I grew up on crash corner, at least that’s what the neighborhood kids used to call it before the city of New York installed a traffic light at our patch of Flatlands Avenue in Brooklyn. Every Shabbos, my friends and I would sit on my parents’ stoop after we got out of the shul down the block, and wait for the crash. We seldom were disappointed. There was plenty of crashing going on inside as well.
Even the sale of the house a few years ago was but a crash in slow-motion. At the urging of an unsavory lawyer in cahoots with an aggressive realtor, my parents signed a contract without a closing date or down payment from the buyers. The court held them to that agreement even as the months and then years rolled by, with real estate prices climbing and no closing date in sight. My mother had a brief glimmer of delusional hope when their judge just happened to retire the same week another judge from the same court was arrested on bribery charges. Now, she knew her luck had changed.
“Nu, now, we’ll win. The new judge is Jewish.”
“Ma, not that it would matter anyway, but what the hell makes you think Judge Pesci is Jewish?”
“I just know. Stop with the questions.”
“Ma, I’m telling you, Pesci is not a Jewish name.”
“Of course Pesci’s Jewish. It rhymes with Heshie. Don’t be such a negative.”
Needless to say, her hopes were dashed, but not before she had spent thousands of dollars on a new lawyer that my younger brother Harry had found for them – a lawyer so good he even once worked for NBC. By the time the buyers finally came up with the money, there was little my parents could afford, especially after paying off their mounting poker debts. They ended up living in the musty little apartment over what used to be my father’s decorating store, the apartment my grandparents used to live in.
My parents are greeneh, the name for Eastern European refugees and immigrants, known for their crude fierce candor and delicacies like kischka, an intestinal concoction so noxious it gives haggis a run for its money. And my first language was not English, but Yiddish. My mother was fresh off the plane when I was born, and she spoke many languages– she’d been in second grade when the war came to her native Romania, and she spent the next years moving in and out of countries whose languages she’d had to learn in an instant – but Yiddish was the only language she shared with my father, whose own Holocaust travel route had taken him from Poland to Siberia to a Displaced Persons camp in Germany, before he ultimately settled here. I learned English from watching television, especially the newscasts that were on all the time. It’s why my Brooklyn accent wasn’t as sharp as my friends’ (except to college friends who came from places like N’allins and Wis-KAHHHnsin who claimed my accent was pronounced).
Growing up, I was ashamed of my Yiddish, and quickly shed it in favor of English. Yiddish sounded crude and raw, a constant reminder of the miseries my parents had fled. But at the same time, it seemed to me so alive, so funny to listen to, no matter the content. “That’s a long story,” doesn’t sound very interesting, but, “oy, that’s a whole other me'gilla,” sounds funny already. The raw, guttural sounds of Yiddish are the music of comedy, and of survival. As the old Yiddish saying goes, when you're hungry, sing; when you're hurt, laugh. I still remember a few words here and there, and I’m especially fond of the get-well poem my father taught me that will never make it to a Hallmark card:
Ich vill far dir a refiyah sh’layma- Ess vie a ferd und cock vie a b’hayma.
I want for you a full recovery – You should eat like a horse, and shit like a cow.
I compared the crudeness of my life with what I took to be the genteel existence of the “real” American kids, who seemed so confident and easygoing. Or the ones like Evelyn Cohen, a pretty girl who knew ten different ways to tie a scarf, who announced one day in the seventh grade that she could tell just by looking at me that my parents were immigrants. But I felt different from the greeneh too. The four of us were even physically smaller; as adults, the tallest of us reached only five foot six (and that’s in shoes). Our furniture was random and ugly, our polyester clothes cheap and unhip. And my mother enjoyed flaunting her great figure in tighter, lower-cut clothes than the other greeneh women wore. My own clothes fit my small frame poorly, and I didn’t know even one way to tie a scarf. I also talked differently, I opened the lights instead of turning them on, and randomly mangled prepositions, like saying, “under the door,” instead of, “behind the door.”
I had the standard Jewish worries, like escaping from kids throwing glass bottles at me amid shouts of “Christkiller” one November afternoon in sixth grade. But I also worried about different things than the other kids. I worried about the gambling, and the lies about it, and the lies about the lies. I worried about how much money was in the bankbooks my father angrily waved around, about whether we’d lose our house someday. I worried without even knowing what I was worried about, it just was my natural state. I was that poor guest let in the back door, the one from that messy house with all the yelling.
There was a chair in our living room, covered in brown felt and situated right near the window. It faced away from crash corner, in toward the middle of the room. I liked to kneel on it backward though so that I could look outside at the people in the cars going by. I spent hours fantasizing about what it would be like to ride in their cars, live in their homes. Would my pretend father tell me the story of how he’d fallen in love with my mother, instead of what a mistake they’d made, a mistake that couldn’t be unmade because I came along so quickly? Would he pay the bills, or would I come home to a house without electricity or phone service some days? Would my pretend mother see me off to school in the morning instead of sleeping off last night’s poker game or late late show until noon? Would she ever take me shopping at Kings Plaza without stopping by the OTB across the street that reeked of sweat and cigarettes and naked desperation?
Most of my anger was directed at my mother and often involved words nice Jewish girls did not use with their parents. It was easy for my father to hide his sins behind hers. He was the one who went to work, the one who made our breakfast in the morning, and packed our lunches before driving us to school every day. Even when she wasn’t gone night after night, she often seemed as if she wanted to be anywhere else but home with us, while he prepared braun broit mit pitter every Saturday night and sat with us to watch Ivan Putzky eat goldfish on professional wrestling (boy, did he giggle at that name Putzky, reminiscent as it was of putz, the Yiddish word for prick). It was easy to forget about his poker games once or twice a week, the ones he justified by saying he had to win back the money she was losing. The nights he won, anyway. And I’d sit on the brown felt chair, wanting to be anywhere else but home too.
At the same time, I couldn’t help viewing the people in the cars with just the slightest hint of suspicion. Know one thing, my father taught me long ago, when we needed help, it wasn’t the fine upstanding citizens of our town what helped us. It was the bottom – the gamblers, the thieves. The “good” people were the ones what pointed us out, what took our home and our dry goods store when we escaped. The very idea was enough to keep me ever so slightly removed; hmm, what would this person or that do if catastrophe loomed. How far would I go if I had to survive? This is America, I would remind my father as well as myself, not the shtetl. You think people are so different from one place to the next? he’d answer. Maybe I know better what people are really like.
Because of the war, my mother never made it past second grade, my father past eighth. I envied the kids whose parents hadn’t seen themselves and their neighbors at their worst, whose parents helped them with their homework at night. Though I took pride in my self-reliance, I was embarrassed by its necessity. I loved my entitled American education. I loved learning about Patrick Henry, I even loved Geometry. And when I was a little older, I loved going to self-serious bistros in Greenwich Village to discuss Beckett and Chekhov and other writers my parents had never heard of, while sipping pretentious coffees.
My two worlds were bound to clash sometime, as they did most spectacularly one Thursday night, my dad’s poker night. John Houseman’s Acting Company was presenting Waiting for Godot at the Public Theatre. I was supposed to meet my friends from drama class there and then discuss the play afterwards over – what else -- cappuccino, but I was forced to take my father along at the last minute. My mother demanded he accompany me, insisting it was too late for a seventeen year-old girl to ride the subway. But I knew she just wanted to keep him from going to his poker game when she was forbidden to go to hers because of her debts. Not in the mood for another fight, I stayed quiet. We weren’t even into the second act before he started snoring. LOUDLY. We were close enough to the stage that the stage lights reflected off his bald round head, making it clear to anyone who looked where the noise was coming from. I nudged him awake a few times, but sooner or later the khhkhhhh would resume. I decided to skip the cappuccino and hoped nobody recognized that snoring guy as I quickly waved to them and walked out. My father dropped me off at home, and then drove off to his poker game anyway.
There’s a long litany of such instances – injustices I mentally collected in a grudge list. Hah’l’vie - if only -if only I’d had different parents, I’d be more confident, more successful. I’d know how to tie a scarf. Hah’l’vie. Waves of self-pity would waft in and out of my life. I would try to ward them off by forcing myself to think about other people whose lives have been truly terrible. It wasn’t hard when I had no further to look than my own parents. But then there would be a new incident, a new injustice to add to the books. And yet, some of the experiences that once had made me cringe the most, later would make me laugh the hardest. Like the night the cops came.
It started out with a stupid fight, the kind that was just the background noise of our daily lives. Harry, who, like me, was a teenager at the time, felt like eating cereal one evening. But he had to use a dairy bowl– kosher homes have two sets of dishes, one for meat (fleischik) and one for milk (mil’chik), they’re never allowed to mix. And Harry didn’t want just any cereal bowl, he wanted to use his special red cereal bowl with the round handle, which was still dirty and half-full of soggy old cereal. It was sitting on the mil’chik counter, since the sink was full of fleischik dishes. My mother often let the dishes sit for days to protest the fact that no one ever helped her wash them. I knew from the look in Harry’s eyes that the scene was set for a rumble.
“Why don’t you wash the fucking dishes sometime?”
“Watch your mouth. Wash them yourself,” my mother snapped back.
So Harry spilled the contents of the bowl into the sink, letting the milk settle in over all the fleischik dishes. My mother screamed, “What are you doing!!? It’s fleischik! It’s fleischik! What’s the matter with you!!!!”
“Leave me alone,” he growled. My mother began to rant in a special brand of Yiddish gibberish that I call Yibberish.
And then Harry did what he must have figured any red-blooded American male his age would do. He mooned her. He turned his back to her, bent over, dug his thumbs into the waistband of his jeans near his butt, yanked them all the way down and laughed. His ass gleamed in the kitchen light as my mother screamed a bloodcurdling Yibberish scream. I stood mutely watching. I was on the Titanic without a lifeboat.
“AAAAAAAAAAAH, YOU CRAZY? ARE YOU A CRAZY? I’M GOING TO CALL THE POLICE.”
“Go ahead, Ma.”
“I will,” she said in a lowered voice.
“Who’s stopping you? Go ahead.”
So, she did. She took the phone, and dialed a 9, then a 1, then, more nervously, another 1. She screamed something into the phone and, within moments, it seemed, the police appeared. Four of them.
The cops listened patiently at first, as my mother tried to get her story out while Harry and I looked on, he with glee and I with dread. Only one of the cops spoke, the oldest and largest one, while the others backed him up with tough guy looks on their faces, even the pretty blond cop with the perfect French braid. My mother just kept repeating something about putting the mil’chik dish in the fleischik sink. Harry was trying to make eye contact with French-braid cop, who just scowled at him, as my mother’s speech got more and more pressured. Boss cop finally interrupted her.
“Lady, you can’t call the cops because someone put the wrong dish in the sink!”
Shocked at being chided herself when she had been the victim of so great a wrong, she yelled out,
“BUT HE SHOWED ME THE TUCHUS!!!! HE SHOWED THE TUCHUS TO ME!!!!”
The four cops were silent at first, and looked as though they expected Rod Serling to emerge from the shadows at any moment, until boss cop turned to my mother and barked something gruff about not bothering the cops with bullshit. Then he barked something lame to my brother about showing some respect for the woman the cop himself had just insulted. Then all four walked out of the house. I didn’t need to sit on the brown felt chair to know what happened next. I heard four car doors open outside, and some sharp laughter in four-part harmony before the doors slammed shut in almost perfect unison. The laughter and door slams echoed in my head as I thought of how we must have looked to them. That crazy family. That crazy family on crash corner.
But that isn’t quite the whole story.
I learned many years later that when my mother was seven, she watched one older brother die in front of her eyes, lost another one, and cried for her father who’d been taken away to a concentration camp. Her oldest siblings spread out to different countries, while her mother fled with her and one of her brothers to the forest, where they spent their days foraging for leaves big enough to cover themselves with at night. When my father was young, he had to steal flour to feed his baby brother Shmulik, who would scream in pain from the hunger. Had he been caught, as others working in the bakery had been, he would have been sent to the gulag. They always said they wanted our lives to be better than theirs. Of all the gambles they’d ever taken, surely that must have been their easiest bet.
But that isn’t the whole story either.
Survival is a funny thing. Shame and pride wrap themselves around it like caducean snakes around a staff. And when I look back now on that awful night and my many grievances, I can’t help feeling proud too, of another moment survived, another crisis coped with. There’s beauty in survival, even in shame. The one reminds you of your strength, the other your hunger, the hunger that makes you sing, the pain that makes you laugh. And while it took many years for me to laugh at the absurdity of it all, now I can’t see it any other way.
The laughter started one night just after I left my parents’ home, when I was at my lowest ebb. I was twenty-three years old and it was three weeks before my GRE exams. I was applying to graduate schools in Clinical Psychology and needed high scores, particularly on the Psychology section, because I’d been an English Major and hadn’t taken many Psych courses. Eight hundred was a perfect score, and I needed at least to break seven hundred to prove my aptitude. I was dogged by an absolute lack of confidence. I never had done well on standardized tests.
But az me muz, ken men – when one must, one can. After studying every waking hour I wasn’t working, writing books and books of notes, and learning new words every night for the Vocabulary section, I found that the time for note-taking was over now, and I had to start memorizing. But the fights at home had grown blistering, culminating in my telling my mother her version of marriage was tantamount to prostitution, and her response that not only did she not love me, she never even liked me. I knew she was just blowing off steam, but I needed peace. The time had come to jump ship. Luckily, I had a lifeboat in my boyfriend Rob. But Rob’s studio apartment was very small, and, his being a computer nerd, the clicking of the computer keys was a constant part of the scene.
So I studied in his bathtub. No water, I just lay in the tub fully clothed with my many notebooks. This one particular night, I was lying there memorizing the contributions of Gordon Allport and Harry Stack Sullivan and other great luminaries no one reads anymore when I noticed a darkening at the tub’s overflow drain. It was some kind of shadow, and it was getting darker and darker, like in a science fiction movie. I was fascinated and couldn’t focus on my notes, just the damn shadow. Then all of a sudden, a bulging cockroach squeezed itself from the other side of the drain into the tub and landed on my big toe. I hated them, hated them. And yet I never could bring myself to kill them, I always made someone else do it for me. Even my timid college roommate yelled at me for always forcing her into the role of executioner. But my breath caught in my throat and I couldn’t scream for Rob, I just lay in dumb shock as I felt it start to skitter past my ankle and up my leg.
Impotent tears welled up in my eyes. How pathetic, taken down by a cockroach in a dry tub. What the hell was wrong with me? After what my parents had to survive, was I going to be taken down by a slimy roach? Will I always be afraid of any shadow that crosses my path? Of a damn test?
Hell no. I kicked the thing off my leg, reached up and grabbed a washcloth, tossed it on top of the offending creature, and stomped the hell out of it with my bare foot. I gingerly picked up the washcloth to make sure the thing was dead, I didn’t want one of those stupid scenes when the allegedly dead alien suddenly springs at our heroine.
And that’s when I started laughing, as I thought of the story I would tell about this stupid test, and the bug that tried to get in my way. And as for Evelyn Cohen and her scarves, and French braid cop and boss cop and everyone else, zolz ahran leigen a drengel unt arrois schleppen mit a tzvengel - they can just shove up a big wooden stick and pull it out with tweezers. Then I jumped out of the tub, and told Rob I needed help. He asked his grandparents to take me into their big house in Brooklyn, and they did. Grandpa liked the way I laughed at his mangled Yiddish jokes, and I liked the stories he told about growing up a sheeny in a Pennsylvania coal-mining town before he became an eminent pediatrician. I memorized until I thought I would vomit up the words. I took the test, which lasted all day, and when the scores came, I tore them open. Seven hundred ninety on Psychology, and high seven hundreds on almost all the others. I never was afraid of a test again.
And in the end, I came to work with people who’d felt even more isolated than I. People in prison, people fighting cancer, people trying to find meaning no matter their circumstances. People I might never have had the strength to meet if not for the people who had raised me in the shadow of their pain. Ha’l’vie indeed. And now I live in a fancy schmancy apartment on Riverside Drive, crashless thus far, with Rob and our two sons Max and Isaac. I wanted to give each of my kids an old-Jewish-man name, a man I could imagine in his 90’s sitting on a bench on Ocean Parkway complaining about his pancreas. Maybe I just liked the image of surviving into old age. Who knows what things Max and Isaac might need to survive one day.
As for my parents, they’re still together after forty-five years. And as for my mother and me, we’ve even reconciled, and the seven year old Romanian girl who had spent her days foraging for leaves in the forest, now forages with her grandsons at KayBee Toys and Zany Brainy. But, oy, that’s a whole other me’gilla.
Part II: The story continues in the next issue, in The Whole Other Me'gilla