Thursday, January 31, 2013

January 31, 2013--The Collective Names of Animals

Have you ever wondered why a group of lions is called a "pride"? Or a flock of quail a "bevy"? Or a lot of caterpillars an "army"?

To tell you the truth, though I find these designations fascinating, I have no idea whatsoever why all groups of four-legged land animals aren't called "herds" since "herd," etymologically, is derived from archaic words that mean "group" or "line."

"Herd," therefore, for herd animals would do just fine. Yet, we have a "brace" of bucks.

Here are some of my other favorites. A few collective names make sense and are even witty, like a "culture" of bacteria and a "scourge" of mosquitos. They are a scourge and thus well named.

But what about--

Flange of baboons
Shrewdness of apes
Sloth of bears
Rabble of butterflies
Clowder of cats
Cart load of chimps
Charm of goldfinches
Crush of hippopotami
Smack of jellyfish
Leap of leopards
Plague of locusts
Mischief of mice
Parliament of moles
String of ponies
Bob of seals
Bed of snakes
Streak of tigers
Knot of toads
Bale of turtles
Sneak of weasels
Zeal of zebras

In coming up with these collective names, alliteration and a little humor surely help--mischief of mice and sneak of weasels, for example.

And for those of you who are crossworders, I hope this list proves helpful.

Wednesday, January 30, 2013

January 30, 2013--Take Cover!

Last week we focused some attention on Mali (where the French are attempting to thwart attempts by Islamist factions to take over this historic West African republic); on Libya (because Hillary Clinton appeared before Congress to testify about the killings in Benghazi of our ambassador and three other State Department officials); on Israel (where voters elected more members of a "centrist" political party than expected and this, it is presumed, will make it more difficult for Prime Minister Netanyahu to continue to lead from the extreme right); and then there was attention paid to Algeria where al Qaeda-linked terrorists held hundreds of petroleum workers hostage before executing dozens and killing others when the government stormed the facility and ended the siege; and more attention was focused on Egypt . . . and on Syria. . .  and on . . .

No wonder Hillary Clinton is leaving her post after four years of this.

Not much was mentioned, however, about India, Pakistan, and Kashmir; and even less--actually nothing at all--about Saudi Arabia, my pick for where the next explosion of Arab-Spring discontent will occur. After all, who has an attention span that can encompass all of this?

Well, we had better try to develop one.

I was indolently thumbing my way through the New York Times the other day when I noticed, buried at the bottom of the page, a piece about India warning Kashmiris to prepare for nuclear war!

We tend to forget that the main reason India and Pakistan are armed to the teeth with nukes and the rockets needed to deliver them is because (1) they hate each other and (2) they have for decades fought over the disputed borders of Kashmir.

Under the radar, while we have been paying attention to Benghazi, Beyoncé's lip-syncing the National Anthem, Te'o's imaginary girlfriend, and Michele's new bangs, it seems that the Indians feel that things have gotten so bad that they are alerting Kashmiris to dig fallout shelters and engage in take-cover drills of the sort we in America practiced during the decades of the Cold War.

As quoted in the New York Times, Indian officials urged that "people should construct basements where the whole family can stay for a fortnight," food and water should be restocked regularly, and shelters should have a supply of candles and battery-operated lights.

If Indians are caught out in the open when the Pakistanis rain nuclear bombs on Kashmir, "people should immediately drop to the ground and remain in a lying position. Stay down after the initial shock wave, wait for the winds to die down and debris to stop falling. If the blast wave does not arrive within five seconds of the flash, you were far enough from the ground zero."

Good advice, no?

Meanwhile, all is seemingly quiet in Saudi Arabia where the aging rulers continue to buy off radical factions in their kingdom. But these aging rulers will soon pass from the scene and there are few in the royal pipeline who have the authority and power to keep the vast majority of the struggling population either bribed or otherwise suppressed. With 20 percent of the world's oil supply, (surprisingly, second only to Venezuela), once protests erupt and strong-arm stability is threatened in Saudi Arabia, we may all need fallout shelters.

John Kerry has been preparing to become Secretary of State for his entire professional life. Let's hope that he and Barack Obama are up to the task of threading their and our way through this dangerous maze.

Tuesday, January 29, 2013

January 29, 2013--The Beginning of the End of the Stupid Party

Bobby Jindal is not going to be the Republican candidate for president in 2016, but he has been the GOP truth-teller since Mitt Romney lost the election to Barack Obama.

A day or two after Romney's defeat Jindal spoke forcefully about what the Republican Party needed to do in order to again be able to contend successfully for the presidency. Forget all his own positions on immigration, guns, climate change, and science (he's in favor of eliminating the teaching of evolution in public school), he called for the GOP to stop being the "dumb party."

Mind you, he was not speaking out of conviction, but as a well-educated fellow (he went to Brown and then Oxford) he knew how to count.

As a South-Asian himself (his actual first name is Piyush), he read the demographic tea leaves and by projecting the numbers into the future figured out what the Obama folks had already figured out--that this country is fast becoming a minority-majority country, with people of color inexorably coming to control national politics.

Republicans, he at the time said, and has reiterated subsequently, need to stop saying all those "stupid" things about the climate, women, the poor, taxes, immigrants, entitlements, and minorities and get with the 21st century.

And, lo-and-behold, in recent days the Republican Party has started to sound reasonable. Yesterday a fully bipartisan group pf senators introduced legislation that includes a pathway to citizenship for illegal immigrants, over the weekend Eric Cantor told other Republican leaders that it is time to stop talking only about cutting domestic programs, and others have been attempting to reposition themselves as friends of the poor and disenfranchised.

These are not just attempts to repackage old regressive policies in new rhetoric. That would have been expected if Republicans could have convinced themselves that the reason they lost to Obama was only because they had a loser of a candidate--that it wasn't because of their fundamental positions and the felt need to pander to their rapidly shrinking Tea Party base. (Even Fox news said goodbye to Sarah Palin, not renewing her contract for next year.)

Perceiving that demographics is political destiny and that rigging elections by suppressing minority voter turnout and scamming the way in which the Electoral College works is not going to overcome these tectonic changes in the American population, Republicans are beginning to realize that if they are to have a future they have to chance in more than cosmetic ways.

Unless they do so, in a couple of election cycles, because of population changes, Texas could easily become a blue or Democratic state; and if and when that happens Republicans, as constituted, will never be able to amass enough Electoral College votes to recapture the White House.

Everyone, very much including progressives, should welcome this--if we care about the country we should want a robust two-party system and we should focus more on seeing good policies enacted and less on who does or does not get elected.

I am not naively suggesting that Republicans' hearts are changing, just that their behavior is. To adapt a vivid and vulgar quote from Lyndon Johnson, "If their behavior changes, their hearts and minds will follow."

Monday, January 28, 2013

January 28, 2013--Downgrading Williams College

While many have been focused on and concerned about the United States' credit rating--it was lowered from AAA to AA+ in August, 2011 by Standard & Poor's during one of the previous budget cliffhangers--S&P and Moody's also rate other institutions that we should be concerned about.

For example, our colleges and universities.

Since it is not widely known that places such as Moody's Investors Service measure the credit-worthiness of colleges, it came as a surprise to many that they downgraded some very esteemed institutions and put others on a watch list--Georgetown in the latter instance and highly-selective liberal arts colleges such as Mills and Williams in the former.

These downgrades will make it more expensive for places such as Illinois Wesleyan and Tougaloo to borrow money for campus capital improvement projects--redoing labs, building or renovating classrooms and dorms, and generally keeping campuses in good repair.

it is claimed that the reason for the downgrades are a combination of a number of factors--poor financial management of institutions' endowments (Illinois Wesleyan, for example, has seen its endowment shrink by nearly half, down to $53 million from $103 million in two years), declines in enrollments as students opt for lower cost public colleges (and thus private colleges lose income from tuition and fees), and the need to offer more financial aid as students' parents' incomes have declined as a result of the stalled economy.

All the while institutional expense budgets have risen faster than the rate of inflation. Some of it inevitable, from rising fuel and insurance costs to just plain increases in the cost of everything; but much of it is the result of mismanagement and rapidly rising staff salaries, especially the salaries of professors and senior administrators.

Thus our college and universities are among the world's most inefficient operations.

Presidents, deans, department chairs are almost all managerial amateurs. Scarcely any of them come from the business world or have ever had any accountable managerial experience prior to assuming leadership positions at institutions of higher learning. As a result, when looking around the country, we see almost nothing but bloated expense budgets and chronic inefficiencies.

At my old institution, New York University, not yet downgraded or on Moody's watch list, professors work nine months a year, teach two to three courses per semester (typically scheduled on two to three days a week) and have annual salaries that average $180,000. In addition, many live is dramatically subsidized faculty housing (paying less than half the going market rate in rent), and receive generous benefits packages. And, since they have tenure, professors are not accountable to anyone, and cannot be dismissed for any reason other than having being convicted of committing a felony.

Though I wish I were, I am not being facetious.

All the while, China is using a good portion of its $3.0 trillion in foreign reserves to expand and improve its higher education system so that within a decade they will surpass the United States in the percentage of high school graduates going to college and the number graduating.

Let's hope that Moody's alerts will serve as enough of a wakeup call for us to get serious about the trouble our colleges and universities are in, much of it self-generated.

Friday, January 25, 2013

January 25, 2013--Prologue to Part 3--Heshy's Final Complaint

“If I were your wife, your current wife, I’d be pissed off.”  
It was Heshy.  I had avoided contact with him on the advice of my publisher’s lawyers.  I had sent him a copy of the second part of my novel, Give Him a Treatment Boys! because, as in the first, Safe In America, he had been prominently mentioned. I had needed his approval to use his real name.  Though he did not like either part very much, I suppose he had allowed me to do so due to his considerable ego.   
Now that the book was completed, he had gotten his hands on a prepublication copy at the Strand Bookstore and called me.  I should have hung up on him or made some excuse that I needed to meet Rona at the doctor’s; but I didn’t and, as previously, I turned out to be sorry I hadn’t.   “Why should she be insulted?” in spite of myself I asked, “I think she comes off pretty well.” 
“With a story like “Crazy Rona”?  You call that coming off ‘pretty well’?”  I heard him sneer even though he was calling from his cell phone and the connection was intermittent. 
I chose not to enter into another debate with him about stories and chapters—we had been through that too many times already, and instead asked, “Where are you anyway, I can hardly hear you?” 
“To tell you the truth, I’m in the hospital.  In the intensive care unit.”  
I was careful not to follow that up, preferring to think that since he was a doctor, a urologist, a self-described Dick Doctor, that he might have been with a patient rather than, considering his advancing years, being one.  
I decided, thus, not to inquire and to engage him just about what I had written.  The last thing I wanted was to learn that he might be seriously ill or even, God forbid, dying.  “Did you read the whole thing or just the title?  If you had, I think you would see that the ‘crazy’ part is used ironically.” 
“Again with the irony.  Of course I read the whole thing.  Even though, as you know, I didn’t think much of the stories in the first two parts.”  Here we go again, I thought, about him calling the “chapters” “stories”; but I ignored that and, after pausing. I’m sure, to bait me into an argument, he continued, “You know that though I thought both of them were poorly developed and the stories didn’t knit together as well as you claimed, I still have good memories of our growing up together in Brooklyn and even of our childhood friendship; and so I like to keep track of what you’re up to.” 
“I do know that and appreciate it.”  I tried to sound sincere. 
“Frankly, your appreciation doesn’t mean that much to me after all the years of your ignoring me and pretending to be such a fancy person, too full of yourself to want to be associated with any of us from the old neighborhood.” 
I had hoped he had gotten over that resentment.  After all we were nearly seventy and there he was maybe connected to IV lines and wearing an oxygen mask.  When would he get over those imagined slights?  Hadn’t I made amends enough in the book by representing him in such a positive light?  Better than he deserved, to tell the truth. 
But since maybe he was dying, I let it slide and said, “I understand.  You’re right.  I could have been a much better person.  I should not have done so much pretending and posturing.  In some ways, I’ve been seeing what I’ve written as a way of making amends.” 
“Well, you could have done a much better job of that too.”   His voice came across with its old strength in spite of the clicking on the phone and what sounded like the beep of medical monitoring equipment in the background. 
From all of these still strong feelings, whatever his condition--I was sensing that he was more likely a patient than in the hospital as a physician--I decided to stop pandering to him and said, “Forget the Rona part for a moment, OK, and tell me what else is wrong with the book?” 
“Plenty,” he shot back.  “Among other things, what was true previously is true here as well—there’s no sense of color whatsoever, no clear or noteworthy descriptions of any of your so-called ‘characters,’ and no sense whatsoever of place.”  I didn’t say a word, letting him rant on.  “I’ll give you an example from the first story of part three, ‘I Married Lydia,’ who is quite two-dimensional by the way since I know who she is derived from or, as you would say, from whom she was ‘fictionalized.’  I have no idea what she looks like except that she wears black clothes all the time; and I have no sense of how any of the settings look, other than the frankly unbelievable description of that mad psychiatrist’s leather-covered office, ridiculous; much less any sense of coloration—what does the light streaming into your room from the Hudson look like?  I ask because that light seems to me to be important to you, to represent something significant since you make such a big thing of it.  No novelist, if that’s what you insist on calling yourself, could get away with any of this.”  
I thought I heard him sucking in a stream of oxygen but still I restrained myself from inquiring.  “Frankly,” he continued after what sounded like wheezing, “reading the entire book made me realize that all you did was string together descriptions of only loosely-related incidents.  Place, time, setting, reflective insights are in all cases absent.  It’s as if everything is presented in black and white, and I am not just talking about ‘color,’ and the narrative, such as it is, reminds me more like the serial dramas they used to play on the radio than any novels with which I am familiar.” 
“Well,” I was happy to be able to say, “maybe we are on more common ground than you might imagine.  Because much of your criticism of my method and the structure of the books in fact reflect exactly what I am attempting to achieve.”  I was certain that I heard him snort.  Maybe he was also flooded with mucus. 
“I am working in this colorless, locationless way quite intentionally--not, if I may say so, out of failure of imagination or lack of skill.  Though you may of course disagree about the quality of my vision and technique.  That’s your privilege.” 
“Stop patronizing me, will you.  I think by now you know that I’m not exactly illiterate.”  True, I remembered he had made some intelligent references to other novelists back when I had sent him a copy of he first part. 
“Sorry, again,” I said, “You seem so touchy.  I have a lot of respect for your opinions otherwise I would already have made an excuse and hung up.”
“Be my guest,” he said testily and then added, “And I’m far from touchy.”
“Well if you would stop choking for a minute,” I was instantly sorry to have blurted this out but pressed on anyway, “I have a few things to say—first of all, though Lydia is of course derived from a real person . . .” 
“Lydia, your first wife, no?” 
“Yes, her.  But the things I wrote about her are mostly made up.  If you remember one of our earlier conversations about my writing, I told you that I try to find the essential as opposed to the literal truth and so . . .” 
“That again,” he muttered, exasperated and seemingly gasping for air. 
So I spoke faster, thinking not much more time might be remaining, “Yes that again because it’s critical to my methodology.”  
There were more choking sounds; and I also thought I heard him say derisively under his breath,
Methodology?  That’s a joke.”  
Undeterred, I pressed on, “I use my imagination to get to that truth and want you, I mean readers, to use theirs as well.  We’ve been over all this before.  That’s why I deliberately bleach out all color and choose not to over-describe things.” 
He chortled at that and said, “That’s an understatement”. 
But I continued, “So, yes, you’re right to compare what I do to old-time radio scripts.  In fact, I hope the book is a little like the experience of listening in the dark to just the bare bones of dialogue and a few primitive sound effects--where intentionally presenting so little forces you to fill in the visual and imaginative blanks.”  
I hadn’t heard any sounds from him for a while so I paused in the hope that he was still there—literally.  Then there were the sounds of someone stirring about so I continued, again unable to control my tendency to lecture, “Is this helpful?”  
Nothing.  But then he came back to life and took off in an entirely different direction, “And by the way, as if things weren’t bad enough, what was all that crap about associating yourself with Allen Ginsberg and the Beat Generation writers?” 
“Well, with that,” this zinger landed—in truth I had been self-conscious about much of what I wrote about and set in the West End bar—and wounded by it, I defensively said, “didn’t you notice, I was being ironic and self-deprecating?  Didn’t I acknowledge my various humiliations with this, public and private?  And by the way most of that is not made up—it’s was all too literal.” 
“I saw that, but to try to get ‘the reader’ to ‘locate’ you within the great tradition of American writing, to me much of your so-called self-deprecating humor was a turn off. All that feigned innocence.  What baloney.” 
With that it sounded as if he was chocking and spitting into a cup.  If I was hearing correctly, from what was going on at his end, it did appear he was on his last legs. 
“Well, you got me there.  Guilty as charged.  I was rereading Mark Twain while working on this last part of the book.  I especially liked the European sections of Innocents Abroad.”  I couldn’t believe myself—here he was dying and I’m telling him about what I had been reading.  I couldn’t blame him that he had had it with me. 
“You’re killing me,” he retorted, clearly pleased that he caught me talking down to him again as I had done during so many of our early years together.  
And while again attempting to stifle his fluid coughing he once more changed directions, “I read somewhere, probably just some of your publisher’s PR bullshit, that this book is supposed to be about happiness.”
“Well, sort of.  It’s really more about . . .”  
“I know a thing or two about that.  Let me tell you about happiness . . . .” 
Dr. Perlmutter, pick up on line three.  Dr. P, line three please.” 
“What’s going on?” I at last asked, “Where are you?” 
“Finishing with a patient.  What the hell else would I be doing in the ICU.?”  
I was relieved to learn that he wasn’t the patient and immediately felt better that his last conversation on earth would not be this one.  “It’s an emergency and I’ll have to call, you back.”
“So you’re . . . ?”
“I need to go.  Someone may be dying.”  But, from all of his wheezing and coughing, he still sounded to the old pre-med in me as if he could benefit by climbing into one of those hospital beds and hooking himself up to a drip.   
“All I can say to you,” Heshy sneezed, “is thank God you’re finally done with your furshlugginer book.”  
About that, we did agree.  I had said all I wanted to about myself and him and everyone else from the blurry past—both the literal and, I had tried, the essential. 
Heshy had stayed on the line; and, as if he had heard my tired thoughts, intentionally again, for the final time, ignored me and them and said, “By the way, in case you’re curious—my equipment, as you so like to refer to it, is still working very well.  If you don’t believe me just ask my new wife!”  
He began raucously to laugh—it was a sound also very familiar from our past—and asked, “So how about yours?  Your equipment. Still working?” 
And with that, to gales of his own laughter, he hung up.

Thursday, January 24, 2013

January 24, 2013--Peggy Pays A Visit--Concluded

Back at the condo Peggy did call her broker and it looks as if she will take Ted’s advice and add some gold and other commodities to her portfolio.

“That Fred is quite a guy,” she said. I didn’t bother to remind her his name is Ted.

Then, after a long walk on the beach where the mounds of washed-up jellyfish intrigued her (“I could really get into this nature business”), some frantic calls to her producer (“When will I see some money?” we overheard her asking), and a two-hour nap to make up for lost sleep the night before (thankfully, she doesn’t talk in her sleep), when Peggy roused herself, she said, “I can’t believe it, but though it’s only five o’clock, I’m actually getting hungry. It must be the salt in the air or Florida resetting my biological clock.”

“Didn’t that clock of yours shut down years ago?” I said, fooling with her New-York style.

Back in the city she would have jabbed right back at me, but instead said, “Do you think we could go for an early dinner to that China Diner place you told me about? In an e-mail extolling the virtues of Florida and how you’re missing New York less and less you told me they make a decent sea bass with scallions and ginger. After all that grease I had for breakfast, I could use a little fish to clean me out.”

Trying not to think too much about the cleaning-out part while wanting to accommodate her shifting moods and desires, I added, “And very nice Singapore Chow Mei Fun. You’ll think you’re in New York’s Chinatown.”

“I doubt it,” Peggy muttered. “But I’m trying hard to get with the Florida program.”

We found a place to park and arrived at the restaurant at the stroke of 5:30. It was already filled by obviously-retired people likely there for the Diner’s early-bird specials. Fortunately there was one outdoor table left and we took it, without consulting the hostess, before anyone else could pounce on it.  The China Diner is very popular, especially at that time of day so we had pushed ahead of a couple shuffling along using walkers. The possibility of having to wait was a nightmare scenario considering that Peggy was ravenous and we knew from our New York experience that she hated nothing more than needing to wait for a table, movie tickets, or a handbag closeout sale.

Sotto voce, noticing that our table was pressed close up against the shopping plaza’s parking area, Peggy said, “I don’t ever remember eating in a parking lot before. But I suppose it does have its local charm.”

Happily, a waitress we knew from previous visits came right over to take our orders. “Hello, Mr.-Mrs. Rona. Nice to see you again.”

“We’re happy to be here, Mae. This is our friend from New York, Peggy Samuels. She’s a writer.”

“Nice to meet you Mrs. Sam,” Mae as usual was all smiles. “Ready to take your regular order? The fish, the Singapore noodles?”

“You seem to be very well known here.” It was Peggy’s turn to wonder or worry about us.

“Not really,” Rona said. “Maybe every other week. We like . . .”

Not wanting to offend Mae or perhaps us, Peggy managed to whisper so only we could hear, “You come here all the time, order the same thing, and sit out here with cars?”

“Remember, it was your idea,” I said, “We were planning to take you to a really good French place. We even had an 8:30 reservation. Back at the condo it was you who was starving and wanted sea bass and Singapore noodles.” Peggy nodded to indicate that that was true. “And, if you really want to get cleaned out, I recommend their Szechwan eggplant. It has quite a kick. Both while and after eating.”

“You do the ordering; I’ll do the eating.” Peggy smiled at an elderly couple at the next table who had been staring at us, especially at Peggy who was dressed from head-to-toe in her black New York clothes. Everyone else was in full pastels.

Mae asked, “You want wonton soup or egg roll?”

“I hate both,” Peggy blurted out. “Sorry,” she looked up at Mae who was visibly upset, “I sometimes speak before thinking,” she said to Mae. Rona and I were nodding. “It’s just that I’m not in the mood for them. I had my daily quotient of grease this morning at the Green Parrot. Sorry, I mean my weekly allotment of fried foods.” She was smiling broadly at Mae, trying to make amends.

“But it comes,” Mae said puzzled.

“Comes?” Peggy, equally puzzled, asked.

“Yes. If you here by 5:30 you qualify for early-bird. Wonton soup or egg roll come with. No charge. And for desert, pistachio ice cream.”

“Oh, that I’ll have,” Peggy said, clapping her hands excitedly. “I was in Brooklyn once decades ago and a relative took us out for Chinese food. For dessert they served pistachio ice cream. It was so delicious that I bought some when I got back to Manhattan. But it didn’t taste the same as in Brooklyn.  Considering where we are now I’m sure it will be wonderful. So, Mae, please, set aside a portion for me.”

“No problem,” Mae said, “we have many gallons. Everyone here loves pistachio. But no egg roll?”

“No, but thank you darling.” Peggy was again at her gracious best.

The food was as good as we had said and Peggy cleaned off all the dishes down to the last mei fun noodle, even licking her fingers as she scooped up the final drops of the eggplant’s fiery Szechwan sauce and of course her beloved pistachio ice cream.

We finished in time to catch a movie at the multiplex just across the shopping plaza. “I see True Grit is still playing here,” Peggy said. “As you know I hated it, but maybe if I see it a second time, I’ll find something to like. Westerns, after all, can be so iconic. Our mutual friend James, though he’s British and loathes all things American, loves the film. So maybe it’s worth a second try.” Rona and I exchanged glances. “Perhaps there’s something he found in it that’s interesting to hate that I missed the first time around.”

Peggy was having fun at our expense, but we happily joined in and feeling very good drove across the parking lot to get closer to the theater.

“Why are we driving?” Peggy wanted to know. “The theater’s only 200 yards from here.”

I just shrugged. “In Florida you drive everywhere.” She snickered.

Actually, though I slept through half the film, for me, even the part I saw was enough to remind me that seeing it once was quite enough: like Peggy initially, I too found its message politically regressive, Peggy this time, of course, flip-flopped and seemed to love it in less cynical ways than our friend James.

“You know, on second look there is something about it that is very American and appealing. I mean, positively appealing. How we in America have lost our ability to promote justice and that with so much of work corporatized, with workers feeling more and more alienated, the message may be that we need to find ways to restore our sense of self-reliance and mutuality.”

Overwhelmed by her intellectualizing, I meekly said, “I snoozed through most of it this evening, so maybe when it comes out on DVD I’ll order it from Netflix and give it another try. At the moment it still looks to me like a plain-old western. And not a classic one at that.”

We continued the talk about the film and the state of American culture over espressos at Luna Rosa. “You know, to tell you the truth, I like the Parrot’s coffee better,” Peggy, confided, continuing to surprise us, “But I and all your New York friends do miss our talks with the both of you.” She reached across the table to hug us. We must have looked to the others at the café like quite an unholy threesome.

“I did tell James and George and Sharon I would try to talk you out of insisting on staying here until the end of April. Coffee in the morning at Balthazar is just not the same without your being there.” Rona and I simultaneously began to shake our heads in an attempt to cut off that line of attack.

“I think maybe we should head home,” Rona said, “You have a very early flight tomorrow. We need to get you to the airport no later than 7:30.”

“So there’ll be no time for me to see Harv and Fred again?”

“I’m afraid not. That is,” I jabbed her playfully with my elbow, “unless you decide to come back next month for another visit. You know how much it can snow in New York in March.”

“Here he goes again talking about the weather,” Peggy said under her breath, “Look what his weather did to me. I’m peeling.” She detached a piece of sun burnt skin from her nose. And then directly to us, ominously, added, “We’ll speak more about your plans tomorrow.”

Forewarned, when alone later that night Rona and I told each other to remain alert and wary.

Again the next morning Peggy was up and ready before either of us.

The ride to the airport, without traffic, is no more than 25 minutes; and Rona and I had agreed that we would try to keep the conversation chatty. Knowing that Peggy is usually not very alert in the early morning we thought we could distract her enough with small talk to escape having to listen to her continue to denigrate Florida and snowbirding as well as put pressure on us to come back to New York sooner than we intended.

I drove while Rona tried to keep Peggy occupied.

“One thing that’s nice about being here,” Rona chirped, “is that the roads are in such good condition.” I had never heard Rona talk about roads before. “True, we have to drive everywhere, which is not my favorite thing, but since we do it’s nice that the roads have such fine surfaces. And look at all the highway repair work along the way. It’s from the federal stimulus money. You can literally see the jobs that were created.” Peggy was ignoring her chatter, perhaps, I could see in the rearview mirror, she was taking a little nap.

We were by then only about 15 minutes from the West Palm Beach Airport. Our distraction strategy seemed to be working. Peggy had not said a word since we left our place. So Rona rattled on.

“I was surprised that I slept so well last night. That spicy eggplant dish that we had doesn’t always agree with me. Not that we order it every time, mind you. In fact, not that we go to the China Diner that often, but when we do and I eat more of it than I should it repeats on me all night.”

Rona was sounding defensive, so I jumped in and changed the subject, “You should have a smooth flight all the way. When I got up this morning I turned on the Weather Channel and it looked like there will be no bad weather or turbulence between here and Newark.”

“I hate Newark,” Peggy grumbled. “It’s in New Jersey. I always use LaGuardia for domestic flights.” After that outburst, it looked as if she sipped back into sleep. But with her eyes closed she muttered, “The weather again. All he wants to talk about is the weather. He used to have such a fine mind.” She was talking again as if we weren’t there.

We chose to ignore her and anticipated that her anti-Florida rant would resume. To preempt that, I said, “I’ve been reading this biography about James Polk . . .”

“Who?” Peggy croaked. She was clearly not sleeping, just slumped in her seat with her eyes closed.

“Polk. Our 11th president. Who presided over the Mexican War.” We passed the Lantana exit and had perhaps only five miles to go. “He’s not well know, but he accomplished quite a lot. That is, if you believe in Manifest Destiny.”

“Which I don’t,” Peggy growled.

“California would still be a part of Mexico if it weren’t for Polk.”

“Who needs California? I hate California. It’s another place where you have to drive to the drug store to get a newspaper.”

“But it’s beautiful there,” Rona said.

“Again with the beautiful. First the weather. Then the beautiful. How much further is it to the terminal?”

“Maybe two, three more minutes I said. “If it’s OK, we’ll drop you and your five bags at the curb. There’ll be redcaps there to help you. It’s impossible to park here.”

“That’s fine with me. But before you dump me,” with a softer tone, she said, “I want to thank you for being such good hosts.” She leaned forward and put her arms around the two of us. “I know I’m a handful . . .”

“No, you’re . . .”

“A handful is what I am and you’ve been very good sports, putting up with my nonsense. In spite of what you think, I actually enjoyed myself. Your friends—that Harv and Fred—I even liked the beach, which I usually hate because of all the sand. The Chinese food, on the other hand, is nothing to write home about. To tell you the truth, I think you’ve lost your sense of taste while you’ve been down here vegging out.”

I pulled up at the curb and was actually feeling blue that she would be leaving. She isn’t always easy to take but she is one of a kind. And mainly lots of fun.

We got out of the car together to help unload the luggage and say a proper goodbye. As she embraced and kissed us, to me directly she said, “There is one thing we can agree about.”

Still tense from the drive, tentatively, I asked, “What’s that?”

With a laugh from deep within her, she said, “The weather. It’s glorious here.”

And with that she was gone.

Wednesday, January 23, 2013

January 23, 2013--Peggy Pays A Visit--Part 2

But wouldn’t you know it, at 8:30 sharp the next morning Peggy was awake, dressed, and made up, waiting for us impatiently to emerge from our bedroom.

Tapping her watch, she said, “I thought down here you get up at dawn, which cracked two hours ago.” Rona was still rubbing sleep from her eyes. “You know what they say about the early bird, or is it the early worm—I get so confused with rural expressions. Or are you only early-birds in the afternoon when you hunt around for a two-for-one dinner at 4:30 in the afternoon?”

It was going to be one of those days I thought, but fibbed, “We’ve been up for hours, waiting quietly in bed reading so as not to disturb you.”

“Consider me disturbed. One of your neighbors was out loading golf clubs or guns into his car before dawn. I could hear him muttering about an early tee time in Boca or some other awful place. So, I thought, why not get up early like everyone else in Florida. Also, assuming you’re up for it, I thought this would give us time to go to that Green Parrot of yours for coffee.”

“Owl,” Rona said, “The Green Owl.”

“Since when are owls green? Though I’m not much of a nature person.”

“There’s quite a nice café in town, right at the beach, ” I said, hoping she’d prefer a café to a coffee shop and that I could keep her from embarrassing us with our friends at the Green Owl. “Luna Rosa’s coffee’s much better. You can even get your extra-dark espresso there. And of course there’s the view.”

“As I like to say--when in Florida, do as the Floridians. I’d prefer indigenous coffee. I’ll get plenty of espresso when I’m back in the city. So how about it, let’s go to your Owl place.” She winked at me, “I promise to behave myself.”

She did try, but when we arrived at the Owl, with me wearing sunglasses in an attempt to retain a hint of anonymity, Peggy asked in a quiet voice if we might sit at the counter. I had suggested an outdoor table, thinking we would run into fewer Owl regulars there; but with Peggy urging her on and Rona taking the lead, we went in and as luck would have it there were three side-by-side stools. 

I noticed that Harvey Green was perched on the one adjacent to the ones that Rona had spotted. I attempted to take the seat next to him and suggested that Peggy sit at the other end as far away from Harvey and trouble as possible. This because I knew that if she drew him into a conversation about politics, as I felt certain she would, things would become incendiary in a hurry.

“That’s a better seat,” I said, “closer to the kitchen so you can watch them work. You always like seats by open kitchens when we go out in New York.”

“I’d rather sit next to that nice man, if that’s all right with you,” she pointed and whispered loud enough so that I’m sure Harvey could hear, “He’s very handsome and who knows maybe available.” And with her most glorious smile she slid in next to him, extended her hand, and said, “I’m Peggy. And who are you?”

“I’m Harvey and if you need life insurance I’m your man.”

At the same moment Traci brought Peggy a mug of the Owl’s coffee, and Peggy made neither a fuss nor a face, immediately sipping away at it as if it were her favorite New York City espresso.

“If I ever decide to die, I’ll give you a call.” 

Harvey laughed and said, “Up to now I thought I’d heard it all. And now along you come and . . .”

“. . . bring into your life a little big city humor.” Here we go I thought.

“Why don’t you look at the menu,” I suggested, “They make some very nice omelets. Including with egg whites.”

Ignoring me, Peggy leaned seductively closer to Harvey and cooed, “So you find insurance fascinating, do you?”

“To tell you the truth, not really.”

“So what turns you on?”

“That’s a long story but for another occasion.” He too could be flirtatious. “But, among other things, I like politics. I’m quite active in Republican politics and . . .”

“Peggy, please, let’s order,” I interjected, “Traci doesn’t have all day and . . .”

“You’re political? I’d love to hear more about that.”

“Traci, can I have some scrambled egg whites with spinach. And what about you, Peggy?” trying to get her to change the subject, “What’s your pleasure?” 

“My pleasure is also for another occasion,” she winked at Harvey. “But I am famished. Must be the ocean air.” Pointing at Harvey’s eggs, bacon, and a side of grits smothered with cheese, she said to Traci, “I’ll have the same as Harv.”

Harv? No one calls him that. And, she never eats anything like bacon and eggs and cheese for breakfast—not only does Peggy try to keep an eye on her weight but also suffers from high cholesterol. “It looks delicious. So, tell me Harv, are you one of those Tea Party nuts?” I slumped in my stool, swiveled away from them, and put my sunglasses back on, pretending I didn’t know Peggy.

“Actually, I’m a fiscal conservative,” Harvey said, “but otherwise quite libertarian when it comes to social issues. For example, you might like this, I believe women should be allowed to have control of their bodies, including their reproductive rights. The government should stay out of that aspect of their lives.”

“Really, to tell you the truth, that surprises me. From what Steven has said about the people he knows down here most of you-all don’t believe in abortion. Or gay marriage.” She pronounced "abortion" and "gay marriage" in a loud enough voice so that half the people sitting at the counter stopped eating and turned toward Peggy.

“To tell you the truth, though I agree with you, I never would have taken you for a choice kind of fellow. Especially after how he described you. Not you specifically, but his Florida friends.” Without looking at me, Peggy pointed in my direction to make sure all the regulars knew she was with me.

And they were listening raptly. I felt compelled to add, “If I talked with Peggy about you at all—which I doubt--I never spoke in any but the most respectful way.” Raising my voice so all could overhear, I was again concerned about how I would be viewed by the Owl folks after Peggy went back north, I added, “I mean about everyone here. How much I like and respect all you guys.”

“We know you love us,” Ted from the other side of the counter said.

“And who are you?” Peggy asked, ignoring Harvey for the moment.

“I’m Ted. I moved here about 15 years ago after retiring from the military. And you?”

“I’m Peggy. I’m down for a few days. Staying with Rona and Steve. I’m from New York City.”

“I could have guessed that,” Ted said.

“I think Steve told me about you. Aren’t you the one who has all those gold coins?”

Thankfully Peggy’s food arrived. “Eat before it gets cold,” I said, once more desperate to distract her.

“I do have some gold as a part of my investments. That’s true.”

Not paying attention to her food, Peggy said, “Isn’t holding gold for people who think the world is coming to the end?”

Ted who has seen it all, heard it all, calmly asked, “Are you sure it isn’t? The end I mean. Have you been following what’s going on in the Middle East? You feel confident that all will turn out well?”

“Well . . .”

“And though I don’t mean to be personal, it’s not my business of course, but if you have a 401(k) . . .” Peggy had a mouthful of eggs and nodded to indicate she did, “I wonder how it’s been doing in comparison to my gold.” She was chewing and swallowing. I knew she had taken quite a hit, like the rest of us who had only conventional investments. 

“I know you think those of us who are into gold are crazy, that we follow Glenn Beck religiously.” His saying “religiously,” I feared, would set Peggy off on one of her atheism tirades. But she kept working on her eggs and listening. “But, some of us are not. I think of those of us who hold some gold as just cautious and,” he paused for emphasis, “smart.” 

“You may have a point there, Fred,” Peggy said softly after taking a long pull on her coffee.

Ted. I’m Ted.”

“Sorry Ted. I’m terrible with names but I should try to remember yours because I want to tell my broker about you when I call him later today. Maybe he should get me into some gold.”

Thankfully we had just about finished breakfast. Without checking with Rona or me, Peggy told Harvey we’d come in for coffee the next day and hoped to see him. He said that since she’d be back he’d be sure to be there as well and promised that maybe they’d talk a little more about what turns him on. “Only if you tell me what turns you on,” he said with a sly smile.

Traci came over with the check and asked if we wanted anything else. Peggy said, “Well, maybe one more thing.”

“Anything,” Traci said. 

“Maybe I could have a cup of your coffee to take with me. It really is delicious.” Rona and I exchanged puzzled glances.

To be concluded tomorrow . . .

Tuesday, January 22, 2013

January 22, 2013--Snowbirding: Peggy Pays A Visit--Part 1

Since the inspiration for "Peggy" is paying us another visit, for those of you who missed this, over the next three days, posted here will be an account of her first visit in 2011--

                                                             *   *   *

“I’ve got to get away for a few days.” Peggy was calling from snow-bound Manhattan. “I just finished editing the screenplay for my new movie, Death Takes A Vacation, and thought that if I don’t take a vacation now the film will turn out to be my autobiography.”

Rona had picked up Peggy’s call and, ever-compassionate, asked, “Is everything all right? I mean with you.”

“I’m as fine as I can be expected, considering I haven’t slept for three days and during that time the temperature never went higher than 22 degrees.”

“Sounds awful.”

“But let’s agree not to talk about the weather, all right? I know in Florida it’s everyone's favorite subject, but I don’t want to turn into someone who thinks that a 75-degree day is the meaning of life.”

When Rona told me about her conversation with Peggy, our longest-standing New York friend, I knew, since we had taken up snowbirding, she was again having fun at our expense.

“You know how much I hate Florida,” Peggy did not need to remind Rona—she was anything but shy about reminding us in frequent e-mails and occasional phone calls--“but I’m a little short of cash at the moment, my producer owes me a bundle, and if that spare bed you have down there is not being used by one of your gangly nephews or nieces, I could manage to put up with all the early-birders. That is, if you could stand having me around for a few days.”

Having Peggy around for a few days, especially in a small condo, isn’t either Rona’s or my favorite way to spend time. We guard our privacy jealously; but considering the affectionate nature of the relationship and the fact that Peggy, though complicated, is in fact a wonderful and generous person and, above all, was tapped out, Rona, even without consulting me, agreed to have her come for a hopefully restorative visit.

“Just tell us when you’ll be arriving,” Rona offered, “and we’ll pick you up at the airport.”

“Thank you, darling. But I must warn you that though I can’t wait to see you I still hate Florida. In fact, our mutual New York friends, who worry that you have by now turned into real Floridians as opposed to just snowbirds, expect me to deprogram you, return you to your senses, and bring you back to Manhattan with me.”

I don’t know what Rona said to that. The fact that she refuses to say is not a good sign.

“What are we going to do with her all day?” I worried after Rona hung up.

“She sleeps to at least 10:30 so half the morning will be gone. And it will be noon before she’s awake enough and ready to actually do anything. But I know what you’re thinking.”

“What’s that?"

“If she manages to drag herself out of bed at a decent hour she’ll want to go with us to the Green Owl for her coffee and then when she discovers they don’t make espresso she’ll be miserable, make a ruckus, and we’ll be embarrassed to go back there after she leaves.”

“That’s about right,” I confessed. I was also concerned that if she insisted on going to the Owl—to check out where we go in the morning and talk about as one of our favorite things about being down here—she’d get into all sorts of arguments with our Florida friends. Especially the political conservatives.

“And if she wants to hang out here for some R&R,” I added, “She’ll also fight around with our neighbors. They won’t have read the same books as she and will think True Grit is the best movie of the year. We know how much Peggy hated it—it was too politically regressive for her: Rooster Cogburn again riding to the rescue of the lawless state—and can’t stand people who disagree with her about movies or books. Remember how she almost excommunicated us when we disagreed with her about Brokeback Mountain? She thought it was the best movie of all time and we thought it was just so-so.”

“How I remember that,” Rona said, “she didn’t speak to us for a month.”


“So, what will we do with her? Minimally, we had better plan not to have dinner before 8:00 o’clock.”

“Eight-thirty would be better.”

We were plunged in a state of trepidation.

So, five days ago, we drove to West Palm Beach to pick her up at the airport. She had checked her bags and we joined her at the luggage carousel. When she spotted us she ran over to embrace the two of us at the same time.

“Look at them, poor things. Him in plaid shorts. And her shoes.” She spoke about us as if we were someone else. “But I understand, they have gone native. Undoubtedly very clever. To blend in. And look at me, I’m only here for three days and I schlepped five bags with me.”

As we thought if they would fit in the trunk of our car, she explained, “One for shoes, one for hair, another for my face, and the other two stuffed with summer clothes. I hate summer and summer clothes, they make me look swollen; so I brought all of them.” Addressing Rona directly for the first time, she said, “You’re such a darling. You’ll help me pick what to wear. I wouldn’t want to embarrass you.”

She had been speaking so loudly and dramatically that the other passengers had formed a circle around the three of us and were staring raptly at this strange and fascinating creature who had been on the plane with them.

Thus, as anticipated, embarrassment had already commenced.

Continued tomorrow . . .

Monday, January 21, 2013

January 21, 2013--Key West

We're visiting in Key West and I didn't get around to blogging. I will return to Delray and resume on Tuesday

Friday, January 18, 2013

January 18, 2013--Chapter 23: Bull Gang

Heshy Perlmutter and I were assigned to the bull gang.  On a construction site it was considered, by the men, to be the lowest form of life.  Reserved for klutzes, misfits, and rummies.  Since I did not consider myself to be any of these, I was offended.  What’s more, as a college man who had just finished my sophomore year, I pouted that I was not considered to be skilled enough to be thought of as mechanic material.  
All things considered, Heshy thought our designation to be appropriate.  I didn’t see it that way at all.  
For example, of the three other members of the gang, one guy, Tommy (the Turnip) Annunziata, had a withered arm; another, Louie (Man-Mountain) Maloney, weighed at least 300 pounds, very little of his bulk visibly the muscle required to move heavy equipment; and Marty (the Parrot) Martinova, who spoke not a word of English, had reputedly never uttered a word of any known language—continuously emitted a sound, a single unrelenting one that was more like a bird’s than anything human. 
Then there was the notorious Eddie (the Bull) Ribori, chief of the bull gang, who was so thick in solid girth, as compared with Marty’s rolling blubber, that the “bull” in bull gang could easily have been eponymously chosen. 
Forget for the moment what Heshy had to say about the situation, he was after all ensconced at Brooklyn College, while I, as an about-to-be Columbia University junior, was certain this was not where belonged.  Admittedly it was only for the summer, but still.
However, as with so much else I would soon discover, Heshy turned out to be right.  In retrospect even I have to acknowledge that.   We were in truth given an appropriate assignment by Lou Wasserman, the foreman to whom everyone, including Eddie, at least in theory, reported.  And thankfully so because my life would have turned out quite differently if I had pulled rank and gotten us assigned to a traditional tin knocker mechanics crew.  Which I could have arranged since all the mechanics, helpers, and bull gang members worked for my Uncle Sunny. 
He was what we today would call the CEO of the Apex Sheet Metal Company, a business he inherited from his father, which in his day installed tin ventilator fans in the tenements of the Lower Eastside when indoor toilets were first installed.  To family members he was just Uncle Sunny who sat alone all weekend in the library of his mansion on Long Island Sound watching Cisco Kid reruns on TV while sipping a glass of Chivas Regal on the rocks that was perpetually kept filled by his youngest daughter Francine.  But in the world of heating and air conditioning, he was the king since Apex, during the early years of air conditioning, was New York’s largest heating and ventilating contractor.  When a new office tower was to be erected in Manhattan, they called on Apex to install the complex heating and air-conditioning systems.  
During summers some of Uncle Sunny’s men drifted to jobs in other cities and he always needed some fill-ins to bridge the gap until they returned in the fall to their jobs and their wives.  And so that summer he asked if I wanted “to work construction.”  I leaped at the chance since it seemed an ideal way to stay in shape, which I needed to do since I was an oarsman on the Columbia crew.  And I could use the money—the job paid fifteen dollars an hour, time-and-a-half for overtime.  A fortune for a summer job. 
But, Uncle Sunny said, if I wanted it I had to bring along another “college kid”—he needed two men for a job in Manhattan, the Tishman Building, a fifty-story tower that was going up on Fifth Avenue.  I did my best to recruit one of my college friends, but they were all either so physically inept that the thought of using any tool other than a slide rule terrified them or they were from backgrounds so affluent that their parents insisted they not work with their hands but rather hang out at their Long Island country clubs and find someone appropriate to marry. 
My best friend from the neighborhood, Dicky Traub, the older son of Dr. Traub, also turned down the offer.  He would be accompanying his parents on a tour of England, France, and Germany—his father wanted to show them where he had been and won his medals.  “That kind of a job is not really for me,” Dickie said, “If I wasn’t going to Europe, I’d much prefer to hang out at the stable in Canarsie and take care of my horse.”  He was an excellent rider.  But Dicky encouraged me to take the job, “It will be good for you, and you can sure use the money.” 
So I turned to Heshy.  His father, Mr. Perly, was the neighborhood glazier and resident Communist and this assured that there was very little money available for the Perlmutter children.  Everyone had to work if they wanted sneakers much less a private college education. I thus suspected that fifteen dollars an hour would sound as alluring to Heshy as it did to me, though thankfully half my tuition was covered by a scholarship.
He had been my best friend until high school, when we began to go our separate ways—I, reaching for a life beyond the neighborhood, managed to get into Brooklyn Tech, which I thought would transport me to a different world; while Heshy remained close to home and attended the local high school, Tilden.  During our first fourteen years we were always together, our buildings separated by a vacant lot which we attempted to bridge through the use of hand and mirror signals; a rope line that we tied to our beds so that every morning, by tugging on it, we could wake one another to make sure we started the day together; and a rubber hose through which we whispered to each other—amplifying our voices late at night, bedroom to bedroom. 
As Heshy and I became more technologically proficient, we linked apartments via homemade bell-wire phones, following instructions we found in a Popular Mechanics magazine and together built radios from used parts, powering them with car batteries.  These electronic concoctions never managed to pull in a station, though one time we did manage to bring in the fire department when we set my bedroom curtains on fire when all the radio’s tubes exploded. 
Heshy perceived me as the “rich” one.  Though my father was the owner of a series of marginal businesses, he had the appearance of success, which was what counted, since he was tall, well dressed, born in America, and drove a series of almost-new cars, all distinguishing qualities on a street of men who owned just one suit, had accents, and were never more than five-six in height.  My mother was a first grade teacher at the elementary school we both attended and was thus the only “professional” woman in the neighborhood.  But in spite of the class-consciousness that he inherited from his father, the only overt subscriber to the Daily Worker in East Flatbush, Heshy never held our being “rich” against me.  In fact, even at that tender age, I suspected he had bigger economic plans for himself as he saw his life unfolding, and was as interested in what he could learn from studying my family’s surfaces as in what he could learn from his father about the Revolution.  
In spite of the realization that Heshy and I had begun to drift along different paths, we had seen even less of each other during our initial college years, after being snubbed and even laughed at by my roommates, “Construction work?  You’ve got to be kidding,” I turned to him as my best bet for the partner I required if I was to be working on Fifth Avenue.
He jumped at the chance—there was the money but also the opportunity, ironically, on the Upper East Side to be a union card-carrying member of the exploited working class; though as I saw it, fifteen dollars an hour didn’t seem all that exploited.  
And thus we found ourselves in Eddie Ribori’s meaty hands. 
*    *    * 
But before turning to Eddie’s bull gang, allow a brief digression about heating and ventilation systems and their construction so that those who might be uninitiated in these matters can acquire some perspective about the world in which Heshy and I were soon to labor. 
In the old days, to heat a building there was a coal or oil furnace in the basement, a huge tank of water that the fire in the furnace heated and turned to steam, and a series of pipes that carried that steam to radiators which heated the rooms and offices where they were situated.   And at that time, to make a home or office cool one opened a window.  Some would place a fan in that window, which, if you stood right on top of it, would evaporate your perspiration, which everyone who has taken high school physics knows is “a cooling process.” 
Then eventually came was air conditioning.  If you could afford a window unit, it would help make the fierce Augusts in Brooklyn endurable.  Families would cluster around these life savers even more urgently than by the early TVs—life itself was often at stake, which is not to make light of Uncle Milty. 
With technology pioneered by the Navy during the Second World War, commercial air conditioning came into its own.  To make life at sea bearable for sailors who had to work and sleep below deck where the air itself was rank and superheated, they first brought something resembling fresh air to their stacked bunks via steel ductwork that connected to ventilating fans.  This circulated air, made possible by those sheet metal ducts hung from the ceiling, was as essential to winning the war at sea as K-rations were to victory on land.  
And then a bit later, when refrigeration systems were attached to the fans and ducts, cooled air could be delivered even to torpedo rooms on submarines.  If we had only told the Japanese about this secret weapon, in the face of Yankee ingenuity, they would have surrendered without us having to bomb Hiroshima and Nagasaki. 
In the early 1950s, my Uncle Sunny had the brilliant and profitable insight to adapt this military technology to civilian projects.  For large office buildings, he reasoned, on every twenty floors or so place giant fans between compressors that chill the air in summers and heaters that provided warm air during winters, and have those fans propel the cooled or heated air to each floor through sheet metal ducts that Tin Knockers would fabricate and hang from ceilings and thread from floor to floor so that “climate controlled” air could be delivered right to the executive suite and typing pool.  No more ventilators for tenement toilets.  That day was over.  Apex was moving on into the modern HVAC age.  And the rest, as they say, is sheet-metal history. 
But even before that felicitous inspiration, I first learned about Uncle Sunny’s contributions to the war effort from his brother, my father.  He told stories about how Sunny managed to secure coveted government contracts to install ventilation systems on warships being constructed at the Brooklyn Navy Yard.  These were not so much stories about how by doing this Uncle Sunny was contributing to the defeat of the Nazis and Nips but how he was managing to keep some of the sheet metal designated for the naval work for his other, non-military, civilian business.  
At a time when even sugar was being rationed so the men fighting overseas could sweeten their coffee, construction-size sheets of galvanized steel, you can only imagine, were not readily found.  That is, except on the Black Market.  
Without revealing too many family secrets, especially about a good uncle who in later years was generous enough to employ an all-thumbs nephew on a Manhattan building site, suffice it to say that he did very well.  So well in fact that even before the war was over, Uncle Sunny and his family of five, from what he was able to provide, with a house full of servants, moved into a twelve-room house, under a slate roof, on the North Shore of Long Island.  
And his talented wife, Aunt Lola was able to secure the services of Monsieur Maurice, at the time America’s best known interior designer (decidedly not “decorator”) with whom she created the first in-home living-room museum complete with velvet rope across its entrance so that the various nieces and nephews who descended upon them on weekends would be held back from entering that fashionably sunken room and sitting on and thereby crushing the down pillows so fluffed and swollen on their Louis Quinze chairs that they looked more ready to give birth than provide comfort.
*    *    * 
“If I’m gonna have to baby-sit you two for three months,” Eddie Ribori, at first meeting, growled at Heshy and me, “you’ll need names like the other guys have.”  He flapped one of his massive arms at them and they gathered in a circle like a conclave of the afflicted.  We trembled in fear because though we had been on the job for less than half an hour we had already been warned by foreman Lou Wasserman not “to cross him” because a building under construction can be “a very dangerous place, if you know what I mean by very” and don’t “expect your Uncle Sunny, or me,” he was quick to add, “to protect you here,” since Eddie “as a union man hates bosses.”  
It was 7:30, a half-hour before the work day would begin.  In the plywood shanty where the men changed into their overalls, Heshy and I, attempting to be invisible, had already pulled on our new steel-toed boots and were ready to join the rest of the bull gang.  I knew from my uncle that a ten-ton fan was to be delivered that morning and suspected that would be the bull gang’s assignment for the day—to position it in place in the twentieth floor fan room.  So for whatever reason Eddie Ribori was gathering his crew around him, I was eager for it to be over so we could get our hands on that giant fan.  I already knew, again from Uncle Sunny, that moving these fans required more skill than anything else a bull gang was called upon to do; and I was eager to test myself by getting right into that kind of action. 
When Eddie’s three henchmen were in place at his side, he began the mock baptism to their ribald laughter and whistles.  Pointing at me, while his men shuffled and smirked, he announced, “You’re the easy one—‘Joe College’ fits you like a new rubber.  So that’s what I name you, Joe College.”  The Parrot shrieked as if he had just been given a fresh cuttlebone to knaw on.  
“That Greek fag you’re studying in college.”  He turned to Louie Man- Mountain as if for colleagueship, “What’s his name, Arcamedia?”  Louie nodded his gelatinous head, “Who bragged he could move the earth if he could place his pry-bar where he wanted to and had one long enough?  What he called a lever.  Well, with this here pry-bar of mine,” which he clutched at his side like a massive battle staff, and though the summer never relinquished, “and these three pipe rollers here,” each eight feet long which he had leaning against the shanty, “with just these I’ll show you how to move a fan that weighs ten, fifteen tons into a space with just inches to spare on either side.  Just with you two bums and those three rejects over there.” 
He next gestured toward Heshy, not turning to acknowledge him, “And your pal over there, the other college boy, I gather from one of the tin knockers, Joe Muri, who lives by you guys in East Flatbush, that he already has a name from the neighborhood, though I can’t imagine how he deserves it from the looks of him,” he was nodding and winking at his crew, signaling to them to listen up because they would really like this one.  
“They say you have some three-piece set on you, some special e-quip-ment, right pal?”  While giving special emphasis to the three syllables, he poked Heshy in his thin chest with such force that he stumbled backwards.  But before crashing into a half-fabricated wall, Eddie caught hold of him by his belt buckle; and, with astonishing strength, lifting him off the ground, confirmed the name Heshy’s friends back in East Flatbush had given him years ago in acknowledgement of his early sexual development—“Big Dick will do here too,” Eddie proclaimed, contemptuously looking down below the crunched belt, “that is until we get a chance to check it out.”  
He then let go of Heshy, who collapsed in a heap on the newly-poured concrete floor.  Roaring at his own wit, he turned to face his raucous band and received their applause.  “And after we give it a good look, if we can find it, then I think we’ll have something more appropriate to call the Dick.” 
From all this excitement, it looked as if the Turnip’s inert arm was set aquiver.  Certainly, Man-Mountain seemed ready to erupt; and if the Parrot could have flown as well as he screeched he would have flapped himself up to alight on the building’s open steel framework, thirty floors above where the naming ceremony had concluded. 
*    *    * 
“Now let’s get to work,” Eddie bellowed, signally the fun was finally over, “and you two, Joe College and Big Dick, there’s a truck waiting on the street by the hoist for you to unload.  And make it quick.  The driver has half a load for us and then he has to take the rest to another job downtown.” 
“But what about the fan?” I stammered at Eddie Ribori’s back as he and his band of three had tuned toward the elevator that would take them up to the twentieth floor.
He wheeled to glare at me.  “I told you two that there’s a truck that needs unloading.  Let’s see if you can get that done before the end of the week or one of you slices off a thumb.  So be sure,” he roared, “at all times to keep at least one thumb stuffed in you ear or up your ass!” 
And again to gales of derisive laughter Eddie and his men marched off, leaving us on our own, with our new names, to deal with the truck.  Which as promised was waiting on 54th Street by the construction hoist, a makeshift-looking elevator structure of metal piping, wire, wood beams, and slats that rose the full height of the building and was used by bull gangs and laborers from all the trades to hoist from the street cinder blocks and mortar, coils of electrical cable, wall boards, pipes, kegs of iced beer (it was hot after all), and, in our case, sections of sheet metal ducts that had been fabricated in Apex’s shop in Long Island City and which now needed to be off-loaded from Uncle Sunny’s truck and delivered to the seventeenth floor where a gang of tin knockers awaited their arrival so they could assemble them, screwing them together, seven-foot section to seven-foot section, until they were joined into long lines of ducts that they would then hang, affixed to steel rods that had been inserted into the underside of the poured concrete eighteenth floor, and where, when installed, they would wait, hidden from view and awareness, behind finished and buffed dropped ceilings, the eventual arrival of typists and file clerks who would be cooled by the silent rush of air through hot summer Augusts and made toasty by heated air during the depths of Decembers.  
The Apex truck was double-parked and causing such an early-morning nightmare for the coagulating cross-town traffic that its driver, Archy Slotman, when we finally arrived, was already in such a state of agitation that his entire body was shaking as if he had just emerged from a long season of shock therapy.  He was so roiled by the commotion in the street that he had lost his battle with what we subsequently realized were nervous tics.  They moved in waves from his feet to his head and, for him, were so seismic that he could not make himself understood, except though strings of twitches in his face, where they were most expressive.   This was also how he earned his nickname, Twitch 
It was clear from his condition, if we wanted to get the truck unloaded before he required resuscitation that we had better jump up onto it and get started.  
There would be no instructions, no orientation about how to unload a truck.  Nothing of the kind I had received about how to use the equipment in the chem lab at college.  It was simply, “Get the fuck up there.  I can’t wait all day for you faggots to get going.  I’ve got steam fitters waiting to use this friggin hoist in an hour.”  Just this from Vito (The Provolone) Provenzano, the hoist operator, who we later learned required twenty dollars cash to allow Apex or All City Electric to use his equipment even though Uncle Sunny and his contractor colleagues had to pay $100 an hour, on the books, for its use.  Lou Wasserman slipped The Provolone the former; Apex’s comptroller the latter.  It all worked very well. 
Heshy and I, on the other hand, didn’t.  While attempting to hop up onto the truck bed with the ease and grace of someone who had been doing it for twenty years, Heshy slammed a leg into the rear of the truck with such force that he was thrust back into the street where he fell under the wheels of a rampaging taxi which had just finished crawling toward the corner where we were and was in a such frenzy to at last make it across Fifth Avenue that, if he hadn’t managed to swerve, that Monday would have been Heshy’s first and last day on the job.  
With considerable embarrassment, accompanied by shrieks of pleasure from the very amused Provolone, Heshy picked himself up from the pavement and managed to scramble up onto the truck to join me with the help of a boost from the equally convulsed Twitch, a leg up which he had already administered to me, so that now both of us were in place and ready to unload the ducts that were standing on-end as if in columns.  
Twitch had lashed them with ropes to the truck body so they would not come crashing down as he bumped his way from the shop in Queens to Manhattan.  But when I finally managed to untangle the rope, with the unforgotten skills I had acquired while a Boy Scout, which Twitch had secured with no less than a dozen improvised knots, when I then with visible pride turned to be acknowledged by Heshy and maybe even Provolone for my achievement, the entire bundle of ducts came crashing down on me, with one of them slicing into my left thumb.  This sent blood spurting and Twitch racing as if in a seizure to get the first aid kit from the cab of the truck, something he regularly needed to do for new bull gang members since the ends of sheet metal ducts were as sharp and raw as scalpels and show-off klutzes like me were always self-amputating body parts their first week on the job.
Fortunately, my cut, though deep, closed quickly under the butterfly bandage that Twitch applied, and I still had both thumbs.  
I thought then that maybe we had in fact been offered a little orientation from Eddie Ribori—from then on, though I didn’t keep at least one thumb in my ear, I did get a good pair of work gloves and kept my eyes more on the ducts than on Twitch or Vito Provolone.  It was just get the friggin ducts onto the hoist and move on to the next thing. 
*    *    * 
We spent the entire first month pretty much doing nothing other than unloading trucks which were arriving with fuller loads and, after our first week, twice a day since the pace of work had picked up—the Tishmans’ wanted to have their building completed and occupied ahead of the original schedule to take advantage of the increasing demand for office space.  The city was booming while I was floundering.  It wasn’t as if I kept slicing off my fingers—I had solved that problem with the gloves and by keeping a lookout for duct avalanches--it was more that I was feeling frustrated that we were still mired in the routine work of unloading trucks and schlepping ducts to the hoist.  I had not forgotten about the true work of the bull gang—moving those mammoth fans.  I wanted to put my hands on them. 
True, Eddie and his three senior crew members were so occupied with those blowers, now working up on the fortieth floor, also the result of the Tishmans’ accelerated schedule, that they left us more or less alone, except in the mornings, having just the time then, at the shanty before work started, to shoot us a few zingers— 
The Man-Mountain, “Hey Joe College, read any good books lately?”  He paused to set up the punch line.  “I mean the ones without the pictures.”   Even our defender Lou Wasserman liked that one and couldn’t help chuckling.  
The Turnip, “Say Big Dick, I hear you sit on the back of the truck all day trying to look down girls’ dresses.”  He would then turn to the Parrot knowing he would really like what was coming, “or is it the dresses not the tits you’re interested in?”  That in fact was always the Parrot’s favorite and send him into bursts of high-pitched whistles.   
The Bull, Eddie Ribori surprisingly joined the ribaldry only occasionally.  If I thought he was capable of such an emotion, I would have said he seemed sad, even depressed.  But not depressed enough to deter him one morning from savaging us before all the assembled mechanics.   “Everyone here is busting their chops to get this fuckin job done.  Working ten, twelve hours overtime every week.  In this heat.  Their kids are home from school and the guys come home dragging their tails so tired they can’t play with them or take them to a ball game or nothing.  And what do I hear from that Ginny Provolone?  That you guys are either sitting on your asses or taking so long to hoist a load that the mechanics up on the twenty-third, twenty-fourth floors have to sit around waiting for the tin to get to them so they can get the job done and get home to their people.  No one’s complaining about the overtime money.  Everyone likes a little sweet time; but unless you clean up your act, I don’t care, Mr. College, if Uncle Ralphie Boy is your rabbi.  As I told you once, and I don’t intend to tell you again, if you get my drift, construction is a very dangerous place to work.” 
With that ominous warning hanging in the dusty air, and to complete silence, in single file like a wounded platoon, Ribori led his men to the elevator and back up to fan room on the fortieth floor.
Heshy and I were made nervous enough by Eddie’s threat and took it so seriously that we struggled furiously all morning with a full load of ducts to get them off the truck and onto the hoist in, for us, record time.  We had images of tin knockers sitting on their asses all over the building site talking about how our laziness and incompetence was leading to an increase in the divorce rate of sheet metal workers all over the city and causing their kids to turn to drugs since their dad’s never had time any more to take them to a ball game at Yankee Stadium.
The Provolone, though, appeared to be dragging his feet even more than unusual that morning, busting our chops if there were too many ducts piled on top of each other on his hoist--the twenty dollars cash extorted by him for each truckload was supposed to help him not notice these “safety violations.”  It was as if word of what Ribori had threatened had filtered down to him and thus if he could help slow things down enough so that we wouldn’t be able to get the ducts up to the men so they could get home in time to have dinner with their kids, then maybe he would be witness to just how dangerous a construction site might be for two wise-ass college boys.  That would break up the monotony of his day. 
But in spite of The Provolone’s best attempts to hold us back, with the extra rush of adrenaline shot through our systems by Ribori, we did manage to get the load to the men before lunch and thus felt we had dodged a bullet, perhaps literally, at least for the morning. 
So over lunch, which was a gulped-down pepper-and-egg hero and a can of Ballantine, I counted the number of workdays remaining before the start of the fall semester.  Unfortunately, though I counted three times to be sure, there were still twenty-eight very long and dangerous days to go.  I couldn’t quit—forget the money--I would never again be able to face my Uncle or father if I wimped out.  And there was no way I could tell Uncle Sunny about what Ribori had said.  That would be worse.  I needed to find a way to stick it out while not getting killed. 
We made it through the next two hours and then later that day, during the afternoon break, when all the men were gathered in the street beside the hoist where the coffee wagon was set up, just as I caught myself again counting days, thinking that maybe I had missed a holiday, no such luck, Joe Muri the mechanic from our neighborhood came to squat beside the moping and exhausted Heshy and me.  Joe Muri, who had told Eddie Ribori about Heshy’s nickname.  Something that was still so rankling Heshy that he turned his back to him when Muri sat down. 
“I hear you guys are having a few difficulties,” Joe had never spoken to us before either on the job or back in Brooklyn.  He had been a semi-pro football player before tearing up his knees and becoming a tin knocker, and on our block the status of both was such that there was no way that he would acknowledge much less speak to losers such as the two of us.  Also, as one of the few Italians in our decidedly Jewish neighborhood, he held those of our persuasion in thinly-disguised contempt.  Nothing personal, or even especially bigoted, but that was just the way it was.  So it was unusual, perhaps unprecedented that he would approach the likes of Heshy and me.  
“Looking at me now,” and he looked at himself as he sent a wave of flexing muscles across his body—from his bulging tri- and biceps to his astonishing pecs and on down to his famous six pack, “I know you will not believe this but when I was in your shoes, an apprentice mechanic just beginning, I made a mistake during my first week, also working trucks, that cost my partner an eye.”  Heshy, not believing his ears, this confession of fallibility, turned back toward Joe.  
“I know, you think I’m making this up, but trust me this is a true story.  I almost quit.  Me, Joe Muri, offensive guard for the Brooklyn Mavericks thought about quitting.  I, who once played a whole half on a broken ankle.  Believe it.  I gave it serious thought.”  Heshy looked at him skeptically, as if he doubted Muri’s capacity to give anything serious thought.  We Jews, also, didn’t think very highly of the Italians. 
“So what happened?”  Eager now to find out, we leaned closer so as not to miss a word.  “I’ll tell you what happened.  There was this guy, I think your uncle would still remember him, at the time, and I’m talking ten, fifteen years ago, the only one of you co-religionists on the job, this fellow Milty Shapiro, I think they called him the Weasel he was so smart and slippery, well Milty took me under his wing and showed me a few things and the next thing you know I was a full-fledged mechanic, even a crew leader.” 
I was puzzled, wondering why he was even talking to us at all much less telling us these things about himself—this neighborhood legend who was reputed to have been shot in the stomach once but not wounded because the bullet couldn’t penetrate his rock-hard solar plexus and had thus that day earned, not been given, but earned the nickname Superman.  “I’ll tell you why I’m telling you these things,” it was as if he had read my mind—even in that he had Man-of-Steel powers--“It’s because one time Lloyd,” he even used my real name. “after I was injured and down and out and feeling sorry for myself,” he peered at me; were there tears inconceivably forming in his eyes, “It was during that time when your father and his Uncle Herman owned that parking garage in Park Slope, remember that, well he took me on and gave me a job just when I needed it more than anything.  I’ll never forget him for that.  And then later, when I was all healed up from a knee operation, your father, without me asking him, talked to his brother about helping me get into the tin knocker’s union.”  I had not known any of that.  
“So now I’m going to return the favor and help you out.  And him too,” he said, tossing a gesture in Heshy’s direction.  He had regained his composure and was Superman again.  “I’m going to show you a few tricks about how to get a truck unloaded and the stuff up to the guys in time for them to get the job done.  And I guarantee you that this’ll also get that clown Ribori off your back.” 
And he did.  After work that day he took Heshy and me to a workers bar back in Brooklyn and gave us the orientation that we had craved that first day.  
He told us that as an old bull gang member he had been observing how we worked.  Our problem, he said over his second beer, was that we were working separately, as individuals and not as a team.  He put his arm around my shoulder.  It was so dense with bands of muscle that I almost collapsed under its weight.  “The one thing I learned from being on the Mavericks is that no matter how good you might be what really matters is how you play together as a team.  I know, you’re thinking right now, ‘Big deal.  To tell us such obvious bullshit he sat us down in this ginmill.’  Well, you may think you know that but, from what I seen of you, you sure aren’t puttin’ it into practice.  You’re workin’ like you don’t even know each other.”  And during the next half hour he critiqued our truck and hoist techniques and gave us a dozen pointers about how to work as a team.  
After Joe paid and left, thinking further about what he had had to say about our shortcomings and what he told us was required to do the job well, I had to admit that I should have perceived on my own that what had seemed such a simple, even menial job was actually quite complex and to be successful not only required coordinated effort but also considerable thought.   Having seen myself as existing on a higher plane than the other men, analytical thought, was not something I had assumed working on a bull gang required.  In my mind it had simply been about fifteen-dollar-an-hour schlepping.  Heshy, enigmatically, simply smiled at me when I made this confession.  I needed another beer. 
The next morning we began to implement Joe’s suggestions.  One involved my no longer working on my own up on the truck disentangling the ducts and then one by one tossing or pulling them to the open end where Heshy, standing on the street, waited for them before walking them to the hoist where he, by himself, would stack them.  Now we both jumped up onto the truck and did the disentangling together; and then, after having pulled aside enough to constitute a full hoist-load, hopped off and together carried the ducts, three at a time to where The Provolone stood, no longer smirking since even he had to acknowledge that we were working together like a real crew.  And since we carried the ducts to the hoist also as a team of two, by selecting which to bring we could pick three--a large one, which we carried between us, and two smaller ones which we each could carry with our free arms.   Three for the price of two.  
We were feeling quite proud of ourselves as it was clear as immediately as lunch break that day that by working as Joe had taught us we had increased our production so that even Provolone was off our backs.  And by the end of the day, when we returned to the shanty to change back into street clothes, for the first time since we had begun, now a month ago, Eddie Ribori and his men ignored us.  Which we took to be a good sign. 
*    *    * 
Most evenings after work I was so exhausted from laboring in the blazing sun and suffocating air, it was turning out to be the hottest, most humid summer on record, I devoured a quick dinner (“He’s still a growing boy,” my father would proclaim), watched a ball game on TV, and fell asleep on the sofa before the fifth inning. 
But on weekends, I would take the subway to the City to be near Sigrid.  Heshy remained in the neighborhood to help out in his father’s store—Perly’s Glass Works—and to see his voluptuous girlfriend, Rochelle, one of the Siegel Twins, who lived around the corner.  She was someone Heshy had had his eyes and hands on since elementary school. 
Sigrid was a year ahead of me at Barnard, studying Existential Philosophy, and had a job working with her professor assisting him with a paper he was preparing on Sartre’s Being and Nothingness (L’Être et le Neant) to be delivered in French at a conference in the fall, in Fontainebleau.  Something about how consciousness is transcendent.  She did not need the five dollars an hour he was paying her—she had all the money she required for her apartment on West End Avenue; her twice-weekly riding lessons in Central Park; her british racing Green MG; her devotion to fine wines, exclusively French; and her much-celebrated dinner parties, soirées, for which she did all the cooking and featured, at the end, her famous chocolate bavarian, which she served in the shape of a dark mountain in her great-grandmother’s silver tureen. 
The money arrived discreetly each month from Düsseldorf, transferred to her personal banker on Madison Avenue by her widowed mother, who carefully nurtured the family fortune ,which, Sigrid hinted, was largely derived from ancestral lands.  Though Sigrid may not have needed his money, Professor Evan Anthony needed her to translate his academic English since, she told me privately, he barely “had” French because, like me, he was from Brooklyn and originally had a name that had as little to do with an Evan and even less an Anthony than my newly acquired ability to pronounce Long Island as two separate words.
I met the Baroness Sigrid von Hauptmann after my roommate Jerry Tuba ended his torrid affair with her and disappeared.  She had remembered me as Jerry’s friend when she found me one afternoon in the Columbia Music Library, struggling haplessly with the score to one of Beethoven’s late quartets.  Without Jerry to guide me I was pretty much lost. 
A cappuccino (she took me to her café) quickly led to dinner (she picked the restaurant, Le Côte Basque); she chose the wines (a lovely Sancerre Sec  to begin followed by a properly aged Puligny Montrachet); paid for the two of us (les escargots et entrecots  were both trés cher); took me to her apartment (with the sweeping views Jerry had languidly described); which in turn, before that glorious first day was over, led to her taking me into her arms, her bed, and to erotic places I had up to that time only imagined during endless adolescent nights of self-administered release. 
Throughout that year with Sigrid, she seemed more interested in my, to her, exotic life than in any of my ideas or interests, much less anything I was capable of doing for her or to her in what she referred to as her “chambers.”  As we lay together, smoking Galoise, in what was now my moonlight, she would ask me, “Lloyd,” my name never sounded so luscious as when Sigrid rolled it out in two syllables, “when Ll-oyd vil you take me to see your Brooklyn.  You always promise but then, my sweetie, you never do.  You are teasing me, no?  I want to see that baseball field where the Dodgers play and Coney Island where I want to ride on the roller coaster.  I never did that as a girl in Germany, it was so terrible there.  And I want to see your house and meet your friends.  Not your Columbia friends.  They are such boys.  I want especially to meet that Heshy, is that his name, the one about whom you tell such funny stories.  Did you really, in your school, have a class in how to shower?  That is so amusing.”  She, all of her, as she lay against me, quivered with laughter. 
*    *    * 
And so we picked a weekend for her visit.  Though she pressed me to use her MG, even generously saying I could drive it, I preferred to take my father’s car into the city to get Sigrid.  It was respectable enough, a two-year old yellow, black-topped Chevrolet convertible.  I was, as might be expected, nervous about bringing her into my world since I was interested in getting as far away from it as Manhattan and Columbia would allow.  But she was so eager, so casually calm about what might be awaiting her, and I was so giddy from infatuation, that I put aside my doubts and, after picking her up, drove us proudly back over the Brooklyn Bridge, with the Baroness by my side, with the Brooklyn wind whipping her incredible, blonde Arian hair.  
*    *    * 
I had been driving us all over Brooklyn to show Sigrid the sights—the elegant promenade in Brooklyn Heights with its ecstatic views of lower Manhattan, the shabby remnants of the once-glorious Coney Island, the truly exotic flavors of the Arab quarter on Atlantic Avenue, and the rich but dangerous Black enclaves of Bedford Stuyvesant--but more, in truth, this extensive drive-about was to avoid the inevitable encounter with my origins. 
“But Lloyd, this is such a charming street,” Sigrid oozed, sensing my nervous hesitation, as we turned off Church Avenue onto my block, East 56th Street.  “I love these little houses with their, what do you call them, stoops?  And their gardens . .  .“
“I would hardly call them ‘gardens,’ Sig,” I would have preferred her to stop trying so hard, to just let things happen, to let us get it all over with so we could get back to her chambers to both hide out and do other things, “They’re more like patches of dirt.” 
“But look at those urns everywhere filled with succulents,” every stoop and front garden had at least two balanced on brick columns or pedestals, “Are they made from cement?  They make everything feel so secure and indestructible.  That is important for growing up—to have a sense of permanence, a lack of threat.  You were so lucky my sweet boy.”  She slid closer to me, pressing herself to me.  I could feel her heat and her trembling, as if she were remembering her own devastated childhood. 
As we approached 205 East 56th Street, my house, I put my free arm around her to show both comprehension and compassion for that remembered fear.  She nuzzled my neck, right there in full sight of everything that had been at the center of so much of my life.  This amazing, forgive me, creature from another world was nipping my neck.  And everyone was out there on the street, filling their porches or leaning perilously from second floor windows to see everything—whatever was to transpire was to be extensively witnessed and then recapitulated and gossiped about after we left for months, perhaps years.  It was not every day on this block, on a hot day in late July, that a Sigrid would arrive in a blazing yellow car with the top down. 
There was no spot for the car right in front so we needed to park next door by the Ruby’s former house, which meant we needed to run a short gauntlet of eager eyes.  I attempted to hurry us along, to pull us into the shade and sanctuary of my parents’ apartment, whatever the consequences; but Sigrid moved at her own languid pace, turning like a giant ballerina on the sidewalk to take in the full arc of 56th Street, things to me so familiar as to be beyond noticing--the huddled two family houses, the occasional punctuation of s six-storey apartment house where the Italians lived, the asphalt street softened by the fiery sun (my boyhood playing field demarked by the sewer covers I had told her about that served as our bases and goal posts), and the vacant lots where the rival gangs built their scrap-wood shacks and waged their internecine wars.  
Taking in all of this so excited Sigrid that she glowed like a second sun, so radiant and comfortable in her body and on that street, this Saxon goddess right there among themus, that I could almost hear gasps of appreciation emanating from those gathered to take in her entrance, appreciation for her endorsing ease and comfort.   
The house in which we lived was the most substantially constructed on the block.  Or at least it appeared to be that way from its surfaces.  We lived on the second floor, and though renting it, from its glossy exterior and my father’s snappy wardrobe of checks and stripes and a series of seemingly flawless cars, we derived the undeserved benefit of appearing to be in much better circumstances than my parents’ actual struggles would suggest.  
The house itself was owned by Willie Pollishaw, the Lumber Baron, who with his family lived on the first floor.  He spared no expense when building it, especially when it came to the externals—we had the slickest face-brick façade, each glazed brick allegedly cost two dollars, and wrought iron, which enclosed and encircled every square foot of side walkway, the driveway that led to the two-car garage (which side my father was assigned to use always causing fierce disputes), and the two tiny weed-strangled plots that constituted the front “gardens.”  The steam heat, on the other hand, hidden from street view, never worked.  Or perhaps the Baron never turned it on.  So my father had a ball peen hammer hanging on one of the radiators that was directly above Willie and Pauline’s bedroom, which, on below-zero nights, he would use to bang on the pipes, yelling, “Willie you cheap bastard turn up the heat!” 
Sigrid, at her insistence, was about to enter into this world. 
*    *    * 
“Sorry we’re so late.  The beach traffic was impossible.” 
Whaaa?”  This familiar sea-gull caw emanated from, I was shocked to find, my Aunt Madeline.  She was so notoriously hard of hearing, actually quite deaf, that her reaction to anything that was said, not shouted, in her presence was a universal “Whaaa?”   My parents hadn’t warned me that she would be there, but in truth it should not have been a surprise, considering she had the unerring ability to sniff out a major family event and find a way to thrust herself, uninvited, into the middle of it, especially if she could make trouble and take delight in its reverberations and consequences for years to come.  So there she was ready to further complicate an already complicated afternoon.  
The beach traffic,” I hollered back in her direction as she crouched near my parents, a little behind my father as if seeking his protection from this Nordic apparition. 
The beach?  You went to the beach.  It’s so bee-u-ti-full there.  You went swimming? 
No Aunt Madeline, we got caught in beach traffic.  That’s why we’re so late.” 
I’m glad you went swimming.  The water in Brighton Beach is the cleanest.  No one flushes their toilet there.”   Sigrid appeared to be enjoying my tiny, unpredictable aunt, glowing at all of her hollering.  We both, though, sensed my parents’ growing embarrassment.  This was to be their afternoon, not Madeline’s. 
I love the water there.  I swam there from when I was your age.”  Aunt Madeline was totally devoted to the beach, forcing her brother Danny to drive her there all throughout the year.  She was a strong swimmer who routinely ventured far out beyond the undertow, past the line of breaking waves to swim relentlessly and effortlessly for hours, back and forth in quarter-mile-long laps.  And she was equally devoted to the sun, spending even more hours baking in it, ignoring her doctor’s warnings, so that her skin had assumed the color and texture of a fine, but textured Italian pocketbook. 
“We can’t stay too long.  I have to get Sigrid back to the city.  She’s doing research for her philosophy professor and has to complete a project for Monday.  And we also need to see Heshy.  Sigrid wants to meet him.”  Though Sigrid was clearly enjoying Madeline and bathing her in an affectionate smile, I couldn’t be sure things would continue this well. 
“Isn’t it time you introduced her to your parents?”  This finally from my mother who stood with her arms folded across her chest.  “Have you forgotten already how you were raised?”
“Of course, I’m sorry, Mom, this is my friend Sigrid von Hauptmann. . . .”
Whaaa?  What’s he saying?
My friend, Aunt Madeline, Sigrid von Hauptmann.”
She’s who I never heard such a name like that.  She’s an American? 
“No, Aunt Madeline, she’s from Germany.  She was born there but goes to college in New York.  And Dad,” I struggled to move ahead quickly before Madeline needed further attention, “this is Sigrid.  I told you about her.  The Barnard senior.  Sigrid these are my parents.  Mr. and Mrs. Zazlow”  
Sigrid appeared to curtsey to them, “I’m so very pleased to meet you after all this time.  Lloyd cannot stop telling me about you and his brother, who I know is away at summer camp, and your wonderful family, your wonderful brothers and sisters.  Your brother Carl,” she said to my mother, who was now smiling at just the mention of his name, “He sounds like such a fine man.  So generous.”   With this reference to the “sainted brother” my father stopped smiling though it was obvious that he was in his own way as fascinated by Sigrid as Madeline.
“And your brother Sunny,” she then turned to my father. 
Sunny?” Madeline barked having heard her brother’s name clearly enough.  “My brother?  He’s coming too?  He never comes to Brooklyn.  Does the mountain ever come to the molehill?” she spat. 
“I only meant,” Sigrid picked up, now including both Madeline and my father in her radiance, “I only was trying to say, my English is not so perfect, yes?” to which my mother nodded, “that your brother, Uncle Sunny was so kind to let Lloyd and Heshy have such good jobs for the summer.  They are learning so much, making so much money,” my mother nodded again, “and look at the wonderful muscles Lloyd is developing.”  She reached over to touch my biceps, which I could not help but alternately tense and flex to accentuate their enhanced definition.   “His coach will be so pleased when he sees him in September.”  This again engaged my father who had dreams for my athletic glory and thus he resumed his open adoration. 
“Since you have to run so soon,” my mother said, “maybe you want a bite to eat.  I prepared some salads and brought in smoked fish from the appetizing store.  We also have fresh bagels and bialys.” 
“We already ate at Nathan’s in Coney Island.  I wanted Sigrid to try their hot dogs.  She ate two of them.  So why don’t we go into the living room and talk for a few more minutes and then I’ll take Sigrid over to Heshy’s.” 
What did she eat?  What?”   Aunt Madeline interjected yet again. 
We had hot dogs, Aunt Madeline, “frankfurters at Nathan’s.  You know Nathan’s?  We used to go there together.” 
I never liked the Germans.  Even before the war.”  I began to think I needed to find a way to get us to Heshy’s in the next few minutes. 
“I would love to have something to eat,” Sigrid said, still smiling, not allowing Madeline to upset her or spoil our visit.  “Lloyd has also told me about all the wonderful Brooklyn food you make.  Your wonderful stuffed cabbage.  I lived on cabbage and turnips during the war.  It was so terrible there.  In Germany.”  I cringed—now she was talking about Germany.  “My brother and I were sent to our grandmother in the country.  To be safe.”  Everyone became silent.  “So please, yes, let us have something to eat.  Lloyd is always in such a hurry.  I would like very much to have, what you called ‘a bite to eat.’  Yes, a bite would be very fine.”  And with that my mother escorted us to the dining room table, which was reserved strictly for infrequent special occasions. 
Ach, a table just like my grandmother’s,” Sigrid exclaimed as we moved through the swinging door that separated the breakfast room from the dining room.  It was massive, of dark wood with sturdy legs.  My mother’s pride.  “The only good piece I have,” she would say in front of my father when they were fighting about something, when she wanted to particularly upset him, “A gift from my parents when we got married.”  Surely not something he had been able to provide.  This usually drove him into long, sulking sieges of silence. 
“Seeing this table, just like my grandmama’s, it makes me feel so at home, if I may say that.”  My mother moved to put her arm around Sigrid, which was an effort since Sigrid was at least a foot taller than she. 
“You are always welcome here, dear,” she said, looking up at Sigrid, recognizing what Sigrid was feeling, “If you are a friend of Lloyd’s, this is your home too.”  Sigrid stooped so that she could rest her head on my mother’s solid shoulder, letting it linger there for just a moment before quickly regaining her cheeriness. 
“I am so happy to be here with all of you.  I so much miss my family back in Germany.” 
Whaaa?  Germany again?”  Aunt Madeline appeared to have no difficulty hearing “Germany.”  
I sensed the approach of imminent doom and desperately tried to change the subject, “Dad, tell Sigrid about your chess.”  I thought that might work since he was devoted to it, playing out and analyzing the championship games reported each Sunday in the New York Times.  “Sigrid plays too.  She even competed in a few tournaments, like you.  I know she’ll tell you she’s not very good,” I was groping to find something other than Germany to talk about, “but she really is.”  Sigrid exchanged a quick look with my father, as if to say, “Isn’t your son still such a silly boy.” 
But my father, also perhaps concerned where his sister might take us, picked up my lead, “Well, I do play a little.  There is a chess club I go to Tuesday nights in downtown Brooklyn.  There are some good players there, but not like in Europe.” He was rarely this gregarious with someone who he had just met, but continued in the same unexpected vein, “In Eastern Europe I mean.  Of course, Russia particularly.  About Germany, though, I do not know.”  I began to shift in my seat, fearing what might next erupt from Madeline.  But though he too did not hear well and as a result usually could match his sister in volume, he was careful to pronounce “Germany” in an uncharacteristically muted manner.  Madeline did not rouse.  She had without ceremony seated herself at the table and was already preoccupied with her food.  
My mother, characteristically, had put out a bountiful spread of delicatessen and appetizing store salads and cold cuts.  She signaled for the rest of us to sit and began to pass around the platters. Madeline, who typically never ate more than a quarter of a small skinless chicken at any meal, she was so concerned about her weight and what she called her “numbers”--by which she meant her cholesterol; but, in spite of this, that day she filled her plate repeatedly.  And since her chewing was so, shall I say, enthusiastic, it generated enough sound that it drowned out for her any awareness of anything that was being said that might ordinarily agitate her.  Madeline’s total preoccupation with her cold cuts also provided Sigrid and me with a window of time to eat enough to convince my mother that we appreciated all of her efforts, before excusing ourselves respectfully and heading over to Heshy’s. 
But before Sigrid could take a bite or say much about her own chess, much less its status in Germany, Madeline raised her head from her food, where it had been substantially buried.  “What did she say?  I couldn’t hear because I was eating.  Do you have any cake?” she asked my mother.
“You know I do.  Why don’t you let the rest of us eat something and talk and then I’ll put it out.” Madeline grumbled but, while waiting for dessert, pulled another scoop of whitefish salad onto her plate. 
Sigrid had been telling my father about a young grandmaster who she felt might one day contend for the world championship.  He was, she said, at age twelve, already the German national champion. 
She can’t stop talking about Germany.”  Since Madeline was still focused on Germany, and reasonably filled with food, I felt we were now rapidly moving toward disaster.  I checked my watch.  It was nearly 4:00.  How much longer before we could escape?
“Mom, I think we will skip dessert.  We need to get to Heshy’s house.”
My Harry, he also was in Germany,” Madeline interrupted, and said to no one in particular, but now in a more subdued mode.  Perhaps she was digesting.  “He was a soldier, in the army.”  Harry was Madeline’s third and last husband, all of whom had committed suicide.  But for her it was a love affair.  For him she was even willing to spend the money to have her hair done in a real beauty parlor, not as she had for decades at the local barber school.  He on the other hand decided he too had had enough after just three years of marriage—life with Madeline for him, as with the others, was literally deadly.  
“He saw action over there.”  We couldn’t get away from Germany.  “But he never told me any stories, except those about how he threw away his knapsack and carried a dice table on his back so whenever they had time he would run a crap game.  He came home from the war with a lot of money.  He loved to gamble,” she seemed lost in these memories.  “But I also know he saw and had to do terrible things.  Terrible.  I loved him so much, that funny man.”  She was actually smiling.  “You can see, I am not nice looking.  All skin and bones.  No, no,” she said as Sigrid rose to protest.  “It is true.  But he made me feel beautiful.” 
And with this she began to sob so uncontrollably that my mother had to snatch away her dish to prevent Madeline from plopping her head into her whitefish salad. 
Sigrid was sitting next to her and reached over to try to comfort her.  “Leave her alone,” my father bellowed, recovering his full voice, “She does this at the end of every meal.  Just ignore her.  She’ll stop once she has a piece of cake.” 
“But she is so unhappy,” Sigrid insisted, though careful not to appear to disagree with my father who certainly knew his sister.  The huge wormwood table was trembling from Madeline’s crying.  But my father was right, I could testify--this is what Madeline always did before dessert. 
“But you know, your being here,” he looked at Sigrid, “and my sister talking about the war, reminded me of something I haven’t thought about for a long time.”  I couldn’t begin to imagine where this might lead.  I feared again, not to a good place.  “I was too old for the service.  The draft board kept turning me down so I volunteered to be an air raid warden.  I wanted to do something to contribute to the war effort other than eating rationed meat once a week.  They gave me a helmet and a whistle and taught me what all the Nazi planes looked like.  From their silhouettes.”  I had never heard any of this before and was so stunned that I forgot what Sigrid might be thinking about my family’s continuous talk about Germany and the war.  
“My job was to check to see if any lights, even from radio dials, were showing behind the blackout shades that everyone was required to have.  Heshy’s father, Mr. Perly, made them.  I think it’s the only time he ever made a decent living,” he chuckled at that recollection.  “If a light was showing I would ring their doorbell and tell them to pull their shades all the way down or cover their lampshades with towels.  So in case the Nazis sent planes over Brooklyn they wouldn’t be able to see any lights on the ground and use them as targets for their bombs. 
“And then after everyone was asleep and all the lights were turned out there was no need for us to walk the streets, and so they sent us up onto apartment house roofs to look into the sky through binoculars to search for enemy planes.  I spent hundreds of nights on the roof of that building there, right across the street,” he pointed to the apartment house where all the Italians lived.  Sigrid, equally riveted by my father’s story, even got up to peer at it through the window, seemingly imagining what it must have been like on that roof top those pitch-black nights when who knows what she had been doing at the same time on the other side of the ocean. 
“In the winter,” he now turned to me, “to keep me warm through the nights, your mother sent me out with a thermos of hot coffee.  Also to keep me awake.  Because some of the men fell asleep.  To fall asleep on that roof, I felt, was to let my neighborhood down, my country down.”  He paused and all we could hear was Madeline still crying with her head still resting on the table. 
“You know what was the worst?”  We all looked toward him, no one speaking, “it was the silence, the utter silence.  It was not a restful, peaceful silence, but a silence filled with threat.  I longed to hear even a simple dog’s bark.  To break that sense of danger.  To pull me back into the familiar world of family and going to work and listening to a ballgame on the radio.  Just the thought of the sounds of a game late at night coming in all the way from St. Louis.  If we could only get back to that I thought we would all be safe.  Especially you and your brother.  All I wanted was for you two to be safe.”
And with that, Madeline arose from the table shouting, “Where’s the cake.  I’m ready for the cake. 
My father at that human bark emerged from his reverie and said, “I think maybe it’s time for you to go over to Heshy’s.”  He was protecting me again.  “I know you have to get Sigrid back to the city.”  And with that it felt all right to say goodbye, exchange hugs and kisses, and leave. 
Heshy’s was just across the way.  Just on the other side of the vacant lot.  
*    *    * 
I said, “Let’s walk.  Let’s leave the car where it is.”  It was covered with kids who were draped on all four fenders, waiting for us to emerge as were all the porches still filled with the neighborhood yentas who leaned forward to get a better look at Sigrid, who would be the featured subject at their coffee klatches for weeks to come.  “Heshy’s is just around the corner on Church Avenue.”  
Sigrid decided to give them a good show—she pulled herself up to her full statuesque six-feet, plus three inches from heels; and although she had dressed demurely for the sake of our visit with my parents, once on the street she pulled back her shoulders so as to put her perfect breasts on best display and with her hands flipped her skirt to reveal glimpses of waxed thighs as she stretched out her stride.  I needed to jog alongside to keep up.  Mrs. Tannenbaum, who lived next door, literally slid out of her folding chair, with it collapsing on top of her, as she strained to get a better look.  An enterprising kid could have made a fortune selling front-row stoop seats. 
We walked by the vacant lot that separated Heshy’s and my bedrooms, the lot we attempted to bridge with various homemade communication devices, one less effective and more dangerous than the other--it was still piled high with discarded car tires that “crazy” Herbie Fleishman in his autistic trance climbed endlessly like Sisyphus; we passed next by John Inusi in his shoemaker’s shop that Sunday to catch up on the work that typically accumulated during the summers, he was still there, as during my childhood, bent a bit now from the years, at his ancient grease-slicked stitching machine that he brought with him on the boat from Italy; he too, who always had an eye for the ladies, squinted out through his crusty store window to take a look at the majestic Sigrid; then we passed quickly by a store piled high with steam boilers and air compressors that represented a neighborhood mystery—no one was ever seen to be there though the rent had been paid for decades; some said it was a front for the Mafia—there could be no other explanation; and after that was the door that led up a flight of steps to the second-floor apartment and office of Dr. Samuel (Sugar) Traub, who both lived and worked there until he made enough money to build the neighborhood’s most expensive and elaborate house across Church Avenue, a “showplace” as it was declared by those same yentas; and at the corner of East 56th Street and Church Avenue, directly across from Krinsky’s candy store, was Dr. Smith’s pharmacy, the only person on the block who appeared not to have a first name—all his diplomas and certificates of certification listed him as “P.K.R Smith, Jr.”-- the “Doctor” we added, he had never earned one, except in the eyes of all of us who he treated extra-medically, at no charge, for deep cuts just short of requiring stitches, gingivitis, epidemics of “trench mouth,” and, I always suspected, the Italians for a variety of unmentionable forms of disease beyond the ken of their family doctors; and finally we passed The Elegant Lady beauty parlor, where my mother went every Saturday morning to have her hair washed and roots touched up, but perhaps more to escape for a few hours to a sanctuary of women who desperately needed respite from their ceaseless chores, and more in truth from their “men.” 
Then we faced Perly’s Glass Works—no sign announced it but everyone knew that if a kid drove a baseball through one of your windows, or if a cat shredded the tape on a Venetian blind, or if a mirror needed reglazing, you came here to find Mr. Perly, that is unless he was out wandering the neighborhood, clutching his Daily Worker, muttering incomprehensively to himself in a patois of two or three languages. 
I had alerted Sigrid to the fact that to get up to Heshy’s apartment, above the store, we needed to use the stairs at the back and thus we might encounter Mr. Perly; and if we did I could not predict what might happen.  But if we kept moving, we would find Heshy holed up in his bedroom.  She said, “I hope we do meet him.  I would love that.  This all sounds so exotic.” 
I had not been there for some years but everything remained as I remembered—I had spent some time there with Mr. Perly, getting him coffee and cigarettes from Krinsky’s and even occasionally the Daily Worker.  The floors were still strewn with half empty putty cans, unfinished shades and blinds hung as if in tatters from hooks screwed into the ceiling, and his work table was even more eroded from the caustic mixes he used to glaze his mirrors.  The single unshaded light bulb still hung in the air.  But it was the smells compounded from the putty and silver nitrate that evoked for me the strongest memories of the night, very late, when Mr. Perly asked me to help him make mirrors for Mrs. Ruby—she was redecorating again.  
Trailing these memories, now years later with Sigrid at my side clutching me, we moved quickly through his shop toward the stairs and made our way up to the Perlmutter’s apartment above the store where we found Heshy, as I always had, in his same room, stretched out on his bed, as he always had been, reading, of course, by the light that filtered in from the vacant lot that separated our houses.  When he saw us he slipped the book quickly under his pillow.  He was the same old Heshy, I thought, whose collection of “dirty” books was known well beyond our street—who knew what he had been reading and was trying to hide from us. 
I introduced Sigrid who couldn’t have been more pleased to finally be meeting the legendary Heshy.  He suggested we go into the kitchen where we could sit and have some coffee.  Sigrid sat facing the window and said pointing, “Oh Lloyd, look there is your bedroom.  Please, Heshy, tell me about the smoke signals you made to each other.”  
He was at the stove heating water for the percolator.  “We never did that,” he said in a soft monotone. 
“But Lloyd told me you did.  And the hose you talked through, no?” 
“The speaking tube we did try—it didn’t work, the distance is too great and to be heard we had to shout.  But never smoke signals,” he still stood facing the stove even though the water was already perking, “Lloyd, you may have noticed, has a lively imagination.”
“Lloyd?” Sigrid turned to me plaintively, “No smoke signals?  I thought you made-believe you were Indians.  Just like that Indian on the radio you told me about, no?  He was Tonto?  Heshy, you told me, was Tonto and you were the Ranger?” 
Heshy had joined us and now looked directly at Sigrid, saying with some bite, “The Lone Ranger.  He always saw himself that way and me as his sidekick, you know, his ‘faithful companion,’ like Tonto.” 
“But in my country, there is great interest in cowboys and Indians, especially Indians who are seen to be a part of nature, die natur, not tainted by civilization.  We see them to be victims.  Cowboys to be their oppressors.  From what I felt, if I may say this Heshy,” she was smiling at him in the filtering light, “it felt to me, if I may be honest, as if you did not want to be that brave, that Tonto.  This I do not understand.” 
“I never saw it that way.  Everyone here wanted to be the noble cowboy, not the ‘noble savage,’ the unaccomodated man, advancing on the wilderness, a solitary, beyond the reach of towns becoming cities, uncorrupted and uncorrupting.  Quite a myth.  Like Cooper’s Leather Stocking.  Do you know him?  I mean Cooper?” 
“Yes I do.  I have read much of him.  I know many think The Deerslayer is a book for young boys, like Huckleberry Finn was once thought to be, but it is a very profound book about America’s mythic consciousness.” 
“I agree.  I am also very interested in issues of consciousness.”  Things were now going well—for a moment I had thought there would again be problems and I would have to find a way to extract us without unduly insulting Heshy.  “In fact,” Heshy continued, “when you came in, I was looking again at Sartre.”  I thought, well done Heshy, sure, Sartre is under your pillow.  “Lloyd had told me that you were working on a project about Sartre and consciousness.”  He peered at her, and she at him.  “This interests me as well.  No one, in my view, has done better at delineating the contradictions that were the principal consequences of the First World War.”  Sigrid was nodding; I was worrying that again soon we would be talking about Germany and her War. 
“I do though think he is now feeling a little dated, don’t you agree?”  Heshy had picked up and was emulating Sigrid’s syntax—what was he up to?  But Sigrid was now nodding vigorously back at him and had placed her elbows on the table so she could get closer to it and to Heshy.  I was beginning to think that maybe there were now other reasons to try, very soon, to get us back to the city.  
“I think there is some newer, better thinking going on among the current younger generation on the Continent.”  Heshy added.  “We will here be hearing about them soon.  Of that I am certain.  That will be good for us here—we need this critique; we continue to be so naïve in our optimism.”
“Yes that is true,” Sigrid said, “It is America’s greatest weakness.”  
And just as she uttered those words about America Mr. Perly appeared, looming in the doorway.  Ignoring us, more like we weren’t even there, he said, as if to himself, “Coffee.”   He went over to the stove and poured himself a cup, and, still not acknowledging our presence, sat down between Heshy and Sigrid.  He spread out his paper and muttered, “Dogs.  Hunde.  It is not the German problem; it is the American problem.  Their treats.  Their Americanisha bombs.  It is a wonder, no, anyone is still alive?” 
“Ah, Mr. Perly,” I tried to interject and shift subjects, though I knew from the past that that was not possible, “I want you to meet my friend, Sigrid, from college.” 
“There will be a comeuppance, this I assure you,” he rolled his paper into a weapon and slammed the table with it so that I jumped with a start—neither Heshy nor Sigrid moved.  She had her eyes locked on him.  “Soon, it will be soon.  There will be a reckoning, a reckoning I tell you for these running dogs.” 
“You know, Mr. Perly, that I am too from Germany,” I leaned back from the table to be closer to the door.   “And you are wrong.”  He slammed the table again in response, this time with both hands, causing it to shudder on its chrome legs.  
“I am telling you that it is der system here.  Never the people.  The workers here too give both their money and blood to these farstunken fascists in Washington and Wall Street.” 
“Yes, I do agree, there is an American problem.  I too know about American capitalism.  It can be a cruel system.  But there is also very much a German problem.”  She shifted tone, looking directly at Mr. Perly, not backing off, “I was there.  I saw the consequences.  I saw the dead.  I ate scraps of garbage to survive.”  Mr. Perly looked up at her.  
“This was not something the Americans did.  It was we, the Germans who caused that.  My family too.”  She was no longer smiling or radiant.  Just a little girl in a long body, forlorn in the fading light of Brooklyn. 
Mr. Perly sat motionless, no longer flailing.  He pushed his chair back slowly and then lifted himself.  I slid mine back as well, even closer to the door.  It felt as if all the oxygen had suddenly evaporated.  He approached Sigrid and stood behind her, totally, unusually still.  She was bent, slumped toward the table.  I had never seen her in anything resembling that kind of posture.  
He then reached out toward her and gently placed his acid-gnarled hands on her magnificent shoulders, the contrast startling.  And said, “You will be well, mein kinder.”  And more incredibly, leaned over, still from behind, and placed a long kiss amidst the curls of her blondest hair. 
*    *    * 
Sigrid asked me to raise the top on the car.  She wanted to shut off the outer world.  She curled up beside me, and we drove back toward Manhattan.  Nestled together.  Silent for quite some time. 
When we were half way across the Brooklyn Bridge, Sigrid said, “I wish I had grown up with you and Heshy.  Then I would have something to remember.  Now, I have only things to forget.” 
*    *    * 
The next morning, Monday, when changing in the construction shanty, I noticed that Heshy had a book stuffed in his sack that appeared to be written in French while I was still working my way through The Stranger in translation.  With everything that was happening, it was looking as if it would take me the whole summer to finish it.   
While pulling on our overalls, studiously avoiding any references to Sigrid’s Sunday visit to Brooklyn, Eddie Ribori approached us and said, “There’s a big fan arriving today—they say the biggest ever made, twenty tons, twelve feet tall—today you two’ll be working with me and the men.”
For the first time, the full bull gang, Tommy (the Turnip) Annunziata, Louie (Man-Mountain) Maloney, Marty (the Parrot) Martinova, Eddie (the Bull) Ribori, and now Heshy (Big Dick) and me (Joe College) were united.  Packed together in the plywood-sided construction elevator, we were headed up to the fortieth floor fan room.  Eddie Ribori had his pry-bar and rollers clutched to his side like battle flags.  And as we rose, slowly passing the half-built floors in that creaking apparatus, Eddie began to tell us what awaited. 
“The engineers tell me there has never before been a mother-of-a-fan like this one.  They had it specially designed for this job.  The owners, the Tishmans, wanted just one fan on the fortieth, only one, unlike the other fan rooms where we put in two, even three.  But they want just one to be used to heat and cool their executive offices—they wanted it down at the end, away from the Fifth Avenue side, so there would be no vibrations, no sounds up there in their suites.”  He paused to let this sink in.  “I know what you’re thinking, they’re a bunch of faggots, but what else can I tell you—it for them to decide and for us to dispose.  They’re paying our salaries.” 
We stood huddled in silence, exchanging looks—Heshy and I excited about the opportunity that this presented; we would finally be doing something substantial—for the time being, at least, no truckloads of ducts to grapple with in the blazing street.  The others probably were thinking it would be just another day at the office.  No big deal.  To them what did it matter—ten tons, twenty.  They’d seen it all.  Just another job.  But Eddie seemed to be wanting us to understand that this represented something special, minimally a special challenge—to hoist and then move into place the largest fan ever built for an office tower. 
We slipped by the twenty-fifth floor.  Eddie then addressed his men—“I know you think this is just more of the same—what we’ve been doin’ together for, what, ten, twelve years now.  Well before I came up to the shanty this morning I was down on the street, on the 54th Street side, where the riggers dropped it last night, to take a look at that mother.  That is one big sucker.  It’s filling the whole street.”   I looked over to Heshy who was standing dwarfed between the Turnip and the Mountain.  He too seemed to be surprised by what seemed like Eddie’s awe.  The Parrot began to emit a continuous, unmodulated sound. 
Eddie next turned to Heshy and me, “This now is a fan, understand, not just a bunch of ducts.  So stay out of our way until I tell you what to do.  I don’t want to be makin’ any hospital visits tonight.”  We slumped back against the wall and grunted that we understood. 
Then again to his crew, “I’m gonna need you to give me a full-day’s effort today.  You hear me?  I’ll be watching what you have for lunch.  Especially what you have to drink.  I don’t want no one to be losing any fingers.  Particularly you, Turnip, considering you already have only one wing that works.”  He chuckled at his own joke.  I had never before heard him refer to any of his other men by their nicknames, much less make that kind of fun of them.  It for certain looked as if this would be a different kind of day.
The car bumped to a stop at the fan room floor, high above the city, which was struggling to emerge from its overnight haze.  We were up above where the “skin,” or walls had yet to be affixed to the open steel structure; and although the air on the ground was still, promising to fire up as the day advanced, up there, in that open web of I-beams, there was a stiff wind which, if it persisted, would hopefully keep us cool as we labored. 
Eddie Ribori led us over to the 54th Street side and strode right to the edge, so close that his boot tips literally protruded beyond it; and, without holding on, leaned out into empty space to try to catch the attention of the riggers who, 400 feet below, were waiting for us to be in place so they could begin to hoist the fan.  
He waved his arms more and more frantically since he apparently was having difficulty rousing them.   “Those fuckers,” he said to us, half turning, still balanced, it seemed to me, precariously at the edge, “They’re probably still asleep in their rigs or checking out the skirts on the office girls coming out of the subway.”  He stuffed two fingers into his mouth and began to add piercing whistles to his waving, hoping the sound at least would reach them.  But the wind cut through it, blowing the sound back at us.  In frustration, he backed off and, swearing under his breath, walked over to where we stood—well back from the edge. 
“Marty,” he snapped his fingers in the Parrot’s direction.  Marty appeared to be unaware of what was happening, of Eddie’s agita, he was so lost or focused on producing what now seemed more soft cooing than chirps.  “Get over here,” Eddie barked.  This jolted Marty out of his world of noise.  He seemed perplexed that Eddie would address him so harshly after all their years together.   Today was clearly unique.  “I need you over here,” Eddie signaled.  Marty and Eddie then moved back toward the last row of beams and, side-by-side, with Marty being sure to grasp one of those columns, together peered down toward the street. 
Marty knew without direction what Eddie required him to do, what he alone was qualified for: thus from him then there exploded such a tumult of piercing shrieks, an entire jungle of sound, that it appeared that the riggers’ hoist began immediately to churn and squeal, as if in natural response to its fellow creature, even before one could plausibly expect the Parrot’s call to have reached them on the ground below.  
It looked as if the Parrot’s day might be done since Eddie nodded to him, “Good job,” and indicated with a gesture that he could go over and sit on the shady 53rd Street side until perhaps he was needed again.  Which seemed unlikely. 
That hoist was situated on a structure of its own, secured to the topmost steel beams, and rose with the steel, floor-by-floor so as to always be placed at the very highest point, to be available to lift from the street the largest of loads, fans as an example, that were too massive or heavy to ride on The Provolone’s more modest contraption.  This hoist, in its essence, was also a contraption of its own design, made up of a system of pulleys at the top through which a forty, fifty, sixty-storey-long steel cable was threaded, which in turn reached to the street and to which, via a series of huge hooks and buckles, in the old days called sky hooks, the riggers would clamp their loads and then hoist them, twenty tons of steel beams or equipment, inch-by-torturous-inch, up to the sky where men waited.
At that pace it would take about half an hour for the fan to get to us and so Eddie sent Heshy and me down to the food wagon on the street to get coffee and crullers for him and the men.  As was to be expected, The Provolone was first in line and was ordering his usual coffee with six sugars and three cheese Danish, which he would woof down without chewing.  “So they got you faggots doin’ a real day’s work for a change.  Watch out for them slippery spots, I don’t want you boys doing any swan dives onto my rig.  The last college boy here took a flop and I had to spend a week cleaning up his mess.  He got his blue blood all over everything.”  He waddled over toward the hut by his lift to inhale his food, roaring with laughter so violent that it could probably be heard all the way up on the fortieth floor.
When we got back up to fan room with the coffee, the fan had already arrived.  It hung suspended in the air, swaying slowly on the cable that had lifted it.  In its bulk it blocked out the morning sun, casting a shadow of its own well into the vast room.  
Eddie said it could wait for us until we had our break.  We sat on piles of lumber and discarded crates, not able to take our eyes off that machine.  Sipping my coffee, I couldn’t figure out how it could be maneuvered from outside, where it was floating in air, seemingly defying gravity, to inside the building itself much less how it could be hauled across at least fifty yards of floor and set in the tight space that had been walled off to house it.
I was snapped out of my musings by Eddie who clapped his hands, saying, “OK, let’s get the job done.  Louie, it’s your turn.  Marty woke them up down there, now you get that sucker in here.”
Man-Mountain, who had been sprawled out with his coffee and crullers across a pile of tarps, rolled heavily onto his side and somehow through a series of contortions managed to get up onto his feet, also swaying, not entirely unlike the fan which was still blocking our views to the north.  He shuffled over toward where it was swinging on the cable in the swelling breeze.  Eddie joined him.  He had a thick coil of rope around one shoulder, which he wore like a giant shoulder bag.  When he got to the edge of the building, not unlike a cowboy swinging a lariat over his head before launching it around the neck of a steer, Eddie swung that rope out over 54th Street in a series of enlarging loops; and when its diameter was about eight feet, let it fly out to where it ensnared the hoist’s cable.  It had struck with such velocity that it whipped itself around and around that cable until it was virtually knotted.  He then secured the other end to one of the columns. 
And as with the Parrot, Louie, without any instruction from Eddie, hauled his bulk right to the edge.  From my angle, ten feet back from there, it looked as if his enormous stomach not only hung out well beyond his belt’s feeble effort to contain it, but also well out over the street.  Knowing from physics class something about center-of-gravity, I feared he was perilously close to tipping forward and would wind up splattering himself all over The Provolone’s hoist.  Just like that college kid.  
But with surprising agility and grace he quickly, in one motion, released the rope from the column where Eddie had cinched it and threaded it across his back, under his left arm and over his right shoulder.   Now he stood, still at the edge, but with his back to the open air and fan; and he slowly lowered his body into an angle against the weight of the fan, which as a result had begun to twist.  And as he bend further forward, Louie’s center of gravity was incrementally more and more shifting into the fan room and less and less out over the street.  And incredible, imperceptibly, the fan, hanging on it cable, began to inch toward Louie and thus the building.  Louie was snorting from the effort.  He was saturated by his own sweat.  But he was unrelenting and soon had the fan pulled right to the edge of the building where he held it in place by rooting his legs to the floor as if they were are part of the concrete. 
Eddie then unfurled a thirty-foot-long strap of the kind I had seen furniture movers use to wrap large pieces.  He somehow was able to scamper up onto the top of the fan itself, pulling the strap behind him.  And like those furniture movers, he quickly proceeded to wrap the fan with the strap.  That done, he hoped back into the fan room, hooking an additional rope to the strap.
Without pause, there was a limit to how much longer Louie could be expected to avoid a coronary occlusion much less hold that monster in place, Eddie signaled to Tommy, who jumped up to join them.  The Turnip, without a pause, snatched two of Eddie’s rollers, stuffing one under his useless arm, and hopped right over to where Eddie stood, who was helping to keep the fan in place by holding on to the second rope, which he had tied around his waist.
I looked over at Heshy and he at me, both of us wide-eyed, and exchanged shrugs which in effect asked, “What should we do to help?”  We could think of nothing and I was beginning to wonder why Eddie had asked us to join his men.  We could have easily been left behind with our trucks.
But I could immediately see why the Turnip had this role to play—to set the first, key roller in exactly the right place, just at the building’s edge, precisely where the fan was gently nuzzling the building.  Placed and held there—the holding was the issue—Louie and Eddie could ease it in, literally one more inch was all that was required, and then the riggers down below, at Eddie’s signal, they were now on the case, could lower it that one inch to where it would begin to nip the first roller.  And when that was accomplished, a relatively slight tug on both ropes would begin to roll the fan into the building—such was the power of the roller, or wheel, another lesson from physics class.  That twelve foot behemoth, all those twenty tons would now be reduced to mere inches and ounces.
Tommy, with only one good arm had so refined its function, not unlike how blind people find their other senses enhanced, that he and only he of the men on the bull gang was adept enough to get, what I now understood it to be, that magnificent arm all the way under the lurking fan and had the ability to hold it as totally still as it needed to be for the fan to take its first bite of the roller.  All the rest would be, as Eddie put it, “a piece of cake.” 
And that’s where Heshy and I came in—when things became a piece of cake.  That was clearly our theme for the day, pastries, which we ran back and forth for to keep the men supplied, but also to join the effort only when it was declared a piece of cake.  
After Tommy had set the three rollers in place and the fan, now fully in the building, was resting on them, the work that remained, moving the fan across the floor and sliding it into its housing, was all about just where and how to place the rollers.  As the fan slid forward the back roller of the three would pop out and needed to be placed in front so the movement forward could be continuous.  My job was to catch the back roller when it came free and run it up to the front to Heshy, who, under Eddie’s very explicit and precise instruction would tell him exactly how to place it.  “A half inch more turned to the left will do it Big Dick.  We have to begin our turn right here.”  Heshy would make that adjustment and Eddie, using his pry-bar at the back to wedge it forward, the fan began to make it wide-arcing turn to the left, toward where it would eventually reside. 
“As I told you when you boys began,” now that the hard part was over, Eddie was feeling expansive, “it’s all about simple things.  As I said, all I need are these three guys, these rollers here and this pry-bar that has been with me for more than twenty years.  You are always making things so complicated,” he made a face as if the idea of complexity made him nauseous.  “Where has that gotten you?  Or the world for that matter?”  Louie and Tommy nodded.  The Parrot had fallen asleep, wheezing on the tarps.  “I’ve seen a lot of that fucked-up world.  My family too.”  At that he stood still for a moment as if to take in his own understanding of things, “And I can tell you it’s the guys in suits with their fancy educations that have got us into all this trouble.”  He paused again, as if trying to remember something lost in time.  But he quickly snapped out of his reverie and became the familiar Eddie again, launching a huge globule of phlegm into the corner where it thudded against the wall. 
“Enough of this shit, let’s get this done and grab a few beers.”
We did get it done, without even having to work overtime--we had secured the world’s largest fan in place where it would keep the Tishmans comfortable for decades.   But I also think I had learned how the great pyramids of Egypt were built.  Simple. 
*    *    *
“How’s Heshy doing?”  the foreman, Lou Wasserman asked when I arrived at the shanty extra early, two days after we wrestled with the giant fan and one day after I stayed home from work, suffering from a debilitating migraine.  Lou was visibly in a state of upset beyond his daily agitation. 
“All right, I guess.  I was sick all day and didn’t talk with him.  I didn’t see him today either since I came into the city by myself.”
“So he didn’t tell you what happened?” 
“No, as I said,” now with mounting annoyance, the day after a migraine was not a lot better than the day they struck, “I was sick and stayed in bed with the blinds closed.”  
“I know you were sick, but still. . . .” 
“What’s going on Lou?”  What happened?” 
Lou pulled me over to the corner where he had set up a makeshift desk—a piece of plywood on two saw horses.  He whispered so as not to be overheard even though there was no one else in the shanty and was unlikely not to be for at least another half an hour.  “Since he didn’t tell you, you better sit down.”  Which I did.  On his stool. 
“So you didn’t hear about what happened to your neighbor, Joe Muri?”
Now totally exasperated, I shouted at him, “No!  I was sick as a dog.  As a matter of fact I felt as if my head had been split open.”
“I better tell you then before the men get here.”  Lou couldn’t stand still so half the time he had his back to me and I had to remind him where I was sitting so I could hear what he was saying.
“It was during lunch break yesterday.  All the guys were over on the 54th Street side, which has the shade that time of day.  The usual, sittin’ around bullshitting.  Ogling the girls.”   He was talking to himself, having forgotten I was there.
“What happened, Lou?  You’re making me crazy.”
“You know the hoist you used for the fan on Monday?”  I nodded.  “Well the cable came off the pulley on the roof while the guys were out there having their lunch.  More than 400 feet of fucking steel cable that must weight at least five tons.” 
I gasped.  I had recently seen that cable and was beginning to imagine the effect it would have if it slammed into the street from so high up, “What happened Lou?”  The left side of my head began to thump from the residue of the migraine. 
“Most of the guys saw it coming and jumped up onto the cinder blocks and ducts piled on the street to get out of the way.  But when that cable hit the ground it danced around like it was alive.  Like a downed power cable still juiced with electricity.  Jumping all over the place.  But this cable was also like a, what-do-you-call-it, a sickle or a scythe.  Slicing and cutting everything it hit, including eight-by-eight wood beams and fourteen-inch iron pipes.”  At the recollection of the cable’s destructive power, Lou shuttered and lapsed into silence. 
I knew he had more to tell me, “What else happened Lou?  You mentioned Joe Muri.”  I held my breath, but I could hear his shallow breathing.
“It was bad, very bad.”  I remained still, waiting for him to be ready to tell me.  
“It cut off his leg.  His left leg.  That fucking cable.  Sliced it right off.  Joe’s leg.  Like it was cutting cheese.”  He began to moan. 
I sat slumped on the stool, shaking from just the telling.  The thought of Joe’s leg, his athlete’s leg . . . the horror. 
I managed to choke out, “Is he all right?  I mean . . .”
“Yeah, he’s alive.  Thanks to Heshy.”
Heshy?”  I was stunned.  “What did he do?”
“He saved him, he saved Joe.  That’s what he did.” 
“Tell me Lou.” 
“The blood was gushing from the stump and Joe passed right out.  In pain I guess and in shock from losing all that blood.  Heshy was sitting not far from him.  That cable coulda’ killed him to.  But he was OK and ran right over to where Joe was and took off his belt and made it into a tourniquet.  The cable was still hopping around so it was still dangerous.  But Heshy wrapped that belt around Joe’s thigh and tightened it until the blood stopped.  I was right there too and watched.  I couldn’t believe my eyes--what Heshy did.  He would loosen it too, just as they say you have to do to prevent gangrene or whatever.  Heshy did that the whole time while waiting for the ambulance.”  
Lou needed to pause again to gather himself.  My head felt as it was being ripped in half. 
“And what’s more,” Lou continued, “while waitin’ for the medics Heshy found Joe’s leg.  The piece that had been cut off.  It had been tossed across the street by the cable.  It was right there by that jewelry store.  Heshy picked it up with his bare hands and carried it back across to where we were.  All the guys frozen in place, me too I’m ashamed to admit.”  
Lou half turned away from me, “Then he asked Eddie Ribori, Heshy did, if he could have his shirt to wrap it up in.  To save if for the medics because he said the doctors might be able to reattach it.  They can do that now, Heshy said.” 
I felt myself fainting. 
“And then Heshy went back to where Joe was lying in the gutter, in his own blood, and sat there on the street with him, holding Joe’s head in his lap.  Talking to him like Joe was just a kid who fell off his bike or something.”
*    *    * 
I left the shanty before any of the men arrived and wandered around the area all morning.   I wasn’t ready to face them and what they’d been through.  I felt I had somehow let them down by not being there.  That I didn’t now deserve to be a part of what they had together experienced.  Yes, I had really been sick and there was no way I could get to work.  But still.  
And then of course, what would I say to Heshy—“I can’t believe it” or “How are you doing?” or “Tell me what happened” or “I heard you saved Joe’s life” or, more complicated, “Congratulations”?
I had a pretty good talk with myself as I drifted from street to street, hardly aware of where I was.  I concluded that it was time to stop doing so much pretending and feeling superior and, frankly, to grow up.  I was not allowing myself to learn what I needed to learn.  It wasn’t about being at Columbia and parading around with my pipe and beret.  And it wasn’t about being pre-med and going to medical school or even becoming a doctor.  
And all that time I thought I had things to teach Heshy.  How ironic. 
So as evidence to myself that I was beginning to understand what I needed to do to become someone I could face in the mirror every day for the rest of my life, rather than slink home and hide from what was waiting back at the job, which is what I would have done in the past—run and hide--I realized what was waiting there was much more than the fifteen dollars an hour that had originally attracted me.  So, I thought, I had better get my ass in gear and get back there—it was almost lunchtime. 
*    *    *
They were out on the street as always, but on the 53rd Street side, away from where the cable fell and where Joe was injured.  There was not the usual chatter or whistles and sucking sounds whenever a girl went by, running the gauntlet.  Accidents were frequent on construction sites—three men from other trades had already been killed on the Tishman job—but Joe Muri?  It was inconceivable.   
Heshy and Eddie Ribori sat together.  Tommy and Louie and Marty, the other members of the bull gang were there too, but they kept their distance.  I walked over to Heshy and Eddie.  Heshy looked up at me.  I offered a clumsy wave of greeting.  He nodded his head as if to say, “It’s OK.  I understand.”  I sat down on Eddie’s other side.  Close to him 
“So as I was telling you last night, my father probably worked in your neighborhood, in Brooklyn.   Paving the streets.  You said that when you were a kid there were still dirt streets.  Well, he worked for the Sicilian Fucking Asphalt Company.  They did all the streets there back then.  It was backbreaking work.  They didn’t have the equipment they have today.  Just shovels and rakes.   On days like this it was so hot that his shoes stuck to the asphalt.”  Eddie sighed.   “But it paid the rent. 
“He was a small man.  Maybe five-feet, if he could make himself stand up straight.  Which he couldn’t.  His dream,” Eddie snorted, “was to have tall sons.  Can you believe that?” 
Heshy said, “Yes I can.  My father is also very short.” 
“Well, he had two sons, and both of us turned out this way—still working with our hands.  But when I got into the tin knockers union, he was very proud.  He said, in Italian of course, ‘Only in America.’  He loved America and what he thought it stood for—opportunity.  He never heard all the Ginny jokes the ‘real’ Americans threw at us.  The ones born here.  Either he didn’t understand the English or he closed his ears to them.  He wanted so much to believe in this country.”  Eddie again grunted ironically. 
“Let me tell you I also bought all that bullshit.  I had a son too.  And I wanted to be sure he never had to do this,” Eddie gestured at the men sprawled out around us.  “He went to school, even college.  That was my American dream—that he’d be a college boy just like you.”  He looked only at Heshy.  “And unlike you, maybe he wouldn’t be a doctor, but maybe he would get a good job at a bank or an insurance company.  Be an executive.  Make a decent living.  Own a house, not be a slave to the landlord like me and his grandfather.  He’d have kids of his own too.  Then my grandkids would be our doctors.”  
Eddie then sat for some time, not speaking, staring off at nothing. 
“What’s he doing now?” Heshy finally ventured.  
More time passed.  Then Eddie said, hardly audible, “He’s dead.  He was killed.  Ten years ago.  In Korea.  Up by the Inchon reservoir.  That motherfucker Truman sent him there.  Took him out of college just when he was doing well.”  
After a moment Heshy put his hand on Eddie’s shoulder, “I’m sorry.” 
Eddie sat there slumped forward, nodding his head at Heshy’s touch, but quickly pulled himself up and squared those bull-like shoulders.  “Let me tell you though what I learned from all this.  Defiance.  Not anger.  I got passed that.  I know what I just said about Truman.  I’m still angry with him.  But toward life I stand defiant.  Not what happened to Eddie Junior, not anything is going to defeat me.  I still believe in the future.” 
And then he turned to me and then to Heshy and said, “In you guys for example.  I believe in you.  Both of you.”  He locked eyes with each of us in turn.
He hauled himself up from the nail keg where he had been sitting and said, “It’s time to get back to work.  We’re not done here yet.  Let’s grab some more of the Tishman’s money.” 
But before joining Tommy and Louie and Marty, his men, back up in the fan room, he turned to face us and said, “See you later Lloyd.”  
And to Heshy, “You too Doc.”

End of Part Two