Friday, February 26, 2010

40th Street (Cont. # 12)

A medical emergency, and more, in Borough Park, Brooklyn, circa 1949

XV: Skippy

When I awoke late at night screaming in pain, my parents knew to knock on the door of our neighbors, Mr. and Mrs. Eton, to use their phone to call a taxi. We didn’t have a phone then. It was 1949, and I, at seven years old, had just shown the symptom that our doctor, who had visited our home on 40th Street earlier that day, warned my parents about. In those days, doctors carried a small black bag and made house calls. He had given me medicine for a pain on the right side of my belly that I had been complaining of. Then he told my parents that if I awoke at night, screaming, to send me right away to the hospital. He said that it might be more than a stomach ache.

At first that day, my parents, especially my father, didn’t even want to call the doctor. He was sure that all my complaining was probably about nothing more than an ordinary stomach ache. And that it would go away if we just let it alone. He said it with a tone of annoyance, if not disgust. At my being such a cry baby.

But the pain didn’t go away, and I didn’t stop crying. So eventually they called our doctor. Who said my pain might indicate a ruptured appendix.

On the operating table, the doctors or somebody put a mask on my face and gave me ether. Of course I didn’t know what ether was at the time; I didn’t know anything, except that I was on a table or something and somebody put a mask on my face and I was in the black sky with a million stars and I was falling falling down into nothingness. And in that black nothingness was the horrible smell, which I recall as a combination of menthol and rancid split pea soup. And I was falling downward forever in the sickening blackness.

I guess that was a dream, although it didn’t feel like one. A dream was supposed to be different. Like a dream in which I had a pet dog, which I always wanted but couldn’t have. Because my mother said she hated dogs. She was afraid of them, she said, and dogs ruined furniture, and were dirty. And the last thing she needed was to clean up after it.

Anyway, after the falling-in-the-black-sky dream, I awoke in a strange white bed and had to go to the bathroom. But I didn’t know where I was, until some girl told me I was in the hospital. She was maybe two or so years older than me, or at least she was much taller than me, which I could see even though both of us were lying down. She was in a white bed, just like mine. In an all-white room with white walls. She said I could use the bedpan that was under the bed. Or I could call a nurse who would help me get to a bathroom. I felt I couldn’t wait, so I reached down and then peed in the bedpan. But I was embarrassed, because she saw me peeing. So I closed my eyes and pretended. . . . I don’t remember what I pretended. Maybe that I wasn’t there.

The following day, the girl in the bed next to mine was sitting up and sucking her thumb. She was nine years old, I found out later, two years older than me, and sucking her thumb. That made me very scared, but I can’t say why. Maybe I thought that I would become just like her, a thumb-sucker. But that’s only what I surmise now, thinking back. At the time, I just wanted her to stop sucking her thumb. But she wouldn’t, and I stayed scared.

So when my mother came to visit me later in the day, I cried and cried and pleaded with her to take me home. She said she couldn’t until a few days later. But I kept crying, so to get me to stop, she promised that if I were a good boy, and stopped crying, she would get me a pet dog when I got home.

Certainly, that was a big thing for her.

When I got home, sure enough, there was the dog. I fell in love immediately, and called him Skippy. I didn’t know what “breed” he was; in fact, I didn’t know there were breeds. Let alone what breeds meant. Today when I check page after page of dog pictures on Google, I can never find Skippy. Maybe he was something called an American Staffordshire Terrier. Or a German Pinscher. Or a Jack Russel Terrier. Or a mutt.

Tawny, like a lion. Playful, like a friend. Excited, like a little boy just like me.

All I knew was, Skippy was my dog. I wanted like anything to take him outside for a walk. But I'd have to wait, because I had to stay indoors for two weeks, doctor's orders. Every day, for the next two weeks, all I could think of was taking Skippy for a walk.

Then the big day arrived. I could go outside, because the jagged scar on the right side of my belly, where my ruptured appendix had been, was healing. I couldn’t wait to take my dog for a walk. I was so excited I could hardly think.

That morning, my mother said she had to go to the grocery store, and would take Skippy with her. When she got home, she said, I could take Skippy out myself. About a half hour later, she came back.

Without Skippy.

Where’s Skippy? I asked. She said he was probably stolen. She said she had placed his leash on the doorknob of the grocery store before she went in to buy stuff. When she came out, he was gone. She said she looked up and down the block, calling his name, but she couldn’t find him. She said she saw a truck driving away, and she was convinced that the truck driver had seen what a beautiful dog Skippy was and stole him and drove away. She said she was so sorry. So so sorry.

Children, especially very young children, tend to accept as truth whatever they are told. So for some years afterwards, I used to think that someday I would find that truck driver and kill him and get my dog back. Only sometimes, in the back of my brain, I remembered how much my mother had hated dogs. And that she saw how much I was attached to Skippy.

Which in her mind, I think now—I really think now—she experienced as a detraction from my attachment to her.

Maybe that was it. Or maybe it was the truck driver.

* * *

Monday, February 22, 2010

40th Street (Cont. #11)

A Christmas/Hanukah tale in Borough Park, Brooklyn, circa 1949.

XIV: Two houses

Leonard, a friend in the second grade, asked me where my Christmas tree was. We were in my home on 40th Street, the population of which consisted almost entirely of working class Jews and Italians. I told him we didn’t have a Christmas tree, we had candles.

“So where do you put your presents? Do you just put ’em on the floor?”

Since we didn’t do presents at Hanukah, at least not like Italians like Leonard did at Christmas, I answered that I could beat him at punchball.

Cannot, he said.

Can too, I said.

Cannot! he said. Then he said he didn’t care, he just wanted to know where we put our presents.

“Anyway,” I said, “we have more holidays than you so ha ha you have to go to school more than we do ha ha ha!”

“I’m gonna ask your mother.” He walked into the kitchen, where my mother was making chopped liver sandwiches on white bread.

“Nathan’s mother,” he asked, “where do you put your Christmas presents?”

In Leonard’s house, there was a tree. It had snow on it, and silver, and diamonds and gold and pure jewels and it was even good for when you catch a cold. Leonard told me that if you smell the branches you get rid of your cold.

In my house, when you had a cold you had to smell something disgusting like Vicks vaporub.

In Leonard’s house there were a million presents under the tree.

In my house there was only a menorah with nine candles, one for each day when Jews were fighting bad people and God made a miracle because there was only oil for one day but God made it last for eight days and He made one candle to light all the other candles. And there weren’t a million presents. Maybe, sometimes, one present. That was brought by my aunt Bella from Philadelphia. “Here, put it under the Hanukah bush,” she’d say. But I didn’t know what a Hanukah bush was, and anyway we didn’t have one.

In Leonard’s house there were two Jesus Christs, the baby Jesus Christ and the grownup Jesus Christ, and they were both God.

In my house God was an old man who had a beard and looked like Moses.

Leonard said that if you were very religious you couldn’t say Jesus Christ.

I said that if you were very religious the only thing you couldn't say was God, but you could say Jesus Christ.

In Leonard’s house on Christmas morning everybody would be in pyjamas and open all the presents and the red and green and orange and blue lights that looked like warm stars going on and off and the turkey when it wasn’t even Thanksgiving and the whole room laughing.

In my house we would just hang around like always until evening, when--sometimes--there would be a meal of flank steak, which we calld flanken. And potato pancakes called latkes that my mother made by rubbing potatoes over a piece of jagged metal that had sharp funny-shaped holes in it. She always cut her fingers on the holes. It was just a regular old day in spite of the candles, and Leonard was so lucky that I vowed to never again let him into my house.

Leonard walked into the living room, eating a chopped liver sandwich.

“Wanna play dray-dul?” he asked.

* * *

Saturday, February 13, 2010

40th Street (Cont. #10)

More 1950s Borough Park, Brooklyn stuff.

XIII: Liar

Arnie lied.

He was the best-looking guy on the block. And the best athlete, at least in stickball and punchball and handball. One day in the summer of 1957, he knocked on my door, which was at the end of a long dark hallway, to tell me he was going to Mexico with his parents, and that he would find a beautiful sixteen-year-old seƱorita--we were all fifteen or sixteen--and would get laid. Since none of us had actually gotten laid yet, and since we all knew that Arnie was the best-looking guy, with his black hair and naturally physically great body, that we all wished we had, and that all the girls like Claire and Rebecca and Dina and all of them were crazy about, and that we all hated, we believed him.

He would be the first of us to get laid.

So he came back, after the vacation with his parents (who had run a hot dog stand in Coney Island and, later, a dry cleaning service on East 2nd Street), and told us he did it. Jealousy, inferiority, hate, admiration--all that crap, that’s what I felt. Probably all the guys on 40th Street felt that.

Until later, maybe a few months later, when Selvin, who was Arnie’s best friend, told us he knew that Arnie lied. He’d never gotten laid. He was lying.

I can’t tell you how good I felt.

So when Arnie later said he was going on a date with Claire, who lived across the street from me and who was small and had dark hair and a beautiful face and who I was silently crazy about, I didn’t believe him. I didn’t actually call him a liar, but I thought it. And laughed and laughed inside.

Soon after, on a Saturday night, at about eleven o’clock, I left my apartment, walked through the hallway, and opened the door to the outside. I looked across the street. My stomach dropped. There was Arnie, talking to Claire. I couldn't hear what they were saying, but I saw them both laughing.

Which meant that this time, he hadn't been lying.

My head felt on fire.

After a few minutes, I saw them reach out their hands to each other. They stayed that way for awhile. Then they parted hands, and Arnie started to leave. After walking a few feet, he turned and waved, and Claire waved back. Both were still smiling. Then Claire went upstairs to her apartment, and Arnie walked down 40th Street and around the corner to his.

And my head stayed on fire. For a very, very long time.

* * *

Friday, February 5, 2010

40th Street (Cont. #9)

Continuing the Borough Park, Brooklyn saga.

XII: Tatoo

The front door to the Chaim Nachman Bialik Folk Shul, the Hebrew school I went to, located in a storefront on 16th Avenue, was locked that Sunday, and no one had the key. So my friend Jay and I, who were twelve years old and studying the old Hebrew or Aramaic Haftorah we had to memorize—the singing as well as the words themselves—to perform at our forthcoming bar mitzvahs, decided that the only thing to do was to go around the block to the back, climb over a fence, walk through an alley, and pry open the back window. Then we could unlock the front door from the inside.

With us was our Sunday teacher, a small, thin retiring man, perhaps in his early forties. He’s the one who taught us the text, all the stuff to say--actually, to sing--at the ceremony where we would be transformed, just like that, from boys to men. He didn't want to wait at the front door; he wanted to come with us.

After scaling the small fence, we had to climb over various obstacles to get to the back window: wooden crates, one or two garbage cans, tossed household goods. Not to mention all the rubbish on the ground. It was easy for me and Jay, but I bet it was not easy for the teacher. Because, after all, he was getting old, in his forties.

I pried open the window, and scrambled inside. Then I looked out the window at him and asked, in a kind of boastful manner, if he had ever been able to climb over stuff like this before. Or if this was the hardest thing he had ever done in his whole life. Which I was sure it was.

He smiled at me, standing there in the refuse-strewn alley. Then he pushed up the sleeve on one of his arms. He showed me a strange tattoo. It wasn’t anything like tattoos are supposed to be, like a heart or a dragon or a girlfriend’s name. It was nothing but numbers. Small blue numbers, all in a row. I just looked at it, wondering at such a weird tattoo. Also, tattoos were supposed to be only for big burly guys, not little guys. So I looked at him, questioning with my eyes.

“I escaped from a Nazi camp,” he said, softly. “This alley isn’t so hard for me.”

Then he climbed through the window, and thanked me and Jay for opening up the shul so we could study Haftorah.

* * *