyond me, but that is another story.)

The tale the biker whistle blowers told was of widespread corruption in the sport--how they and apparently everyone else cheated. The pressure at that level of competition was such that if you didn't use performance-enhancing drugs you had no chance whatsoever of winning. And winning came to mean everything.

So I suppose justice has been done. From now on we can rest easy when watching cyclists sprinting through the Loire Valley and dragging themselves up and down the Alps, knowing that everyone is competing on a level playing field.

Really?

Doping in all major and minor sports has for many decades been SOP--standard operating procedure. And as long as money and fame await winners at the finish line or end zone, expect most world-class athletes to take the chance, use illegal substances, and hope to allude the drug police.

This feels silly and hypocritical to me.

Why not let Lance Armstrong and every other athlete who wants to do whatever they are willing to risk to do better? After all we're talking about entertainment, not neurosurgery (more about this is a moment), rocket science, or meaning-of-life matters. We're talking about riding a bike at a mile-a-minute clip, hitting home runs, running the 100 meter dash in under 10 seconds, protecting a quarterback with 400-pound offensive linemen, and slam dunking from midcourt. That's what the public these days wants in its circuses.

Pop and many opera stars mike up so as to be heard, and we're OK with that; so why are so many upset when athlete-entertainers shoot up? We fiddle with the equipment (juice up the baseball and move the fences in so more home runs will be hit, develop high-tech swim suits to allow Olympians to slip though the water faster, allow golfers and tennis players to hit the ball further and harder with graphite clubs and rackets, fool with artificial track and field surfaces to facilitate faster times) and that fiddling is considered to be acceptable. But when a Lance Armstrong fiddles with his physiology, we pursue him in the media and relish when he is toppled from his pedestal.

We don't do doping tests on surgeons either before or after they perform delicate operations. In fact, if there is something pharmaceutical they might take to enable them to be more skilled while working on our brains and colons, wouldn't we be eager to go to those doctors who pop those pills? So whatever surgeons might do to enhance their concentration is seen to be advantageous and they might as a result become most esteemed in their filed, while Lance Armstrong and Barry Bonds are humiliated in public and turned into pariahs.

Tuesday, October 23, 2012

October 23, 2012--Abercrombie & Fitch

I go back far enough to remember when Abercrombie & Fitch devoted an entire floor of its Manhattan flagship store to bar equipment.

There were at least a dozen different kinds of cocktail shakers, bar glasses (including some with etched hunting scenes, dogs, and golfing images), and bar carts of various sizes and complexity so you could wheel your martinis and gimlets from room to room to patio.

When I was being bad, I thought A&F was the WASPiest store in the world. Needless to say, I never bought anything there. In my old neighborhood the only acceptable thing alcoholic was the syrupy sacramental wine served at Passover that we sipped from our great grandfather's silver cup. No need for etched shot or highball glasses.

Years went by and I thought very little about Abercrombie & Fitch. But then one day, while window shopping in trendy Soho in New York City, I noticed streams of skinny young things walking around in Abercrombie & Fitch t-shirts and soon thereafter I became aware of sexy ads for A&F in magazines such as Vogue and GQ.

What happened?

As the culture shifted and there was no longer much demand for crystal decanters much less for A&F's big-game hunting equipment--pith helmets and elephant guns for decades had been A&F staples--the store was bought by mass marketer billionaire Leslie Wexner and soon thereafter there were A&Fs in hundreds of malls all over America; and when Wexner hired Michael Jeffries to serve as CEO, he figured out how to turn stuffy Abercrombie into a hip outlet appealing to urban teens and preteens.

What Jeffries figured out was how to market clothing to teenagers and, literally, thongs to 10-year-olds and padded bikini tops to 7-year-olds.

Get the picture?

But Jeffries may be about to receive his comeuppance. He is being sued by the former pilot of A&F's private Gulfstream jet for age discrimination; and as evidence to support his claim, the pilot placed in the court record a manual of instructions for those who fly Jeffries and his entourage from mall to mall to St. Barts.

The New York Times the other day presented some of the tidbits from that flight manual:

Employees working on the plane must greet Jeffries and his guests wearing an Abercrombie polo shirt, jeans, and flip-flops. Once airborne, the all male crew are expected to slip out of their jeans and work the cabin in their boxer briefs. There are details about which magazines to provide (all with those pesty inserts removed) and respond to requests by saying, "No problem." Unacceptable are "Sure" and "Just a minute."

The manual also instructs the maintenance crew how to vacuum the cabin--"From the front of the aircraft to the back, pulling the vacuum toward you to make smooth, even lines." Also included are instructions about how the beds are to be made--"Iron the exposed top sheets"; and what snacks to provide--"Prepare a bowl of pretzels and one of Squirrel Nuts."

A stickler for details, Michael Jeffries even has instructions about how his dogs are to be accommodated--"When Ruby and Trouble travel, Ruby will sit opposite Michael in the cabin." There is no mention about Trouble's preferences, though I suspect he likes a window seat.

Though the company's stock plummeted this past year--down by half--and since the former pilot, now 55, may in fact win his age discrimination suite (I am thinking he doesn't any longer look hot in boxers), the board a while ago gave Jeffries a lump sum payment of $4.0 million to help offset the cost of his not using the company jet so often for personal travel.

That seems fair, but I wonder how Ruby and Trouble feel about it.

Monday, October 22, 2012

October 22, 2012--Midcoast: With Rod

Former teacher, former principal, retired school superintendent, and good friend Rod Swank's stories always include lessons.

We were visiting with him recently, and with cold weather approaching here in Maine, I asked him if where he lived in Ohio there was a lot of snow.

"Yes, lots," he said, gesturing with his hand to show me how much. "Right here up to our chests."

"And it was cold?"

"That's what they tell me, but when I was a young man I had so much blood flowing in my veins I hardly noticed."

"I'll bet everyone stayed indoors during the coldest and darkest times."

"I don't know about everyone," he smiled, looking back on those days, "but I spent a lot of time outdoors. You see, I had a five-man bobsled and . . ."

"You had a what?" Rona, wide-eyed and skeptical, asked.

"Yes ma'am, I sure did. I looked for four other fellows so we could really race down that hill.  The one in Butler, which has a double-dip. You'd come down the slope and go over the first one, which was fun enough, but then there was a second one even steeper so that when you went over it you were . . . what am I trying to say?" he asked his daughter Constance.

"You went airborne."

"That's it--airborne," he recalled wistfully, "That was something else."

"How did you come by a five-man sled?" Rona asked, still wondering about that. "Back in Brooklyn where I grew up at most two people could fit on the sleds we had."

"Well, I got mine from my parents who I think might have gotten it from their parents. Isn't that something?"

"Indeed it is," I said. "I grew up in Brooklyn too and there wasn't anything like that passed along from parents to children much less from grandparents."

"That's too bad," Rod said, "It was good to grew up with so much family history. That's the way life was in the middle of Ohio."

Rona and I exchanged glances as if to acknowledge what we had missed growing up in first-generation American families.

"As I told you, I looked for four other fellows to sled with me. I always picked the four biggest ones. I myself wasn't that big but I was in front and steered us along the best path and they provided the weight we needed to be the fastest on the hill."

"You mean you were racing?" Rona asked.

"That's right. There was a nine-man sled that someone had."

"You're kidding," Rona said.

"No, it's true. It was a homemade job. Not like the one I had."

"And you raced against it?"

Rod smiled.

"And you had a chance to beat them?"

Rod continued to smile slyly.

"You're not telling the truth," Rona persisted affectionately.

"I told you, didn't I, that I chose the other fellows carefully. I always looked for the heaviest ones. To give us a better chance. And I also told you I knew my way down that hill.  So I did the steering."

"And?"

"And," he grinned, "most times we won."

"So, the lesson is . . ." I asked.

"Pick you teammates carefully and make sure you know the best path to follow."

"That sounds right," I said.

"And  one more thing," Rod added.

"Yes?"

"At times some of the young girls from the town came out to the hill. Often all dressed up in silk stocking and long skirts."

"And?"

"And they'd ask me if they could take a run with me."

"That was OK?" Rona wondered.

Rod again smiled broadly, "It worked out just fine."

"I bet it did," I said, winking at him.

"Remember I was the fastest," he clearly liked recalling that. "So they'd get on behind me and down the hill we'd go. Not as fast as with those big fellows, you know, but fast enough. And with me steering somehow we always seemed to tumble over at the bottom of the hill. We'd be rolling around in the snow together and . . ."

"And I think I know," Rona interrupted, "what lesson to take from that."

Rod didn't need to say much more. All of us joined him in happy laughter.

"But you know," Constance said, as we caught our breath, "when in 1996 we returned to Ohio to bury his mother's ashes, my father led our little caravan of cars from the family cemetery in North Liberty back to Butler where they had lived when he was a boy. When we got there he stopped at the top of that  hill and at first we wondered why. He got out of the car and stood there for a moment as if looking back in time to a day when the snow wouldn't stop falling. Then we understood. Though he didn't say a word and just stood there, we knew he wanted us to join him on his bobsled--with him of course still steering--and 'ride' that double-dip together."

Friday, October 19, 2012

October 19, 2012--Chapter 12: Der Oskar Ist Kaput


Every neighborhood had its “crazy” people.  In that less diagnostic and sensitive era distinctions between them were not drawn--being senile was being crazy; being retarded was being crazy; being disabled was thought of as crazy; and of course being crazy was being crazy.
During a simple walk to and from school I needed to run the gauntlet of this variety of crazy people—there was twelve-year-old Herbert Bender who today we would call mentally retarded; there was Mrs. Bronstein who we would now say has Alzheimer’s; there was Sonya Kloppman who had Polio when she was twelve and was confined to an Iron Lung; and then there was old Mr. Karpovski, who we thought came from Poland and who lived alone in a cellar. 
All were out on the street every day except when it was raining or snowing, with the exception of Mr. Karpovski, who lurked in the driveway to his garage, arguing with himself even in the worst weather.  In fact, the more it stormed, the more he raged, swinging his arms and fists as if to attack himself, screaming and singing “Farblondzhet, Farblondzhet. Shteyt a boym; shteyt a boym,” against the elements.  He was by far the craziest and, I am ashamed now to confess, the most fun.
The neighborhood was a mix of two- and three-family houses with an occasional five-storey apartment house.  Those houses that were “detached,” and thus most desirable, stood on confining plots with less than ten feet separating them from their neighbor on one side and had just enough space on the other for a driveway that lead to rickety garages.  When cars acquired their gaudy tail fins in the 1950s, and the extra breadth to accommodate them, these driveways and garages fell into disuse, or rather different forms of use, because the cars were either too wide to negotiate the driveways themselves or make the sharp turn required at the end to slip into the tight parking spaces. 
A matchbox rectangle of a dirt garden adorned the front and a slightly larger patch of earth in the rear.  It was hopeless to think of growing anything vibrant in either place.  Though some tried, especially those who came from rural Eastern European shtetls or Southern Italy, but even they needed to concede that the soil, such as it was in Brooklyn, was basically hard-as-rock clay, best suited to supporting cast concrete urns in which only hardy Hens and Chicks could grow or cement statuary of elves or, shamelessly, the occasional black-faced jockey. 
And each house had an elevated front porch or stoop where during hot pre-air-conditioned days families would set up chairs and tables and sit out all night to catch the occasional breeze.  Stoops were also good places to keep a close eye on the passing scene as well as to listen in on nearby conversations and, above all, an ideal setting from which to interfere in your neighbor’s business.
And then there were the ubiquitous empty lots.  The area was still not fully built up, and these untended spaces largely contained ragweed and debris.  From John Inusi the shoemaker, there was a mountain of leather shavings he heaped in the lot adjacent to his store; in another there were piles of bald and discarded rubber tires that were left over from the Second World War when they were rationed and the fathers were forced to drive on them until they became literally threadbare before tossing them in the lot.
There was teeming life of its own among the neighborhood’s children in these vacant lots and little used garage.  In these lots we fabricated huts from abandoned or stolen lumber, tin, and cardboard; and dug trenches and tunnels that resembled those of battlefields, which they periodically became when the Italian Ginny Gang from East 57th Street invaded the huts of the 56th Street Rockets and the Jewish defenders retreated to their underground redoubts.  And in the unused garages we set up improvised boxing rings where dreams of glory were forged—recall that at the time many of the boxing world champions were Jews; and an occasional drum set and bandstand so aspiring hep cats could live out their show business dreams—recall as well the Jewish jazz greats of the time that included Benny Goodman, Artie Shaw, and the amazing drum dervish Buddy Rich. 
And also in the alleys and spaces separating our houses as well as in the dank cellars and basement apartments in the three-family houses, lived and lurked the “crazy” people.  It was as if an inspired architect or city planner had designed an ideal place just for us and for them.
                                              *     *     *
 Herbert (Herbie) Bender lived with his parents right across the street in the second floor apartment, but in truth lived more in the lot next to his house.  The one with the piles of discarded tires.  They served as his schoolyard, more his Matterhorn.  From my bedroom window I could see him struggling every day to scale these mountains of tires.  Just as he would get close to the summit of the tallest mound he would invariably slip, catching a foot and come tumbling down, his fall softened, his fragile body protected by the rubber heap.  Undeterred, he would struggle back to his feet and then stuff the fingers of his right hand into his mouth, hooking them behind his lower jaw of teeth, and rock back and forth in a form of mock davening or perhaps actual prayer, all the while drooling on his wrist. 
He would again turn to confront his indomitable mountain and try again with the same result—tumbling down followed by righting himself, twisting his overalls into alignment, shoving his fingers deep into his mouth, and beginning his rhythmic rocking.  All day, every day.  Relentless and ritualistic, dressed always in those overalls and tattered sweater no matter the season or time a day. 
In the evening, when the street traffic had subsided, I would raise my bedroom window a few inches so I could also hear him.  He emitted a sound, not a coherent word, just a sound--a continuous breathless sighing or keening that felt as ancient as his rhythmic rocking.
One afternoon my mother caught me spying on Herbie, actually heard me laughing when he tumbled down yet again from near the peak of his tire mountain.  It was unusual for her to put her hands on me except lovingly, but this time she yanked me back from my perch at the window sill, and with both her hands gripping my shoulders, shaking me to focus my attention, she snapped, “He’s sick and you shouldn’t be making fun of him.  You should only know how lucky you are.  You should feel sorry for him and his mother.”  I thought I heard a sob, “You have no idea the burden they have.  Leave him alone,” her voice softened, “Please.  For me.” 
I tried very hard to heed my mother and ignore him but I continued to be fascinated by Herbie and occasionally risked the guilty pleasure of spying on what he was up to, to see if over time there would be any changes in his behavior.  But while over the years he swelled up to gargantuan size, nothing varied in his daily routine.  Until one day he was no longer there.
I began to spend more and more of my time either on the stoop to see what had happened to Herbie or posted at my bedroom window on the lookout for his return.  But he never did.
Six months after he disappeared I asked my mother what had happened to him.  She told me that his father had become very ill and his mother was concerned about what would happen to Herbie after they were no longer able to take care of him.
“So what,” I asked, “did they do?”
“They put him in Kings County,” which I knew meant the local city hospital.  
“What will happen to him there?”
“They will take good care of him for the rest of his life.”
I thought then about what it would be like for him—would there be a place for him to be outside, clearly something he needed?  Would there be anything resembling the vacant lot and the mounds of tires that had been at the center of his life?
So one day, in an attempt to find him, I walked over to the hospital and asked the guard where I might find him.  He wanted to know what was wrong with him. 
I said, “He’s crazy.”  ”Oh,” he said, “he must be over there with the other nuts,” pointing to a series of towering stone buildings about two blocks away.  Unusual looking structures, because at the end of each of the floors, there were caged-in balconies.
I stared up at them and behind the bars on every floor saw men in pajamas and green bathrobes.  Many of them rocking back and forth just like Herbie. But there was no sign of him.
But then looking up to the third floor I spotted Herbie, also in a cage, with boys of about his own age, all with the same large heads and vacant eyes.  He stood apart from them, though, still with his fingers in his mouth but this time not rocking back and forth.  Just looking mutely out at the sky.
When I got home I told my mother about what I had found, reporting that Herbie didn’t look happy.  She told me again that his parents were doing the best they could for him and reminded me how lucky I was.  And how much she loved me.
                                                 *     *     *
 We also thought that Sonya Klopman was crazy.  Not because of the polio, but because of the way she acted after being put in the iron lung.  Always humming to herself, fogging up the little mirror by her face which was supposed to help her see who she was talking to, assuming she was talking at all, since all she ever seemed to do was hum and sing songs which none of us recognized or understood.  Like in some foreign language. 
Before Russia had the A Bomb, polio was the scariest thing.  It seemed to kids during summers just when everyone was having a good time playing on the street or going to the movies.  Actually, after Sonya, who was only three years older than me, caught it, my mother wouldn’t let me go to the Rugby Theater any more since she said that’s where you caught polio—among other children (it was called Infantile Paralysis), at the movies.  You could be fine in the evening and then wake up the next morning unable to walk.  They would take you to the hospital and, if you didn’t die, you would come home in a few weeks in an iron lung.  It helped you breathe since not only were your legs paralyzed but also your lungs.  It also meant you couldn’t go to school any more or walk because your legs were all shriveled up.

Sonya had always been very serious, happiest when she was alone listening to the radio.  So we thought it wouldn’t be that bad for her being in the lung, as long as there wasn’t a power failure, because she could be wheeled over to where she had her radio and listen to her favorite shows.  Since she never joined any of the street games anyway, it wouldn’t be that much of a change for her.  Or so we naively thought.
Because she was older than me and was so shy, and hadn’t babysat for my little brother, I never became close to her; but after she got polio my mother made me go over to her house and sit with her.  We never talked.  I just sat near her, listening to the radio and the compressor in the Iron iron lung, which made a sound like breathing, which I suppose it was. 
It was boring but since I wasn’t on any teams at the time and most of my friends were up in the mountains for the summer, to keep them away from the polio germs, it was all right.  One good thing, it must have been hot for her all closed in like she was and so her parents got her a big standing fan, which managed to cool me as well as Sonya.  And my mother said, in spite of my fear, that you couldn’t catch polio from someone who already had it.  She even suggested that as long as I would stay close to Sonya I would be safer than if I was on the street or at Coney Island, where being in the water with everyone was the most dangerous thing you could do.  
That’s when I began to pay attention to her humming and singing and thought maybe being in the lung was making her crazy, like Herbie who always hummed to himself.  I thought that maybe it had to do with having the compressor expand and contract her lungs and that what I thought humming might be the result of the machine breathing for her.  
It was the singing, though, that convinced me that Sonya was becoming crazy.  Because though she would listen to music on the radio, the Make Believe Ballroom for example, where Martin Block would play the newest popular songs, it sounded to me as if she was singing in another language.  But it was cool there, safe, and it made my mother happy; and so I went over to sit with her almost every day. 
Then September came and my friends returned from the Catskills and school began.  No one else on the block got polio while they were away so we felt we had escaped for another year.  My routines resumed and I didn’t see very much of Sonya.  She no longer was brought out onto her stoop, and I didn’t have time to go over there, what with my homework and sports teams.
I stopped thinking about her until the following spring when my mother announced that she had a surprise for me—there was going to be something Sonya was going to be doing at the school auditorium Saturday evening that we were invited to.  I thought that since the summer polio season was fast approaching, the school was doing one of their periodic presentations about hygiene and health, where a doctor or nurse would talk to us about how important it was to eat carrots or keep our fingernails clean, and that this time it would be about polio and what to do to not catch it.  That Sonya and maybe a few other kids in iron lungs would be wheeled onto the stage to scare us so we wouldn’t think about sneaking into the Rugby for a Saturday double feature.   My mother said I had to wear my white shirt, which was fine with me since it was Saturday night and on Saturdays she always tried to get me to look good.  She also wanted us to get there early so we could sit in the front of the auditorium.
They did wheel Sonya onto the stage and set up a microphone right by where her head was sticking out of the iron lung.  I didn’t see any doctors or nurses, though, and was wondering why the school band was there.  Dr. Zeifert, the principal, came out and bent over so he could talk into Sonya’s mike.
The band began to tune up in the background and everyone in the auditorium became fidgety and began to squirm in their seats.  Then Dr. Zeifert, leaning too close to the microphone causing it to howl with feedback, announced that Sonya was going to sing an aria from some opera.  Everyone grew quiet and wondered what kind of singing she would be capable of with the iron lung breathing for her.
Softly at first and then more powerfully, she began-- 
L’amour est un oiseau rebelle 
Que nul ne peut apprivoiser
Et c’est bien en vain qu’on l’appelle
C’est lui qu’on vient de nous refuser

Sonya’s signing was as pure as we would here Saturday afternoons on the radio from the Metropolitan Opera.  My mother gripped my arm so hard that I was afraid it would turn black and blue.  She said it was the Habanera, her favorite aria, from Carmen.
I could hear her beside me, crying softly.  And soon I too began to cry.  I didn’t then know why Sonya made everyone feel that way.  Maybe because it was the most beautiful thing any of us had ever heard.  Perhaps it was because of her remarkable achievement.
Later that night, back at home, my mother said, Sonya was that oiseau rebelle, that rebellious bird.
*     *     *
Mrs. Bronstein was also crazy.  She was very old and hated that we always seemed to organize our street games right in front of her house.  She spent nearly all day sitting on her stoop in a rocking chair and screamed at us whenever anyone managed to blast one well into the outfield during one of our endless spring and fall softball games.
We laid out our baseball field using the cast iron manhole covers in the street, the sewers, for home plate and second base.  But since her house was right where first or third would be, depending on whether we set things up north to south or south to north (wind and sun location determined this), she was in one way or another very much in the field of play.  And crazy as she was, this made her even crazier.
Things actually were at their worst when someone slammed a foul ball off the façade of her stoop or the ball fell into her front garden.  Whenever that happened, old as she was, she would pull herself out of her chair and race us to get to it.  We almost always beat her to the ball and then play could resume; but occasionally, she was that lithe and spry, she would manage to scoop it up and run with it into the house.  That meant the game was over since we never had more than one softball at a time—a new one cost $1.50 at the sporting goods store on Utica Avenue and we needed to take up a collection to round up enough to buy a replacement.
She would manage to make us as crazy as we made her because whenever she would snatch our ball she would take it into her basement where she would cut off the leather cover with an Exacto Knife and then toss the naked ball and its slashed cover back out onto the street from her sunroom window.
My mother forbid us to retaliate, saying we were wrong to make her so upset—she was old and lived alone—and, at least as significant, had heard that if we ever chased after her into her house, which we were considering, or did damage to her property, for this we actually had many specific plans, Mrs. Bronstein would call the police, and we knew what that would mean--minimally a ride in the back seat of the patrol car where one of the cops would beat us with a rubber hose or they would give us Juvenile Delinquent, which though they were coveted by the Italian kids eager to display their emerging manhood, for Jews they represented an indelible lifelong stigma.
This cat and mouse combat lasted for at least three years until Mrs. Bronstein, like Herbie, disappeared.  We heard that she went to live with her sister in New Jersey or out on Long Island with her daughter, though we knew that she didn’t have any children.  Others said that she must have died, but her house was still empty; no one else had moved in.  So maybe that also wasn’t true.
It was winter and ball games in the street were suspended for a few months.  Everything moved indoors where more and more we would sit in front of the newly arrived televisions. 
But then in the spring play resumed.  We set up our field as in the past with Mrs. Bronstein’s house still serving as either first or third and with Heshy and the others frequently hitting a foul onto her property.  With her not there, it became routine to simply hop over her now overgrown hedge to recover it.  She was no longer a part of the game. 
One Sunday morning in late May, as we gathered to choose up sides and organize the day-long softball games (her driveway this time would be first base), her front screen door opened, and there was Mrs. Bronstein, as disheveled and untended as her hedges.
Though it was quite warm out she was uncharacteristically bundled in winter sweaters and a scarf.  She was still thin but in no longer spry.  In fact she walked unsteadily, seemingly dragging her left leg behind her.  We also noticed that her left hand was snarled into a tight fist, and it looked as if she had a twisted smile on her face.
Most remarkably, we saw that she was wearing her slip, brassiere, and girdle on top of her skirt and sweater.  How crazy we thought.
She fell back into her rocker and it began to move as if on its own.  And our game began, with considerably less enthusiasm than the days before.  Heshy particularly was most subdued.  Something had happened to his father, Mr. Perly, over the winter.  We didn’t know what, but he too had not been seen in months, and when he reappeared he had to use a cane and also dragged one of his legs.
Since it was so hot we took frequent time outs to run to Krinski’s candy store to buy sodas.  It was unusual for Heshy to go for drinks—he was the biggest, most athletically adept, and thus exempt from having to do any errands.  But this time he was the first to get there and the first to return.  With two bottles of soda.  He put one down for himself by home plate, and brought the other one over to the stoop where Mrs. Bronstein sat rocking. 
*     *     *
But craziest of all by far was Mr. Karpovski.  Like Sonya he too did a lot of singing, also in another language, but this one we recognized—the same one our grandparents spoke, Yiddish.  His singing was nothing like Sonya’s.  While hers was gentle, he punctuated his songs with angry curses and spit them out in rages.
Oyfn veg shteyt a boym
(By the wayside stands a bent tree)
Shteyner af zayne beyner
(Stones on his bones)
Shteyt er ayngeboyn
(All the birds have flown away)
Lakhn zol er mit yashtherkes
(He should laugh with lizards)

Mr. Karpovski lunged from his alley, as if at us, every time we walked back and forth to school, snorting his songs and epithets.  He was very large and muscular and so he frightened us.  But my mother assured me that he would not harm us, that he was really a gentle soul who had had a hard life, though he did not appear gentle to us as he charged at us, flailing his arms and tearing at himself.
As time went by and my mother proved to be right, we began to look forward to being “attacked” by him because we found that we could scare him more than he could us and that made him even crazier and more fun to perversely joust with.  We could make him dart across the street, run around in little circles, and then we would chase him back to his cellar apartment.
We also noticed that as we made him more agitated he would sing in bursts of phrases and, intermingled with them, we would hear him utter, in an almost inaudible tone, unusual for him, “Mein tochter, mein tochter. (My daughter, my daughter.”)  He as well seemed stuck on the Yiddish word for “destroyed”—kaput.  On certain afternoons it was as if that was the only thing he could say, “Kaput . . . kaput . . .  kaput . . . kaput,” in long strings of sound, more like a moan than words or phrases.
It was also a time when Jews who had survived the concentration camps were making their way to America.  Including some members of my own family.  My Aunt Hattie’s apartment was a halfway house for cousins who had been liberated from concentration camps and then spent years waiting in other kinds of camps, DP Camps for Displaced Persons, before being allowed to leave Europe for America.  They would arrive by boat at the Brooklyn Army Terminal where we would go to pick them up and bring them to Hattie’s apartment before they would, in a few weeks, go on to live with other relatives in New Jersey or Buffalo or Cleveland. 
While these displaced relatives were living with Aunt Hattie and Uncle Morris, the rest of the family would visit to help them get used to being here, to show them they were welcome and safe in America.
I especially remember one cousin, Malkie, who was my age.  He and his parents had been in Auschwitz for the last six months of the war and had somehow managed to live long enough to be liberated.  Though they had spent time in DP camps, they still looked like the pictures of the human skeletons we had been seeing in Life magazine. Malkie was so thin that I thought his eyes might fall right out of his head and land on Aunt Hattie’s starched tablecloth.
He was most interested in the toys I would bring to him.  He would barely touch them but simply put them on the table in front of him and stare at them in such wonder that I thought he must have believed I had brought them from another planet.  He could sit there like that for hours and I would sit beside him, never exchanging a word, in large part because I did not speak any language he knew and he did not as yet know a word of English.
As he was fascinated by my toys, I was at least as fascinated by the number printed on the inside of his forearm.  His parents had them too, in the same place.  I knew that these were not put there for a good purpose, and thus tried not to stare.  But because Malkie couldn’t take his eyes off the toys, I was able to get at least some quick peeks at his arm.  There seemed to be six or seven numbers tattooed there, in what appeared to be a foreign-looking script; but I was pretty sure the first number was a 1.
I left one of my trucks for him to keep.  It was a dump truck made of wood with rubber wheels.  It was my favorite and I knew it was his as well.  But when we went over to Hattie’s a few days later, though they were still there, I didn’t find Malkie at the kitchen table.  My aunt said he had been upset, crying for the last two days and that maybe I could soothe whatever it was that was bothering him.  He was in my cousin Larry’s room.
I found him at the desk.  He had placed the truck on the blotter and was sitting in the chair still staring at it, but this time while crying softly.  I asked as best I could what was the matter and in gasps, though his tears, he said to me “Der oskar ist kaput.  Der oskar ist kaput.”  I noticed that one of the wheels had broken off.  It was indeed kaput.
A week later they moved to Trenton.   I never saw them again.  Malkie’s father worked for a time in his cousin’s glove factory, eventually started his own pocketbook plant, made a lot of money, and I learned that Malkie had become a doctor and was living in Florida.  He was now called Michael
 
Some time later, I remembered his kaput oskar when I heard Mr. Karpovski sing about a Mamma weeping bitter tears:
Zogt di mame--nite, kind—
(And momma says, “No child”) 
Tochter kaput, tochter kaput
(My daughter is no more)
Un zi veynt mit trern . . .
(And weeps bitter tears . . .)
And thus I began to see Mr. Karpovski in a different light.  I began to sense the meaning of the “hard life” my mother had mentioned and why we should stop tormenting him and driving him crazy.  That the way he was must also have had something to do with the War and the Camps.  I was certain, because in the hot weather he would sometimes push up the arms of his sweater and I saw that he too had those numbers--1 8 4 8 7 9--with a small triangle tattooed beneath them.
We began to get comfortable with each other and rather than continuing to try to scare each other we began to look at each other, at first warily.  And after a time even began to exchange some words—Mr. Karpovski could in fact speak halting but good English.
Over the course of two months, in snippets, I learned the story of his life—at least the latter part of it.  He told me that he had a wife and daughter in Europe, in Poland.  He was a bookseller in Warsaw, specializing in English language books.  And that when the Nazis came they broke the windows in his store, took out all the books, and burned them in the street.  Later, I learned, he was taken away to a labor camp and was forced to work on the roads.  He didn’t see his family for many months and then he was sent to Auschwitz where miraculously he found his wife, Freida, and his daughter, Rifka.
But soon after their reunion they killed his wife, he thought as either a part of a medical experiment or she was just, like thousands of others, routinely taken away and gassed. The Nazis, though, allowed Rifka and him to continue to live because they were still strong and could work.  He spat out what was written over the entrance to Auschwitz, “Arbeit Macht Frei.”
And then one day he couldn’t find Rifka, his sheyner tochter.  In desperation, he ran all around the camp to try to locate her and was told that the SS guards had taken her to the far end of a field where there was a vegetable garden and some horses.  He was frantic because he knew that was also the place where they took girls and women to rape.
As he got nearer, he could see that was what was going on—seven Germans had their pants down around their ankles and were taking turns raping Rifka.  When he got to this part of the story, Mr. Karpovski spoke his words in a monotone of grief.
And then, he told me, they pulled the naked and bloodied Rifka to her feet and brought over four horses.  They quickly tied her arms and legs separately to each of them. 
 
       And then they whipped all four at the same time.
As the animals ran apart, they tore off Rifka’s arms and legs.
I
 wept with him as he sang once more, for the final time--
Zogt di mame—nite kind
Un zi veynt mit trern.